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One afternoon, I find myself at Union Station in Washington, D.C., nervously clutching my luggage. I am about to journey to a strange new land, one with its own odd customs, mores, and even, in a way, its own physics. I am going to Amtrakistan.
Amtrakistan is not for the timid or, frankly, the sane; traversing the North American continent by rail makes no sense. It makes no sense in terms of money or time or social acceptability. It is not—and, really, I cannot stress this enough—a rational thing to do.
Which is precisely why it appeals to me and why I find myself standing on platform 15 shoulder to shoulder with my fellow irrationalists: Mennonites; train enthusiasts (“foamers,” as they’re known by some, since they supposedly salivate at the sight of, say, a rare locomotive); the fear-of-flying crowd (larger than you’d think); and sundry others drawn to the irresistible absurdity of long-distance train travel.
I clamber aboard the Capitol Limited, heaving my luggage up a narrow flight of circular stairs, down an even narrower corridor, and into Roomette 009. It is a marvel of spatial efficiency. Into an area smaller than that of a typical sedan, the room manages to squeeze two beds, a table (which doubles as a checkerboard), reading lights, pillows, blankets, coat hangers, a magazine rack, a trash bin, and a closet so svelte I won’t notice it until Indiana. I find my new home either cozy or claustrophobic, a verdict that changes by the minute.
I glance at my wrist: 4:03 p.m., says my watch, a device I consult dozens, if not hundreds, of times a day. It’s a habit—a compulsion, really—symptomatic of a more serious ailment: chronophobia. I fear time. Or more precisely, I fear the lack of time. I’m always pleading with the time gods for just another five minutes. Just another five minutes to send this email, to finish this article, to . . . breathe.
I’ve always assumed that I will eventually find this missing five minutes if I simply move fast enough. So self-evident is the primacy of speed that I hardly stop to contemplate it. Of course, faster is better. Of course, traveling from D.C. to Portland in a speedy five and a half hours on a plane beats a poky 64 hours on a train. But why, exactly? In my rush to get somewhere—anywhere—as quickly as possible, what am I missing?
We depart Washington without the drama that accompanies aeronautical travel. No roaring jet engines, no shimmying fuselage. We are simply stationary, then we are not. This transition is so subtle that I have to look out the window to confirm that we are indeed moving.
When you’re traveling like this, at a refreshingly human speed, an otherwise invisible world reveals itself.
And it turns out that looking out the window is a popular pastime in Amtrakistan. Partly this is because, truth be told, there isn’t much else to do. But there’s another reason. When you’re traveling like this, at a refreshingly human speed, an otherwise invisible world reveals itself.
Feeling childlike, I decide to play a game of I Spy. I spy graffiti—museum-worthy explosions of color and form. (You don’t fully appreciate the creative flair of U.S. graffiti artists until you take a cross-country train trip.) City yields to country, and I spy dirt roads and baseball diamonds and old fairgrounds, dismantled and forlorn. I spy wheat fields (they really are golden) and barns—more barns than I, a child of Baltimore, have seen in my life.
We pick up speed. We’re really humming along at 40, maybe even 45 mph, when suddenly we decelerate, then stop. We wait. And wait. I look at my watch. I fidget. It’s not the stopping that irks me but, rather, the not knowing why we’ve stopped.
In Amtrakistan, I eventually learn, one does not ask why. Why is the café car open some mornings but not others? Why do freight trains have right of way over our train, which is carrying sentient beings? Why? They just do. By eastern Illinois, I realize I’m not going to change Amtrakistan. I either bend to its ways, or I break. I decide to bend. The next morning we lumber into Chicago’s Union Station, and the Capitol Limited snorts to a stop. We’re 17 minutes late—or, as they say in Amtrakistan, on time. I stretch my legs, then board the Empire Builder for the long haul to Portland.
I’ve been assigned the last roomette on the last car of the train. The caboose of the caboose. For hours, I plant myself by the stern window and watch the world retreat, empty tracks stretching to the horizon, like viewing a movie that’s perpetually ending but never does. I’m not looking at anything in particular. I register the passing landscape—trees, fields, shuttered factories—but I don’t linger. I make no demands on the scenery (be beautiful, damn it!), and it makes no demands on me.
I make no demands on the scenery (be beautiful, damn it!), and it makes no demands on me.
Hours pass like this—I can’t say how many—before it’s bedtime. The good news about sleeping in Amtrakistan is that the gentle rocking motion lulls you into slumber. The bad news is that various other motions—including, but not limited to, violent lurches and sudden stops—jar you awake repeatedly.
I wake, groggily, to North Dakota sky. There’s a whole lot of nothing out there. But what beautiful nothingness it is! The morning light, golden and otherworldly, the vastness of sky and earth, punctuated with the occasional bison. When it comes to nature, I subscribe to the Woody Allen School: I’m all for it, as long as I don’t get any on me. Amtrakistan is the perfect place for people like me. Rivers, dense forests, craggy mountains, infinite plains, deer, bison—they all pass before my eyes, seemingly close enough to touch, but securely encased behind a thick plate of glass.
Another unexpected joy is that Amtrakistan not only expands my world but shrinks it, too. The monstrous sprawl of options that define a typical day is reduced to something more manageable. Yes, there are choices to be made, but not many. What time do I want to eat dinner? Which book should I read? (I’ve brought a small library.) Do I nip into that little bottle of Jose Cuervo I’ve smuggled on board now, or later? Maybe both?
