Remember when a bunch of us got vaccinated and our worlds blossomed anew? What a spring that was! I remember the moment in May when my daydreams about visiting art museums became plans. I decided once the National Gallery of Art fully reopened, I’d make a pilgrimage to Washington DC and seek out Marc Chagall (my quarantine obsession) in the Sculpture Garden. I’d take a full day exploring the NGA, and another full day wandering the city and writing.
Mentally I had begun working through the logistics of absconding with the family car for a four-day journey when a wild idea occurred to me — couldn’t I take a train there from Greensboro? A quick visit to the Amtrak website confirmed my desire. Hooray!! I could actually plan a big city getaway with no airplanes and minimal driving, which for me is truly living the dream. In that moment, I was just psyched to avoid city traffic and parking. But when I finally set foot on that Carolinian train bound for Alexandria, VA in late July, I wasn’t prepared for the thrill of riding the rails once more. It made me feel so young again.
I didn’t learn how to drive until I was 32 years old. I mostly used buses, trains, airplanes, and my own two feet before then. I developed a fondness for the forty-minute Wolverine train from Dearborn to Ann Arbor when I was in high school. This was how I could visit my sisters and later my boyfriend without having to beg my parents for rides. Whenever I rode back to Dearborn (near the end of the line for the route coming from Chicago), I’d sit very quietly in the smoking car while the conductor made his rounds, halfheartedly looking for any new passengers. Half the time he’d walk right past me, and once the coast was clear, I’d light a celebratory cigarette. I could use my ticket for the next trip and save myself eight bucks, which was a lot of money to a teenager in 1994.
Here in 2021, I had no intention of bilking our national rail service. I couldn’t even if I’d wanted to, since they don’t let you transfer tickets like that anymore. Also I was near the start of a route that runs from Charlotte all the way to New York’s Penn Station. The conductors checked my ticket several times, which is just one of the ways they run the tightest ship I’ve experienced in the last 18 months. They enforce a mask mandate better than any other institution I’ve encountered since the start of the pandemic, which made my ride an absolute joy from start to finish.
My favorite part of this Amtrak experience (also a highlight from the trip as a whole) were the conductors’ departure announcements. A different gentleman spoke every time we left. The first one firmly explained the mask policy — no taking it off unless you’re actively eating or drinking — and then added, “If you do not abide by this policy we will happily escort you off the train at our earliest opportunity and the next destination will be your last.” My heart raced when I heard that. These guys are not messing. Definitely unionized, I thought. Each successive announcement reiterated the mask policy, though many would also take the time to address a particular pet peeve. One conductor addressed an incident that had just happened in my car. “Please use headphones when watching videos or listening to music on your devices. If you don’t use headphones then we all hear it, and nobody wants that.” YES, thank you, that was so annoying, I silently cheered. My favorite was the dining car attendant doing last call before his meal break. “And please don’t come into the cafe car until I’m done. Thanks! See you in an hour.” I practically swooned. Telling customers they can’t bug you during your break — what a king! Few things satisfy me more than seeing workers flex their power.
The other part of the ride I enjoyed most was just the ability to get up and move around freely without turbulence or that weird feeling of hurtling through the sky. The train moves in such a smooth, straight line. It doesn’t take long for me to adjust my sense of balance. Flying, on the other hand, feels so unpleasant — the cramped quarters and dry, recycled air, the pressure in my ears, being trapped 35,000 feet in the air with people behaving in gross, obnoxious ways. Especially now we’re seeing passengers refusing to mask or behaving aggressively toward flight attendants (sometimes to the point of finding themself duct-taped to their seat), I have no interest in flying for a long time.
