The allure of the classic American road trip is hard to ignore. You fantasize about packing up the old roadster and taking to the backroads with a trusty old map, limited plans, a bespoke road trip mix and an unbridled sense of adventure. You imagine soaking in all the iconic western scenery, from the world’s largest ball of twine and the Cadillac graveyard all the way to El Capitan.
Of course, the reality isn’t so romantic. There are the needy, irritable kids. Frequent stops. Hundreds of interstate miles that are virtually indistinguishable from hundreds of other interstate miles. In many ways, we’ve managed to make car travel as predictable and monotonous and overburdened with decision-making requirements as our workdays:
Do I go around this jerk or not?
Should we stop yet?
I’m so bored.
Where should we eat?
How much longer can you hold it?
How much longer can I hold it?
Endless billboards intrude on the scenery like pop-up ads obstructing your idealism.
Are we there yet?
But imagine for a moment that you could return to the dream road trip, that mid-century fantasy of unobstructed, unadulterated, unlittered beauty, when the country was seemingly designed by God Himself for scenic travel, before every rural fence was adorned with blowing plastic Walmart bags, when witty Burma-Shave ads shepherded you along and the interstate system was still just a twinkle in Eisenhower’s beady little eye.
And what if you could improve on that? Let’s just get really selfish and unrealistic for a minute. Take that early ‘50s road trip, remove the advertising, eliminate all the traffic and potholes and speed limits. While we’re at it, wouldn’t it be better if you could just be the passenger too? A road trip sans driving. No need to risk the family’s lives waiting for a dotted yellow line to pass this truck.
As long as we’re being ridiculous, let’s throw a bathroom in the car, a cozy spot to sleep, a restaurant and then let’s take the chosen route and modify it to be way, way off the beaten path.
Sure. This road trip is utterly impossible.
Until you replace the road... with rails.
That’s right, this self-appointed purist believes the great American road trip is possible only on the great American Amtrak.
I first got hooked on train travel when I was afforded the luxury of a small sleeper car for a solo trip on Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Whitefish, Montana to St. Paul, Minnesota. Though I often wanted to get back on the train, it took about nine years to make it happen, when I convinced my wife to take the California Zephyr from Denver all the way to Emeryville, California (basically the vegan faux meat between the gluten-free buns of Oakland and Berkeley). A few years later, we took our three-year-old son on virtually the same trip.
So what’s so great about it? Apart from everything, nothing.
First off, it’s recommended that you arrive at the train station at least 3 minutes before your train is scheduled to depart – in case you want to grab some coffee. Really though, there are no congested parking lots, shuttle drivers with dubious license status or check-in hassles. Your bag can weigh as much as you can carry. Actually, a porter will get that for you. And get this: no security. Literally none. You don’t have to take your shoes off until you damn well please.
I should clarify one point: the only way to do the train is with a sleeper car. Coach is fine and affords immensely more room than you’d expect on any other form of transportation, but having your own room makes all the difference. It costs a few extra hundred bucks, but you’ve never spent money so wisely. Just having that sleeper room ticket immediately qualifies you as first class, placing you at the opposite end of the train from coach, usually with the sightseeing and dining car between you and the great unwashed masses. Speaking of the dining car, all your meals are included. Whatever you want: free. So that extra money is buying you a place to sleep and all your meals. See? Great deal.
It’s downright liberating.
Most Amtrak trains offer three different rooms.
The Roomette: Sit opposite your travel companion with a picture window beside you, a sliding privacy door opposite that and a table between you for Rummy 500, reading or lovingly staring into each other’s eyes in comfortable silence. The two seats fold down into a bed, while another bunk folds down from above.
The Family Room: Like the Roomette, multiplied by two. Enough seating for 5 adults or a couple parents and several children. This room extends the entire width of the train, offering a window out each side. Virtually every surface folds down into a bed, sleeping about six, maybe more.
The Bedroom: I haven’t experienced this one personally, but I’ve seen it. You get your own bathroom with shower and sink, very comfy seats, a top-floor view and two beds.
You also get an attendant. And the attendants I’ve had the pleasure to encounter have been some of my all-time favorite people. I still remember their names: Thomas and Janell. They ride the train most of their lives, caring for us – their charges – with happiness and friendliness that never even borders on disingenuousness. They are saints. Angels. Scratch that. They’re what saints and angels aspire to be.
Don’t get me wrong. It is not luxurious. Most aspects of the train are designed to be very practical (and I can’t overstate my appreciation for their efficiency and pragmatism). But luxury is not the point.
The point is what the train does for your soul.
In most cases – gods be praised – there is no wi-fi on the train. Your phone will only work occasionally, usually as you pass through a city. You are disconnected. Unleashed. Finally free to live in the moment. And there are essentially no decisions to be made, except what to eat for dinner and what to look at from your giant window.
In cities, you’re offered a sneak peek at areas that have been kept from view. You’re taken behind the scenes of city life, past abandoned industrial districts and through homeless encampments. You slide silently through suburban backyards and get to look into the dead eyes of people stuck in their cars at railroad crossings, knowing all too well where you’re headed and where they’re going.
Soon enough, you escape the urban congestion. And this is where things get different, because the train quickly moves away from highways and roads, away from signs and cops, billboards and streetlights … and into the wilderness.
You gaze out the window, passing through tunnels, across bridges plunging hundreds of feet down into mountain streams, through pine forests, catching surprised wild animals you’d never have encountered otherwise. I’ve seen eagles, foxes, coyotes, even wild horses in western Nevada. Better yet, in western Colorado, when the train follows the swirling Colorado River, every single group of white water rafters will moon the train. With that many moons, this qualifies you for an astronomy merit badge.
In all seriousness though, life just...
You don’t get any texts. There is nothing to scroll on, no channels to hop between on the TV because there isn’t a TV.
Life begins to rock back and forth with the swaying train cars. It chugs along, past rural mountain towns, through the mist of cold, cascading waters, along ancient root-beer-colored rocky cliffs.
At some point you realize your soul, your spirit, your heart – whatever you want to call it – is finally catching its breath. It’s been running at full sprint since you shook hands at that interview however many years ago. You’ve been so caught up in the race, so breathless for so many years that you forgot this serenity was possible.
A spiritual silence.
The possibility to turn off all the noise and actually reflect. And you realize suddenly that maybe you never really understood the meaning of that word.
You boarded the train in frantic, downtown Denver, surrounded by dozens of other attention-deficit professionals catching trains, buses and Ubers to their crazed jobs with self-inflated importance.
Now, after the city slowly winked out in the distance, passing through a dozen tunnels and climbing hundreds of feet, the train is stopping. You’re in Winter Park. You step out into the brisk air and reach to check your phone.
Then you think better of it.