Slow travel isn't anything new, but with global air traffic estimated to have ballooned from 1.9 billion passengers in 2004 to 4.3 billion in 2018, the choice of rail travel is increasingly seen as a more sustainable option for the planet and a way to get from A to B that is good for your mental health. Susie Armitage, a U.S-based writer, editor and audio producer, recently hopped aboard a train to spend a few days quietly crossing North America.
I wouldn’t call myself a morning person, but recently this winter I was up at dawn, watching the sun rise over the vast expanse of the Columbia River Gorge, a gaping 85-mile-long canyon that divides Oregon and Washington. Nestled in my seat on an ambling Amtrak train, I sipped my coffee and peered silently through the window. In front of me, a golden stain of light began to seep into the inky clouds before illuminating the brooding waters of the river below. My journey by train across America, starting from New York and ending in Portland, had begun three days earlier. After more than 3,000 miles of reading, people-watching and conversations with friendly strangers, I had nearly reached my destination.
By that point, I was overdue for a shower and more than ready to sleep in a real bed again. But when people ask exactly what possessed me to travel across America by train, I tell them about that sunrise. A large part of rail travel’s charm is the way the landscape begs for your attention, offering an ever-changing light and a sense of scale most of us don’t feel at home.
People who balk at the idea have a point: crossing the United States by train is a lot slower than flying or driving. It can cost just as much as a plane ticket if not more, and the price difference is wild if you spring for a sleeper. (In contrast, on some shorter routes, taking the train can save you money.) Hours-long delays are not uncommon, due partly to the fact that Amtrak must yield to freight trains along most of its routes. Still, after three cross-country train journeys and one round trip between California and Oregon, I’d do it again.