When you tell most Americans you are exploring their country by train, their response is a shrieking and disbelieving, “You’re doing what?!” For while on the African continent leaders have plans for a high-speed, cross-continental train within the next half-century, in the United States it is the reverse.

The American dream of better long-distance passenger rail travel is now a mere contrail in the sky, if it has not been choked to death by motor vehicle fumes already. Greater investment in aviation and road means that rail travel is trailing far behind in competitiveness.

The Amtrak story

Founded in 1971, Amtrak is a government-funded passenger rail service that does long-distance and medium-distance journeys. Choosing to use the service is not the rational thing to do. Most of the trains are old, so rail travel is not fast, which means that it is not the first choice for those who want to get to their destination on time.  Passenger trains in the US are an afterthought to the business of freight trains. Judging by the carriage’s steely sturdiness and navy-blue interior, they date from somewhere in the 1980s. One gets the feeling that they have seen better days. Perhaps, then, it’s a bit like their democracy…

View from the train window in the Cascades. Photo: Carien du Plessis

View from the train window in the Cascades. Photo: Carien du Plessis

Living on the wrong side of the tracks

(New York City to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited:
959 miles, 19 hours)

At 3.40pm sharp, Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited slowly pulls out of what feels like the ghost of New York’s Penn Station platform. Because boarding is done from outside the ticket office above, similar to when you are boarding an airplane, the usual bustle of the station platforms is eerily absent. When I peer out of the window, I see dusty carriages loitering gloomily in the dark on the other tracks.

Whatever your reservations are about travelling by rail, at least you have been spared the latter-day paranoia of airline security: There are no bag searches, no sniffer dogs, nor X-ray machines. Considering this laissez faire attitude to security, it is just as well that it has not yet occurred to terrorists to blow up trains. This does not mean that the train service is tolerant of mischief or crime: Troublemakers are unceremoniously downloaded along the way.

After almost 21 hours, factoring in a three-hour delay due to a derailed freight train, we arrive in a rainy Chicago. I know, a flight would have been shorter than the time of the delay, but I am a romantic; the journey is the destination. A solid seven days and 12 714km lie ahead for me on the trains. For good measure, this includes a 480km overnight trip on a Greyhound bus.

Given the rather quaint absence of WiFi for most of the way, I had the opportunity to ponder how the looming presidential election was about ‘making America great again’.

Chicago skyline reflected in The Bean sculpture on the public square. Photo: Carien du Plessis

Chicago skyline reflected in The Bean sculpture on the public square. Photo: Carien du Plessis

But before I even got there, I had a neighbour in economy class – or what Amtrak calls ‘coach’ class – to consider. Spread out on the ridiculously ample economy seats, just across the aisle from where I was sitting, he was scruffy, with a punk hairstyle and a rattail and his whole life in a dirty backpack next to him.

He tells everyone who cares to listen, repeatedly, how this is untold luxury compared to his usual freight-hopping – an illegal and somewhat dangerous way of travelling the country for free by jumping aboard freight trains. Still, it seems safer than the train-surfing that happens in places like South Africa, Russia and India.

Throughout the journey, the freight-hopper sips from a bottle, which could have contained either beer or bile. He also helps himself to the food that four Hispanic women in the seats up ahead share with him. I’m not that charitable.

It’s difficult to say whether his bumming lifestyle is out of choice or necessity. But jobs are not impossible to find, as unemployment in the US is down to 5%, from 10% seven years ago, so it might be out of choice.

Our conversation, which never progressed much beyond freight-hopping, is cut short when, a few hours into the trip, he is pulled out by the conductor, apparently for trying to snatch a wallet out of one of the women’s handbags while everyone was sleeping. He might have tried to smoke pot on the train too, where lighting up is illegal.

