This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home page—and be sure to subscribe to the podcast.
OKLAHOMA: I’m Mike Tyson, heavyweight champ of the world. . . . Crazy. . . . I don’t care. I’m Mike Tyson. I’m heavyweight champ of the world.
CHRIS COLIN: That’s Oklahoma. That’s the dude’s name — Oklahoma. I didn’t know that was even an option, having your name be Oklahoma. But here we are, and like the state, this improbably named Mike Tyson impersonator is huge and fairly indifferent to my existence.
You’ve probably pieced this together already but we’re on a train. Oklahoma, me, my daughter, Cora, and a couple hundred other humans, all chugging our way down the left side of North America for the next 35 hours. Streams and pines and meadows blur past. From his dated space-age swivel chair in the glassy lounge car, Oklahoma stares out with a kind of regal dullness. Judging by the empties at his feet, he’s on Corona number 3.
Midway through Corona number 4, he finally swivels in my direction. Did I know that, a few years ago, he happened to have written and recorded a song called “Mandy Sue”? I did not know this. Well I did, he says, and it can be found on YouTube.
Very cool, I say.
You can just search it up on your phone, he adds.
Awesome, I say.
You have YouTube, right? he asks.
At last I take the hint and dig out my phone. Only two rules on a journey like this: One, watch the shimmering lakes streak past and the quilts of wildflower and the muffler shops and the tent camps and the Christmas tree farms and the yard sales and the tweens on trampolines and the dads inflating pools and everything else that adds up to a country, one that more often feels like a concept than an actual 3D place.
The second rule: If a man named Oklahoma tells you to play his song on your phone, play his song on your phone.
You can’t talk about train travel without backing up and talking first about train stations. They’re physically and emotionally integral to the whole operation. So it is that, hours before meeting Oklahoma or anyone else, Cora and I and our little roll-y suitcases make our way, wide-eyed, into Seattle’s cavernous, hushed old King Street Station.
With its solemn slabs of polished marble and heavy wood benches and ornate old lamps, it’s a cathedral to old-fashioned waiting, an unrushed space where you take out a book, or gaze up at the coffered ceilings and reflect on your upcoming, also-very-unrushed voyage.
Eleven hundred miles. Seattle, Portland, Eugene, Salinas, Santa Barbara, and a couple dozen other stops. Even among non–train fanatics, the Coast Starlight route is legendary, the best tour of the West Coast out there. Cora, give us that old Amtrak trip description in your most saccharine advertising voice, please.
CORA COLIN: OK. Um, “Along the route, we traverse steep mountain ranges, explore rolling, gentle valleys, and skirt along the dynamically beautiful sandy shores of the Pacific Ocean. The scenery is breathtaking, the cities are unique, and the history is fascinating.”
EDDIE THE PORTER: L.A. Union Station? Yep. And room eight. And there’s two? So come on in. OK, you’ll find the staircase on the right. When you get to the top of the staircase, hang another right. You’re gonna be the second to last door on the right. So come on in. There’s a luggage rack on the left, but those two should fit in the room. You can play it by ear and I’ll be there once I’m able to close up.
CHRIS: Skinny little stairs.
CORA: Even skinnier hallway.
CHRIS: OK, turn right he said? OK, so we’re looking for eight. Oh, that is a very skinny hallway.
CHRIS: Oh my gosh. Wow. Oh my. It’s really tiny.
JENNA, THE NEIGHBOR: Have you guys done this before?
CHRIS: No. Have you?
JENNA: Oh yeah, this is my second time. Really? And the first time I didn’t have any AC, so we’re already off to a really good start.
CHRIS: I’m happy about the AC. How far are you going?
JENNA: Um, Oxnard. OK. How about you guys?
CHRIS: Uh, L.A.
That’s Jenna, our neighbor across the hall from our little roomette, three and a half feet by six and a half feet. Soon, Eddie the porter drops by.
EDDIE: So everything for you guys will be to the right when you come out your door. Second car back is the diner. The fourth car back is the sightseer lounge cars, the one with all the seats facing out on the windows and the views. OK? The dining steward, John, he’ll come through and he’ll make an announcement for reservations for lunch, and then afterwards for dinner.
CHRIS: Setting out on this trip, I’d asked Cora what her best-case scenario would be.
CORA: I think the best thing . . . something mysterious happens. Maybe there’s a very mysterious passenger on board and maybe he, like, smokes a cigar and peers over his newspaper, something like that. And I can take notes and solve it at the end and then like, I’ll win money. That would be ideal.
