see america right

The following is a guest post by Dave Stroup chronicling his experience on an Amtrak trip from Seattle to Chicago. You can sign up for his email newsletter Something Glimpsed.


hi, there --

last week, i rode the train from seattle to chicago with a group of 23 other people, only a handful i had met previously. before i left on this trip i would tell people i did not know what to expect, but that's not entirely accurate. i was hedging expectations a little, but i was pretty sure it would be a very surreal, even magical experience. and it did not disappoint. i've spent a lot of time on amtrak trains, especially long distance, and generally have loved every minute of it. it's a way to see america in a completely unique way. airplane trips are a very solitary affair. the train is not. whether traveling alone or with a group, you’ll always have an opportunity to meet new people, and you’ll see the country in a way you really can’t otherwise.

when i say that the train experience was magical, i mean that in a few different ways. it’s magical because it’s such a departure from whatever your normal routine is. but it’s not only that — it’s changing out one routine with another, which is something i want to explore more in depth in my writing. we can bend our perception of time and place by jettisoning our daily routine. think about how time seems to slow down, and how a place can seem so different the first time you visit. one thing about a multi-day train ride is that you have abandoned your normal routine, but adopted a new one. you eat your meals in the dining car, maybe you eat with different people sometimes, but the dining car staff remain the same. the menu stays the same, it’s like going out to your favorite (or perhaps, more accurately, only) neighborhood restaurant. and when traveling with a group that you’ve just met, it’s making new friends and then immediately spending more time with them.

you could compare this to camp for adults, i suppose, but i never went to camp as a kid, so it’s hard for me to say. but for a few days there, you are with your new friends, you adopt a new routine, and this is what your days are like. the life you came from before the trip feels far away. you know you can’t possibly just do this forever, but part of you kind of wishes you could.

i’d walk up and down the train late at night, from the sleeper to the lounge car, when most of the passengers were asleep. i’d pass the crew in the dining car, long after dinner has been served. some were playing dominos, others totaling up receipts with an adding machine. i thought about what it would be like to have this as your office, to be totaling up receipts, or checking passenger manifests, or all of those other tasks, in a train car that’s speeding across the dakotas in the middle of the night.

not that i’ve kept count but i’ve ridden more than 17,000 miles via amtrak on 49 trips. i’ve never gotten sick of it. like a lot of things in america, sometimes it breaks down, sometimes it’s delayed. people get cranky and it’s not perfect. but i like amtrak, i like that it’s this stubborn thing that still exists even though a lot of people think it has no value. it does have value. like the post office, like interstates, it connects america together. we’re fools if we think that everyone can just travel by either car or airplane.

but when i talk about the magic of the trip, i talk about how a routine replacing a routine can make you remember that life can change like that, that we are so adaptable and resilient. that you can adjust, in the blink of an eye, to something new. maybe it’s because you know it’s temporary, but i think all of us who have ever felt that magic of the unroutine routine have also felt the nagging question of what if i just did this thing forever.

i read a novel earlier this year, which i highly recommend, nobody is ever missing by catherine lacey. she writes, “isn’t everyone on the planet or at least everyone on the planet called me stuck between the two impulses of wanting to walk away like it never happened and wanting to be a good person in love, loving, being loved, making sense, just fine?”

i don’t know that there’s an answer. i don't know that it's as simple as a choice between walking away and being a good person who doesn't walk away. but i think it's about reconciling how there are so many potential paths you can be on in this life, and accepting that you do -- whether knowingly or not -- select those paths daily. it is hard to readjust to a normal life or whatever we want to think our normal life is, but it’s important to get outside of your routine as often as you can. to remember the world is so much bigger, so much more beautiful, and so much more magical than you might remember when it’s tuesday and you’ve forgotten to do all of the things you need to do and now you’re already late for work and you have not yet had your coffee.

i’m going to write more on this, i want to tease it out more, and i’ll share it with you.

as always, thanks for reading,