It’s a beautiful day in Colorado and I’m getting a crash course in birding while riding an Amtrak train hustling along at 79 miles per hour. Anytime something flaps by the floor-to-ceiling window, I shout, “There!” and the two strangers turned my friends, Ron and Chris (an 80-something father and his son who are avid birdwatchers, mountain climbers, and all-around hobbyists extraordinaire), immediately identify the bird based on color, flight pattern, and a thousand other nuances. They’ve spotted a great blue heron, a white pelican, and a western bluebird. More than once I mistake fenceposts for having wings.
After riding a train for 24 hours, your surroundings start to look fuzzy—or, in this case, feathery. In late May I boarded the California Zephyr in Sacramento, to travel cross-country in four days to New York City, where I live (with one switch in Chicago). Reservations were painless: I booked my ticket only two weeks before. I hadn’t expected to be stupefied by nature and engaged in four-hour conversations. Yet here I was, somewhere near Boulder, Colorado: stupefied, engaged, loving it.
Based on my observations, Amtrak attracts the curious, the talkative, the eccentric, the spontaneous—and Richard Dreyfus. In November, he live-tweeted his own father-son cross-country trip. It’s probably too much to ask for Mr. Holland’s Railway Opus; train travel has been romanticized hundreds of times before in books, TV, and films. Riding Amtrak these days is exactly as depicted in North by Northwest: every man I encountered was the spitting image of Cary Grant, every woman was Eva Marie Saint. But in their 80s. Many people I met were retired, which meant conversations didn’t open with “What do you do?” Instead it was “Where ya going?” and “Where are you from?” and they cover the good stuff: travel, culture, family.