My trip on the Lakeshore Limited from Chicago to Boston is short (only about 21 hours) and quiet. This train doesn’t have real dining car service, so everyone just stops by and picks up food when they feel like it. There are no warm conversations across cotton tablecloths.
Last year, I interviewed UC Berkeley assistant professor Juliana Schroeder for my upcoming book and she told me, “There are norms in place that you don’t talk on the train. It pervades even outside of the quiet car. They think no one wants to talk because no one is talking. A little like Abilene’s Paradox.”
I find this is true on most trains, but the magic of the overnight Amtrak trains is that they need to fill every seat in the dining car. That means you are forced, for three meals a day, to sit beside strangers and it feels odder to not talk when you’re sitting across from someone for 40 minutes. Some people still try it, believe me, but by the end of my many rides, I knew people’s names and stories and several had promised to visit the next time they came to DC. I got a text yesterday that said, “I’m the 81-year-old from Mississippi who loves Obama.” She sent photos of her Louis XVI chairs and her French books. She wants to learn a little French so she can visit Provence this year.
I have had wonderful, warm, funny, and moving conversations with people all over the country. But real conversations can be tiring. They require energy and focus. By the time I board the train in Chicago, bundled up against the cold, I am tired physically and mentally. I decided to sleep on the top bunk, where I can roll myself into the covers and feel like a hibernating bear.
The next day, as we head east along shores of the Great Lakes, I spend most of the day in my little room, reading novels and doing crosswords. Worried about the coming storm, I change to an earlier train for my final day of travel. By the time I get to Boston, I’m ready to sleep. The next day dawns clear, crisp, and cold, with good news about the train schedules.
When I get on the Acela the next morning, the train that I ride so often between DC and New York or Boston, it feels like coming home. This train feels like a friend to me. And after spending days on trains going through isolated landscapes, six hours on a commuter train with strong WiFi signals the whole way feels like a short trip in luxury.
I am now just a few hours away from my home and my dog. I spent 13 days on trains, traveling thousands of miles, in order to force myself to slow down and truly see the people and the places around me. It’s a very simple thing, to step on a train and stop worrying about the time it takes to travel, but in this age of escalation and ever-increasing speeds, it feels like a revolutionary act. I had several offers to deliver speeches during those two weeks and could have earned a significant amount of money, but instead I sat in a rail car chatting with folks and reading mystery novels. In the end, I think I chose the most valuable use of my time.
I feel changed, as I sit in this final train heading south through Connecticut. I’m not constantly checking the time and I’m not worried about what’s on Twitter. I’ll check it when I get around to it, but I have other things I want to do first. Breaking away from the relentless pace of connected life felt uncomfortable at first, but now I dread joining that joyless parade again. Maybe I won’t, after all.
I highly recommend a train trip. A train is one of the last places where travelers are actually kind to each other. You will find the kind of warmth and courtesy that is rare in an airport. If I were in charge, I would invest heavily in our railroads. Sustainable travel, reliable, considerate, the trains move at a human pace. From a rail car window, you can see the towns and houses go by. You notice the distance. When you arrive at a destination, you really feel as though you’ve journeyed. It’s a remarkable and all-too-infrequent experience.
I set out to slow down to a human pace on this trip, but also to prove that you can sit down next to just about anyone in the world and hear an interesting story. You don’t have to go overseas or to the Harvard Club to find fascinating people, they are sitting beside you on the subway or standing behind you at the grocery store. I didn’t pick and choose my train companions. I let Amtrak choose for me and then started a conversation with whomever was there. There wasn’t a dud in the mix. They were all interesting and warm, and human, and I rarely knew or asked about their politics.
There are so many things to talk about beside Trump and Obamacare and walls. There are obsessions and war stories and romances and beloved pets and even, sometimes, murder. At one point, one of my train friends asked me about myself and was thrilled to know that I work in public radio. “Boy,” he said, “You really never know who you’re sitting next to.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Thanks, Amtrak. I’ll see you again soon.