Riding the Rails / by Andy Isaacson

The California Zephyr runs along stretches of the Colorado River. Credit: Andy Isaacson

FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, MARCH 8, 2009

SOMEWHERE on the west side of Illinois, the Amish men broke out a deck of Skip-Bo cards and I joined them as the cafe car attendant, using an iPod and a set of portable speakers, broadcast Eckhart Tolle, author of “A New Earth,” discoursing on the virtues of stillness.

“Life gets discombobulating,” the attendant said, calmly. “This helps.”

On both sides of the train window, American scenery unfolded. A dirty layer of ice and snow subdued the still cropland to the distant horizon. At the next table a woman stuck her nose in a novel; a college kid pecked at a laptop. Overlaying all this, a soundtrack: choo-k-choo-k-choo-k-choo-k-choo-k — the metronomic rhythm of an Amtrak train rolling down the line to California, a sound that called to mind an old camera reel moving frames of images along a linear track, telling a story.

The six Amish men were in their mid-20s, and they were returning home to Kalona, Iowa, after a three-week cross-country tour. They had especially liked the Creation Museum, in Petersburg, Ky., and Niagara Falls. As we rolled across white plains, they pointed out which plots grew beans and which grew corn. To my eye, the dormant land revealed few clues.

Around the train car lounged Americans traveling for work and others for family, people for whom train travel is a necessity and those for whom it’s merely quaint, first-time riders and probably even a few “foamers” — the nickname that train workers privately give the buffs who salivate over the sight of a locomotive.

I had ridden long-distance trains in India and China but never across my own country. I suppose that after two years of receiving images saturated in red, white and blue from all corners of the nation, I wanted to make my own. The fading glow of the Inauguration, I thought — a moment for national unity and new beginning, both imagined and real — would be a good light in which to meet the country again. And it was winter, after all; I didn’t feel like driving.

With every uptick in gas prices, Americans in general are thinking less about driving. With each degree of global warming, trains become even more sensible. And with each new surcharge and each new item of clothing one is required to remove to board an airplane — and with every small-town commercial airport and cabin amenity that vanishes forever — the rails beckon. Last year, Amtrak set all-time ridership records.

Traveling cross-country by train takes time, but less than I expected: within four days, one crosses the Hudson River and reaches San Francisco Bay at Emeryville, Calif. I gave myself a week, stopping in Chicago, Denver and, for variety, a remote town in Nevada that had a nice ring to its name.

Credit: The New York Times

THE Amtrak Cardinal rolled out of New York’s Pennsylvania Station slightly before dawn on a frigid January morning. I had booked a roomette — a cozy compartment just larger than a Japanese capsule that converts from two facing seats into bunk beds. The attendant asked if I wanted a wake-up call the next morning, pointed out the showers down the hall and said that breakfast would be served after Trenton.

The roomette’s décor — blue curtains, a (sealed) metal ashtray on the armrest — evoked the era of Pan Am. On the upholstered seats rested two hangers, two pillows and a crisp copy of The New York Times, which on that morning featured a photo of the ex-Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, projecting an image of false calm. Chicago, all aboard.

On a two-dimensional map, the crosshatched lines that represent railroad tracks resemble stitches binding patches of textured fabric. Essentially, these remnants of America’s rail network predate 1910, and unless you’re on it, you scarcely notice it — crossing under our freeways, passing through once-thriving rural towns that today’s highways avoid. We consider train tracks indifferently, the way we do electricity wires: as behind-the-scenes infrastructure, a ubiquitous but background feature of our landscape.

At least this is how it seemed en route to Washington, as the train rolled past unkempt backyards and graffitied factory walls, icy ball fields and the back doors of crumbling buildings. America presents itself to the streets; the tracks take in a less manicured backside. How refreshing a sight.

Our consumer society may still rely on trains to transport things, but those things are pitched to drivers in cars, not to passengers on trains. And so, as early as New Jersey, I realized something that would only feel remarkable a few days later, in the Nevada desert: it’s still possible to travel 3,585 miles across the United States without being the target of billboards, golden arches or absurdly large twine balls. The rails offer a view onto Unbranded America — the land as it was.

