Simple Travel: Across America Via Amtrak

Ahh, the American countryside. Sure, you can fly over it in a man-made cylinder of nuts and bolts at 500 mph, jammed in your seat like you’re riding a crowded bus in Bangladesh, but why do that when we have a pretty decent railway system in this country? Oh, right – the trains max out at about 85 MPH and some people don’t have enough vacation time left for the trip itself, never mind any leftover time to spend at your destination. Well, when you do have the time I highly recommend you give riding the rails a try, and here’s why.

Some of you may have noticed that it’s been about 6 weeks since I last updated Simple. Organized. Life., and I have two good reasons for it taking so long. For starters, I have decided to cut back on posting here because this is much more of a personal site than anything I use to try to make a living with. And secondly, I have been “on the road” so to speak for a few weeks, traveling all the way across the country and back via Amtrak train. This is my third time traveling on long-distance trains in America, and I couldn’t be happier with my experience this time around.

The trip from Los Angeles to Boston takes a little less than three days to complete. There is one train from LA to Chicago, followed by a 5 hour layover, and then a different train from Chicago into Boston. Onboard both trains I had my own bedroom, where I could spread out all my stuff, take a nap, shut out the world, talk on the phone, and then unwind on a twin size bed each night. While there are of course a ton of people who travel by coach, I am not sure I could do it for that length of time. In the sleepers we had access to 24/7 coffee, juice, and water, bathrooms and showers, a daily newspaper, and even three decent meals included each day. In coach your comfort level is decided by a cacophony lead by the angry lady screaming on the phone with her husband, the screaming children who haven’t slept in two days, the familiar odor of a train full of people who haven’t showered in three days, and a pseudo-comfortable upright chair that reclines… but not quite enough. It’s cheap though, and that’s why coach travel on trains in America is usually pretty full. But it’s definitely not the way to go if you can swing it.

There are a few really valid reasons why rail travel is much more relaxing, simple, and enjoyable than air travel in this country. Like the fact that there is no TSA at Amtrak stations ready to put you in your own dirty movie in front of 10,000 other “stars” waiting for their own movies. No strip searches, no backscatter x-ray machines, no untrained 21 year old males waiting to pull pretty girls out of line for a “special pat-down.” The most security I had to deal with was when a uniformed police officer had his beautiful brown lab sniff my carry-on bag for explosives or what have you. That’s it. Unobtrusive, yes?

One also doesn’t have to be at the train station 2 or 3 hours before your scheduled departure. An hour at most, really, but even that is definitely padding your time in the station. Remember, there is no security like at an airport, and the longest line I ever stood in for a ticket was about 6 people deep. I have stood in longer lines to buy a stamp at the post office, and ever since they put automated ticket machines in the terminals one doesn’t even have to stand in line anymore.

The view outside my train window at dawn

Once onboard, time seems to slow down — and it’s not just because the train is barely going any faster than you could drive yourself on a cross-country trip. It’s because it forces you to disconnect from just about everything. No TV. No radio. No internet, other than the 3G connection on your cellphone when you are lucky enough to find a signal somewhere in Iowa. On my trip, a total of 6 days in isolation, I read 5 books cover to cover. Normally I have 5 books half-read laying around my house, so the fact that I actually finished 5 of them is pretty groundbreaking stuff. I am ever hopeful that it has sparked me to read more here in my house than I have been, but at home it’s easy to get distracted with shiny objects everywhere. The train, on the other hand, offered me no shiny objects and only the beautiful landscape changes throughout the journey.

I ate my meals with people from a pretty wide cross-section of American culture, too. Food aboard Amtrak is by community seating, with four persons per table, so if you are traveling in a group of less than four guess what — you’re eating with strangers at every meal. I ate with a gigantic bearded man who was into the Bible, a very sweet older nun, 3 people who didn’t speak a word of English (making witty light banter rather difficult), a retired couple who were on their way back home in Phoenix from Michigan, and assorted other folk who were pretty interesting. The food was good and the dining car was comfortable, so it made for nice breaks in my otherwise self-contained world in my private bedroom.

My last post here was about taking a break from Facebook, Twitter, etc. and this trip did just that for me — it forced me offline. Unlike a plane ride, which used to offer a brief break from the “noise” of our world (planes have internet now, though, right?) before dropping you somewhere else on the planet to continue the conversations you were having before you left, long-distance travel on Amtrak takes you away from everything for a little bit, giving you time to reflect on life for a while. Space to breath. Time to think about what’s important, about choices for the future, and time to refocus.

I cannot recommend a long-distance train trip enough, for those of you looking for a new adventure and a chance to unplug for a while. A train trip is part of the journey, rather than just a way of getting from point A to point B. If you have the time, give it a shot — you won’t be disappointed.

  1. January 14, 2011
  2. January 14, 2011
  3. January 15, 2011
  4. January 15, 2011
  5. January 16, 2011
  6. February 3, 2011
  7. February 12, 2011
  8. February 12, 2011
  9. February 18, 2011
  10. March 5, 2011

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