Looking for America
A writer remembers three glorious weeks from his youth spent crossing the country on a USA Rail Pass
As cons go, it wasn’t much of a con. But it worked. I was 16, freezing in February in the unheated dorms of a New Hampshire boarding school, dreaming of an epic cross-country trip. A shivering friend named Hal, a third-generation Georgia boy from Macon, shared my vision. We’d been listening again and again to Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” It was 1979, and we, too, wanted to look for America.
We’d seen an ad in The New York Times for something that sounded like a miracle: Amtrak’s “USA Rail Pass,” which offered 21 days of unlimited travel for $219, less than the cost of a round-trip flight from Boston to San Francisco. This pass would allow us to traverse the entire country during our spring break. There was a problem, though: Neither of us had the money. So we both called our parents with the same scheme. We told them we wanted to borrow enough money to buy a used car, go on a grand road trip, and sell the car when we returned. We then casually mentioned Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass.
Both sets of parents had the same idea: If we abandoned the plan to travel by car, they would pay for the train. Which is, of course, what we’d wanted all along.
We headed south from New York on the Southern Crescent, and quickly got used to sleeping in our seats. A stop in Atlanta was spent with Hal’s folks. His dad explained to me that in the South people show you how much they love you by how much food they serve you; you show them how much you love them back by how much you eat. They had to roll me onto the train. As the Crescent made its way on from Atlanta to New Orleans, I stared out the train’s picture windows, marveling at the miles of kudzu, that ubiquitous Southern vine. Eventually, I could eat again.
It was coming into New Orleans at night, however, that the first real magic struck. The train travels for six miles on a narrow track across Lake Pontchartrain, and seems to skim the surface. It’s impossibly beautiful: the eerie beauty of the water reflecting the moon and the lights of New Orleans shining in the distance. I stood between the cars; the lake was so close that I felt like I could reach down and run my fingers through the water.
The train across Texas was a revelation; neither of us had ever seen so much land. I remember saying to Hal, “Now I know what the surface of the moon looks like.” The trip to San Francisco was another marvel, and found us in the bubble car dazed by the sight of the coast below us. The California Zephyr brought us to Denver, slicing through the snow-covered Rockies. We both decided that cold weather wasn’t so bad after all, so long as you could enjoy from a warm and comfortable seat the breathtaking scenery it makes possible.
It wasn’t until the next year that Sony would introduce the Walkman to America, so we couldn’t listen to Simon and Garfunkel on this trip. Instead, we talked to all sorts of people we met in adjacent seats and in the café car: an Amish family with an endless supply of pretzels to share; a Shriner on his way to visit a sick child; a conductor with a corny joke for every station stop. We couldn’t call home until we’d saved fists full of quarters; often no one knew where we were, including, sometimes, ourselves. For two teenagers in the 1970s, that was the very definition of heaven.
After barely making our final connection in Chicago, we finally got back to Boston and school with only hours to spare.
As much as I remember the cities and sights, I also remember staring endlessly out the window, where we got to see some of an America we hadn’t seen before: from suburban backyards that appeared out of nowhere to a cascade of industrial towns across the Rust Belt.
Today, I’m constantly connected and everyone always knows where I am. I can’t get lost the way I did then. And yet, on a cold winter night, I start to think, Why not?