Amtrak Blues: A Journey Across America

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My second night in Denver, I skipped dinner in favour of a smooth $10 cigar. Crossing right leg over left on a bench in the 16th Street Mall—the city’s downtown commercial strip—I enjoyed a long smoke and listened to the music swell from one of the many painted pianos on the tree-lined central median. Lightheaded and  content, I watched hundreds of people pass by, often stopping to appreciate the music. I spoke to those people who, one after another, for whatever reason, sat next to me on that bench, people whose lives I wouldn’t have even been aware of if I had not ventured across the continent to find them.

This is the story of a two-week train trip across the United States, which I embarked on in August for a number of reasons. First, I had to be in Los Angeles at the end of the month, and I decided there was no better way to get there than by train, my preferred mode of long-distance travel. Second, I wanted to see my country, to meet its diverse inhabitants, and to participate in the East Coast rite of passage—recently so neglected—of traveling from one end of the country to the other, of projecting one’s soul over the immense spaces of the West, and of returning home, somehow more true.

I took a bus from my hometown in North New Jersey into New York City, where I slept on an airbed in my sister’s midtown apartment. I woke before dawn to watch the sunrise from the roof and to enjoy a last New York diner breakfast before setting off.

Having been all over this country by train, in cities large and towns small, I can with some authority declare New York’s Penn Station the ugliest in the land. The ceilings are low, the fluorescent lighting is blinding, and the whole place feels like a cheaply built bunker. Perhaps its only redeeming quality is the unmistakable stench of stale piss around every turn; after a long stretch in Montreal, it has often told me I’m finally home.

My first train, early on Friday, August 6, was to Washington, D.C., where I stayed with two high school friends, and spent days at the museums and explored the city on a loaned bike. The patriotic spirit in Washington and the presence of Americans from all over the country made me giddy to head west.

Sunday afternoon I left Washington on the Capitol Limited, which dips into Maryland before reaching Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers carve into steep canyon walls, and which Thomas Jefferson considered perhaps the most beautiful place on earth. The train then runs through West Virginia coal towns before turning north for     Pittsburgh and Cleveland and then west for Chicago.

The Capitol Limited is a double-decker train, or a Superliner. The cars are mammoth things, perhaps 20 feet high, which only run in parts of the country where tunnels were built tall enough to accommodate them. I’d previously thought that these trains ran only west of the Mississippi, so after dropping my flannel on my reserved seat in coach, I walked excitedly to the observation car, trying in vain to suppress a big, stupid smile. I found a good spot under the expansive windows rising over the curve of the car, filling it with natural light, bought a cup of coffee, and watched the country pass slowly by. I hardly left it except to buy more coffee. At night, when Americans from all backgrounds, began to fill the coach car with the diverse tenors of their snores, I stretched out my back by lying on the carpeted floor of the observation car, using my backpack as a pillow, letting the gentle sway of the car rock me into a deep and satisfying sleep. In the morning there was a new state outside the window, and bleary-eyed, I waited for the café to open at 6 a.m. for that all-important first cup.

The train entered Pennsylvania and the afternoon faded away. I made a reservation for dinner, and went when the 8:30 p.m. guests were called. One quaint joy of train travel is eating in the dining car. The booths seat four, so the service staff combine parties of three or less at a single table. The food is expensive and bad, but hearing the stories of total strangers from around the country is incomparable.

In southwestern Pennsylvania I ate with a mother and son from outside Atlanta en route to Seattle. The woman told me she’d had a dream in which she was on a train watching wild horses gallop in the fields outside. She said it looked like paradise. Having never been on a train before, she decided it was something she had to do. I saw them a few more times on that train and on the one out of Chicago. Each time, even if only passing, we exchanged greetings and friendly smiles.

The next morning I was on the California Zephyr train heading west across the beautiful flatness of western Illinois, crossing the mighty Mississippi into Iowa. Named after Zephyrus, the Greek god of the western wind, it is the longest and most celebrated of the four main routes to the west coast. We went through some flooded areas in central Iowa, with water from the Des Moines River threatening to rise and overtake the tracks. Night came suddenly, and I fell asleep somewhere east of Omaha.

I woke to see the sunrise over the plains in southwestern Nebraska, just before approaching Colorado and the foothills of the Rockies. A mother cradled her crying baby at the other end of the car. Purely as a defensive measure, I donned my headphones for the first time on the trip. Sonny Rollins somehow worked perfectly. When the baby stopped crying I took off my headphones and watched the passengers filter into the car, patiently waiting for the coffee to brew. Entering Colorado, an Amish couple next to me pointed out the window and spoke in German about the distant mountains. I settled in for an early morning nap.

