It was just like travel, only slower

Tell someone you’re going to take Amtrak across the country and they’ll often tell you how much they’ve always wanted to do that themselves. But few ever seem to follow through. The excuses are remarkably consistent: Amtrak is too expensive, too slow, too inconvenient. All of these things are true, and they’re all valid reasons not to do it. Money and time are always in short supply, and life keeps getting a little harder every day even without us looking for ways to accelerate the decay. Americans like the idea of train travel, certainly—just not enough to make the necessary sacrifices a long-distance rail trip would require. Not when they can just buy a plane ticket and get to wherever it is they’re going in a few hours.

Train travel and plane travel are both uncomfortable, and in the same broad ways. It’s cramped. There are too many people too close to you for too long. Bathroom cleanliness is always a coin flip, especially later in the journey. With flying, there is the sense that you can close your eyes and wait it out, because you’ve only got three or six or however many hours. You can grit your way through that. But you can’t on a train. Or maybe you can, but it would be grim and petulant and you’d miss out on everything that makes train travel worthwhile. So instead you take the minor hardships in stride. You relax a little and try to get in the spirit, even though the discomfort will last ten times as long as it would in a plane. That’s the big paradox of train travel.

In December, my wife and I went to Chicago to celebrate Christmas with her family. We could have flown, which is what we usually do. But we’d already flown several times since the initial Covid lull of May and June—to Chicago for her grandmother’s 90th birthday, South Carolina for my father’s 75th, our own honeymoon—and we found the idea of another encounter with an airport draining. (We were always very careful on those trips, and we took all the recommended precautions.) Still, Christmas with the family was important, and we weren’t not going to go. So the train it was.

If everything goes the way it’s supposed to, the 2400-mile train trip from Emeryville, California to Chicago can be expected to take fifty-two hours. Two days and a wake-up. If you get really lucky, you might even make it into Union Station fifteen minutes early, as we did. The timetable stretched and compressed at several points, and not every traveler at every stop enjoyed the same level of punctuality that we did over the long haul. It’s pretty impressive to me that we made it two-thirds of the way across North America in almost exactly the amount of time Amtrak said we would. People tend to shit-talk Amtrak: they like to point out how German trains are always exactly on time, for example, always ignoring the fact that Germany has two-and-a-half times the population of California (or about a quarter of the population of the US) living in a space roughly the size of New Mexico. The distances between populated spaces, the long stretches through wild country—those just don’t compare between there and here.

The ride home took fifty-six hours, mostly because winter happened in the West during the time we were in the East: the snow was much deeper than it had been a week before, and several times in the Rockies, switches froze over and had to be loosened before we could proceed. When that happens, the train comes to a stop and the trainmen have to get out and break the ice manually, which can take a while. Our porter told us the dead body of a coyote was frozen into one set. I don’t even want to imagine the things these people must see on a regular basis.

The other reason for delays on a trip like this is freight traffic. Amtrak leases the tracks from companies like CSX, and must yield to their trains if they all want to be in the same place at the same time. Even if there isn’t a conflict, once or twice we stopped because we caught up to a freight train that was stalled out for one reason or another, and had to wait for them to get clear.

If you ever decide to take a trip like this one yourself, be sure to spring for at least the private roomette, and make sure you’re sharing it with someone you’re not currently fighting with or likely to get sick of over the next two days. These rooms have maybe thirty-two square feet of space. It’s a long trip to be in such close quarters with another person, even if you do like them.

The two bench seats facing each other fold down into a bunk, and another is triced up overhead; lower it at bedtime and climb in via the unobtrusive little set of stairs just to the left of the door. (These can also be used as temporary shelves during the day.) An airplane-style table folds down between the seats, so during the waking hours you can play cards, or backgammon, or have a place to set your drink while you turn the page of whatever book you brought.

I brought three books with me, worried that wouldn’t be enough—for a two-day trip, mind you—and ended up barely finishing even one of them because I kept staring out the window instead of reading. We also brought a couple bottles of wine on each leg of the trip, along with a large grocery bag full of snacks: cheese, crackers, sliced cured meats, fruit, nuts. I’d asked Twitter for advice prior to the trip, and what I was told by several people was to “bring snacks.” But we didn’t end up needing them: we had sleeper car tickets, and our meals were included. Passengers in the coach car had to either to buy their food and drink from the lounge car, which could get expensive, or bring their own.

We tried the observation car a few times, but it was usually pretty crowded. So we spent much of our time in the room, drinking our wine and noshing on our improvised charcuterie tray like dispossessed aristocrats to whom time meant nothing, watching the countryside roll past our picture window.

As a trained geographer, this is embarrassing to admit, but I always find it difficult to write about landscapes. I don’t know the names of trees; I can’t identify different bedrock types by sight. There are plenty of easy clichés to fall back on, but often, avoiding them just ends up drawing attention to the effort involved in doing so.

