Yes, they are both anachronistic marvels of gleaming steel, voyagers and sedulous crew, but there the similarity between passenger trains and cruise ships ends. Not for Amtrak are the conga lines or midnight buffets or voluminous brochures with contradictory promises of nonstop activity and utter lassitude, the solemn vows to extinguish all traces of life left behind.
“On board the Sunset Limited, you will experience the comfort and relaxation of train travel while viewing spectacular scenery,” reads the brochure from my Amtrak journey, leaving it at that. The National Railroad Passenger Corporation is not about romancing the rail, you see. It is about cutting the crap in the name of survival.
The same might be said of its riders. Like their preferred mode of travel, Amtrak’s patrons present as forgotten and threatened at once, not to mention strange, gritty, and subject to derailment. I suppose this shouldn’t have surprised me. These were people who’d deliberately chosen to travel 1,600 miles from Houston to Los Angeles by train, a trip that takes 36 hours, or about 11 times as long as a flight to L.A., which costs $107 one-way on United, or almost five times less than the train.
And yet, Amtrak is a success these days, or at least a success for Amtrak. The company now boasts more passengers and fewer operating losses than at any point in its 45-year history. There are three reasons for this, in my view: 1) Amtrak’s rails and riders, which leave better second impressions than first, and better thirds than seconds, 2) Amtrak’s low-balling ethos, a strategy of reducing expectations that cruise lines could greatly benefit from adopting, and 3) the almost unseemly amount of time that Amtrak affords one to contemplate the oddities of life, and especially Amtrak’s oddities, which initially made themselves known to me at 4 a.m. on my first night aboard the Sunset Limited, as I stood in the corridor waiting for a restroom occupied by a couple having sex.
My thoughts at the time: When a couple has sex in an airplane restroom, we say that they have joined the Mile-High Club. When they do so in an Amtrak lavatory, they join a different club, and the name of that club is Tragic. Train sex has always fallen somewhere between rest area relations and Greyhound groping in the hierarchy of vehicular coitus—near the bottom, that is—and America’s crumbling infrastructure has done nothing to improve its ranking. Our aging rail system appears to take particular pride in abusing what few passengers it still possesses, flinging them forward, backward, and side to side without warning, all of which persuades me that sex on an Amtrak train must be a bit like having sex while on top of someone else who is also having sex. Such acrobatics strike me as both awkward and prone to accidents, again not unlike Amtrak.
After 10 minutes in the corridor, I gave up, bumping my way back down the hallway of car #130. The train was moving at an agreeable enough clip, chugging toward Del Rio under cover of deep, dark night. I stared at the blackness through my roomette’s picture window, consumed by a host of questions unanswerable: Who was the couple? If something about the Sunset Limited had turned them on—as preposterous as that sounded on the face of it—why not Do the Locomotion in their room? How could a seven-car train have a car #130?
When I’d told a friend, prior to my journey, that the Amtrak experience would probably not be worth $529 for a one-way trip to L.A., she looked at me both weary and annoyed, in the way people do when confronted by someone who is negative about everything. Yes, United could get me there in the blink of an eye, but it wouldn’t provide me a private cabin, or complimentary meals, or a panoramic view of the majesty of the West, or a nostalgic glimpse at a simpler, more halcyon time in our American past.
After 36 hours of such glimpsing, I feel fairly certain that this is not how our American past wants to be remembered, and yet my friend had a point. Amtrak does have something special to offer, a piece of wisdom that can’t be gained by any other means.
Life is a destination, not a journey.
I know. I expected the opposite too—to appreciate process over product, method over result, the ways we get to places, not the places we end up, not the end of things. Still, all I thought about aboard the Sunset Limited were sunsets—mine, America’s, Roy’s and Ann’s.
“I’ll put you with Roy and Ann,” the porter said, pointing to an elderly couple sitting side by side in the dining car. It was the second and last afternoon of my journey, and the train was—perplexingly—still in Texas. Dutifully following the advice of Amtrak’s official blog—“just like Chili’s on a Friday night, the dining car gets busy, so it’s helpful to make a reservation”—I’d arrived for lunch promptly at 12:15, only to find that 9 of the 10 booths in the car were empty. Thanks to Amtrak’s quirky dining policy, however (“this is a great opportunity to meet your fellow travelers, hear their stories and maybe even make a life-long friend”), I would not be dining alone.
For whatever reason, the couple refused to acknowledge that someone was now sitting directly opposite them, preferring to stare vacantly at the slopes and canyons drifting past my left shoulder. The vibe was distinctly mannequin challenge-esque, and for a full five minutes the only sounds heard were of two antediluvian figures trying to make sense of hamburgers: handling them, opening them up, readjusting the paper around the buns, taking another bite, chewing. Endlessly. Both of them.
Roy was gouty and stern, his wife only marginally less severe. Their wrinkled faces, desiccated by sun and mistrust, recalled a Walker Evans photo complete with James Agee text: An old couple has worked their entire lives for the chance to eat a few bur-gers on the train. Now, having done it, they are ready to die.
