Tell your fellow Americans that you plan to cross the United States by train, and their reactions will range from amusement at your spellbinding eccentricity to naked horror that they, through some fatal social miscalculation, have become acquainted with a person who would plan to cross the United States by train. Depending how you slice it — time or money — there are either 61 or 960 immediate reasons not to travel by Amtrak trains from New York City to Los Angeles. Those are the extra hours and dollars, respectively, that you might reasonably expect to forfeit if you forgo a six-hour $129 nonstop flight and opt instead for an Amtrak sleeper car. Covering the interjacent 2,448.8 miles can easily consume some 67 hours for a mind-boggling $1,089.
Of course, you might remind your quote-unquote fellows, any form of modern engine-based transport, even Amtrak, is preposterously fast compared with the method that Homo sapiens employed to move ourselves and our tchotchkes for most of our species’ 300,000-year history, which is walking. Crossing the stretch of land where roughly half the Donner party starved, froze or, in the case of the group’s two Miwok guides, were shot to death for food — an overland journey that took the party about five months to complete in 1847 — could be done in under two hours by a Honda Accord today (assuming normal traffic), while a plane from Springfield, Illinois, their starting point, to Sacramento, California, would zoom over their whole route in half a day, including layover.
Because of this ability to effectively teleport between locations, 21st century Americans have become flippant about transcontinental voyaging. To truly appreciate the size of the landmass (the third largest country in the world by land area) and the variety of its terrain (rainforests, deserts, prairies, Margaritaville, etc.), you have to see it from the ground.
Amtrak clings to the hope that someday people will view its service not as something that sucks and that they hate, but as something that is actually nice and that they don’t hate. There’s a whole separate Amtrak website dedicated to this (amtrakvacations.com), where Amtrak does things like describe Los Angeles to people who have never heard of it: “The ‘City of Angels’ is one of the premier attractions in sunny Southern California.”
But the other selling point of a cross-country train trip is a chance to look behind the American scrim, to learn where the nation makes and stores the hidden parts that run it, to find new places you wish you had been born, to spy on backyards and high-school football fields whose possible existence had never occurred to you. Or me. Why not me? My boyfriend and I were planning a short vacation out West anyway; I could just leave a few days before him and get there after he arrived.
As I quickly learned, there are no passenger rail routes that cross the entire United States in a single trip, nor are there likely to be any soon. Even proponents of the high-speed railway systems much lauded in Asia and Europe (and tentatively proposed in Congress’s Green New Deal resolutions) generally give the competitive edge to planes for travel across distances greater than 600 miles. At present, reaching California by rail from New York requires at least two trains, one of which will depart from Chicago or New Orleans, all of which, like most lines operated by Amtrak, have names so sumptuously picturesque (Coast Starlight, Maple Leaf, Sunset Limited) they make the storybook Polar Express sound as sterile as “Amtrak” by comparison.
To book tickets, a person must first complete a battery of tests measuring her patience, hand-eye coordination and aptitude for deductive mathematical reasoning, in the guise of Amtrak’s impossible-to-use online trip planner. (While the trip planner cannot identify the train station nearest to an address or even a city, it can tell you the name of the city you have already typed into its search bar, provided there is an Amtrak train station there.) The fastest way to complete this slow journey is to take the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago’s Union Station then board the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles, one of sunny Southern California’s much-hyped premier attractions.
Contrary to multiple acquaintances’ declarations that I would encounter “some real weirdos” on the train, the first person I met on board my first sleeper car after boarding the train in Penn Station was a man in a sparkly cardigan and leather pants who breezily identified himself as “a prophet,” which is perhaps the world’s second oldest profession. And forgive me if I find nothing weird about being gainfully employed under a supervisor with the kind of multinational name recognition God has.
As he doubtless expected, the prophet and I were in opposite Viewliner Roomettes: private compartments Amtrak describes as “designed for one or two passengers,” although a roomette is both narrower and shorter than a standard porta potty. What Amtrak has managed to cram into this minuscule space is impressive: a fold-down sink, two cushioned benches that convert to a bed, a second premade bed that lowers from the ceiling, a tiny foldout table with an inset of alternating colored squares for checkers or chess, a coat hook, a luggage cubby, a large picture window, and the largest variety of not-quite-matching shades of dark blue upholstery fabrics ever assembled. There is even a small metal toilet with a puce-colored lid, which invites a brainteaser: Is it more luxurious to have a private toilet inches away from your sleeping area or a shared toilet elsewhere?
