Dream job? She travels via train across the U.S., stopping to eat

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Amtrak/Phil Gosney
Amtrak's California Zephyr runs daily between Chicago and San Francisco, coursing through the plains of Nebraska to Denver, across the Rockies to Salt Lake City, and then through Reno and Sacramento into Emeryville/San Francisco.

Imagine this as a summer internship: You hop on a train, travel to a new city, explore its best restaurants and get to know some local chefs, then you get back on the train. While en route to the next new city, you write about your experience.

This summer, this is Madi Butler’s reality. She’s traveling around the country as part of the fourth annual Summer by Rail series by the Rail Passengers Association, which has a mission to get more people to travel via train. This year’s theme is food, and Butler said that’s precisely why she decided to apply for the program.

Butler knows a thing or two about finding the best food towns around the nation. The Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts graduate has mastered the art of traveling by rail to different cities in hopes of exploring some of the best cuisine.

She is traveling across 21 cities in 50 days to show people that traveling by train is one of the most efficient ways to get around. She began her journey in Washington, D.C.

The goal of this year’s program is to highlight the fact that you can easily travel from places like D.C. or New York and take a quick weekend getaway by simply hopping on a train.

Photo by DeAnna Taylor
Chef Madi with Mert’s Owner James Bazzelle

In addition to the exploring the culinary side of the cities, she meets with city leaders to discuss effective ways they can spread the word to their residents on utilizing the train as an option for travel.

Her first stop after leaving D.C. was to Charlotte. Butler spent a few days here, stopping at several local spots, then documenting her journey.

“Charlotte is a great food city. There’s cool hotels, great art museums, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It’s one of those cities that unless you grew up in the south, you don’t know how cool Charlotte is.”

Photo by DeAnna Taylor
Dishes from Mert’s Heart and Soul

One of her first stops while in the Queen City was Mert’s Heart and Soul. She was able to sit down with longtime owner, James Bazzelle, who gave her the inside scoop on some of his most famous dishes, including the Soul Roll.

“As far as Merts, I saw it online and on ‘Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. I was really drawn to the aesthetic. It’s a lot of food that I really love, especially growing up in Kentucky and eating Southern Food.”

She spent the rest of her time walking around the Queen City and exploring downtown and NoDa. While in NoDa, she stopped by Haberdish for a quick meal. She sampled several things off of the menu, and she said her favorites were the sweet potato dumplings, the pimento cheese, deviled eggs with smoked trout, and the cocktails.

After leaving Charlotte, she made her way down to Atlanta.

She had plans to meet with members of Charlotte’s Transportation board, but her meeting was delayed. Butler plans to ask them for an immediate resolution to ticketing issues and assurances that the marginalized communities within Charlotte will have continued affordable safe access to public transportation.

Photo courtesy of Butler
Charlotte AMTRAK station at night

“Ultimately my end game is to show that the train is more accessible than flying or driving. We have to make sure the service is maintained and our long-distance routes stay open. I want to make sure that connections in and out of city centers are at the right times. It only works if we all work together.”

After visiting each city, Madi sits down to document the experience. Her writing happens while on the train, in a hotel room or at a bus station. She said having to come up with an angle for her content so quickly can be a bit of a challenge, but she doesn’t mind it.

The distances that she travels between each city can vary, and Butler said she most enjoys the longer train rides. With extra time in the lounge car, she can take in the views on the way to her next city.

To see where Madi is headed next or to read more about the cities that she’s visited, you can read them here.

7 COMMENTS

  1. This is interesting because i have tried many times to travel by rail, because i, too, love trains. But I haven’t travelled by train since 2007 because I have found that:
    1. the times the trains come through Charlotte are too few and far between and the times are inconvenient (often 1 am or 2 am are the only times you can get to Washington DC or NYC)
    2. It’s more expensive than flying,
    3. The food onboard the trains (unless theres an actual dining car, which there isn’t on all routes) is not healthy or tasty,
    4. The cars are often unkempt and bathrooms not clean.

    I wish that the organization that is paying for this summer internship could address these issues.

    • You just said what I was going to say. I would love to travel by train, but there’s a whole part of the country not made for train travel.

    • Very well-stated Lyn.

      Her stated end-game is

      “Ultimately my end game is to show that the train is more accessible than flying or driving. We have to make sure the service is maintained and our long-distance routes stay open. I want to make sure that connections in and out of city centers are at the right times. It only works if we all work together.”

      It is in actual major cities and the northeast. It is definitely not in the south and southwest.

      This is the stickler in the story as to why it won’t change in the south.

      “She had plans to meet with members of Charlotte’s Transportation board, *** but her meeting was delayed. *** Butler plans to ask them for an immediate resolution to ticketing issues and assurances that the marginalized communities within Charlotte will have continued affordable safe access to public transportation.”

      Absolutely not a priority by the powers that be in this auto-centric region… which is highly entertaining given the plans to build an “Uptown Transportation Center” which will feature the Amtrak station with it’s very limited and inconvenient service.

  2. Little note to Ms. Butler: You can’t demand something that there’s no market for. I sincerely hope that’s not a micro-aggression.

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