Credit: Andy Isaacson

The Cardinal makes 31 stops in 27 hours on a southerly, U-shaped path from New York to Chicago. It’s not the most direct of Amtrak’s routes, but it charts a course through textbook American history: Baltimore; Washington; Manassas, Va.; Cincinnati.

At Philadelphia, a woman named Mary Ellen Phillips Belcher and her grown daughter Ladonna settled into the roomette across from mine. They were returning home to Kentucky after visiting a relative in suburban Pennsylvania. They usually drive; the train ride was satisfying a long-held curiosity.

Life stories and first names have a way of surfacing between strangers. Mary Ellen lived her girlhood days in Junction City, Ky., with four brothers and a single mom, along the old Louisville and Nashville Railroad tracks.

“We didn’t have money to buy cigarettes, so we’d get us a coffee can and collect the butts thrown off the train,” she said. “Mother would always leave a skillet of cornbread and brown beans outside the house for the hobos coming through. Evidently, they had passed word on to their friends that Mother was a kind lady. She’d never have enough food for us, but she’d always have something for somebody.”

“I said, ‘One of these days I’m going to ride a train to remember Mother and those hobos’ ” she told me, in way that moved me. “I guess I had to be 65 before I took that ’venture.”

Behind her, Washington’s monuments drifted slowly across the glass, and as we passed the Capitol, I imagined a bureaucrat inside considering what to do about Amtrak. As a quasi-public rail service, Amtrak stays afloat with a little more than $1 billion a year from the federal government. Last September, for the first time since 1997, Congress approved an Amtrak authorization bill that could nearly double it. The stimulus package President Obama signed in February includes $8 billion for high-speed and intercity rail projects, and one would think that so long as “Amtrak Joe” Biden holds high office, trains will continue to get some love.

After Charlottesville, Va., I planted myself in the lounge car, which divides the coach and sleeper cars and serves the social function of the train’s town square or neighborhood pub — an egalitarian place for conversation and chips.

Ashland, Kentucky. Credit: Andy Isaacson

“D’ya see that doe?” a man from Virginia asked me, pointing outside. “Still as can be.”

I was curious about whether he hunted. He laughed and said, “Don’t need to now; my boy does it for me.”

A man nearby overheard and chuckled. “I used to,” he said, “before I started huntin’ the two-legged kind.”

“I wish they had a gambling car.”

“At least they got beer.”

“Uh-huh.”

Along the tracks, a tranquil scene of rolling farmland speckled with horses eventually became steep slopes of forest in a haze of swirling flurries. I asked the two men if these were the Allegheny Mountains.

“Outside of here, they call them the Appalaychians,” one of the men told me. “We call them the Appalaachians. Hell, I just call them swampy, wooded-ass areas.”

Meals on board are white-tableclothed affairs; however, these days the $22 flat iron steaks are served on plastic replicas of Amtrak’s former china. Passengers are seated together. For dinner, I enjoyed my cheese ravioli across from an Amish man from Minnesota who was escorting his wife home from hernia surgery in South Carolina. (Many Amish are uninsured, he told me, and some take trains to Mexico for less costly medical care.)

After he finished, one of the attendants — not the 27-year veteran with eyebrows painted red-and-blue Amtrak stripes and a customized “Amtrak” belt buckle sparkling with bling, but the other — seated a couple from suburbanColorado. He was a retired defense contractor; she, a former Delta flight attendant.

“The food’s better here,” she said, a remark I took as authoritative. Cutting into her baked potato, she added, “You couldn’t get this on a plane.”

By the time we rolled into Ashland, Ky., at 11 p.m., the temperature had plummeted enough to freeze the track switch, waylaying us at the platform for two hours. I passed the time in the lounge car with four other travelers, all quick to make acquaintance. One, from the Bronx, was seeking a football coaching job in Arizona; another, from Indiana, had just visited relatives in Virginia.

