Book Review: Booked on the Morning Train

Booked on the Morning Train: A Journey Through America.
by George F. Scheer III
Hardcover: Chapel Hill, Algonquin, 1991. ISBN 0-945575-40-8

This is the last of three Amtrak travelogue book reviews. The first two were on Zephyr and Making Tracks.

Here is another book which takes you around the country, but it is much more of a personal story than the previous two travelogues.  Scheer does not seem to be a railfan, and most tidbits on locomotives or the route network comes from railfans or Amtrak personnel that he he chats with.  After giving a brief history of Amtrak in the introduction, the book launches right into the journey.  In a way, we experience the same disorientation that Scheer himself experienced when he boarded a train in the middle of the night.  The pattern of the book only becomes clear on p.66:

"I was out simply to see what travel by train was like in our time in this country, where trains have been, admittedly, so much debased recently and are so often vilified.  (Paul Theroux has called Amtrak the worst railroad in the world, and he should know.)  My plan was to see just what sort of journey one could have by train these days, provided only that he could pay the fare, had a few dollars left over to arrange for shelter and food, and remained open to whatever fortune, good or bad, turned up.  Friends at every stop are not part of the bargain ... and I made exceptions.  I also counted it in their favor if they had a washing machine."

"A Brown University graduate and jazz radio host hitchhiking on a train around the country" is just about right.  He does indeed meet up with a few old friends dispersed around the country.  But most of the time when he gets off the train, he is unfamiliar with the area and has nobody to meet.  He treats the journey with almost the same adventure as a hitchhiker.  Some days he goes to junkyards to rent cars that have been in accidents, and other days he arranges rentals with a car dealership.  He drives around in Montana during snowstorms, finds himself parking overnight in freezing temperatures while waiting for a train, and occasionally finds himself in a bad area of town on the wrong side of the tracks.  He even drops in on a woman whom he'd met on an earlier segment of his trip.  How’s that for Minnesota hospitality!

It's a more plebian mode of travel than that experienced by many railroad enthusiasts.  One gets the impression from Kisor’s book that he traveled in sleepers every time he made the trip, and Pindell sometimes spent the night in the slumbercoaches then found on Eastern routes.  But Scheer makes it clear from the start that he wanted to sleep in coach sometimes, both for purposes of observation and to keep his pocketbook from losing even more weight.  It's somewhat like the way that college students travel, except that Scheer is in his thirties and is not (quite) so hard-up for money.

If a peek into someone else's life for six weeks appeals to you, then Scheer's book will fit the bill.  The reader will experience his surprise at finding something unexpected, his plans for the day, his glum mood in Seattle during typically overcast Pacific Northwest weather, his interactions with friends old and new, and his weariness upon approaching the end of his journey.  Because he was wandering with less of a plan, this book is less cohesive than many other pure-travel travelogues.  Actually, many of the quotations in the book seem to have been slightly paraphrased after they left their speakers' mouths.  He’s recording his impressions, not writing a newspaper article.

But all this makes for a more serendipitous reading experience.  Yes, there's the Golden Spike and J. J. Hill.  But there’s also the day-to-day experience of travel, riding horses in Minnesota, and keeping warm by cycling the automobile engine on and off through a freezing night.  You may not want to experience it yourself, but it's entertaining and instructive to read about them.

Scheer, like others, waxes prophetic in the postscript, and he talks to the prolific Amtrak spokeman Clifford Black.  Like Pindell, Scheer undertook his trips at "a particularly sharp cusp in my own life."  But whereas Pindell took his trip it in three stages, Scheer did it all in a continuous six-week block.  It’s understandable that he wasn’t able to stay rosy and optimistic throughout his trip.  The mood of the book really slides downward by the sixth week.  But it's a distinct viewpoint, and it is also informative in different ways.  What's it like to try the wandering lifestyle, going from place to place just for the experiences?  Try it yourself, or read this book.  But if your interests run more towards the train, then try one of the other two books in this series of Amtrak travelogue book reviews.