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Train travel hasn't been this hot since the birth of the transcontinental railroad. Amtrak recently announced a writers' residency program where 24 "creative professionals" will be awarded free long-distance travel, and suddenly everyone's a foamer—that is, a train enthusiast addicted to riding the rails. The same couldn't be said last year when I took Amtrak cross-country from Sacramento, California to New York via the California Zephyr and Lake Shore Limited. Reactions ranged from "that sounds...interesting" to "you are a goddamn fool." But the four-day trip proved surprising in more ways than one. Here, a few misconceptions about train travel, debunked for the curious.
1. Aren't kooks the only people who travel by train?
Whoopi Goldberg rides trains. Do you consider her a kook? Like a few people I met on my journey, she loathes flying. During your trip through Colorado canyons, the Rocky Mountains and Donner Lake, you'll meet all kinds, especially in the dining car where strangers are seated together. By the end of the first night, I was splitting desserts with married couple Perry and Kathleen from Auburn and offering to rent them my apartment next time they're in New York. If that makes me a kook...
2. Won't the lack of Wi-Fi make me crazy?
Some routes, like the Empire Service to Albany and the Acela Express to D.C. are blessed with Wi-Fi, which is great if you want to continue staring at a computer like you already do for 50 hours a week. But on long-haul trips like the Zephyr, it's sometimes hard to even get a cell signal. No wonder writers are salivating. Nothing spells p-r-o-d-u-c-t-i-v-e more than ever-changing views, bottomless coffee, and the inability to refresh Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Grindr, Tinder, Snapchat, or however else you interact with the world.
3. But seriously, doesn't the food taste awful?
My only blunder was eating a regrettable microwaved egg on spongy croissant in the Cafe Car. Otherwise all of my meals made by reservation in the seated dining car were quite good, from steak cooked perfectly to order to perfectly serviceable omelets. Plus it beats peeling back foggy plastic wrap on an inflight meal.
4.Isn't it cheaper to just fly?
Depending on the season, a coach ticket from California to New York can run as cheap as $230. But unless you like sleeping vertically I suggest booking a Superliner Sleeper Car (my "roomette" was about $400 extra), which includes all meals, a little bunker with fold-out bed, and access to a shower. So consider it more like room and board for a few days and the price doesn't sting.
5. Won't I get claustrophobic?
How does living in a bite-sized apartment and riding the subway suit you? Surviving in New York is probably the closest approximation to holing up in a train car, except onboard there's more sunlight. Plus, the 60-ish MPH ride will give you a great sleep, and there are stops every few hours for smokers and leg-stretchers. Antsy folks can take a cue from my fellow riders Ron and Chris and, during the one Colorado stop, run out to Glenwood Canyon Brewpub and bring back a liquid lunch.
6.Yawn. Still sounds boring!
Chat with strangers, bring books, and dig into the local newspapers left outside your door every morning. (Of course Warren Buffett makes the front page of the Omaha World-Herald.) Or just watch the world go by. In Truckee, Calif., you might pass a sign for Scraps: A Dog Bakery. Going through Carlin, Nevada, you'll speed past the world's largest gold mine. Try holding your breath through the 6.2 mile-long Moffat Tunnel, named for railroading pioneer David Moffat who, in the words of a fellow rider, "punched a hole straight from Denver to the West." During dinner a Columbia professor might rage against his students' entitlement, and over lunch a Pennsylvania woman who quit her job may tell you, "I don't work now. I'm traveling wherever the wind blows," and you might start to think, she has the right idea.
Other trip ideas for New Yorkers: Pop up to Montreal on the Adirondack for $89 round-trip or head to New Orleans on the Crescent. If you spring for the full cross-country monty—or better yet, a 30-day USA Rail pass —let me know. I'll save you a seat, you crazy foamer you.
Kara Cutruzzula is a culture and travel writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @karacut.