I had fallen asleep somewhere in Arkansas, woken up just before crossing the state line at Texarkana, and spent the morning passing through the northeast Texas plains. There seemed no end to the Texas countryside flowing by as I sat under the Perspex-bubble roof covering the second-floor viewing lounge and the Texas Eagle plowed on southward.
“Now we’re passing through Taylor, home of legendary black cowboy Bill Pickett,” announced a National Parks volunteer who had materialized in the lounge to provide a running commentary.
“Yeah!” shouted a lady a couple of tables away from me, slapping a hand down, as others in the lounge grinned and nodded appreciatively.
After fifteen hours aboard an Amtrak train, I was finally in Texas. I had initially arrived in New York having flown from London in the U.K., on my way back to live in Austin after working overseas for four years. With no reason to rush my return, I surmised there was no better way to acclimatize back into the American experience than aboard the Texas Eagle plying the 1,306-mile route from Chicago to San Antonio, following a path first established by the Pacific Railway in 1948.
The world is full of famous train journeys: the Oriental Express from Paris to Istanbul; the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Vladivostok; the Darjeeling Limited, immortalized in film by Austin’s own Wes Anderson. Yet in America, where trains brought scores of settlers west in the nineteenth century and then enabled the takeoff of American industrialization into the early twentieth century, the glamorous railway has faded into obscurity. The passenger service has never been as profitable as freight service, with passenger numbers in overall decline since the twenties—after World War II, not a single U.S. railroad line has made any profit from carrying passengers.
But despite this lack of fanfare, train travel is still alive and kicking in the U.S., where more than 30 Amtrak routes crisscross the country, with more than 500 destinations in 46 states. U.S. train riders, a group of all sorts, including senior citizens, those with disabilities, those afraid of flying, and those who have health conditions preventing them from being airborne, won’t get to their destination the fastest—but they’ll do so with more to savor after the journey is done.
There’s an upside to this lack of momentum. It allows you to disconnect from the maddening pace of normal life, to make friendships with strangers, contemplate, and see the landscape in a way that a three-hour flight would never allow. From my seat I watched gangs of Harley Davidson bikers barreling down highways, mustang horses running beside the train, a classic white convertible driven by an elder gent next to his blonde paramour, and passengers waving at the train from cars as the Texas Eagle passed by urban and rural settlements, fields, rivers, and swamps, all laid out amid the vast and morphing topography.
Heading to the dining car for dinner I sat at a table opposite Earl, a veteran on his way to visit his brother in Houston, with “Kill ‘em all—Let God sort ‘em out” emblazoned on his baseball cap. “When I left the army it was tough to get a job if you were black,” he told me as we discussed the state of America over his hot dog from the children’s menu—he noted, not unjustifiably, that the menu prices were a rip-off—while I celebrated my return to the land of the free and the home of the brave with an overpriced steak. “That’s why I was in a band for 30 years.”
Sunset was followed by a somewhat beleaguered night in my chair (there are sleeper cabins if your budget allows). At dawn, the train entered the indomitable Lone Star State and Davy Crockett’s words were on my mind—“You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas!”—before the train’s speaker system usurped my attention with a welcome announcement: “Come to the dining car, where the coffee is so fresh you may never be the same.”
At the breakfast table I was joined by a septuagenarian amateur artist who went from elaborating on Australian impressionist art to discussing gangsters in Chicago’s Chinatown as I nodded and drank my cup of coffee, rumbling through Northeast Texas. It may have been fresh but was definitely strongly brewed, as the view of Texas through the dining car window seemed to acquire startlingly high-definition clarity afterward.
The train offers time to meet plenty of other riders, many of whom are eccentric, like the gold prospector returning home (yes, they’re still prospecting—I was just as surprised), replete with bushy gray mustache, cowboy hat, dusty jeans, and impeccable manners.
The train passed through countryside and small towns, through sprawling cattle ranches and residential outposts I’d never heard of before: Balcones Fault, Nolan River, Meridian, Clifton, Valley Mills, Manhattan (one much smaller than the other one I’d left behind on the East Coast). Rumbling past wooden homes surrounded by the intimidating expanse of rural Texas, I could understand why some embrace the Second Amendment to have a shotgun close to hand.
Throughout our ride, we were accompanied in the viewing lounge by an enthusiastic gentleman in his sixties who appeared to know an inordinate amount about everything—a National Parks volunteer. He pointed out the town of McGregor, where billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX does its rocket testing. Farther on, he drew our attention to a solitary house where they filmed the iconic horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Going through the town of Hutto, he had young riders count how many hippo statues they could spot next to banks and fast food outlets. (In 1915, a circus train stopped there and a hippo escaped, resulting in the hurried and memorable telegram: “STOP TRAINS, HIPPO LOOSE IN HUTTO.” It’s been the town’s mascot ever since.) He pointed out smaller stops we could have missed, like Crawford, known as the Western White House under the presidency of George W. Bush.
Increasingly I retreated to the second-floor viewing lounge, my gazing at the world slipping by accompanied by beers and gin and tonics sold on the floor below, and the unmistakable Texas twang from passengers around me.
Eventually the scenery running beside the track began to look increasingly familiar, as memories of yesteryear in Austin were stirred, and I felt a strange sensation somewhere in my chest. Since returning to Austin, I haven’t managed to take another train. But I plan to, sometimes finding myself gazing at the national Amtrak network map online and pondering possible routes. Perhaps next time I’ll take the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles, which connects with the Texas Eagle in San Antonio, traversing the Southwest. It’s meant to be one of the best Amtrak routes, whisking the traveller 1,995 miles past lush Bayou Country, the breadth of Texas, the Mexican border, southwestern deserts, and California mountains.
With the likes of Harley Davidsons and wild mustangs for visual company, hippo spotting, chance encounters with gold prospectors, and the sagacious tutelage of the National Parks volunteer, the train ride was a singular opportunity for a visitor to learn about the state—and could provide some hometown insights for a Texan, too.