Traveling by rail has always seemed dangerously romantic to me. In my head I’m on some coal-black steam train cutting through the American West, reading a tattered book as the wind catches my perfectly tousled hair just so. Maybe I’m wearing a blue linen dress like Dolores in Westworld. Okay, maybe I’m just Dolores from Westworld.
The train is an intriguing set piece for a lot of my favorite types of stories. You’ve got your old-timey damsels tied to tracks by moustache-twirling villains and your runaway carnies skipping town to join the big show. It’s where a young Indiana Jones’ acquired a fear of snakes and I learned to never open an ominous-looking chest courtesy of that one scene in The Mummy Returns. Everyone knows the best brawls happen on train-car roofs.
The reality of traveling by train is a little different.
Firstly, no one’s hair is getting tousled by the wind—the windows are sealed closed and plastered with “Emergency Exit” stickers. When you make a reservation for the dining car, you’ll be seated not with a mysterious stranger but a retiree heading to San Diego for a nephew’s graduation. And there’s not much time for brawling, since most “fresh air” stops are capped at fifteen minutes and everyone is too busy smoking or wrangling their luggage to put up fisticuffs.
"We went into the trip believing we had the story already written, something about relishing a slower pace of travel and seeing the world through the lens of America’s backyards. Instead, the trip became a lot more about listening."
The Amtrak Coast Starlight. All of Amtrak’s trains have the kind of names you’d find on Disney World map (“Blast off in the Silver Meteor! Soar over the desert on the Texas Eagle! Find true love on the Sunset Limited!”). My best friend and collaborator Andy and I rode this particular west-coast rail to get from Seattle to Los Angeles, pacing our trip with stays in Portland and Oakland and opting for one overnight leg on the train itself.
I think we went into the trip believing we had the story already written, something about relishing a slower pace of travel and seeing the world through the lens of America’s backyards. Instead, I think the trip became a lot more about listening. To a 95-year-old woman who went to school for journalism and a guy who’d just moved across the country to work in “the movies.” A train car attendant who’d caught an Amish couple doing the dirty and a retired welder who likes to hit the tanning beds before vacation. To stories of love, loss, and about how Taylor Swift once rented out an entire train car.
There were no damsels or daring escapes, but once we stopped imagining all the things train travel could be, we saw it for what it was: a really fun way to get from point A to point B—another chapter to add to our own story.