Help me plan my Amtrak Writers Residency

I’m honored to be one of the winners of the Amtrak Writer’s Residency. All 24 winners were announced last year, but I finally managed to work it into my schedule this fall. Here’s the route I’ll be taking over 6 days, later this month:


  • Day 0: Flight to Atlanta (not on a train, but I’m counting this as the start of my residency)
  • Day 1: Atlanta to Washington DC
  • Day 2: DC to Chicago
  • Day 3-5: Chicago to Seattle

Decisions I have to make (input welcome – leave a comment):

  • What do I work on (vote below)? I can work on anything I like, and if you’re been following me for years you may know I have three unfinished book projects: A) Finish the philosophical techno thriller novel I’ve worked on (and off) for 20 years B) the book about the London Underground (untouched in years) C) Return to my book about religion (stalled in April 2015 due to burnout) D) Start something new E) Write about the residency trip itself.
  • What should I pack? I’ve never been in a sleeper car on a train before, or done a long haul train trip. I’m excellent at traveling light, but wonder if there’s anything special I should bring.
  • How do I get exercise? I’m a fitness junkie and I’m worried I’ll go insane stuck in a box for so many hours in a row (I imagine myself driving passengers crazy by running up and down the aisles all day). I’m even thinking of using the two layovers I have in DC (4 hours)  and Chicago (5 hours) to taxi to a gym, get a workout in, and then get back on the train.
  • Should I tweet and blog, or go dark? It can be annoying to follow someone on a trip like this as many people don’t want to hear micro updates. But the journey itself will be fun to document in real time and if I knew there was an audience for it I’d give it a try.
  • Dinner before I go? Anyone want to join me for a kickoff dinner in Atlanta on 10/23 or 10/24?

39 Responses to “Help me plan my Amtrak Writers Residency”

  1. Paul Mitchum

    Wow amazing adventure. :-)

    Pack: Earplugs. Over-ear headphones. Wet wipes (there’s no shower). Water bottle. Non-perishable food… The dining car is good, but not available 24/7. Lounge car has junky food. Any layovers, find a grocery store. Locks: Put your laptop in one of those mesh bags and lock it to a handle or whatever, mostly for peace of mind.

    Exercise: They usually have an empty half-car where little kids can go and play. A good place to do yoga or whatever. Multi-day train trips mean you won’t move much at all, and since you’ve been eating hot dogs from the lounge car for a week, you’ll need to.

    Also, I’m not sure about the rules of the residency, but definitely take an extra day or two at some mid-way city. Maybe stop at Glacier and spend a night or two in the lodge. I did Seattle to Houston in one go and by the end my mind was mush.

      1. Nicole

        Playing with kids is fantastic exercise, might want to check with parents first ;)

  2. Nate Hoffelder

    Any chance you could arrange an overnight layover on DC or Chicago?

    I’m probably not the only person reading this blog who would like yo meet you when you’re in town.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I wish I could and thanks for asking – but it took months to find a slot that even this shortish trip would work.

      If you don’ t already, you should get on my mailing list – I always list places I’m going to visit and almost always invite people out for a drink or a meetup:

  3. Gina Anzaldo

    Fun times ahead for you! I took a sleeper car this summer from Portland, Oregon to Whitefish, Montana. I found the scenery so inspiring that I didn’t get into my Mac until the sun went down (though I did jot down the occasional epiphany I had from letting my mind wander so freely). I had an upstairs sleeper and slept with the curtain open so I could wake up to the natural light (which come early in the summer, maybe less so in the fall). Go the the observation car early, early with a cup of the mediocre coffee. If you can catch a sunrise, the coffee will actually taste perfect! Talk to people (train travelers are interesting people), but do enjoy the solitude! If you spot a larger sleeper unoccupied, you can probably step in there to do some exercises…I don’t know that the porter will mind (or notice) a couple of sit ups :) And I felt my belongings were totally safe in the sleeper car – I just closed the door/curtain whenever I wasn’t in there…and the porter is always afoot. Have a fun trip and step off at Glacier – just to breath in that wonderful air!

