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Amtrak choo-choo-chooses writers for residencies
February 24, 2014 11:36 AM   Subscribe

One writer's Tweet wishing Amtrak had residencies for writers results in just that.
posted by wintrymix (95 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is all over my Facebook feed right now (and I was kind of the vector for that). I found out about this two days ago and I'm already trying to figure out ways to capitalize on this.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:42 AM on February 24


On one hand, Yaaay! On the other hand , based on my twitter feed, all my writer friends are going to engage in Hunger Games style combat to obtain it.
posted by The Whelk at 11:42 AM on February 24 [25 favorites]


( if you don't come with a decent submission sonascope I swear I'm going to send you photos of typewriters being tortured and made into ugly jewelry.)
posted by The Whelk at 11:43 AM on February 24 [27 favorites]


Whelk: I CALL DIBS ON THE ADIRONDACKS.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:44 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Jenny Diski got there first, of course, with the terrific Stranger on a Train.
posted by RogerB at 11:45 AM on February 24


Jessica Gross: Writing on theLake Shore Limited
Nathaniel Rich's How To Spend 47 Hours On A Train And Not Go Crazy may be useful, about a trip on the Sunset Limited.

for more: Travel Writing By Train
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:49 AM on February 24 [3 favorites]


I copyedited a novel on Amtrak once. I wonder if there could be an Amtrak for Editors program too.
posted by mlle valentine at 11:50 AM on February 24 [9 favorites]


I would start writing again to try this. But I'd end up in the bar car all night drinking and playing Texas Hold-Em. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
posted by Splunge at 11:51 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


A friend of mine got this started, and already has his tickets for his trip. It's such a very cool idea and I'm glad that Amtrak is stepping up.
posted by gingerbeer at 11:51 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


This is actually the perfect use for Amtrak. If you're actually using them for a scheduled transportation service you're pretty SOL but as a lark "go there, come back, don't care when you arrive" this should work just fine.
posted by Runes at 11:53 AM on February 24 [11 favorites]


It would be best if they opened it to all artists, rather than just the "writers" whatever that term means.

I do love a good train ride, say about 6-8 hours. It's is like being in this weirdly special place, like a nearby dimension, where you can watch the rest of the world go by. And some of the best strange people ever, from various walks of life.

But please, let's not make it too much of "writer" thing.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:53 AM on February 24 [7 favorites]


This is brilliant for Amtrak:
So Gross emailed the social media team at Amtrak to set the trip up, picked dates and a route (Amtrak recommended the Lake Shore Limited, because, you know, there tends to be room on a train headed to Chicago in mid-Winter), and booked her ticket. She rode the rails from NYC to Chicago to NYC again, writing the whole time. No one else on the train knew about her residency, Gross said, or if they did, they "definitely didn't act like it."

Now, perhaps the most important point: The residency was free. According to Gross, all Amtrak asked was that she send out a few tweets while she was traveling, and do an interview for the company's blog at the end of her trip.
When was the last time that someone really had to vie for space on an Amtrak train? I don't think they suggested the Lake Shore Limited due to lack of demand. Anyway, they drum up a ton of positive press, re-romanticizing train travel.
When Amtrak begins offering this program on a regular basis, Quinn said "we need to weigh [whether] it's a good investment on our end" - because Amtrak can't just start giving away free rides willy-nilly. (Especially not when it has a significant amount of debt).
Well, they've been subsidized and still operating at a loss for decades, though 2012 saw their smallest annual loss in 38 years. In other words: what does Amtrak really have to lose? With more than 31.2 million passengers between October 2011 and September 2012, will a few dozen really hurt their bottom line. They just have to sound a bit picky when talking about this, so they don't sound too desperate for attention.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:54 AM on February 24


I put my first book together on Quark (oh god) during a long, increasingly drunken train ride from Montreal To NYC....
posted by The Whelk at 11:55 AM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Trains aren't for WRITING. Trains are for DRINKING. Silly writers.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:57 AM on February 24 [9 favorites]


Runes: This is actually the perfect use for Amtrak. If you're actually using them for a scheduled transportation service you're pretty SOL but as a lark "go there, come back, don't care when you arrive" this should work just fine.

Depends on when and where you want to go. You have to plan around their schedule, not vis-versa. If you plan with an overnight trip, it's not too bad. My parents-in-law have traveled from New Mexico to southern California overnight and really enjoyed it. The way they figured it, it was about as fast as if they drove, and probably about the same cost, but they were able to take in the scenery and sleep. Add in the cost of a hotel, and Amtrak was a discount for them (mind you, I think they used a senior discount rate, or some other lessened cost).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:57 AM on February 24


BitterOldPunk: Trains aren't for WRITING. Trains are for DRINKING. Silly writers.

