Looking for Something in a Whole Lot of Nothing: A Personal Essay

Where long distance slow travel allows time for reflection on the nature of personal narratives

I was feeling like an art-school tourist. I was in graduate school, a foreigner in the land of the beautifully quirky. The label of college student did not fit the same as it did a decade ago when I last tried it on. Winter break was my chance to escape the college bubble. I took a flight from Baltimore back to California to check in on my former life as a research assistant and put in office time on the long-term project that I had put on the back burner. After a few weeks of watching sunsets on the shores of the West Coast, it was time to return to the East Coast. I yearned to see more of the country and take the long, slow way back.

I booked a ticket on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, the cross-country train from Los Angeles to Chicago, a city I had heard a lot about but had never been to before. The scenery in the promotional brochure was seductive, but the prospect of a 43-hour train ride was daunting. I was definitely looking forward to the freedom of having nowhere else to be right then and there. The train departed Los Angeles Union Station nightly at 6:15 pm. I got on board and settled into my private roomette, which was only about half a foot wider than the width of two facing seats, but managed to contain an upper bunk bed and a fold-out table. Across the hallway, a young mother, her toddler daughter, and a grandmother squeezed into their roomette and attempted to arrange themselves in the tiny space. Eventually, I learned that they were traveling to Albuquerque to visit their husband/son, a Marine who was soon to be deployed to Japan.

By eight p.m., I was headed to the dining car where all of the action was. Since sleeping-car arrangements included meals, visits to the dining car became important time markers throughout the journey and a fruitful time to gather glimpses into the lives of my fellow passengers. I surveyed the room and saw a few family groups with children, but mostly I saw middle-aged couples. Dining guests were seated in the order that they arrived, usually with different people each time. I was seated at a booth with three other women who were also solo travelers. When it was time for customary introductions, I thought about possible answers to the usual questions, “Where are you from? What do you do?” It was tempting to take on another persona, but I did not have the inclination (I was a bad actor and terrible at lying). And why did an occupation become our primary identity? A petite elderly woman next to me was quiet for a long time. When asked, she told us she was a long-haul truck driver: “Yep, I’ve got White Line fever.” She crisscrossed the country with her husband delivering multi-million-dollar luxury tour buses. I was intrigued and asked how she got into the business. Her father was a truck driver, so she grew up in Mack trucks and loved the smell of diesel. She was now heading back home to Hutchinson, Kansas, where she was a redneck who “gets away with saying and doing things those fancy people can’t say.” I told her I’ve never been to Kansas. She replied, “It’s a whole lot of nothing.”

Little did she know, the Midwest had a mythical place in my mind. As a kid growing up in California, I was confused by the term Midwest since it seemed to be pretty far east to me. The collective fantasy of California the Golden State was sustained on vibrant, citrus-crate labels and spectacles like the Pasadena Rose Bowl Parade that lured Midwesterners to move out west at the turn of the 20th century. Real-estate developers in Los Angeles named streets Iowa, Ohio, Nebraska, Michigan, and Missouri. Trains were a romanticized way to travel. The fabled routes of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway brought young Midwestern women out west to work at tourist restaurants, as dramatized in musical films like The Harvey Girls. The flagship Super Chief route was the predecessor of Amtrak’s current Southwest Chief. The cheerful waiter in my dining car lived a modern version of the classic story. He started training on this route in 1977 while living in Chicago, where the train was based. Every other week, he traveled back and forth to Los Angeles, where the sun was shining and people wore “shorty-shorts” in December. He would return back home to Chicago’s bitter winter and think, “Something is wrong with this picture!” He finally convinced his family to move out west in 1981.

I imagined that the westward journey from the Midwest would have been like the journey of Dorothy to Oz, a dramatic shift from grey and snowy plains to technicolor forest, buttes, and mountains overnight. As I made the pilgrimage from California to Chicago, the view through the window played out like a wide-screen panoramic movie. The as-advertised majesty of Arizona red sandstone and New Mexico beiges contrasted with white snow and deep blue sky. In hundreds of photos that I took throughout the journey, the distant horizon was in focus with the foreground in a motion blur. This was like my life: I was so busy focusing on events in the distant future that the current week appeared as a blur. Viewing a cross-section of country through the window felt similar to visiting a vista point to view a landscape. I was able to take in vast beautiful scenery in one sitting, but I was so removed from the action in the scene.

