Twenty years ago I boarded an Amtrak train in New York City headed for the farther reaches of Montana to visit an old friend in Missoula. An airplane would have been a lot quicker, but I was in my early twenties, so the $300 I saved was a small fortune—back then, it was rent money. Of course, that was just my rationale for committing to some 55 hours (each way) in coach. The truth is, like many a budding young writer, I had the notion of being Kerouac in that 1937 Ford; of being Steinbeck in that 1960 pickup he nicknamed Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse. For me, the train seemed the best way to transport myself into that old American dream. I admitted as much when I ran into an English professor of mine in Penn Station, right under the old analog departure board.
“A train to Montana?” he said, incredulous, as the departure board’s split-flap display whirred like a deck of cards being shuffled until it beckoned me to board the train. The professor’s eyes widened, conveying approval. At least that’s how I read it at the time. Perhaps he just thought I was foolhardy. Either way, it gave me a twinge of satisfaction as I gazed up at that last glimpse of Manhattan skyscraper before the train skirted under the Hudson.
In 1997, long after the airlines had prohibited smoking, you could still find a smoking car on a long-haul Amtrak. The stench of stale tobacco smoke promised colorful stories that could be easily coaxed with the simple kindness of a light. There was the man with the mustache and mullet who schooled me in the finer points of demolition derby: “A station wagon in reverse is my preferred method of ramming,” he said before disembarking in Erie, Pennsylvania. There was the guy with the buzz cut and the bronze Zippo, also headed to Missoula, with dreams of becoming a smoke jumper: “There’ll be no hoses when it comes to fighting a wildland fire,” he said. “It’s just parachute in with a shovel and dig a trench.” There were the three Michiganders debating not if but when the End Times would come. 2012? 2007? Or 2000? I tried to enter the debate with what I knew about the impending Y2K bug. “Computers?” scoffed the lady with the Benson & Hedges 100s. “God is not concerned with your I … B … M!” They were all very polite, though. Except for the skinny 19-year-old with the shaved head, suspenders, and jean jacket headed to northern Idaho. Turns out his look wasn’t about hardcore music at all, as a new Mexican-American friend and I discovered with trepidation after the skinhead drank one too many Budweisers, took off his jacket to reveal a certain type of tattoo, and summarily passed out.
I read a lot, too, as the sunbaked plains of North Dakota and eastern Montana flickered past outside my window. Mostly Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, about two young men on a cross-country motorcycle trip who cut a path similar to the one I was taking. The book is about embracing both the romantic and the rational approaches to life: Allow for serendipity on your journey, but also know a thing or two about engine repair in case something breaks before you’ve made it to your way station.
Speaking of way stations, I don’t remember much about the week I spent in Missoula, but I remember how I felt: I had an overwhelming sense of having arrived, the momentum of all those miles and tracks behind me adding a sort of weight to my being in this far-flung town. I also remember a night in Charlie’s Bar on North Higgins where, under the gaze of the black-and-white portraits of regulars on the wall, I shot pool against an array of bearded men—a logger, a hippie, a biker, a dyspeptic who claimed to be a member of the radical environmentalist group Earth First!, a gentle ranch hand down from Kalispell. I, too, had an identity. I was the itinerant young man who’d come some 2,500 miles by train, armed with a score of stories from characters encountered along the way.
In the ensuing years, my identity would add up to more than that cross-country train ride, of course. There’d be odd jobs delivering pizzas and tending bar before landing a gig in journalism, where other characters would cross my path: the Baldwin brother who’d found God (“What being born-again means for me is that we’re not going to get an 8-ball tonight”), the congressman who’d later become mayor of Chicago, who credited his tough-guy persona to his ballet training (“I prefer standing on my toes, not my heels”), the Iraq War vet who regretted the image of his flag draping the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square being used as a symbol of American triumph (“Because for me it was a period of death and killing people”). There were romances, too: the Manhattanite granddaughter of an exiled Vichy official, the Jersey girl whose parents fled Stalin in the wake of World War II, and the great-granddaughter of a whiskey distiller driven out of Tennessee by the KKK. The last one had continued the migration herself from Cleveland to NYU and, ultimately, a Brooklyn barstool next to me.
Someday I’ll tell our daughter about the train ride I took to Montana, long before I met her mother, and how I remember more about the journey there than I do the return home. I’m not sure whether it’s because I secluded myself, I’ll tell her, or whether it was just the collective nature of people headed back East: the time for discovery left at the turnaround point, everyone homebound and consumed by self-reflection. I do remember the last leg of the trip, I’ll say, the tracks between my hometown, Philadelphia, and her native New York City: the back alleys of North Philly giving way to the clapboard porches of Levittown, Pennsylvania, the anachronistic neon “Trenton Makes, The World Takes” sign on the bridge crossing the Delaware into New Jersey and, finally, the gray Manhattan skyline on the northeastern horizon. Those 100 miles between Philly and New York—which I’d traveled so many times before—had always felt like a constellation, an entire galaxy unto itself. Suddenly, I’ll tell my daughter, those 100 miles felt so small, just like the walks we take together to the corner store.