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It is a relief to leave New York. My sojourn there has been like an eight-day drug trip — a kaleidoscope of light and sound, touch and taste. After this exhilarating intensity, my departure — from scruffy Penn Station deep below the city — could scarcely be more anticlimactic. I yank my bag along a grimy platform to the 49 Lake Shore Limited, a gleaming double-storey train. One of two on either side of the aisle, my seat is as spacious as a grandpa’s armchair, with legroom to match — a good thing considering it’ll be home for 34 hours. The train judders into movement and my heart lifts: the journey to California has begun. There are cheaper and faster ways to get there from the East Coast, I know, but I want to stretch the space between things; I want time to think. And I want to witness the gradations as state yields to state, to get a better sense of the scale and textures of this vast nation that a few hours in an aircraft would be unable to provide. After several more minutes in...

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