    1. Scott Berkun

      Check on getting to the observation car early – hopefully I can get some exercise in the kid car first, and then grab a sweet spot. Thanks for the advice.

  4. Kreg

    I can only dream of this sort of trip. I’ve wondered so much how nice it would be to pack up and just go so I can write. Too many things get in the way. I had a sterling chance to get away for a 21-day cruise across the Pacific for a pittance (airfare was included), and I was recovering from an illness and could not go.

    Write something short. A few things. Make each day a new story.


    1. Scott Berkun

      Short! I like short. I can do short, maybe several shorts. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Rachel

    I’d love to hear about your residency as you go, on twitter, or as blog posts. But, if that isn’t something you end up doing, I’d love to read a bigger project about the residency so that would be my vote.

    I hesitate to throw support on the other projects, so that you don’t find yourself back at burn-out just yet.

    Of the other options besides the residency topic, the London Underground book is the most interesting to me.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks Rachel. Honestly it’s both inspiring and depressing to see the votes for something new – hate that so many book projects I’ve started are unfinished. To (possibly) add to that pile raises a whirlwind of despair. Perhaps I’ll decide once the trip starts and not worry about it until then.

      1. Phil Simon

        I voted for the tech piece—not surprising. I agree that starting something new might not make the most sense unless you’re really passionate about it. I’m revisiting an idea from ten years ago with a renewed zeal.

      2. Nicole

        I am on this is group called buy nothing where people give stuff away for free. What if authors gave their unfinished work to other authors to either finish or pass on…

  6. Emilie

    How jealous am I?! I had the wonderful experience of riding the North American rails for 5 weeks back in 2006 and it is one of my must do agains.
    The stopover in DC is perfect to hit up a museum or just wander around. Great place to get a run in.
    Enjoy the dining car and the diverse group of individuals you will eat with (best part of going it alone).
    Last of all, be certain that at some point the train will not be on schedule and that there is nothing at all you can do about it. It is a rather freeing concept!
    Bon voyage!

  7. Sensei Mitch

    Traveling Amtrak can be great depending on what line your train is running on. Boston to DC, is a great ride. DC to Atlanta, is a freight line and is very click-clackety! We had a sleeper with the shower toilet combo. The room was pretty comfortable but the time on the train get a little old, at least on the east coast. I can’t speak for the western routes, I’ve heard Chicago to Portland is nice whereas Chicago to Texas is also a freight-line.

    All I can say is good luck and have fun!!

  8. Nancy

    Have fun, Scott. I’ve done the x-country trip so many times I’ve lost count. For what it’s worth, I don’t take my everyday work life on train trips (even in other countries). I see them as opportunities to recharge my battery, so to speak. I like to meet people, stare out the window, daydream, read, and drift from one meal to the next before turning in. Time slows down for me on trains and I love it.

    Depending on the route and keeping to schedule, there will be opportunities to jump off the train and stretch your legs at certain stops. Unless they tell you otherwise, don’t go too far. As far as packing, I bring my own bed pillow for long hauls.

    Can’t wait to read about it at some point.


  9. Daniel H. (Germany)

    Hi Scott,

    if you want to do something short: How about writing several short essays on the topic of travelling. They’d fit the topic of the residency and it might find many readers.
    Either produce a small ebook or some amazing high-quality travel-diary (moleskine-style?) with both your essays (optionally invite other writers to join) and a lot of free pages.

    Cheers, Daniel

  10. John F Croston III

    I think it would be interesting to do short stories of your trip and the people you meet along the way. Plus, have questions to ask all of them from:

    – Why are traveling by train across the country?
    – What do they do for fun? Everyone asks what people do for a living. Asking what they do for fun will get them to open up more.
    – Have they met anyone else interesting on the train? Give you insight into who else you might want to talk too.

    Plus, adding in photos of places the train stops or interactions with others would be interesting to see.

  11. Bob The Programmer

    I took Coast Starlight San Jose/Seattle a few years ago. A lot of fun.

