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Before You Apply to the Amtrak Writer’s Residency, Let’s Talk

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As a travel writer/literary scribe/nonsense poet, I know what happened when you read Amtrak’s description of their new writer’s residency. Oh you haven’t heard? Amtrak is offering writers the opportunity to ride the rails for a few days. Must have mad writing skills and a substantial social media following.

Sound like you? Great. But there were also some questions about the rights of submitted writing samples that might have you rethinking jumping aboard. Last I heard, Amtrak is working out the legalese.

I’ll let you decide whether it’s a good idea to apply or not. I am here to talk truth about train travel.

The Truth About Train Travel

Me on a train. Don't laugh. No one looks good on a train.

Me on a train in NYC. Don’t laugh. No one looks good on a train.

You visualized yourself sitting in a plush, reclined seat, scenery zipping by your window, glass of wine in hand as you type the next great American novel. You picture telling the other oh-so interesting passengers you’re there to write a novel, a play, a…blog post.

Don’t lie. Some of the fun of being a writer on a residency is saying you’re a writer on a residency. “I wrote it all…on a train!” Cue applause at the well-attended reading of your new train mystery series, Snakes On A Train.

The passengers you picture come straight out of the golden age of train travel. Everyone carries a boxy suitcase and has a charming old-timey accent. The gals wear mink shrugs and derby hats; the gents don fedoras and skinny ties. Except for the ting of silver spoons and platters, it’s quiet as the train chugs along, breathtaking scenery zipping by out the window.

You have more than enough space for your laptop or even (guh) your typewriter. You put your feet up and type away to a special playlist you created for the occasion.

Runaway train, never goin’ back
Wrong way on a one-way track…

That is what I envisioned before I took a four-day train cross country from Chicago to San Francisco. That’s not quite what happened. I am not saying train travel is awful, not at all. I am simply saying it may not be what you think it is.

No stranger on a train.

Strangers-on-a-Train-still-good

What I envisioned.

At age 21, I rode the rails from Chicago to San Francisco and back, paying for it using my paltry tax return.  It was a family trip; my mom, younger sister, uncle and I headed out to California to watch my oldest sister graduate from law school.

My mom refuses to fly and so she takes Amtrak everywhere. None of the following experiences have anything to do with Amtrak or Amtrak service. From what I remember, the service is pretty darn good, the people are nice, and it is a unique experience that everyone should do once.

This is about my romanticized view of train travel, what I thought it was (the Orient Express) and what it actually is (not the Orient Express).

The Deluxe “Sleeper” Car.

Train-Travel-Amtrak-Writer's-Residency

THIS is exactly what happened to us.

When my mom said she booked a deluxe car (for the three of us), I envisioned a hotel-sized room with a big window. I pictured plush beds and chocolates on pillows, gourmet food on silver platters, a little table set up next to the window with a vase and a single rose. Along with little luxuries like a ceiling high enough so that I could stand completely upright.

Reality: We spent three nights and one day crammed in a hot room that was smaller than a walk-in closet. The beds folded out from the walls and had to be folded back in every morning, so there’s no lying in bed and typing away. Trains sway and if you’re in the top bunk, you literally have to strap yourself in or you’ll fall out. During the day, you sit facing one another, knee to knee. One person would have thought it snug. My Uncle reserved his own seat, leaving the three of us to fight for room in the sardine can.

Yes, you can get up and move around, but it’s a train. There’s a bathroom car, a drinking car, a viewing car, a dining car and a whole lot of passenger cars. I didn’t move the whole three and a half days there nor the three and a half back. I ate a lot of cheesecake and by the end of the trip, I felt like I had to be rolled off the train.

The stop-off points. 

Scenery Out the Train Window

I envisioned getting off the train in Omaha, playing poker in some dive casino, saying “See ya later boys,” then hearing “all aboard,” and running to catch the train, waving goodbye out the window with a handkerchief.

Reality: You do stop on the Amtrak. We stopped in Omaha, Reno, Denver, Sacramento, and then finally San Francisco. But only long enough for my mom to smoke one cigarette* then it would start back up again. There was no time to leave the platform and the only sense I got of the city was the way the air smelled**.

*My mom no longer smokes! Yay mom.

**There’s something rotten at the Denver train station.

The scenery.

Copenhagen

Train station in Denmark

It’s beautiful. 

