It was March of 2018. I was burnt out and emotionally exhausted from a toxic work situation I was finally free of. The first thing I did was buy a cross-country train ticket. I needed to leave Los Angeles and be on the road for a long time. There was something about chugging along for days on end that sounded healing and peaceful. It would give me the time to collect my thoughts and process what had just happened.

I specifically didn’t want to fly anywhere and arrive at a destination in a short amount of time. Because arriving meant expectations — expectations to explain myself to people I knew, expectations to find a place to stay, expectations to make plans for what to do while I was there. I wanted to keep on traveling, stay on the train, remain in this space of being in between.

Waking up in New Mexico aboard the Amtrak train. 

Being in between is a very comfortable place for me. I was born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and Lebanese father, but grew up culturally Mexican. My mom and I migrated to the United States when I was eight years old. Growing up here, I was always confused about my identity. When people saw me, they assumed I was just Arab, even though I basically knew nothing about Lebanese culture. I didn’t feel Mexican-American or Chicana either, because I wasn’t born here. But I also didn’t feel fully Mexican. This constant confusion meant I lived in the gray daily. Being in between, not fully one thing, was the norm. Despite the teenage angst I experienced as a result, my mixed identity eventually allowed me to look beyond the binary. To feel safe when things aren’t black or white, to prefer not getting from point A to point B easily.

 Passengers on their way to Chicago stare out the windows in the lounge car. 

Perhaps that’s why I feel at home when I’m in transit. Every time I arrive at a new destination, there’s a sort of sadness at having to face the world again. While in transit, time is suspended. I can just exist as I am in that moment.

While on the train that spring, I found a deep sense of calm watching the world go by for hours with nowhere to be, no rush to get anywhere. Time lost its linear meaning.

A snowy forest in Pennsylvania. 

I got to see backyards in Pennsylvania, lakes in Ohio, snowy rivers in West Virginia, and rail yards in Los Angeles. Along the way, I met train enthusiasts, bikers, retired coal miners, an Amish saleswoman going to Las Vegas, and a construction worker from the Navajo Nation on his way to LA. There was something intimate about us being on this train for hours, sometimes days. We might be totally different, but we were all, in a way, stuck there. Conversations naturally sprung up with people I would have never met otherwise.

Cindy, an Amish woman from Ohio on her way to Las Vegas, looks out at the New Mexican landscape on the Amtrak train.
 Zachariah, an iron worker from the Navajo Nation on his way to Los Angeles, sits in the lounge car aboard the Amtrak train.  

Post-pandemic travel has changed this. While road trips were a salve for me and my partner during lockdown, train trips were not. Being aware of an airborne virus while traveling for extended periods of time with masked strangers takes away that freeing nature of train travel and replaces it with paranoia. I’m not sure if it will ever be the same. But I’ll always have fond memories of that snow storm in West Virginia, staring out the large windows in the lounge car, feeling absolute tranquility, of the oranges and yellows of New Mexico at sunrise, of making it back to Los Angeles after over a month on the road, feeling renewed and with a sense of acceptance for the gray areas of life.

The sun sets somewhere in the midwest.
After over a month of train and bus travel, I finally make it back to Los Angeles’s Union Station. 

Samanta Helou Hernandez is a multimedia journalist and photographer covering culture, identity, and social issues. She's published with Playboy, PRI "The World," and Curbed LA, among others. Her work...

One reply on “When Being in Transit Feels Like Home”

  1. What a lovely piece. Beautifully written, wonderful photographs. Very thoughtful, insightful, meditative. I’ve always loved the train; this makes me want to take a long trip! Thank you

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