CHRIS: I don’t have the heart to tell her Agatha Christie–style onboard intrigue just isn’t a thing. Frankly, you’re lucky if you stumble across a measly diamond heist. Anyway telling her this might’ve raised difficult questions about what I want from this trip.
Over the years I’ve taken Cora and her brother on various excursions to stretch their little pea brains. When the girl child turned six, I took her to the Mojave Desert to show her nothingness. She was an old soul with a dark curiosity about what lay beyond the cutesy, Pixar-inflected edges of childhood. At seven I took the boy child to the Grand Canyon with a bunch of rugged but sweet men, to show him what fun, nontoxic masculinity looked like.
And now Cora’s 13. She’s a serious drawer and painter, a budding soccer player, a wry observer, a skeptic about all things except animals. I’m pretty fond of her and before the tractor beam of high school finds her, I wanted us to do something memorable and eye-opening and, I don’t know, soul-adjacent together.
I feel strongly that a long train trip is one of those things. When you see a train in the distance, rounding a bend or blowing its mournful whistle over a dark trestle, you feel something, right? Some kind of poignant, lonesome, romantic longing? But what is it? What is it I want to happen over these 35 hours?
For now, there’s exploring to do, so off we go. And yeah, we do get carried away just over how nice the rest of the train is.
CORA: Here’s business class.
CHRIS: Let’s check it out. Cora, these are your finer people. Show respect. Oh, the lounge car. Oh my God. This is beautiful.
CORA: Can you just come here anytime?
CHRIS: This is where it’s at. This is amazing.
CORA: They’re single chairs facing the window.
CHRIS: Ooh. And they turn a little bit, oh my God. And the windows go up and then bend overhead. Like little skylights. Oh man. This is nice.
As the train shudders south, we set up shop in the glassy lounge car. Cora promptly takes out her sketch pad and gets to work. Me, I just stare, like a cow. The scroll of sights is stupendous and never-ending. Snow-capped peaks in the distance. A dude sleeping in a minivan. An inflatable unicorn snagged on a log in a creek. A clapboard house with a gerbils-for-sale sign out front, $10 apiece. I have a perfectly good novel in my lap and I don’t pick it up once.
At this point you’re probably thinking I’ve never left the house before. Not true! In fact, there’s something about a train trip that automatically draws comparisons to past road trips you’ve done. As we sit there, I find myself reflecting on all the divine Kerouacian adventures I’ve set out on over the years, only to find just different arrangements of McDonald’s and Exxons and IHOPs. Nobody admits this but, unless you’re really deliberate about avoiding the highway, which is the main way you do a road trip, road trips often suck!
The train, though—it’s another animal entirely. The tracks cut right through people’s lives, right through backyards and farms and small towns and lush valleys. You run close enough to peer into bedrooms, into pizza shops, onto back porches, into kale patches. Also you’re higher up than a car, and you’re going just a little slower than a car. I realize these sound like tiny and technical details: a slightly different route, height, speed.
But often, it’s precisely these tiny details that make all the difference, that tip us into grace. How many couples would never have fallen in love if the amount of vermouth in the martini had been ever so slightly off that night, or the typeface of Paris’s subway system just 1 percent less romantic, the vermilion in Vermeer’s The Music Lesson merely a plain old red? So it is that I’m suddenly seeing the West Coast for the very first time, despite living here 20 years.
The train, though—it’s another animal entirely. The tracks cut right through people’s lives, right through backyards and farms and small towns and lush valleys.
CHRIS: Oh, Cora. We are rolling into Tacoma, Washington now. Do you have any Tacoma trivia for us?
CORA: I do. I learned about the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which was a suspension bridge that collapsed in 1940, just a few months after it was finished being built.
CHRIS: Oh gosh. Did anyone die in the bridge collapse?
CORA: Well, there were no human casualties, but there was a three-legged dog that was left in the car when its owner had to run away.
CHRIS: Oh, that’s sad.
CORA: Yeah. Well, I don’t wanna sound like I’m victim-blaming, but there were two people who ran into the car to try to save the dog, but the dog bit them both. And eventually they had to save themselves and get off the bridge.
CHRIS: Oh, but the dog miraculously survived and is living happily on a farm to this day. Is that right?
CORA: Yeah, of course.
CHRIS: Oh, good. Thank you for that Tacoma trivia, Cora.
CORA: You’re welcome.
CHRIS: At 12:30 we’re summoned to the dining car. Unless you eat in your room, meals are social. We’re seated with a friendly bicyclist named Richard. Over veggie burgers he tells us about growing up with a dad in the FBI, and about getting a history degree in college but then stumbling into anti-submarine training, but mostly we talk about his years riding this very train, and the people he met over other meals, which gives the meal a fun recursive air, like people are just going to keep meeting in these same booths on these same tracks until the end of time.
