Apr 242012


‘From the train I look into people’s backyards. I see their junk and their washing and whatever in the world they don’t care for. Out front is their public face and, inside, the soft underbelly of their lives. The train window is a cocoon for the voyeur with the legitimacy of a paid ticket. Staring into backyards is a bit like surprising a woman in her nightgown in the middle of the day: when we meet her later, we pretend we didn’t see.’
From My Pilgrim’s Heart 


I am stunned, yes really, by how Mexican Southern California is.

I am used to Europe, where cultures stop at the border like the foot-stamp of a marching soldier called to halt.

I don’t know why the United States don’t hand it over, fix the border problem once and for all.

But of course it wouldn’t.

It’d just move it north.

Because even if Uncle Sam is built on their backs, that border crossing is a symbol of so much more than dust, community and Mexican signage.

Symbols, I realise in middle age, are everything for us humans, being. They are far more potent than true change, which is ours for the taking of the next breath; in truth we prefer the elusive intangibility of symbolism, for this requires us to reach – not for what we can touch, but for that which is unattainable.

I am a stone’s throw from Mexico. Fancy that. Tijuana is just down the road. Tijuana Brass. My mother had the record, that’s how come I can spell it.

If I had a car I’d be there. Instead I have only feet, supplemented by the centipede wheels of a train.

Which, by the way, dropped me at a rather beautiful old world station with two big blue words on the roof: SANTA FE.

I assure you, and me, I am in San Diego.

And who would have thought I’d need a jacket in San Deigo at summer’s edge? Lucky for me I brought one for the plane. It’s chilly outside!

Someone once told me I would love San Diego. Actually she told me I should move to San Diego, that it was my kinda town. Certainly it’s a lovely city, quiet, roomy. And, oh yeah, filled with lovely food.

Fiiiiiiinally I am outside LA’s fast food strip (thank heaven for for BCD Tofu House and their bubbling soon tofu broth).  In Australia, corporate fast food outlets are a treat. I think. I hope. In LA, I got the feeling those fast food icons were feeding the nation.

And now San Diego. I am in the Gaslamp District – isn’t that beautiful?

The Gaslamp District. Tomorrow I will tell you why Gaslamp. Tonight, it’s all about food.


I roamed the blocks around Hostelling International (at $30 a night, seriously good value in the heart of the best the city has to offer), restaurant bar after gorgeous restaurant bar and as is the way with cities, I blink and I am in the land of pawn brokers and payday lenders.

Blink again.


And a gorgeous local who convinced me to try the ceviches.

It was happy hour. Half price starters and drinks. I happily settled in kerbside while the women fussed around me; ordered Salmon Ceviches and realised it was 10 past six.

Que sera, I”m here to tell you, I don’t mind missing the deadline and paying full price – the food was the best meal I’ve had in the US since arriving on Thursday.

Today on the train, day one of the Pilgrim Heart Whistlestop Book Tour, it was pilgrim food: a banana, two packets of chips and chocolate.

We left the city by the back door . . . could that be LA’s most beautiful river running through the patched cement drain ouside the train window?

OMG, couldn’t you weep for what was here before?

By the way – what was here before?

If I was a betting woman, I’d bet not those silly palm trees.

We chugged through a foreverland of LA industry. Again, this part of the country is like traveling through a foreign land, which of course it is. But you gotta understand, I’m Australian and we get our stories about the US from television.

It doesn’t look like this.

I sit back in my seat and laugh: Australians would have a fit if our signs were bilingual – I mean, they did during the height of the Japanese tourist boom when the signs in Surfers Paradise boasted square squibbles.

Of course the signs here must be bilingual – or mono lingual, i.e. Spanish. It makes sense, in that this is their country much more than any sweet smilin’ diamond crusted whtie person who aspires to making the country what it’s not – rolling green lawns and crystalline palaces.

Like white people everywhere, they’re hellbent on recreating England.

Finally, finally the infrastructure that supports our lives gives way to wide open fields … with a big orange ball in the middle. Could this be the famous Orange County? I figure it must be named for either the Southern Californian orange industry … or Dutch settlers. After all, the last station was called Anaheim.

We pass the field workers. We meet the ocean.

Oceanside the day is so grey there is no horizon.

Big houses give way to jagged hills. Powerlines march 2 x 2, hurrah! hurrah!, little eiffel towers planted strategically over the hills.

A border collie runs like the wind to race the train.

In ten days I will be in New Orleans. On Wednesday I will be headin’ down the line to El Paso. In Australia they make taco shells called El Paso. Then onto Houston. Then New Orleans.

For now, I’m happy to dream of tomorrow’s ceviches.

Wild salmon. Cucumber. Mango. Salsa. Tostadas.



Apr 162012


“Mountains everywhere sing the same song. They might differ in shades of tone or pitch, but like good folk songs that circle round and back again, everyone, everywhere thinks them their own.”
From My Pilgrim’s Heart


On Thursday I fly.

Then I catch the train.

The train they call the City of New Orleans.

From Los Angeles, City of Angels – whose original settlement was known as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula or The Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels of the Little Portion. Although not named for the beautiful river that flows from the north-west, the beautiful river was named for . . . actually, it’s a long Spanish Catholic story. Much like the name.

The train!

The train they call the city of New Orleans, I’ll be gone 500 miles before the day is done.

Except hopefully I won’t. I’ll be jumping on and off that train – deboarding as the Americans call it – all the way to New Orleans and then on up to New York City, meeting folks, meeting the land, meeting myself as the United States of America.

Who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me?  

Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City.

Three Americas, staring back at me.

Good mornin’ America HOWAREYA!

I pull into New Orleans on the weekend of the jazz festival – I’ll be hard pressed attending my own book event with all that smoky music pressing up against the door!

I might be leavin’ Lousiana in the broad daylight but not before I head down in the swampland, where anything goes, it’s alligator bait and the bars don’t close, it’s the real thing down in Louisiana.

New Orleans, the moist city whose shadows woo the elegant and the wicked. As a daughter of the hottest driest continent on Earth, I am eyes wide, watching.

But before that Texas! Dust bowl country. Wing and a wheel and Nanci Griffiths, whose two friends remind her in the most glorious way there is no need for any human being to be complacent’.

And Janis!

Whose voice was our gift and our glory, a reminder that ‘freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose’.


And Townes – so walk these hills lightly, and watch who you’re lovin’, by mother the mountain I swear that it’s true – Wrecks Bell and his crew are still waitin’ for Townes to show up for his final gig at The Old Quarters, home of the annual Townes van Zandt wake.

And after that New York City, our collective Great Love, but before that Emmylou and the red dirt girls just across the line and a little south-west of Meridien.

Many years ago, I worked as the editor on an Australian country music magazine. I might have known it beforehand, in a hazy background kinda way, but that year my lights went on in appreciation for American country music – those songs are a prayer to our home the Earth and a celebration of appreciation for what it is to be livin’, lovin’, strugglin’ human.

In America, that ol’ highway goes on forever.

And all the world is a song.

Call me down off that train! I’d love to meet you.