On the Rails With Young Americans

“Everyone on this train has borderline Asperger’s,” a self-described “double dork” announces somewhere in America. It’s a joke. Except no one disagrees.

The speaker is Travis Korte, a data scientist who resembles Christian Bale with gentler features. He’s talking about his fellow passengers — a group of 24 creative, enviably sharp, and decidedly quirky youngsters — who are traveling together on a rail journey across the U.S. with the Millennial Trains Project (MTP).

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A double rainbow arcs over our train in Denver. (Photograph by Robert Reid)

This is a little hard to explain, so bear with me. MTP is basically a crowd-sourced adventure — that may well become the model for the “new American road trip” (or so hope its organizers) — where travelers skip museums to pursue social projects, and, well, change the world. For now, it works as a conference/workshop/experiment that rumbles along in three vintage cars connected to Amtrak lines.

After raising the requisite $5000 needed to earn a spot on the train, each passenger/participant takes their (sometimes) abstract project to the streets in stopover cities along the route from San Francisco to the nation’s capital. Onboard, the millennials learn from visiting mentors (including award-winning architects, National Geographic Traveler’s editor in chief, and non-profit gurus); off the train they meet local entrepreneurs and organizers and tour once-gritty neighborhoods where every new gallery or converted warehouse is “a space.”

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Omaha locals are friendly, particularly ones with hula hoops. (Photograph by Robert Reid)

It’s a bit of old-school travel, too. While it’s a small revelation to see cities like Denver and Pittsburgh doing their thing to catch up with New York, everyone’s surprise favorite is Omaha (low expectations can bring the highest rewards, thank you “travel”). And we all crowd the train’s vestibule windows to snap photos as the Colorado topography transitions from caramel-colored mesas to rocky gorges filled with white-water rafters who moon us. Sacha Simmons, a fitness-first provocateur who wants the country to “sweat every day,” calls it “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” And, no, she’s not talking about the hairy butts.

The two dozen MTP projects — and their practitioners — are wide-ranging and ambitious. Daniella Uslan and Cameron Hardesty both strive to save things (food waste and poetry appreciation, respectively), while Katelyn Bryant-Comstock stops locals, such as Mormons on Provo sidewalks, to quiz them about what kind of contraception they’re using — or not.

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Approaching the Royal Gorge Canyon region in Colorado. (Photograph by Robert Reid)

Fond of making joyful sudden announcements of passing landmarks (“Gary, Indiana!”), Malcolm Kenton – in an infectious state of bliss aboard the train – is shooting a video for the National Association for Railroad Passengers. And another participant, Matt Stepp, is keeping it simple; he plans to solve global climate change.

Serious stuff, but serious is the new fun. Or a big part of it.

During a late-night guitar-swap concert somewhere in Iowa, Korte – who’s here as a Tocqueville of 21st-century data and its policy implications – belts out a remarkably original rendition of David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” He picks that because, I feel, he wants to know if there really is one damn song that can make any of us “break down and cry.” And, yes, he hits the high notes.

Naturally all this makes me, a travel writer and occupier of the lone Gen X berth, feeling rather unworthy.

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Travis Korte (left) and the rest of the gang in the observatory deck, the social center of the train. (Photograph by Robert Reid)

I grew up in the midst of a somewhat less can-do crowd. At 24, I was working at a Kinko’s counter and making songs about Canadian football managers for failing rock bands. The future was a Jackson Pollock to me: abstract and confusing, yet worth the briefest glimpse before moving on. Fast forward two decades, and I find myself on a train next to a stack of books I brought along in case I needed to fill the hours across the prairies.

I needn’t have bothered.

Before we reach our first stop at Denver, the notion of “travel” has receded from view. I’m no longer observing, but part of the group, a participatory journalist a la George Plimpton. Instead of donning boxing gloves or a Detroit Lions uniform, I get to be a Millennial, more or less. I drink wine. I listen and take notes. I think about what I’m doing in life and why. And I occasionally pass notes during a dry spell of a speech (“this guy’s using gang signs: true/false?”), then try to stifle the giggles.

Without my own project to pursue though, I break from the group at our stops-offs in Denver, Omaha, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. Inspired by David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries, I’ve packed a foldable bike and quickly discover how thrilling it is to ride straight into city centers from the train platform.

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Train enthusiast Malcolm Kenton in paradise. (Photograph by Robert Reid)

In Denver, I glide along the sunken South Platte River paths, under criss-crossing freight train bridges, and past interracial couples playing badminton. In North Omaha, I bike uphill on cracked roads to Malcolm X’s scrappy birth site, where a sad five-foot dead end has been adorned with a street marker reading “Malcolm X Boulevard.”

Never satisfied with my own educational resume, I fall for the University of Pittsburgh’s towering Cathedral of Learning, where Maxine Bruhns, the hilarious 90-year-old director, shows off its 29 “Nationality Rooms.” Bruhns says chancellors balked at a bear penis on a seal in the Swiss room until she threatened to add a Bhutan room with floor-to-ceiling fertility symbols (“basically a lot of huge penises,” she says). She adds, “Yeah, we have a lot of fun here.”

Maybe I should have gone to Pitt.

The man behind all this is Patrick Dowd, a millennial who seems destined for a career leading others. He patterned the ten-day trip after the Jagriti Yagra project in India, something he participated in as a Fulbright scholar (“it was a test of endurance,” he likes to say). Going it by train, he says, is key, providing a “suspended community” and a sense of suspended time (actually he uses the ancient Greek term kairos; I look it up afterwards) that allows participants to bond and collaborate without interruption.

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Lindsea Wilbur debuts “Millennial Trains” at Union Station in D.C. (Photograph by Robert Reid)

And it works. At a gathering in a D.C. bar for our final wrap up session, one millennial wishes we could be back on the train to talk, “where it was real.”

For now, we can only guess what to expect from the MTP 24. I suspect plenty. Until then, at least, we can listen to the soundtrack.

“Futurist” Lindsea Wilbur, a 21st-century Annie Hall in her mom’s 1980s work blazer, has been handing out “tool kits” for the Governance Futures Lab on the trip. When we arrive in D.C. she carries with her a $20 guitar she bought in Omaha to entertain the group during our long night journeys in the dark. As we near the time we have to say our goodbyes, we learn she’s penned a four-minute chronological song of our “journey,” which she debuts by the tracks just before our train pulls away without us.

She sings over sparse chords with a sweet, moving earnestness. And by the time she reaches the final chorus — “is adventure in the bottom of your shoes? let’s find out ‘cause we can’t lose” – it’s enough to make even a road-weary Gen-Xer tear up a bit.

What a trip.

Who knows, maybe I’ll get the band back together.

Robert Reid has written a couple dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet and regularly appears to discuss travel trends on national TV. Follow him on Twitter @ReidOnTravel.