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Traveling by train is fantastic because you can watch the world go by from the carriage, sometimes for days on end, and you have somewhere to sleep and wash and eat while you travel.
You can catch glimpses of places you might never visit as the train passes through and you arrive in the heart of the biggest cities relaxed and ready to explore.
In this interview, J.Thorn gives some tips about the best routes to travel with Amtrak in the USA and what you can expect from the service, as well as some thoughts on why train travel is so romantic and some book recommendations, plus we talk about our experience co-writing Sacrifice en-route from Chicago to New Orleans.
J.Thorn is a dark fantasy, post-apocalyptic thriller, and horror writer as well as a musician, podcaster, editor, and coach at TheAuthorLife.com.
- Why J loves train travel and how it helps him write and see more of his own country
- The Amtrak train network, where it goes and some of the best routes
- The different classes of travel, amenities and what to expect, especially if you are used to train travel in Europe or other places where it’s more commercial as opposed to government-run
- J’s best memories of traveling by train, particularly on the California Zephyr which runs west and south from Chicago
- How we included aspects of our trip to New Orleans in our co-written supernatural thriller, American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice — it was a lot of fun!
- The mindset you need to adopt if you’re going to enjoy train travel — relax! Enjoy the slower pace.
- Recommended books about USA life and travel
You can find J Thorn at TheAuthorLife.com and on Twitter @jthorn_
Transcript of interview with J Thorn
Joanna: J. Thorn is a dark fantasy, post-apocalyptic thriller, and horror writer as well as a musician, podcaster, editor, and coach at TheAuthorLife.com.
We co-wrote American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice with two other authors based on our journey by train from Chicago to New Orleans. And today we’re talking about aspects of traveling by train in the USA. So welcome J.
J. Thorn: Thanks, Joanna. It’s so great to be on the podcast.
Joanna: It’s really good to have you on the show. So first up, tell us a bit more about your geographic history.
Where are you right now in the world and where do you call home?
J. Thorn: Currently I reside in Cleveland, Ohio, which is technically the midwest of the United States but I am not from here. I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and I left there at age 23 and haven’t lived there since. And since that time, I’ve lived in five different states and I’m guessing 14 or 15 different addresses and that included New Jersey, the New York area, Tennessee and now Ohio.
I’ve been here in Cleveland for the past 15 years because my wife and I now have two teenage kids and we wanted to stay put for a little while, while they were going school to give them some stability.
Joanna: You’ve lived in all these different places in the US and you and I knew each other before we got on the train but you do get the train a lot.
What is it about train travel that you love?
J. Thorn: There’s this very romantic sense of adventure, there’s no question about it. I think it’s the romantic notion we all have in our heads before we step on the train for the first time. But for me, it’s been reinforced.
And just so there’s some context here, I was doing a little work in a spreadsheet and I do this for fun. There’s really no other point to it. But the Earth’s circumference is about 24,901 miles at the equator. And I’ve calculated since 2014, I’ve ridden about 31,946 miles on domestic rails here in the U.S. so I’m it’s something I really love.
I think what’s what makes it really exciting for me or more enjoyable is that it’s the pace. It’s a very low-stress environment, compared to air travel, for example. There’s not the same level of security. The security is more like stepping on a bus than it is a plane. And once you’re on the train there’s not much else for you to do. So you don’t have to worry about too much other than just occupying your own mind.
And because of that, I really like to ride the train alone and I know as a fellow introvert you can probably identify with that. So I think that’s what I like the most about the train is once you get on it feels very low stress.
Joanna: It’s interesting because I guess the stereotype of Americans is that everyone drives everywhere and Europe to me is much more of a train culture. A lot fewer people have cars here in Europe as Americans. Do you think that that’s true?
Or do you think that more people do get the train than imagined. Is it a big thing?
J. Thorn: It’s not a big thing. I think the stereotype is probably accurate. Americans are, for better lack of a better word, addicted to their cars. We see that in the way people here live, in the way new developments are built. I live in a neighborhood that was built in the early 1900s and it has sidewalks because back then people still walked to get places. Newer developments they don’t even put sidewalks in. So I think that’s accurate.
