across america by train
on the california zephyr
It took six months to drive from New York to LA in our old bus and to unpick the rich detail of each mile in a six hour flight, to miss the backbone of America and feel nothing but a slight bump of turbulence over the Rocky Mountains, just didn't seem right. So in a moment of madness I cancelled my return flight in favor of taking the train.
From Pacific to Atlantic coast, the journey takes four days. 3,814 miles through eleven states winding through the Sierra Nevada, across the Rockies and over the endless plains of the Midwest. Waking up to the great red rocks of Utah peppered with snow, peering into the backyards of people you'll never meet in places you'll never know. Miles of open prairie land and blooming orange sunrises in Nebraska.
It's a Wes Anderson-esque experience (minus the delightful color schemes, sadly) with a cast of characters thrown together, many of whom force you to reassess preconceived judgements and all the while this incredible film reel of the American West flashes past. We ran six hours behind due to a litany of issues like frozen tracks and elk crossings and whatnot but I didn't care.
To think you can fly this in five hours staring at a route map that hints of these places, but in four days you can glimpse the heart of this great country and meet some of the people that make it so. If you have the time, take the train.
I started in LA and finished at Penn Station, NYC.
I took the Pacific Surfliner from LA to Santa Barbara, then an eight hour bus from Santa Barbara to Emeryville, just outside of San Francisco.
In Emeryville I boarded the California Zephyr, a train which over three days winds through the state of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and finally Illinois. From Chicago I boarded the Lakeshore Limited, skirting the Great Lakes through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, finally arriving in Penn Station New York. You can hop off the train and make stops, but you'll have to book each leg separately. Everything can be booked through Amtrak.
Coach is the most inexpensive option, seats are similar to business class on budget airlines. Private Roomettes offer the luxury of lying down but not much else. The private bedrooms are the best but also the most expensive. I did a mix of coach and roomettes.
I took my trip in January. From a warm and toasty train car I saw the great American West dressed up in the ornaments of winter. That will stay with me. The weather can, and will, cause delays, so be prepared.
What to expect
You will see the coastlands of east and west and the heart of America. Palm trees reaching to the big blue sky and cornfields as far as the eye can see. Alpine forests blanketed in snow, the breathtaking expanse of the Rocky Mountains, jagged and snowcapped against brilliant skies. A whole lot of beautiful nothing in the Midwest. Broken down pulp mills and fields of llamas (yep, you will). Birds of prey and herds of elk and drifts of snow between carriage cars as you pass through some of the coldest parts of the United States.
You'll meet some awesome people, you'll meet some downright strange people. If you keep an open mind, you'll love it. The experience forced me to slow down, look around, accept. Expect plenty of time to think and reflect. Bring a book. I did, though I didn't read a single page. Bring a notebook. I filled an entire Moleskin with notes and drawings.
Once you crack their stony exterior, the Amtrak staff are delightful and full of stories. Take the time, make an effort. It will add layers to your experience.
The best areas for photographs are in the observation car, from the back of the train and stolen shots through open windows in the lower floor carriages (be careful!)
The dining car is communal. Bring an open mind. One memorable night the wine flowed and the car turned into a friendly cacophony, opinions traded lightly over shared tables; Amish families sat with farmers from Oregon and city kids from Denver and tourists from Australia.
Don't board expecting the extravagances or efficiencies of European train travel. There's no wifi. The signature steak served in the dining car is surprisingly good. The wine is not. The morning coffee is strong and paired with a golden sunrise in Nebraska, downright amazing. The greatest luxury of the California Zephyr is the world it passes through.