The car’s friendly attendant advised me that the recommended way to enter the upper berth was to step first atop the toilet seat (a little over a foot off the ground), then, using a wall-mounted handle for balance, climb onto the narrow built-in ledge above the toilet, rotate my body 90 degrees and, fueled by a cocktail of optimism and derring-do, launch myself into the bed suspended in midair. To prevent occupants from rolling off their 28-inch-wide mattresses (the same width as a standard casket) and falling several feet to the floor, stowed beneath the mattress of every upper bunk is a kind of net of seat belts that hooks with grim determination into the ceiling.
Once on the bed, I subjected my body to a series of Cirque du Soleil–inspired experiments to confirm that this safety web would indeed hold my weight, were I to roll unconsciously into it at 2 a.m. I tested the strength of the straps with one leg. I rolled from the wall into the net, flopping my limbs. I placed each hand on a segment of net and pushed against it with the full force of my upper body, something that I had never done in my sleep but that now seemed possible or even probable. It seemed secure.
It also seemed representative of Amtrak’s casual, makeshift approach to passengers — a slightly refreshing, slightly unnerving attitude to encounter after a lifetime of air travel. The freedom to move about in a train evokes an illicit, almost danger-courting autonomy. (The nonprofit National Safety Council reports that a person in the United States is several times more likely to die of “sharp objects” than a plane or train crash, though the events that preceded this year’s emergency Boeing groundings make such statistics cold comfort.)
The instructions given by conductors and attendants were not so much formulaic as they were desperately obvious — a black comic litany of bare-minimum survival tips. “Just for your safety, please do not walk or play on these tracks,” went one announcement. Another asked parents to ensure young children did not “wander around the train alone.” Although there was no whiff of a TSA screening in place (it would presumably be possible for someone to arrive one minute before departure carrying a duffel bag of uranium and swords, and hop right on, although hopefully no one will), pantomimes of security distributed responsibility among everyone aboard. “WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER…LITERALLY” read the text on a safety brochure promoting Amtrak’s If You See Something, Say Something campaign.
Even on short plane trips, every passenger is offered the kindergartner’s communion of juice and cookies, as if the majority of adults are incapable of going 90 minutes without such provisions. On trains, passengers are treated as individuals even more powerful than adults: independent teenagers who just want to smoke. Amtrak knows you want to smoke. Amtrak knows you love to smoke. But while you’re living under Amtrak’s roof, you have to follow the rules, of which there is only one: Don’t smoke inside.
“Albany is going to be a smoke break,” a young male voice declared over the intercom as the train hurtled northward. “Just a reminder, ladies and gentlemen,” a voice like that of a female jazz radio DJ warned on a westbound train, “this is a completely nonsmoking train.” She added: “Your first official stop for a smoke break is Kansas City, Missouri.”
In winter, the 3:40 Lake Shore Limited experiences just 90 minutes of daylight before darkness descends for the majority of its journey west to Chicago. The first leg of the trip follows the Hudson River, revealing glimpses of hidden islands and idyllic ruins, like the crumbling remains of a fanciful 20th century castle built by an arms dealer in need of an out-of-the-way place to stash his stores of live ammunition, some of which eventually exploded, creating the crumbling remains. At sunset, when all that was left of the day was a tangelo slash along the horizon, that same color flashed up from partly melted ice craters that caught the light as the train chugged past. Suddenly, the air outside the train became crows — thousands of crows, rushing in from all angles and alighting on the blue-white frozen river, as if deposited there by an unseen hand.
Sleep the first night came easily and, as it was interrupted several times, frequently. After performing the traditional nighttime rituals of climbing atop the toilet and carefully catapulting into bed, I was rewarded with the gentle rocking of a hammock experiencing a constant minor earthquake tremor. The atmosphere on board was library-like; even the periodic train whistle sounded very far away, as if in someone else’s dream.
