Amtrak has a culture of its own. It’s not flashy or flamboyant, like a ramp-walk model. It’s sweet and subtle, like a cutie next door. It has a je ne sais quoi, that doesn’t reveal itself the first time you step in. But, you know you are close, when you begin to discern the boundaries of AmtrakLand: There’s the outside world festered with problems tracing furrows on your forehead. There’s the train station, luring you in, promising a respite. And then, there’s Amtrak. Once you enter it, you forget you had a life outside.
I remember being skeptical of my first Amtrak trip from Toledo to DC—the burden of a really long trip without wifi connectivity pasted onto my face. But, it didn’t take too long to get over my ‘I-need-to-check-my-mail-every-minute‘ self and begin to enjoy the journey. It was perhaps due to my impassioned love for trains, as a kid. The idea that a train took ten times longer to reach a place doesn’t seem tedious as much as exciting when you have just been introduced to math. For one, it meant a longer vacation. The planning for the travel introduced a whole new element into the vacation: Home-packed lunches, ice coolers, a pack of playing cards, and tons of books to read. Plus, you could look ‘outside’ any time, all the time. As a child born before the internet boom, there wasn’t much more you could have wanted.
You may ask me—what is this special thing about Amtrak you need to use a french expression for?—to which I can only say, I don’t know. But, I do know this: To this day, it brings out the same effervescence I had as a child sitting on a train. It is familiar; it is comfortable. It rarely disappoints me. It doesn’t have the irksome, clumsy security check we all love to hate. It doesn’t have baggage fees the size of the baggage—it’s free for the first two checked-in bags per passenger. If a family of four traveled, they could actually carry their house.
But is that really it? Not even close. To truly appreciate the Amtrak experience, one must look closely at how it fares in some of the key aspects of any journey:
1. Sights and sounds
Whether you are inside a car, or an airplane, looking outside is probably the first thing you do, right? Unless it’s pitch dark, in which case, you look at the people around you, you are engrossed looking outside the first thirty minutes of the trip. Trees are an inextricable part of journeys. Something about them sets off the metaphor centers in the brain— they play out as a darting landscape with seemingly endless depth. It’s a sublime feeling.
Amtrak is spot on in this department. It might be a corporation seething with losses, but they don’t take it out on the size of the windows. There’s a sprawling viewing gallery with comfortable seats and tables, where you could just stare outside. If William H. Davies could see this, it would give him goosebumps.
2. The Grub
Amtrak has two dining options: the cafe car, and the dining car—the former being the hotspot for all the coffee and sundry junk food that makes out heart melt, and the latter offering a more sophisticated sit-down meal, tablecloth and all. The viewing gallery is right next to the cafe, which is convenient for gazers like me. But, I prefer to take my lunches and dinners sit-down style. It has the whole ‘going-out-to-eat’ feel of a restaurant. Reservations are made, even if not honored entirely. Tables are set out with fresh smelling linen. Menus are handed out by overworked, yet genial waiters. If you are lucky enough to travel alone, you are seated alongside fellow-alone passengers. Now, this could go either way, but I have always had the most effusive conversations with people while dining. When there is a lot of time to kill, and people have no option but to talk, it’s amazing what we are capable of. And what’s comforting is that the talks rarely get too political or divisive. It’s probably the vacation mood, but no one wants to debate the size of the government or talk about their views on religious freedom onboard. So be it. Does every discussion need to be intellectual? Should mindless babbling be reserved for drunken nights? Amtrak made me ask these questions after a long time.
Just when you think you have nothing to complain, so you’d rather sleep, it hits you—the Arctic freeze that is commonplace on the Amtrak. It’s probably the relative inactivity but, you don’t realize how cold it is until you shut your eyes. Sleeping can be a real bummer on the train, if you are not equipped with the right gear. Especially when the person next to you is busy disengaging fart bombs in their sleep. Which brings me to the most important variable in any Amtrak ride—
4. The awkward-arm partner
Nothing changes on the Amtrak except your partner. Unless there is a train-wreck. Some don’t talk at all, which I prefer. Some restrict themselves to the stilted “Where are you from?” and “Is that the dining car?”, which is fine too. Some are outright annoying, and leave you with a bad taste of the whole journey. They ramble on about how mundane their jobs are. Worse, they make you explain what you do. Now, I don’t care if it sounds conceited, but I resent having to dumb down my research in neuroscience so that lay-men can understand. I don’t bug you with queries about radiator hose clamps for my car. So, shouldn’t you google ischemia if you don’t get it the first time?
There are some wise ones though, who hit the perfect balance between talking and not talking; between sense and nonsense. I am one of them.
I know I am the one who pushed for this surgical dissection of the travel experience, but in reality, Amtrak is more than the sum of its parts. It lets you enjoy life’s cliches—people, nature, warmth (the intangible kind), food—without a moment of guilt or haste. It’s a naughty mistress who amps you up for the vacation, and, a caring wife, who nurses the blues on the way back.
This account may sound bloated—coming from a broke graduate student who believes there will be time for everything—it most likely is. But, I leave just enough space to accept that, tomorrow I might not have the time to sit and stare. I might not like the idea of spending fifteen hours cooped up without wi-fi, and just endless shrubbery as company. Until then, this is the Amtrak girl signing off!