As It Happens6:50At 84, this avid traveller has ridden every inch of the Amtrak

The United States’ national rail service, known as the Amtrak, is expansive. It stretches 34,440 kilometres across 46 states worth of mountains, valleys and plains.

And Nat Read has travelled each and every inch of it.

The 84-year-old’s journey chugged to a stop last month in Brunswick, Maine. After looking at a map in 2019 and noticing how much of the “spider web” of routes he’d already travelled over his life, Read pulled out a marker and traced the routes he hadn’t yet journeyed.

While the pandemic stopped his travels temporarily, the retired public relations consultant resumed his effort to traverse the entire Amtrak earlier this year.

Read told As It Happens guest host Paul Hunter about completing the journey, and the difference travelling by rail makes.

How did you feel when the train pulled up at the very end of that last leg?

I felt euphoria. There was a climax to it. The conductors made an announcement that went throughout the train — of this man who was on the train who had gone to all 22,400 miles of the Amtrak system — and people lined up on the platform to have their picture taken with me. It was kind of a surreal moment.

What did they say to you?

Well, “Congratulations.” And there was a 15-year-old boy whose goal it had been to [travel] the entire Amtrak map. And he couldn’t believe that there was someone on the train that had actually done it. He was so excited he could hardly talk. He wanted to know if he could please have his picture taken with me. I said, “Of course!” [and] put my arm around him. 

Overhead shot of a grey Amtrak passenger train rolling out of a rail yard.
Amtrak’s California Zephyr passenger train departs Chicago Union Station in Chicago on March 2, 2022. Nat Read has travelled the entire Amtrak rail line. (Luke Sharrett/AFP via Getty Images)

Do you still remember the very first time you were on a train?

I can’t remember because I was too young. Trains were how we commuted in those days. 

The first ride I remember, I was four years old. My father had left for World War II, and my mother was taking us back to our home in Texas from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where my father had been training. And it was a day and a half trip. She had a four year old and a one year old and had to stand the entire way; there were no seats. 

So she hated train travel from then on. [But] to me, I didn’t know any better. It was an adventure.

There are faster, more efficient ways to get around. Sell me on trains. Why all this train travel?

I sit on a two-story magic carpet with the diorama of the North American continent unscrolling before me. And it’s a magic that you don’t have in a car. You certainly don’t have it in an airplane. Only in a train do you have that experience.

There’s such a drama to crossing this great continent — to the mountains and the prairies and the farmland and the small towns and the seacoast. Just so dramatic to … watch that world go by.

I’m picturing you with your face aimed straight out the window, watching your country zip past you.

Yes, and I’ve done the same thing in Canada many times, gone back and forth on VIA. Actually, my two most memorable train rides of all took place in Canada.

My son broke up with his girlfriend and I said, “Well, quick, before you get another one, let’s bond, son. I’ll take you anywhere in the world.” 

And he said, “Well, what I’ve always wanted to do is take the train across Canada.” And so we did that and we sat in the dome car for three days. And he got to the other end of the continent and he said, “What am I doing in New York, working so hard for people in a law firm demanding more hours?”

He said, “I looked out that window at the people in Canada and … they were not afraid to hug each other.” And I said, you know, I want a world like I see in Canada. 

He quit his job, moved [to North Carolina]. And that train ride through Canada absolutely changed his life.

The sun rises over a line of evergreen trees. Snow covers the ground.
The view from the Amtrak train along the U.S. Pacific coast in the winter. The route is billed as one of the most scenic in the world. (Submitted by Emilie Wyrick)

Is there a train trip somewhere else on the planet that you always wanted to take but haven’t?

Well, I’ve taken across the continent of Australia as well as Canada and the United States. There are a number of significant, significant trains. But I’m 84 years old and I don’t think I’m up for these more exotic, far-flung train rides anymore.

You get your occasional headache, travelling by train. Any rides you’ve taken that you wish you hadn’t taken?

No, I can’t think of one. 

I’ve had trains that were frustratingly late — maybe as much as a day late. But I heard of somebody complaining on a train that they were going to be an hour or so late and the conductor said, “Then why are you on a train if you’re not prepared for the kind of delays that come with train travel?”

What’s your number one tip for people about to embark on a long train ride?

Get the best room that your budget will afford you. If you can, get your own room.

In the larger rooms, you have a shower and bathroom in your cabin. So if you can afford that, I would say by all means that will make the trip easier and more memorable.

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