Tonight I’m taking the overnight train from London to Fort William. One year ago to the day, I was stepping off another overnight train…
The conductor has been leaning out of the open door for a few minutes as the train approaches Tuscaloosa station. As the train creaks to a halt, he kicks a lever and folds down the steps from the vestibule to the pavement. I say thank you to my coach attendant and pass her a tip (“just enough for a Daiquiri”), before stepping down onto the platform at Tuscaloosa station. “Platform” is an vague description, because the Crescent is almost three times longer than the station at Tuscaloosa, and I am actually stepping off the train into a busy main road that crosses the railway tracks. A menacing pick-up track is bubbling away in front of me, waiting for this inconsiderate mode of public transport to get out of its way.
Very few people get off here, and even fewer get on. I walk to the payphone outside the station, and by the time I have lifted the receiver the train has already thundered away to cover the last six hours it takes to reach New Orleans from here. I call the rental agency, and wait for my car. Sitting in the shade of the attractive old railway station, I am sweating like an Englishman in Alabama. It is both hotter and more humid than anywhere I can remember having visited. Even a friendly man who is waiting for a ride himself (and who gives the confident appearance of a local) agrees with me when he says it’s hot.
Caught in the triangle between the railway tracks and two roads that cross the tracks at either end of the platform, Tuscaloosa railway station is in a quiet corner of Tuscaloosa. I watch cars and trucks rattle over the level crossings, attempting to spot the rental car that will be coming to pick me up. After ten minutes, my ride arrives. An employee from the Enterprise car rental agency has come to pick me up in a suitable vehicle: a gigantic double cab pick-up truck that he drives right onto the station platform. It’s almost as big as a train, and I board it in much the same manner. My driver is amused to hear that I am in Alabama for a holiday: most of their business providing hire cars is to people who have theirs in the garage for repairs. And judging by the number of people in the office when we arrive, either American cars aren’t very reliable, or there are a lot of road accidents in Alabama. It seems the world and his wife needs a replacement car while theirs is in for repairs.
Paperwork is passed about, customers are apologised to, and car keys are lost, found and dropped. It has taken one car returned without its fuel cap (and therefore unavailable for rental) for everything to fall apart. I take the time to stretch my legs, refill my bottle of water from the cooler and make conversation with a gentleman sat behind me. He looks at my large backpack and asks me if I’m going hiking. “Not exactly…” I reply.
The delay isn’t too long, and every employee of Enterprise is apologetic. I sign the paperwork, agree with the rental agent that I have indeed got an incredible rate (about $150, or £75, for a week’s rental), and take the keys to my next mode of transport. After the imposing stainless steel Amtrak Crescent, my journey continues in a cheap Chevrolet Cobalt sedan. I remembered to ask for directions to Greensboro and Newbern, but still manage to do a quick tour of Tuscaloosa’s suburban strip malls and ring roads. I pass the Enterprise office ten minutes after leaving it, but don’t make the same mistake again. I’m soon on route 69 south, and am less than one hour away from the small town that I’ve read so much about.