Unlocked: Things discovered on City Rain’s two-and-a-half day train journey from Philadelphia to Austin

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Photo courtesy of the artist
Photo courtesy of the artist

When City Rain played SXSW this year, frontman Ben Runyan made the trip not by car, bus or plane, but on a two-and-a-half day rail trek. For the final installment of the band’s Unlocked spotlight, we share his experience in the form of an essay written on the ride home.

Life is a tremendously meticulous and fragile gift. It involves risk. It involves bravado…..brashness……insanity. To make the “right” decisions for yourself the only way to be vindicated is to dive in. I remember leaving the train station from NYC with a 55 hr train ride Into the unknown wondering if I was in over my head. Hell, everyone had told me I was crazy for doing this. Take a plane they said….. What was I thinking. Shall I return to the “safety of home”? Or shall I press on Into the night to a place I’ve never been — with people I’ve never met — around confines I’ve never Iived within…… I’d become a bit predictable up to this point and wanted to try something big. But this trip —- well this trip turned everything on it’s head in ways I could never imagine.

IMG_2291America is best seen by train. Not because its not being done. Not because some hipster steampunk that thinks we should return to the days of locomotive and horse (could be cool) and not because I’m afraid of flying (I am). I’ts best seen by train because of what you SEE —- which is to say there’s a big America out there… It’s a shock to most to know that you can travel across the entire country by AMTRAK. NYC to LA. PHL to CHI. CHI TO AUS. Our rail lines zig zag across this great country as directly and wildly as plane routes, albeit longer and shared by freight trains. Yes years ago our country failed to have foresight into the needs of the American rail system or high speed rail that our Asian and Europeans brothers utilize. A high speed rail system analogous to the ones europeans have could bring us from NYC to LA in 10 hours. But who could blame them; the car was the future as early as the 1910′s. Cars are the future they said.

My trip started out about 2 blocks away from my house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. I took the SEPTA regional rail to Trenton NJ. The NJ Transit line to New York City Penn station. There I waited for the 49 Lakeshore limited that would take me up up up into the great state of New York crossing from Albany over to Syracuse and eventually out into Pennsylvania past lake Erie. It was dark for most of this, so I awoke somewhere near Toledo. By this time I had already made several friends in the seats next to me, one of which turned out to be an Oscar and academy award winner. Whoda thunk it. We made it to Chicago in about 18 hours time. I didn’t have the dough for a sleeper car so I slept it coach. People were varied. Familes, young folk like me, old couples who’s idea of retirement was training it across the US and of course some of the weirdos you might find on a greyhound bus. There was a 4 hour layover in Chicago. I exited the station and was standing on a street corner trying to figure out where to go to eat some lunch when “Rebecca Cammisa” a Documentarian, that has been nominated for 2 Oscars approached me. Along with us was a fellow by the name of “Frankie Latina” who had directed a film that Roger Ebert had reviewed and starring Danny Trejo. It wasn’t but a day into my trip and I was already rubbing elbows with stars. Lunch was a bit dark. One thing you find out about film directions, musicians and artists in general (but especially film directors and comedians) is there inherently pitch dark sense of humor. Topics ranged from suicide to fear of flying (haha) and ended around our mutual love of train travel.

IMG_2271I left Chicago on the 28 Texas Eagle heading towards Austin. By this time I might have been a bit weary of the travel but the best was yet to come. Right off the bat I sat myself in the observation car (which only longer trains like the Texas Eagle, The Sunset Limited, The Empire Builder have). It’s a large train car with glass on all sides and seats facing out so you can take in a bit of the countryside. It makes for marvelous travel. Throw back some beers and watch the Texas countryside go by, watch ice flows on Lake Erie, see wildlife from afar. The whole 9 yards. But the best part is the dining car. The food aint half bad and its community style seating so you end of meeting some interesting people. And BOY did I meet someone interesting.

I sat down to dinner and was introduced to a nice lady named Sylvia. We began talking about food, art, music, film and our conversation made its way to our music. I showed her our mini-hit song “The Optimist” and she had some nice things to say about the music and the cinematography of the video. She told me she was coming all the way from NYC and that she was around there in the 80s. Being a huge fan of New Wave and Post Punk we shared our interests in the talking heads, joy division, new order, U2. But it wasn’t until the end that I realized who she was, or rather she gave me a clue. In passing I mentioned Lou Reed. To which she exclaimed “Oh btw I am Lou’s ex wife”. Of course my initial thought was “yea right”, buta quick google vindicated her claim. Day 2 of train travel and I had met Loud Reeds ex wife and a couple of academy award winners/nominees. NBD. We parted ways and I made the rest of the journey mostly keeping to myself.

All in all my train trip there took about 55 hours and it’s going to take the same back. I am writing this as I sit on the Texas Eagle heading north to Chicago. SXSW was incredible, but the point of this little ditty was mainly to share with you something you may not even have known existed. America can be seen by train. It’s about the same or less as a plane. No cramped seats. Freedom to move around, friends to be made, and epic stories to tell. Give it a go, eh?

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Songs for a High School Dance is the featured album in this week’s edition of Unlocked. Download the single “Waiting on a Feeling” in Monday’s post, read Tuesday’s album review, watch an acoustic video in Wednesday’s post, read yesterday’s interview and check back for future installments of Unlocked on The Key.

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