Impractical Travel: on Taking Amtrak from New York City to Toronto

The view of the Niagara River and a bridge from Amtrak, facing roughly north

Somewhere during the first two years of the pandemic, I developed a new fear of flying.

This was not the first time. When I was in college and flew frequently between Boston and wherever my family was living, I did the vague math and rationalized that flying four or six times as much as I had pre-college meant I was four or six times as likely to die. Which, fair, but it was still a multiple of a very, very small number. This early fear largely vanished when I ended up in a four-person prop plane when I was nineteen, puddle-jumping around Georgia with my hands on the plane’s yoke, letting me feel a more intimate version of turbulence and being at the mercy of the air and its whims. It felt more natural and understandable, less detached. Looking out at the wide-open sky made it feel so much more logical that we’d be shaken as we went through the sky, because we were so small, and the horizon was so big. With a new sense of perspective, my fear largely disappeared—or, it turns out, went dormant for a while.

I didn’t realize it had crept back in until I took a shaky flight from Paris to Barcelona in November 2021. I’d thought a lot about the anxiety/fear spectrum in 2020, when the world changed from a place where pushing against anxiety was novel and heroic to one where pushing against fear, which felt so physically similar sometimes, could kill you. Both anxiety and fear caused the same tremble in the limbs, heart racing and pulse closer to the surface than usual, a clenched fist in the chest, and suddenly I had to reevaluate everything that caused that feeling. Which was a lot of things; I came the closest I ever have to a panic attack while trying to buy a specific type of nut and bolt in the basement of my local hardware store in summer 2020, the ceiling low, people too near, and my racing rabbit heart bellowing to me that I was going to fucking die.

I didn’t, of course. Not yet.

Shaking back and forth in that short flight in November 2021, though, the first time I’d flown since March 2020, I suddenly saw all of the things I’d left undone and felt the pain of them in a new and terrifying way. I spent most of those early pandemic years writing novels, something I’d never been able to do to completion until summer 2020, when my brain cut me a break and started giving me ideas of a depth and complexity I’d never had, with plenty of time to dive into them. All those stories, my lifeblood, sitting inaccessible on Google Drive—if I’d died in that plane, it would have been a compound death, all these worlds I’d created and fictional people I loved so much, just gone, locked away waiting to be vanquished when the Google servers finally kick it or get killed.

I stared out the window and felt a rumble of mortality the likes of which I’d never experienced before.

It wasn’t that I’d never thought about it; I had a strange moment when I was 21, staying the night in Martha’s Vineyard with my college boyfriend, when I woke abruptly to him screaming from a night terror, and I felt sure I was about to die. I imagined the axe sinking between my shoulder blades, cutting through softness and firmness and bone, and my life bleeding out of me, and something inside me grew uncommonly calm. Well, I thought, I’ve had a good run.

I was 21 and still lived with my mom in a town I hated. I hadn’t moved to Seattle yet. I hadn’t had a second relationship or redeemed myself from how badly I squandered social possibilities in college. But something sweet and quiet inside me said: I guess it’s been okay, though. I carried that gentle certainty with me for a long time, until I got into my late 30s and early 40s and felt the weight that comes with all the expanded hopes and dreams of growing up and getting into that lovely middle part of adulthood, where you have some direction and some money and agency, and possibilities you’ve never thought of open up before you.

That sweet, quiet thing must have perished in 2020 too, because the plane terror in late 2021 became my new reality. Enough that, following a terrifying landing in Philadelphia in 2022 en route to AWP, I became a plane tranqs person. When I get on a plane now, I bring lorazepam and a beta blocker. It doesn’t fix it; I still hate it, but it makes it a little lighter, a little less likely to vividly imagine how the air and gravity would change should the plane suddenly shoot toward the ground. My anxiety and fear, working together as a hideous team, mean that eating Ativan in anticipation of flight doesn’t let me be glassy-eyed and distant. It merely blunts the terror.

This anxious brain and new methods of travel

In 2024, between trying to be nice to myself and some changes in geography, I had reason and opportunity to take Amtrak from Manhattan to Toronto, where a beautiful cluster of my family lives. And, when they asked how my trip was and I explained how I got there, every single one of them either asked a variation on one question: why?

