Don't underestimate the social benefits of a cross-country train excursion

The views are gorgeous, but the conversations are even better.

Taken form The Eastbound Empire Builder heading towards West Glacier Station Montana
This was taken from aboard the Empire Builder as it headed towards West Glacier Station in Montana. (Photo: Amtrak "Empire Builder" Montana)

As a traveler, I’m grateful that flying is relatively inexpensive (compared to the past) and widely available, but the experience of getting where I want to go on a plane is awful. From getting to the never-conveniently-located airport, to the stress of going through security, to the sundry discomforts of flying itself, the whole thing is exhausting. Despite this, it can certainly be worth it to go through a day of physical and mental stress to spend a week somewhere wonderful.

But recently, I found myself with the option of taking the train cross-country from New York to Seattle, and I wasn't in a rush. It only cost $90 more than flying. (I always pay extra to check a bag and get extra legroom, so the "discount" fares never reflect what I pay). I jumped at the chance to not only avoid the airport but also to have the experience of taking the train.

I've driven from New York to California and back by the southern route and the middle route, but I took the northern route on the train—I took the Lake Shore Limited train from NYC to Chicago, where I wasn't stuck in an airport during my transfer, but was able to walk out into the city for a lovely meal, fresh air, and found some hipster coffee too. I took Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Seattle for the second leg of the trip.

I knew the views were going to be great (and they were), but I was more surprised by the wonderful company I enjoyed as I crossed America.

This is not because I’m a friendly, outgoing person. I’m an introvert, and when I fly, I endeavor not to speak to anyone — it’s too stressful when you're shoved so close to so many other people. There’s seems to be an inverse relationship between space and friendliness: On a crowded subway in NYC, speaking to the person you're smooshed against is taboo. Similarly, when I have to create a tiny, 6" or less cocoon around myself to get even a modicum of privacy on a plane, I shut everyone out.

Conversely, on a train, there’s plenty of room, which makes me feel a lot less anxious and more open to conversation. For the first third of my trip, I had a regular coach seat (which included tons of legroom, a foot rest and real recline), and I enjoyed a roomette (the smallest type of sleeper car) for the second two-thirds. Whether you have a sleeper car or a seat, you always have the option of spending time in the observation car on trains that have them. Those are the glass-sided-and-skylighted cars that have swivel seats and tables on which to play games or set up a computer. There's also always a dining car to enjoy meals, so you have several options for spaces to enjoy besides your seat on most long-haul routes.

Not that there is unlimited space on a train: In the dining car at meals, you have to share tables with other people unless you're already a group of four — so it's truly random who you end up sitting with for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And you're still sharing space with whoever else is around in the observation car.

Early morning from the geographical center of North America.....thinking of all the beauty that lies around: the slurping and fecund Everglades, the intimidating Rockies, the Oceanic Great Lakes, the Blueberry-patched Appalachian Trail, the Yucatan Peninsula's blue-green waters, the golden California coast, my beloved undulating emerald Hudson Valley, the Sierra Madres dotted with giant agaves, the old-growth forests in Olympic, the Golden Gate bridge and the Metro-North bridge into Harlem that I call "the 8 bridges crossing" because from your seat, on a bridge over the East River, you can see three bridges on one direction and four in the other - each one a different style! And if that doesn't make a great city, I don't know what does. So many things I have been lucky to see, and plenty yet to come (have only dipped my toe into Canada: Vancouver, Montreal, a lake outside Toronto). Knowing there is so much to see keeps me going in a way nothing else does. #neverstoptraveling #empirebuilder #crosscountry #travel #wanderlust #amtrak #soundtosound #traintravel

A post shared by Starre Vartan (@starrevartan) on

A post shared by Starre Vartan (@starrevartan) on Mar 8, 2018 at 6:36am PST

Now I might be an introvert, but I can always make polite conversation when need be. At first I wasn't sure I wanted to endure random conversation at dinner, but I was hungry. Once I was sitting at a table with others and we started talking (asking where someone got on the train or was getting off was a wonderfully neutral way to break the ice), I genuinely enjoyed my mealtime conversations. I met people I might never otherwise have shared a meal with, which is one of traveling's chief joys.

Where else would I meet a young man who was inheriting a chickpea and lentil farm in North Dakota who had some complex feelings about it, as well as fascinating plans for its future. (He trained as a chef, so wants to have a literal farm-to-table restaurant on his property one day.) When else would I have time to listen to the life story of a retired civil-rights activist from Detroit? Or hear a Virginia history professor's take on how her students understand the history they are living through now? Or listen to what it's like to work in the now-booming Dakota oil fields from a 20-something who wants to travel the world?

It can also be fun to eavesdrop: Lowell and Brenda sat next to me in the glass-topped observation car and she shared how she had seen a fox, an eagle, and a hawk while gazing out the window for the last two hours; he had seen a wolf next to a fire station. Meanwhile I hadn’t seen animals beyond some ground birds. I kept my peeled and after a few minutes, I too was lucky enough to see a bald eagle!

Yes, you can have interesting conversations on a plane, but there's always that issue of when the conversation ends, because you don't get up and walk to a new place as on a train. When I was finished chatting, I got up and went back to my seat or took pictures from the observation car. Because I was on a train, I could get up and move around, which makes all the difference. And there's something different about the energy of a train, where some people are there for the entire trip (like me), and others are getting on and off at different intervals, so there's always fresh energy.

After my crosscountry train experience, I exited at Seattle with the stories of strangers buzzing around my head, and a new view of the United States' landscape, through areas I hadn't seen before. The Seattle train station is just 40 minutes from my house instead of an hour and a half, and it let me off downtown, so I could walk to a nearby favorite restaurant for lunch. I arrived home well-rested, relaxed, and full other people's stories and lives.

A far cry from flying, that's for sure.

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

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MNN

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