Every so often, someone would look at a watch and feign complaint. But really, it was half-hearted; on a long-distance train, it seems, the fluid movement across space induces a surrender to the natural unfolding of time.

At some hour during a fitful sleep, the heat in my roomette stopped working. The attendant call button didn’t work, either. I froze until morning. Even if mine was an aging, government-subsidized room on wheels, I wondered whether after paying more than $200 for that night, it wasn’t reasonable to have certain expectations.

Before it was possible to travel across the troposphere, nearly all cross-country journeys passed through Chicago. I spent a night in the city, and the next afternoon boarded the California Zephyr.

Chicago's Union Station. Credit: Andy Isaacson

New relationships quickly formed in the observation car, which on the double-decker, Airstream-like Zephyr was outfitted with curved glass walls and padded chairs. Passengers lounged together, sharing snacks or packed beverages, and making commentary as the landscape — cold metal silos, lonely farmhouses on windswept plots — passed across the great picture window in high definition.

Under streaks of pink and orange, we crossed the icy Mississippi River on an old steel bridge. Dozens of bald eagles, pointed out by the conductor in an announcement, perched on the western bank, presumably fishing. We rumbled along the main streets of small but once prosperous Iowa towns and glimpsed architectural treasures like Omaha’s former Union and Burlington train stations, which are now, sadly but symbolically, a museum and a condo development.

We were making good time, which is not a reputation Amtrak usually enjoys. Seventy percent of Amtrak’s service — basically everywhere but in the Northeast — operates on freight railroad tracks, where inefficiencies cause frequent delays. According to federal law, but not always in practice, passenger trains have priority. Two years ago, Union Pacific agreed to reduce the speed restrictions it imposes on Amtrak trains while it does track maintenance, but a Department of Transportation report last September said that little had changed.

Conductors told me it has, some. But for now, the crippling economy has significantly lessened freight traffic across the country. One conductor told me that he trades stocks based on looking out the window; when he sees less freight, he sells.

So owing in part to the recession, we coasted at dawn — ahead of schedule — into Union Station in Denver, where a friend picked me up for a quick drive into the mountains for a day of skiing. It felt good to jump off the train: even with utter freedom to move about the cabin and an onboard minimart, the mind and body, before long, yearn for solid ground.

After riding my own set of metal edges through ankle-high powder, I slept across from the station at the upscale Oxford Hotel. In this 1891 institution, I could briefly reimagine the romance of cross-country rail travel (and where, as an Amtrak passenger, I got a special $150 rate, compared with $210).

Denver's Union Station. Credit: Andy Isaacson

In the morning, I boarded another westbound Zephyr. Leaving Denver, the rails snake through 29 tunnels on their ascent into the Rockies. In a single bend, we turned from the great brown plains, and the dominant impression of America — which 2,000 miles east had been industrial and, later, agricultural — suddenly turned geological.

We passed old mines and mountain ranges, red rock canyons and ranches blanketed by snow, glistening under the winter sun. For hundreds of miles, the train coursed along icy green stretches of the Colorado River accessible only by raft or rail.

Vacationers heading for resorts debarked at the Glenwood Springs and Fraser-Winter Park stations, and a man who had introduced himself as Oscar — a Mexican migrant from North Carolina — got off at Grand Junction to pursue a restaurant job.

Credit: Andy Isaacson

I sat with Steve Nykorchuk, a man from Pittsfield, Mass., with a scraggly gray beard and cane, who rides from Albany to Reno five times a year to play the penny slots. Before every trip, his 90-year-old mother slips him an envelope with spending money, and every time he feels bad about taking it. When he arrives in Reno, people say, “Here comes the Train Man.”

“I come so often they know exactly what beer I’m drinking,” he said. “That’s funny, to come 3,000 miles and people know what you’re drinking.”

As Colorado’s majesty faded into the Utah night, I drank coffee with Ben Kinsinger, a kindly, 63-year-old Amish butcher from Lancaster, Pa. Every February, he and his wife ride to the country’s warmer climes. In Phoenix, they visit the airport to watch planes take off and land, and on the train he likes to chat with passengers, like me, who never visit Lancaster. I was touched watching him connect with a young couple from Nepal.