Flights between Toronto and the greater New York City area, from JFK or LaGuardia or Newark, are notoriously short, all in the neighborhood of 90 minutes. They’re the kind of flight that’s a pleasure, if you aren’t plagued by fear and anxiety knitted into one inconvenient beast. You ascend, you read a little and have a drink, you descend before you even need to get up and stretch, and you’re somewhere completely different. If you’re accustomed to long flights, either through intercontinental travel or family that lives multiple time zones away, they feel like a treat.

For most of us.

When I made the trip north in March, I flew because I had to make it quick. I’d just moved into my new apartment, and my life wasn’t really settled enough to get a cat sitter, but I didn’t want to miss my niece’s birthday. As such, I flew out early Saturday morning to get there in time for lunch, and I flew home Sunday evening. Ridiculous? A little, but I got to sing happy birthday to my niece, and that was everything. Even so, on the way back, I thought: you are taking the damned train next time.

“Oh, was it cheaper?” my relatives asked on this most recent visit. 

“No,” I said. 

“Oh,” they replied. “How long did it take?”

“More than 12 hours.”

“Oh, uh.” I could feel their confusion pushing against the limits of their politeness. “Was it good?”

Yes and no.


The view of the Niagara River, facing roughly south

What did I love about taking the train? A lot of things go on easy mode. If you can carry it (to a point), you can take it. I tend to travel carry-on only, which is a natural fit for the train. The night before, when I was packing, I realized I could just shove a pillow in a tote to take with me, and no one would care that I had two “personal items.” When you’re used to endless inventory of what you’re carrying or the even greater scrutiny of the cheap airlines or ticket types, “I can just bring another bag” feels like the sweetest ease.

And it’s more comfortable, of course. The seats are bigger, it’s hard for your neighbor behind you to do anything truly menacing with their knees, and you can get up pretty much anytime. You can walk to the cafe car whenever you want! Take a stroll across cars, return with a nice drink and some warm mac and cheese. Luxury! 

The scenery also can’t be beat. The trip from Manhattan through New York state, Niagara Falls, and the west side of Lake Ontario is gorgeous. The brick and vaguely industrial look of all the railroad towns of New York remind me of parts of St. Louis, where I grew up, and it makes me happy. You get lakes and forests and hills, you get sunsets, you get wide-open sky and so much terrain (especially if you sit on the left side while going north and the right side on the return trip). I saw a deer at one point, standing in the tall grass, looking at us with curiosity. In some places, you go right by people’s houses, so close you can read the number by the front door and see if they’ve brought their mail in yet. This feels magical to me. I like trains; I like Europe in part because I like trains as a viable option for travel.

I also particularly enjoyed that when the train shook a little (as it does on certain parts of the track), I’d feel my body start to react—oh god I am traveling and it’s shaking and this is the death thing isn’t it—and in less than a second, I’d correct myself, realizing that if anything went terribly wrong, I could climb down. I know people die in train derailments, but generally it isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. Your odds of surviving a train derailment are decent, by which I mean more than 0 percent, and that’s what I need right now, it seems.

I like train stations too, and New York is kind of wonderful with them. I left from Moynihan Train Hall, a space I’ve been through often enough because my subway line goes through Penn Station. It’s familiar, and it’s deliberately inviting. It has a food hall; people go there just because they want to. Happy hour beer, or a decent lunch, it’s just there. The morning I left, painfully early, I collected food for my journey: a tuna baguette from Pret a Manger, a Nutella cruffin from an Italian bakery (sure), and a truly decent bagel and orange juice for my train breakfast. I’d packed cold coffee with sweetened condensed milk as a treat for later, another thing a plane would never allow. It’s just simpler. You can just be a person, and train stations are built to enable that. It wasn’t as robust leaving Toronto’s Union Station; at the painfully early time I had to be there to catch the return train, only McDonald’s and Tim Hortons were open, so I feasted on a pair of egg-cheese sandwiches and some Timbits. But that any of that was possible feels freeing, and the luxury of not having to worry about something is worth a great deal to me right now.


Let’s get to the downsides, though.

One issue particular to my route is that trains between New York and Toronto only run once a day in each direction, and both of them are at times that my body absolutely hates. I’m a night owl anyway, but one of the things I’ve had to deal with after a year of trauma is that my body’s schedule got even more wrecked, so it’s hard for me to get to bed before 3 or 4 AM.