OLDER MAN: I’ve been doing it since I was in high school.
CHRIS: When would that have been? What year, roughly?
OLDER MAN: 1955.
OLDER WOMAN: And I’ve never taken the train, until I met at him.
CHRIS: What do you all like about it?
OLDER MAN: We like the scenery. We like the people we meet. It’s restful. It’s not stressful like it might be to catch a plane. You don’t have to go through all the TSA restrictions.
CAMBRIA: I’m taking the train down to see my dad in the San Francisco area. And this is a really nice affordable way for somebody to get down there, but without having to drive the whole way. And I love being able to sit here and sketch when I’m on the train. It’s really pretty.
CHRIS: What are you sketching?
CAMBRIA: Oh, I can show you, I guess. This is what I did earlier.
CHRIS: Oh my God.
CAMBRIA: I really like the windows in the observation car. You get all kinds of different views from the train, like sometimes junkyards or like lumber yards or something, but sometimes it’s like—there was an eagle sitting on a log right by a river today. I was like, Oh my gosh. Sometimes you see these little snippets you wouldn’t normally be able to see.
CHRIS: Maybe it’s the hypnotic thunkety-thunk of the tracks that breaks down barriers. Even Cora hits it off with our neighbor Jenna.
CORA: I’m reading A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. I’m on the third book. It’s so good.
JENNA: Oh my God.
CORA: It’s awesome. I love it.
JENNA: That series is amazing.
CORA: Yeah, it’s been my favorite.
CHRIS: Afternoon gives way to dinner, and then a magnificent sunset somewhere in southern Oregon. Back in our room, Cora reads and I try to learn the little banjolele I’d stuffed into my bag.
We’re train people at this point, the novelty having given way to a kind of timeless fondness, like we’ve been thunking along for days or weeks, we’re not really sure. Finally it’s time to sleep. We reflect on our fellow passengers. Oklahoma will be getting off in Oakland tomorrow morning. Will he ever record another song? And then I kiss Cora goodnight and just stare out the dark window for a long time.
We’re just leaving Klamath Falls. It’s 11:30. [Sighs] I don’t know what we’re going past. Various little industrial, operations in the midst of big fields. Lights here and there, but mostly it’s dark. Oh, a few little houses, tucked into some trees.
This is cozy. This is like when you’re a kid lying in the back seat of the family car as the street lights pass overhead. You’re up too late and you just feel the road through the car and it sort of hypnotic and bumpy and you fall into a kind of cozy trance. That’s what it feels like. I haven’t been in the cozy trance like this in a while. All right. Goodnight, tape recorder.
CHRIS: OK, Cora, we’re rolling into Oakland. What do you have to tell me?
CORA: OK. There are hundreds of painted gnomes throughout the city that are painted by an anonymous artist. And they’re attached to utility poles or they sit on window sills. They’re just all over the city, but PG&E does not like them and will be dispatching a crew to remove them.
CHRIS: Thank you. You’ve given me a lot to ponder.
When trains first appeared, these gleaming creations embodied the future. Now they represent the past, a simpler, smokier era of ritzy club cars and parlor trysts and on-board barbers and beauticians.
For me, personally, they’ve always represented Leslie Turner. After breakfast, I tell Cora about the day this tall, skinny young man walked out to the sweltering train yards at the Dallas train station, looked left and then right, and hoisted himself onto the baggage car idling in front of him. The year was 1921 and tucked into his shoe were his life savings, 40 bucks. This, I tell Cora, was her great-great grandfather.
Leslie had gotten in the habit of riding the blinds, i.e., sneaking into the front platform of the baggage car, and catching a free ride behind the piles of suitcases. Other times he just rode on the top of the cars, out under the wide sky. That’s where he was on this trip, about a thousand miles from Dallas now, when he started getting sleepy. He laced his fingers behind his head, spread his legs for maximum stability and closed his eyes.
My great-grandfather didn’t just ride the rails because he was broke. Something singular happens when you move over the planet by train. It’s not complicated or poetic or allegorical. What it is, is you’re watching this incredible movie scroll past and it’s not like any other movie in your life.
Or so it was for my great-grandfather until he woke up on top of that baggage car to find a Pennsylvania police officer poking at him. A few days later he was in prison.
