I woke up to a sleepy, quiet dawn. I use the word “dawn” here intentionally because it is a rare and special occasion for me to experience dawn – the sacred time of day when the world is catching its last moments of rest before morning begins. Like the city of San Fransisco the previous day, it felt as if this time existed solely for me. It was mine alone. And I savored it for a few minutes while orienting myself from sleep and reflecting on the previous day and the days to come. We had slept with the window open. Open-open. No screen. And the light mist from the Bay had made its way into our dorm. I descended the bunk, stripped my bed, and gathered – clattered – my things together in the dark grey light of the room provided by the single open window. I exited the dorm room and went to freshen up in the bathroom.
I learned a number of things on this trip – like how to hold a conversation for three hours with a complete stranger (more on that later) – but one that was most valuable to me was how to stay grounded in myself while alone and far away from home. As I mentioned in my previous post, solo travel, it seems so far, requires continuous observation, planning, thinking, thinking, thinking. You’re entirely responsible for not only your own logistics and safety, but also for your own entertainment, enjoyment, and memories. I found it easy at times to get wrapped up in my own head. How do I do this? Can I do this? Am I doing this right? Am I enjoying this? What if… what if… what if? And so it became important for me to learn how to ground myself – in transit. This trip I found three things I could rely on to stay grounded: a cup of coffee, an episode of SVU, and doing my makeup. I’ve long valued the sacred ritual of a cup of coffee. Whether fresh from my French press drunk from my favorite of 50+ mugs in the comfort of my bed at home (in which I am partaking as I type) or on the go from a cardboard cup of overpriced airport coffee, the spiritual call of warmth, focus, and energy was a frequent practice during my trip. This particular morning, as I worried still how exactly I was going to get myself across the Bay to the train station, it was makeup that quieted my thoughts. Grooming. Caring for myself. I had done this, too, when I first landed at SFO the day before. I hadn’t been quite ready to head out into my adventure and so after off-boarding the plane, I purchased a cup of coffee, and sat, in the middle of the airport, applying my makeup, until I was ready to go.
Hair done, makeup applied, and teeth brushed, I grabbed my bags and linens, left the bathroom for the small hostel lobby, placed my linens in the designate receptacle as instructed when I checked in, and set out into the quiet dawn to somehow make my way across the Bay.
With the help of my Transit app once again I walked a few blocks to a bus stop and boarded the MUNI. I must have had some luck following me around, the Clipper Card reader wasn’t working on this particular bus. I sat down to follow the route with the GPS and did some Googling. Apparently when the Clipper Card reader isn’t working, riders can ride for free. Not a bad start to the morning. The MUNI ride ended at the Transbay Terminal where I switched buses to an AC Transit line that took me across the Bay to Emeryville. I got of the bus at Emeryville and after a bit of a walk through some alleys and under train tracks, I spotted the train station. And also a Peet’s Coffee. I was relieved in so many ways.
I stocked up at Peet’s figuring even coffee shop food would be cheaper (and tastier) than Amtrak train food, and still working against my appetite I enjoyed a breakfast sandwich and an iced coffee on a picnic table while I watched the trains come and go. As departure time neared, I stuck the deli sandwich and Naked juice I bought at the coffee shop into my bag and made my way up the concrete steps, across the walking bridge that spanned the train tracks, and down to the other side in front of the station. I took a final opportunity to charge my phone and my portable battery charger, although I wouldn’t need it – every seat on the train has an outlet. And the double decker, Train #6 California Zephyr finally pulled into the station.
Everybody waited outside and as we loaded the train were assigned cars based on our accommodations (coach vs. sleeper) and final destination. I was one of a handful of people riding coach to Chicago. Many were getting off at other big stops – Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha. We took some time to find a seat and acclimate to the train before it finally pulled out of the station and we were on our way.
The train was made up of coach cars, sleeper cars, an observation car, a cafe car, and a dining car. Most of the action took place on the top deck, however the cafe car, restrooms, and some seating were on the lower deck. Riders were free to move around any areas of the train at all times. Cars were connected by a set of double doors that automatically slid open when pressed on them so you could walk between cars. I spent a lot of my time in the observation car where windows along the walls and ceiling allowed a nearly 360 degree view of the scenery.
I found the first leg of the trip – from San Fransisco to Reno – particularly enjoyable in the observation car because volunteer docents from the California State Railroad Museum provided a narrative of the landscape and history of the Transcontinental Railroad which added so much to the already breathtakingly beautiful scenery.
It was during this leg of the trip that I fell into an easy conversation with a fellow traveler – I think he said his name was Mike. I had heard – overheard – Mike and an older gentleman talking in the observation car behind me. The older gentleman, surprisingly, shared with Mike that he and his wife lived in Cincinnati. I turned around and gently butted my way into the conversation, “You live in Cincinnati? I live near the Dayton area! Well, east of Dayton, in Xenia…” As it turns out the gentleman and his wife lived in Xenia for 20 years prior to moving to Cincinnati. He knew the dog park I bring Reggie to. He knew my grocery store. We of course shared a short discussion about the 1974 tornado. Everybody in Xenia has a tornado story. It’s how Xenia marks the passage of time. There exists two spans of time in Xenia – all of the time before February of 1974, and the blink of an eye since: “Can you believe it’s been that long?”
