Your life can change in an instant, or with one simple choice — like one I made to take an Amtrak train across America. After a year stateside working and saving up money, the pull of my nomadic soul began again. I needed to travel. So, on a whim, I booked a flight to Thailand from California. I just had to get there. And what better way to see the United States than by rail.
Today began just like every other day.
I woke up at the shriek of my alarm clock. I peeled myself off of the couch that I’ve been sleeping on for the past 3 months. I showered. I brushed my teeth.
Then I looked in the mirror. I smiled.
I smiled at myself because today wasn’t just any other day. Today, looking in that mirror, I knew was a day that was extraordinary.
Today I was not having to rush into work and serve other people for their own pleasure. Today I wasn’t having to fit myself like a gear into the massive money machine construct that is our dear capitalistic nation.
Today was profound.
Today meant I was doing something great.
Today I would do something abnormal. Abstract. Odd. Unexpected.
Today was the day I take a step that will unravel an adventure spanning thousands of miles and multiple time zones.
Today I would begin traveling different landscapes, environments, and cities. Across multiple countries experiencing many cultures.
Most of all, today marked the start of a journey exploring the far reaches of my dream. This time, that dream wasn’t clouded in a haze of depression and self-doubt. This day, today, I knew I was embarking on a trip of transformation and discovery.
Today, looking in that mirror, I truly felt alive.
Outside, November was throwing one helluva fit. She wailed and cried, hissed and spit. I woke up early, even though I had a late train, for the sole purpose of visiting my parents at the cemetery to say my goodbyes.
For a lad without a car and carrying a massive backpack filled with his entire life, it was quite a far way. I was determined to continue my ritual of leaving a pair of my worn and torn chucks at their graves before I left.
It always represented me leaving my past behind. By leaving my chucks which were falling apart at the seams, I saw it as myself leaving my tattered heart and soul behind to start anew.
But November it seemed, would not break her chaotic emotions, and by the time the weather lightened up, it was too late to visit them.
I took a deep breath and accepted this unfortunate scenario. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe, just as this trip was vastly different emotionally for me than all trips before, it was time to give up the ritual.
No more was I trying to leave my past behind and forget it. I wasn’t trying to ditch my tattered heart and soul with my dead parents in hopes to find something new. I’ve come to terms with my past and faced my demons as of late. This was a trip to build my self in its entirety into something great.
I’ve accepted my past and I’ve finally found closure.
I finished packing the last of my belongings into my light blue REI pack. Embarrassing fact — it’s a girls backpack and the only one that fit me.
Another funny thing you realize when you pack your entire life into a backpack is that you see just exactly what belongs. That’s the difference between belongings and possessions people rarely see.
I hauled the hefty pack on and proceeded to do that chicken dance you have to just so you can tighten the straps in the proper fashion.
Hip straps pulled tight. Top straps over the shoulder pulled forward. Bent over — shoulder straps pulled backwards tight. Wiggle until comfortable.
Once situated, I plopped my even heavier tech bag on the front of my body. Every type of electronic you can imagine lives in that, and I know you might think they are all possessions, but they all totally belong in my life. Tech junky.
I soon found myself within the low-lit vaulted ceilings of Union Station in Washington DC. All of my great adventures have started here, and being around all of the travelers scurrying about like busy ants gives you that feeling of perpetual movement.
Yet, most people in this ebb and flow of bodies were there for business, cycling through endlessly each day, whereas I felt like a stationary being trapped in a timelapse. Everyone was in such a rush and all avoiding eye contact with anybody else.
Some people waited at the timetable boards staring as if their mental complaints about it not showing their arrival time yet would have any effect on the screen. I had no need to rush around anymore. And I had no need to wait around for things to change.
My train, the Amtrak 29 Capital Limited to Chicago, arrived on time and we all shuffled aboard. We were down a platform between two polished silver Amtrak superliners painted American red and blue, and my eye widened with marvel as we passed by these great hissing steel beasts.
The benefit of these long-distance trains is the massive amount of leg space provided, easily beating out airlines for comfort.
And to my delight, it seems as though these older trains had been freshersized a tad bit. No more tacky rainbow-colored confetti print that gives you a headache to look at. Ya’ know, that décor that looks like a kiddo with a crayon got a hold of a Rorschach graphic. Now, at least for this train, they’ve dressed it in the dark Amtrak blue that is much easier on the eyes.