It’s not a judgment I just think it’s also part of the nature of where we live. Living in North America from coast to coast, from east to west, and even from the borders north to south from Canada to Mexico is an enormous amount of square miles. And so I understand why people will get in the car and drive more so than not get on a train.
Joanna: Let’s just talk about that. Probably everyone listening can at least picture the size of America in their heads.
Tell us a bit about the train network. I’ve been on the Amtrak. Is that the only one? And where does it go? Does it go everywhere?
J. Thorn: I have some personal experience here. Amtrak is run by the U.S. government and it was purchased from private enterprise I think in the 70s, if I’m not mistaken. It’s run like the other social services here in the States, like the post office, which means in all honesty the trains are somewhat outdated. The service can be spotty. That just goes with the territory when it’s not a private enterprise.
There’s less of an incentive to make the experiences as good as it can be. I’m not saying it’s not good, but I think compared to Europe and I’ve never ridden the rails in Europe but I think compared to Europe it’s probably not as sophisticated in all aspects.
That being said you can pretty much get from coast to coast, north to south. I think Chicago is probably if it’s not the biggest, hub for Amtrak. it’s probably the most important one because Chicago then has lines that go all the way to the west coast, down to New Orleans, the one you were on, out to the east in New York City and up into the northeast corridor.
So I think Chicago is probably one of the most important train stations and although they tend to make stops in smaller towns usually the destinations are larger cities.
Joanna: You said it’s owned by the government. That explains a lot because I was pretty shocked by some of the waiting area. The one in Chicago that we were at was amazing but I also did Charleston to Savannah and I remember getting to the Charleston station at 3:00 in the morning or something and it was like a shack.
Charleston’s quite a big city but it was pretty much a shack by the train track and there wasn’t even any water to buy. I found it pretty basic compared to European trains too.
There are different classes of travel, aren’t there?
J. Thorn: Yes. You can purchase a coach seat and a coach seat is exactly like what you would get on a plane or on a bus. Now I will say that because the trains are older, and because they are trains, the coach seats have much more legroom than you would get on a plane or a bus. I am 6 foot 2 and I can stretch my legs out completely in coach on a train and that’s the least expensive.
However, although the seats recline, they do not go vertical. And so for overnight trips, I think it’s difficult, especially multiple overnight trips, it’s difficult to do that in coach just because you can’t lay flat and there. For me, there’s something psychological about sleeping flat as opposed to reclined but we purchased what’s called a room and there different classes of rooms and basically, a roomette is a closet with two beds.
Joanna: One above each other, we should say. They’re bunks.
J. Thorn: Yes that’s right. But again, I’m 6 foot 2 and in a roomette I can stretch out completely. It’s a mattress with a pillow and you can sleep in those. Then go up from there. There are family rooms, there are rooms with a private shower and bath and that’s all determined by price, of course, so you really do have a few options as far as your budget is concerned.
Joanna: And then you also said a private bath. Now in my head, a bath in British-speak is an actual bath, like you lie down in some water. That’s not what you meant on a train, right?
J. Thorn: No, they have a toilet, a shower stall, and a sink can all be part of a private room.
Joanna: You said it was a mattress and a pillow. I think we also got bedding.
J. Thorn: Yes, your blankets and sheets. And also in a room that you have access to a few other amenities that are included in your ticket and that includes all of your meals that are served in the cafe car. So you can go to the cafe car and it’s communal seating but its booths so you can sit and have a proper meal, so to speak. That’s for a roomette.
You also have access to a communal shower stall as a roomette, so you can take a shower on the train if you want to freshen up. And then if even if you’re in coach you have access to other parts of the train. I think this is where for long-distance travel, it really is so much more enjoyable than being in a car because the long-distance trains have things like a cafe car where you can eat a meal or get snacks and a dining car where you can eat a meal.
They have an observation car where the windows kind of come up over the side and you can just look out and there’s free seating there. So it gives you the ability to get up and walk around. That’s not quite possible on a bus or in your car.
