Editor's note: AP Tampa correspondent Tamara Lush has completed her travels on the rails as one of 24 writers for Amtrak’s residency program for creative professionals. She interviewed people and filed occasional installments for this Tales on a Train project, while also working on her next romance novel. These are her reflections on the trip and the people she met.


I’ve been traveling around the U.S. on Amtrak for the past two weeks. I began in Orlando, Florida, on Jan. 17 and stopped in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, El Paso and New Orleans — and many points in between. As part of my trip, I’ve interviewed more than a dozen people for the Tales from the Train project. I’ve talked with dozens more.

Something struck me as I walked into Union Station in Los Angeles on Sunday. Something about the promise and beauty of America. It’s a grand place, a Mediterranean revival on the outside and stately Art Deco on the inside. You can envision young starlets coming off trains here in the forties and fifties, breathless with promise.

Today, it’s more pedestrian, and there’s a teeny bit of grime under the grandeur. It’s the hub for transit in Los Angeles, a city that’s synonymous with cars. But on the afternoon I was there — I was stowing my luggage for my train, which wouldn’t leave for several hours — I heard the strains of a piano. At first I thought it was a recording, but no, there’s an actual piano in the hall. “NO TIPS,” a sign says, then another encourages anyone to play. At the bench was a young black man, playing for no one and everyone. I shot a quick video of him, charmed.

I spent the day lunching with a friend and wandering around the neighborhood near the train station, mostly filled with Mexican and Asian immigrants. I walked through La Puebla, a market with stalls of enchiladas and churros, then came to a square where a Mexican band played to a small crowd. An older couple waltzed on the concrete.

I’ve been thinking often about the people I’ve met on this journey. Tereseta, the 22-year-old from Texas who worries that a border wall will separate her from her Mexican grandparents, who live in nearby Juarez. Pam, who’s raising the children of her nephew, a drug addict. Mike from Albany, who discovered that his cancer is operable and that he can keep playing bluegrass music. And Machelle, who just found out about her cancer and, as a hospice worker, knows this month might be her only real chance to hold her 3-week old grandbaby.

But there were dozens more I didn’t write about, like the young woman on the BART train in Oakland. She had an active toddler and a big stroller, and no fewer than five people asked her if they could help. The man who sat behind me from San Francisco, who was trying to reach his son who is “cowboying” in New Mexico and asked me if he could use my phone because he didn’t pay to re-up his SIM card. He called me ma’am about 10 times and thanked me profusely. The night I was seated with strangers for dinner on the train headed west, and we all marveled how only in America could a journalist, a martial arts studio owner and a German Baptist Brethren couple who are dairy farmers in Ohio break bread.

Each time I witnessed these small acts of grace, my heart swelled _ especially during this divided time in our country.

I’ve been traveling among regular Americans for two weeks, asking two questions along the way. Where are you going on this train? Where are you going in life?

The people I’ve met are folks who hate to fly or somehow can’t fly, people from the heartland and from cities. And you know what they have in common? They’re aggressively pursuing happiness. They’re trying to live life to the fullest, whether it’s because their days are numbered or because it’s generally awesome to surprise your long-distance girlfriend with a visit and a marriage proposal.

Some of my favorite quotes of the trip came from a German woman I met on my second day. Simone Wolf has been riding around the U.S. for 18 months.

“Trust,” she said. “It’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from my trip. Everything is not so bad as you learn in school, in newspapers in television and the computer. The world is good.”


Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at twitter.com/tamaralush