Leave Chicago by rail, embrace the unhurried journey | Best of Chicago 2017 | Reasons to love Chicago | Chicago Reader

Leave Chicago by rail, embrace the unhurried journey

Extended train trips are alternatives to the frantic pace of contemporary life.

If I were to meet President Donald Trump, I'd tell him all about my recent train ride west.

On the second afternoon of a memorable 31-hour journey to Whitefish, Montana, my girlfriend and I sat together on a pair of swiveling seats while avidly gazing out a window of the observation car on the second floor of the Empire Builder, the Amtrak line that stretches from Chicago to Seattle. It's one of 15 long-distance lines threatened by Trump's 2018 transportation budget.

After rolling through the flat expanse of the dry grasslands of the Great Plains for many hours, we'd finally glimpsed the foothills of the Rocky Mountains surrounding Glacier National Park. A teenage boy a few seats behind us began playing a mournful tune on his violin that perfectly complemented the grandiosity of the snowy peaks we were approaching. It sent a pleasant chill up my spine.

"I just made up that song, actually," he said afterward. "Seeing the mountains, well . . . they inspired me."

It was a vivid reminder of the rewards of a trip on one of the long-distance routes that start at Amtrak's central hub, Chicago's Union Station, and spiderweb out into big cities, small towns, and all-but-forgotten outposts from coast to coast. These extended treks by rail offer opportunities for what's become known as "slow travel," an approach that embraces the unhurried journey as an alternative to the frantic pace of contemporary life—a chance for tourists to immerse themselves in the physical world and connect with the people around them.

This type of Zen-like downshifting is exactly what I've enjoyed about my own 15,000 miles of train travel over the past decade. Aboard Amtrak's Southwest Chief, I marveled at the unending deep blue New Mexico sky. Through the window of the California Zephyr, I watched a herd of wild horses galloping across the dusty Colorado plains. During a heavy rain, the City of New Orleans train seemed to hydroplane over the flooded waters of Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain.

Something about the leisurely, unfussy experience of train travel breaks down barriers between people who'd otherwise be strangers. Like residents of a summer camp on rails, passengers are brought together to share meals at a communal table. Travelers sit, walk, and sleep adjacent to each other—and so you end up organically making new friends. I've had in-depth conversations with people from all walks of life—the Amish, New Zealand expats, a Muslim family from New York City, elderly antifracking activists from West Virginia. I've sung along to the tune of an Irishman's jangly acoustic guitar during an impromptu late-night jamboree, swigged cheap beer with rowdy New Orleans Saints fans who turned the dining car into a traveling tailgate party, and snuck a kiss with a French woman I once chatted with all day on the way to Seattle. Contrast the richness of those experiences with the memories of my airplane trips during that same period—a blur of unpleasant security lines, terse exchanges with seatmates, and the counting of minutes until I'd be allowed to escape the cramped cabin.

That's why Trump shouldn't eliminate the long-distance routes by slashing Amtrak's budget from $1.4 billion to $774 million, as he's proposed. If the president were serious about making America great again, he'd expand them.  v

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