Joanna: Yes, the observation deck, you sit looking out the side, don’t you, so you’re sitting side-on, which is quite was quite weird at the beginning and it is great as you get to look out.
Define a proper meal! It was quite basic, right?
J. Thorn: It depends on what line you’re on. As I’m sure happens in most government agencies, cost-cutting, and budgets are a major concern and so they have started back in the day they would cook on the train. The California Zephyr, which is my favorite line, which I’m sure we’ll talk about, has a kitchen on the train so they cook the meals.
But other trains like the one that we took to New Orleans it’s sort of like fast food microwave prepared meals so the quality is what it is. They removed kitchens on those lines just because of budgetary reasons.
Joanna: It’s completely understandable. I mean even if it’s 24 hours or whatever it means you’re not going to starve. But it’s not like the Orient Express.
J. Thorn: It is not. But I will say on the California Zephyr – I’ve done that line I think five times – and the dinner on the Zephyr is like crab cakes or a steak. And they cook it on the train and it’s quite good.
Joanna: What are some of your best memories of traveling by train?
J. Thorn: It’s definitely the long-distance ones that go east to west. We’re going to get into a little bit of history here. I don’t know how many people familiar with Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.
Joanna: Great book.
J. Thorn: Great book. Won a Pulitzer. His theory is that the European continent developed differently than the Americas because of the East-West difference in geography versus North the South.
And I think some of that comes into play when we talk about North America. When you go specifically from Chicago to Emeryville, which is right outside of Oakland, California, that’s the California Zephyr.
You cross the Mississippi River, you go across the Great Plains, you go past the Great Salt Lake and the flats, you go through the Rocky Mountains along the Colorado River, and you go through the Sierra Nevada. And then you come in along the bay into the Oakland San Francisco area.
If you think about what’s typically the postcard version of America, you see all of that from the window and you see it from a place that you can’t see from a plane and you can’t see from the highway.
For me, the best memories of traveling by train, especially through the Rocky Mountains, is sitting at the window and just staring and you’re going through just pristine areas, places where the tracks reach and nothing else does. And I think that that’s my favorite element of train travel.
Joanna: Wow. I need to do that because I didn’t think I would ever get on Amtrack again. I think that one sounds brilliant.
Are there any other ones where you’ve seen incredible things or you just think this is a good route?
J. Thorn: Yes. There are three trains to travel from Chicago to the west coast. The Zephyr goes roughly in the middle of the continent.
You have the Empire Builder and that goes from Chicago to Seattle or Portland, depending on your destination. That one goes through Glacier National Park and it gets closer to the Canadian border. So you’re going through the badlands in the northern reaches of the United States.
And then you have the Southwest Chief and that goes from Chicago to Los Angeles. And that goes down through Texas and New Mexico and Arizona. So, depending on which route you choose, all three of those are splendid. I think the California Zephyr is widely recognized as the most scenic route in the United States. But the Empire Builder and the Southwest Chief, I’ve done those both, and those are spectacular as well.
Joanna: In Europe, we have what’s known as Interrailing, which is you buy a pass, maybe you can buy a pass for three months, and you can just travel on all the trains all over Europe and a lot of people will do that when they’re doing a longer trip.
Are there similar passes so you can get on and off in different places and do it that way?
J. Thorn: Unfortunately not. And this is just another example where I think the European system is much more mature and sophisticated. You just have to purchase a destination ticket and unfortunately, there are probably 40 stops, I’m ballparking here, 40 stops between Chicago and Emeryville on the Zephyr. Now you can get off on any one of those but if you get off on one then you have to book another ticket from that stop to your destination.
And the other thing, and this also relates your comment about Charleston, which I’m not surprised, the Zephyr runs once a day and so you have multiple Zephyr is on the line at the same time but a lot of these small cities they have a train coming eastbound and westbound once a day. So there’s not a lot of facilities there. There are no restaurants in the depots unless you’re in something like Chicago Union Station or Los Angeles Union Station. It’s because there’s just not a lot of traffic coming through there on a regular basis.
