Strangers on a train: The highs and lows of my 2-day rail journey from Chicago to LA

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At 6 a.m., the sun shoots through the back window of the Amtrak train car like an orange spotlight. Outside, the rails glow against the flat plains of western Kansas. Maybe the light woke me. Or maybe, after four or five times of restlessly opening my eyes, it just happens to be dawn.

I teeter down the aisle of 2 1/2 cars full of people on my way to the Café Car for coffee.

I boarded the 2:50 p.m. Southwest Chief out of Chicago’s Union Station on a Friday. By mid-morning Sunday, we’ll arrive at another Union Station: Los Angeles. I could have flown between the two cities in roughly four hours. But as a frequent flyer all too familiar with the rush and stress of air travel, I was drawn to the idea of a long, slow journey across America by rail. Now, 15 hours into my inaugural long-haul train trip — a $146 (coach class), 44-hour, 2,265-mile excursion through eight states — the experience hasn’t stopped surprising me.

At this moment, I’m taken by how unexpectedly intimate an experience it is to see strangers wake up in the morning. An old man with holes in his socks, snoring. A young couple bundled in a duvet. A guy scrolling through Instagram, while a still-sleeping girl rests her head on his chest. A teddy bear nestled into a pile of blankets, two seats all to itself.

I make my way to the observation car, the train’s thriving social hub for all passengers — those in the least expensive upstairs and downstairs coach seats and those who booked pricier roomettes (more space and privacy) and bedrooms (even more space, plus a toilet and shower). The observation car is bright and peaceful, with comfy lounge seating, big tables with outlets for phones and laptops, and wall-to-wall windows that arch up to the ceiling.

Coffee in hand, I join two passengers I met yesterday, Teddy Christjohn, 71, a veteran from the Native American Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, and James Lotterer, 31, a musician from Buffalo, N.Y. Christjohn hands us each a beautiful, fat Cortland apple. They didn’t have apples in the Café Car on his last trip, he tells us, so he brought some from the Oneida tribal orchards — enough to share.

Lotterer, heading to meet his parents in Sedona, Ariz., prefers trains over planes or cars because of their smaller carbon footprint. Christjohn says planes give him earaches and headaches. I’ve never been on a long train trip before, I tell them. Amtrak has considered replacing stretches of this historic route with bus service. I wanted to experience it while I could.

Our reasons for being here are just three of a thousand. A young costume designer headed to a funeral in Topeka, Kan., couldn’t afford last-minute airfare. Amish families are traveling to a hospital in Mexico for more affordable health care; four couples claim the last two booths in the observation car for a two-day marathon card game of Rook. A married couple who met in high school 50-plus years ago are on their way to La Junta, Colo., to visit a recently discovered ancestor’s grave. They’ve ridden Amtrak together for decades. We talked about trains throughout last night’s white-tablecloth dinner of steaks cooked to order. We all shared our desserts.

David Rice, who works at a creative agency in Austin, Texas, set up a makeshift office with dual computer monitors at a table in the observation car. He’s on a mobile work retreat of his own design. Over the course of a week, he will ride the rails from Austin to Chicago to L.A. and back to Austin, working all the way. He used a pay-as-you-go mobile hot spot to sidestep the Southwest Chief’s surprising lack of Wi-Fi.

“Certain kinds of thinking are particularly suited to this experience,” Rice says, spreading out index cards on the table in front of him. “Sequestered in the constantly evolving landscape, I find you can really get a lot done.”

This meditative zone of productivity is what I’d imagined for myself on this 40-some-hour ride. I hadn’t expected the nearly constant stream of conversation with people I’d never met before. Turns out that’s the norm. Around me, strangers are deep in heartfelt discussions about grieving their late spouses. A woman and her husband read to other passengers the Google reviews of a correctional center we pass. A family of eight boards the train at Lamy, N.M., cuts up sub sandwiches and puts slices on cocktail napkins to pass around the car. We enter a new time zone, and suddenly the observation car is abuzz with people setting their watches aloud.

In the dining car for my 1:15 p.m. lunch reservation, I’m seated with three solo travelers. The man next to me and I both order the cheeseburger with a side of “avocado,” which comes in a plastic squeeze packet.

“The environment almost elicits a warmth from people,” he says. He enjoys that element of long-distance train rides, such as his current trip from Washington, D.C., to San Luis Obispo, Calif., after visiting his brother in Charleston, S.C. He worries that Amtrak is headed in the wrong direction with its recent move to replace traditional dining cars with a more “flexible” meal experience on certain East Coast routes. He asks: “Why take away the things that differentiate train travel from a plane, that make it unique, in order to make it less luxurious?”

At this point, we’ve traveled through a corner of Colorado to northeast New Mexico. After hours on the plains, mountains are climbing around us. The conductor makes an announcement to be sure we notice the bison grazing alongside the tracks.

I point out a red-tailed hawk in a tree.

“That’s good luck in our culture, to see a hawk like that,” Christjohn says.

It’s late autumn, so it gets dark early. When the dining car attendant comes to take reservations, I claim the last available time slot at 7:45 p.m. But after delays caused by issues in the kitchen, I cancel my reservation, opting instead for a microwaved DiGiorno pizza downstairs in the Café Car. Christjohn is staked out at one of the booths. We talk about his time in Vietnam, Hawaii and Korea. He tells me about the Native American veterans group he helped start.

When several of the people I talked to over the past 30 hours — Christjohn included — disembark at Flagstaff, Ariz., it’s the end of a chapter. I return to my seat, kick out the footrest and pull a toboggan cap over my eyes like a sleep mask.

My earplugs are no match for a kid behind me who talks and laughs throughout the night. No one gives him a hard time about it — the people around him just go with the flow. Maybe no one minds, or maybe there’s an unspoken social code here in coach class to keep things as peaceful as possible. We’re all stuck with each other for two days, after all.

Sunday morning, barreling west through Southern California, the air quality visibly worsens thanks to nearby wildfires. We’re two hours behind our scheduled 8 a.m. arrival — not bad considering the time we’ve spent crawling behind freight trains. (Freight rail companies own most of the tracks traveled by Amtrak.)

During a final breakfast in the dining car, my tablemates and I tell each other about the people we’ve met on the train. Someone asks me if I’d do it again.

After my first night on the Southwest Chief, I was already plotting my next rail journey: a ride on the California Zephyr over the Rocky Mountains or maybe a trip on the Coast Starlight, traversing the West Coast from Seattle to L.A.

After a second night of scant sleep and well-worn bathrooms, maybe I’ll save up for a private roomette. But what I’ll look forward to most are the conversations with strangers.


(Alexandra Marvar is a freelance writer.)


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