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Towns play the soundtrack of my life

“Who do you think will win next year’s presidential election?”

I’m not sure what surprised me most: The question or the questioner.

Why, I wondered, would an American citizen ask that question of a visiting Australian about US politics? And how did this question arise from an Amtrak train attendant as I was staggering along the sleeping door corridor on my way to the lounge car?

Well, I guess the winter nights are long in Georgia and our mighty iron horse was plunging through the darkness somewhere between Atlanta and the border with South Carolina, so I treated the question as an opening gambit in a conversation.

My interrogator was a true-blue Democrat (I’m serious, have you ever watched CNN’s presidential election coverage? It’s the right-wing Republications who get the red markers!) who claimed never to have voted for either the incumbent president or his papa. According, she is hoping for a change in the resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as a result of the presidential election in November next year.

"I’m hoping that Hilary gets in,” she confided as the train rattled its way towards her nation’s capital. “I think Obama will be good in a few years’ time, but he doesn’t have enough experience yet. When a Clinton was last in the White House, we had a balanced budget and the country ran pretty well.  It may not happen straight away, but Hilary will get us out of Iraq within a year or so. We’re in a terrible mess. Bill Clinton may have been a bit of a skirt man, but at least when he was running the country the budget was in balance. If Hilary wins the election, he’ll be out and about making friends for us. But if Obama gets the nomination, I’ll vote for him. We need a change.”

Remember folks, you heard it hear first. Based on this high quality, quantitative research – the said quantity being one – I am picking there is a mood for change in this country and that Hilary Clinton will collect the Democratic nomination and the presidency, based on a mixture of concern about Obama’s inexperience and nostalgia for the good ol’ days when Slick Willy was running the show..

Back on the train journey, there's something quite intoxicating about riding the rails through the American heartland. We boarded Amtrak’s Crescent service in Louisiana at the wretched time of 7.10am and in the next 13 hours traversed the states of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia (we just slipped across the border into the southern of the Carolinas a few minutes ago). Although it’s pitch black now, we’ve passed through beautiful countryside, from the swamplands surrounding New Orleans and through the lumber hub of Hattiesburg, to the charming farmlands and civil rights battlefields of Alabama.

But it’s the names of towns that make my head spin. It all started on Sunday when we passed through the Texan town of El Paso and Marty Robbins’ ballad about a fateful love that began and ended in Rosa’s Cantina began playing in the jukebox of my mind (which, like my vinyl collection, is a bit scratchy and misses a few lines every now and then). Today, the jukebox was in full swing. It started with that hoary old classic “The Battle of New Orleans” about the rogue warrior Andrew Jackson devastating 1812 victory against the British army. A little way up the line, we passed through the town of Meridian (and I’m sure we crossed a red dirt line just a little south east from Meridian, thank you Emmylou). By the way, this pretty little town was also the home of Jimmie Rodgers.

The Alabama town of Tuscaloosa had two songs running through my head: The first was another tragedy about the sad happenings up at Chocktaw Ridge, the day Billie Jo McAllister jumped off the Tallahassee Bridge: The town actually takes its names from a Chocktaw Indian chief. The competing song was the civil rights anthem “We shall overcome” because Tuscaloosa was the town where racist Republican Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway refusing to let black American students into the town’s university.

Emmylou Harris made another appearance on my mental turntable as our train rolled into the state capital of Alabama because Birmingham was the town she would have walked to from Boulder, Colorado, if only she could’ve held Gram Parsons again. We’ve another seven states to go – including a 24-hour whistlestop layover in Washington DC – before we reach the end of this line, so I’m expecting plenty more titles and tunes as America’s geography replays the soundtrack of my life. The net effect of this day is a (restrained) desire to jump off the train at some midnight station and explore the world in fully interactive colour that I’ve only encountered in stereo to date.

In fact, the only part of the trip that I have not experienced this yearning for was the two-hour journey from Anniston, Alabama, through the Appalachian Mountains, to Atlanta, Georgia.  At the back of my mind, I could hear a pair of duelling banjos – and I was happy to sit firmly on my seat.

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