TRAVEL

What It’s Like to Trek By Train

Crossing the U.S. by rail

Janna Barrett
Globetrotters
Published in
9 min readFeb 7, 2024

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All images by Janna Barrett

Snapshots of my experience taking the two-day “Empire Builder” Amtrak route from Seattle to Chicago in April 2017.

There’s something romantic about riding on trains, more so than there is about flying. The station is almost always old and cavernous, and full of architectural relics that inspire awe. One moment, it’s silent, except for the occasional echoing footsteps or cough. The next, it’s bustling and full of people moving about.

I always wonder about the other travelers’ stories. I’m consistently fascinated that our paths are running parallel for this moment, even though we have completely different backgrounds and reasons for being there. While some of us are headed in the same geographic direction, we’re all going completely different places in life.

King Station in Seattle, and my train on the platform

The train rumbles in, clanking its bell. I wish there was steam chugging too, but as with most things in life, reality is much different than I envisioned it as a kid.

I grip my bags, climb the steps, and show the conductor my ticket. I find my seat — which is also my bed, office and living room for the next few days. I greet my seatmates and spread out my sources of entertainment on the seatback tray, which also serves as my desk/dinner table.

Whether I’m reserved or outgoing in my introductions, or whether I bother to introduce myself at all, is irrelevant. I and the other passengers are a little unit now. We’re going somewhere together. I overhear their stories, exchange my own, and imagine the stories of the strangers who don’t talk.

Where are all these people coming from? Where have they been, and why are they here? I wonder what issues weigh heavily on their minds at this point in their lives; what it is they can’t let go of. (Everyone is always struggling with something.)

I’m surrounded by people, yet alone in my head.

As my eyes drift out to the scenery passing by the window, my mind keeps drifting to my destination. What’s the first thing I’ll do when I arrive? What am I not looking forward to? Who will I meet?

Awake or asleep, I drift in and out of consciousness.

Nighttime is another phenomenon with its own special magic, but for some reason, it’s amplified when observed from inside a moving vehicle. That’s especially true when in the presence of others, whether they’re awake or asleep. Shared sleeping spaces create a level of intimacy. It’s interesting to reach that with complete strangers, especially when you may never have known it with your closest friends.

The only noise is the rumbling of the engine and the clacking of the tracks beneath the wheels. I find the repetition soothing as it jostles us around gently. Occasionally, the whistle blows as the train passes road crossings. Every now and then, other trains whip by with a blast and rumble, shaking the carriage with the sheer force of air displaced.

I’ve always been a lover of nighttime because I enjoy the solitude, and the feeling that I’m catching things other people are sleeping through. This is why I struggle to sleep in transit. The personal space on Amtrak is expansive compared to air travel, so naps can actually be comfortable, but I don’t like to sleep for fear of missing something. I’m also delighted that the experiences I do stay awake for belong only to me.

Each street lamp we pass causes shadows to dance around the car and across the seats in a silent rhythm. I’m the only one awake to witness the shadow song.

At left, the conductor oversees the coupling of another car. At right, the deserted sightseeing car.

I find myself envious of the residents of the serene little nothing-towns we pass. The roads are silent and motionless, lit only by the warm yellow glow of street lamps. No one’s around; they’re all asleep inside the small, weathered houses with porch lights and glowing curtains. They’re not just houses, though; they’re homes. And they all seem so cozy and calm.

These towns seem to be populated entirely by people who know exactly where they belong in the world — right there. They have schedules and routines and know exactly what they’re doing (or so I ascribe). I’ve often envied such assuredness about one’s place in the world and one’s purpose in life.

My mind wanders as rapidly as my body, barreling down the tracks — and now I can’t help but wonder just how old these tracks might be. Are these sprawling routes across the country the original paths from the 1800s, when railroads became the major mode of transportation? What were the views out the windows back then?

Who took these same routes 150 years ago? What were their stories? Why were they traveling during an era when people didn’t travel for fun?