Not long into his incarceration, he learned that prisoners doing manual labor could ask the guard for permission to go buy smokes at a nearby store. My great-grandfather did just that. As the guard looked on, he jogged over, made his purchase, exited the store—and hopped into a deliveryman’s truck, never to be seen there again. One of those rare self-pardons.
I find myself picturing this event as just another little vignette someone might see from inside their own train. That, after all, is what this whole scrolling-movie thing is about. The plot is the caprice of history, the sporadically engineered, mostly random unfolding of events piling on top of each other to amount to the world we know, or aspire to know. The plot is how the Ice Age ran a glacier over what’s now a scrapyard, it’s how lumber transformed the whole state of California, and it’s how someone’s bouncing a baby outside this old apartment complex and someone else is taking their 15-minute break outside a KFC. The plot is this woman in a floral print shirt north of Soledad who every single day for the last 50 years has stood in the doorway of her farmhouse and waved to this very train.
This is what I wanted from this trip. I didn’t need Cora and me to have deep conversations the whole time, like in road trip mythology. I just wanted us to watch this weird movie together a while.
We’re north of San Luis Obispo when everything goes dark. We’ve slipped into a pitch-black stone tunnel in a shrubby hillside, and when we emerge on the other side, we’re perched dramatically along the western edge of a vast valley. Tawny, parched hills spill down to the valley floor, with its soft golden knuckles of faintly waving grass, and in the distance you can see the poor chumps driving in the same direction along Highway 101. I’ve been one of those chumps, but I’ve never really absorbed this valley, because the angle’s wrong and because your eyes are on the road, and even if you could see it you wouldn’t care that much, because you’re not in train mode.
We keep winding along that edge, and soon we’re skirting an adjoining valley, some live oak and manzanita lining a creek bed and some thick cows milling around near a barbed wire fence but otherwise just soft hills far as you can see. The train rolls into another tunnel, blackness all around, a few more minutes of chugging along and then the track executes a rather tight turn, thus affording riders a view of ourselves, the front of the train having curved into sight of the rear of the train.
CHRIS: OK, Cora, we’re pulling up to Simi Valley. What can you tell me about Simi Valley?
CORA: Well, Ronald Reagan was buried in Simi Valley and before he was president, he was a lifeguard and he saved around 77 lives. And that led me to lifeguard world records. And the one for saving the most lives was met by Leroy Columbo, who saved 907 lives in 40 years.
CHRIS: Thank you. That was a great Simi Valley fact.
The plot is the caprice of history, the sporadically engineered, mostly random unfolding of events piling on top of each other to amount to the world we know, or aspire to know.
Thirty-five hours is the right number of hours. Lush Washington becomes hot, dusty Oregon, and you wake in golden California, which is misty and gray and then hot and dry. You run right along the edge of the Pacific, vaguely perilous. Cora and I spot two dolphins arcing slowly out of the water, and then it’s nighttime, and then we’re packing up our things and approaching Los Angeles.
In the days ahead, Cora and I will of course talk a lot about this trip—the odd and oddly lovable cast of characters, the awesomeness of the sights, the adventure of it all. I also confess to worrying, briefly, that this wasn’t one of those “transformative epiphany” kinds of trips. Did I fail my child as her existential travel agent?
But then one night we’re driving home from a late dinner, and I catch sight of the streetlights passing on the highway, and the rolling shadows on my kids’ faces as they sleepily stare out at the night. You know what I mean—that deep, almost reptilian sensation of watching highway lights pass by. The cool of the window on your forehead, the edge of the old seat belt against your collarbone, the rhythmic ka-thunk of the pavement underneath.
A train is that. I mean, it’s the train version of that, but that’s what it is—all deep, wordless sensation, the kind that burrows not in your brain but your cells. For those 35 hours, sure, we talked and played cards and ate Amtrak veggie burgers. But at some level we were in that trance. A train is a trance, a 60-ton trance. Whatever it’s doing to you, it’s doing beneath the surface.
So there’s your vague squishy answer, my daughter. I have no idea what this trip was about, but I have faith it registered in our bones, and that’s where we’ll store the memories of Oklahoma and Richard and the smell of train tracks and the look of moonlight roving over a darkened field as you drift off.
And, Cora, lest you think I forgot, here is the postscript on your great-great-grandfather. Half a century after he escaped, he returned to Pennsylvania. He was 72 now, having gone on to become a successful illustrator and a generally upstanding guy who paid actual dollars for his train tickets. Maybe something deep in his bones hadn’t been sitting right, because he walked up to that Pennsylvania prison and confessed. I guess the officials there had bigger things on their minds, because they shrugged and let him go. There’s my trivia for you, Cora.
>>Next: Am I Colombian Enough?