These trains will surprise you. Having heard that AMTRAK services are past their prime and filled with uncomfortable situations resulting from improper maintenance and development, I was skeptical of the quality of the 60 hours I’d be spending on them in July. With the way the world was talking about AMTRAK trains, I thought for sure that I’d be crammed into small seats, stuffy air, and overall frustrating operational services.
Some Time on Trains
I write now to dispel the notion that U.S. trains are anywhere close to being an antiquated and ache-filled experience. I could write a full experiential review of riding on AMTRAK trains to communicate it more clearly (and likely will one day), but trust me when I say that these trains are full of quality. It starts with the seat. I purchased the cheapest option, and even at this economic rate, the space was abundant. The seats are about 125% the size of an average plane seat with three times the leg room. The chairs themselves recline like your favorite lazy boy, and even have a foot rest and upper leg support that, come bedtime, fold out and work together to make a most comfortable sleeping setting. When my first train departed at midnight, I immediately found that I would, at all times, have plenty of personal space. Things only improved from there.
I was certainly impressed with the seat itself, but what really put it over the top were the train carts other than my own. On a train, you are free to move about, and I have yet to be on one that is more than 70% booked. Although confined to this moving machine, it is massive, and full of adventure. Traveling between train carts is fun in itself. Double doors separate each compartment, but they open with ease when pushed with hand or kicked with foot. I’ll let each individual’s creativity paint their own mental canvas, but for me, it felt like I was traveling on a tubular, retrograded space ship. Even better was that each train cart was a double decker. General seating and dining are located upstairs; restrooms, storage, and snack carts await downstairs. My first purchase downstairs in the snack room was a cup of black coffee ($2), which gave me the extra umph to make moves throughout the first night up until the sunrise.
On board, I navigated through the thresholds of each compartment primarily while making my way to the viewing and dining carts, each of which acts as a social mixer in its own right. The viewing carts are filled with what you’d expect, some of the most awe-inspiring, intimate, and nature-filled vistas I’ve had the privilege to take in on my travels. These moments of exposure to such natural beauty stimulate all within the viewing cart, which in turn stimulates wonderfully thoughtful and creative conversations. Everyone on the train, and particularly the viewing carts, was connected by their shared interested in train travel and sightseeing. This makes starting conversations with strangers from around the world full of ease.
Moving further down into the train a similar experience awaits within the dining carts. The only chance of not meeting someone new is in dining with groups of four. Anything less, and you will be sat with a stranger. People tend to be happy around food and drink, so it is a quality setting for meeting new people. The pace and pulse of a meal conducts high quality conversations, and the motion of the train and the sights it soars through inject extra energy into the dialogue, leaving one satisfied in more ways than one.
The idea of 24 hours plus in train might seem excruciatingly slow to some of the more active members of our fast paced culture. Thoughts of being bored, trapped in travel, or efficient action seem to dissuade many from this mode of moving. Don’t let it. Understand that only boring people get bored, an intentional mind is never trapped, and that efficiency is built through preparation, and is independent of the context of any situation.
To conquer boredom, arm yourself with that book you’ve been meaning to read. Write the poem or script that’s been inside you for years, and let the moving scenes around push you forward through creative blocks. Write letters to loved ones, reflect on value, treat your mind to all things you are typically too busy to do when pushed and pulled in the million different directions of a normal week.
Understand that you are the master of your experience, and though confined to this sometimes slow moving machine, you can go anywhere and do anything through your mental practice and creativity. Use this time to put yourself in a happy state filled with loving kindness via meditation before you arrive to your destination. The strangers you will meet on your travels will appreciate it and often pick up on your relaxed, intentional state.
The more you plan ahead, the deeper you experience. Download books, movies, Skillshare courses for self-improvement, and the future-you will thank the planning-you of the past. Bring stationery to write, journal, of computer compose your thoughts. Reflect on what is important to you and you’ll leave a better person, regardless of what you identified as what is important. Trains give you extra this time to further identify with not just the world around you, but your inner self as well.