Did any of my ancestors ride these same rails?

Now, it’s 06:13 and I’m alone in the sightseeing car, save for one sleeping elderly man on the other end. I’m the only one in here who is awake, though, so it feels as if this car belongs to me. Everyone around me is asleep. Everyone outside is asleep. The world is all mine until sometime around dawn, and then I have to start sharing it.

What a shame. The world seems quite peaceful when I’m in charge.

Sunrise, after another passenger joined me

I like that with rail travel, I get to pass places the rest of the world seems to have forgotten about. Dilapidated, minuscule clapboard houses that look like they were built when pioneers were blazing trails across the country; nondescript rivers and lakes; small towns that no one goes to and no one seems to leave from — places people only pass through to get somewhere else.

Some of my favorite scenery is simply the gritty bits of cities and towns because they’re generally overlooked, except by graffiti artists and Simon & Garfunkel’s “ragged people.” I realize I’m not truly experiencing these parts of the country, or of the cities; I’m just seeing them at a glance. Yet, I’m seeing them more intimately than most inhabitants ever do.

It’s like when you get to know a romantic partner and they begin to show you pieces of their “ugly” side — but it only makes them more attractive in your eyes, because you find out more about who they truly are, rather than the shiny parts they clean up and put on display for everyone else.

I enjoy seeing the countryside just as much as the overlooked and hidden-away parts of the cities we pass. Rumbling from sea to shining sea, I have seen American geography in almost every form. Among the highlights, I’ve seen Washington’s soaring snow-covered mountains surrounded by evergreens. The landscape is broken up by the jagged peaks and blue rivers that are both rocky and flat at the same time.

I’ve also seen the lifeless color palette of Montana on a winter morning — cold and overcast outside, the land every shade of gray and green and brown, dotted with patches of snow.

Many of the photos I’ve taken from this trip are of life whirring by — or us whirring by life. Blurry snapshots will never do the scenery justice, but photos taken from a moving vehicle are not just about the subjects. They’re about the experience of being in motion.

Many of these small towns are waving gigantic American flags, clearly proud of their national heritage. I can see why. These people keep the country going, and they know it. They produce parts of our machines; they farm our foods… They know even the big city executives in their fancy suits can’t function without them.

So many other things I have seen as we scroll past are quintessentially “American” (even though I don’t think that’s the best word to describe only one country on the entire continent). The signs and typography of the railway buildings and on passing train cars, the neon lights on the occasional building across the way, the gas stations, the old beat-up Fords and Chevys, the tractors, the pickup trucks hauling trailers, the big brooding semi-trucks hauling cargo… The billboards, the bars and diners in old brick buildings with awnings and painted signage which have clearly been around for generations… The signs with metal or plastic letters that have slid into dramatic tilts or fallen off entirely.

The warehouses, the factories, the unsung workers who keep this country running. The water towers painted proudly with the town name, because the name is almost all there is to the place. The junkyards. The parking lots and fields and yards full of rusty old cars in various stages of disrepair, all of them looking beyond hope. The ranches, the barns, the silos, the wind farms.

Cutting across several regions of my native country via train makes me feel like both a native and an outsider. Seeing the slices of Americana make me proud of my heritage, even though I’m not from these regions and have never visited before. (Can I even claim to have visited now?)

U.S. culture can feel homogenous and commonplace compared to traveling abroad. Perhaps that’s due to its tendency to permeate foreign cultures, or maybe it’s only because I know it so well. It’s truly quite diverse—geographically, culturally, and even linguistically. This is an incredible place.

There were chapters of life when I was removed from my own culture for extended periods. Those prolonged absences helped me see the U.S. in a new light when I returned, and to enjoy and appreciate it more. The cross-country train experience helped me recall aspects I’d missed, overlooked, and taken for granted while I was away, and for that, I am grateful. 🍌

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Janna Barrett
Globetrotters

Artist and Flight Attendant based in DC. I write and draw about my experiences as a travel professional. Follow for adventure and emotion!