Even ice cream brands like Ben & Jerry's took a stand in the elections. San Francisco Photo: Carien du Plessis

Even ice cream brands like Ben & Jerry’s took a stand in the elections. San Francisco Photo: Carien du Plessis

Doug is more charitable. He is a middle-aged, white civil engineer from San Francisco who appears in the seat next to me overnight. He says one shouldn’t judge. Despite his rational approach to life, politics and his forgiving attitude towards our pot-smoking, long-fingered freight-hopper, industrial decay sends him into fits of romantic nostalgia. That’s why he prefers to do a three-day trip home from New York state by train, rather than fly. It could also be that he is skeptical of planes.

As the train passes through Pennsylvania and the north of Ohio and Indiana, eventually skirting Lake Michigan, he points out the remnants of old steel mills – and a few small working ones – and speculates about what would have gone down in the boarded-up factories. In the morning rain, there are train platforms in ruin (Erie on the Ohio/Pennsylvania state line was a railroad hub in the 19th century and still builds electric locomotives), and in Sandusky, a major coal-shipping port on the Great Lakes, there is the world’s biggest roller-coaster park – but we can’t see it from the train because of the weather. On the train in Cleveland, the cultural hub where the term “rock and roll” was popularised, we see mostly no-name industries. The train doesn’t really pass close enough to the lakes for a good view, although every so often an expanse of water that looks as big as the sea peeps out from behind some bushes to the right of the train.

Here and there gentrification has saved a building from ruin, although Doug explains that restoring some of the old buildings and painfully purging them of hazardous chemicals is more expensive than demolishing them and throwing up a few concrete slabs.

Through the train window we spot a road sign for Arcelor Mittal, the Indian steel giant, and Doug winces. “The US used to provide steel to the world, but now it all seems to come from India and China.”

Enter Trump

Donald Trump’s campaign has been capitalising on this sentiment. Could someone like Trump make America great again? I ask. After all, a huge part of his constituency is the disillusioned middle classes who formerly worked in these factories.

“Trump really is from the democratic centre, and he’s saying crazy things to get popular support. I don’t think he means what he says, or even believes in it,” Doug explains. In short, Doug doesn’t think Trump really has an answer, but he isn’t wildly enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton either.

Doug doesn’t think Trump really has an answer, but he isn’t wildly enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton either.

In Chicago, later that evening, I sample some of the hundreds of local craft beers in the trendy Revolution Brewing bar, together with a cocktail-sipping Guinean-born fellow, Caro. Over a drink he tells me of his touristic adventures the day before, trying to explore Chicago’s gang areas, which amounted to nothing as he could find no action at all. Probably just as well; I would not be drinking with him if there had been… Eighty percent of last year’s 500 homicides were gang-related, making Chicago the murder capital of the country. “I wonder if the gangsters will vote to make America great again,” I say wryly. Caro sniggers. “I don’t think they care about being part of the system,” he responds.

Illinois is all Democrat and President Barack Obama’s family home from his time as senator is in Chicago. “Who knows? The gangsters are probably Democrats too,” I speculate.

On the other side of midnight we bump into a fellow African who takes us to one of the city’s late-night spots. It’s eerily quiet. “Almost everybody is on drugs here,” Tumi says with a little sigh. She’s a performance artist and has been living in Chicago for a year or two, doing odd jobs to make ends meet. Still, she’s wildly enthusiastic about Chicago, which is where the arts are happening, and where things are shaping up for her in her free time.

Red signals for the country’s future?

(Chicago to Seattle on the Empire Builder: 46 hours, 2 205 miles)

For two days and two nights of travel, the train chugs along the Canadian border and then cuts through the grassy plains of North Dakota and the Big Sky Country that is Montana to the spectacular Cascade Mountains and Columbia River Gorge in the Glacier National Park. The track snakes through the mountains past spectacular fir and pine forests before going under Stevens Pass through a 12,5 km tunnel, built in 1929 and the longest in the country. Autumn has turned the leaves of some trees golden and red against a backdrop of evergreen conifers.

