A train sounds like a beautiful mode of transportation. It’s almost romantic, really, the idea of traveling across the country on a train. Try swapping it with another option. A car? You must be moving. A bus? Only if you’re in a band. A plane? How original.

Traveling by train is retro. It appeals to the hipster in you. You start to envision what life is like on the train: long days looking out your window as the countryside passes by, the soothing hum of the engine that guides you to sleep as the train keeps chugging along. The train is efficient: you glide past traffic, reading and working and socializing as the plebeians look on from their cars.

The time comes for you to get on the train. You are excited because you’ve never really traveled by train before but you know it will be glamorous. You’ve thought this through for so long that your musings about what it will be like have become your expectation of reality.

The landscape in Arizona.

And then reality hits you like a fast moving train. Only in reality, trains don’t move that fast. Sometimes they don’t move at all. Hours pass as you look out your window at the same barren landscape begging for the train to move. You close your eyes, praying that if you don’t look at it it will change. You open them again. The tumbleweed stares back at you, mocking you because you are locked inside a motionless beast and it is free to tumble wherever it pleases. Damn you, tumbleweed, you think to yourself. The train has reduced you to conversations with half-plants.

Leaving New Orleans with Leslie

I learned the hard way that trains are unreliable. In conversing (complaining?) with some of the other passengers, we posited that trains were once a robust form of transportation, made void in recent years by the rise in air travel and decline in federal financial support. Yet here we were, a bunch of innovators and forward-thinkers, held back by the infrastructure of the past. We could connect people, but we couldn’t connect trains.

That became a problem as we approached Atlanta. An agreement had not been fully worked out with the rail companies, and the resolution was that the train would not make its scheduled overnight stop, instead continuing on to Washington, D.C. We were told we would have to cancel our project plans for Atlanta. Nearly everyone did.

But I have a one-track mind. Determined to accomplish what I set out to do, I got off the train.

I stayed in a hotel in Atlanta alone that night as the rest of the group continued on to D.C. It was quiet, without the sounds of the other passengers and the noise of the train. It was also the first time I had reliable WiFi in 6 days. I was connected once again.

And that’s the strange reality of travel. Life continues, and your absence doesn’t change that. The world will pass you by, whether the train moves or not. The journey was an opportunity to remove ourselves from reality, celebrating slow living or some romanticized ideal like that. But we also had our projects. And wavering between the inconstant existence on the train and the uniform schedule of life off it created conflict. I had to choose: train or documentary.

Texas Rails at Sunset
The sunset in Texas.

Though I was alone for only 24 hours I still felt the solitude of being by myself. As I disembarked in Atlanta, I felt an unexpected sadness that it was over, realizing that once I reunited with the group we would no longer be on the train. I saw the Instagram pictures of the other passengers who, in lieu of project work in Atlanta, bussed up to Baltimore from D.C. to enjoy the sights the city has to offer. Part of me longed to enjoy that last day sightseeing with my new friends. But when I really thought about it, I realized that the reason I had fought to get off the train and continue filming my documentary was because that was my journey. Not the train.

I had to get off the train to remember that I existed without it. My documentary series (which is going to be superb, despite all of this) was shaped by the experience on the train but it is not tied to it. Sure, I crossed the country on a train from Los Angeles to Atlanta. But the real story lives in the 12 restaurant owners and chefs who I met along the way, in the communities where I filmed. And that’s where my energy will focus in the next couple of months as I weave together the narrative.

When I was a kid, I used to love the book The Little Engine That Could. Now that I’m a grown up, I know the little engine can’t.

But I can.

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