Everybody has a different rhythm, a pace at which they like to travel and for me it is no different. I prefer to be the tortoise in the World, plodding along nice and slow.
Within the past 2 years, I have done two trips to the USA, buying a flight to a city in the east coast and then a flight back home from the west coast and then just figuring out how to get from one side to the other when I get there.
I found my answer after my budget plummeted while visiting Tennessee and I needed to find a cheap way to get to California pronto. Last minute flights were expensive and no matter how broke I was, I also didn’t want to fly from east to west, it completely defeated the object.
That is where Amtrak came in. I have traveled (twice now) on the ‘California Zephyr’ which goes from Chicago to Emeryville (just outside of San Francisco) or vice versa. It takes 2 and half days and winds through 7 states. Watching the scenery constantly change, from lakes to rivers, desert to mountains is inspiring, it makes you feel like you are in a whole new World.
I was most shocked though, that on my second visit to board the grand ‘California Zephyr’, from Emeryville this time, when I overheard a worker for Amtrak, passionately talking about the trains and about how they are in decline and may in the future, have to be shut down.
‘Such a waste of a marvelous train journey’ I kept thinking to myself as I sat soaking in the remnants of the sun that shone though the train windows. What a waste of such an experience, a way of travel that will soon be extinct due to the fact that everybody wants to get everywhere as quick as they can.
There might not be WiFi on board, you may have to sleep on your (very comfy) seat for 2 nights but I will tell you what you get in return…
Imagine your leather boots walking eagerly on to the platform, the train is not due for 10 minutes but the crisp Chicago air sets you at ease. The platform is not as busy as you expect, yet you subtly eye up the people sat beside you, knowing that you will be spending 2 wonderful days on the same train as them.
You are not sure what you should of packed but you have some cheap instant noodles, some baby wipes and an undeniably large bottle of red wine stowed in your backpack. The voice finally bellows over the speaker system “The 9.15am train to Emeryville, California is now approaching platform 2” suddenly awakening the butterflies in the pit of your belly.
The train trundles in and makes a gentle stop, its height towering above you, the shiny exterior reflecting the gentle hues of the awakening sky. The moment you step on and find your seat, putting your bags in the overhead locker and sitting your bum firmly down, is the moment you finally relax, allowing Amtrak to take control, to take you on a whole new journey.
The train eases you at first, galloping freely through the endless corn and soybean fields and small towns of Illinois and Iowa, crossing the Mississippi river and settling you in to the night with a small taster of the hidden parts of America. Your hunger rumbles and the dining car is ready to feed, the seats are mainly un-booked and you are placed a seat opposite strangers, a dinner served with what becomes new friends, talking about life over wine, while glancing out over the ever changing scenery, the sun that awoke at the start of your journey, is now settling down for the night.
Lights off and the car is quiet, the only noise is the rumble of the trains engines, sending you in to a restful sleep, only to be awoken in the early morning by the sun once again and the excitement of opening the curtains, to see where you may be. There is something quite fulfilling about sleeping while on a train, like putting ingredients in to a slow cooker while you set out for the day, only to return to a lovely meal.
The day begins by the train climbing slowly up through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado; like a mature explorer,the train lusting for more, for an adventure, excited to show you the World that it knows oh so very well. The rocky terrain expands, while a stream begins to appear, dotted with rafters waving and mooning as per tradition. The stream soon swells to become the Colorado river, hugging tightly to many picturesque villages and towns along its spine.
It’s at this moment you feel that this has reached its peak, there could be no more that could possibly exceed the beauty that has passed you today, yet the train sniggers, quietly knowing the tracks it has yet to reach, knowing much differently.
Dusk falls to yet another day of wonder and magic, the skies reflect the mood inside you, fiery and passionate, yet your ready to drift away slowly to the gentle rocking of the train.
The rocket must have come in the night, sneakily transporting you on board, firing you high in to the sky and landing you safely on Mars. The terrain is dry, the vibrant reds and oranges twist seamlessly through the rocks that jut out so precariously from the ground.
You blink once, dreary eyes deceive you and you soon realise you have made it to Utah, as the voice kindly reminds you over the speakers. The observatory train calls, as well as a nice hot coffee, so you sit down with a book, with one eye carefully on the window before you.
The train is tired, you feel just as exhausted from the sheer amount you have seen, the thoughts you have processed, the people you have met and the wine you have drunk.
The tracks have been alone for some time now, secluded from many, yet rolling on generously towards California. A sudden movement outside catches your eye and you stand in awe, as two Mustangs race the train along the tracks, galloping freely as you pass through the Sierra Nevada’s, playfully imitating the train beside it.
The last few hours remain and you feel a sudden sadness as the journey begins to end, the warm California air approaches and there is a sudden urge to retake the train back to Chicago. Your leather boots walk once more down the stairs, on to an unfamiliar platform that has been patiently awaiting your arrival.
Just one look back, a split second of sadness, replaced by a new adventure awaiting you, an adventure that would not have been possible without the Amtrak. A journey is not just the end point, it’s about how you get there, and Amtrak get’s you there in unimaginable ways, ways that will stay in your mind and heart forever and more.
My short video of my journey on the California Zephyr.