First came my friends’ skepticism: Why on earth would I take a train from New York City to Los Angeles during a pandemic? Wouldn’t a flight be safer? Cheaper? A better use of my time? But then, almost always, they’d soften and start confessing that they’d always wanted to do a cross-country train ride too.
Since March I’ve spent most of my time camped out in my Brooklyn apartment, socially distancing like the rest of the country. Sometimes just plain distancing, nothing social about it. I knew I couldn’t really fly anywhere, but I ached for an adventure beyond staycations or day trips or cabins upstate. Enough dreams have been dashed by this awful year. I wanted to make a dream come true.
So, to visit family, I boarded a train in New York’s Penn Station one Friday afternoon this summer. On a Monday morning some 3,224 miles, 13 states, 64 hours, and one transfer in Chicago later, I disembarked at Los Angeles’s Union Station. I saw Mennonites—the men in straw hats and suspenders, the women in bonnets—board in Indiana and alight in New Mexico. They had no cell phones but plenty of neck pillows. In Iowa I watched a tortoise trundle along the train tracks. I met Runyonesque characters, most of all Ken, my socially distant neighbor, a college-bound Black man from the tiny Virginian community of King George. He brushed away locks of his blond ‘fro as he doodled the words Los Angeles in his notebook with a yellow highlighter. “Every station stop is progress,” he said, the most optimistic line of 2020.
Mostly I sat in the observation car—a glass carriage with outward-facing benches and swivel seats—and watched the world go by. Occasionally skylines rose on the horizon like the Emerald City. But the journey felt more intimate than grandiose: snaking along winding riverbanks, tiptoeing behind backyards, and all but parading along the main streets of so many of America’s forgotten Mayberrys.
Strangers waved from an above-ground pool at me and a woman a few chairs over. We waved back.
“Do you know them?” asked a Mennonite boy.
“I do now,” said the woman.
The boy ran to the end of the car to get in a wave of his own before they were gone.
That happened all the time: The passengers socialized. I don’t mean the “Where ya headed?” small talk of airplanes. I mean a guitarist holding an impromptu concert in the otherwise empty caboose. A man calming down a half dozen toddlers (not his own) by pointing out constellations and planets before bedtime. And lots of “I’m going to the snack car. Anyone want anything?” at all hours. We’re not going to schedule a reunion or anything—the musician was mostly known as Flagstaff, his destination—but there was an almost summer-camp quality of impish camaraderie. When, during a series of horseshoe turns in New Mexico, no bison turned up at the spot where the conductor had promised we would be able to see them, we wondered if he’d pranked us.
The lyrical playfulness of long train rides is a well-worn track. “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer—I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise,” said George Gershwin, who composed his masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue while on a train from New York to Boston. I literally watched deer and antelope play. In New Mexico I spotted a wild horse drinking by a riverbank. A day that begins with a sunrise in Kansas and ends with stargazing in Arizona is not just about riding a line on a map. In a year when everything has changed—our neighborhoods, our work lives, our school lives, our communities and congregations and nights out—our relationship with nature has endured, like Hope in Pandora’s box. Some might say it’s grown stronger. The wilderness’s unfurling oasis of calm offered a kind of emotional counterweight to the year’s crises. Train windows are meditative prisms in ways that car windows, airplane windows, and home or office windows just can’t be.