    Had a sleeper, so meals included. Food was surprisingly good.

    If you write about the trip itself, please, please, don’t treat passenger rail as a quaint “going back in time” experience, it’s the future of getting around this huge country of ours.

      1. Bob The Programmer

        Late response here.

        If the peak oil people are correct and the Auto Age is drawing to a close, how will people and goods move?

  12. Mike Moye

    The Crescent (#20) from Atlanta to DC is a single level train and the Capital Limited and Empire Builder both use Bi-Level cars. You will notice quite a difference between the types. I have done lots of cross country trips and have some suggestions. Pack a large bag with extra clothes (especially for your final destination – Seattle) and check it .. Atlanta to DC… DC to Chicago… Chi to Seattle. Pack a backpack for your sleeper needs… extra undies, clean shirt etc. At each connection it is easy to trade dirty stuff for clean from your large bag and then re-check it. Although your meals are included in the dining car, I suggest you take some snacks, I do wine and cheese, or drink of your choice… especially on the final leg Chicago to Seattle… great to sit in your sleeper and have a mini party.. you can always invite a guest to join you if you meet someone on the trip. Books, music of choice, games etc are always good. Make friends with your sleeping car attendant at the start of each leg….he or she will make your trip good or bad… and TIP them at the end of the trip.. Average tip is $10 per night and more if they do extra like serve your meals in your room. On the bi-level car parts of the trip you will have a great dome observation car and I strongly suggest using it to take in the sights. There are plugs to recharge tech devices all over. The trains are very safe and I have never had a security concern especially in a bedroom. Hope you have a great trip!

  13. Steve Crosmer

    You may want to get some walking time in at the layover stations enroute on the platform. Listen for on board announcements on the train regarding a “smoke break” or a service stop. On Atlanta-Washington, there’s a stop at Greensboro, but you’ll be probably snoozing at that time, so announcement will be made. Going from Washington-Chicago, the train schedule shows stops at Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Toledo. You could do Pittsburgh before you go to bed that evening. Cleveland is in the middle of the night like Greensboro, but it you’re up, at least get out to take a glimpse of the Terminal Tower, the Rock-and-roll Hall of Fame, Browns Stadium, and the Great Lakes Science Museum. All but the first will be on the side of the train next to Lake Erie, where the platform is located. Finally, going Chicago-Seattle, you’ll have time to step out at Milwaukee(smoke break only), St. Paul (service stop, go take a quick stroll and see the rebuilt depot), Fargo and Grand Forks(both smoke breaks at night), Minot(good for a wake up walk in the morning), Havre (service stop-check out the old steam engines there on the platform), and then Spokane(night time service stop; train has to be split up as one section goes to Portland-shorter section-and your section will continue to Seattle-longer section), and that will take at least a half-hour or so.
    Also, the rooms in the Superliner are a little shorter in width than the Viewliners. There is a small narrow closet next to the sliding door by your room where you can hang up a jacket. Stow your stuff under the seat at night. If you have another larger bag that you will need to get to while on the train, have it checked and placed in the baggage car, but do that no later than one-half hour before the train leaves! Bring an extra blanket along in case the air conditioning is running full blast or the heat is not working properly.

    1. Steve Crosmer

      Klutzy me with computer keystrokes. About that larger bag, I meant to say if you will NOT need to get to that larger bag on the train, place it in the baggage car. Also, I omitted the word “NO” after so concerning announcements at night. Bring a camera to take pictures and check the “Route Guides” for sights to see you don’t want to miss.

  14. Rob Piecuch

    As one of Amtrak’s best customers and a fellow writer, I can say that the train is an outstanding place to unwind and be creative. Probably half or more of the work that I’ve done over the years has been done sitting at a table in the cafe car on an Amtrak train. Pack modestly, but bring what you really need. Two carry on’s is fine. the roomette is modest, but comfy. Split up the time there and in the cafe car. Get out at the longer station stops and stretch (but don’t wander too far) if you go to the dining car you’ll be seated with others, but sometimes they have very interesting stories to tell, keep a notebook with you….and enjoy the relaxing trip – NO RUSH!