The most unifying characteristic of my fellow passengers was not age (although, as a rule, the sleeping cars skewed retired), race (very mixed), income (although sleepers are astronomically priced, coach seats can be downright economical for shorter segments) or even fear of flying (no one I spoke to had it). It was their relaxed, easygoing, train-lulled contentment. To opt to travel long distance via Amtrak — a method deemed “on time” just 71.2% of the time by its own generous metric — is to say, As long as I get there eventually, I’m satisfied.
Train people are content to stare out the window for hours, like indoor cats. The trouble with the Lake Shore Limited is that the amount of enjoyment it is possible to derive from staring out the window of a train is inversely proportional to the population density of the land you are traversing. People need things, and unfortunately most of those things are ugly. Many of them are gray.
Views picked up considerably when, after a five-hour layover in Chicago, I transferred onto the Southwest Chief, a double-decker “super liner” with many of its coach seats, sleeping quarters and lounges on the top level. Sightseer Lounges are the crown jewels of Amtrak’s long-distance trains: entire cars of retro-futuristic curved floor-to-ceiling windows where passengers can sit at tables or outward-facing upholstered chairs and watch the scenery streak by. Shortly into its route, the Chief passes the single best thing in the United States: a silo in Mendota, Illinois, with an 80-by-20-foot ear of corn painted on one side.
Train people are also individuals for whom small talk is as invigorating as a rail of cocaine. For them, every meal on board Amtrak (communal seating like a Benihana, reservations only, included with the price of a sleeping-car ticket, check in with the dining-car attendant) is a rager. A white, middle-aged man in motorcycle gear discussed leukemia treatment with a swish black grandmother. Another man, while gathering up armfuls of research books from a table, bid farewell to a farmer and suggested that he might run into him on the same train next year.
I was seated at dinner with an Amish couple traveling to Arizona for a construction job, and by the time our Amtrak Signature Steaks with optional béarnaise sauce arrived (the food is on a par with the fourth best airplane meal you could ever imagine), we were deep in a conversation about one of my favorite topics: myself. I offered a tip I’d learned about cleaning up glitter using dryer sheets, and they laughed as they tried to envision a situation in which this information could ever be useful.
“‘Who told you that?’” the husband asked himself, anticipating companions’ questions. “‘Some girl that writes in The New York Times!’”
“They’d never believe us,” mused his wife, who had ordered cheesecake for dinner.
At another meal, my table mates were a Missouri-based retired physician and her husband, a retired special-ed teacher, plus a retired architect from Arizona who was traveling alone. In the middle of a conversation about how they met their spouses, the architect suddenly seemed preoccupied with his iPhone. “I read one where it said,” he muttered into his chest, “‘Keep your photo of your wife when you met her.’” He lifted the phone and showed the table his lock screen: a black-and-white photo of a beautiful young woman in 1960s dress. I barely managed not to cry into my Land & Sea entrée (Amtrak Signature Steak with optional béarnaise sauce, plus additional crab, shrimp and scallop cake).
Back in my warm little room, there was something I couldn’t put my finger on that made it subtly nicer than my Lake Shore Limited accommodations, and that was the in-room toilet, because this roomette did not have one. I had been given a stationary pointing tour of the compartment by the Chief’s sleeping-car attendant — a middle-aged woman from a small town in Mexico, who, like every Amtrak attendant with whom I interacted over the course of three days, hummed along with the unflustered friendliness of a benevolent spirit continuing to go about its business in a hotel decades after the property has been converted into luxury condos. Her soothing voice made everything she said sound like the hurried recitation of a familiar recipe. Her assessment of me — “You are on vacation, you probably want to close the curtains and sleep and sleep, wake up and eat and then go and take another nap, it’s OK, that’s why you are on vacation” — was delivered all in one breath.
Kansas shares a border with Colorado. I never could have imagined that I would one day say this, and I know many people will be disconcerted by the statement. They will wonder if, this whole time, they have been reading an avant-garde work of science fiction or perhaps a Mad Lib. “Is magical realism always this scary?” they will ask themselves. Some will claim I am lying. Many will assume I am wrong, demented or a clumsy typist.
To all of whom I respond: The truth of our nation’s internal demarcations is stranger than fiction — stranger than even the kind of brilliant avant-garde science fiction I am most likely capable of producing yet choose not to. But the unvarnished fact is Colorado has to start somewhere, and for whatever reason, that’s inside Kansas.
