It takes a certain kind of person to want to travel cross country by train.
There are some places you'll go, people you'll meet and things you'll see that will awaken you to the fact that you're far from home (perspectives differ greatly across this country)...and yet remind you that this vast country IS your home. You'll get to ride through a million little Heartland towns--ones you'd probably miss if you routed yourself cross country in a car. But most importantly, there's all the time you'll have to simply relax. Be rocked to sleep by the train as it runs across the rails. Cozy up with a book you've been meaning to read. Watch a movie. Stretch your legs. And just be alone in your thoughts. In comfort. Huge reclining seats with elevated footrests (and I mean reclining, not like that 2 degree airplane recline). Window curtains for the sleepy hours. Comfy lounge chairs, end tables & dining tables in the Observation Car for the times when you wanna just hang out. Food on demand (for a fee). I mean, seriously--what's not to love about riding the rails??! Long distance train travel definitely isn't for the "I-wanna-hurry-up-and-get-there" crowd--riding Amtrak is all about creating a deliberate experience though new meeting people, engaging in wide-ranging conversations, and enjoying a slower/less hectic pace of travel. And if you're into that kinda thing, then I'm telling you--you need to book yourself a ticket in 2016.
So first things first: Amtrak. My adventure was fantastic--everything I hoped it would be (except longer!)! I flew up to Washington D.C. the day prior to my departure and then traveled from DC to Chicago on the Capitol Limited (via Coach, since I couldn't justify paying an additional $300 for a 15 hour ride). I did some research before I left & learned that Amtrak runs the A/C year-round in each car so it can get chilly at night....and if there's one thing I really don't like it's being cold while I slumber, so I came prepared with a plush throw blanket + pillow packed in my carry on. It was by no means freezing, but I wouldn't have wanted to be without my goodies, either. :-) When I arrived in Chicago the next morning, I decided to make the most of of my 5.5 hour layover by checking my luggage & exploring the city. In DC I'd originally planned to visit the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture but didn't get the memo that the Grand Opening isn't until February 2016. As luck would have it, while reading Ebony on the plane ride over I ran across an ad for an exhibit on David Adjaye at the Art Institute of Chicago. David is actually the architect of the new Smithsonian museum (Adjaye Associates) so it made for a perfect plan--I'd make a beeline for the museum once I was settled and see as much as possible. I checked my luggage, did a quick walking tour of the city, then headed for the Art Institute when it opened.
(A model of the actual Smithsonian museum)
Seeing the notes, sketches, renderings & models of David's projects over the last 15 years was an incredibly in-depth way to learn about his work. I was bummed about missing the museum in DC but as a creative--having the opportunity to intimately explore the process of a fellow creative is priceless! And this unexpected experience is one of the things I love about traveling solo & leaving wiggle room in your plans--you can always find a way to take advantage of your layovers and get out to see something new! If you travel with an open mind, the journey will always lead to an adventure . I never would've known this much about his body of work had I missed the exhibit so it was definitely time well spent! I ended my Chicago tour with some deep dish pizza (not a fan!) and then Uber'd back to the station just in time for my next departure.
(Two seats facing each other that turn into a bed at night + an upper bunk for a second traveler, extra gear, etc. Your Amtrak attendant will make your bed every night around 8-9pm!)
Once I boarded the California Zephyr in Chicago I settled into my Sleeper Car and was introduced to Al, my Sleeping Car Attendant, who provided service all the way to California. Traveling by train isn't the standard mode of travel anymore and I'm so glad I did it with my own room. Private quarters, separate bathrooms, showers, individual temperature controls, breakfast, lunch & dinner in the dining car included (omg, I ate like they were forcing me to!), meal service in your room (if you so choose)--everything was covered. Going First Class isn't cheap but let me tell you, it's worth your pennies for the longer rides! I sat in my Roomette as the train pulled away from the station and seriously felt giddy (which is a word I rarely use). I felt like a boss for pulling this trip off, not because it was so "difficult" but because one day I decided to fulfill a dream of riding the train cross country & a few weeks later I booked myself a ticket and did it! Traveling to Istanbul opened my eyes to how much there is to experience in this world & how easy it is to make travel a priority and I promise--since I've awakened to that fact (and made a decision to GO!), opportunities are coming at every turn. The last few months have been hectic & filled with work and I'm learning that I don't function well with stress, so this trip was just the break that I needed. I loved sitting in the Observation Car late at night with my blanket, reading in the silence and lying in bed, watching Colorado fly by, felt like I was being transported back in time (Al would joke with me, "Are you gonna get up??" LMAO). The people that I met (those whose names I remember!) each defined specific sections on my trip--Dr. Larry in Iowa, Danny from Chicago, Najla & Michael from San Francisco, Adam in Colorado, the ticket agent in Grand Junction. And you know what I talked about with these people? Deep stuff, like taking care of your money so your money takes care of you. Medical school. God. Religion. Marriage. Blended families. Amtrak. Politics. Freighthopping. Choosing not to have children. They all let me into their lives in intimate ways that you can only do with strangers and they're the kinda connections I live for.
When the train pulled into Reno I decided to jump off to surprise my BFF, stay the night and catch the next train out the following day. I ended the Zephyr in Sacramento (spent my layover at the California State Railroad Museum which was the perfect use of time) then rode a different train down to Fresno, where I grew up, for what was supposed to be a one night layover (more on that later). If I have any complaints about my trip it was that it wasn't long enough. I was constantly torn between hanging out in the Observation Car meeting people vs lying in bed & reading so an additional day on my trip would've been perfect. Would I do it again? Absolutely, except next time I'd go from New York to San Francisco, New Orleans to Montreal or San Diego to Vancouver. You can say I'm addicted, partly because I love the train and partly because this kind of travel just changes who you are. Once you've traveled somewhere new--especially when you're doing something that stretches you beyond your comfort zone--you can NEVER go back to being who you were when you left. Completing this trip gave me the courage to book one of my dream trips....you're gonna die when you find out where I'm going next.
Until then, I took a few of my 67 videos (LOL) and made them into a little montage of my trip. Click below to see!