You must have a very strong throat and stomach acid, to drink a train.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:58 AM on February 24 [21 favorites]


Trains aren't for WRITING. Trains are for DRINKING. Silly writers.

A train is the absolutely best place on the planet to drink.

And they're absolutely the worst place on earth to have a hangover! (GAD I was miserable...)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:58 AM on February 24 [2 favorites]


It would be best if they opened it to all artists, rather than just the "writers" whatever that term means.

Most other artists require a studio. Practically and romantically, I have no desire to paint or weld on a train.
posted by cmoj at 11:58 AM on February 24 [6 favorites]


Considering it's an amazingly unreliable way to travel, and frequently strands passengers for extended periods of time, this seems like an ideal use for Amtrack. It sure isn't working as a transportation system.
posted by cccorlew at 11:58 AM on February 24 [2 favorites]


Also trains jiggle around. No good for illustrators.
posted by cmoj at 11:59 AM on February 24 [2 favorites]


Well, they've been subsidized and still operating at a loss for decades, though 2012 saw their smallest annual loss in 38 years. In other words: what does Amtrak really have to lose?

A fight with the Republicans and probably a few Democrats on using tax payer money to subsidize writers. They'll probably work in a few jabs at the NEA while they're at it.

Most other artists require a studio.

Nah, a sketchbook is fine. Yes, trains jiggle. That can add to the fun.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:01 PM on February 24 [3 favorites]


cmoj: Most other artists require a studio. Practically and romantically, I have no desire to paint or weld on a train.

You are a boring individual, though your would-be fellow train travelers appreciate that you chose to leave your acetylene torch at home.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:02 PM on February 24 [6 favorites]


The NEC has always been insanely on time and comfortable for me. The regional Accelera service runs like a damn dream
posted by The Whelk at 12:03 PM on February 24


The Northeast Corridor should be called the Potemkin Village Line, it makes Amtrak look so undeservedly good.
posted by RogerB at 12:06 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


Yeah, my NEC experience has always been good (and quick) but can't speak to the rest. It would be great if this could turn into an excuse to justify a longer trip/drum up business for the cross country routes somehow.
posted by mlle valentine at 12:07 PM on February 24


Nah, a sketchbook is fine. Yes, trains jiggle. That can add to the fun.

Tattoo artist in residence?
posted by ODiV at 12:08 PM on February 24 [4 favorites]


Aren't the cross country trains mostly in existence because they insure that a sufficiently large number of members of congress have some interest in keeping Amtrak going?

I love those long distance trips, but, yes, I wouldn't make any plans that assume you will arrive at your desitnation anytime close to the scheduled time.
posted by Area Man at 12:10 PM on February 24


I will not stop until they let me go Portland to Portland with my fancy new laptop, a bottle of gin and my novel draft.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 12:13 PM on February 24 [6 favorites]


I have a long train trip planned for the summer and I'm wondering if I can get away with bringing a typewriter.
posted by JanetLand at 12:13 PM on February 24


Add me into the chorus of "yes, please"

Although truthfully I'm most efficient at my local pub that has no wifi. Well at least until the 3rd pint is downed.
posted by drewbage1847 at 12:27 PM on February 24


Lots of Government run entities should consider getting on board with this idea.

USPS -- "1 pm. Lunch over we set out to cover the southwest corner of the 90803, a route no carrier enjoys due to its paucity of shade trees and its plenty of hounds. My carrier quips that he spends his days in a haze of barks and yelps, and indeed, the barks and yelps do seem to follow us up and down the blocks."

US Forest Service -- "3 pm and the fourth pot of coffee of the day. Before I agreed to accept this residency in the fire lookout I imagined the beauty of the forest and trees. The quiet. The solitude. The moments of intense contemplation amid Nature's awesome fecundity. Instead, after only a day and a half, I am counting the moments until I get off this mountain and into a bar. The job of a fire lookout is difficult, and exacting, and requires deep reserves of attention and focus, both of which I lack."

