Amtrak Residency: The Writing and the Railing

SunsetLimited_poster Right now I’m listening to the whistle of an approaching train, and the laughter of ‘tweens a couple of roomettes down the hall. They’re adorable, part of an extended family traveling together — three girls and two women who give off an auntie/Godmomma vibe — a little permissive, but definitely in control. A different pair of women wait in matching flowered PJs, holding their toothbrushes, for the showers (rooms have their own; roomettes do not); while a couple sits reading in their cabin with the door closed against noise, but the curtains open so others can view their tableaux. My curtains are drawn on the side facing the hall, and open to the mainly dark exterior. Occasionally there is a passing train or, every now and then, a grand house rising out of the countryside between Houston and San Antonio. Of course, even less often, there’s a town, the kind with a Dollar General store and a gas station but not much else near the noise of the tracks. But mainly from where I sit there is the dark; a few lights in the far distance; the whisper of air through the vents and the rocking of the train.CrescentPoster

As the Amtrak Residency hinted it might, the rails have been good for writing. I’ve been noodling with a TV treatment, a new genre for me. Book edits. Taxes. Arranging interviews for a travel article, and actually doing the reporting, some of it by phone on the train; some on my stops. I break my time into chunks by project and never find myself bored or mentally trapped, although I do sometimes feel a bit physically confined. (You cannot do sit-ups in a roommette without putting your legs on one of the chairs that becomes the lower bed.) The scheduled pit stops where you can stretch your legs are often eaten up by delays. Freight trains don’t care that you want to do lazy woman’s yoga. But this was my choice.
Amtrak’s generous offer to writers was that we could, for free, take a roomette (with meals included) up to four legs on two connecting train routes. I could have gone round trip on one train — 3 days of travel back and forth on the LA to Seattle Coast Starlight, for example, which is supposed to be beautiful. But I chose 8 days of cross country train travel plus stops along the way in New Orleans and LA, for a total of 12 days. Specifically, I took the Crescent from New York to New Orleans; spent three nights and two days there of reporting and seeing friends; and am now on the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles and will spend 3 days and 2 nights there, reversing to head back to New York with a brief pit stop in New Orleans. The roomettes on the Crescent are roomier than the Sunset Limited; but the Limited is a double decker and has better views. I am fascinated by the scenes of both historic and dying towns; of industry and industrial decay. I’m Instagramming photos as MissMetropolis.
This blog post has become about the mechanics of the trip. I wanted to talk about the extraordinary conversations I’ve been having, but I’ll have to save that mainly for another time. In the dining car, unless your party naturally forms a four-top, you’re seated with strangers. Something about trains and the people who take them make for good conversations and conversationalists. I’ve had very deep and friendly encounters with people who pretty clearly don’t share some of my cultural and political perspectives, but as we listen rather than debate we find we have much in common. There’s something about the train that seems to create an expansive space for intimacy amid the physical confines.

About Farai Chideya

Farai has combined media, technology, and socio-political analysis during her 20-year career as an award-winning author and journalist. She is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She contributes to print, public radio, and cable television; and she also hosts a series of town hall meetings in both New York and San Francisco, with New York Public Radio and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, respectively. You can see an archive of her 2010 midterm election specials -- which foreshadowed some of the current political and immigration debates -- at, which she founded in 1995.