The Internet is pulsing with stories about forlorn writers fantasizing about penning their masterpiece from a little room on a swiftly-moving Amtrak train. I’ve recently conquered a a fear of flying, but before that happened, I rode a lot of trains. I’ve had pleasant trips from New York City to Montreal and boring rides from Connecticut to Georgia. The particular trip I’m writing about in the summer of 2014 and takes place from Wisconsin to New York. It may shed some light on how the Internet’s romanticization of rail-riding can be — especially when in the coach of a slowly-moving train for twenty-four hours.
I boarded the train at 9:30, after a half hour of standing in line in a crowded lobby with a crowd that acted as if they’d all been summoned for jury duty. I struck up a conversation with a girl who was studying art in Ithaca. I asked her why she was taking a train and she told me she hated flying. I reciprocated the feeling and told her it was comforting knowing I wasn’t the only one who became instantly sweaty at the thought of sitting in a seat 35,000 feet in the air. She asked from my number and tried my best to segue into how I’d just spent a romantic weekend with my girlfriend in the midwest. Her dejected half-grin let me know it did the trick. That was the last I saw of her.
“Good luck! Hope you get home safe!”
“Thanks, you too!” I mumbled, my mind cluttered with thoughts about finding the nearest wi-fi for the hours of work I had to complete before sunrise.
I found an aisle seat and made myself comfortable, scraping out a $4 turkey sandwich that I’d gotten from a midwestern gas station and eating it as if I’d be without food in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I took note of the bright overhead lights and arctic air blowing down on the crown of my head, and assumed incorrectly that my comfort needs would be quelled once the the journey began.
It’s funny how nine hours… 540 minutes… 32,400 seconds can just disappear once sleep settles in. Odd moments will pop up in the middle of the night. Realizing it’s after midnight when my seat-mate tells me my watch is an hour behind. I laugh and tell her I change it whenever I leave the east coast.
“I guess that explains why I’m so tired.” I tear open a bag of Peanut M&M’s and fall asleep before I finish the last one. I wake up frozen solid and I remember the house I lived in when I was in Connecticut. My room wasn’t there when he had first moved in; it was built in a space that was once bathroom and a closet. My bed placed under an air conditioner vent and I’d wake up during summer nights freezing cold as the artificial air poured over my body. I wish I’d brought a jacket with me — but that’s something you don’t consider during the month of August.
I keep waking up when the train stops. I can’t figure out why we’ve been parked on the tracks for so many hours — or if it has even been hours at all. I drift in and out of consciousness like a fever dream. Finally, at 8:30 a.m. I’m up. I spend some time working out my anxieties in the head. There’s no wi-fi, I’m over my usage limit on my phone, and I have a day left on this train. I’m in Indiana, I think and I have no reason to be here.
The dining car is the saving grace on any Amtrak train. A spot that where you can buy coffee, pizza, or a miniature plastic bottle of wine for $8. I walk my way through a car filled with older Amish gentlemen and a gaggle of teens clad in Christian Youth shirt. One girl’s shirt just says “Splendid” with a cross below it and I consider asking her what’s so splendid about it. I don’t and order a coffee.
Then we’re in Ohio. Miles of cornfields, accented with the occasional red barn, reminds me how removed I am from life outside New York City. I try my best to strike my “contemplative writer” pose and stare out the window, nursing a coffee for three hours. I overhear some girls talking about how the train, scheduled to arrive in New York at 6:30, is three hours late. My heart sinks and I haven’t written a single page in my notebook. I’m not Hunter S. Thompson in the Chateau Marmot — I’m Jeremy Glass in a metal tomb that’s creeping across an endless gray landscape at 20 miles-per-hour.
Ladies and gentlemen, the next great American novel was never penned. and my train-ride was, indeed, three hours late. What did I learn on my twenty-four hour long trip? Nothing. What does one need to have a beautiful existential experience on an extended train journey? A chance romantic encounter with another person? A bout of food-poisoning that leads to a beautiful near-death experience? A bed? Of course, maybe it would have been different if I was given a sleeper car and an arsenal of snacks.