I woke in Colorado to a weather phenomenon called the pogonip: freezing fog that condensed on tree limbs and sagebrush until they looked dusted with powdered sugar. The terrain of the Colorado tablelands is so flat that it seemed possible to detect the exact location where the pogonip ended and blue skies began, the margins of the changing landscape revealing themselves as definitively as gutters between panels of a newspaper comic.
A childlike compulsion to identify distant cows rippled through the observation car as we hurried along. So fast did we fly past baby deer that the “Aw!”s caught in our throats. Whichever way you face, you are privy to an all-day show, although there is a nagging sensation that by focusing in one direction, you are missing something spectacular unfolding in another. Sometimes you are. Sometimes other people will even tell you you are, like when a grizzled stranger sat down next to me, close enough to be way too close, jerked his head behind us, growled, “That’s Pikes Peak” and walked away. Unknown to me, on the north side of the train, the Rockies had just begun to loom up out of the prairie.
Azure and golden orange were the colors of the afternoon. Action-movie posters are dominated by this color combination, famous for its vibrancy, and indeed, a horizon filled with just these hues seemed to draw the Sightseer Lounge into a kind of trance. For a long while there was nothing but sky and earth to observe — I saw actual tumbleweeds somersault by — yet everyone, myself included, remained riveted to the windows.
It was possible in the Sightseer Lounge to watch weather roll in from a great distance, even from one side of the car to the other. As we ascended hills covered in pinyon and juniper, flakes began to fall, and soon we were in a winter forest. But just as quickly as we had entered the snowscape, we were back in dusty New Mexican grasslands, rolling through a hailstorm of white birds.
Sunset pushed the denizens of the Sightseer Lounge to the brink of insanity, as all but the Amish frantically tried to capture the flame-colored sky on our cellphone cameras. A companionable mother I met earlier in the day, accompanying her own parents on a casino trip to Nevada, dashed from another car to make sure I was facing out of the best side of the lounge to photograph the heavens. When the sun dipped below the horizon, the sky turned the color of wet slate, then dark denim blue with a pale apricot smear that we chased west for several miles.
Scale on a rail trip is what’s most arresting. We live so much of our lives close-up — scrolling through phones, watching our type appear on computer screens, scrutinizing papers, preparing meals, cleaning our homes room by room. Very few elements of our day-to-day tasks remain out of arm’s reach. An extended train ride affords a chance not just to see a horizon but also to soak it up. To luxuriate in the far-off for uninterrupted hours. To exist, briefly, in the uncharted sections of the cellphone-coverage map.
And it feels as if you’re getting away with something — seeing more than you deserve. The best part of the trip wasn’t spying on the backyards of houses; it was out here, in the open. The bright hues of the nation’s choropleth population-density maps fade to white in these areas, yet many of the most beautiful habitable parts of the United States (no offense to Boston) are contained within those colorless expanses. Amtrak takes advantage of this circumstance. It is fortunate that its routes were laid during a period of industrious optimism, when everyone assumed the West would soon be made as unbearable as the East. If they had known it would remain beautiful, it would have been difficult to justify the financial investment.
Lying in my berth, I felt as happy as an egg in an incubator with no plans to hatch. My mood was so upbeat that when I spotted a vitamin on the carpet, I optimistically assumed it was the one I’d been keeping in my pocket for weeks but forgetting to take, and I popped it in my mouth, reminding myself to look up the writing stamped on it later. It turned out to be a supplement for adults 50 and over. I had become train-lulled.
When I awoke on the third day, we were about an hour behind schedule. It had happened, our attendant explained, when assistance for a passenger with disabilities was slow to arrive at an overnight stop. “We can’t rush them!” she chided (referring, presumably, to the passenger rather than the assistance), though the delay appeared to have dampened no moods. It meant that the sun rose over the San Bernardino Mountains at breakfast.
As we approached our final destination, the scenery deteriorated, the red rock vistas replaced by heaps of wooden pallets stacked in strip-mall parking lots. When we pulled into the last stop on the line, the train was almost empty. I had surveyed thousands of miles of panoramic splendor, and I couldn’t believe I had come all that way just to get to Los Angeles.
This article is published in collaboration with The New York Times, where it first appeared.