Last summer, as the US presidential election was gearing up for the final months of campaigning, Michael Portillo found himself travelling through what would turn out to be one of the key battlegrounds: the Midwest.
“The one thing I really noticed is that everywhere I went, the only stories on the news, good or bad, were about Trump. No matter what you thought about Hillary, she just wasn’t news – she was a dull candidate. That was what made me realise Trump was unstoppable.”
However, Portillo wasn’t in America’s heartlands as a political pundit. He was filming the second series of his Great American Railroad Journeys, and the landscapes he discovered there were far from dull. His first American train trip had focused on the metropolitan East Coast grandeur of New York, Philadelphia and Virginia, but for the sequel, he followed in the footsteps of the original continental expansionists who first envisaged the US stretching out from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
With the Mayor of Dodge City, Kansas
Even a seasoned traveller like Portillo felt as if he was stepping into uncharted territory: “The East Coast is familiar to me because it’s all about cosmopolitan, international cities. But venturing west into places such as Dodge City in Kansas was totally out of my comfort zone.”
The landscape of the Midwest is as dramatic as the history and the train journey followed the original settlers across the lush plains of the Corn Belt to the rose-coloured deserts of New Mexico. The odyssey was a revelation for Portillo.
“I had a fantastic time. I loved the people I met. By travelling west you get the sense that you are grappling with the heart of American culture – with frontierism and the struggle for the existence that lay behind the creation of the country.”
With members of the Jayhawks basketball team and cheerleaders in Lawrence, Kansas
Portillo took two epic train journeys covering a total of 3,060 miles. The first rode deep into the Wild West, from St Louis in Missouri all the way down through Colorado Springs and into New Mexico and the Grand Canyon. The second trip circled farther north, surveying the grand cities of Chicago, Minneapolis and Memphis, following the path of the Mississippi.
“We are following the first travellers, the early settlers, the wagon trains and then the railroads, all of which broadly follow the river valleys that flow from east to west,” explains Portillo. “To get to know America, you have to know the water, the lakes and the rivers. They are so pivotal to the history of how everything developed.”
Travelling into the heart of America allows modern frontier travellers to sample both the spectacle of city life as well as the epic sweep of the West’s awe-inspiring landscape.
1. St Louis
“The first American settlers thought they were civilising the Wild West, and you can see that in how impressive a city like St Louis is, despite how far west it is. Framed by the dramatic Gateway Arch, it has some fantastically grand museums and lush botanical gardens. It was an important port on the Mississippi and the region’s first explorers set out along the river here. Americans love dressing up and you can re-enact the beginning of the boat trip.”
2. Colorado to New Mexico
“I don’t usually get much of a chance to relax on the train journeys but the stretch through Colorado to New Mexico is just magnificent. It is just like the set of a western with these jagged Rocky Mountains and not a person in sight, just the train sauntering across the plain. I sat in the restaurant car and watched the sun set over the plain while eating my steak with a bottle of red wine. It was absolutely superb.”
3. The Grand Canyon
“I was surprised to find that hotels have been built right up to the edge of the canyon, so I didn’t feel like I could get a sense of how enormous it is. If you don’t have much time, the best way to do this is to get on one of the planes that circle around it. It takes about 50 minutes and it flies just above the top edge of the canyon. The plane has huge picture windows so I could see the epic proportions of this wonder of the world.”
Great American Railroads begins on BBC2 on Monday 23 January at 6.30pm