Postcards from the Train

Postcards from the Train

I’m on an Amtrak sleeper train somewhere between Salt Lake City and San Francisco as I write this; my phone tags “Lovelock, Nevada” as the closest location. Streetlights spill bowls of orange into the dark.

Last night at 11:30 p.m. we boarded the California Zephyr and were led to car 532, room 3. The train pulled away and my friend and I curled up on the bottom bed of our roommette to watch the station move away. I press my nose to the cold glass window, examining shapes cut out of the night by snow, like the way the moonlight cuts shapes into your face.

I wake up for breakfast, stumbling into a four-seater booth with two men we hadn’t met before. Both are lovely. One’s a retired truck driver, the other was on the East Coast for a job interview. I accidentally put butter in my coffee instead of milk.

We’re greeted by the most exquisite sunrise for breakfast–the whole sky ignites into pink. The dry earth, dotted with shrubbery, moves beneath. The tips of snow-capped mountains are the first to feel the sun’s warmth.

We soon discover the observation car, which has blue seats facing out toward the landscape. Flicking through channels, I see snippets, a full tasting board of the landscape: wild horses running, the Sierras, an abandoned trailer park barn, a yellow snowplow with busted windows, the country as it changes from rocky mountains covered in snow, to melting snow around shrubbery, to desert and red weeds.

We meet a man with a service dog called Baby. The dog has sullen, smiling eyes and a gentle wag. He’s had her for ten years.

We meet a driver, who passes me in the diner car and, noticing my camera, asks if I’ve taken photos out the back window yet.

“How am I supposed to know unless you tell me?” I say, playing.

He tells me the window of the back of the train is less tinted and happily offers to clean it after the next stop so we can get some shots out the back. His kindness astounds me. He’s the kind of person who makes children believe in magic. I can tell he’s flattered that my enthusiasm matches his.

The man announcing the snack bar is just the same: once every so often you can hear him over the speaker, “White cheddar popcorn! Cups of oodles and oodles and oodles and noodles! Jimmy D. burgers, adult beverages!” and then, always, in a soft whisper, “Thank you. Ice cold beer, ice cold beer.”

About the Author: Savannah van der Niet is a writer and photographer. You can find her at and on Instagram at @savvyv.