National Weather Service -- "4 am. Time for the day's first run of the climate models. This office uses three -- the NAM, the EC, and the GFS. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but here in Southern California, the NAM is considered the wackiest, with reliable long range results -- looking out seven plus days -- but terrible in the short term. They think it's because it doesn't factor the SoCal eddy very well. Anyway, it's time to write up the morning forecast discussion and the climatologist asks if I want to help since, "there's some poetry involved in the weather, and also some fiction."
posted by notyou at 12:28 PM on February 24 [32 favorites]


The overnight trips between Maryland and Chicago on the Capitol Limited, when it was still possible to occasionally get a roomette for myself, were some of my happiest, writerliest times at the keyboard of the old Alphasmart 3000. Of course, they got even better when I realized that getting a lower floor roomette meant that the people most inclined to horrendously shit up the toilet somehow never managed to get down those scary little stairs to horrendously shit up the lower floor toilets. After that, o bliss. How I love those trains, but no one I know lives in Chicago anymore, and I can't afford the train, either, so I have to content myself with running down the hill in West Virginia to wave as the Capitol Limited roars by.
posted by sonascope at 12:31 PM on February 24 [7 favorites]


There's a game jam that takes place on a train from Chicago to San Francisco. I am considering going to SF in a train to do the same thing.
posted by hellojed at 12:33 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Pro: You get free tickets to ride Amtrak to write about them!

Con: You still have to actually take an Amtrak train to write about them.
posted by Kitteh at 12:36 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


I would love to do this, except like the Whelk, I've seen way too many people who look like they're ready to shank someone to get a free ride.
posted by immlass at 12:38 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


This sounds awesome! Sharpening my shank.
posted by vibrotronica at 12:39 PM on February 24 [5 favorites]


I would maybe actually start writing again in earnest to get in on this.
posted by Sophie1 at 12:49 PM on February 24


One of my friends has been selected and already has his tickets. He describes it as "all of his dreams coming true".

I personally don't get it.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 12:51 PM on February 24 [4 favorites]


Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking writers on this motherfucking train!
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:52 PM on February 24 [13 favorites]


Sounds like a supposedly fun thing...
posted by hal9k at 12:53 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


My mom and aunt took Amtrack trains from Northern California all the way to San Antonio - a week-long trip more or less - and their train was only an hour late in arriving, which is NBD when we're talking about a week-long trip. They booked a sleeper car and had a great time - one benefit was that they had bad cell reception and no wifi while the train was traveling so it's also a vacation from the internet.
posted by muddgirl at 12:54 PM on February 24


the crescendo of a hundred typewriter keys sprung to life as the train enters a tunnel
posted by hal9k at 12:54 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


A couple times a year, I take a 4-hour Amtrak trip. I always sit in the observation car. I open my laptop every time, but never look at the damn thing. Why? Because I have met the neatest people (including an Amish couple from southern Illinois taking their first ever vacation, to Oregon) and eavesdropped on the most fascinating conversations in the Amtrak observation car. If you're working while riding Amtrak, you're missing out on some great interactions. (And I say this as a person who usually loathes interacting with other people.)
posted by mudpuppie at 12:57 PM on February 24 [5 favorites]


I don't get the tales of horrible people on Amtrak—I just seem to meet people with great stories. Rode the train to Hinton, WV in 2012 to pick up the pickup I picked up sight unseen from a dude in Bluefield, and sat with Hutterites and colorful electricians and a bouncy kid who somehow managed to entertain, rather than annoy, me. Then again, I think people tend to get what they dread, in the way that every cat in the universe loves me more than tuna, so there's that.
posted by sonascope at 12:58 PM on February 24


filthy light thief: " When was the last time that someone really had to vie for space on an Amtrak train?"

Northeast route: the entire stretch from Boston to DC, which stops in NYC. The trains can get crowded, especially during rush hour and around the holidays.
posted by zarq at 1:08 PM on February 24 [5 favorites]


Amtrak recommended the Lake Shore Limited, because, you know, there tends to be room on a train headed to Chicago in mid-Winter

I doubt they recommended the Lake Shore Limited due to lack of demand. It's a very busy train year-round; I'd wager that on any day there's at least part of the route where the train is sold out.

It's also sort of an needlessly uncharitable interpretation of Amtrak's motives. I suspect that they put her on the Lake Shore Limited because it's one of the most famous trains that they run, and it's one of the most popular among rail tourists. It's the closest thing you get get today to riding the 20th Century Limited, which I'd argue is probably second only to the Orient Express in terms of Most Famous Train Ever (and the OE doesn't really exist anymore either).
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:11 PM on February 24 [4 favorites]


I never saw or met anyone horrible on an Amtrak train, but I did get delayed 2 hours by passing freight trains, and saw the washrooms go out of service one by one as the toilets filled up, on my Toronto->NY trip. (Still a nice trip overall)
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 1:14 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


A friend has been doing this, except paying out of his own pocket, and primarily as a photographer rather than writer. The result has been pretty wonderful and Amtrak should REALLY consider photographer residencies.
posted by misskaz at 1:14 PM on February 24 [11 favorites]


Sounds perfect for writers without actual deadlines and romantic images of themselves.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:19 PM on February 24 [8 favorites]


Alex Chee was in my year at IA and IMO the top fiction writer.

