Tales from the Rails: All Aboard!


I am home sweet home from my grand adventure on the rails and in San Francisco, and am slowly but surely settling back into normal life.  I'm not gonna lie- I have a pretty acute case of post-vacation blues, with the most severe outbreaks occurring at work.  Honestly, it's just really difficult to give a crap about Medicare when you're riding high on vacation memories.  That being said, it really is great to be back home in my neighborhood, with my man, and in my own bed.  Dorothy had it right: There's no place like home.  

Originally I had planned on writing and posting from the road, but I never had a signal so I never posted.  I did write, but by the time I got to a signal, the post felt so outdated, so I decided to just write a re-cap once I got home.  There's so much to say, that I think I'll do a day by day recap.  Bear with me.  Thanks.

Friday, 9/16 - Sara and I almost missed our first train from my neighborhood to the Amtrak station.  Miraculously, we made it, and eventually made it onto our first Amtrak train, the Cardinal.  The Cardinal took us down to DC and then through Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and ultimately to our first final destination, Chicago.  

Saturday, 9/17 - As we woke up, the sun was rising over the fields of Indiana.  I only know it was Indiana because I'm a map addict and regularly looked at my Google maps GPS app to see where we were.  We arrived in Chi-town around 10am and had a few hours to kill, so we decided to treat ourselves to a delicious meal at Mercat a la Planxa.  We ordered the Chef's Tasting, a flight of wine, and white sangria.  It was exactly what we needed after eating crappy Amtrak food for the past day.  After lunch, we boarded our next train, the Southwest Chief, which we lovingly called The Chieftan.  The Chieftan was awesome; it was a double decker train with all the amenities, including a dining car, a lounge car and a cafe car.  We were delighted when we realized that not only were we were seated in the caboose, but we were the last two people in the caboose!  On a train that stretches at least 12 cars long, it is an honor to be bringing up the rear.  Plus, we had a unique view out the back window.  

Also worth noting on this day was that a fellow passenger got left behind at a stop!  It was just after we crossed the mighty Mississippi, and stopped at a designated "smoke stop".  The conductor warned us not to stray from the platform, as the stop would be brief.  About five minutes later, the horn blew and the conductor yelled "All Aboard!", and we all piled into the train as it chugged on towards Missouri.  Unfortunately, one passenger was too busy taking pictures of the Mississippi River to notice the horn and the "All Aboard" and so the train left without him.  We learned a big lesson in that moment: the train waits for no one.  

Sunday, 9/18 - We awoke to the sun rising over the Kansas plains.  It was a sight to behold.  The twilight hours transform even the most mundane landscapes into the most spectacular sight your eyes have ever seen.  As we rolled into eastern Colorado, I started to see the first signs of the mountains to come in the west.  Just little land-humps, but enough to know that we weren't in Kansas anymore.  That, plus my GPS told me we weren't in Kansas anymore. 

A few hours later we got off the train in Raton, New Mexico.  Talk about bizarre.  Not that Raton is bizarre; it's actually the sweetest little podunk town, but getting off the train - that is bizarre.  The train becomes your home, your neighborhood, your community, and the people become your family.  It's like a microcosm of the world on wheels.  You grow accustomed to the constant sway, the sounds, the people, the gross food, the cramped bathrooms, the lack of control, and my personal favorite, the lack of any real responsibility.  Riding the rails is like taking a course in Escapism 101.  As a Pisces, this appealed to my sensibilities very much.  One of the most surreal moments was when we got off the train in Raton, and watched our train (home, neighborhood, community, family) pull out of the station without us.  All of a sudden it was eerily quiet, and we both stood there in mild disbelief for a moment, not quite knowing how to comfort each other.  We both wound up calling home to distract ourselves from the fact that we just lost our home on wheels. 