We also traverse Native American tribal land, and although I’ve heard that Amtrak sometimes makes unscheduled stops to pick up locals (as a condition for using their land), these stops, if they happened at all, were unannounced.

Presidential candidates are unlikely to splurge their resources on trying to woo the 3 million or so Native Americans, as they make up such a small percentage of the vote (America’s total population is 319 million). Most are Democrats, however, and in sparsely populated constituencies their vote sometimes makes a difference at state level, so they are not completely irrelevant politically. But controversial new voting rules passed in the last three years, amongst others requiring the use of new IDs, which many can ill afford, mean that some Native Americans could be disenfranchised completely.

Sleepless in Seattle early on a drizzly Sunday morning, a few hours before boarding the next train, I encounter a 30-something US Marine in Washington Redskins regalia in the touristy Starbucks in Pike Place – where the first branch of the chain was established 45 years ago. Ricardo the Marine is nervous ahead of a big football game later that day, and he attempts to explain the game to me. “They say our team’s name is racist,” he complains, making reference to sentiments by some Native American pressure groups that the name amounts to ethnic stereotyping, “but I don’t think that’s right. I love this team.”

The original Starbucks logo in the first Starbucks store in Pike Place, Seattle. The logo has changed throughout the years to show less nipple. Photo: Carien du Plessis

The original Starbucks logo in the first Starbucks store in Pike Place, Seattle. The logo has changed throughout the years to show less nipple. Photo: Carien du Plessis

Besides the game, Ricardo is also worried about the upcoming election. “Really, as Marines we aren’t supposed to get involved in politics, because we must serve whoever is in power. But for the first time I feel I have to be interested.” He continues, “This past year I had to learn 200 years of history, just to understand what is going on. How did we get here?”

A possible Trump presidency worries him greatly, although he’s not a huge Clinton fan either. Trump’s plans to build a wall on the Mexican border is ludicrous, he believes. “Closing the border with Mexico won’t solve those problems. Most undocumented immigrants come through our northern border anyway.”

Getting people back on track

(Seattle to Los Angeles, with a stop-over in San Francisco on the
Coast Starlight: 35 hours, 1 377 miles)

San Francisco catches me on a bad day. I’m irritable, it’s raining, then windy, then sunny. It’s like the weather can’t decide on one mood.

At the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station there’s no human being to assist with ticket-buying. A sympathetic local says this is the company’s way to save money. He recalled the day of the 9/11 attack, when he arrived at the station to find it completely deserted. He had no idea what had happened because he had worked night shift and slept through the terrorist drama of the planes flying into the World Trade Centre on the other side of the country. What if something worse happens? he muses.

San Fran’s Fisherman’s Wharf area drags me down further because it seems so overly commercialised and touristy tacky, but a Halloween poster in the window of a candy store provides some comic relief: “Trump or treat,” it says.

Halloween poster in sweet shop window, San Francisco Photo: Carien du Plessis

Halloween poster in sweet shop window, San Francisco Photo: Carien du Plessis

Seven kilometers later, on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, America seems great again. California got its Golden State nickname from its grasslands, the 19th century gold rush and this spectacular bridge.

I am brought down to earth again when I get on the bus, Some grumpy old growler in the back of the bus impatiently yells “Let’s go now” when I and a Bulgarian tourist take too long to produce the exact $2.20 fare for the ride. Gentle people, my ass.

Amtrak’s ride to Los Angeles the next day is spectacular, following mostly the old Spanish mission route through the Santa Clara Valley. Agricultural crops, vineyards and even a pumpkin patch fly by. This place is a veritable food basket and also produces wine, which Amtrak offers exclusively to business class travellers to sample.

There is also San José, considered the capital of Silicon Valley, home of the booming tech industry. The technology economy here has helped cushion the decline in California’s manufacturing industry, but it means job security is limited to the highly skilled, while some unskilled people resort to seasonal farm labour.