Joanna: I guess that does make sense. But it’s just so shocking to me, in a way, because in Europe we travel so much by train that it seems weird to talk about it in a special way. Whereas what you’re saying is, it is unusual and it seems like they’re really missing a trick because these are some incredible journeys.
Tell us about some of your books that you might have put train things in or any characters you might have met and featured in your stories.
J. Thorn: I think American Demon Hunters: Sacrifice is probably the best example. That’s the title that we wrote in my American Demon Hunter series. That is the story of taking the train from Chicago to New Orleans and I won’t spoil the story any more than that.
The two of us plus Lindsay Buroker and Zach Bohannon mirrored our experience or we based the story on that time frame and the sequence of events that were happening. To me, that was really so much fun because I had taken that particular train a number of times already and had been a veteran on the lines and to be able to write a fictional story that was based on that was just beyond fun for me.
Joanna: Absolutely. And we did meet a particular conductor, Patrick, a charming, lovely young guy and we ended up putting him in the book, which was fun. I believe you actually told him.
J. Thorn: I told him we were writing the book and he gave me his cell number and at one point I texted him and said “I’m sorry, Patrick, we just killed you.”
He first wrote back and said, “Who is this?” And then once he realized who it was, he was so ecstatic and I think I ended up sending him a paperback copy.
Joanna: It is a supernatural thriller on the train and it was really fun, as someone who hadn’t done that line before. In fact, I’d never got on Amtrak before. I’ve got the train in other places. New York doesn’t really count, I don’t think, because it’s just busy and it’s more common to get the train. But I found it an interesting experience.
One of the things, and why I said I would never do an overnight again, although I might have to change my mind, was the horn going at night. I thought, okay shut up now and then suddenly it would go again. So earplugs, I think, for the night horns would be my number one tip if you go.
Any other tips on how to survive the train journey or at least how to make it more pleasant?
J. Thorn: It really comes down to mindset, I think. There are obviously things like earplugs that you need because there are so many roads in the United States every time they come to a railroad crossing they have to blow the horn. And so that’s why it just goes constantly. So I think you do need to have earplugs.
But I think it’s a mindset. You can’t be in a hurry. That’s the biggest thing with train travel; it’s not faster, it’s not less expensive, it’s more about the experience.
And for me, I take it as an opportunity to unplug. Some trains have Wi-Fi. Some don’t. If you have a phone, you can use your phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot but then when you get into the remote reaches of the American west there’s no there’s not really any cell signal either.
So I think if you if you come on with this idea that you are going to maybe read or you’re going to write a little bit or you’re just going to think or something simple like sleeping and eating and just enjoying the scenery as it passes. If that is your expectation, especially on a long-distance train ride, you will enjoy it much more so than if you’re worrying about the next time you can check your e-mail.
Joanna: I agree. If you just have to get from A to B then I guess you would fly. You fly domestic as fast as possible. But the train definitely takes a lot longer
J. Thorn: Unless you’re in the northeast corridor. The northeast corridor is typically considered Boston to D.C. and all the stops along the way and those trains are highly profitable for Amtrak. They subsidize all the long-distance routes that lose money because they’re the busiest. And they’re the busiest because there are a lot of commuters. So there are people who live in New York City and have to make a regular trip to D.C. and they will take the Amtrak northeast corridor train.
Joanna: Yes. And I think the other thing, you mentioned some of the incredible scenery that people can see and some of these great cities, but I also found it very interesting to see what is the other side of America, which is poverty. What you see from the tracks is you also see how people are living in some cities which are very industrial or very rural. I found that almost shocking after leaving Chicago and then finding ourselves waking up in the morning and feeling like, whoa this is another country.
J. Thorn: It’s shocking for me too and I’ve lived in the United States my entire life. It’s a reminder that there is poverty everywhere and that there is a lot of America that still struggles. There are people who struggle to make a living, who are struggling to live above the poverty line, and the difference with the train is that it’s not polished and manicured. It’s not like taking a roller coaster ride in Disney World.
