What Riding Trains Taught Me About Americans

Rail Travel Induces a Reverie and Intimacy Among Its Diverse Passengers

The Southwest Chief in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What It Means to Be American Amos, a one-legged Amish man, was having trouble with his new prosthesis. He left the leg in his sleeping compartment and came to the diner on crutches—a hazardous ambulation on a moving train.

Because Amish do not buy health insurance nor take Medicare or Social Security, he rode The Southwest Chief from Chicago to California and went to Mexico to see a doctor. He paid cash for the leg in Tijuana.

“A van picked us up at border and took us to a clinic,” he told me. “They have everything down there.”

Now he was eastbound, crossing the treeless high plains of eastern Colorado. Amos stared out at the sagebrush and sighed, “I just want to be back on the farm. I don’t suppose you know anything about feeder calves, do you?”

I knew enough to make conversation, and by the time dessert arrived, I had learned how to finish, or fatten, a calf with corn.

I’ve ridden Amtrak since college, and, in recent years, logged nearly 100,000 miles researching and promoting a book on rail policy. Dinner with Amos was one of my more remarkable encounters. But it wasn’t entirely unusual. During meals in the diner, where Amtrak practices community seating, Americans who might never otherwise encounter one another sit face to face at tables and break bread.

All mass transit brings Americans together, of course. When we travel, the self-segregation we otherwise practice—by race, income, education, politics, culture, religion, class, or political tribe—evaporates. But a train is special. Unlike a 20-minute commute on a city bus or subway, or an airline flight in the cramped seat of a fuselage, a train requires the commitment of time and space. Passengers ride together for hours, even days, and during the journey have the liberty to move about, eat and drink, and socialize.

Trains also have an intimacy with landscape. Incapable of negotiating steep topography, they follow valleys, hug rivers and oceanfronts, and strike out across plains and desert basins. Train travel induces a sort of reverie—a hypnotic feeling of being adrift on the geography of America. Passengers, many of whom are seeing the country for the first time, marvel at its beauty, diversity, and exoticness. And those feelings carry over to an inclination to engage one another and embrace the same diversity within the rolling coaches.

So while I still fly on airplanes, if I can work a long-distance train into my travels, I get aboard. When I want to feel and hear the zeitgeist of America, I get on a train.

Early in the Great Recession, on The Empire Builder—running from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest—I encountered jobless men converging on North Dakota with just a few dollars in their pockets and the hope of work. In Williston, men who had arrived months earlier in the oil patch boarded the train to go home for a few days and see family before heading back to sprawling “man camps” erected by Halliburton.

A roughneck having a beer in the observation car told me a woman was arrested for prostitution the day before at his man camp.

“The cops called it a crime. It was a public service. Those man camps are tense.”

Observing America through train windows. Photo courtesy of James McCommons.

The train rolled past campers with no running water parked out on the frozen prairie and rigs flaring off natural gas-like colossal candles. The snow and sky shone red and apocalyptic.

He had not been home for weeks.

“There’s no place out here for a family. And my wife, she’s sick. She got the cancer.”

On The Sunset Limited in New Mexico, I chatted with a Texan returning home from Los Angeles after being checked over at Kaiser Permanente. He tapped his chest.

“A weird virus took out my heart muscle. Two years ago, I had a heart-lung transplant.”

We watched pronghorn antelope sprint away from the train and mule deer standing in dry washes.

When he got up, he clapped me on the shoulder, “Every day is a good one … remember that.”

Over the years, I’ve dined with school teachers, a deputy sheriff, a distraught widower, an apprentice mortician, a veterinarian recruiting for slaughterhouses, a priest who discovered the call in Vietnam, an aging movie star, and a wheezy 98-year-old who was a door gunner on a Flying Fortress. A woman at our table whose own father had been a POW in Germany said, “Thank you for your service.”

He seemed bemused: “It wasn’t my idea. I got drafted.”

In Everett, Washington, my train picked up a cocky young man who told us he had piloted gunships in Iraq and was taking the train to Wenatchee for the funeral of a comrade who had committed suicide. Someone bought him a beer. Years later in Kansas, I ate a steak with a huge man in his late 30s, straw-colored hair flaring out beneath an oily baseball cap. He was like a sheep dog gone feral. He’d been in the “special forces.”

Inwardly, I groaned. Is anyone just a grunt, a cook, or a clerk anymore?

“I got fragged over in the sandbox and had to get out. I’m six foot five and used to be 215. I could run forever,” he said. “After my wife left me, I let myself go.”