Later the train finds itself right on the Pacific coastline, passing by some quiet beaches and lines of recreational trailer homes parked in front of good views and big barbeque fires.

Teri, a local white academic on her way to visit her daughter and granddaughter, sits next to me in the packed train and tells me Trump is a playground bully and a sexist. “What I don’t understand is these Republican women. How can they vote for him?” She also generally disagrees with his policies. “He tells lies about his tax and now he wants to cut taxes for the rich because, like, they really need the money!” She says, rolling her eyes.

Anti-Trump protest outside Trump Towers in 5th Avenue, NYC Photo: Carien du Plessis

Anti-Trump protest outside Trump Towers in 5th Avenue, NYC Photo: Carien du Plessis

Obamacare (President Barack Obama’s controversial health insurance programme) must stay, she says, because it provides healthcare insurance to people who previously had none.

When I get to Los Angeles I take the newly extended metro blue line to Santa Monica. It seems that only the down and out and budget tourists use public transport in much of the US, and an intercom warns against hustlers, sexual harassers and eating on trains.

On the train, a Liberian-born city-planner, her bicycle decorated with plastic flowers, sits opposite me, fresh from a meeting about an upcoming council election. “We were talking about what issues to address,” she says. Finally, some sanity in these crazy times.

Everyone who has driven in LA complains about the traffic, but I can’t scientifically say whether it’s worse than Lagos or Nairobi on a bad day.

Driving really isn’t a great option here either, never mind how fancy your car, if the incessant hooting by topless cars on Hollywood Boulevard in rush hour is anything to go by. Everyone who has driven in LA complains about the traffic, but I can’t scientifically say whether it’s worse than Lagos or Nairobi on a bad day. I never got near a highway while I was in the States, but met at least two people on the train who take the train simply to avoid the traffic.

Many of the locals walking the pavements here looked high, and in many ways Hollywood is becoming something of a has-been, with other film locations offering cheaper prices and better tax incentives.

Homeless capital of the world

After a few solid hours of sleep, I decide to set out for a morning run on one of the world’s most filmed beaches. I run for fun and the much-filmed patch of earth that stretches from Santa Monica pier to Venice Beach pier is a prime running spot. It is rather paradoxical that a place that features in so many movies should be the place where scores of people sleep rough. When I pass through, some of the homeless seem to have just crawled out from under their blankets. One man, dressed only in a hospital gown, gets up but reclines again on a discarded sofa which looks like a sick bed. In his one hand he holds what could be either a drip or a catheter. I wonder if he ran away from hospital for some reason or if he was acting. He seemed to repeat this routine repetitively throughout the day, as if his life were in a loop.

Further along the paved pedestrian path I encounter a pleasant African-American woman in her fifties who tells me that she walks the four miles between the piers every day. It turns out that she has lived here all her life and is pretty involved in community life.

“There are 77 000 homeless people here,” she says. “Los Angeles, like New York, is a melting pot, but we are the homeless capital of the world. I sometimes help with care packages for the women and children, just some toiletries, so that they feel better.”

Many government mental health institutions in the US closed in the 1970s due to a supposed lack of money, leaving many people destitute, she says.

Is this an election issue? “You won’t see anybody voting on this,” she replies.

And will America be great again? She laughs without mirth. “If Trump becomes president, I’m moving to Canada. My son says he’s moving to Africa, but I want to go to a place where I know there is water. There’s a lot of water in Canada,” she jokes.

The future should have been green

Later that evening I’m packed for the station, but I want a peek at Skid Row, the epicentre of the phenomenon I witnessed on the beach. This is where many of the homeless of Los Angeles live. Instead, as I make my way to Skid Row, I stumble across a Green Party rally, where homelessness is in fact on the agenda. A local councillor candidate claims greedy developers are depriving people of cheap housing.

Badges on the hat of a Green Party supporter Photo: Carien du Plessis

Badges on the hat of a Green Party supporter Photo: Carien du Plessis

“We have people with mental health issues urinating and defecating on the sidewalk, and the police can’t do anything,” he tells the crowd. “They can detain them and drop them off. It’s cheaper to give them homes and proper institutions than have the police deal with it.”

