Suppose—hypothetically—that you find yourself one evening, early in the second summer of our pandemic, reading your email, when you open up an advertisement for discounted train tickets. Suppose that you have recently looked into cross-country airline tickets and found yourself dismayed at the prices, compared to what you’d grown accustomed to over the past year. And suppose that your work over that same period has largely consisted of talking to small boxes on your computer screen, and that it is finally summertime, and that many countries are not allowing you to travel to visit them, and that you know that New Mexico is a real place that is supposed to be nice and which lies somewhere between you, sitting at your computer in the Northeast, and the other side of the country. Only then might you—a person who would never be swayed by something as trivial as an advertisement—begin to consider the possibility of your getting on a train, sitting on it for two weeks, and in doing so crossing almost the entirety of the country.
There are several considerations that might make the proposition more attractive. First, the price—ten trips on nearly any Amtrak train, at any time in a thirty-day window, all for the cost of a one-way plane ticket from Boston to Seattle. Seeing as you can cross the country in as little as two trips, this leaves significant flexibility to spend a day or two at points along your route, or to travel on more scenic segments. You may pull up the Amtrak System Map, tracing possible paths across the country, through towns you’ve never heard of—Winnemucca, Needles, Kannapolis. You may be swept up in the majesty of Amtrak’s promotional photographs, imagining yourself on one of the silver trains curving through ochre canyons at sunrise, enjoying your breakfast in the dining car.
Just as you convince yourself that the whole thing is a good idea, and you start to pore over timetables in order to string together ten trip segments into a continental journey, several doubts will begin to nag you. (Delays! The sheer distance! The time! Your work! Food! Delays! Coronavirus! Showering?) But you will push these aside as you put in your credit card information and purchase the ten-trip pass.
Left: New York State Capitol. Right: Agency buildings on the Empire State Plaza.
From left to right: SUNY Albany, Richardson Olmsted Campus in Buffalo, and Buffalo City Hall.
Niagara's American Falls.
La Junta, Colo.
Left: The landscape of southeastern Colorado. Right: the observation car on the Southwest Chief.
Santa Fe, N.M.
Santa Fe, N.M.
The rail junction at Lamy, N.M.
Left: First view of the Pacific Ocean. Right: The train station in Santa Barbara.
On an empty stretch of coast near Vandenberg AFB.
Turning inland south of San Luis Obispo.
Train stations on the Coast Starlight line.
Left: The Sacramento train station. Right: North of Klamath Falls, Ore.
Arriving at King Street Station, Seattle.
Left: Winding through the Central Cascades. Right: Entering the Cascade Tunnel.
Left: Crossing a river near Glacier N.P.. Right: Montana landscape past Glacier.
The Minnesota Capitol.