This is difficult when your train is at 7:15 AM (in the case of leaving New York) or 8:20 AM (my Toronto departure time). I had to catch a 5:23 AM subway, and I don’t live all that far away from Manhattan. It’s tough to sit and write on a train, or do anything else requiring your brain, when you slept for two hours the night before. Sleeping on the train isn’t easy either. Remember that turbulence-reminiscent rocking I mentioned? If you’re awake, it’s fine, but it made sleep impossible for me. Zoning out all day can be relaxing in the right state, but it wasn’t what I planned on, and it wasn’t as nice as things could’ve been if I hadn’t felt like I was about to die of tired. My kingdom for an 11 AM train! Or 1 PM. This makes the arrival times harder, but I swear, I’m very brave and will deal with it.

It’s also hard to deal with 13 hours of anything when you’re exhausted. The length of the ride is unavoidably pretty brutal. I’m good at self-regulating and came with plenty of books and activities, but by about hour seven, I was ready to crawl out of the window. There’s a stop about midway with a longer pause, enough that you’re invited to get out of the train to stretch and get a snack, but I’m too paranoid for that and was traveling solo. Maybe if I had someone on the train to go, “AHHHH, STOP, SHE’S STILL OUT THERE,” I would’ve enjoyed an intermission, but I didn’t. It’s tough. I did better on the way back, when I didn’t have a seatmate and so could get up and down more easily, but it’s not simple.

And yes, the neighbors make it tough sometimes. On the way back, I unsuccessfully bid for a business-class seat, solely because there would be fewer people in the car and because I had the impression that the air conditioning was better there. Amtrak is fairly popular for families, apparently. I wasn’t too bothered by kids running around (though I did almost get clipped by one a couple of times when going back and forth to the bathroom), but the coughing was an issue. That’s hardly unique to the kids, though; on the way down, a man behind me coughed the whole time, and on the way back, the guy across the aisle from me open-mouth coughed every couple of minutes, and he was part of a chorus of it in our car. There was so much of it. I’m sure that was true in business class too, but at least there’d be fewer people doing it. If I do this again, I’m springing for the fancy seat, because 12-plus hours is too long to endure that. Planes have their own cough and air circulation issues, but at least the problem is only about two hours long.

And conclusions

What will I do next time? I wrote this out in part to determine that. The time sink worked better for me on this trip because I didn’t need to take time off from work for my travel days. The trains have wifi, but it’s often spotty at best; if I’d been trying to do anything except work on documents for which I’d set up offline access, I would’ve spent a lot of time feeling very frustrated. The next time I make this trip, that won’t be the case, and the cost of using PTO for days where I do nothing but sit on a train will feel a little dearer. I’m also going to be thinking about the relative problems of “12 hours of cough symphony” versus “two hours of plane fear.” I don’t have an easy answer, but the time constraints might push it more toward flying.

You know, assuming my doctor’s game to refill my plane drugs again. That’s a whole thing too; demographically, I’m the kind of person who gets that kind of prescription without too much trouble (affluent, white, speaks in a way people in positions of authority respect), but even then it’s pretty manual. (I expect/know that if I weren’t demographically how I am, it would be worse or even impossible, which is its own sort of bullshit.) I have to have a doctor conversation every two refills, which is fairly painless but involved, and I innately expect highly manual processes to eventually fail. If that doesn’t work out, I’ll make the train work for me. But assuming things continue to function, I may be dragging my bones to JFK again next time to take the “simple” route.

In conclusion: high-speed rail when? And yes, taking the Acela is on my wish list for this year. ♥️

Further conclusion, a few days later: one of those people with a cough (or several of them, who’s to say) gave me a mild cold despite the mask I wore at all times in both directions. When combined with the two days of sleep deprivation needed to be at the train stations so early, this caused my body to freak out and have some pityriasis rosea as a treat. It is, fortunately, mild, and not contagious. This has happened to me once before when I caught sniffles the one time I went to Burning Man, though considering the other things I could’ve caught (this was the year of the rise of monkeypox), I felt oddly fortunate.

Hilariously, both times with good ol’ Christmas Tree Rash were after the age of 35 for me, which is uncommon and also not what anyone wants if they long to be young again. Due to having an itchy patch on my side as I type this specifically because of someone open-mouth coughing in my vicinity for ten-plus hours, I gotta say, I’m probably flying next time. At least then my exposure to grown-ass adults who don’t know how to cover their mouth when coughing is greatly reduced. Yes, I am still mad about this and will be for a while.

If I have the luxury of surplus time again anytime soon, I’ll consider the train but will take business class purely because that car will contain fewer plague holes that could potentially pathogen up the place during my travel time. Done and done.