Government gives homeless people vouchers for accommodation, but with rentals starting at $1 150 for a one-bedroom apartment, most places remain unaffordable.

“The wolves are in collaboration with the developers,” he says of the scheme.

The Green Party’s presidential candidate, Jill Stein, has been polling steadily at 2% and has little to no chance of beating either Trump or Clinton, but she still goes around to have rallies.

Green Party rally in LA Photo: Carien du Plessis

Green Party rally in LA Photo: Carien du Plessis

A hundred or so very committed activists are shouting slogans and waving placards at the meeting in Pershing Square. Posters at the meeting proclaim: “Vote Jill not Hill” and “Corporate media is not a free press”. As if to invoke the way Bernie Sanders electrified the nation while competing with Clinton for the Democratic nomination, some are wearing Sanders buttons.

In the crowd is Vera, a Brazil-born business woman in her fifties, who points to the helicopters overhead. “That’s them,” she says, referring to the police “menace” mentioned by the speaker – a white woman in her forties with dark, flowing hair, as pretty as an actress – on the podium. “I have stood in front of the LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department] and told them to fuck off. I’m not afraid!” the speaker shouts.

The Green Party has the support of Wikileaks’s Julian Assange, so it is understandable that security agencies should worry about their activities.

Apart from pushing an environmentally friendly agenda, Green Party supporters are anti-colonialist and pro-immigration, and some feel that capital has captured US politics completely.

Vera rejects the often mentioned point that voting for Stein would split Clinton’s support, resulting in a Trump victory. “We should not vote for fear, but express what we believe in. There has been a corporate coup d’etat in the US, and Hillary is part of it.”

Should Trump win, however, she says that she would consider moving some place else.

The wild West and Trump’s wall

(Los Angeles to San Antonio on the Sunset Limited: 32 hours,
1 422 miles)

Miles of travel take us over prairies and desert grasslands and past the giant cactii of the Saguaro National Park. On the horizon on both sides of the train mountain ranges stretch out. I listen to podcasts.

In these parts Pancho Villa – a general in the Mexican Revolution who unseated Mexican presidents, a Robin Hood, and a bandit wanted by the Americans for killing farmers in New Mexico – rode in 1916, and Billy the Kid, a gunfighter and an outlaw, came to his end in 1881.

Later that afternoon we reach El Paso (Spanish for “the pass”), on Texas’s far western frontier. Across the Rio Grande, “the great river”, lies Ciudad Juarez, narco country, and the cemetery of thousands of people caught in the brutal turf war between rival narco capitalists. Together El Paso and Ciudad Juárez have a total of 2,7 million inhabitants, making it the biggest bi-national metropolitan area on this border.

The territory across the great river is, however, less developed and has more crime problems than El Paso and, at night, the lights of Juárez seem dimmer. Some people cross the border into the USA every day to work.

In an area in which crime on the other side is rampant, law enforcement is strict. “If you take a wrong turn on these roads, you end up at the border post, and if you happen to have a gun in your car, they arrest you and send you straight to jail for weeks,” a local says. Over here ranchers carry guns for safety, for instance, to guard against rattle snakes, he explains.

Looking out at the border as we approach El Paso’s station, I wonder aloud if Trump’s wall will run through here, too. Bill, a middle-aged white truck driver (“I love the freedom”) next to me doesn’t think my remark funny. “It will happen,” he says.

Looking out at the border as we approach El Paso’s station, I wonder aloud if Trump’s wall will run through here, too. Bill, a middle-aged white truck driver (“I love the freedom”) next to me doesn’t think my remark funny. “It will happen,” he says.

But how, I ask. My conversant’s riposte is, “Trump already said he will tax the money people send back to Mexico. You know, they work here and never get taxed.”