I've taken the overnight between NY and Chicago; the last few times in a room by myself.

I would have liked to have taken the one between LA and Seattle this week, but I have time constraints due to family obligations.
posted by brujita at 1:33 PM on February 24


I don't quite understand the orgy of excitement over this.

Don't writers always take their laptops on trains? I do, but I never tend to get much done, because there's not a super-comfortable desk to sit at, and it's kind of distracting (in a pleasant way).
posted by dontjumplarry at 1:38 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


I don't quite understand the orgy of excitement over this. Don't writers always take their laptops on trains?

Yes, but usually they have to pay for the ticket.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:40 PM on February 24 [3 favorites]


I was particularly unsuccessful trying to write on long train journeys in India where you are (deliciously) interrupted every two and a half minutes by people selling lentil-based snackfoods.
posted by dontjumplarry at 1:43 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


I know a poet who loves loves loves his job as a Forest Service fire watch. I guess hours staring out the windows suits his writerly temperament.
posted by idiopath at 1:44 PM on February 24


dontjumplarry: "I don't quite understand the orgy of excitement over this."

It costs close to $500 for a roomette from san francisco to chicago, roundtrip. I would be less excited if someone paid for the equivalent airfare, as it doesn't come with office space and 55 hours x 2 of continually changing scenery/inspiration.
posted by danny the boy at 1:58 PM on February 24 [7 favorites]


Also trains jiggle around. No good for illustrators.

"Ah, yes, this... interesting... painting, that resembles a bowl of fruit invaded by a vicious red smear monster, I call this Penny On The Tracks."
posted by JHarris at 2:02 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


I took the train all the time between Charlotte and DC/Baltimore when I was in college. It was always crowded around holidays. I remember a night-before-Thanksgiving ride home in which I slept in a booth in the closed dining car--it was the most comfy night's sleep I ever got on a train. I always got tons of reading done, and after I acquired my first laptop, I got a lot of writing done, too, although that was before electrical outlets were common in every car. I love this idea to pieces. I have several scientific papers I need to get done that would be lovely to write on a train.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:03 PM on February 24


Oh actually, I made a mistake. That would be $465 one way, and the $792 on the way back. $1257 total roundtrip.
posted by danny the boy at 2:05 PM on February 24


As a public service to budding poets I think we should compile a list of things that rhyme with Amtrak.

I'll start:

Clam Yak
posted by chavenet at 2:16 PM on February 24 [7 favorites]


I took my first a amtrak ride not very long ago. Had dinner with a music industry guy on his way to LA for the Grammies and heard some stories about prince and ceelo. And one of the trains caught fire causing the power to go out on our car in sub zero temperatures for three hours, and we ended up two hours late while they changed out the car, but other than that, it was lovely. Thank god amtrak doesn't run an airline, though.
posted by empath at 2:24 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Pretty neat. I spent a few months traveling via Amtrak across the US, and although the trains weren't very comfortable for overnight trips, the observation cars were fantastic for getting work done during the day. (Caveat: I brought my own Wi-Fi via iPad hotspot.)

I also took a train trip up in Canada, and they had a program for musicians where you could ride the train for free if you gave a performance. There was a bearded hipster type on our train who played a great one-hour set of guitar folk music for a packed café car. Win-win for all parties involved, as far as I'm concerned!
posted by archagon at 2:30 PM on February 24 [9 favorites]


If Amtrak doesn't pan out, try a US national park. I did one of these in Mesa Verde a few years back and it was great. Talk about quite time and behind-the-scenes access.
posted by gottabefunky at 3:39 PM on February 24 [3 favorites]


> we ended up two hours late

Pretty certain that counts as "on time."

I used to ride Amtrack frequently in the Northeast. Once we were stuck for several hours in NYC. I could see a subway stop that would get me home just... down... the hill... but of course there was no way to get to it.

One time we were stuck for a few hours. The conductor came through with glow-sticks and said "These are for emergency use only. I'm declaring this an emergency," and handed them to all the little kids.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:45 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


Clam Yak
Yam pack.
Jampacked.
Ham crack.
Ram frack.
Slammed rack.
Dam track.
posted by yoink at 4:04 PM on February 24 [4 favorites]


I find that a train journey of 2-3 hours, in a forward-facing seat (preferably window) with a table, is the ideal environment to work on things on my laptop; things typically having been anything from code to music (wearing headphones, of course, and not in the quiet carriage), though I imagine that writing would work just as well.