The longer I watched man and wife chew and chew, reducing their burger boluses to but a few chains of carbon, the more I saw myself in the same position someday, perhaps sooner than someday, which horrified me. Right on cue, the Sunset Limited came to a dead stop in the middle of nowhere, a singularly desolate, forbidding nowhere where not even saguaros dared to tread.
“Where you headed?”
It was Roy. A piece of bun hung from a corner of his mouth. “L.A.,” I replied, which was apparently the wrong answer. Roy turned back to the window, never to look at me again. I didn’t appreciate such treatment, especially as I’d striven so hard to put my best, most tolerant foot forward on the Sunset Limited. It didn’t feel karmically correct in the least. I decided to get the old man’s goat by quizzing Ann.
“What about you?” I asked.
During the interminable period that followed, the old woman said nothing and did little beyond stare at my nose. Indeed, the yawning silence is perhaps best appreciated as a series of Ann stare-beats, each of one-second duration: my nose, my nose, my nose, the porter, my nose, Roy’s burger, a packet of Sweet ’N Low, my nose, my nose.
“Where are you guys headed?”
I hated prompting her, but the sun was perceptibly lower in the sky than when first I’d inquired, and the train had drifted from Central to Mountain time.
My nose, my nose, the shacks on the outskirts of El Paso, my wedding band, my nose, my nose, an air vent, my nose.
“Milton,” she said at last.
“Milton, Florida,” grumbled Roy, still peering out the window.
All I could do was look at her nose, his nose, her burger, her wedding band, the bun still on Roy’s lip, her nose, a boy playing near the tracks, her nose.
“That’s the other…direction,” I said quietly.
“No,” Roy bellowed, rising, slapping a dollar tip on the table, lunging for his crutches. We’re from Milton. We’re going to Fresno!”
With that, they left, taking with them all my hopes of making life-long friends in an Amtrak dining car. I consoled myself by ordering a burger, which turned out to be excellent.
Also excellent: Amtrak’s Sightseer Lounge car, with windows on all sides, ceilings included. It plays host to some of the Sunset Limited’s best moments, particularly when the train rumbles along the U.S.-Mexican border. There, comparing the two countries demands little more than swiveling one’s head, although the verdicts tend to sort along ideological lines.
“I can’t tell them apart,” remarked an elderly black man to a middle-aged white woman nearby. She disagreed, saying they were as different as night and day, although the pair quickly moved on, eventually bonding over a mutual love of photography and firearms. As their long, warm conversation continued, I found myself becoming, perversely, more and more hopeful about America, something that had never before happened during a lifelong history of eavesdropping.
Depending on whom you ask, the original seal for the city of Houston, which dates to 1840, featured either 1) an ox eating bluebonnets, or 2) the same locomotive that’s enshrined on today’s seal, a nod to the historic importance of railroads to the city. Both theories are problematic, however, as 1) oxen prefer grasses to flowers, and 2) Houston had no trains in 1840, and wouldn’t for more than a decade. Be that as it may, there have been calls over the years to ditch the train in favor of something that truly made us the city we are—an oil derrick, say, or plate of chalupas. But the city has resisted such efforts, perhaps on behalf of its downtown visitors’ center, which would doubtless see a dramatic decline in sales of keychains featuring the present seal, which weren’t exactly robust to begin with.
Besides, the railroad was unquestionably crucial to the growth of commerce in Houston, where shipping three bales of cotton just a few miles once required a team of oxen and an entire day (not including stops for bluebonnets). By 1860, 80 miles of track had been laid between the city and Columbus, although the journey took from sun-up to sundown, earning it a sarcastic nickname—the Sunset route—that’s been hard to shake. In 1894, both moniker and track were appropriated by Southern Pacific Railroad’s first transcontinental effort, which sort of makes the Sunset Limited “the oldest ‘named’ train in continuous operation,” as the aforementioned Amtrak brochure breathlessly puts it.
Or so things seemed to me during my final evening aboard the train, as I waited for sleep to come in my roomette’s 28-inch-wide bed, which coincidentally is exactly the width of an average adult casket. Still, I loved the coziness and ingenuity of my abode almost as much as the feeling of gliding supine through the California desert, and soon fell into a sleep the depth of which one only experiences while in bed on a train reading about the history of rail commerce in Houston.
It is said that Los Angeles possesses one of America’s last great train stations, and I am in no position to disagree, having dropped helplessly to my knees and kissed the platform the moment my 36-hour journey was over. Still, my first impression of L.A. was not a happy one. Having made my way to the station’s enormous travertine and terracotta waiting room, I stood transfixed by the Depression-era, Spanish-colonial-deco magnificence of it all, thereby creating the perfect opportunity for a station miscreant to seize the moment and steal one of my suitcases.
After a lengthy, police-aided search of the area turned up nothing, I made a beeline for the station exit, stopping at a restroom along the way. There on a shelf near the urinals was my bag, abandoned and open but unharmed, the thief having decided (correctly) that there was nothing of value inside. For me, L.A. would be a city of second and third impressions, which somehow seemed fitting.