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The Los Angeles Trail

Waiting for the train in Raton, New Mexico

As an artist who incorporates new media technologies, especially social media and mobile phones, into my work, I couldn’t have picked a better time. New technologies are evolving left and right, and there’s always something new and interesting to explore, with a large audience and community online.

And the more I look forward, the more I want to look back, particularly to the major technological shifts of the Industrial Revolution. Keeping my feet grounded in historical precedents makes me a better technology-wielding artist, and frankly, I find it all fascinating.

Having spent my time focused on communications technology, I wanted to look at transportation revolutions. Like most people my generation, I grew up playing Oregon Trail, an RPG-like video game based on the historic eponymous journey west. To a young child, the game could feel absurd, comical even.

Six months to travel west? Living off bison and squirrels? Children dying left and right of starvation and dysentery?  In a post-On The Road world, it just didn’t seem possible that the country could be so difficult to cross.

My first stops took me through familiar Northeast territory, from New York into Pittsburgh and DC.

What transformed the Oregon Trail from a terrifying journey into an entertaining educational game wasn’t the airplane or even the interstate highway system or the rise of the automobile. It was the intercontinental railroad, the first direct railway in history joining a country.

When I was around ten years old, my family and I passed along that same stretch of historic track, laid out largely by Chinese and Irish immigrants. We were taking a trip east from Los Angeles, and circumstances necessitated a frugal budget. In the days before Travelocity and Orbitz, there was no effective way to shop around for affordable plane tickets.

Along the way, we passed through Utah, where, on May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads met in Promontory Summit to drive the final, golden spike that completed the railroads. On August 3-17, 2010, I took another long train journey: this time, a two-week trip across the country snaking south, then north, and then south again.

$389 Are You Outta Your Mind?

My journey took me from midtown Manhattan to the steel mills surrounding Pittsburgh, then the museums in our nation’s capital, down the Appalachian mountains to the bayous of the Gulf Coast and brass bands of New Orleans, up to the soaring towers of Chicago, the urban ruins of Detroit, the vineyards of southern Ontario, across the Great Plains into the high mesas of northern New Mexico, the art murals of Albuquerque, and finally into the palm deserts of Los Angeles.

I told this itinerary again and again to my fellow passengers. In New York, everyone asks where you’re from; on Amtrak, they ask where you’re going. Especially in the spacious observation deck, conversation flows easily after a quick, “So where are you headed?”

To keep costs down on my journey, I did what any self-respecting artist would do: I found free places to stay. In Pittsburgh, the Mattress Factory Museum via former development coordinator Jeffrey Inscho generously offered their apartment residency for a two-night stay.

“You’re doing what?” asked the older gentleman dressed unironically as a lumberjack because he was, in fact, a lumberjack, making his way from the Seattle area to the state of Georgia.

“I’m moving, actually, from New York to Los Angeles,” I told him, “and I’m doing it via train.” When I quoted the price I paid, he nearly jumped out of his seat.

“Heck, that’s almost half what I paid for my three-day trip.”

Thousands of miles, fifteen days, eight stops, and seats more spacious and comfortable than the average airplane business class seat — with a USA Rail Pass, it comes out to only $389. The pass is one of the best kept secrets of American transportation, and for anyone seeking inspiration and unique view of the country, it’s worth every penny.

Training Days

In the first couple days, I was worried I’d made the wrong decision and was terrified I’d get bored. But by day three, I was fully acclimated to the rhythms of train life. I stopped checking my watch and, even though I had a full connection throughout the trip, I stopped checking my Blackberry.

What does one do when long stretches of railroad lie ahead? The most common way to pass the time was to chat with people. Most long-distance trains are equipped with Superliners, spacious double-decker trains that feature both standard seating and sleeper cars. There’s usually one full-service dining car, a more casual cafe car and the coveted observation deck, featuring tall windows and outward-facing seats.

Anyone who’s played Monopoly knows the B&O Railroad. What I didn’t know before this trip was that the B&O Railroad was America’s first major railroad and a feat of engineering, cutting through the Allegheny Mountains to join Baltimore and Ohio. It opened up trade between the East and the Midwest.

I learned to spend most of my time in the observation deck, where I could mingle easily and get to know my fellow passengers. I learned quickly that the Luddite prophecy was true: people with electronic devices were a lot less social, but anyone watching the scenery, reading a magazine or playing solitaire with a deck of cards were up for conversation.

And I slept. A lot. It’s impossible not to, when the country rolls past and the soft whistle of the steam engineer calls out. Sleep came easily, and as I rested my eyes, I inevitably overheard other people.