A longer journey (like the New York/Chicago return; that's about two days, right?) sounds like a potentially effective writing retreat.
posted by acb at 4:13 PM on February 24


What would Dagny Taggart think?
posted by Apocryphon at 4:25 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


I have several scientific papers I need to get done that would be lovely to write on a train.

Be careful, they have free WiFi on many trains now. So much for the movable writers' garret.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:44 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


I had a strange dream, about a year ago, that's stuck with me ever since because later dreams keep referring to it, as though there's some kind of dream-continuity inside my head. In this dream, I would go to the airport and wait around in some loading area, and if I got the okay I could ride along in planes hauling cargo instead of people. I didn't do it to travel, I didn't hop out to sightsee once the plane landed. I did it to enjoy the round trip, have some time disconnected from everything, and stare out the window.

That is probably because, as a teen with access to a car, when I wanted to just Get The Hell Away (this being pre-9/11) I would go to the airport. It was free, open 24 hours, and nobody would bother me for loitering. I still would, now, but...

Last night I had a similar dream, but about trains. Apparently my subconscious mind adores this idea.
posted by cmyk at 4:55 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


A few years back, myself and my dad took the Amtrak Lake Shore service from Chicago to Buffalo (ultimately heading for Toronto) and I couldn't believe how cheap it was. I think it was about $60 dollars for a single, booked a couple of days in advance. Booking at that short notice in the UK, $60 dollars will get you maybe 100-odd miles. It was an overnight trip that left Chicago as the sun was going down, and took us along the shores of lake Erie as the sun was coming up (bonus: smoke breaks at Toledo, OH and Erie, PA!). We were just in seats, as opposed to a bunk room, or whatever you want to call it, but it was great.

I'd read so many horror stories about Amtrak and their customer service, but the staff on the train were great, and though we spent plenty of time sitting in sidings, watching seemingly endless freight trains go past, we got to where we were supposed to on time. And then we got to trek out to Buffalo Central Terminal, which is somewhere I never thought I'd get the chance to see in person, before catching the train to Toronto.

For all that Amtrak gets a whole load of shit, they're a pretty good service, given how much their services have been screwed over by various editions of Congress. From the point of view of someone in the UK, where we're paying through the nose for services that, since privatisation, have been fucked over in such a startling variety of ways, they seem like a dream operator. Especially given that they're operating pretty much continent-wide. If you want to buy a ticket to go from Boston to NYC tomorrow (distance 190 miles) it'll cost you about $100. If you want to go from Manchester to London (160 miles) tomorrow, you're looking at £160, or $220.
posted by Len at 5:04 PM on February 24 [6 favorites]


I had an epic adventure riding Amtrak trains in October/November of 2008. Two library conferences I was presenting at a few weeks apart, one in Monterey and the other in Chicago. So I got a month travel pass for Amtrak and went Los Angeles -> Salinas -> Seattle -> Whitefish -> Chicago -> Memphis -> New Orleans -> El Paso -> Los Angeles. For extra spice, there was the small matter of presenting, at a conference in Chicago, on the day of the 2008 US presidential election. And wrote, a lot, on the way.

I won't claim it's a great piece of travel writing; there's probably more quantity than quality. Being on the trains was the perfect writing environment, and having adventures - sometimes on trains - in America e.g. frantically tweeting an epic relationship story, being stuck at a meal with a homophobic rancher, listening to a George Bush hating Republican tell tales on him or most startling of all, seeing librarians knit while in a conference audience, there was never a dull moment. While America slides by those huge Amtrak almost cinematic windows, and you have the room and the quiet to write, then it's sometimes difficult not to put pen to paper.

Index to the posts (some just pictures), and the Flickr set. Anyway; best month ever and thanks to a combination of Amtrak, America, conversations with librarians, and above all Americans, that pretty much changed my life direction. Thanks.

And would I do it all again? Heck, I'm ready for your tweet, email or whatever, Amtrak. Let's do this again...
posted by Wordshore at 5:44 PM on February 24 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I'm a regular Amtrak rider, and not on the NEC either - North Carolina to DC. I don't get the hate. I know that some lines are not efficient, but for me it's the same amount of time as driving, plus I can grade papers at the same time! Never had anything but a pleasant experience.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:54 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


About Amtrak horror stories: as far as I can tell, there's this plane of service where most things operate normally and things go according to plan, everybody's helpful, friendly, the amenities are adequate to good, and you get to your destination more or less as scheduled, and it ends up being a very relaxed and nice way to travel.

