From Los Angeles to Denver, a train ride is nearly three times the cost and seven times the duration of a flight. Considering these factors exclusively, it doesn’t make sense for me to return home from visiting an old friend in LA by train this August. I’m a cheap college student, and, like most people, I don’t love the idea of being confined to one place for an entire day. And yet, I’m using the remaining bit of my summer stipend to book Amtrak tickets for the 26 hour journey to Denver east across the Southwest, through Flagstaff and Albuquerque and north along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains.
Neither the reasons to do it nor even the possibility itself would have occurred to me before I met my internship supervisor, Janie Katz-Christy. During our first conversation, when I called the Green Streets Office to propose that I work with the organization over the summer, she mentioned that her family does not fly for environmental reasons, instead using long-distance train travel to traverse the US. The concept of long-distance train travel in the US sounded a little wild to me, but the reasoning behind her embrace of it did not. I’ve heard over and over, from my cynical environmentalist running coach in high school, in environmental studies courses in college, and in articles I find online, that air travel is one of the worst things an individual can do for the environment. Cutting out one transatlantic flight eliminates double the CO2 emissions than a year of a plant-based diet, according to researchers Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas of Lund University. For years, however, this information meant regrettably little to my own decision-making, failing to ring alarm bells when overseas vacation opportunities presented themselves.
It wasn’t until I had a particularly interesting conversation with Janie one afternoon weeks after we first talked that I came to seriously evaluate my own priorities regarding travel. Our conversation wandered all over, touching on the disorienting removal from landscape that occurs when you fly across the world and the social interactions and memories you gain when you extend and embrace the journey. We discussed what it means to become anti-flying after many years of privileged travelling the world. Reactions from friends to stay-cations vs. vacations, and my school’s quietness about studying away within the US and its glorification of programs far away came into focus.
I walked away from that conversation slightly overwhelmed but with also armed with the clarity that comes from examining societal norms and understanding that I do not have to live by them. I’ve been environmentally conscious my whole life, and I think about my resource usage every day. I’m at a point in my life, however, where I am gaining the autonomy to choose how I fit my lifestyle to my morals. For me, this means giving consideration to larger sacrifices and changes than I have before, ones that may shape my life. Yes, I'm still visiting my friend, and I'll still fly back to school in September. But I think booking a train ticket is a start.