“I’m seeing my mama for the first time,” said a young man behind me to his seatmate. “I’m real anxious.”

“Chik-Fil-A, you guys,” a girl yelled out to her friends. “They have a Chik-Fil-A!”

Accent Marks

What I found most striking about the train was the gradual shift in accents as we traversed the country.  On a plane, the change is too fast. On a car, it’s isolated to quick stops for food and rest. But in the social sphere of the train, language plays an important role.

As each group boarded, the accents shifted subtly, most noticeably as we crossed deeper into the South. And as accents changed, so did conversation topics.

“Are you religious?” the older man next to me asked me point blank, the same way a New Yorker might ask me what I do for a living. We talked about family, where we grew up, and, of course, food.

“Every Saturday,” he explained, “my family and I would peel crawfish all day in preparation for the Sunday meal.”

“Oh gosh, I can’t wait to try crawfish,” I told him. “It’s my first trip to New Orleans.”

“If the friends you’re staying with are like our family,” he said, “they’ll be waiting for you with a big meal.”

“That,” he added with a smile, “is Southern hospitality.”

Bygone Days

The observation deck becomes the train’s Twittersphere: a common public space. It’s a perfect place to read, write, play cards, make phone calls (there are outlets at most seats) and meet new people. And importantly, it’s a space to think.

In an old bookstore in New Orleans, I picked up a copy of Nothing Like It in the World, a history of the transcontinental railroad written by the late New Orleans-based historian, Stephen Ambrose. I learned that when the railroads were built, they opened up a world of commerce and possibility.

The steam engine had quickly sped up water-based travel, but for centuries, human beings had relied on horses to traverse long distances overland with little more technical sophistication than better wheels and axles and more comfortable seating. But the train changed everything.

Passengers marveled at the idea of traveling as fast as 12 mph. Like social media today, railroad lines competed furiously to offer better amenities, faster service, more stops. Countless engineering marvels of the Industrial Revolution were motivated by the drive to innovate.

It’s hard to imagine now, but there were once three mountain ranges that made unifying the United States difficult. They were the Sierra Nevada, the Colorado Rockies, and the Appalachians. These ranges still exist, of course, but they’re mere inconveniences now. Amtrak’s Crescent line coasts along the Appalachians, straight down from DC to New Orleans on a 24-hour journey through the Deep South. The final 30 minutes offer a breathtaking view over Lake Pontchartrain.

And through these battles, they joined disparate groups and made a number of people instantly, fabulously wealthy while opening economic doors for anyone who could afford a ticket and any town that could convince a railroad company to build a stop. Cities like Raton, New Mexico, grew quickly as rest stops along difficult stretches of rail; today, though Amtrak still services them, their stations remain unstaffed.

It’s the story of any new technology, of course — fortunes rise and fall suddenly in high-risk ventures with undefined markets and uncertain business models — but the story became most obvious when using the same method of transportation that once connected these towns.

“Anyone for Brookhaven?” the conductor called out as we traverse through Mississippi.

“Anyone for Hazlehurst?”

There was only one train a day along that particular stretch of track northward from New Orleans to Chicago, but until we crossed into Jackson and Memphis, few people boarded the train and even fewer people stepped off.

States United

A child of Los Angeles, I’ve taken many road trips, and I’ve traveled to countless U.S. cities for work and play. But for some reason, the sheer size of this country only became clear to me on the rail. Perhaps it was the relative slowness, or the inability to pull over at any time.

But I wonder, too, if it’s because of just how vast and empty the railroads are. As Andy Isaacson wrote in his terrific New York Times piece on cross country rail travel:

And so, as early as New Jersey, I realized something that would only feel remarkable a few days later, in the Nevada desert: it’s still possible to travel 3,585 miles across the United States without being the target of billboards, golden arches or absurdly large twine balls. The rails offer a view onto Unbranded America — the land as it was.

The views on the train are stunning, unfettered by the incessant advertising familiar to anyone who’s taken a road trip. And after a week on the trains, I got used to living out of a backpack, sleeping in a chair, and waking up in new cities. Travel necessitated a simpler life and simpler expectations.

The train brings you through towns you might fly over in a plane or wouldn’t notice in a car. Few of these towns cater to tourists and therefore lack the diners and motels familiar to road trippers. Above is a photo from somewhere in Alabama during dusk.

“You must be so tired,” my Detroit host commented over breakfast.

“I’m not, actually,” I told her. “But it wa ds nice to stretch out my legs in a real bed for once.”

On the trains there are two trips. There’s the trip everyone expects: the city stops, the chance to see different sides of the United States and different ways of living. New sights, new foods, new company.