Over the years, I’ve dined with school teachers, a deputy sheriff, a distraught widower, an apprentice mortician, a veterinarian recruiting for slaughterhouses, a priest who discovered the call in Vietnam, an aging movie star, and a wheezy 98-year-old who was a door gunner on a Flying Fortress.

He laid natural gas pipeline in Oklahoma, lived in motels, ate Chinese and take-out pizza each night, and guzzled gallons of beer. Flush with money, he apparently lived a lonely, haunted life.

Always, I take late meal reservations so if my companion(s) are compelling, we can linger over coffee or a glass of wine. The dining car stewards are in no hurry to bus the tables and throw us out.

Not all meals are a pleasure. Teenagers remove their retainers at the table, young lovers speak only to one another, people text on their Smartphones, passengers come to the diner still wiping sleep from their eyes, and others have no filter for what passes as dinner conversation.

Leaving St. Louis, I met two sisters heading west to visit a son. The mom said, “He’s such a good boy, called me every day when my husband passed.” The boy had testicular cancer when he was 16 but had still impregnated his wife on two occasions. Unfortunately, the poor dear miscarried both times.

She prattled on and on. As my father used to quip, some people never come up for air. I gobbled my food and fled the car.

On The Coast Starlight outside Salinas, the owner of a restaurant in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles told me she was worried. There were Muslims on the train. “Are they in Michigan, too?”

Yes, I say. Muslims are urban homesteading blighted neighborhoods in Detroit. “They’re making a go of it there.”

“Michigan wants Muslims?”

I listen, nod, and try not to be judgmental or revealing. If the conversation grows intense or tedious, there is always the window and a “Hey look at that” as a way to change the subject.

We could be looking at a hillside of wind turbines in Iowa, iceboats racing on the Hudson River, dapper worshipers exiting a corrugated tin church in Mississippi, delinquent kids in New Jersey heaving rocks at the train, kudzu vines strangling telephone poles in Georgia, or homeless men huddled in cardboard shacks beneath I-5 in Seattle.

A train trip unspools in an endless stream of images and words. And if you listen well, you hear America.

  • Enjoyed your “Riding Trains” learning experience. It reminded me of being seated ever night for a week with a couple who lived through holocaust concentration camps. Getting to know this couple over “breaking bread” on our honeymoon 35 years ago was an indelible and inspiring memory for us. I doubt previous generations realize how influential the relatively insignificant one-on-one conversations can be in forming a young person’s worldview.

    • KennS

      I love traveling on Amtrak for these and other reasons, including not having to wait in long lines to go through metal detectors! We take the train instead of flying whenever it’s available and we have the extra travel time available. It is just the best, and if you make reservations far enough in advance, usually a better buy for the money, if not cheaper in total.

  • DougHill25

    Great story. It seems there’s a lot of sadness and desperation out there in America.

    • Susan Jane Fischer

      No more than any where else. The train is cheaper than flying for long distances.

    • Mayaquez

      No more or less it’s just life happening to people.

  • Severine7

    Great read. The train is so much more humane than air travel, especially these days. And the best part is seeing the natural landscape, not just the gray highway and a bunch of metal cars.

  • Big Burly

    great read ! Thx for stirring similar memories of trips all over NA. I also used to fly a lot — before bonus miles 250k a year. Today I take a train whenever it is going near where I want to be. Such a pleasure.

  • George3C

    My wife and I loved train travel. Often, she was the one to book the trip. We used the gated, guarded train station in Santa Ana, California for all of our travels up and down the state. We always used business class for the comfort–the wide seats with great seat pitch, the free coffee, and the newspapers that would come on when the train made a stop in a big city. Where there was no connection, we used the Amtrak Thruway bus service, a far cry from the cramped Greyhounds of old. Conversations with other travelers and the train crew were plusses. We talked for an hour one day with the road foreman of engines, making his usual tour of the route. Great learning for both of us. Thanks for this article.

  • Michael Barts

    I just logged 2000 miles on the Empire Builder. This article mirrored my experience. I’ll be happy to travel Amtrak long distance any time.

  • Anne Russell

    The title of my new poetry collection is Waystations, with original drawings of the many train terminals I’ve experienced in USA, Europe, and Australia. And my new sculpture, repurposed railroad track frogs, is just now installed at our Wilmington Railroad Museum. I fell in love with trains when I was two years old and have been in love with them ever since.

  • RM/NM/EU

    Good read. In New Mexico however, you were riding the Southwest Chief.

    • James McCommons

      Sunset goes through Lordsburg and Deming.

      • RM/NM/EU

        You are right of course.