Margo Moritz is no stranger to trains. In her youth, the now-Los-Angeles-based photographer backpacked around Europe — the most train-friendly continent on the planet — and explored numerous countries along the way. While seeing Europe via train is a very modern activity, seeing continental America, a gigantic, mostly undeveloped piece of land, gives one the feeling of going back in time.
I spent a lot of time traversing Europe, from Portugal, through Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, all the way down to Sicily — where the train gets on a boat to cross the water! But trains feel different in America. Something about it feels like an older time, a classic Americana dream.
Traveling in Europe is a contemporary and popular activity; everyone does it, from students to families to retirees. On the Amtrak across the US, I felt like I had discovered a secret from the olden days that still somehow operates.
Like anything else, Amtrak’s workflow has been affected by COVID. But when Margo landed a job in New York, she and her partner — Tom Kubik, also a Wonderful Machine member — decided to eschew air travel and ventured across America on the train.
It was a collaborative idea between us. We wanted to take the video job in New York but were both feeling hesitant to fly during the pandemic. We actually had already driven cross-country in June to move Tom out of his apartment in Brooklyn. We rented a camper van and did the trip there in five days and back in eight.
We loved that experience but it does take quite a bit of energy to stay up and drive all those tireless hours, so we decided that the train would be the safest and most enjoyable way to get us across and back.
And while onboard, Margo and Tom made it a point to speak with and learn about the lives of some of Amtrak’s workers.
Some of the employees had worked for Amtrak for up to 30 years. Traveling on the same route back and forth has become their life. The route always stays the same, but the people coming on and off the trains change constantly.
Still, most of the pair’s time spent on the train featured a lot of staring out the window and watching the states roll by. It might not seem like it in a country with more than 330 million people, but there’s still a whole lot of undisturbed acreage in middle America.
Something we observed by staring out the window is that 90% of the US is just land. Empty, undeveloped land. Just nature, no buildings, no cities, just crops or desert or mountains. Your perception of the world is skewed by the environment you’ve chosen to live in (or was chosen for you).
It’s easy to think that all of the US looks like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York — the cities I’m most familiar with. But my perspective really changed after seeing that the vast majority of our country is empty land and we squeeze ourselves into cities.
When they arrived, Margo and Tom spent close to a week working with a client who doubled as close friends. Good thing, too — as much fun as a cross-country train trip sounds, it would be tough to just turn around and get back to it after only a few days of work.
We got this job through word of mouth. The clients are actually some friends of ours, so they know our work and trusted us with our vision for their brand.
We shot six days of video for an online course they created.
But even with a layover and a six-day break in between, this trip was all about riding the trains for Margo and Tom. Hours and hours and hours of riding the trains.
For those eight days we were on the train 24/7, minus an eight-hour layover in Chicago. So, if I’m doing my math right, that’s about 176 hours total!
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