Credit: Andy Isaacson

Credit: Andy Isaacson

“No electricity, stitching clothes — wow!” the Nepalese girl said. “That would be like giving up everything, like a nun.”

On the way to the dining car the next morning, Ben patted me. “The cows are milked, the horses are fed,” he said, jokingly. “It’s time for breakfast!”

But instead, I got off the train in Winnemucca, Nev., a small town dwarfed by big sky and high mountain desert. And for no particular reason, really. (“We don’t usually get many Winnemuccas,” the conductor said as I got off.) But train routes are about connecting — and appreciating — the points in between, the country’s negative spaces, those places that urban dwellers might deride as “middle of nowhere.”

Western Colorado. Credit: Andy Isaacson

A century ago, Basque sheepherders jumped off at Winnemucca by the hundreds, and that evening, I had Picon Punches and lamb shank with their descendants at the 110-year-old Martin Hotel, a wooden bar and restaurant beside the tracks with scrapbook-lined walls and a small claim to still being a boardinghouse — a retired man named Phil occupied a room upstairs.

Today, many of the Basque work for gold mines outside town. The flow of Picon Punches follows the price of gold, and these days, both are up. I slept the night at a cheap motel after playing a penny slot at Winners Casino, and caught the next Zephyr rolling through.

Bartender in Winnemucca, Nevada. Credit: Andy Isaacson

In dawn’s light, the train streaked across the Great Basin Desert, blurring the view of tufted yellow shrubs flanking the rails but framing the white-dusted, mineral-stained mountains beyond in an unfolding panorama across the observation car windows. Choo-k-choo-k-choo-k-choo-k-choo-k: that hypnotic rhythm and empty Nevada landscape stilled the mind to a slow, meandering drift. I looked around the observation car to see four other passengers sitting silently; a fifth gazed out the window, picking his guitar.

In Reno, a dozen gamblers boarded, and we climbed to the Sierra Nevada pass named after the hapless westbound journeyers who ate some of their own to last the winter of 1846. Forty years later, the Donner Party would have had a transcontinental train. The Zephyr’s engineer made steady, giant slalom turns along that original route, weaving through the snowy backcountry on a 7,000-foot descent toward the shining sea.

Docents from the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, who regularly ride the train back and forth to Reno, filled in the passing scenery with history. Chinese laborers, they told us, forged much of this mountain route.

AS the train bisected California, the impressions mirrored the country east of the Continental Divide: craggy mountains and the ghosts of gold mines became fertile cropland until once again we rolled through industrial yards, these lining San Francisco Bay.

Winnemucca, Nevada. Credit: Andy Isaacson

Almost every veteran conductor I talked with on the trip lamented that something of train travel’s former magic had slipped away. Yet I witnessed something very precious that remains.

Mr. Kinsinger, the Amish butcher, had remarked in astonishment: “I met a man who said he spent 12 hours on an airplane, sitting right next to someone, and they never said a word to each other!” A former New York City cop-turned-massage-therapist from Oregon, who had ridden the Zephyr with her husband, carried cards printed with their contact information, and the headline: “There Are No Strangers on a Train.”

Abraham Lincoln’s idealism about the first transcontinental railroad’s forging national unity may have been bound up in political pragmatism and economic ambition, but a core sentiment remains true: as a train crosses borders, the boundaries between its riders dissolve. Those crosshatched lines on the map stitching the country together are also a metaphor. I witnessed community and saw everybody cherishing it.

At least for now, train travel remains in what the former flight attendant I met called an “age of innocence,” by which she meant that you can keep your shoes on to board. It is a relapse into a simpler time.

With some cash, Amtrak could add modern amenities like Wi-Fi and still preserve that slower pace that makes train travel a salve for our modern psyche, the perpetual motion lulling the rider to stillness, like a rocking cradle, and that hushing sound: choo-k-choo-k-choo-k-choo-k-choo-k.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/08/travel/0...