Alexander Chee, the Dreamer Bringing Creativity Back to the Rails

Alexander Chee, the Dreamer Bringing Creativity Back to the Rails

Photo by Carlos Chavarría

In March of this year, the writer Alexander Chee had an intriguing thought during an interview: What if Amtrak hosted writers-in-residence aboard trains? A Twitter storm gathered and Amtrak responded. It’s now accepting 24 writers, and for the first time in a long time, we’ve been reminded of how wildly romantic travel by rail used to be—and could be again. Chee explains.

“Why trains?” was the question I was asked often after Amtrak created the writer’s residency. And I’ve given some answers—the feeling of anonymity, the slipperiness of being in-between places, the room to walk to the next car for a coffee or a beer—but there’s more to it.

In the fall of 1990, I took a nine-day trip, first by rail from Berlin down to Rotterdam, where
I got on the ferry to Hull, then boarding a train for London, and then Edinburgh. I was reading a copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time that I purchased in a Berlin flea market, and on that first leg, I was obsessed with a young Dutch woman who sat across
from me, knitting, with a black cat in a wicker traveling case by her feet. I remember being envious of her casual confidence as she withdrew a perfect lunch from a picnic basket—a loaf of bread, some beautiful cheese—while I unwrapped my trolley-bought sandwich. She then returned to knitting a beautiful sweater, like the one she wore, stopping again to give the cat water and food. She seemed like the witch of good living.

By the time I departed for Edinburgh, I was still reading the Baldwin, and so it was the English and then Scottish countryside, that patchwork of stunning landscape, that filled me with joy each time I glanced up from the book. It still mixes in my memory with the oatcakes made with butter and honey I ate on that Edinburgh route, and the purr of the Dutch woman’s cat and the clicking of her knitting needles, and underneath it all, the feeling of a train’s wheels on the tracks, and in my mind’s ear, James Baldwin’s words.

When people speak of the glamour of train travel, I think of these moments more than
I think of some silver dome over an entrée in a dining car. Or a luxurious cabin all to myself. I think of the world. Our current train system isn’t the fanciest. It lacks the elegance of, say,
50 years ago. But I don’t ride trains for that. I don’t want to be too protected from other people. I like the accidental meetings, the flashes of other lives. Before there was social media, there was just the social, like this. Trains are intensely democratic, and that’s why they matter, and why we, as Americans, should invest in them more. The residency was not born of nostalgia for that older time, but, rather, of anticipation for the adventures still to come.

This appeared in the June/July 2014 issue, as part of our Travel Vanguard feature. Read more about the 22 people, ideas, and experiences shaking up the way we travel here.