I started writing on trains. I lived in Tokyo from age 13-17, and I spent three hours a day on the train and subways, traveling to and from school. I’d write in my notebook about the people on the train, often veering into fiction—what if the Yakuza-looking guy with the dirty suit and bandaged nose talked to me? What if I got off at my stop, only it wasn’t my stop but an entirely different country?
That’s why Amtrak residency spoke so strongly to me, and why I wanted it so badly, and why I lost my mind when I unexpectedly won one of them. I’m poor, and don’t have the money or time for traditional writing retreats and residencies, which often run six weeks to six months. Fifteen years ago, I won a residency at a beautiful retreat by the sea, but had to turn it down when I realized I couldn’t afford the airfare and the time off work without getting evicted and probably fired. I was so ashamed of my poverty, I lied and said I couldn’t attend because I had a disease.
I decided to use the Amtrak residency as a kind of whistle-stop book tour for my novel Contenders, which came out the spring before. (Strangely, the first scene I wrote in Contenders was of the protagonist spontaneously stepping onto the California Zephyr and riding it to Denver.) (But I cut it.) It felt like synchronicity that a train began that book, and a train would end it.
So at the end of July, I took the Zephyr from Denver to Emeryville. From there, I took the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles where my publisher is, did a couple of readings there, and then returned to the Bay Area to read in San Francisco. Then I returned to Denver on the Zephyr again, retracing my tracks. My trip took ten days.
I had intended to write and edit, but on the train, I mostly took notes—half a notebook’s worth of notes. I realized how hard it is to write the Great American Novel if your hands aren’t free most of the time you’re observing the Great America. I’m always driving through it. And who pulls over the car in the middle of the night to write down the color of the moon, or to check out Fearnowville, CO? Not this writer. On the train, I was able to note all the details that I always murmur like a mantra in the car for a few miles, and then forget by the time I reach my destination. On the train, I found myself remembering how to observe, all eyes and pen.
The train shows you Secret America. It runs beside people’s back yards, which you don’t usually get to see. From the rails, I could see who was cooking meth, who was a gardener, who had seven dogs, who had given up on life and thrown mattresses and old plumbing into their yards. Best of all was the crap by the tracks. There’s a lot of seating by train tracks: rained-upon sofas, broken parlor chairs, sofas, splayed La-Z-Boys, and did I mention sofas? Unspooled cassette tapes, clothing, plastic swimming pools, tube TV’s, cats. High quality graffiti. And children, children probably without tetanus shots.
I most loved what my fellow railfan friend Anna calls “train people”—people you don’t meet anywhere but on a train. On Amtrak, you have to share the dining car with other travelers, so suddenly you’re 24 inches from strangers. There’s only so much you can say about the black bean burgers, so people tell their stories. Unlike the bus, which is cheap and, uh, fragrant, the train is comparable with air travel in price, so everyone takes the train for a particular reason.
Outside Frasier, I met some people who live off the grid, eschewing cars, consumerism, digital media, and electricity. They run a sustainable community in Missouri where people come to stay and unplug. They also, adults and children alike, regularly dress in superhero costumes (which they sew themselves). Then they travel by bicycle or train to a blighted community and say, “We’re here to help!” Someone somewhere says, “Well, Joe’s roof caved in.” They all run over and fix the roof, and then go back home.
I met an Oxycodone-addled middle-aged man with a giant bandage over his eye, who had flown to Chicago for his mother’s funeral. There, he fainted at his mother’s graveyard, busting his eye wide open on the curb. They rushed him to the hospital for emergency surgery, where an ophthalmologist just barely saved his eye. He was taking the train because if he went up in a plane, his eyeball would explode.
I met a delightful Canadian couple who were cycling all the way across California. I met some fundamentalist Christians who spontaneously burst into religious hymns, mid-conversation. I met a man who had devised a system of categories under which all human beings fit, with the exception of himself and his wife.
I met a young woman who had just graduated nursing school and did a postgraduate stint in Haiti. She said it’s clear that none of the earthquake money went to the people or the infrastructure. She said a bottle of clean water costs $8 (which is eight dollars more than anyone has). The only emergency room in Port-au-Prince has just four “beds” that amount to one gurney and three chairs. You have to pay before you get treated, or the doctors will let you die right in front of them. The ambulances all double as hearses.
I met a prison guard who had bought the train trip for himself as a retirement present. I had first observed him in the Observation Car (where you observe people while pretending to observe trees and mountains). He sat unmoving for hours, leaning forward with his hands flat on his knees, with no flicker in his pupils. At lunch, over panko chicken and mashed potatoes, he said that he had worked as a maximum security prison guard in Cañon City for 24 years. He began in his early twenties because “I wanted the pension.” I asked if he liked it. His gaze, which never seemed to land anywhere, focused on me long enough for him to say, “I hated being there. I hated every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every month of every year.”
That Train Person was worth years of free therapy for me. I’ve always doubted my choices. I didn’t get into writing for money—I spent 8 adult years as a poet, for God’s sake—but it’s shockingly difficult to get by as a writer in America, even with constant teaching and contract work and all the minute daily concessions. But I’m glad I didn’t walk into a prison in my twenties and stay there. I’m glad I didn’t wait 24 years to take a train.
- The physical act of writing on paper. I brought my computer, but I didn’t even crack it open. The train begs for pen on paper, and I fell in love with my notebook again.
- The moon from my sleeper bed. Because the train is changing directions all the time, the moon is in constant motion, sliding around the window like a marble.
- The magnificent beer I had on my layover in Emeryville, after 32 hours of train travel. True fact: beer cures train legs.
- The wry retirees who gave commentary in the Observation Car from Denver to Grand Junction. I especially loved when they talked about the people in the Donner Party who ate each other, the man who cut off his arm with a pocketknife to survive, and how Colorado has tons of graves with one name on the headstone and a different body below it.
- The train rumor-mill. To let a freight train pass, we stopped at Lockwood, NV, famous for wild horses. Immediately, a rumor flew throughout the train that the Zephyr hit and killed a wild horse. Nope.
- Tony Bennett playing in the Parlor Car on the Coast Starlight at sunset while I drank a glass of wine, read over my notes from the day, watched the ocean, and then read Stoner by John Williams.
- Land without roads, and the unexpected colors of the world, slowly changing with the light.
- Feeling supported as a writer, and the gratitude that infused my trip. I’m so grateful to Julia Quinn and Amtrak for making this happen.
- Bring small bills to tip the servers at meals. Also tip your attendant at the end.
- Bring alcohol wet wipes and wipe down the sleeper, especially the door handle.
- Pack a small bag to carry your pajamas, toiletries, etc., so you can keep your suitcase downstairs in the luggage rack. It doesn’t fit conveniently inside the sleeper.
- Be at your sleeper at the appointed time to get your dinner reservations, or you may end up eating late at night.
- Carry business cards.
- If you take the Zephyr, get a seat on the observation car early, especially between Denver and Winter Park.
- That rattling sound is the hangers in your closet. Throw them under the seats.
- The A/C in your sleeper can get cold, so bring layers and socks.
- Don’t try to edit anything.
- Forget about wifi. Life’s better that way.
The 2016-17 Amtrak residencies are open now. I hope you get one. Happy riding!