American Legend: Coast to Coast by Train

You don’t really know a train until you’ve slept on one.

And I don’t mean a half-hour doze between Philly and Baltimore but the real deal: a bunk in a berth, a sliding door with a latch lock, and those WWII-style knobs to turn off your reading light.

And when you’ve really settled into a train that’s going a long way, it does something to you. For one, any notion of train as mere “transportation” goes out the window. That is, if it opens.

I’ve spent about 40 cumulative nights on trains traveling through Siberian backwaters and Vietnamese salt farms. I love the time-warp aspect of the experience and grant an amen to Paul Theroux, who called trains “the most painless way to travel” in his 1975 classic The Great Railway Bazaar. They’re also a lot of fun.

I’m particularly thrilled to add eight more nights on a train in a country I’ve barely seen from the rails even though I call it home: the U.S.A.

Over the next week or so, I’ll be bumming a ride from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., with the Millennial Trains Project, a nonprofit mobile “conference” with 24 young entrepreneurs on board out to rediscover the U.S. while changing the world.

At day stops in places like Salt Lake City, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, the future leaders of America will meet with local entrepreneurs and work on their own projects. One participant, Cameron Hardesty, will be staging pop-up poetry installations in each city to show why “poetry matters.” And Malcolm Kenton, a rep of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, will be making a film to promote trains in the U.S.

I’m a bit more scared of a pro-exercise initiative called “Sweat Everyday” — but, hey, it’s still impressive! I mean, I was content with a job at Kinko’s at their age.

In my opinion, they’ve picked the best way to take inspiration to the streets of America. After all, trains made this country.

In the mid-1800s, a fast-growing succession of rails unified the growing collection of United States, going coast to coast, or, as George H. Douglas put it, from “nowhere in particular” to “nowhere at all.”

Often transport companies created mock “fairy-tale pamphlets,” according to Christian Wolmar’s The Great Railroad Revolution, to lure laborers to their train lines — and towns were born. When railways turned to self-interest with the “robber baron” monopolies of Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt, the public became disillusioned. That disillusionment survives today.

Though Amtrak is as healthy as it’s been since it began in 1971, with a record 32 million passengers last year, its successes pale when compared with domestic flights (640 million last year) or where trains were a century ago (more than one billion rides a year).

Regardless of the numbers, it’s amazing to me that we can travel pretty much the same way early American tourists did to see Yellowstone or Niagara Falls. That’s one reason I think a long-haul train trip ought to be seen as a sort of rite of passage for travelers.

This will be new for me. Most of my favorite train memories have been in far-off places where trains are sometimes the best or only option. I learned all sorts of things.

On a slow narrow-gauge in Bulgaria’s Pirin Mountains, I watched a fellow passenger, evidently a farmer, whisper his kid goat asleep. In Siberia, two grandparents jumped up to help me put sheets on my bed, offering me tomatoes fresh from their dacha garden (which we ate whole like apples) — along with the obligatory bottle of vodka. Another time a mustachioed lady who looked like Joe Pesci pulled me from my cabin to admire a scary-looking Soviet dam. And when I think of my time in the Swiss Alps, I think of being glued to the windows on the ride up, up, up from Lucerne to Interlaken.

Because I’m (well) out of the “millennial” age group, I’m mostly along for the ride — and the views, and the one-day explorations in cities I don’t know well along the way. Inspired by David Byrne’s Bicycle DiariesI’m packing something I’ve never taken on a trip before: a foldable bike (a relative cheapie by Dahon) I can use to venture out from train stations that are far more central than most of America’s airports.

Since this is a new way for me to explore the States, I thought I’d change up my approach, too. Despite my status as a veteran guidebook author, I’m skipping the guidebooks this trip. Instead, I’ll plan my itineraries using a rotating mix of tips I get from blogs, the social-media-sphere, phone apps, and locals.

Say, anyone know a good place to eat breakfast in Omaha?

Follow Robert on his journey across America on Twitter @ReidOnTravel.