I enjoy traveling by train, but it has been a while since I've ridden anything but Acela up and down the Northeast Corridor. So I happily accepted an invitation from CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg to join him last month aboard the Crescent, a 30-hour trip from New York to New Orleans.
My understanding is that Amtrak Vacations, a private label managed by Yankee Leisure Group, is thriving. Its website's tagline, "See where the train can take you," reflects an emphasis on destinations and scenery over the train's interior, but the site still allows that "the journey is as important as the destination."
The journey is what I focused on while preparing for the trip. It seemed obvious why I wouldn't think about taking the train from New York to New Orleans if I had business there. Like millions of Americans, I suffer from time poverty. Why spend 30 hours getting somewhere I could get to in three?
A software developer I knew once told me, "When I can't figure out a way to get around a problem, I begin to think about how I can position a bug as a feature."
So I began to contemplate how to position a train trip that takes 10 times as long to get somewhere as an attractive option rather than a deterrent.
My first thought was: As a time-impoverished human being, what could I get done on a train that I want to do but never get around to doing? What can I check off my to-do list on my way to where I have to go anyway?
I first considered wellness, a growing trend in travel. Why not have an onboard medical facility where one can get an annual physical? Or better yet, a medical tourism venture. People travel to Thailand or South Africa to get a face-lift, tummy tuck or nose job. Why not do it on the way to Jackson, Miss.?
About five minutes into the trip, I realized why not.
While the swaying rhythm of the rails can be a relaxing, pleasant sensation, it is not conducive to surgery (or a blood test, for that matter). I wouldn't want to be shaved with a straight razor -- never mind contemplating a vasectomy -- even on America's smoothest stretch of rail.
Jerome Trahan, principal marketing specialist for industry alliances for Amtrak, had joined us for the trip. He has given a great deal of thought to what can and can't be done on a moving train.
"Our paramount goal is safety," he said. "When a train is moving at speed, any object can become a projectile."
So much for my ideas about an onboard darts tournament. But still, there had to be something more for passengers than playing cards or reading, the activities shown on the interior train shots within the Amtrak Vacations website video. Trahan confirmed that options are limited. He said there have been meetings held in trains (though PA systems had to be imported), and a mystery theater game.
The best experiences, he said, have been music-related. There's not too much that can go wrong while playing a guitar and singing on a train.
In fact, Trahan believes that trains and music go together. He helped organize a tour featuring Arlo Guthrie aboard the "City of New Orleans," the route made famous in Guthrie's version of the Steve Goodman song.
After Hurricane Katrina, Guthrie and several other musicians rode the line from its origin in Chicago to its terminus in New Orleans, playing at stops along the way and ending at Tipitina's for a concert that included, among others, Willie Nelson.
Though not as well-known as Guthrie and Nelson, folk singer John Flynn boarded the southbound Crescent I was riding in Wilmington, Del., and played a song he had just finished that morning. He hadn't even named it, but it had a memorable chorus, inspired by what a conductor had once told him as he was gracelessly lurching down an aisle: "You can't dance if you don't listen to the music."
Well before my 30 hours were up, I learned how to walk down the aisle in rhythm to the train.
And I also relearned the value of traveling without scheduled activities, let alone a deck of cards.
I watched the scenery roll by, drawn in by both the urban industrial hardscape of New Jersey and the hardscrabble industry of small-town Mississippi.
Changes occurred in my interior landscape, as well. When on a plane, trapped in my seat, I will slip on my earphones, preferably before my seatmates even arrive, signaling disinterest in conversation.
But aboard the train, I easily engaged with fellow travelers, both strangers and Amtrak personnel alike.
And I began to think that, in our polarized political atmosphere, this is a good time to travel among people one doesn't typically encounter, and whose views one might not share. I was happy to be out of my New York conversation bubble.
I had boarded the Crescent looking for ways Amtrak and the industry could make the train-travel product more attractive. But ultimately, my trip was largely unprogrammed, and it was liberating.Next week: Amtrak, at the junction of travel and politics.