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Great American Railroad Journeys: Michael Portillo takes the train and discovers the USA’s REAL history

HERE in Britain, we can get a little bit snobby about American history.

Yes, their history is not quite as long as ours. But it isnt all that short either.

Michael Portillo travels the worlds largest rail network to experience some of Americas finest history

For the second series of Great American Railroad Journeys, I travel on the worlds largest rail network along two epic routes.

The first is from St Louis in Missouri to the Grand Canyon in Arizona; the second from Minnesota to Memphis, Tennessee.

And along the way, I find plenty of history to enjoy as I follow the paths of early settlers and pioneers on their wagons.

The Grand Canyon in Arizona show two billion years of geological history

The building of these railroads connected the two sides of the US.

It was the fulfilment of what the Americans called their manifest destiny namely, to take over the entire continent.

One of the first things I do in the show is help to row a 55ft keelboat, which is a replica of a vessel that was used by two explorers called Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Living the dream . riding a Harley-Davidson motorbike is experiencing more recent American history

President Thomas Jefferson, in 1803, made the Louisiana Purchase of land from Napoleon I of France for $15million but didnt know what hed bought.

So he sent Lewis and Clark on this keelboat down the Missouri River and the Arkansas River, crossing the Rockies to the Pacific Coast.

After 30 months they reported back to the President about what they found. He had doubled the size of the US overnight.

Two gun slingers Michael wearing a Stetson while taking part in a gun fight in Dodge City

Just imagine the heroism of these men, exploring that enormous territory in their flat-bottomed boat, hacking their way up the river, encountering Native Americans, wildlife and all of those things.

That strikes me as an amazing bit of early 19th-century history.

Then, when you get to New Mexico, you are reminded that not all the history of the US starts in the east and moves westward.

Mission chapel in San Miguel steeped in history dating back to 1628

Because the Spanish were in Santa Fe from 1600.

There is a Mission chapel in San Miguel which dates back to 1628, so you are dealing with a building older than the Taj Mahal and St Pauls Cathedral, older than Versailles.

Sante Fe also has the Palace of the Governors which has, since the early 17th century, been the headquarters of the Spanish, the Pueblo Indians, the Mexicans, the Confederacy and the US itself.

There was lots of history to explore wherever we went.

I put on a Stetson and took part in a gun fight in Dodge City.

I visited the Grand Canyon, where you can see two billion years of geological history.

And I saw a herd of buffalo, which used to dominate the landscape before the railroad all but exterminated them.

Great American Railroad Journeys follows two epic routes

In terms of more recent history, I also rode a Harley-Davidson motorbike in Milwaukee, which is where the Harley brothers and the Davidson brothers were from, and visited the grave of Elvis Presley in Memphis, Tennessee.

An outstanding experience was the civil rights museum in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was assassinated.

It is amazing to think of the 100-year struggle for civil rights after the abolition of slavery.

Legendary Elvis Presleys grave in Memphis, Tennessee

America, to me, is this enormous contrast between the heady idealism of founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, who said, All men are created equal, and the reality that he was himself a slave owner.

What did he mean?

That these men who were created equal did not include Native Americans or black Americans?

It has taken a long time to recognise how much has gone wrong, and to reconcile the different parties.

Michael made two epic journeys across middle America and followed many historical tales along the way

As a politician, I spent a lot of time in Washington and New York, cities that are familiar to Europeans.

They have public transport, grid street plans, fine buildings many based on European models and the food is international.

But when you go into the middle of America by train, there are hours between each station and each stop is little more than a village.

There may be a single main street, a few gas stations, a restaurant, a motel and not much more.

He hopes to film in America again during the summer months

And instead of pasta or pizza or club sandwiches, you eat grits and some slop served at breakfast called biscuits and gravy!

But everywhere the welcome was warm. I enjoyed it so much, learned so much and there is so much more American history to explore.

Id be surprised if Im not filming in the US again this summer and I shall look forward to it very much.

  • Great American Railroad Journeys, weekdays, 6.30pm on BBC2

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