CNN live stage at Washington University, St. Louis, for the second presidential debate. Photo: Carien du Plessis

CNN live stage at Washington University, St. Louis, for the second presidential debate. Photo: Carien du Plessis

This wall will address some of the problems associated with illegal immigration, Bill says, invoking an election agenda item that has won Trump much support. But Trump is a failed businessman, I counter, so how can he make America great again?

“He’s only failed four out of 512 times,” Bill responds. Even though he comes from a working-class background himself, he has swallowed the Trumpian creed. He believes, for instance, in minimal government and doesn’t like some of the ‘nanny state’ tendencies exhibited by the Barack Obama administration (such as Obamacare).

“Trump does this; he rocks the boat of the establishment,” Bill says.  Politicians have been in cahoots to do things that benefit each other, and Trump is threatening to upset this old order.

“Integrity, morals, values are all lacking in our politics. Trump has these. He is consistent. What he said in an interview aged 25 is the same as what he is saying now.”

Bill, like Trump, blames the decline of industry on the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico in 1994. “Levi Strauss is what is wrong with America. They no longer make them here, and when they do, it costs $195 (a pair),” he says. “When I was younger it was easy to find jobs. You could almost walk into any kind of job. Now, not so much. In Detroit the unemployment rate is 39%,” he says. (Afterwards I check the official stats, and it says 10%.)

Still, he has a point. A lot of manufacturing jobs have gone to China and the Far East.

Some economists, however, argue that the 5 million jobs lost in manufacturing since 2000 was not due to the agreement but to mechanisation. It was also not a blanket loss: jobs in service sectors like health increased.

Later that afternoon, not far from the Big Bend National Park and Marfa, known for its unexplained sightings of lights in the sky, the train passes an aerostat, a huge airship used jointly by the US and Mexico to monitor border security.

“Your tax dollars at work,” the train driver announces, in mock-chirpy tones.

Later that night, in a backpackers’ hostel, Stefani, a native of San Antonio, a city in Texas, tells me that watertight borders are next to impossible. The 30-something blonde NGO worker has an aunt who has a house on a ranch not far from the Mexican border. Recently, she tells me, her aunt’s property was broken into; the thieves made off with guns, flashlights and  beers.

“I had a long chat with this guy from the border agency. He says a wall on the Mexican border is laughable, and it will never keep the criminals out.”

Aerostat to help with border control near the Mexican border in Texas. Donald Trump's wall would run behind it, should he become president and should he build it. Photo: Carien du Plessis

Aerostat to help with border control near the Mexican border in Texas. Donald Trump’s wall would run behind it, should he become president and should he build it. Photo: Carien du Plessis

The US Customs and Border Protection Agency is the least prestigious of the country’s law enforcement agencies, and the most thankless of jobs, less than, say, the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Department of Homeland Security.

Texas might be a red (Republican) state, but San Antonio and Austin are blue and will likely vote for Clinton. The entrepreneurial spirit amongst young people here is strong, and small businesses, craft breweries and markets are thriving.

“Hillary is scrutinised more because she is a woman. It wouldn’t be half as bad for a man. The system is still very sexist.,” – Stefani

Stefani says much criticism against Clinton is unwarranted. “Hillary is scrutinised more because she is a woman. It wouldn’t be half as bad for a man. The system is still very sexist,” she says.

She was echoing what, Michelle, a forty-something caregiver for the disabled, had said earlier. “Ever since I was little we’ve been dreaming of a woman president. I would like to see one in my lifetime. We had a black president, now we must have a woman. You know, times are changing. We even have transgender bathrooms now…”

The Arch at St Louis, where the second presidential debate was hosted. Photo: Carien du Plessis

The Arch at St Louis, where the second presidential debate was hosted. Photo: Carien du Plessis

After a monsoon-like rainstorm in San Antonio – at the same time as Hurricane Matthew swept over Haiti and parts of Miami – I pay a visit to the Alamo, a 18th century Spanish mission which joined the list of UN World Heritage sites – landmarks recognised by the world body for their cultural, historic or scientific significance – last year. Built by Spanish missionaries, it was later put to military use and became the site of a fierce battle between Texans and Mexicans in 1836, with the United States eventually annexing Texas in 1845.

