This Is Us

Taking the Amtrak, Then and Now

An ode to the meditative power of train travel

Photo: Dipanjan Chatterjee/Unsplash

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!).

In the summer of 2018, there was the Sri Lanka train route from Kandy to Ella. My friends and I were sardined in a standing-room-only car for eight hours. It was sweaty and cramped and the most stunning ride I’d ever taken. We danced and hung out the windows, drinking up the jungle air, eating samosas purchased from vendors rolling carts down the aisle. We had nothing to do but get to where we were going, and the beauty was in that leisure. In the words of essayist A.P. Herbert, “Slow travel by train is almost the only restful experience left to us.”

There is something to be said for novelty, the way it makes you feel alive, electric even.

Later that year, there was more slow train travel on Southeast Asia’s backpacker route, where I traveled with a boy I thought I loved and woke up each day in new places full of strangers. I have to read back through my journals to remember if any of it was real at all. I was 22, learning to navigate my own life along with those train maps. The boy and I parted ways, but we’d always share an overnight voyage to Cambodia, the way the dust opened to endless stars through a dirt-streaked window. There is something to be said for novelty, the way it makes you feel alive, electric even. Thus is the power of the train — a transient, ethereal force. Feeling full of possibility.

Of course, those romantic days are so far behind us now. And 2020 eclipsed novelty and ingrained in us a fear of strangers and surfaces. There have been far less rides to take. Possibility feels swapped for grief and dread and a deep sense of loss.

This year, I boarded just one train from New York City to Virginia, to meet my family over the summer. It was Amtrak, the first time I’d boarded one in years. The journey took on a sense of urgency I hadn’t known before. Gone was the mysticism of dead cell zones and endless American wasteland. I just needed to get there. My own anxiety formed a thick, palpable haze with every other passenger’s. The car was silent, stripped even of breath, our mouths covered by masks. There would be no fanciful rendezvous between neighbors here; we all had our own rows and made ourselves as small as possible. The drink cart stayed closed. I still occasionally felt the jolt of being in a period piece, but one from 1918 during the Spanish Flu. And I wasn’t the main character, as I’d felt in my youth, but an extra in something much bigger than myself.

This Amtrak revelation, a forgoing of Main Character Syndrome, feels indicative of my overall shift in perspective this year. That gleeful wonder of What will happen to me? became a more consequential What will happen to all of us? That final train ride put this question in deep focus. As British poet John Betjeman famously said, “Trains were made for meditation.” Perhaps the train’s romanticism was always just a mirror for how I saw the journey.

We don’t know how long this will all last, when we can love again freely, or travel just for the sake of it. But this much I know for certain: We are more connected than we ever could have realized; in our health and fears, but also in the hope that keeps us going.

Meghan Gunn is a writer. tweeting @95gunn

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