“Not much to see between here and Iowa.” My new seatmate nodded toward my camera, threw his bag in the overhead bin and fell into the seat next to me. Everything about this train was new. And fancy. My trains from New York City to Chicago didn’t have dining or observation cars.
But this was the California Zephyr. The biggest, baddest train of all Amtrak trains. I was on the second day of my four-day train trip from New York City to San Francisco.
I snuck a look at his shirt. It read, “I would rather be on a train right now.” Certainly on theme, but he was on a train. The logic confused me, but his expertise was crystal clear. This wasn’t a man of the seas. Not a man of the air. No, no, no. He was a fellow of the tracks.
“Where ya headed?” I asked with a big grin. Big because I needed him to see that I was smiling by my cheeks, considering the whole mask situation. I was on my third grey mask of the trip.
I truly didn’t care all too much where he was headed. I just cared about the distance. If he were an over-nighter, I would only have my single seat to spread across to sleep when night came. That’s how the last night went. I woke up somewhere in Delaware with a pain in the left side of my neck, so I leaned my head to the right and fell back asleep. I woke up a few hours later in Toledo with pain in the right side of my neck.
“Osceola,” he replied.
I didn’t know where that was. I stared out the window as I figured out how to ask tactfully. Maybe ask if he is heading home for the holidays. Get him talking, maybe another city will drop. Maybe give it a minute and angle toward the window, turn the brightness on the phone all the way down, and Google it. It’s rude to insinuate you want the person next to you gone so you could have some more legroom. On planes, that is understood. On trains, not so much. After all, I chose coach. I chose to be a broke college student riding in the cheap seats.
“How far is that?” I blurted out.
Well, game’s over. Off on the wrong foot. Guess he won’t offer to pick me up something from the snack cart when he goes. God forbid I have to ask to sneak out to use the bathroom. My seat might as well be a waterbed for the night.
Turns out, Osceola was five hours away. He was visiting his family back in Des Moines for the holidays. He had no clue how long he would stay; it depended on if the pandemic took his work remote. He worked in the donations and gifts department at Northwestern, where he had graduated a couple of years earlier. He went to study music, but the pandemic halted his hopes of performing full-time.
And then it was my time to shine. Be impressed with me, I demanded.
No, seriously. This is what I said: “I’m taking this train all the way until it ends in Emeryville, California. I started yesterday morning in New York City. Went down to D.C. and transferred onto another train to get to Chicago.”
That’s badass, I assured myself as the words trickled out.
The camera? Oh, glad you asked. I am a journalist. A student journalist. No, strike that. A freelance journalist. That’s the fit. And I was photographing America from the train window.
“Crossing the Mississippi River is always pretty. But I think it may be dark by then,” he said with a slight sadness as if to tell me to try again next time.
I wanted to turn to him and say that I couldn’t care less about what passed by that smudged window. When I booked this ticket in the spring, I had been holed away in my Yale dorm room in what seemed like a never-ending quarantine. Staring at four undecorated walls, grabbing my lunch in plastic containers, and logging into my computer to learn the history of Eastern Europe over Zoom.
And then one day, Amtrak slid into my email. Two hundred dollars to ride across the country. Live the good life. See the pretty mountains of Colorado, the deserts of Utah, and the corn of Indiana.
My student credit card had more than that amount. I was a 20-year-old in isolation about 1,000 miles from my home in rural Mississippi. And to fix that, to go from spending my free time hitting a golf ball down a plastic putting green by my door, to seeing the Colorado Rockies, I had only to take on more debt?
The trip started with a two-hour train ride from New Haven, Connecticut, where I attend college, to New York City, where the adventure would *officially* begin.
From New York City, I would take a train to Washington D.C. Then I would go from D.C. to Chicago, and from Chicago to San Francisco. All total, I would be on trains for four days.
With me, I had a backpack with necessities and a duffel bag’s worth of clothes for the winter break I would have after the journey. What were the necessities, you might ask?
One extra large jar of creamy peanut butter. A bag of pretzel crisps. Seven cliff bars. Well, six and a half… I ate one while waiting on the Uber to the train station. A journal, two books, a laptop, various chargers, adapters, and SD card readers. And a camera — a FujiFilm X-Pro 3 with a 23mm prime. The FujiFilm is my workhorse. Its small form factor and film simulations make it a joy to use. The Canonet? Always have to have a film camera, even though I never used it on the trip.