And then there’s the train, a destination and rolling home in itself. Most legs of my trip were 24 hours, and I alternated between spending time in my seat, hanging out in the observation deck, passing through the cafe lounge. I even became an expert at finding quiet corners of the train with only a small handful of people.

Who Takes the Train

Who takes the train these days?  Even a car will get you to most places faster and cheaper, and if you’re traveling by yourself, you run the risk of being stuck next to an unpleasant seatmate for 24 hours. And unless you book far in advance, the train costs as much as if not more than a standard roundtrip airplane ticket. About the only numerical benefit is the lower carbon footprint.

There was a family of eight, spanning three generations, heading back to Oklahoma and enjoying a group dinner in the luxurious dining car. There was a Boy Scout troop that found the most cost-effective route to the famed Philmont Ranch. One boy had dreams of making it in Mexican Idol, one young woman had just moved to America from central China to begin her studies in engineering.

A quiet nook can be found anywhere, even on the busiest train. In more introverted moments, I retreated to these areas to read, journal, and catch a quick nap.

There were expert card players, fishermen, foreigners on tour. There was a disproportionate number of persons with visual impairments. Many hated planes so much they preferred a long trip over the pain of ears popping and the annoyance of security. And there was a small handful of travelers like me, unsure of why exactly we’d decided to take the train cross country, but happy for the opportunity.

This diversity of life backgrounds certainly exists on airplanes, I’m sure, but who would notice? We’re so busy just trying to survive the trip, that it takes new technologies to get people to talk to each other. On the train, the Luddite prophecy is fulfilled: it’s the people using their laptops and iPads who are the most antisocial.

Choo Choo and Tweet Tweet

An empire is built on its roads and communications. Augustus knew this when he developed the Roman roads. Genghis Khan knew this when he opened up the Mongolian mail system.  Shortly after the Civil War ended, it was the transcontinental railroad and the accompanying telegraph that helped solidify the union.

We have no transportation revolution, at least not for now. Ever since the plane, our improvements have been incremental. A little extra cushioning here, a little quicker movement there. But today, communications technologies are evolving broadly, and they’re connecting not just this country but more and more nations into one global telecommunications network.

They know their audience: in Albuquerque, city-sponsored murals are everywhere, and street artists know they have a captive audience on the rail tracks. Once the home of the famous Santa Fe Railroad, these tracks service both the Amtrak and the local NM Railrunner.

This is the promise of social media and mobile computing. And if art on these platforms is to offer something truly new, it has to leverage the broad reach of these platforms and connect not just with major cities and beyond traditional arts audiences. It has to connect towns like Winnemucca, Nevada; Fulton, Kentucky; Kankakee, Illinois — the very same way the rails did in the late 1800s. And the way they still do today.

“Would you like to play a game of cards?” the young girl across from me in the observation deck asked. She was one of many familiar strangers I’d chatted with over my two-week journey. She’d just spent a few weeks with family in Trinidad, Colorado.

By the third round of Go Fish, we were sitting with a teenager from Mexico and a middle-aged woman from Illinois. We all stopped briefly to look outside the window: sunset over the mesas.

“Got an Ace?” I asked.

Riding the Amtrak: Tips for Artists

Time moves slowly, but it passes quickly. I fell asleep to the sunset over the mesas but before I knew it, I woke up to the Los Angeles skyline in the distance. I was home.

1. Bring at least one book and one journal/sketchpad. There’s plenty of time to think and reflect while on the train. But also bring a pack of cards, and think about leaving the mp3 player at home. The trains are a great way to meet new people from different walks of life.

2. Book your USA Rail Pass far in advance. They have a limited number of seats available, and you could get charged extra if you book too late. And be sure to take a look at their interactive map to get a sense of realistic journeys you can take.

3. Stay with friends if you can. Not only does it save money, it also gives you a chance to see the local flavor from an insider’s perspective. With only a couple days at each stop, I was grateful for my hosts’ familiarity with the lay of the land.

4. Patience is key. Except for the Boston-DC corridor, Amtrak trains share the tracks with freight trains, which frequently take priority. Sometimes, our train stopped on the tracks for up to an hour, and I’ve heard of even longer delays. But don’t worry: the first 24-hour leg was the hardest, but by the second, I was adapted to the slower rhythms of train travel.

5. Arts organizations in particular should look into joint residencies. I’d love to see a residency program that incorporates train travel into the programming. Imagine doing a couple three-day residencies across the country, with Amtrak rides in between. What if the residency also included the train trip? They already have a Trails and Rails program — what about a program for artists to speak to travelers about their work?

The long-winding road home (click to view in Google Maps). An interactive map of all the Amtrak lines can be found on their web site.

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An Xiao

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