Then there's this other plane of service where things go wrong, and you're more or less held hostage indefinitely while amenities deteriorate (or become unavailable), the customer facing staff can't give you much (if any) information, and whoever has the power to fix the situation is clearly either not paying close attention or is having trouble adapting.

I gather that the later experience is less common, but it tends to reach levels somewhere between very frustrating to actual trauma when it happens.

Either experience, of course, could be pretty great for a writer.
posted by weston at 5:55 PM on February 24 [3 favorites]


I think the long, multi-day routes somewhat deserve the hate: they're expensive, they're uncomfortable, and they can have long delays. Single-day routes, and especially between neighboring cities, though? Great experience, and almost always cheaper than flying or driving.
posted by archagon at 5:57 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


I used to take the Empire Builder from Chicago to Minneapolis about once a month. It took more time than flying down and was more expensive than the Megabus, but there was a space and quiet that's hard to find anywhere else. This was during the time period when my father was dying, and I'd be taking the overnight megabus down to Chicago, spending all of Saturday and Sunday morning visiting and helping out with caretaking duties, and then taking the train back to Minneapolis back on Sunday or Monday. The train offered a space to reorder myself and my thoughts - I journalled, mostly, but there was room for other writing, for talking to people about something other than work or cancer, and resting. Then, we'd get in late, I'd to back to sleep, and start the work week.

I was actually in Union Station when I got the call that my father died, getting ready to board my train back to Minneapolis. I found a conductor and he was able to decipher my shocked gibberish to let me know that my ticket was good for any day up to a year- if there was a change in price, I'd be charged that, but there was no need to reschedule. That it itself is enough of a reason for me to choose the train over flying most of the time.

So I'll still take the train from Chicago to Minneapolis, even in the dead of winter. But I don't write much anymore. I sleep and knit mostly, but the sense memory involved with writing is still a bit too strong for me to get anything done. I highly recommend it to anyone else, though.
posted by dinty_moore at 6:18 PM on February 24 [2 favorites]


I wrote a decent chunk of my dissertation on Amtrak. During my last year I took the California Zephyr (which is, by the way, the most amazingly gorgeous train ride you'll ever take) for its full three-day tour four times, along with two half-Zephyrs to Colorado and back, and a spike down to St Louis and back from Chicago. Which I guess adds up to a bit more than half a month spent on Amtrak that year.... It was fantastic, and I got a lot of good math done on those trips. Wifi off, nothing to do but think.

But somehow I doubt that 'Excursions into algebra and combinatorics at q=0' is the kind of writing that they're looking for.
posted by kaibutsu at 7:28 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


(I am kind of tempted to apply for a national park artist in residence, though! Dense, multi-colored drawings of combinatorial objects to show to all of the park visitors coming through. Probably I would take the time to do studies of undirected acyclic graphs.)
posted by kaibutsu at 7:33 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


I loved the Kalamazoo-Chicago train. That's how I got to Chicago every winter break to spend time with my cousin and his family, and after I moved in with them, how I made trips back home. Not so much now (tablets, headphones, laptops, etc) I could always count on meeting at least one interesting person and talking for a whilel.

Traveling by train is the best. None of the airplane hassle/discomfort. No need to focus attention like in a car. Over night train rides in sleeper cars are easily the best, most comfortable sleep I've ever had.

Granted, it has to do a lot with timing, central control and planning, and a bunch of other factors, but China's train system, even with horrifically outdated cars, beats the pants off of the trains back in the States. Trains could, and should be a viable way to make trips in America, like they are pretty much everywhere else in the world.

Sadly, I'd only get writing done if I was kept from looking out the window. Watching the landscape change from flood plain to mountains to grasslands, I can do that for days.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:03 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


I like writing on Amtrak, assuming I can snag a table with an outlet plug. Too bad I usually am only on it for about 45 minutes at a time.

Much as this is a sweet idea and I'd do it, I can't imagine the free aspect of it lasting very long here.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:52 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


I am so going to try for this. It would be like some kind of wacky karma coming true - I used to lie to people in the bar cars of Amtrak trains: I said I was a writer for Rolling Stone. For years I took the train up and down from New York or Baltimore to Rocky Mount or Charleston or that weird little station near Duke which is the closest you can get to Jackson County, North Carolina where my parents lived. I did that trip maybe twice, three times a year for most of the late eighties through the mid nineties (many times with small children, a whole different trip) and I had it down. Stake out your table in the bar car - which was then the smoking car, hence my extra dedication - early and you can stay there all night. If you make friends with the bartender, you can stretch out on those long seats and sleep for a bit after the bar closes. It helps to make friends with the bartender if he thinks you are going to write about him in Rolling Stone.

