On the way back from my 14-day train voyage across the East and the Midwest of the country, I left Chicago with a man named Mennu. Mr. Mennu, a sexagenarian of Ethiopian origin, was also heading to San Antonio on the long, 32-hour journey. He spoke with a calm, wise voice, the kind you would expect from a philosopher or a favorite librarian. I caught a cold in New York two nights before and the train had not even arrived in Lincoln, IL when Mr. Mennu also started to sneeze.
“I think you are giving me your cold,” he said.
I apologized profusely. He denied my pleas with his slow, slightly accented voice.
“It’s OK. I have won a new friend. From San Antonio.”
Three weeks prior, the north-most point I had ever been to was a small town called Goldthwaite, some hours north of Austin. Furthest east, probably Houston; and never outside of Texas within the United States. For someone who daydreams and fantasizes about travel, this was an embarrassing track record. As soon as a trip to New York City was possible, I made sure to book the most adventurous mode of transportation available. Since I couldn’t find the right bear to ride all the way there, I settled for the train.
My first train to Chicago was canceled, and I was really too sleepy to be disappointed; the only trains that leave San Antonio do so very early in the morning, with check-in around five, boarding around six. But I tried again the next day, successfully, with a train going to New Orleans, where I would transfer for New York.
Once aboard, I met a seemingly incessant amount of passengers who, like me, were not afraid to exchange hours of their time for exploration and experience; people like Mennu. It’s not that they were trying to save money on fares as one often does with Greyhound or MegaBus; a USA Rail Pass runs you about $440 for eight segments usable within a two week period, and individual tickets for long distances can be in the $200 dollar range, add an extra $200 for the most basic sleeper car if you’re feeling fancy.
On the train from New York to Chicago, I sat next to Jacob, a vivacious Physics student from The University of New Mexico. He asked me the question he asks everyone he meets on board: “Why the train?”
When you fly on a plane, you see the country from a distance, a sort of existential form of watching. When you ride the train, you go through the country; you are there. You go through the Texas plains, through the Louisiana swamps and lakes, through the Mississippi and Alabama forests, the golden fields of Virginia, the snowy woods of the Northeast. You see Houston, New Orleans, Birmingham, Atlanta, Greensboro, Charlotte, Washington, Philadelphia, Trenton, Newark, New York, Albany, Syracuse, Chicago, Lincoln, Springfield, St. Louis, Little Rock, Dallas, Fort Worth, Temple and back to Austin and later San Antonio. That’s why.
Photojournalism professor Dennis Darling once told the truth: that when it comes to any kind of voyage, whether professional or geographical, our generation is destination-heavy and journey-light. Had I ridden on a plane, I would have simply arrived in New York. But I think that on the train I had a journey, after which I ended up in New York and then I had a journey back. It was different. It was longer. It was worthwhile.
Now that I’ve seen all of these other places, I’m curious about what I will see when I come back to the familiar. The filter of experience is irremovable; suspendable perhaps, but never removable. It is often said that travel creates growth, though I’m still not sure how. Amtrak sells it as a visual experience, offering the beauty of the countryside as a feast for the eyes. The experience was so satisfying that the Chinatown vendors I saw in New York City could probably offer it as an aphrodisiac.
If anything, I feel more mature — without any new wrinkles — and though I’m not quite ready to hop on another long train ride, I can’t wait for the next long break when I get a chance to do so.
Published on January 23, 2013 as "Train treks".