Taking the Amtrak, Then and Now
An ode to the meditative power of train travel
After one horrific Megabus experience in 2012, I began taking the Amtrak everywhere instead. What’s better than staring longingly out of a train window, Sufjan in your earbuds, a vast landscape stretched before you? It never mattered where I was going, Lollapalooza 2015 or a wholesome coastal town — I was A Mysterious Traveler with Grand Intentions. I was on a journey to Find Myself and Get Into Mischief along the way! (Of course, this was the BC, Before Covid, times.)
Back then, there was always that specific vibe of taking the train. Perhaps it has something to do with the lines’ geography, where my phone loses signal and there’s that fleeting feeling of freedom. Perhaps it is the old-fashioned liquor car, where yes, I’d order a Bud Light, but the wood paneling made it feel like top shelf whiskey, fit for a woman about town (which I was, on the Amtrak).
Even if I was simply traversing the Midwest to hit a Flume concert, in this liminal space I was my most regal self. I would say croissant with a beautiful, sophisticated accent. I’d gently paper the toilet seat as a bum barrier, instead of squatting and getting some on my pants, as I usually do in public restrooms. I’d have my ticket ready for the conductor, not buried in email spam. Amtrak brought out the best traveler in me.
I shouldn’t give Amtrak all the credit for my railway enthusiasm, though, as it is simply a first love — formative, but messy and broken. After leaving my Missouri hometown, there were many new magical train rides in my life, and usually more efficient ones at that. There was the Greek train from Athens to Meteora, where I played cards for hours with a man who refused to tell me his name.
“What’s in a name?” He poised, looking out the window and shuffling cards. “It’s not about names, but the feelings we get from those around us.”
I nodded somberly but could barely contain my delight. This was just the type of thing a Mysterious Man on the Train would say! (unless there was something more shady afoot; but that, too, would simply be classic train drama!).