It was different when I was younger. My father worked for an airline, so I could get dirt cheap standby tickets anywhere they flew. In college I’d take weekend trips to visit my sister in Washington DC and always felt so confident flitting about airports with my carry-on bag, always knowing exactly where I needed to go. When I was going to school in Ann Arbor, I could’ve taken the Amtrak to Chicago but flying was always cheaper. But then one time a snowstorm hit the great lakes while I was visiting a friend for New Year’s weekend, and I got stranded at her aunt’s house in Schaumburg, IL. There was no chance of me getting a flight back to Detroit for days, so I bought one of the last tickets on the Wolverine. The train ride took about three hours longer than it was supposed to. The gaps between the cars were lined with freshly fallen snow. The door at the end of my car wouldn’t stay shut unless you really slammed it, and everyone kept walking through on their way to the cafe car. My car-mates and I got used to shouting, “Shut the door,” in unison at every newbie passerby who didn’t know the score. When the door didn’t shut it made our car twenty degrees colder, so our voices grew surlier as the trip wore on. That was definitely my least favorite Amtrak ride, but it got me home when no other mode of transport could.
I wonder where some of those “shut the door” people are now, and if they remember that strange journey through the blizzard. Unpleasant as it was, that was a very communal moment. We all worked together to keep warm. My pandemic train ride to Metro DC certainly felt more relaxed and pleasant, but I sensed a similar communal spirit. From what I could see, everyone did keep their masks up when they weren’t taking bites or sipping drinks. But more than that, I appreciated the tacit understanding that if anyone acted too foolish the conductors would haul their ass off at the next station, which is never that far away. People tend to behave better when they know those consequences are in play.
This is why I don’t mind taking eight hours to get to a place I could drive in five. And I always prefer riding to driving. I love gazing at passing scenery and letting my mind wander. From a train, you see parts of the world the road never shows you. As I meditated upon eastern North Carolina’s flat, rural expanses, I recalled that brief time in 2007 when I lived in Detroit and occasionally rode the train to work in Ann Arbor. Such a surreal journey. First you glide through these vast urban neighborhoods dotted with abandoned lots that had turned to meadows and eventually you end up in this lush green city that thrives on the University of Michigan’s $12 billion endowment. And in-between are these highly paved and increasingly desolate suburbs, including the neighborhood where I was raised. You just don’t see that steady gradation from poverty to wealth in such stark detail when you’re riding down the interstate.
Between 2007 and now, I’d been on only one Amtrak ride — in winter 2009 the Cascades route took my husband and me from Seattle to Portland, and it was by far the fanciest train I’d been on. We got to watch “The Philadelphia Story” on built-in monitors! In the age of smart devices and streaming media, I wasn’t missing those amenities on the more austere Carolinian train (though I would love to be on one of those long, scenic, western routes with the observation cars). Honestly I was thrilled when I finally noticed the electrical outlet next to my leg about three hours into the journey, so I could stop conserving my phone battery like some sad, modern-day pioneer. Once I knew I could juice up my devices, I decided this was the ultimate way to travel. I’ll take this slower, calmer, ecologically sustainable, and all around more civilized experience over flying any time.
My DC adventure was just as delightful as the ride there. I walked and took the Metro everywhere. I found Chagall’s glittering mosaic hidden in a shady corner of the Sculpture Garden, where I sat on a rock, sipped an ice coffee, and wept for a bit. I wandered Old Town Alexandria, wrote half an essay outside of a cafe, and gazed upon the Potomac. That’s where I was when I read the CDC’s admission that vaccinated people can indeed spread the virus. I sighed and mourned that fleeting month when I thought it was actually safe going to indoor public spaces unmasked. And when I later went to get mussels for dinner, I made sure to sit outside.
I felt lucky having those four days of car-free alone time. I cannot express how peaceful an eight hour train ride is to a mom who’s spent most of the pandemic at home with a child. My perspective on travel time is so different from than I was younger. I recently found a funny journal entry from that blizzard ride through western Michigan. I guess 21-year-old me was trying to persevere when she wrote, “Wishing that I could be home sooner is like taking acid and wishing I could get to sleep. I’ll get there eventually.” If you’d told me then that in 2021 I would be elated to spend an entire train ride wearing a mask, pulling it down just long enough to sneak bites from a $6 cheese and cracker tray, I probably would’ve thought that sounded nuts. And now I cannot wait to do it again. However long it takes for the world to blossom once more, I know my rock near Marc’s mosaic is just an Amtrak + Metro ride away.