Opinion — Finding America on the Crescent

Published 6:48 pm Thursday, August 19, 2021

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A fellow community newspaper editor and Amtrak enthusiast once told me if you want to see what America really looks like, take a ride on an Amtrak train.

Once I pretty much gave up air travel and started riding the train, I was surprised at what I saw and thought perhaps the man had said that sarcastically as I took a couple trips to New York City on the Northeast Regional train. While interstates and major highways tend to go through the front yards of America, railroads go through the backyards.

The trip to New York went right through the slums in Baltimore. We rolled past acres of junk cars and made our way through evidence of post-industrial America outside Philadelphia and through New Jersey. The trips also gave an unvarnished view of life in rural America. It wasn’t pretty, but it was America, pure and unfiltered.

I had a chance to contrast that a couple years later when I commuted to a job outside Charlotte, North Carolina for a little more than a year. I hopped on the Crescent in Charlottesville almost every Sunday night and got off at a small train station in Salisbury, North Carolina after 1 a.m. on the rare occasion when the train was on time. I reversed the process at the end of the week, getting on the train in Salisbury at o‘dark thirty and deboarding in Charlottesville shortly after 7:30 a.m.

On those frequent occasions when the train was late and I actually got to travel when the sun was up, I was amazed by the views as the train traveled from Danville through Lynchburg to Charlottesville. The treks over bridges as the sun rose were gorgeous, but the real beauty on an Amtrak train is on the inside.

The Amtrak Crescent route dissects the nation from New York to New Orleans running north and south daily. The eclectic mix of people on the train was always a surprise. On the mornings we were running behind schedule, I always took advantage of breakfast in the dining car that began at 7 a.m. Seating was wherever people could fit, so as a single, I was always put at a table with strangers who would quickly become friends.

A couple from Boston traveling to a Boston College-Clemson football game

Two environmentally conscious engineering students from Georgia Tech traveling to New York by train because that method left the smallest carbon footprint.

But the best part may have been the café car. On my late-night trips south to Salisbury, North Carolina, I typically stationed myself in the café or snack bar car where I had a table to spread out and get some work done while riding the rails.

I met a person who had snuck on the train in Philadelphia without a ticket and was hanging out in the café car because he didn’t have a seat assignment. The funny thing is, he had no idea where he wanted to go. He was just heading south until he decided to get off.

While traveling on Super Bowl Sunday, an impromptu Super Bowl party broke out as a dozen or so people held phones at some very odd angles trying to stream the game between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams. When you move through the backyard of America, the cell phone service is oftentimes not the best. We finally discovered the Patriots won about 30 minutes after the game was over.

There were also a couple times when spontaneous Bible study groups began. In each case, someone reading a Bible would sit at one of the booths and within minutes three or four would be gathered to share stories about their faith and give testimonies about how God has blessed them.

While the America seen outside the windows of the Amtrak train is sometimes a little rough, the view of the people on the inside of the train always provided an inspirational journey.

Roger Watson is editor of The Charlotte Gazette and Farmville Newsmedia LLC. His email address is Roger.Watson@TheCharlotteGazette.com.