Cross country travel by train—
Not for the light of heart, but worth the crummy night’s sleep
My first time taking a train in the United States and I boarded it from San Fransisco and took it all the way to Chicago— the entire length of Amtrak’s California Zephyr route! While the station was what one would expect, everything from then out was great! It was very fun boarding; families smiling and pointing out cool things about the train as it rolled by with the conductor leaning through the window waving as they puffed into the Emeryville station.
My heart was racing like I was about to get on a roller coaster, I’m going to live in this train for the next three day! Just 5 minutes late after a 15-minute late arrival and we were off at 9:10 am! To start in the morning means I have a whole day worth of light to look out the window.
If you’re checking luggage, be there 30 minutes before just in case and 15 minutes otherwise because the trains leave close to on schedule. Have your bags tagged and your ticket in your hand; they don’t mess around. There are a lot of conductors in clearly labeled clothing that are very helpful in a Dirty Dick’s Crab Shack kind of gruff, “mean” way. It’s amazing and hilarious. “Are you going to Chicago? Well, you better hope on, this train is not going to wait for you or anybody!” Meanwhile, they’ll be super helpful, if a bit direct with you.
There is a level of trust required in that the big baggage rack is downstairs while I have, of course, chosen to sit upstairs. When the option to go up is available, you always take it. Always. Our conductor came around to check tickets and make sure no one was using their bags and purses to deter someone from sitting next to them because it was a full house. While I would love to have a seat next to me empty so I could stretch out, I’m happy that so many people are choosing train travel!
Every few hours there’s a “fresh air stop”. These should be renamed as the “all the smokers get off and choke out the people who do just want to get off and walk around for a few minutes stop”. But I did’t mind; I was just happy to be walking for longer than the 67 steps it takes to get from my seat to the viewing lounge where I’d been spending most of my time. Under the viewing car is the lounge where you can purchase snacks, drinks, and alcohol. The only way to heat up every food item from here that is the microwave. The dining car back upstairs and behind the viewing car is where full breakfast, lunch, and dinner is served. Click here to see the PDF of the menu with prices! With a sleeper, food is included and the rest of us coach passengers just pay like we would at a regular restaurant.
Food, drinks, and snacks are allowed and are a great idea! You can have personal food in every area except the lounge and dining car where Amtrak sells food. Seems fair! There is no security on Amtrak like there is with the airports so bringing home goodies that you purchased on the west coast is also much more relaxed. Next time I’m going to bring a bottle of wine with a screw on lid, a few miniature bottles of liquor, and snacks like raisins, fruit, chips, crackers, bluebell cheese, raw veggies, nuts. I wish I would have for this trip, but at least now I know.
I’m also happy I knew about the history lesson provided by volunteers from the local Historical Society that can be heard in the viewing and lounge cars. It was fun to have someone explaining what we saw and unique points of interests until we made it to Reno.
Traveling by train in the US: the first time when traveling alone doesn’t make you the outstanding minority
What’s great about meeting people while traveling, particularly the slow, cramped, but so worth it type of traveling is that they are usually people you want to talk to with cool stories who are curious about others, open-minded, and different. Growing up in a small, conservative town, as I developed more liberal, progressive ideas I’ve learned to “just not talk about it” with most of the topics I love to discuss because I’m so afraid of offending someone with my crazy ideas like kindness being considered as much as profit. But meeting people while traveling you know that even if you don’t share the same opinion on a topic that you can have an informative, fun debate without leaving completely furious with one another, which doesn’t seem to be something the overwhelming majority of Americans can do. I love discussing and debating difficult subjects!
I feel like unlike other forms of travel, there are many of us traveling in parties of one on the train. The dining car is communal, and I was sat at a table with a thirty-something physics teacher living in San Fransisco but hailing from Boston, a forty-something science curriculum administrator from a small town in Nevada, and a sixty-something retiree from Sydney, Australia. We shared travel stories, discussed some current events, and then all made our merry way back to whatever our solitude activities were— easy peasy.
I thought I would miss Utah and Colorado overnight, but apparently, I’m a bad judge of train time, because we woke up in Utah and it was magnificent to open my eyes to a desert as far as the eye could see. While not as tight as a plane seat, there is little sleep to be had in a train coach seat, but as I said, these views are worth it. Yesterday we went through Cape Horn and looked down over the American River and saw wild horses in Nevada. We’ve seen the San Fransisco Bay, Truckee River, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Colorado River, and now the Rocky Mountains! We even got mooned by some rafters on the Colorado River! Hilarious!! Crossing the Continental Divide with tunnels and canyons; sometimes we traveled along various highways, racing cars and tractor trailers, somehow always feeling like we were losing to them. California Zephyr is a great line; the train horn and the actual “chuggachuggachuggachugga” is almost ironic.
Conductors Steve and Stan asked that we rotate in and out of the viewing lounge every 30-45 minutes because it is a full train to make sure everyone gets time to enjoy the scenery. Nice reminder when the train is at capacity. I think my favorite announcement they kept making is “Shoes are required. Repeat. Shoes are required when walking around the train” Multiple reminders about the shoes! Who are these people refusing to wear shoes on this dirty train?! But apparently, someone because if there’s anything I learned from How I Meet Your Mother it’s that someone must have done it for them to make a sign about it.
Hanging out in the viewing lounge with your new train friends is one hell of a way to spend an afternoon. I think all old men who love to sit around and swap travel stories should travel by train so they can sit in the viewing car and bullshit with the man sitting across the aisle for hours; both of them having the time of their lives trying to spot wildlife before the other. I’ll give it to them that the layers of the various rocks telling a historical story with every glance and the red rock standing out with such beauty, doted with sage bushes scattered down the mountainside is incredible. And how can you not point out every bald eagle you see— it’s our national bird for Christ’s sake!
The train is also an easy way to handle jet lag! One hour at a time is super manageable. While I prefer to go to the west as far as time changes go, if I must go east hour by hour is the way I like to do it; transitioning slowing and enjoy the ride.
The difference of those of us who got on in San Fransisco verses those of use new comers who are unwrinkled and slept in a bed last night is becoming more clear. Those of us who got on yesterday morning recognize one another as being in the club that these sweet-smelling, bellies full of non-train food, newbies are certainly not members. Outside of not being in the cool kids club, not getting on at the first stop doesn’t allow you to check any bags so all luggage you bring you have to have with you in your coach seat or your sleeper. You also don’t have the first pick of where to sit which usually means getting stuck with ani aisle seat. Some people love aisle seats, but between these views and having the window to use at night, the window seats seem to be the most valuable.
De-boarding with the knowledge that multiple nights on a train is worth a sleeper and that snacks are a great idea, I can say with almost complete certainty that I will happily retake Amtrak in the future! While the views out west are much more picturesque than the flat farms of the Midwest, this is still a fun and adventurous way to travel! Amtrak is not just for your Great Aunt Florence who is afraid to fly anymore. While there are some seemingly easy changes they could make to transition into the 21st century, Amtrak is a great travel option! Chicago was beautifuly decorated for the holidays like a Midwest hug when I arrived!