On Nov. 9, 2016, I boarded the Lake Shore Limited, Amtrak’s overnight service from New York to Chicago. I had with me a small suitcase stuffed with a week’s worth of clothes, half a dozen books, a bright blue Casio wristwatch, and a cheap digital camera I’d picked up at Best Buy on my way to Penn Station. My phone remained at home.
Over the next 13 days, I would log 8,980 miles aboard six trains, traversing 31 states, subsisting mainly on Three Cheese Tortellini with Creamy Pesto Sauce and Vegetable Medley. During this time, I had conversations with upward of 80 strangers, almost all of whom I met over meals in the dining car. Aside from what I was told by other passengers, I consumed no news in any form during my trip.
In the months leading up to the presidential election, I’d been working on a passel of new songs for a run of shows at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and, on the heels of years spent zigzagging the country in a tour bus, I was thinking about travel, and the varied impulses that have given rise to travel throughout history, as an organizing principle. But I wanted to write something that was at the very least framed by a personal journey, if not entirely personal in its content.
At the same time, I was also keenly aware — who wasn’t? — of the rupture in our body politic, and decided that I might kill two birds with one stone by taking a trip that would wrest me out of my New York City bubble while offering the narrative frame I was seeking. So in early October, I bought a series of train tickets and decided that regardless of the outcome, I would set off the morning after the election.
Meals in the dining car work like so: If you’re in a sleeper car, an attendant walks through midmorning and takes reservations; you’re handed a slip of paper with the time and number of people in your party. At the appointed hour, an announcement is made inviting those holding reservations to appear at the threshold of the dining car. If you’re in a party smaller than four, you’ll be placed at the next open table, leading to stochastic seating arrangements that create unexpected social and cultural adjacencies.
In the course of my travels, I chatted with postmasters, real estate agents, nuclear engineers, schoolteachers, farm equipment saleswomen, nurses, long haul truck drivers, retirees headed to the Grand Canyon, retirees headed back from the Grand Canyon, a sea-steading software engineer, a prominent TV personality, a cowboy, a national park trail crew leader, an aspiring music publicist, a public utility employee focused on solar energy who nevertheless professed to be a climate change skeptic, a flight attendant, an actuary, an air conditioner salesman, two ultramarathoners, and two train enthusiasts who met on an online forum and now maintain a food blog documenting everything that they eat during their trips. The list goes on.
Read more at The New York Times.