Amtrak: Everyone’s Here (Boston to Seattle by Rail)

And so they are: professors, vagabonds, business people, teenagers, families with children, the lost, the lonely, the desperate. All of them are here. In one car two academics discuss health care. In another a woman talks software design on her cell phone. In the lounge car a twenty-one year old college student holds forth on everything under the sun–music, guitars, literature– but he is especially keen to describe Florida thunderstorms and hurricanes, and the fact that until this moment in the Montana Rockies he had never seen snow fall, “the act of it,” he says, “I’ve seen it on the ground.” There’s also Courtney, who is returning to Sacramento, CA from Wisconsin after a three-year absence. She’s lonely and lost. She can’t find a job. She misses the friends she left behind three years ago in California, just after graduating high school. Everyone on the train treats her as if she were their daughter.


This good will is the best thing I take away from this one hundred and thirty-hour trip back and forth across the continent’s midsection. Most of these people would never cross paths anywhere else in life–not at work, not aboard an airplane, certainly not sitting in gridlocked rush-hour traffic. Each person normally lives in his or her own separate universe. But on the train universes dance around one another and for the duration of the ride share a continuum. They operate on the same laws. They merge. The journey is cathartic, confessional. People mostly get along.

Still, there remains an exception to all of this goodness and conviviality. In this bizarre multiverse of differing personalities and backgrounds there exist a few heartbreaking cases. There are people, only a few, with nothing and no one, who lack either home or destination. Some of them brood quietly. One man, who sat behind me and happened to stay at my hostel the night before, talked to himself incessantly from Seattle to Spokane. He spun conspiracy theories about the “diabolical people from Seattle”. With every step down the aisle he moaned and whimpered like a wounded bear. He clutched at his hip and grimaced. He shrieked in his sleep and jolted awake as if from a nightmare, only to find that he was still living one. I wish I knew what to say beyond providing a description. I can’t omit this encounter because it was too real.


So to make myself feel better I’m going to imagine that this man will get his life together. He’ll call his brother in California (whom he mentioned in his dialogue with the ether). He’ll get a job, an apartment. He’ll see a doctor and somehow manage to pay for hip surgery. His nights will be restful and he will sleep without pain, without grunting and panting all through the night. I imagine that he’ll wake up early each morning, shower, brush his teeth, dress in dark slacks and a button-up shirt and, with a quick sigh, leave for work. No doubt he’ll complain about work–the monotony of it, the feeling of being a cog in the inscrutable machine–but beneath the surface he’ll like the routine and the meaning it gives to his life. And he won’t worry about diabolical Seattleites, and he won’t rage at the world. He may even come to like it. Or so I imagine.

About atomsofthought
Photographer. Traveler. Writer. Reader.

10 Responses to Amtrak: Everyone’s Here (Boston to Seattle by Rail)

  1. Penny says:

    I have had a few experiences traveling by Amtrak-it was fun. I love the photos, especially the mountains in Montana- being a WV Mountain girl here-I can relate to this beauty.

  2. jamesr0012 says:

    beautiful words and images. you’re words particularly are very inspiring, travel writing like this is such a difficult thing, you do it very well.

  3. skippingstones says:

    How is it that you travel so much? You seem to go everywhere.

    • The trips are more spread out than they look. I’ve been either a teacher or college student going back twelve years now, so all of those summers have added up to a lot of trips. My family also lives all over the country, so I end up traveling a lot to see them or to meet them somewhere entirely new. I’m really lucky.

  4. changingmoods says:

    I like riding the buses and trains to travel, and I feel I can connect with people more on them than in any other situation. I’ve never taken a bus or train cross-country before (four to eight hours, tops). It sounds like quite an experience.

    • Thank you! It changed the way I view the U.S.. We live in such a beautiful and complicated country, and seeing it for such an extended period through the windows of a train helped me appreciate that fact. I came away from the trip more optimistic about where we’re going.

  5. Pingback: Life and Trains: Stay On or Get Off (and Travel as Distraction) « Atoms of Thought

  6. Pingback: Chicago | Atoms of Thought

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