  15. Jim Gordon

    Between Wisconsin and Washington states there are large portions of the trip where cell phone and cell data are scarce. Check with your provider to make sure you can data and phone roam. The “golden spike” in 1869 of the transcontinental railway has yet to be realized for transcontinental cell service. You will have to settle for walks, sit-ups and in place exercise. If you write about your trip be sure to mention ways travel could be brought up to date. While Republicans are slashing services it would be great to hear demand for MORE services, a better dining experience and amenities such as an exercise car.

  16. Rebecca Wirfs-Brock

    The reason I voted for you to write about something new is that I didn’t want you to feel that you had to finish and/or make significant progress on the works that you have started or not yet finished. And perhaps maybe you don’t want to play reporter while you are on the train—so the idea of writing about your trip might also place some constraints on what you write.

    That said, the notion of writing about trains and people on them is intriguing, especially if you are up to that challenge. One thing I might encourage you to do is get a audio recording app for your phone (if you don’t already have one), so you can capture the sounds/conversations/ideas you have. I have found it quite useful. Used one myself to record snippets of thoughts/action on my daughter’s 10 day ultra race last May, and it was surprisingly helpful. Although you’ll be writing, keeping track of interesting sounds and recording thoughts while you are exploring might be fun and inspirational.

  17. Brian Ellison

    Must have equipment
    noise canceling headphones, eye shades, large water bottle, comfortable shoes, sunglasses
    Bring your own cocktail kit so you can toast the sunset with a good cocktail. Negroni’s are always good- equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. Can even batch ahead of time if you want! pour over ice and garnish with a slice of orange.
    Connect or Disconnect?
    I would connect when you want to connect. I think it could be very cool to Periscope portions of your experience. Bring a selfie stick and give a tour of your life aboard the train. Use it as a tool to introduce yourself to passengers and Amtrak staff, nevermind ingratiate yourself to your Amtrak benefactors. :-)
    Use a deck of cards, or a card deck app, and build your workout using the suit as the exercise and the card value as the number of reps. Ace is 14. King is 13…etc
    Suggestions that don’t require weights:
    Hearts: Burpees, push-ups
    Diamonds: Sit ups, hindu squats
    Spades: squat jumps, lunges
    Clubs: diagonal chop and reach, side plank reach through (both sides)
    You will get 105 reps of each exercise with this format and you never know what is next. If you are wanting to get a quick workout in- 100 Burpees in 20 minutes is always good to get the heart pumping.

  18. Christopher Doll

    First, congratulations on this great opportunity.

    I’ve taken the route between Michigan and Seattle, and for Chicago I’d recommend skipping the gym on your layover. Instead you can hoof it to the Art Museum which is a great way to spend some of that layover time. If you play it right you can get in that exercise while taking in one of the finest art museums in the country. Just a thought, and best of luck!


  19. Sean Crawford

    I think that if you are going to pack a book then one that is easy to put down anytime you like yet is still worthwhile and a conversation starter would be John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie about his cross-America trip. Charlie is his dog.

  20. Sean Crawford

    I thought (if I had thought) that you started on the 24th or 25th, but I see on a banner for another post that you start Thursday.
    Well, maybe you can use some of the above ideas on your “next” trip, and maybe a big part of this trip is concluding: Would you do it again?

  21. Michael Nitabach

    Dude, this is fucken awesome! I totally agree with the other votes that you write about the trip. And if you want to meet up in DC during your stopover, email me the exact date and time you’ll be there, and I’ll see if I can come down. I need a mileage run for my Amtrak Guest Rewards status, anyway. Lolz.

  22. Anis

    Hi Scott,

    The best will writing a kind daily journal of your trip, daily impressions, discovery etc

    Have a great trip,

  23. Kualitatem

    First of all I would like to say congratulation for the award. 2nd thing I read your complete article. I will try at my level to sort out some important things for you as a help. :)

  24. Angelo Sivay

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