"Yeah," I said to everyone, "I'm writing about riding the train around America. It'll be in Rolling Stone in, oh, about three or four months."
"You don't look old enough," they said, "Well how about that."
"How often do you take the train?" I said, "Do you like it? What was the weirdest thing that ever happened to you?" And I had a great time and learned a lot, oh man, did I ever.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:06 PM on February 24 [4 favorites]


So way back when, I took an Amtrak round trip NYC to Texas. The trip to was a lot of fun. The trip back was hell on train wheels.

Pro Tip: Get a private berth. Or you will suffer. On the way back there were a LOT of delays. No explanation. Just sitting on a track in the middle of fucking nowhere. We were told, do not use the bathrooms while the train is at rest. Why? Because the train that I was on just dumped the toilet onto the tracks. So I guess they liked their poop spread out at 80 miles an hour or something. Needless to say, nobody cared. After an hour or so, you could flush the toilet and look down and see a load of nasty fecal matter on the tracks when the little trap door opened. I'm just guessing that today it's different. At least I hope it is.

So the delays, and there were many, fucked with my cash. At first I'd go into the dining car. Menus and tablecloths and nice waiters.

Near the middle of the trip. Yeah, the middle of the trip... See you have to go from Texas to the terminal in Chicago first, I was running out of cash. The trip was taking WAY longer than it was supposed to.

I ended up eating Amtrak pizza. All the damn time. It was the cheapest thing I could find. And it was fucking awful.

So we stop at Chi-town and I'm so glad to get off the train I almost kissed the fucking ground.

I have to be back on the same hell-ride in half an hour. But I know what I'm gonna do. I buy a couple bottles of cheap vodka. Some chips and some jerky.

Then it hits me. All the shit food that I had already eaten from Texas tells me bathroom or else. I have to take a crap in the huge edifice that is the Chicago Terminal.

Long story short, I get back onto the train just in time. Bowels rumbling.

Train pulls out.

Now you have to understand that I haven't taken a shower for almost 12 hours at this point. I was fragrant. And my new seat mate was a lovely old black lady. I actually apologized to her for being smelly. She said something like, "I've been riding these trains for many years. You ain't the worst."

That's when I went to the bathroom to clean up.

Picture HELL.

A bunch of guys, in a moving bathroom the size of a small walk in closet. Two sinks. One toilet. And a joke. A serious joke. A fucking urinal. A urinal that is jumping and bouncing and daring you to get even on drop of urine into it. Meanwhile we are trying to clean our asses and balls so as not to insult our seatmates. Toilet paper flying through the air. Balls and dicks hanging out of shorts and asses everywhere.

Everyone saying, Sorry. Excuse me. Sorry. Oops.

Some horrible half-assed cleaning show right out of something that William S Burroughs HIMSELF could not have written on his most fucked up day.

But we tried. And I saw those guys later. In the Bar Car.

Fuck the seats. I had a few bucks left. A pint of vodka. Some cigarettes. And a deck of cards. I made my way to the bar car, for the duration.

More to come.....
posted by Splunge at 9:50 PM on February 24 [3 favorites]


Jenfullmoon, the coach seats have plugs under the window.
posted by brujita at 11:11 PM on February 24


I would totally do this. As it is, I currently do a lot of writing on trains, but that's over here in Europe, in high-speed trains that run mostly on time and only take a couple of hours and are smooth and also packed full of snooty businesspeople and screaming children. But a half-day trip on a slow-moving and under-filled train would make for a great office.

Instead, what I did two weeks ago was rent out a very ugly but well-placed summer flat on the Baltic Sea in Schleswig-Holstein, overlooking the rising sun. The resort town was totally deserted in February, which was actually perfect. Nothing but me, the ocean, and some horrendous wall-to-wall carpeting.

That said, I once took a train through the alps from Munich to northern Italy, but I got nothing done because I was endlessly staring at the scenery. But it was a good idea, nonetheless.
posted by LMGM at 11:53 PM on February 24


If you want to make friends and influence people, try to get a seat with a power outlet - and then bring a power strip. People will love you for it. Especially on long trips like the Empire Builder (Seattle - Milwaukee I've taken countless times).
posted by spinifex23 at 1:27 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


We were told, do not use the bathrooms while the train is at rest. Why? Because the train that I was on just dumped the toilet onto the tracks.

They got rid of the old "non retention" toilets in the 1970s. The canonical story is that a US Senator was fishing under a railroad trestle — the story varies as to where this bridge was, sometimes Florida, sometimes other places — when a sleeper train passed overhead and ruined his day. Hence a Federal requirement to stop using them.

