Since April of last year, I've been at work on a three-part series describing my experiences aboard several long distance Amtrak trains. Thought I'd share an excerpt here. "Slow Ride" takes place aboard the Empire Builder, which I took from Portland all the way to Chicago. It was a strange time for me. I had just moved to Chicago in September, and was unemployed and unsettled there. I was feeling dull and static, and this piece emerged out of a yearning to simply MOVE, somewhere, anywhere.
Traveling by Train
“It’s not too bad,” my new friend Jenny assured me from across the aisle. She removed the towel wrapped around her head and began to wring out strands of long, wet brown hair. The smell of shampoo filled the tiny cabin. She gestured towards her feet. “I kept my sandals on, though.”
Of course Jenny, a sharp-eyed Corrections Officer from Pasco, Washington, had the foresight to bring sandals to wear when using the communal shower stall. I had not. It was my first morning aboard the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s Northwest long distance train, and already I balked at entering the coffin-sized space unprotected. I wondered if I could stand going without bathing for the entire three-day journey back to Chicago.
Train travel was rugged but not without grace. Though the accommodations were spare and small, and the washroom facilities lacked privacy, the accompanying scenery was majestic. I boarded in Portland the afternoon before and was taken aback when we entered the Columbia Gorge, a deep, narrow river canyon wedged between Oregon and Washington. I found myself surprisingly moved by the unexpected landscape. It was feral, untouched, exquisite. How can this exist in America, I thought, and I’ve never even heard of it? Waterfalls pushed over mountain sides and plummeted hundreds of feet down into the Columbia River below. Oak trees wove together and formed a green carpet along the bank. There was abundant wildlife to spy; I overheard several passengers mention later that they saw a herd of kingly elk grazing in the early twilight. I didn’t doubt them, since the train sneaks along the canyon where cars don't, placing everything outside your window astonishingly close.
My sleeper car remained respectfully solemn as we navigated through the gorge. I rose from my seat to sit in the opposite cabin for a different view. I stood at the rear window and watched the reverse zoom of the tracks peel out from beneath the belly of train. Like a metronome, the repetitive clack of the locomotive lulled me into a reverie.
You could say I was searching for something on this trip. I had just relocated and had been out of work for six months. Feeling restless, I sent for Amtrak brochures on a whim. They came in the mail featuring panoramic photos of landscapes that were lush and mountainous, flat and spare, urban and dense, and all very beautiful. At the heart of each one a silvery train chugged along, the dividing line between land and sky. I envisioned myself peeking out from one of the tiny windows. The idea of traveling slowly appealed to me, of taking the time to see just how far you’d come and how different things could be from one place to the next. The simple act of moving along can be a powerful tonic when you’re otherwise stuck.