Seeing is believing. Seeing is understanding.
When I asked my mom if she would take the train with me from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles when I moved to California for grad school, I had no real expectations that it would actually happen. Taking the train cross-country was just another experience I knew I would have in my life “just because”, but I never expected anyone else to come with me because why would they. Trains are cramped, stuffy relics of a bygone era and they certainly wouldn’t be enjoyable for such a long journey. But because my mom is incredible (and my aunt found a two-for-one coupon), we boarded the train at Union Station in D.C. and three days later we chugged into Union Station in Los Angeles.
The trip ended up being phenomenal and enlightening, not only because were we able to spend time together uninhibited by the noise of the world, but through the thirteen states and over sixty hours traveled, a new perspective of what this massive, massive country is comprised of helped me to recontextualize my place in it.
I wasn’t expecting the majority of the passengers to be older in age, but I guess I should have. I also wasn’t expecting the majority to be white but that one is definitely on me. When we first got onto the train in D.C., there were a good number of medical patients. There was a man whose left leg had swollen three times its size, shaded in hues of blue, black, and purple. Another man well into his 70’s who was using a wheelchair had a brace from his waist all the way past his neck. It dawned on me that they probably couldn’t get on a plane if they wanted, with valid concerns about how airlines handle wheelchairs or how altitude can affect different ailments.
My mom and I shared a “roomette”, which is the politest way to sell a space made for one and a half people to two. It consisted of a sliding door, two seats that faced each other that pulled out into a bed, and a top bunk that could be put away for the day. The sleeping arrangement wasn’t all that bad, sans the second night when inexplicably while I was in the top bunk the feeling of being locked in a casket on the way to the graveyard overtook my entire body and I had to pace the cold, slender halls for a bit in the night.
The space of the room didn’t affect me all that much because I pretty much only used the room to sleep. Twice a day you could find me in the dining car, where the food was better than you’d think it be, and where I treated myself nightly to a surf and turf of medium rare steak and the best crab cake I’ve ever had. But for the overwhelming majority of the time, you could find me planted, blanket-wrapped in the viewing car. With floor to ceiling windows, the “viewliner” transformed into a crystal-clad liminal space. I would glance at my phone one moment, gaze out into the landscape, barely moving, barely blinking, and by the time I asked my mom for a time check, two and a half hours had passed.
There was a glossy film put over the windows that was probably for function, but it bathed the outside in the most surreal amber tones. Something about the tint of the windows and the steady billow of the trains engine put me in a trance. We were moving so fast for the most part, I couldn’t even focus on one thing in particular. Instead I just sat, whizzing past towns, communities, mountains, taking it in for just a moment and then moving on again.
When I wasn’t just drinking in the blur of what was passing me and I was able to make out distinct shapes, what I saw was marvelous. I saw stunning biodiversity, from the rolling hills of West Virginia, to the great plains of Indiana, to the rustiest, deepest red rocks of Arizona. In Maryland, in the middle of a modest small town that we passed the entirety of in under a minute, I saw a strange obelisk, erected in the middle of a circle of stone benches, with no indication what it was or why it was there. At the Albuquerque stop, my mom purchased bracelets from local vendors selling jewlery from turquoise they mined themselves alongside silver rings, bolo ties, and charms. I saw stockpiles and stockpiles of wood (so much that I wondered what all those people knew that I didn’t). The only thing that outnumbered the piles of wood were herds of cows, in the purple mountains, in fruited plains, rain or shine, just chowing down on the amber waves of grain. In a town curiously named Trinidad, Colorado, I saw the most pristine sky and a main street that was so gorgeous and picturesque, Walt Disney couldn’t have designed it better.
The interior of the train was host to captivating sights as well, sights into people’s lives as we all chugged across the country for different reasons. There was a family of four that got on in Chicago with an eldest son around twenty years old who began a romance destined to end with a solo traveler. After dinner they were sitting across from each other, pitching the books they’d each brought for the journey to each other blissfuly. By 2:30am, they were stealing love pecks in the viewliner, chatting about their college life and looking up at the stars. Come breakfast the next morning, she was being introduced to the family before they said their goodbyes at her stop in Independence, Missouri.
Not every story seemed to be ripped from a Nicholas Sparks novel however, as the late nights I spent in the viewliner offered much realer, grittier life tales than just a family vacation. One night in particular, as the train sleepily moved through the length of Kansas, there was a group of one woman and five men chatting and drinking as they shared stories of their sick parents, divorces, pets, and past Amtrak journeys. They all differed in race, age, and origin but quickly became a support group for one another, motivating themselves and comforting each other through breakdowns. They were in there for about seven hours through the night and ended up getting drunk. So drunk in fact that as they were helping up one man who had just threw up, they couldn’t remember if he said his sister was waiting for him at the Lawrence or Topeka stop. It didn’t matter, we were already across the state near Garden City.
Their air of camaraderie soon deteriorated when they realized he had actually taken money and alcohol from the backpack that belonged to the woman in the group. She was rightfully enraged, and started yelling at him, taking the money back from his pocket and slapping him across the face while he faded in and out of consciousness from the alcohol. The commotion prompted someone to walk in from the coach cabin and start screaming at the woman who was upset. The woman who entered was White while the woman who had been in the viewing car was Latina, and they got in a shouting match that ended when the woman from the coach car threatened to call ICE at the next stop. On the way back to my room I saw a group of eight servicemen who were playing cards, and as I passed, I heard one of them lamenting that he feels as if all he knows how to do is kill.
Ever since the 2016 election, there has been discourse about the liberal bubble, and how out of touch half of the country is from the other half. In the past the use of that phrase would prompt a swift yet stern eye roll and scoff from me, but as with most things there is some truth to the statement and some degree of hyperbole. For example, I am well aware that my upbringing in a suburb of Washington, D.C. and my subsequent undergraduate experience at New York University haven’t necessarily exposed me to every side of every argument. There is certainly a bubbling effect that has been occurring my whole life and it certainly was bursted in 2016, but I’m not sure if the line is liberal and conservative.
If I had to keep a running tally of what I saw the most on the trip, trees would be an obvious winner, but what stood out to me most were the number of farms and factories there were. Previously, when I heard of news stories about the dying small farmer or the changes to the American factory landscape, it was difficult to visualize the immense space these industries take up. But being on the train, peering out into the country at the rate of a bullet, I couldn’t help but notice that 85% of the time, we were passing a farm or a factory and it became more clear to me how these singular industries could be the lifeline of an entire municipality. As much as America is defined by the major cities, we are a nation of small towns. And that is not to say that I am some expert on blue collar America or that even though big cities tend to be liberal bubbles that their social or economic impact is negligible (the top 1% of counties account for one-third of the GDP), however it is more a point to continually challenge pre-conceived notions, even about a country you call your own. With the 2020 election looming in the not-so-far distance, it’s important to resist the urge to become a one-issue voter, and when politicians say they’ll do this for one group and that for another, to think about the impacts of the wide array of citizens there are in this country and not to chalk it all up to political fluff.
When my mother and I got off at our final stop, I was very much excited to get to sleep on a real bed but I was also a bit glum that the trip was actually over. One could argue that I just traded in the liberal bubble of New York for the liberal bubble of Los Angeles, but the memory of all that I saw through those amber-tinted windows has stayed with me. If you have always wanted to do a cross-country train trip I implore you, please do. The Southwest Chief line has way better food than the Capitol Limited and the country is more beautiful than you remember and even bigger than imagined.