You are in the real world and even coming out of Chicago you’re going through the South Side of Chicago and there are buildings that have been boarded up or condemned and then heading south you get into rural Mississippi. You’re coming through people’s backyards. And it really is eye-opening I think for anybody.
Joanna: Especially with the horn going if you live on the tracks, was just awful to me as an introvert, all that noise.
Apart from your own books, what are several books that you might recommend about train travel or travel in the USA?
J. Thorn: I’ve been really thinking about this, and I hope it makes sense why the two books besides Sacrifice that I’m going to recommend don’t have to do with American train travel.
Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express is just great fun. It’s a classic mystery. Readers who enjoy any type of mystery or thrillers should read that, and the fact that it involves a train is even better. On the fiction side, that’s a great read.
The other one and this gets more to our conversation about discovering America and what America is and seeing it from a perspective that you don’t get 30000 feet or on the highways is Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. The subtitle is, Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. He published this in 1998. So it does predate smartphones but it is one of the best books.
It’s trying to put your finger on what it means to be an American and take advantage of some of the natural beauty and parks and things that we have here.
And in addition, if you’ve never read Bill Bryson, he is one of the funniest writers you will ever read. And the first chapter of that book I remember when I was reading and I was reading it out loud to my wife and we were both laughing. So if you want a very lighthearted and fun look, that kind of gets to Americana, I would highly recommend Bill Bryson.
Joanna: That’s a good one. And it’s funny because near the beginning you used the phrase ‘riding the rails’, which I think is a very American phrase. In my mind, that phrase riding the rails is more like the Depression-era. You have in your mind these images of people riding the rails to find work in another place.
Was it John Steinbeck who was writing about that area in Of Mice and Men? In my mind, these kinds of images come up with that phrase. Does that ring any bells?
J. Thorn: That’s so interesting. I tend to think of train travel in general, and I think most Americans probably think about it this way too, is we have this romanticized version of Manifest Destiny about once we crossed as European settlers, once we crossed the Mississippi River and “how the west was won”.
Train travel is such a big part of that, for better and worse. And I think the idea of these rails extending from coast to coast and making it possible for people to migrate west, there’s just such a romantic notion that that’s part of the American psyche in a positive way. And I think maybe that’s where my perspective comes from.
Joanna: It seems to me that, as I said, they’re missing a trick because there’s a lot of people who do want to do this kind of train travel.
But also then we have the futurist stuff like the Hyperloop, which is essentially a train. But it’s a very fast magnet train that Elon Musk’s Boring Company are doing.
And to me that is completely the opposite to what you’re talking about, which is this slow appreciative travel. Whereas the Hyperloop will be a train, I guess, but it will be a high-speed train too.
Do you have any thoughts about where the future of train travel might go in the US?
J. thorn: It really depends. I know you’re such a futurist and I’m not surprised that you’re thinking about that element of it.
I think what it comes down to is it’s going to come down to political will vs. natural resources. I think in this country the oil lobby, the automobile lobby, those lobbyists are so powerful that they have the ability to maybe not influence budgets but influence people who make decisions. And there isn’t a lot of money being put towards alternative travel methods right now.
The question I’m always thinking about is at what point does it not become feasible to have three hundred and fifty million cars on U.S. highways? If it’s costing us fifty dollars a gallon to extract oil what does that do to our transportation infrastructure?
So I think there’s definitely a future for train travel. I do worry though that if it becomes a substitute for air travel, which environmentally that has a huge impact. So if it becomes a substitute for train travel or it expedients highway travel by 10x then I think it’s going to turn into something that it isn’t now. So I’m kind of torn.
It’s not the greatest right now, but it feels like it’s a best-kept secret. And at the same time, I feel like so many more people could benefit from it.
Joanna; I think you’re right. And part of me wants to say look they need some kind of privatized rail so that they can make more money because then more people will do it because they’ll monetize it with better experiences. But then a lot of people do use it for more budget travel that they have to do and it needs to be affordable.