Time, I discover, turns suddenly benign. I experience none of the temporal whiplash induced by air travel. The hours, the days, the time zones simply melt into each other. (There’s a reason the term “train lag” doesn’t exist.) Time flattens, and it swells. That extra five minutes I’m always looking for is right here. I’ve hit the mother lode of time.
At first, I’m not sure what to do with this temporal surplus. I rearrange my roomette, moving my luggage from nook to cranny, then back again. After a few hours, I grow bored of this charade, and decide to explore. I walk. Now, to be clear, I’ve been walking most of my life and consider myself fairly adept at it, but activities one takes for granted elsewhere are fraught with difficulties here. (Shaving, for instance. My one attempt leaves me a bloody mess.) When I try to walk, I teeter and totter like a drunkard. I body slam complete strangers. “You’ve got to dance with the train,” says an older woman witnessing my incompetence. She’s right. I’ve been fighting the train. I need to dance with it. Let the train lead. It takes me a while, but I soon get the hang of it. The key, I learn, is to stay loose. The train pitches left or right, and so do I. No resistance.
Time flattens, and it swells. That extra five minutes I’m always looking for is right here. I’ve hit the mother lode of time.
Finally, I make it to my destination, the lounge car, relishing a sense of accomplishment, as if I have just summited K2. The lounge car affords views of the countryside through dirt-smeared windows and serves mediocre coffee and snacks. Where it excels, though, is in people-watching. It is Amtrakistan’s public square.
I take a seat and marvel at the odd mix of inhabitants: a woman crocheting; a young couple playing cards, six empties of Bud Light stacked next to them like some ancient monument; a gray-haired ponytailed guy playing the banjo (and playing it well); a bearded millennial reading The Catcher in the Rye. Fellow travelers in a strange land.
Certain rules of discourse prevail. Rule Number One: Studiously avoid politics. You just never know. Rule Number Two: Commence all exchanges with one of the approved opening gambits, such as “Where ya from?” or “Where ya headin’?” and let the conversation unfurl naturally.
Adhering to these rules, I meet Al, a businessman who gets more work done here than he does in a hotel room; Dan, a bona fide foamer who has loved trains since he was old enough to say “train”; and Stan, a retired trucker and lung cancer survivor who’s always wanted to go to Portland, so, damn it, he and his remaining lung are doing just that.
Then there is Denise. The previous evening, I was seated with her and her 13-year-old twin daughters in the dining car. Denise is a talker, and I learned a lot about her before our seared shrimp arrived. I learned that she is originally from Cleveland but is heading home to the boom-and-bust oil town of Williston, North Dakota, one of tomorrow’s stops. I learned that she “comes from a family of nervous Nellies,” that she has always been afraid of flying—“afraid of crashing,” she clarifies—and that she has a particular fondness for apple trees, which don’t grow easily in the cold, hard earth of North Dakota.
Later, after dinner, at one of the designated smoke stops, I noticed Denise puffing away. I was tempted to suggest that the cigarettes are more likely to kill her than an airplane, but I demurred; pointing out such inconsistencies is frowned upon in Amtrakistan. This is a world where logic takes a holiday. Besides, Denise enjoys her train time. She thumbs through magazines, talks to strangers, and stares out the window at nothing in particular for very long stretches of time.
We are not friends, I know that, but we connected, and in a way that never would have happened at 35,000 feet.
Now, we approach the outskirts of Williston, a muddy, broken land dotted with stilled oil rigs that look like sleeping dinosaurs. I’m standing with Denise and her daughters as the train lumbers toward the station when a sudden, unexpected sadness creeps up on me. I’m going to miss Denise. We are not friends, I know that, but we connected, and in a way that never would have happened at 35,000 feet. Up there, we’d likely have sat in silence, or perhaps exchanged pleasantries before retreating to our interior lives. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no misanthrope, but in a plane I’m trapped with my seatmate, for better or worse. There’s no escaping a chatterbox or, worse, an amateur comedian. On the train, I can always withdraw to my roomette. That’s why, I think, it’s the perfect place for introverts like me. I’m free to engage with my fellow humans. Or not.
On my last morning in Amtrakistan, I wake to the Columbia River Gorge, and wind farms with vanes turning lazily, stark white against the brown hills. The rains come quickly, and with them, two-car garages, box stores, ranch homes. Civilization, with its attendant pleasures and obligations. Peering at these homes, I feel like an alien sent to observe a distant planet. What is life like there? Do they measure time in coffee spoons or something larger, something grander?
We pull into Portland’s Union Station. I glance at my watch—something I realize I haven’t done for a while. 9:46 a.m. Twenty-four minutes early. I have traversed 2,994 miles and crossed 12 states, four time zones, and countless ecosystems. All without breathing pressurized air or tussling with a complete stranger over precious armrest space. Yes, I have taken off my shoes, but by choice.
I have learned much during my stay in Amtrakistan. I can now distinguish among the various kinetic sensations of train travel. Not only the bump but the lateral lurch, the sudden tilt, the rolling wave. I’ve met people such as Denise—a chain-smoking, ground-bound North Dakotan—whom I never would have encountered otherwise. I have learned that faster is not always better and that time is relative. No longer do I view it as such a scarce commodity. Sure, I still crave that extra five minutes, but not as fiercely, not as desperately. I used to think I would find that time by speeding up, doing everything faster. Turns out I just needed to slow down.
As I step onto solid ground once again, finding my bearings like a sailor returning to shore, I instinctively roll my wrist, about to glance at my watch, when I catch myself. No. It can wait. I have time.