Although we did not stop for long, what I saw out the window made it worth it. It’s a whole new way to see the country. There’s a viewing car with super-sized windows, and chairs set up theater-style to watch all the gorgeous wonders roll by. Snag a seat early around sunset! The terrain went from plains to towering red-orange mountains to the snowy Sierra peaks. We traversed tunnels and crossed bodies of water. A few times, I saw antelopes lopping alongside us.

Train travellers.

Denmark & Train Travel

Too cool mannequins in Denmark.

In my bohemian fantasies, I would meet a group of cool, train-hopping twenty-somethings. We’d share drinks in the drinking car, laughs in the viewing car, sit down and gave a good dinner together. We’d swear to be friends for life and plan our next rail adventure together.

None of that happened.

Reality: Train travel, especially if you’re going a long distance, caters to an *ahem* older clientele. That’s not the disappointment. Sure, the viewing car was always totally filled, dinner was served pretty early, and going from car-to-car took longer than expected. But I don’t mind traveling with older folks.

I do mind this: I was walked in on twice in the bathroom. I don’t know how it happened. I am a neurotic door locker and so modest I feel naked in short sleeves. I am pretty sure the train tilted and the door went from locked to unlock and then the gentleman just barged right in. And the second time? I have no idea. And it didn’t just happened to me, my sister was also victim of a walker-inner.

But the bathroom brings up another point. Ever try to shower on a train traveling at high speeds? I did. Balance is a must. So is loud voice so people will hear you when you say, “I’M IN HERE!” over the rumble of the train.

And the drinking car.
Train Travel Drinking Car

When they announced Margarita Night, it renewed my hope for the trip. I talked about it that whole day, when I wasn’t listening to Weezer on my walk-man (oh 2002).

I had been in drinking cars before. The Chicago Metro has them. You bring your own beer and crack a few open with your office buddies before heading home. But this was a real bar on an overnight train. Images of shelves stocked with expensive booze danced in my mind.

Two things could happen. I would be sipping a gimlet and reading Gatsby or drinking whiskey with rowdy railroad workers and singing Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

When 5 o’clock rolled around, I could barely contain it. I ran from the seat I was reading in back to our sleeper car. “We’re going to miss the margaritas,” I said to my mom. We went all the way down to the belly of the train to check it out. There was one other patron, a guy in his mid-forties, hunched in a booth, munching on pretzels.

Still hoping, I went up to the “bar,” which had all the glitz and glamour of a child’s lemonade stand. Where’s the blender, I thought, still holding out hope for a giant frosty margarita. “Two magaritas please!” I put my money on the table.

The bartender pulled something out from underneath the bar. Two canned lime margaritas with a label that just said, MAGARITA in big black letters. I cracked one open and took a long swig.

Now that’s train travel.

***

Ever travel for more than a few nights on the old Amtrak? Comment below with your experiences. The good, the bad, the meh.

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Author: angloadventure

Professional travel writer and near-professional wanderer. Recently lived in Seattle and Quebec City. Traveled across country three times in a car. Can find the best pizza in any city. Published in Fodor's travel guides, Where magazine, Viator and others.

6 thoughts on “Before You Apply to the Amtrak Writer’s Residency, Let’s Talk

  1. Many of your observations about modern day long distance train travel are true.
    What is also true is you did no research on long distance train travel or you would have known about sleeping accommodation, fellow passengers and all the other travel conditions aboard a long distance train.
    You approached your trip completely unprepared. Shame on you. You are a travel writer and research should have been a good part of any travel article.

    • No research? I think traveling for over 6 days on a train counts. Since then, I have traveled many more miles on the trains in Europe. Yes, I approached the trip completely unprepared. I was 21. I wasn’t a travel writer then, I was a college student. It’s mostly about my grand expectations, my visions of what it was and what it actually is. Writers tend to romanticize things.

  2. Haha! Calm all the way down Rick, this post was hilarious. I had the same reservations when I heard of Amtrak’s program, pretty surprised that I was alone in my skepticism. I think a lot of folks who romanticize long-distance train travel haven’t really done it! Or are trying to enlist you in helping them sell more tickets.

    Funny post!

    • Thanks for the comment. I am definitely with you on the skepticism. One of the things that really sucks, is you could be a great writer and if you don’t have the social media presence, they probably won’t consider your application. Instead of a writer’s residency, it should just be renamed, “Tweets from a Train.”

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