The Alamo has become a symbol of American resistance, but I couldn’t find much in the exhibits there about the flipside – that some might see it as a symbol of colonialism.

In town for the debate

(San Antonio to St. Louis in the Texas Eagle: 1 021 miles, 12 hours)

San Antonio bus drivers can be kind, especially if you don’t have the exact $1.35 for your trip to the station. So I get a free ride.

The Texas landscape we pass on our way to Dallas features green bushes and grass and white fences, as in the famous soapie of the same name. The Lone Star State is wealthy, and it is home to the former presidents Bush, to oil fields and vast cattle ranches.

Early the next morning the train stops in St. Louis, an amenable city on the western bank of the Mississippi. It was a gateway to the west for early pioneers. Later that night Washington University in St. Louis would host one of the most vicious debates between presidential candidates in the country’s recent history. But first I set out to have some Root 66 root beer and marshmallow-flavour ice cream at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a local institution that was established 80 years ago. It soon became a feature on the famous Route 66 highway, which passes through St. Louis.

 Clinton campaign T-shirts for sale in St. Louis, ahead of the debate. Photo: Carien du Plessis


Clinton campaign T-shirts for sale in St. Louis, ahead of the debate. Photo: Carien du Plessis

On the bench outside a Bosnian family tell me they came here as refugees in 1994. Like most of the 70 000 other Bosnians in St. Louis – the biggest Bosnian population outside Europe – they have integrated well and made successful careers.

The father of the family, an IT specialist, says he is worried about the divisiveness that has characterised the upcoming presidential election. “We saw what fighting could do to our country, and I hope people find a way to work together here,” he says. He’ll be voting Clinton.

An American couple nearby join the conversation. They, too, are Democrats. When they hear that I’m from South Africa, the man says: “What we really need now is a Nelson Mandela.” Who doesn’t?

The presidential debate

In front of the Missouri History Museum, not far from the university, the Reverend Jesse Jackson addresses a Democrat campaign bus gathering. Like a school teacher, he tells the handful of supporters gathered there to repeat after him that they will be brave and vote.

On campus there is a festive atmosphere, with discussions, food and music ahead of the big debate later that evening. Slogans like “Vote, dammit”, and “Elect your future” are up on banners, and every big television station in the US is doing a live broadcast from the grounds.

By the entrance to the university Trump supporters erected a stall they called “Hillary’s house of horrors” and on the other pavement a woman dons an evening dress with Clinton’s face. I watch the debate on a big screen with a large crowd of students. Instead of applauding, they snap their fingers – a less intrusive way of signalling approval.

"Hillary's House of Horrors" - anti-Clinton campaign stand set up by Trump supporters across the road from. Photo: Carien du Plessis

“Hillary’s House of Horrors” – anti-Clinton campaign stand set up by Trump supporters across the road from. Photo: Carien du Plessis

Clinton got the loudest clicks, although the crowd could not restrain themselves from gasping aloud during sensationally awkward moments, such as when Clinton and Trump fail to shake hands at the start. Although Clinton won this debate again, Trump – fresh from a sex tape scandal – held steady and threatened to jail Clinton should he become president. His failure to implode meant his support base remained strong. The gloves are off.

From the West to the West Wing

(Chicago to Washington DC on the Capitol Limited: 780 miles,
17.5 hours)

An overnight Greyhound trip takes me to Chicago, where I spend most of my day in the station waiting room because the DuSable Museum of African American History – for which I had set aside the entire day – is closed on Mondays. By the time I board the train later that afternoon for Washington DC I was tipsy from the complimentary Californian cabernet. Consequently I dive right into politics and ask the black former army major sitting next to mehow  black people could vote for Trump, considering some of the racist things he has said. I went straight to that point because the question has been bothering me: Back in St Louis, a black man told me he liked Trump’s policies.

