Nat Read has seemingly lived enough lives for most people, traveling to every continent, including 100 countries and both poles. Yet he can still vividly recall his first and perhaps most influential memory — when he was on a jostling, crowded train with his mother 80 years ago, at just 4 years old.
It was a day-and-a-half long journey and there were no seats left for his mother, who was carrying two toddlers back home to Texas from California after seeing their father off to World War II. The trip was enough to put Mrs. Read off train travel for good, but in Nat it fueled a lifelong fascination that last month culminated in a one-of-kind accomplishment only possible after eight decades of riding the rails.
“I can’t really explain it,” Read said of his inexplicable love for locomotives. “I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t enthralled by it all.”
Throughout his life Read has tried his hand at a wide variety of life paths. After joining the ministry he quit in protest of their exemption from the draft and joined the Navy during the Vietnam war. Once his military career was over, he became a Los Angeles police officer just to see what it was like, working in the gang suppression unit.
He later tried his hand at stand-up comedy just to see if he could do it, only hanging up the mic after he made enough money to prove to himself he could make a living from it. He’s since made a living as a cartoonist, cab driver, casino worker and has published multiple books on local history and his life.
But one thing that remained consistent is that for every milestone, accolade, cause for celebration, or major life decision, a long train ride was always a part of the process somewhere along the way.
“I never tire of it,” he said. “There’s a unique quality to trains… you can’t measure their value in dollars, it’s an experience.”
At 13, Read went on a train ride with his Boy Scouts of America troop to Irvine, stopping at scenic places like the Grand Canyon, where his love for what he calls the ‘two-story magic carpet ride’ blossomed. By high school he was sneaking into Dallas train yards, trying to convince conductors to let him hop aboard, at times even riding all the way to Chicago.
“That was my way of having a good time,” Read said, swearing that steam engines of that time had more personality. “Trudging through the train yard hoping that one of the engineers would give me a ride somewhere.”
He eventually passed down his love for the rails to his children and grandchildren, building a model train station in his living room when they were growing up.
So when he wanted to send his then 30-year-old son on a vacation anywhere he wanted around the world, his son chose to ride the train across Canada with his father. By the end of the trip, after seeing tight-knit families dotted across the country landscape, he decided to move to Raleigh from New York to leave a slower paced life.
Similarly, when his public relations firm — which at the time was working on keeping the Pasadena City Council in favor of the 710 freeway extension — won a key vote, he celebrated by traveling across Australia.
So while he hadn’t planned it, it was no surprise to Read when a few years ago he looked at an Amtrak map and found himself close to completely riding on every line in the system.
His plans had to be put on hold due to the pandemic, but this year he resumed his journey and last month took a train from Glendale to Boston, to finish what he inadvertently started eight decades earlier.
On July 21, he boarded the train from Boston to Brunswick, Maine. on a trip he described as ordinary though surreal. As he reached his destination, the conductor announced the conclusion of his more than 21,000-mile journey over the intercom to applause, and afterward he posed for pictures with passengers who stopped him on the platform.
“It was like any other train trip as far as train trips go, if you’ve been on one you’ve been on them all,” Read said. “But it has such special significance to me to hit that finish line and think back on all the years I’ve been riding trains.”
Read said with his trek now over, he’ll continue to take train rides any chance he gets and will keep up with any new routes that are added.
And for others he hopes to inspire to take their first train trip, the veteran traveler has a few tips. Ride first class if you can, and choose your season and region carefully. He recommends the scenic San Francisco to Denver line, for people looking for landscapes on their next vacation, or the route from Winnipeg to Hudson Bay in Canada.
Finally, he implores people to pursue their passions, no matter where, or how long the journey takes them.
“I’ve set goals again and again in life,” he said. “That’s how you get to where you’re going.”
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