I think that the "Heritage Fleet" cars were the last to have retention toilets installed, beginning in the late 70s, but even prior to that they had a waste holding tank that dumped liquidized waste onto the tracks only when the train started moving. At any rate they're all out of service now.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:29 AM on February 25


I went investigating train fares and routes, and learned a little four-hour round trip would set me back all of twenty bucks. I may do this, just to see what it's like -- and if it's as soothing in reality as those dreams were. If I'm lucky the train will be near the swamps, not highways.
posted by cmyk at 7:55 AM on February 25


They got rid of the old "non retention" toilets in the 1970s. The canonical story is that a US Senator was fishing under a railroad trestle — the story varies as to where this bridge was, sometimes Florida, sometimes other places — when a sleeper train passed overhead and ruined his day. Hence a Federal requirement to stop using them.

In Europe, the use of retention toilets varies by region. Flush a toilet on a train in Italy and you see the trackbed rushing past beneath you, though the France-Italy sleeper trains have retention tanks, as do Deutsche Bahn trains. I think the UK has scrapped non-retention toilets as well.
posted by acb at 9:23 AM on February 25


Ha. I knew Jo Walton would've something to say about this and it turns out she doesn't approve:
Americans generally, and this includes Amtrak and their employees, have a horrible tendency to think of trains as this weird extra thing -- sure it would be fun, they think, but are you really taking the train both ways? This program adds to this feeling of Amtrak as a gimmick, as an experience, and detracts from the fact that it is a sensible method of transportation. It's fun too! But giving writers random free rides to Chicago and Portland and straight back, rather than because they want to be in Chicago or Portland, isn't helpful.
Jo herself has long used trains to get around North-America by preference and her point is that Amtrak should as much as possible market this as a perfectly normal thing to do, not something special for weirdos.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:27 AM on February 26


I think making it something special for weirdos can be a useful step towards making it a perfectly normal thing to do.

I went investigating train fares and routes, and learned a little four-hour round trip would set me back all of twenty bucks.

Really? The few times I've searched the Amtrak site, even the shortest trips I can find tend to cost upwards of $150. Any tips for finding good fares?
posted by JHarris at 3:42 AM on February 26


The fine print says you have to live on the train until your book is a best seller or Oprah endorses it.
posted by Renoroc at 5:15 AM on February 26


Any tips for finding good fares?

Use the same logic that you'd use for airline flights. Book at least a month out, avoid weekends, and accept that prices are going to be higher during holidays. The Northeast Corridor and California tends to be more expensive, since those are more popular routes.

The Empire Builder from Chicago to Minneapolis one way tends to sit between $50 and $75, or $100 to $150 round trip. That's an eight hour ride, so I'd consider that a medium length. Baltimore to Amherst, MA on the Vermonter was approximately the same length, but I'd probably add about $10 to $20 onto the price. Chicago to St. Louis isn't much shorter, but I remembered that being super cheap.

So, depends on where you're going and where you're starting from.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:08 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


New Yorker: Writing Powered By Amtrak
I called Gross on Sunday evening to talk about her trip. I confessed that when I read those well-wrought sentences, I recalled Wallace’s concerns about Conroy’s cruise piece. How did she feel about using her evident talent, and her precious writing hours, for a piece that promoted Amtrak’s commercial goals? (She also let Amtrak use one of the photos she had taken on her trip, to accompany the Q. & A. with her that it published in January.) Gross reminded me that she had been interested in train travel since childhood and said she might have written about it even if she hadn’t gone on the Amtrak-sponsored trip. “Everything I wrote felt very genuine,” she said. She pointed out that she had disclosed to readers the nature of the trip and that her piece hadn’t been wholly glowing. The trip lasted “thirty-nine hours in transit—forty-four, with delays,” she wrote.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:19 AM on February 26


Fare prices depend on the routes you're interested in. There are dirt cheap fares on Amtrak within North Carolina because the state subsidizes the service. Living in Durham, I could take a train home to see my parents in Charlotte for $20 one way--i.e., cheaper than the gas to get there.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:25 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


New York to Chicago on the train would be interesting.

However, New York to Paris on the train...
posted by Wordshore at 10:29 AM on February 26


Any tips for finding good fares?

Parts of the Vermonter through New England are pretty cheap. White River Junction to Hartford, which is a few hours' ride and includes an interesting backing maneuver around a wye in Palmer, MA (next to a historic train station, though you can't get out to go into it), is only $36.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:10 AM on February 27


How to apply for the residency.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:53 AM on March 8 [2 favorites]


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