Gerald, who is deeply embarrassed about how foreigners are seeing the US election, pulls out his Samsung and opens a YouTube video of Diamond and Silk, two black sisters who have been formally rooting for Trump since December. They have added their considerable voices to the Women United for Trump campaign and consider the stories around Trump’s sexual harassment tapes a smear campaign. They post their videos, smears of the Clintons, but also some issues, on Facebook: “We want secured borders, job opportunities and lower taxes. If you want the same thing, vote Trump.”

Elections memorabilia for sale in Union Station, Washington DC shop Photo: Carien du Plessis

Elections memorabilia for sale in Union Station, Washington DC shop Photo: Carien du Plessis

The next morning there is mist outside as the train passes through Pennsylvania, but this clears as we pass Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. Here a raid by 21 men, led by abolitionist John Brown and three black men, of which one was a freed and the other a fugitive slave, sparked the American civil war in the 19th century. They captured prominent citizens and seized the federal armory and arsenal, hoping that local slaves would join, but this did not happen and they were defeated.

I take this in while sitting in the viewing car with people who are dressed as if from another century – the women are in aprons over dresses that go below their knees or longer, made with unpatterned material; with bonnets on their heads. The men are in dark long pants and white shirts, some with suspenders to hold up their trousers. These Mennonites and people from the Amish community are regulars on the train because their religious beliefs forbid them from flying and driving. Their pacifist church has, incidentally, recently been growing in African countries like Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tanzania.

Trump has tried to convert members of these communities – who often stay away from the polls – to vote for him in the swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio. While his traditionalist values have found resonance amongst some, his sexual mores are unacceptable to many in that community.

Selfie outside Union Station, Washington DC

Selfie outside Union Station, Washington DC

In Washington DC, where the new president will live, election T-shirts – warning each side about the other – are on sale inside Union Station. Amongst of the tourist paraphernalia, live cardboard cut-outs of both Trump and Clinton are for sale. Now there’s something to scare the kids.

The end of the line

(Washington DC to New York City on the Northeast regional:
226 miles, 3.5 hours)

This is one of Amtrak’s more popular and more expensive routes. There are about two trains every hour: a slow one, which takes three-and-a-half hours, and the Acela express, which cuts about 40 minutes off that time.

When I hand the conductor my ticket, he exclaims, “A paper ticket!”. My ticket resembled an airline boarding pass and it was one of the requirements of the tourist rail pass that I was travelling on. “We don’t see these anymore!”

Most of my fellow passengers give him their phone or a piece of paper to scan so I can see why my ticket is considered a museum artifact.

Even this busy stretch of railway tells the same story of devastation I have witnessed across the north east; the story of declining jobs in manufacturing, a sorry tale of vanished industries. Newark used to have machine shops (where companies use machines to make metal and plastic parts) and tanneries; Trenton had rubber; and Baltimore had steel mills. The ruins of Philadelphia’s disappeared factories are now covered in graffiti and the factory shells of Baltimore are boarded up.

Much of the wealth is now concentrated in Washington DC, where government collects the taxes, and New York, the seat of capital and investment. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans want to have it this way – they’d prefer the businesses in the middle to have some of the action, too.

Fewer factory workers now have jobs, but here, too, manufacturing is increasingly mechanised (it’s estimated to be at an all-time high of $2 trilliion) to make the US more competitive internationally. Jobs go to a handful of highly trained workers who can guide the machines, as well as to those with skills in the service sectors – IT, law and engineering.

For those who have lost out, closing the borders ‘to make America great again’ seem the logical next step, but others say it is no more than a knee-jerk reaction.

In a speech he made in July, Obama said the current time is the “most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history”. The upcoming presidential election in America could just convince the world otherwise.