This story appears in the Unplugged issue, in stores February 28 and available here.
I’ve spent my fair share of time staring out the window of a train, watching the landscape go by. I’m lucky that there’s a small Amtrak station just one town away from my only surviving grandparent, my grandmother. It’s one of those stops where just one train door opens to let passengers on and off, but it works just fine for me and the people of Aberdeen, Maryland.
Not that long ago, every set of wheels would give you some kind of break from the onslaught of the everyday: even cars would hit an area of bad reception that killed terrestrial radio. But, as the number of in-transit entertainment choices grew — from backseat in-flight options to smartphones and apps — we’ve been unknowingly assured that whether 20,000 feet in the air or driving through the desert, we never need to be alone with our thoughts.
Whenever I take a trip on a plane, the massive amount of media in front of me leads me into a viewing frenzy. Oh look, here’s a movie that I would never watch unless I was trapped in a metal tube for several hours! Here’s some TV episodes of a random show I hear is good! Do I want to listen to a soft jazz station? Sure, why not? Cars aren’t as bad, but they have issues too. (My husband always wants to catch up on podcasts when we’re driving. Podcasts weren’t even an option 20 years ago.)
To be fair, this is all great when you have a baby screaming nonstop a few rows behind you. The upside is not lost on me. But the flip side is that you lose some of the magic of getting lost in your own thoughts — and possibly seeing something new — while zipping across the country. I also know that I could spend time on a train doing a lot of these things — catching up on work, doomscrolling, listening to that podcast my friend recommended, or whatever.
But something happens to me when I step onto a train — I relax. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t need to show up three hours prior to boarding or wonder if I have enough gas in the tank to get me to my destination? Or that I get to roll up to the station 10 minutes before boarding and choose my own seat (always a window, the better for scenic viewing)? Maybe it’s that the seats are actually built for humans instead of flying sardines? Whatever it is, it works. There’s something physical that happens: my shoulders relax, my jaw unclenches, I’m pretty sure my posture is better.
Then the train leaves the station. A gentle rocking motion begins. It’s almost like the train has invited you to disconnect from whatever you just left behind. (That rocking might also lull you into a nap, should you be open to that.)
Now the real fun starts: the scenery. When it comes to being able to lean back and observe the vast and varied American landscape, trains are unsung heroes. With planes, at best and weather allowing, you might get to see a mountain range and a city skyline. Cars and buses are beholden to the road, and more times than not the view outside is of all of the other drivers out there. But trains? They follow their own path, winding up and down the countryside, showing you little pockets of America that you might not ever notice otherwise, from suburban backyards to the coastline.
On my trips down to Maryland, I get to watch the urban cityscape of New Jersey give way to the fields of Pennsylvania and Delaware surrounded by foliage, up until we pass over the sparkling waters of the Susquehanna River and I know I’m almost at my stop. And maybe I’ve been lucky, but usually my fellow passengers are quiet, lost in their own worlds, allowing me to be in mine.
I’m so pro-trains that one of my bucket list items is to take an Amtrak trip via its viewing cars. Those are the ones with floor-to-ceiling windows and chairs that face out, angled to maximize scenery viewing. I imagine myself riding through the desert, watching the sun set over the land as I lean back and let all the world’s problems wash away from me.
So, the next time you need to get away from it all, while heading to where you’ll be getting away from it all, there’s only one clear choice. Airlines? Take off your headphones and all you’ll hear is the whir of a turbine and someone’s hacking cough. Cars? Road rage is real. Buses? Let’s not go there. But trains? Trains are the closest thing to a Zen method of transport you can have.