It is, you’re right, a very interesting question and conundrum in such a big country. You can tell by those trains, a lot of them have not had investment for a very long time. So yeah pretty interesting time.
What does travel mean to you and how does it impact your writing?
J. Thorn: Travel is one of the most important intangible elements of my life. And I think part of that was because I grew up and as part of a working-class, rust belt family in Pittsburgh and we didn’t take vacations as a kid. We went to Ocean City, Maryland. We packed up the family car and we drove eight hours to the shore once a year. That was great but that was not experiencing different cultures and different people.
Now, as an adult, having traveled broadly and overseas and throughout this country, it’s very invigorating. It rekindles creativity. It broadens my perspective and even more importantly than an author, as a person, I think travel breeds tolerance and empathy.
And I think those are two things that are really in short supply in our current political climate. And I think the ability to travel and to talk to other people who are not having the same experience as you build bridges and as an author, I think that makes for better storytelling.
Joanna: Yes and you’re talking about travel within your own country. You’re not even meaning to a foreign country.
J. Thorn: I would say both. A foreign country even more so. I think a completely different culture brings a sense of empathy that’s impossible in any other way.
But even getting out into different parts of this country, as we found out in our last presidential election, there are some polar opposites in this country and those are sometimes set up by geography. And so I think getting out to different places can really do that.
New York is my prime example. I know people love or hate New York. But I feel like if you’ve never been to New York City and you’ve lived in the United States your entire life you need to go there and you need to see sort of what a multicultural experience is like. It’s really it’s quite different. Short of going to a different country.
Joanna: I agree. And it’s a funny you say that because I’ve been to New York a number of times and I feel very at home there because it has such a similar vibe to London or Sydney in a way that places that are international cities where whoever you are, whatever you believe, however weird you are, you can find a home in a place like that and that’s very comforting and it’s very international.
But also, I feel like I understood your political situation in the same ways that in Britain, it’s not to such a scale, but by seeing some of the poorer places by traveling by train that I would not be visiting otherwise. Not that we visited but we went through. It made me see much more what people were thinking during the election.
And even some of these big cities in the early morning I remember having jet lag waking up in Denver, Colorado and walking around in the very early morning and realizing how many people were sleeping on the streets and it just as you say. I’m British, and Americans, what have a lot in common is that our language is the same and we can all talk to each other. But it was so revealing to be somewhere that was not what I had thought it was. I just had the wrong impression, I think. So travel can mean a lot even if it’s within the same city.
J. Thorn: Sure. I’ve told people this before and in different ways and I’ve said if you can’t afford a proper vacation or you can’t afford to travel to a different country, just go to another part of your own city and eat at a restaurant.
Have an ethnic cuisine that you haven’t tried before and talk to the people who are working there. They’re probably a family; grandma’s probably in the kitchen and ask them what was their experience like, when did they come to the country and under what circumstances. Just doing that I think can really broaden your perspective.
Joanna: Or ask your Uber driver. That’s my favorite thing.
Where can people find you and your books online?
J. Thorn: The easiest thing is just to go to TheAuthorLife.com and you can get everything from there.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time today. That was great.
J. Thorn: My pleasure Joanna. Thanks for having me on.
I loved this episode! It inspired me to investigate a trip on the California Zephyr from my home of Sacramento to Denver, a place my husband and I want to visit after I retire soon.
And I noticed that Amtrak does, indeed, have a monthly pass of sorts between stops you select — so they’re trying:
Keep up the good work.
Jo Frances Penn
Good to know about that pass! Thanks, Kristi.
Awesome! Let us know how it goes.
Thanks for this episode. Gives me ideas for future US Travels. Jo Frances, would you consider doing the same for train travel in Britain. I go there often, and want to try the train and a primer like this podcast would be useful.
Jo Frances Penn
Uk trains are privatized so they are more expensive but also more extensive. I don’t have a car so travel by train most places, or walk locally, or get an Uber. You can use TheTrainline.com which also has an app to get tickets for your mobile. You can find all the rail network info there across the country. I haven’t used it myself but try https://www.britrail.net/ for deals. Have fun!