On the second morning, I had breakfast with a mother and daughter who were traveling home from Phoenix to Michigan. At first glance, they appeared so close in age that I initially thought they were college students traveling together. The mother had recently returned from military deployment in Afghanistan. As we were sipping coffee, she looked out the window at the Arizona desert landscape and said, “It looks a lot like this actually.” She went on to describe Kuwait City as being like a beach resort town where she met a lot of nice people and got along well with the locals, “as long as you don’t speak to their women or touch them in any way.” I could tell she had seen a lot that she did not burden her children with. Her daughter was an expressive and highly self-aware high-school student, a self-described “giraffe among zebras,” with ambitions to be a theatre actor and writer. I couldn’t help but relate to her awkward teenage intellectual aspirations. As she described her habit of keeping notebooks full of “something like a memoir and script ideas,” I imagined her first train trip becoming material for a future play in which she had the starring role.

Around noon, the train made an hour-long stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Local souvenir vendors took this opportunity to set up shop alongside the tracks to sell knick-knacks. I was excited to step out for some fresh air, and I took a walk around the downtown. The last time I visited Albuquerque, I had attended the Balloon Fiesta. I had stood awestruck in the middle of a football field, staring wide-eyed at the sight of hundreds of hot-air balloons ascending over my head. It had felt like I’d stepped into a stock photo on someone’s computer desktop wallpaper. That might have been one of the most purely joyful touristic moments of my life. Everything in the gentrified part of downtown Albuquerque was similarly colorful in a way that screamed of urban redevelopment through decorative street signs and murals with local flavor. I was charmed and suspicious at the same time.

The train rumbled through most of Kansas overnight. Did going through Kansas in my sleep count? On the last day, I woke up to a landscape rendered in shades of grey, dense snow covering fields. I spent much of the morning in the observation car taking in views of “a whole lot of nothing.” I chatted with a woman riding the train for the first time, heading home to Kentucky after visiting her daughter in Los Angeles. She was a retired school teacher who was about to undergo a third round of chemotherapy, a possible cure, her doctor had said. She spoke about descending from a long line of military officers going back to the days of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. She had once wanted to be an air-force pilot, but was not allowed to join the military as a woman in the 1970s. Then decades later, her daughter surprised the family by enrolling in the army as a means to finance medical school. I thought of the young veteran I had met earlier and saw threads of military service running through many of the passengers’ lives. I would never know those tours firsthand, yet that was how a whole generation of young men and women had the opportunity to see the world.

The train crossed over the Fort Madison bridge spanning the mighty Mississippi River. Now I had seen it with my own eyes! River crossed, life paths crossed. Long journeys exaggerated the crossing of thresholds in life: graduations, change of jobs, weddings, and funerals. Travel was a way to figure out where to go next. I had to get moving before I could tell if I was heading in the right direction. The slow train did the work of transport, giving me time to explore the mental landscape inside my head.

Going into this trip with desires to collect life lessons or weave myself into a classic Great American Train Journey skewed my memory. I looked for patterns amidst the bits that caught my attention at that moment, as if those selected moments held the clues to a greater truth. I wanted to find affirmation in other people’s stories. I traveled and spoke about myself to strangers so that I could figure myself out. Introducing myself to others, I had also re-introduced me to myself.

As the train continued on towards Chicago, I thought about first impressions. I wondered if the people I met were conscious of how they presented themselves to others. I kept my own introductions minimal, telling some passengers that I was collecting observations on travel. One person reacted excitedly, “Oh I’m going to be in a book!” These moments were encapsulated by the totality of the train journey. The truck driver would probably not remember me, but she continued to live on in my memory as a person who clearly knew what she wanted out of life. I hoped to play a small cameo in the high school student’s future play, where she rode the train for the first time and got encouragement from strangers to continue on her creative path. The charismatic waiter and the rest of the train crew were probably used to their supporting roles in everyone’s personal travel documentary. The best attendants were pros at lending a sympathetic ear and offering humorous commentary to anyone who asked. The generosity of others in sharing their personal anecdotes inspired me to work on the retelling of my own.

Physical travel forced people to connect in real space, real time. Face-to-face conversations demanded patience and sustained listening, action and reaction, eye contact, and body language to function and forge connections. The small talk from strangers went beyond my expectations of what people might speak about on first encounters. Their stories momentarily took me out of my own concerns, and maybe they needed a stranger to listen. When something said in passing matched what I needed to hear at that moment, small talk had the potential to be meaningful beyond the train ride.

I was a tourist in the stories of passing strangers, as they were in mine.