The first time I ever travelled by myself was like this.
It was the first year of my PhD, and I was in Colorado for a summer school. I was able to take a week of holidays after the school, and I decided to go to San Francisco, because a) famous and well-loved city and b) it was on my way home anyway.
I decided that flying there wouldn’t be enough of an adventure, so I booked a train ticket. I can’t really remember now whether that decision was driven more by naive enthusiasm (“a 35-hour train trip, how romantic!”) or stubbornness (“I refuse to fly even if it’s the obvious solution”) or cheapness (pro tip: if you book far enough in advance and don’t mind sleeping in a seat, you can travel darn cheap on Amtrak. I think I paid something like $80 for Denver-SF).
Whatever my reasoning, everyone I spoke to clearly thought it was a bit odd. At the summer school, one of the other attendees tried to talk me out of it:
“How far even is it?” she asked.
“They reckon about 35 hours.”
“You know that trains here aren’t nice like the ones in Europe?”
“I’ve never been to Europe,” I said.
I’ve read enough travel writing to know that here is where I should be describing the characters I met on the train, the late nights spent playing cards and drinking smuggled-aboard cheap whiskey with my fellow travellers.
Real life isn’t so much like travel writing. I read some physics papers. I listened to the “USA” playlist my sister had put on my mp3 player. I ate a lot of bbq-flavour roast almonds. I walked up and down the train to stretch my legs, trying to hold my breath for the whole length of the carriage that smelled like a broken train toilet. I dozed. To be honest, I don’t have many tales to tell from the trip – turns out my sense of adventure only goes far enough to get me on a long-distance train, and once I’m on there I’m my usual quiet self.
(The closest I came to a memorable story was in the middle of the Rockies, we’d stopped at a tiny station for a smoke break, and I figured I had time to buy a postcard from the station shop. “You’d better hurry back on the train,” the lady at the counter told me, “They’re serious about it only being a 10 minute stop.” I made back on the train just in time.)
What kept my thoughts company was the view out the window. Seeing the train stretch behind my car as we wound back and forward on our way into the Rockies. Following streams through mountain valleys. Coming out the other side into Utah, with the sun setting over impossible rock formations. Waking up in Nevada and pulling into a station that was little more than a shelter to mark where the road and the railway briefly met. Watching the landscape slowly become more human-friendly as we made our way into forests and farmland in California. At some point in California we were re-routed due to track work, onto a line that was only ever used for freight. Seeing road-less sunny wooded valleys that only freight train crews got to see? Pretty special.
Would I do the trip again? In a heartbeat, although recent sofa-sleeping-induced neck pain makes me wonder if I’d spring for a sleeper these days. I also wonder if I’d be more out-going a second time around? I do regret not having struck up a conversation with the woman across the aisle from me, if nothing else because I’d love to know where she got her amazing knee-high lace up boots. Certainly I’d be sure to bring more varied snacks with me. But now I can say I’ve been on plenty of the nice trains in Europe, but I’ll never forget my ridiculous-stubborn-naive train trip across half a continent.