Immediately after departure, I took to the viewing car to kick my chucks back and enjoy the views. The storm passed giving way to clear blue skies.
Then we were off.
With a screech and a clunk and a hiss and a few other noises, the train pulled out of Union Station. And thus my gnarly American train adventure began!
From floor to ceiling in the panoramic viewing car, I watched ivy covered oaks and sycamores flash by in the blur of orange, crimson, and gold of autumn.
Sunlight flecked through one side of the train dancing shadows across my leather-bound journal as I jotted down details.
We passed through a pitch dark tunnel and emerged on the other side of the mountain to cross a rusted steel bridge into Harpers Ferry. A civil war town that I’ve always loved visiting, everybody in the viewing car gathered to the one side to marvel at the old stone houses lining the tree brushed hills of the Shenandoah Valley.
I was already in the infancy of Lewis and Clark’s journey through the wilds of America, and my next train would take me deep into the rugged north still along their path. Here though was where Thomas Jefferson stood and said, “insert awe-inspiring quote here that I forgot.”
Okay, just kidding, Thomas Jefferson stood upon the rock now named after him and declared, “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.”
Can ya blame me for loving this little historic town?
Minutes later we were on our way again. It would be a long distance before we saw much else that resembled a town, so I grabbed a Sierra Nevada and sipped a beer as the trees strobed sunlight through the viewing car like a disco ball. Just the train floating over sprawling golden farmland.
I hadn’t had much interactions with other passengers thus far, but I did spark up a conversation with Melissa who was sitting beside me, fascinated by my selfie recordings via my GoPro.
“Oh no, I was just staring because it thought it was so cool you could see it on your phone too!”
She was an older woman with blonde hair and a quick smile, and she seemed genuinely happy to be on the train.
“I’m headed to Cleveland to see the Browns be beaten by the Ravens with my brother.”
“Oh, so you are from Baltimore?”
“Oh no, from Indiana, I love them too. But I don’t mess with those…Redskins.”
You could hear the distaste of a die-hard fan. I told her about my road trip that I took across the United States when I was 20, and stopping off in Chicago and Cleveland.
“And when I was in Chicago, I took the wrong exit and ended up in Cabrini Green. I suddenly realized I had seen that apartment complex on Gangland and America’s Most Dangerous Places.”
“Talk about a wrong turn” she said, and got up to grab another beer.
When she returned and cracked open a Miller Light, I could hear the similar sound of her heart breaking.
“They were out of Corona”
I felt sad for her, because it seemed like a dire situation she was suddenly in, and because of the fact that we had just departed and already run out of her favorite nectar. I always thought Miller tasted like piss.
Oh the woes of a traveler.
The sun sank below the horizon turning the sky into the color of a melted creamsicle. As the daylight died, the viewing car livened. Cracking beer tops rang out and half of the car erupted into song and dance.
One group was blaring their music through speakers they had brought, while two older gentlemen bragged about who would be better in a dance-off. Soon enough, they were awkwardly moonwalking down the aisle as Michael Jackson “wooed” and “yeeheed” from the speakers.
Though I was tempted to let loose the dance demon inside and show them how to shake it, I was in a particular mood. And I also didn’t want to show up every white boy in existence with my divinely bestowed dance skills.
It wasn’t that I was bored or over it. I wasn’t even bothered by the noise. More like I was completely content. I felt a calm over myself being on this journey.
After a couple of hours, the music died and the people returned to their seats to sleep. The darkness outside a train window in the middle of nowhere is a fascinating thing. It is like staring into polished black marble, with the faint silhouettes of trees like the veins in the stone.
The rocking of the train and the light hum of the wind lullabies you instantly to sleep. I was startled awake at one point when a train on the opposite tracked whizzed by. It sounded like low and high-pitched howling by spirits and was as mesmerizing as it was bone chilling.
When we pulled out of the white speckled skyline of Pittsburgh after midnight, a monstrous yawn signaled it was time for sleep. Tomorrow was Chicago, and I needed the energy to hunt down my deep dish pizza fix on a 4hr layover.
To get caught up with my story of triumph from depression to transformation, read Memoirs of a Lost Boy.
Like this story? Get caught up on all of the other days on this gnarly train adventure across the United States!
READ – Day 2: Discovery
READ – Day 3: Seeing Clearly
**DISCLOSURE** I was not financially compensated for this post. I received a free trip courtesy of Amtrak for review purposes. The opinions, photos, videos, and use of the word “gnarly” are completely my own based on my experience.