After a short delay just outside the Denver station (one of the engines slipped a few inches off the track), I set off to explore the city. My general practice upon arrival in a new city is to find somewhere I want to go and then walk to it, taking the most indirect route imaginable in order to see as much of the place as possible. I walked to the state capital, napped in the sun on some concrete steps, found a small creek to read by, and circled back downtown. The next day I went to a famous Beat bar, enjoyed the cigar for dinner and left the next morning, again on the Zephyr, delayed six hours after terrible floods in Iowa forced it to reroute through Kansas.

Everyone was trying to save seats in the observation car because an hour after leaving Denver, the Zephyr begins the long climb into the Rocky Mountains, widely considered the most scenic stretch of track in the country. The only other times I’ve seen this collective rush to the observation car was later on that train ride in the Sierra Nevadas, going through the infamous Donner Pass, and last summer passing through Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. I can’t think of another mode of travel capable of so definite and so satisfying a climax.

I found an open seat and talked for four hours to a poet from Ithaca and a girl from Ohio. I was distracted, however, by the stunning scenery of the Rockies’ foothills, the view of the open prairie and Denver on the horizon, and the sharp curves of the tracks weaving along the steep cliffs below. The foothills soon became immense mountains. With my neck sharply bent I looked through the ceiling windows up at the canyon walls reaching a thousand feet into the sky. The train eventually approached the Colorado River, barely yet a mountain stream, and entered a seven-mile tunnel in which we crossed under the Continental Divide. Everything darkened as we entered the Glenwood Canyon—not wide but very deep—with the sun gone from our view but still shining bright and red near the top of the canyon walls.

The poet got off at the next stop, the girl from Ohio went to eat in the dining car, and I enjoyed my last bagged sandwich and a bottle of wine from Denver. Later, one passenger with a guitar and one with a mandolin play
ed together,  while a dozen of us, from 8 to 94 years old, sang along. We had trouble with the lyrics of “Sympathy for the Devil,” so one grizzled father stepped in to show the way, the rest of us providing the backing  “whoo whoos.” A woman from Stockton, California, another poet, freestyled some interludes for “Stand By Me.” We improvised a song called “Amtrak Blues,” while the train rolled through the Rocky Mountains, invisible in the darkness surrounding our car.

I awoke the next morning on the floor of the observation car and watched while the train passed the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah. As the light grew, more people came into the car. Those of us who had been there were talking about how great the night before had been. The Utah-Nevada border was marked by the bright lights and paved lot of a single casino, breaking the otherwise unmarked landscape of desert, mountains, and arching blue sky. I told someone the mountains looked like dogs asleep under a soft blanket. He asked if I was high.

It took all morning and early afternoon to pass through northern Nevada. A gregarious New Yorker gave me money to run out of the train in Reno and across the street to a casino lobby to buy whiskey, but I was dissuaded from doing so by a recorded Amtrak announcement explicitly warning passengers not to do so, for people thereby missed trains all the time. We were stuck buying $6 bourbons from Johnny in the café car, with whom we were all by now good friends. After Reno everyone once again crowded into the observation car, in giddy expectation for the sharp rise into the Sierra Nevadas. Passing Donner Lake, I met a woman descended from the Donners, who pointed to a building in the nearby town of Truckee where there was a family reunion a few years back. The guy next to me jokingly asked if the group remembered to bring enough food.

After the Sacramento station, where many of my new friends were leaving the train, I was left only with Scott, the guy who had played the mandolin the night before. Amtrak offered us a complimentary beef stew for dinner as an apology for being six hours late. Scott and I enjoyed it with two beers each bought from Johnny. Scott told me about his months of travels and how his friends were going to get him very, very drunk when he finally got home.

I spent the next week in the Bay Area, around Monterey and the incredibly peaceful Big Sur. A final train took me from Salinas to Los Angeles, first through Steinbeck farm country then along cliffs above the Pacific shoreline for hundreds of miles. Los Angeles took my mind off the trip for a while, but afterwards, while touring Sequoia National Park with my parents, I was able to think about the places I had been, the people I had met, and the eventful days I had experienced. When alone, I would mentally run through the trip, day by day, vividly remembering it all.

It’s easy to see the plane I flew home on as the punch line to the long joke that was my two-week trip out West. Upon landing in Chicago I scanned for Montreal among the hundreds of cities crowding the departures board, cities all over the world which, for a price, I could have landed in within mere hours. The short plane from L.A. to Chicago covered territory I sat through for more than two days, watching the land go by, and not doing much of anything.

But I’m more inclined to view things conversely: on that absurdly inhospitable 757, in my cramped aisle seat, with a burly neighbour next to me, I suspended my entire existence. With no complimentary blanket, I was warmed only by a tiny cup of awful airline coffee and by the thought that somewhere, miles below, a westbound Amtrak train was lolling along the tracks, over mountains, deep into valleys, past rivers and lakes and villages and millions of lives, below cliffs and around tight bends,  filled with passengers who were still enjoying the ride.