Mike also had a connection to the Dayton area – he spent some time at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base while in the reserves. He brought up Yellow Springs. The three of us enjoyed a laugh together having the shared knowledge of a tiny corner of the world in Ohio while on a train climbing the Sierra Nevadas in the middle of California. All three of us in transit on the train and in our lives, all pausing in a shared moment together.
Mike and I continued an intermittent conversation for the remainder of the afternoon. He had left his home in Washington D.C. for a month of travel. He was two weeks in and said he had finally fallen into a comfortable rhythm of his short life on the road. He was an 8th-grade-school-trip-tour-guide/life coach/improv performer/teacher which basically means that he uses the word “and” when he really means “but”. (“I love going on vacations with my little nephews and I’m really enjoying this month of travel by myself.”) However he, like I, had traveller’s high, and the buzz of opportunities and possibilities and wanderlust powered our conversation. We spoke quickly and I tripped over my words. It was so wonderful to share a few hours of my trip in conversation with a passing stranger. Three hours watching the mountains passed faster than I’d ever experienced and Mike excused himself for the dining car. I grabbed something from the cafe car and went back to my seat to settle in for the night. We were nearing Reno as I slipped down to the restrooms to wash my face and change into some more comfortable clothes in which to sleep. I returned to my seat and with the help of earplugs, a sleep mask, a neck pillow, and a warm blanket, along with my seat which reclined well past 45 degrees and a foot rest, I drifted off to a decent sleep until we reached Salt Lake City in the early morning.
The next day we covered Utah and Colorado. Utah, like California, was beyond gorgeous. It was also my first experience seeing canyons. As I did through California, I watched from the observation car as the train zipped along the Utah landscape and hours melted away. At any moment I could have snapped a picture from my phone and it would have been as beautiful as the next. Golden yellow turned orange turned red clay turned white snow as the day passed and Salt Lake turned into Provo turned into Glenwood Springs turned into Winter Park. I ate in the dining car that night as we wound through snow-covered peaks of the well-known ski destination. Had I not been, less than 48 hours earlier, walking along the bay in sunny San Fransisco? After dinner I settled into a seat in the observation car as, slowly, the mountains opened up to flatland and we descended into Denver. The buildings sparkled below as the darkness of sunset fell on the city – our first view of civilization since leaving Salt Lake City over 12 hours prior. After we were through Denver it was completely dark outside and I again settled into my seat for a night of surprisingly restful sleep.
I woke up in Omaha. The landscape had returned to familiar plains. That afternoon we would be reaching Chicago and it was a bittersweet last day on the train. My trip was coming to an end. I would be lying if I said I didn’t spend some hours that day looking up flights and trains and hostels and drives to other adventures in other places. It took everything in me not to book a night at a Chicago hostel – to extend my trip by just one more sleep.
We entered Chicago and the train came to its final destination at Union Station. I emerged from underground onto Chicago sidewalks. The first hint of familiarity I’d felt in days. I was no more than a couple miles away from Millennium Park and so I walked – across the river and past Willis Tower (where the wait to the Skydeck was 2 hours otherwise I would have been standing, suspended over the city in clear plexiglass holding all of my belongings from the trip, in a heartbeat – through Millennium Park instead, making a loop passed Cloud Gate before finally making my way to the Blue Line of the “L” back to O’Hare where I found myself back on the Airport Transit to the economy lot and back inside my car facing the long drive home.
The purpose of travel for me, to this point, is the accomplishment of getting my body around in time and space on my own. This may not have been the most adventurous trip – I spent most of it passively being moved around on a train – but if the point was to travel, I think this was a good place to start. The theme of this trip was certainly transportation. I think I covered that pretty well.
I chose to ride coach because I was able to purchase a “Saver” ticket on Amtrak’s website. From my understanding these tickets are limited in quantity but will save you some money if you are able to book further in advance. This saved me a few hundred dollars compared to a ticket in a roomette and I figured I could deal with a couple rough nights to sleep to bring the cost of my trip down. This way my plane ticket, hostel, and train ticket came to less than $250 altogether. The coach seat was worth it for me. I would recommend traveling coach if you are young and in decent physical condition, can sleep easily anywhere, or perhaps if you will only be on the train for one night and can deal with a night of poor sleep. The downside of coach certainly is the lack of privacy while sleeping, however at least on my train, everybody in coach who wanted to had two seats to themselves. I was able to get comfortable and sleep without feeling like I was in anybody’s way. If you have to ride coach, I would suspect the California Zephyr is the train to ride coach. Plenty of room, very comfortable. The seat almost folds into a bed.
If you are a light sleeper or are traveling with others to help bring the cost down, I would recommend a sleeper car. The upside of the sleeper car is more privacy, a closed place to keep your belongings (although I stored all of my things in my seat and in the storage above my seat and never felt uncomfortable leaving my things) and meals in the dining car are provided with the cost of your ticket. With a coach ticket, I had to buy all of my meals out of pocket.
Next up: Boston, Massachusetts!