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Getting Set to Look for America by Rail

Spacious Skies, Amber Waves of Grain and Purple Mountains' Majesty

by Minakshi Menon

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing,
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going…

As the poet says, the conflict between wanting to spend time with loved ones and wanting to set out on the open road — or railroad, in this case — is unresolvable.

Traveling 6000 miles to meet precious people and then taking two days to travel from one to another seems like a wanton waste of time. But then, flying over it seems like a wanton waste of the Rockies. The Rockies and the loved ones tied in first place, my office lost and my holiday got extended by two days.

I'm going to look for America for the first time and I don't think America's in the airports. So I'm traveling across the country by rail. I still don't know if I'll get a visa, my ticket out of Dubai is yet to be bought, but I know exactly where I'm going to sleep on that train.

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In between buying my Amtrak ticket, I scrolled in indulgent amusement through various sites with rail travel tips that nobody who's grown up in India needs. I suddenly stumbled on two things that brought me up short. One was a caution about walking long distances to get to your coach. The second was someone's funny account of running desperately for an open door, any open door, as the train started to move.

The butterflies exploded in my stomach and I watched helplessly as the hard-won adulthood disappeared as if it never was, at the thought of doing that on my own. The painful surge of adrenaline as the train pulls in, the dreadful urgency of that brief, chaotic time, the panic of not knowing how long two minutes actually is, the certainty that you're going to drop something important — like your ticket — in the gap. (It never happened; the ticket would have had to crawl out of a zipper and tear through solid leather to do that.)

My cursor paused on the last part of the booking process as the doubts got out of control. No brothers to ensure that I get to the station well in time. No fathers who know which part of the station to go to. Planes are easy, I thought. I've always flown on my own. Airports are specifically designed for nitwits.

So I looked at pictures of the train to put off making the decision. With each picture, the adulthood receded even further, as more forgotten feelings returned.

The excitement of seeing the engine far ahead when the railroad curves. That distant whistle that makes you want to follow wherever it leads. The sensation of gliding through air when you go over a railway bridge. The weird echo when you go over a mountain that you don't so much hear, as sense. The fairytale quality that a landscape has when you see it through a train window. Two children bouncing along the side of a goods train, on either side of their father, learning why trains can't brake like cars, catching his own enthusiasm.

I knew what "coupling", "siding", "broad gauge" and "meter gauge" meant almost before I could say the words. I used to know what the different types of whistles stood for (well, mostly I just knew that they stood for different things). I've ridden in the cab of a diesel engine — and being in the cockpit of an aircraft is equally exciting, but they don't let you toot the horn.

I've balanced on a suitcase, eyes straining past restraining arms for the first sight of the engine as it entered the station — always a giant iron genie who had in its gift places I couldn't imagine and things I was too young to know.

So I will be in Union Station, Chicago, Illinois, at 1:00 pm on the 10th of July. I may be a little late. I will probably be standing in the wrong place. I will certainly have my usual few seconds of panic. But I will board the California Zephyr anyway, because I always do. I'm going to collect my gift.