Where it Took Me
I’m glad I did. When I arrived in Denver, a whirlwind awaited me. If I didn’t ground myself, I might not have been able to take in the beauty of the experience, being blinded by whatever distractions would have populated my monkey mind. Twenty hours after departing in KC, I arrived in Denver, where I was picked up by a pair of good friends. They had made their way to Denver as well so we could all take part in a third friend’s birthday. Instead of staying stationary (something we were never really good at in the first place), we wandered.
We tumbled north, into Wyoming, and embraced the epic landscapes and frigid follies of Southern Wyoming. We camped for two nights in Medicine Bow National Park. We hiked, hammocked, and enjoyed each others isolated company, ultimately as a group of six. We were all connected by the vagabond spirit and the ability to see the wonder in the world brought about by a childlike perspective of adventuring. I had never been to Wyoming prior to this experience so it injected fresh light into my life and this travel.
To be clear, extended travel north of the train tracks was by no means accomplished comfortably. It took extra effort and considerable discomfort (traveling late at night, without sleep, and into frigid temperatures) to make happen. But in exchange for the energy and comfortability sacrificed, I was given experience in nature and of friendship of the highest caliber. My worldview was expanded and my relationships with friends deepened. I made memories that I will remember for sometime: late night beers and pizza at the Beartree Tavern in Centennial (the last site of the modern world before the forest), wandering into the wilderness of Wyoming, on trails that hadn’t been traversed in years and through untouched nature with some of my closest friends, drinking down water bottles filled with boxed wine under the full expression of the Milky Way’s make up. These experiences not only enriched my trip, but also myself as developing individual.
What I Learned | Advice
The more you experience and love in this life, the more you will understand how much you are apart of it. Passions bind the world together. They bring people together and connect isolated individuals to the whole. As meaningful experiences accumulate, the more you will understand exactly what you should do with your life. Different things pop up as important to different people. The components of your experiences that unfold as important to you serve as the skeleton to the structure of your self. Take these isolated dots of experiences and connect them. The picture you come up with (i.e. the active version of yourself that embodies them) is your passion filled self.
For example, say on one trip you find out that you like figuring out the logistics of how to get from place to place and leading your group from step to step. Another experience reminds you how much you like campfire cooking and the satisfaction of a well cooked meal. Another random adventure to Louisiana leaves you in love with the culture of that region. One night you go sleep and it hits you - you want to be a world class chef in New Orleans. The passion and power behind your past experience more than motivate you to jump all the hurdles between your present reality and future dreams and you are left with a personified career that feel uniquely yours. Of course, its not always this simple, but the path to finding your true and most happy self is certainly not as complicated, rigid, and one-dimensional as the dogmatic high school -> college -> career path suggests.
My life is filled with people that have traded in prototypical social structure in exchange for letting their individual, seemingly random experiences serve as their guiding light. And while they and I are sometimes stressed due to the lack of security that our path involves, they are for the most part happy, full of life, and constantly in a state of self improvement. Like everyone, a rut is hit here and there but they always push through.
This path requires you to take full responsibility for your future. You can’t blame a boss, or teacher, or spouse, or anything else in your life for your current station. It is 100% your responsibility because you are writing the script anew each and everyday, embedding the quality lessoned learned the day before and shedding the bad habits and ineffectual or irrelevant information of the past. This state of constant evolution is the strongest safeguard against aging into a static self.
I’ve come close to static self, a version of me that did things each day simply because I did them the day before, not because it was what I wanted to do with my life deep down in my bones. I wasn’t unhappy, per se, but I wasn’t growing to my optimal, most expressive and substantial version of myself. This is in stark contrast to how I was left when a friend dropped me off at seven in the morning at the Denver Union Station to head to San Fransisco: full of life and new experiences, motivated more than ever before to create beauty, community, and substantial, meaningful experiences for myself and all that I meet on the road. A perfect primer before I stepped on the California Zephyr for a 33 hour ride to the city of San Francisco.