Coast to Coast on Amtrak

Union Station, Washington DC, Feb. 2008
Union Station, Washington DC, Feb. 2008

Ben Jervey (at GOOD magazine) details his travel on Amtrak from New York to San Francisco in “Train in Vain.’ I’ve taken this trip (and the similar one through the south, on both the Southwest Chief  to the Coast Starlight and on The Crescent to the Sunset Limited to the Coast Starlight) 7 or 8 times and can certainly affirm his reporting of the delays and about the rumours, anxious speculation, chatter, and blame-fixing about why there’s a delay and how long it will last that hum in the background every moment the train is stopped — and sometimes start before the delay even occurs, as word of the upcoming halt filters from the staff to the passengers. I think he didn’t comment enough about the abiding and oft inbreaking sense of grandeur, beauty, time and space dislocation, relinquishment of control, and the temporary community-forming (for good and ill) that Amtrak travel affords.

I hadn’t seen the energy comparisons to air travel and highway travel before.

I recommend the article if you are thinking of making a long-distance Amtrak trip.

I was on a train from Boston to San Francisco (either January 2005 or Nov. 2005) that was stuck for many hours over two days in snowstorms out west, and which looked like it would be at least 6 or 8 hours late into San Francisco (actually Oakland; there is no train station per se in SF); somehow, miraculously it still seems to me, we made up the time through the mountains and arrived almost exactly on time. Another trip, same route in reverse (Jan. 2005), we weren’t so lucky; because of some problem with the tracks ahead of Denver (something on them? a freight train stuck on them? can’t recall right now …), we were stopped in Denver and shuttled to hotels for the night, finally continuing in the morning. For at least one person on the train, this delay may have been fatal: she was scheduled at the Mayo Clinic for an appointment concerning her brain tumour, which is why she couldn’t fly or drive herself. She had had to make the appointment months in advance and didn’t think she could get another one before it was too late for her. We sat at the Wynkoop Brewing Company restaurant bar and she (and her young son, who was travelling with her) cried and tried to figure out what to do. She didn’t re-board the shuttle or the train with the rest of us, so maybe she came up with a viable plan.

There’s a certain haunting quality about the “relationships” one makes when travelling, when spending 12 or 24 or 48 hours or more sitting beside someone, sleeping beside them (if you have a coach and not a sleeper ticket), sometimes  exchanging salient bits of life history in hours of conversation, sometimes not speaking at all (except ‘excuse me’ from time to time when crawling across legs or bumping each other) but perhaps reading over their shoulder, watching them do word puzzles, listening to their side of the cell phone conversation, and they you. They aren’t relationships in the long-term, but there is an alchemy, a separation and a joining together, that inhabits these transitional, transient, in-transit meetings.


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