But how can you write about a trip like this and not describe the views? Gawping out the window and getting a good long look at this vast country we live in is the whole point of taking the train in the first place. Sure, you can point your phone at the window and click away; photos can replicate every last physical detail of a landscape so you don’t even have to know what you’re looking at to share the experience. But my landscape shots often feel so flat compared to what I remember. And even the good ones still mostly fail to replicate the feeling of hushed wonder that hits you like a gust of cold air when you round the corner and are unexpectedly presented with, for example, the spectacle of the city dropping away in the foreground in front of you, the deep marble blue of the bay and staggered rows of steep, green-and-brown hills beyond in the distance. Or the sensation of your eyes widening in delight when you happen to idly glance out the window of your roomette and—just for a moment—catch a clutch of wild horses in the act of sipping from a cold mountain stream. Photos can supplement the words, but never quite replace them.

We spent much of the trip’s first day crossing the Sierras, something I’ve done by car several times. The view is different from the train. The absence of a six-lane highway makes for a much stronger sense of solitude and distance. We crossed above the snow line a little after lunch, high enough to look down on the deep craggy valleys lined with pine forest, occasional random puffs of snow gradually knitting themselves into a thick white sheet over everything as we climbed until our ears popped, and then kept going up.

Trains don’t make great time through mountainous terrain. It took us until nightfall that first day to make it as far as Reno, a distance I can drive in about four hours. The overnight hours were spent racing through the flats of eastern Nevada and a large chunk of Utah. Over breakfast in the dining car, I got to see the early morning sun beginning to warm the Beehive State’s buttes.

We spent most of the second day in Colorado. It was a slow slog of elevation changes and switchbacks through scenery you’d remember for the rest of your life, if you saw it. The rock formations towered above us in the golden hour sunlight, their cliff faces sheer and forbidding; layers of impassable-looking mountain peaks receding far off in the distance; pine branches just outside the window, drooping with heavy wet snow. The tracks ran alongside the Colorado River for much of the day, and the conductor was kind enough to point out when the flow of the waters outside changed direction from west to east; that was the moment we crossed the Continental Divide.

Denver marked the halfway point of the trip, in terms of mileage. We still had three and a half states to go, which the timetable promised we’d cover in 19 hours. Luckily, they’re the flat ones, and Amtrak can let it rip when the topography’s tame enough.

I used to be a sailor, and in many ways, this entire experience reminded me of being at sea, with the tight quarters and unpredictable movements. The second night in particular, crossing through Nebraska, the ride was so rough I couldn’t lie still long enough to fall asleep. I felt like I had to hold onto the seat frame to keep from being tossed out of bed. This, of course, was silly: there was nowhere for me to be tossed to. That’s the tradeoff for speed on this line. One added wrinkle was that I have a belly now that I did not have as a young sailor more than two decades ago, and its mass moved with a slight but noticeable delay from the rest of me whenever we’d hit a rough patch of track. This only happened when I was lying down, so after a while I raised one of the seats halfway and tried sleeping in a sitting position instead. It didn’t work any better, but at least it was slightly less uncomfortable.

I’d recently read The Godforsaken Sea, a book about the 1996-1997 edition of the Vendee Globe, a nonstop, solo, round-the-world sailboat race. I’ve always been a sucker for those kinds of books. That night through Nebraska, I lay there thinking about the cramped cabins those sailors spent four months in, all alone. Here I was feeling claustrophobic after just 36 hours, and I had the luxury of the dining car and observation car to go to if I needed. I could get off the train for a few minutes at most of the stops if I needed to stretch my legs.

Then again, those sailors could go up on deck and be out in the open, exposed in a way that can be hard for people who have not been on the ocean, out of sight of shore, to understand.

The awareness of the nearly-constant forward motion, the steady changes in our viewshed (mountains to desert to mountains to plains and farms), the unhurried passing of time—on a train, these all combine to remind you how big this country really is. It’s easy to forget just how big. The distance from San Francisco to Chicago is only a little less than the distance between Madrid and Budapest. Imagine how much you’d see from that train. And that’s just two-thirds of the whole way—continuing until we hit the Atlantic would have added at least eighteen more hours onto the trip.

I’ve done several cross-country car trips. But most of these were of the shorter, north-to-south variety: Florida to Michigan, Massachusetts to Florida. Only one was (roughly) a coast-to-coast trip, the drive I made seven years ago when I moved from St. Petersburg to San Francisco. That trip was three days and a wake-up. I spent fourteen hours a day behind the wheel, just trying to get it over with and get to where I was going. I remember willing myself to just get to Las Cruces before I passed out at the wheel because I refused to spend a second night in Texas—it’s 900 miles wide, I’d stayed in Beaumont the night before, and finishing the day in the same state I’d started in would’ve been too demoralizing. What I remember the most, though, were all the little towns along the way. Mostly in Texas, but also in Arizona, Louisiana, New Mexico. Towns that seemed to exist solely to serve fuel, for vehicle and body alike, to the highway interchanges they grew around. Towns I’d never stop in for anything more than a tank of gas or a cheeseburger, towns whose names I can’t remember now, towns I thought I’d never think about again. Those same towns are scattered all along the train line. Most of them probably owe their very existence to the tracks abutting their towering grain silos or their postcard downtowns from another era. Amtrak doesn’t stop in most of them. Maybe the freight trains still do.

These places are worth seeing, though, even if only from a roomette in a passing train. You can’t really know any country without knowing its countryside. Not in the sense that that’s where the “real” people live—the idea that heartlanders are inherently more genuine that city folk is an offensive and pernicious piece of right-wing propaganda—but because that’s where you can still sometimes see the past, right there out in the open, like it isn’t even past at all.