By CHRISTO ELIOT
I learned everything I need to know about progress and developed an immense appreciation for the airline industry while bent-over in a Denver-bound Amtrak bathroom, vomiting up my sorry excuse for a dinner at 4 a.m. somewhere in the middle of Nebraska.
My friend Ethan and I had decided that after we finished our Fall semester finals, we would meet up in New York City for a few days and then board a train at Penn Station to begin our railroad odyssey back home to Colorado. I figured cross-country train travel was something you had to try at least once — kind of like eating nothing but canned corn for five straight days just to see what happens, gastrointestinally speaking. We thought it would be something of an adventure or at least make a decent story; we had these romanticized ideas that the journey would be like stepping back in time — that riding a train would be the fine dining five-course meal equivalent to the greasy, fast-food, microwaved, facon-topped cheeseburger of an airplane. We weren’t necessarily wrong; it just turns out five courses of sitting in a box on wheels as it slowly rolls across the American countryside in the middle of the night with motion sickness and newly discovered claustrophobia really is not that appealing. And the Wright brothers made a super good double-bacon cheeseburger.
Ethan and I boarded the train late. We had been catching up with a high school classmate of ours who goes to Columbia and lost track of time. Once we had finally made it from the Upper West Side to Penn Station, most of the train’s passengers had already boarded, forcing my friend and me to separate. I slunk into an aisle seat, pleased with the amount of legroom I was working with, next to a young man who used hair gel pretty liberally and was listening to a heavy house beat at roughly the same volume I would expect in a dingy nightclub. Unfortunately, It soon became clear this was the only song my new travelling companion listened to.
Sitting in a train car for 18 hours by yourself with nothing but an outdated and already-read copy of Sports Illustrated to occupy yourself affords a lot of time for getting lost in your own headspace. Soon after the sun went down (which was early, as we were making this trek in December), my thoughts started to get kind of interesting. “What if ants think they’re our pets and feel a crippling sense of betrayal when we squish their friends and family in front of them?” “The world would be a really interesting place if people were like fish and floated to the top of the atmosphere when they died.” “People would probably think I am a really weird individual if they were able to hear my thoughts right now.” That was basically what I dealt with until I fell into a weird, exhausted limbo state, suspended somewhere between sleep and consciousness.
Fortunately, the train pulled into Union Station in Chicago around 10 a.m. the next morning, giving Ethan and me a few hours in the Windy City before boarding the Colorado-bound California Zephyr. It was my first time in Chicago, and maybe somewhat embittered by my lack of REM sleep and the fact I was so hungry I think my stomach was literally devouring itself for food, my overall impressions of the city were this: Oh, it’s cold and gray here, too. After a visit to a very large department store, decked out in Christmas decor, and a hot dog (Chi-city, right?), we got our bags from the rented storage lockers and boarded the new train. This time, Ethan and I found seats together. The journey was going pretty well, and we enjoyed watching the American midwest unfold before us in the glass-domed observation car. Soon enough though, the sun set and the countryside again fell into impenetrable darkness. We returned to our seats as the train slowly grinded to a halt. An Amtrak employee, who seemed less than enthused about his job, informed us that we were at the Mississippi River, and the conductor was unsure if the bridge was up or down for crossing. An engineer (not the Duffield kind) had to get off the train and pick at the ice in the switch to lower the bridge — you know, like a 1920’s problem. We were right: The railroads were just like travelling back in time.
Eventually, we started rolling again, and Ethan dozed off next to me. I was not so lucky; the hotdog from that afternoon didn’t exactly jive with the bag of pretzels and 7-Up from that evening, and the rolling of the train set in motion a battle between my brain’s urge to suppress nausea and my body’s urge to declare a fire-drill and get everything out. My brain and some controlled breathing helped stifle the imminent vomiting for a few hours as I drifted in and out of consciousness, but eventually I needed to get to the restroom and expel the contents of my stomach into the train’s small metallic toilet.
That’s when I started thinking about progress. Not long ago, train travel was the only way to get across America. Before that, it was wagons and oxen. To get a message to someone in Europe required a weeks-long journey in a wooden ship that used the stars to navigate. As I blew chunks rolling in a box across Nebraska, I was struck by how far we have come and how much we take for granted. Sometimes it is important to take a step back and realize how extraordinary it is we can use lightwaves to transport music, we can beam a bunch of zeros and ones into space to send someone a drunken text message and we can turn a knob to get clean drinking water. I’m glad I made the 36-hour journey on the Amtrak. But there’s a reason we have airports, and I never have to do it again. I would recommend everyone pukes in a train car bathroom at some point in their lives. It really helps to put things in perspective.