Stranded in West Virginia
“This is where I die, you know,” my seatmate nudged me as the train ground to an unexpected halt in wooded rural, West Virginia, at around midnight.
I gave him a quizzical look.
“I’m Black, and this is how horror movies start,” He told me, “and the Black guy always dies first in horror movies.”
It was the first words he had spoken to me since our rocky beginning. As I stepped on the train, the conductor gave me a seat assignment and said, “All by yourself,” which I thought meant I had the two seats in my row alone. I was wrong, if you travel with a partner, you can sit with them the whole time. Traveling solo? Random seatmates the whole way.
I was taking my time to get situated in my seat when he tapped me on the back and said “Hi. I am sitting here,” in one of those “please hurry up” voices. We hadn’t talked since.
But now, after my laughter had awoken nearly the whole car, we were best friends.
“Don’t tell my wife,” he told me a couple of minutes later as he reached into his bag.
Unsure of what to think, I just looked at him and gave one of those half-smiles, a worried agreement.
He pulled out two McDonald’s Filet-O-Fishes.
“She hates them,” He laughed.
I would learn a lot about this man. About how he was shot in New Jersey when someone broke into his home. About how it wasn’t so bad because he got some months off work to recover and spend with his daughter. How he laughingly purchased some “cheaper-than-usual” birthday gifts for her following the George Floyd protests in Chicago.
And about how he avoids planes. He likes to stay on the ground, just like John Madden.
“You get to really see America that way,” He said, “One day I’ll save up the money to buy a sleeper car and live the high life. That’s what I have always said. Maybe next year.”
I woke up in Denver when he shoved me.
“HUMAN!” his shout reverberated across the whole car. He was my new seatmate, preparing to take the seat I had sprawled across to sleep for the night.
He was riding from Denver to Martinez, California, where his daughter lived.
“Always wanted to take my time on the trip for once,” he said. “Usually, it’s just thousands of feet above ground in a plane just looking at clouds. Don’t get nothing from that.”
He runs a gun store in Denver and was planning to stay in California through the beginning of the New Year. More practical information, important not only to my trip strategy but to the structure of this narrative, his commitment to the trip meant that he would be my seatmate for the next day and night.
If you need more room on a train trip, you can go to the observation car. It is a separate train car with seats facing the windows, and you can theoretically stay there for as long as you like. On the bottom floor of the observation car is the snack bar, which also has open booths.
When I went there, I saw another man who looked close to my age. And he was wearing a Harvard hat. I am not one to cave into these silly inter-college rivalries, but it makes for a great joke. I asked my social media followers, do I fight him? They overwhelmingly voted in favor, but, as I approached, he said hello. And turns out, he was quite nice!
As we were talking about college, graduation, moving on in life, and four-day train trips, a mom and her young daughter approached the snack booth just as the tracks got a bit bumpy.
“I’ll take a Hershey bar and a apple juice, pleaseeeeeeeee. The good stuff. Woah, this train is making me wobblyyyyyyy,” the young girl said.
The observation car and the snack booth brought the people of the journey together, from a school teacher playing cards with a retired Marine to a woman and her elderly mother sharing breakfast on the trip they had always wanted to take together before death.
And as the sun fell, leaving a coat of darkness over the desert canvas, I heard the words, “I love you,” and the man kissed his girlfriend and held her close, blurring their separate reflections in the window into one apparition among the tumbleweeds. Love, desire, ambition, hope, joy, and sadness were all here, hurtling at 150 miles per hour through the Nevada Black.
The American Dream
“I want to see the country I now call home, you know?” He said only a couple of minutes after shaking my hand and sliding into the seat next to me. The night before, my seatmate from Denver had moved to an opening slate of seats to sleep. And we both woke up with new people ready to take the seats next to us.
My new friend was an engineer, who saved up all the money he had to move from India to the United States. Looking for an opportunity in the tech boom of the West, he left his wife behind, with the assurance that he would get her to the United States once he found a settled life for them to share.
He initially landed in Reno — he had a family member there with a place for him to stay. But after months of sending his resumes to permanent job openings, he finally gave up on Nevada. He saved up the money he had from the temp work he was doing and purchased several months’ worth of housing in San Francisco. He would tempt his fate there, hopeful that being at the right place at the right time with the right skills could change his fate. And reunite him with the love he left behind.
“I want life to be stable,” he said, “And in America, there is that possibility. I still believe in the American dream. I have to, to still be here.”
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God the light in each of these photos is amazing.