San Francisco to Chicago on the Famous Cross-Country Zephyr Train
It was a birthday trip to remember. The milestone age of 30 in the midst of a pandemic. The older I get, the more I subscribe to the ‘faraway is not a place’ mantra. But for this particular hallmark birthday, I wanted actual perspective. The kind of existential life-lived-thus-far rumination I had planned needed both physical and mental distance from my near-militant daily routine.
With air travel questionable in safety and reliability, it seemed the perfect opportunity to tap into my long-time love of train travel. And as the departure station for one of the most beautiful cross-country train journeys in the world only a few blocks from my home, the decision was easy.
The Zephyr Line, run by Amtrak.
California → Nevada → Utah → Colorado → Nebraska → Iowa → Illinois
Day 1: The Pacific Ocean to the heart of North East Nevada
Spent the next hour getting situated in our “roomette”: a convertible day-to-sleeping car for 1-2 people. The full “rooms” (basically slightly larger roomettes) were on the upper train floor immediately before of the dining car. I quickly decided it wasn’t worth the extra ticket price to have train showers and toilets (complete with the distinct train bus bathroom smell) inside the tiny compartment.
Pulled in early to the Sierra Nevadan city of Colfax, formerly known as Illinoistown (quite on theme for this trip). Inspired by our glimpses of the passing 19th century-esque main street, we resolved to return and explore the tiny railway town in the future.
“Detrained” (as our conductor might say) in Truckee, a former miner’s town just northwest of Lake Tahoe — known in my own personal narrative as the site for the discovery of toxic mold. Get on the observation deck here for stunning views of the Truckee river on both sides of the train!
Rolled into Winnemucca, Nevada shortly after sunset. We were greeted by an announcement from our sleeping car attendant for a “turn-down service” Amtrak-style. We took him up on the offer. Unknowingly, our room’s mis-wired call button triggered what sounded more like an emergency alarm, putting us first in line. The conversion from day-car to bunk-beds was surprisingly straightforward, even as the 70s era levers required some elbow grease to lock into place. My entire body weight plus gravity eventually did the job.
Climbed back inside our sleeping car after stretching our legs during the 10 minute stop in Elko, Nevada. Outside we befriended a fellow single traveler, who promised pocky sticks and drugs if we would just join her in the observation deck for drinks. Really, our presence was purely decorative. Sipping a bladder of rose wine out of paper espresso cups (but declining the mystery tablets) we were treated to a unilateral trip down memory lane. Everything that came stream of consciousness to her mind from the last 15 years: her time stationed in Coronado for the Navy, a litany of toxic ex-boyfriends, and insights from her current Silicon Valley employer. Not to be put off, I resolved to say ‘yes’ in the future to any and all strange train encounters.
Day 2: Eastern Utah and the Colorado Rocky Mountains
We crossed through one time zone overnight, meaning my fitful night of sleep looked even more objectively sad. Not long after, the state border from Utah into Colorado with the red cliff mesas and groves of flowering tamarisk trees replaced with the winding Green river and prairie plains.
Zoomed past the seasonal skiing resort at Fraser Winter Park station, signal for the end of the major Rocky Mountain viewing period but the beginning of crushes of silver dollar trees and the Moffat Tunnel — also the highest elevation point on the Amtrak network at 9,239 feet.
Left, on schedule, from Fort Morgan; with no other significant stop until early AM arrival in Omaha, Nebraska. With the departure of our roomette neighbors, the train attendant was nice enough to double-check that no more passengers were expected through the end of the line. Probably predisposed to be kind to us given our burned out cabin light and call button, he gave us full permission to use the now-empty neighboring roomette as an extension of our own. Probably more excited than warranted, we took full advantage of the doubled square footage.
Day 3: Overnight through Nebraska and crossing the Mississippi River into Chicago
I thought I remembered Nebraska, but by the time I was together enough to put my glasses on and look out the window, we were completely through the Cornhusker State. However, my rainy birthday morning in Iowa also meant the unwanted gift of yet another fast tracked time zone: Central Time.
Because there were no remaining ticketed passengers, our very unflappable Ukranian conductor decided we would skip the last two stops and arrive in Chicago an hour early! Our sleeper train attendant stopped by to change the sheets on the convertible beds, chatting with us about the latest FLOTUS controversy, how privatized policing and courts made the Gary Indiana of the Music Man sound remarkable off-base, and the overflowing testosterone of Chicagoan men. ‘Stay where there are lights and be careful in bars’ he advised us with what I credited as good intentions.
For most, the method of transport is probably not thought of as part of the ‘travel experience’. But, for “railfans” like me, there’s something different about trains.
No form of travel, be it flying or driving, inspires so much productive introspection. As this 2011 study so eloquently argues the act of self-reflection isn’t necessarily linked to real self-awareness. I know first-hand. Harmful navel-gazing is a personal calling of mine. But what is so magical about trains? It’s more than just the space to think and contemplate.
With the rapidity of life and the near-instantaneous responses I’ve come to expect — it’s so easy to forget that it is process, and not outcome, that teaches me the most.
I’ve just begun to explore this internal tension. And I can think of no better example than the closing stanza of one of my favorite poems. Referencing Odysseus’ epic return journey home from the Trojan War, C.P. Cavafy writes:
“… if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you. With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience, you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.”
C. P. Cavafy, “Ithaca”
So was Chicago the ultimate goal? The Chicago skyline at night on the coast of Lake Michigan was surely an amazing place to spend my birthday. But more important was taking the time to reflect and marvel and grow. Every time I’m foolish enough to make assurances about where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing at a particular age, life humbles me. It does nothing to ease my desperate need for certainty. But no matter the uncomfortable ambiguity, or pain, or trauma there is some comfort in knowing that you have tried, that you have cared, and that you are infinitesimally closer. Even if there is no specific place to get closer to.
For the privilege of being able to make mistakes, reflect on them, and commit to learning and doing and being better, I continue to be the most grateful. Trains, am I right?!