Train of Thought: On the Coast Starlight
When the train pulled into the station, I was amazed by the size of it. There was a sleeper car and a dining car and even an observation car, with a thick domed glass overhead and a café underneath. This was nothing like the subways I was used to taking back East. It was something out of a movie. Even the name of the train seemed dreamlike: the Coast Starlight.
At the time, I wasn’t much of a risk-taker. I’d grown up in New England, the shy daughter of two shy people. Reading was a refuge, and I’d moved to New York City to study writing, taking classes at night, holding down two jobs to pay the rent. But underneath, I felt restless. I didn’t have enough time to make any progress on my own story. So when I was offered a three-week writing residency in Seattle, I let go of my apartment, quit my jobs, and broke up with my boyfriend. I got on a plane and traveled across the country. I’d felt so brave packing my suitcase, but now the residency was over, and I was 3,000 miles from home.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a plan. But I’d loved reading books about traveling across America—Kerouac’s On the Road, Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. What if I crossed those miles by land, instead of flying back home? By the end of the journey, I might have a real story. I bought a map, and pulled out my address book. I called friends and family who lived in California, Arizona, Colorado, Chicago. I marked each place with a dot and stepped onto the train to Los Angeles.
Once I’d stowed my luggage, I went straight to the observation car, where I found couples and families clustered together, pointing out sights, chatting and laughing. I took a spot in the corner. I was in my mid-twenties, but I’d never taken an extended trip alone before. My elementary school awkwardness began trickling back. I had no one to talk to, no one to ask: Am I doing the right thing? I looked out at the Cascade Mountains. As the other passengers snapped pictures of the snowcapped peaks and rushing waterfalls, I wondered whether I’d made a mistake.
I took out my journal and started writing down what I saw. The curve of the track, the rush of rivers below, alleys lined with pine trees. The train wove in and out of tunnels carved by men from another century. I watched the sun set, and the passengers around me fall asleep, and the moon rise overhead. It felt as if the train was moving backward through time and I was a lone explorer in a country that was nothing but wilderness.
When I woke up, we were in California. The landscape had changed from snowcapped mountains to lush green hills. I pressed my face to the glass and saw my first palm tree. We passed through the Santa Clara Valley, where fields of garlic and artichokes stretched into the distance. My stomach growling, I went to the dining car. Table for one? I asked. The attendant shook his head. Nobody eats alone here, he said, leading me to a booth with three other passengers: a married couple from Australia and a retired fireman who’d just finished traveling from Toronto to Vancouver. Now that’s a train ride you need to take, the man said. I nodded and smiled. It was the first conversation I’d had in days. Outside our window, I caught my first glimpse of the ocean.
Back in the observation car, the Australians shared stories about the Indian Pacific, a train that travels through the outback from Sydney to Perth. It was their first time in America, and they asked me where they should visit. I told them I didn’t know—that I was just starting out myself. Then a man from England leaned across the aisle. He was an avid traveler and had been crisscrossing the continent for years. If you see one thing, it’s got to be the Grand Canyon. A woman with a cast on her arm disagreed. She was on her way to a convention in Santa Barbara, and insisted on the redwood trees in Sequoia National Park.
A woman sitting nearby cleared her throat. She had long gray hair and was covered in Indian jewelry. She waved her ringed fingers. New York City. She was an artist on her way to visit her son there; amazingly, he lived three blocks from my Brooklyn apartment. We chatted about the places we’d been and the places we hoped to go. We had different reasons for being on the train, but here we all were, crossing through a field of oil pumps bobbing up and down like a flock of mechanical birds pecking at the earth.
The engineer came over the loudspeaker and told us he had an important announcement. Don’t be alarmed, he said, But I just got an alert from NASA, and we’re about to experience a total solar eclipse. Suddenly, the train pitched into darkness. For a moment, everyone in the car was silent and confused. And then we cracked up. After a few minutes, the train pulled out of the long, shadowy tunnel, and sunlight flooded the windows. The Coast Starlight chugged on.
By the time I arrived in Los Angeles, the journal I’d been scribbling in those first lonely hours was full of names and phone numbers. As I took my first steps onto the platform, the ground felt wobbly beneath my feet, as if I still held an endless churning inside. The Coast Starlight had carried me over a thousand miles, but it felt like I’d gone farther. I gathered my bags and found the exit. I stepped into the rest of the world.