Crossing the country on the railroad
There’s something romantic about riding on trains, more so than there is about flying. You step in the station, which is almost always old and cavernous, and full of architectural relics that inspire awe. In one moment it’s silent, except for the occasional echoing footsteps or cough; the next, it’s bustling and full of people moving about.
You see other travelers passing by and wonder what their stories are. You marvel at the fact that your paths are running parallel for this moment, even though you have completely different backgrounds. And even though you may be headed toward the same destination, you’re going completely different places.
You hear the train rumbling in, clanking its bell. You wish there was steam chugging too. But, as with most things in life, reality is much different than you always pictured it as a kid. You grip your bags and climb the steps. You show the conductor your ticket. You find the seat that’s your bed, office and living room for the next few days. You sit with the people who are now your temporary family. You spread out your sources of entertainment on your new desk and dinner table.
Whether you’re reserved or outgoing in your approach of introductions, or whether you bother to introduce yourself at all, is irrelevant. You and the other passengers are a little group now, and you’re going somewhere together. You overhear stories, you exchange your own stories, and you imagine the strangers’ stories. You wonder where they’re all coming from and where they’ve been and why they’re here. You wonder what issue weighs heavily on their mind at that point in their lives, what it is they can’t let go of. (Everyone is always fighting with something.)
You’re surrounded by people, yet alone in your head.
As your eyes drift out to the scenery passing by the window, your mind keeps drifting to your destination. You think about what you’ll do once you’re there—what is the first thing you’ll do. What you’re not looking forward to. Who you’ll meet. Awake or asleep, you drift in and out of consciousness.
Nighttime is another phenomena with its own special magic, but for some reason it’s amplified when you observe it from inside a moving vehicle, especially when shared with other people. You reach this level of intimacy with complete strangers that you may never have reached with someone you know and care about.
On the train, nighttime is quiet except for the rumbling of the engine and the clacking of the tracks beneath the wheels. You jostle around gently, finding the repetition soothing. Occasionally the whistle blows as the train passes road crossings. Other trains may whip by with a blast and rumble every now and then, shaking the car with the sheer force of air displaced. Each street lamp you pass makes the shadows dance around the car and across the seats in a silent rhythm.
I have always been a lover of nighttime because I enjoy the solitude, feeling that I am catching things that other people are sleeping through. And I find it hard to sleep in transit because of this. It’s not always that I’m uncomfortable in my cramped personal space (which is actually quite expansive on trains), but rather that I don’t want to miss anything. And I like that those extra experiences I do stay awake for, belong only to me.
At the moment it’s 06:13 and I’m in the lounge car, entirely alone, save for one sleeping elderly man on the other end. I’m the only one in here who is awake, though. It feels as if this car is entirely my own. Everyone around me is asleep. Everyone outside is asleep. The world is all mine until sometime around dawn, and then I have to start sharing it.
What a shame. The world seems quite peaceful when I’m in charge.
I see all these little nothing towns at night, and I am envious of the people who live there. The streets are silent and motionless, lit only by the warm yellow glow of street lamps. No one is around; they’re all asleep inside the little rundown houses with porch lights and glowing curtains. You can tell these are not just houses; they’re homes, and they all seem so cozy and calm. These towns seem to be populated entirely by people who know exactly where they belong in the world—right there. They have schedules and routines and know exactly what they’re doing. I wish I knew that feeling.
My mind wanders as rapidly as my body, barreling down the tracks, and now I can’t help but think of just how old these tracks might be. Are these sprawling routes across the country the original paths that were in place in the 1800s when railroads became the major mode of transportation? What did the view look like out the windows back then? Who took these same routes 150 years ago? What were their stories? Did any of my ancestors make this same journey?
I like that with rail travel, you get to pass places that the rest of the world seems to have forgotten about. Dilapidated, minuscule clapboard houses that look like they were built when pioneers were blazing trails across the country; rivers and lakes; small towns that no one goes to and no one seems to leave from, that people just pass through in order to get someplace else; and gritty bits of big cities overlooked by everyone except the graffiti artists and Simon & Garfunkel’s “ragged people.” I am seeing the country in a more intimate way than a lot of people get to. It’s like when you get to know a romantic partner and they begin to show you pieces of their “ugly” side—but it only makes them more attractive in your eyes, because you get to find out more about who they truly are, rather than the shiny parts they clean up and put on display for everyone else. I would like to take every Amtrak route from beginning to end so I can see as much of this beautiful country as possible in this manner.
I enjoy seeing the countryside just as much as the overlooked and hidden-away parts of the cities we pass. Rumbling from sea to shining sea, I have seen American geography in almost every form. Among the highlights, I saw how incredibly beautiful Washington state is, with its soaring snow-covered mountains surrounded by evergreens. The landscape is broken up by the jagged peaks and blue rivers that are both rocky and flat at the same time. I also saw the dead early-winter color palette of Montana in the morning—cold and overcast outside, the land every shade of gray and green and brown, dotted with white with patches of snow. That is one of my favorite types of weather.
Many of my pictures from train trips are life whirring by the window, which is fitting, since that’s what life tends to do.
Seeing the towns waving gigantic American flags, these people are clearly proud to be American. And I can see why they would feel that way—they keep the country going, and they know it. They produce the parts of our machines. They farm our foods. They know that even the big city businessman in his fancy suit can’t function without them.
So many other things I have seen as we scroll past are quintessentially Americana. The signs and typography of the railway buildings and on passing train cars, the neon lights on the occasional building across the way, the gas stations, the old beat-up Fords and Chevys, the tractors, the pickup trucks hauling trailers, the big brooding semi-trucks hauling cargo, the billboards, the bars and diners that have clearly been around for generations in old brick buildings with awnings and painted signs, the signs with metal or plastic letters that have slid around or fallen off, the warehouses, the factories, those unsung workers who keep this country running, the water towers painted proudly with the town name despite how decrepit and hopeless the structure and town themselves look, the junkyards, the parking lots and fields and yards full of rusty old cars in various stages of disrepair but all of them looking beyond hope, the ranches, the barns, the silos, the wind farms.
It all makes me feel so very American, and to be proud of it.
Being removed from my own culture for so long has made me enjoy and appreciate it more when I’m here. I especially like this for the fact that I don’t belong to these regions of the country; I’ve never even been here before. So while some might consider me an outsider to these areas, this is still my culture too, and that’s one thing that’s neat about how big this country is.