Tarago Diaries #14 – Applewood Bacon

Mark Seymour on being a tourist throughout the USA.

Author:  Mark Seymour.

Date: 27 July 2019.

Original URL: https://www.facebook.com/MarkSeymourOfficial/posts/2064383093668019?__tn__=K-R


Article Text

‘Applewood Bacon’

Fleeting glimpses of American endeavour. Into Arizona now, rolling hills, dust, buffalo feed lots on the range..

thousands of big animals, standing in the heat, like grey ghosts of an imagined past

that only happened in the fading dreams of a nation once in love with its own heroism.

Beyond judgement now. What would a traveller know? Nothing is as you’d expect, any preconceived idea as to what America is… far gone now.

The decay is palpable the further west we go, yards overgrown with weed, empty roads vanishing into the haze of distant mountains.

Great rusting Chevy Silverados throb at the crossings as we pass through. Lonely figures shuffle slowly in the dust, heads down.

The land is enormous. There is no definition to this place.

Seeing this vast wretchedness, you wonder at the sing-song tone of waiters and hotel staff. Might well be a screen over something else. A deeper sadness.

Or is this a different America that always was?

Yuma. Scene of some western that was re-made into a low-budget movie.
Town names resonate that way. They’ve been written about, transformed into legend.

They’ve got heat issues on the track. The train slows to a crawl as we begin to climb. To keep the iron from buckling under the weight.

Between rock walls that overhang the window, then straight through the mountain.

Amtrak gets you there.

On the train menu: ‘applewood bacon’ an extra on your hot brekkie.

What the hell is it? There’s been a faint sweet odour in some places. Wafting out of restaurant doorways. From one end of the country to the other.

Pigs fed on something? Or are they smoked afterwards?

Don’t go there.

Jo is vegan and gluten free. The full dietary shooting match. Mount Isa would likely be a challenge but in America they love to provide for those who love choice, for its own sake.

Fussy eating is hugely respected.

“Are you ready to order.. at this time?”
“I think so.”
“Alright then Mam! Let’s do this thing!”

“Why yes! Of course we can remove the grated Rhode Island cheese.”

From the superfood salad served with Israeli dates.

She’s beaming like she’s onto something…
And you thought it was just food.

But then again, she needs the tip because she’s probably on $7.25 an hour or whatever their piddling minimum wage is here in the land of no safety net.

Because the tip isn’t for service. It’s her pay. She’s got to get it.

Or when the bell hop thanks you politely, with a slight nod of the head, there’s discrete lowering of tone as though the tip is like a sacred move, an acknowledgement of the way the whole culture operates.. and because he knows you’re not from around here but you’re still showing respect.. As though it was about the cash all along and now we have to admit it.

And yet somehow the enthusiasm spills over.
Random People want to talk. About their stuff. Which feels awkward to the Aussie ear. You immediately look for the irony. You’re going to be that friendly? There’s got to be a catch. Some withering line about how much fun it is to be hear but not really.

You really are that nice! It’s incredible.

Because this is Amtrak. Another America. Adrift.

I venture to the pre-dawn diner, to watch the sun rise over the Colorado mountains, the train barely moving.

There’s a bunch of Amish brethren on the train. Women in white bonnets and long dark dresses and men in straw hats with strange puddin bowl hair-cuts.

They murmur in the semi darkness with an accent that sounds vaguely Germanic.

Ready to eat.

Applewood bacon.

The lady opposite wants to talk.

“We came all the way from Sacramento. And now we’re…

going back again!”

Hmm. Interesting. Then the expectant look. Eyes wide. And you? Are you going to share? A thought left un-said.
You scramble for a response, that sounds sufficiently engaged, pleasant and equally pointless. And all you want to do is fill your mouth with donut to avoid talking about Trump.

Then she says, ‘Seems like all you do is eat and sit on this train. Ha!’..

“Yeah. Eat and sit..” I say, then lost for words, I start filling in the menu. Boxes to tick. 3 egg Omelette. Mixed fruit compote. Donuts. Room number. What’s my room number? Carriage number. What carriage number? I didn’t know there was one.

Then a moment of truth comes roaring in from an unlikely source.

The waiter.


I think it was room no. 2. Still writing. The table has gone quiet.

“SIR! Weren’t you listening sir?”

Look up. An indignant giant, balding, breaking a sweat. Head to toe in blue Amtrak. On fire. I stare. Non plussed.

“I said.. do NOT fill in the menu. Do NOT FILL IN THE MENU SIR.”

I still have the pen poised over 3 egg omelette.


He’s apoplectic. Is he going to shoot me?

“I said, sign at the bottom with carriage and room number. And..”
Slowly now, as if talking to a child.. which is exactly what I am.
“Hand it back to me.”
He snatches it from my hand then scrambles for a fresh one on his clip board. Holds it forth.
I stare into his blazing eyes, looking for irony.. but there is none. Just sheer, blinding outrage.

I’m in a very lonely place.

Then the girl next to me arcs up.
“Would you like me to show you how to fill it in?”
She speaks slowly too. I’m not a child anymore though. I’m an unshaven aging man. Possibly demented.

Maybe she’s a nurse.

My appearance has triggered something in her check list of duties.

They’re all staring at me now. The friendly couple across the table, all the way from Sacramento, the outraged Amtrak giant, and the lovely nurse.

Boxed in, next to the window, by an overwhelming failure to connect.. with Americans.

I need to leave. Now.

“Excuse me Mam,” I say. “Would you mind standing up for a moment please?”

A look of alarm flashes across her face. It occurred to me later she may have thought I was going to lose it. She graciously slides to the left as I do, then I limp/sway between the seats back to our cabin and never look back.

Later still, in the quiet mid-afternoon, as the train crawled along the banks of the raging Colorado, Jo saw him seated alone in the empty dining car, his head pressed forward into his hands, eyes closed, she said.

“Was that guy really tall? With balding blonde hair?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“I think he was praying. Talking to Jesus.”

We got off at Glenwood Springs, rode bikes through the alpine valley, peaks to left and right. Families bathed in the rushing spring next to the freeway.

And never made it back on the train.

There was a delay. A ‘weather event’. Overheated tracks, then flooding rain west of Denver. A car stalled at a crossing.

And from the junction of the Colorado and the Roaring fork, high up on the plateau we descended into Utah.

A billboard sprouted out of the salt bush..

‘Lily’s Diner. 3 Miles on left.’

‘Genuine Applewood Bacon’.