A British writer in search of solitude takes two epic train journeys across the US, only to find herself inexorably drawn into a community of strangers.
Despite an initial claim that her ideal methodology for a travel book would be “to stay at home with the phone off the hook, the doorbell disconnected, and the blinds drawn,” Diski (Skating to Antarctica, 1995, etc.) determines to explore her inner landscape by taking a journey to nowhere in particular and books herself passage on a freighter from England to America, where she takes an Amtrak train from Florida to Tucson. A year later, she returns once more to circumnavigate the US by rail. The three journeys are bound up into a single narrative with two constants: the author’s need to find the smoking car, and the inevitability of connection with her fellow travelers. Be it in the dining room of the freighter where she learns of the death of another passenger’s son, on a train platform in Sacramento where a fellow named “Big Daddy” teaches her a dance routine from The Sound of Music, or in a smoking car where the attributes of leprechauns and pixies are debated, Diski is constantly rediscovering the dangers and seductions of spending time with others. In this temporary and happenstance community, she finds, people's stories tend to tumble out in the first few minutes of conversation. And as the scenery slides by—North Dakota prairie, southwestern desert, southern sugar-cane fields—the author makes a parallel journey through the scenery of her past, visiting the unhappy rooms of her childhood, the psychiatric wards and foster homes of her adolescence. Somehow, this weight of memories and current tragedies (a large number of her fellow travelers seem to be going to or coming from funerals) is anything but oppressive.
Wry, graceful commentary on the oddity of the human condition.