I have taken trains all over the country. More than once, I’ve used a three-day cross-country journey as a writing retreat, filling journals. Words became sentences, became chapters, became two novels.
Staring out of train windows, thinking long thoughts, making tough decisions or—after hours of seeing nothing but plains—letting my mind drift to a quiet openness that brings clarity, I’ve found peace. It’s the train’s rhythm; the chugging and whooshing. The planned and unplanned stops. It’s the host of voices and languages that all seem to murmur, This is the USA. This is what this country actually looks—and feels—like.
When you have (or make) the time to travel by train, time seems to either stretch or fly by. Mesmerized, I’m always half-disappointed to hear the conductor announce (in that gruff way that conductors do) “New York Penn!” Penn is NYC’s Pennsylvania Station, where the bustle is always hustling and, unlike at an airport, a loved one can welcome you as soon as you alight.
My first ride was probably in the mid-’70s on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner from Los Angeles to San Diego, and “the train” brought me back home to NYC from L.A. on Sept. 17, 2001. Though planes were back in the air a few days after 9/11, it was difficult to get a ticket, and I wasn’t sure I wanted one. The Southwest Chief from L.A.’s Union Station to Chicago’s Union, with a transfer to the Lakeshore Limited from Chi-Town to Penn, was packed with many who were unaccustomed to and surprised by the pleasures of rail travel. Still, we were all on edge; security was obvious and tight. But it was more than just the feeling of being on the ground that seemed to soothe people; it was that we were all experiencing the very quintessence of the country that had just been attacked.
A few words about Amtrak: The corporation was officially formed in 1971, when planes and cars had pretty much killed the long-distance passenger train business. Today, perhaps because of highway congestion and an economy marked by high gas prices, trains are on pace to set another ridership record. A sign of the times, Amtrak has gone wireless: The conductors are finally experimenting with iPhones for ticket “punching.”
On a train, I’ve paused on a bridge and stared down at the muddy Mississippi. When the locomotive crawls along the snowy mountains of Nevada, I’m there, reading and hoping to see a black bear or a mule deer. Usually, though, it’s the weary, burnished lights of small towns at twilight that catch my eye. The occasional wave from a farmer on a tractor. And onboard, it’s the sense of relief you feel from fellow passengers as they settle in. People relax on the train. They stretch their legs and point out landmarks. They plug in their devices. Or, in the Quiet Car, they unplug altogether.
I have jumped onto the Albuquerque platform for ice cream and turquoise jewelry being sold from a card table. And then I jumped right back on. It’s funny: When I hear “All aboard!” I take it to mean, This is your journey, sis; let’s keep it movin’.
Danyel Smith is writing a history of African-American women in pop music. (It Books/HarperCollins, due in 2014).
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Editor, Billboard Magazine.