Once we collected ourselves and felt comfortable on solid ground, we went exploring through Raton, NM.  Unfortunately, it was a Sunday and everything (I mean everything) was closed.  Not one shop, gas station, restaurant, or movie theater was open.  Even the tumbleweeds had the day off.  There was literally nothing going on, except two girls from out of town hauling luggage through the town.  We had six hours to kill in this town, and were starting to feel like it would be a l-o-n-g six hours.  But then we rounded a corner and I smelled a hamburger cooking, and I knew we were saved!  We found a restaurant (haven) called Hamburger Heaven that sold not only hamburgers but $12 bottles of wine.  They even offered to hold our bags while we walked around, and let us swing on the hammock in their side yard.  It turned out to be the best day.  Sometimes nothing cures the post-train blues like small town hospitality and $12 bottles of wine.  Major shout out to Shannon at Hamburger Heaven for making our day what it was.  Here's the view from our hammock @ Hamburger Heaven:

After the wine and hamburgers and heaven and hammock, we boarded a bus to Denver.  Four hours later, we met up with my cousins Michael and Marytheresa in Denver for dinner and drinks.  We also had a hotel that night, which meant showers and a bed!  You would think that after 2 days and nights on the train we'd take full advantage of the comfort, but we still managed to stay out way too late (no regrets!) and only got three hours of sleep.  In my opinion, family is more important than sleep.

Monday, 9/19 - After a brief nap, we woke up and headed to the station.  We couldn't wait to get back on the train!  And this was no ordinary train; this was the California Zephyr, the train we had built this whole trip around.  

We had a minor delay but were soon enroute to California aboard the Zephyr.  We were giddy.  It didn't take long for the train to leave Denver and start its ascent into the Rockies.  It also didn't take long for the Rockies to blow my mind.  I'm going to stop writing for this portion of the blog and let the photos speak for themselves...

You're welcome.  The journey through the Rockies filled most of the day, but then we crossed over into Utah just as the afternoon began yielding to the evening.  Again, I'll stop with the words and let the pictures work their magic.

Spending the day in the Rockies and watching the sun set in the Utah desert set the bar pretty high for the rest of night.  What can top that?  I don't know that anything can top that, but we came pretty close.  We spent the night playing cards and having shenanigans with two train friends, Christian and Mike.  At around midnight, Mike told us that he had a hammock, and would love to hang it somewhere on the train.  Hanging the hammock became our mission; our life's purpose.  We finally rigged it up in the middle of the observation car, and I finally got to experience rocking in a hammock while on a train while in the desert in the middle of the night.  I never realized this was an experience I wanted until it happened.  This was the second most surreal moment of the trip.

Tuesday, 9/20 - Once again, we awoke in the dark and witnessed another gorgeous sunrise.  This time, it was over the Nevada desert.  Have a look:

I did not sleep very well the night before, so I felt kind of buzzed/high on exhaustion for most of the day.  It was fitting, as this was the day our train adventure was to end.  We had to say goodbye to friends made along the way and switch from journey mode to destination mode.  It was a bittersweet and buzzed kind of day.  We rolled through the desert while hanging with Christian and eventually started climbing into the Sierra Nevadas.  Once again, the natural beauty was astounding.  

We spent our final hours on the train hanging with Mike and having lunch with new friends.  When we got to Sacramento (SacTown, or Sacto, or Sacow), we said goodbye to Mike, and started packing up our belongings.  Before we knew it, we were pulling into the end of the line, Emeryville, California.  Talk about bittersweet.  Our friend Simone was eagerly awaiting our arrival, and was so excited to see us.  We were definitely excited too, but we were also pretty bummed to be off the train.  

After a few days of reflection, I think that's precisely what makes train travel so special: you can never go back.  Sure, you can take the train again, but never with those same people under those same circumstances during that same time in your life.  And because of that, every relationship you create, every moment you experience, every sight you behold only exists in that moment, and everyone knows it.  Everything becomes magnified, and beautiful, and sacred; nothing is mundane.  That is what's most surreal about train travel. 

Stay tuned for part II of the adventure: Girl's Week(end) in San Francisco!

Report from the Rails, vol. 1


After months of planning and sweet anticipation, I am finally on the train, and on an incredible journey across the country with a dear friend to see our other dear friend in San Francisco.  Philadelphia to San Francisco, via Delaware, Maryland, Washington DC, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Colorado again, Utah, Nevada, and California, all on Amtrak, and all in coach class.  For some, this may sound like a nightmare.  A few people asked me, “Why don’t you just fly to San Francisco?”  It’s a valid question; let me explain why we’re taking the slow boat to China. 
For starters, ever since I spent time in Colorado and Utah last year, I’ve been longing to return, if even just to pass through so that I could once again behold the incredible beauty and diverse landscape of the Wild West.  These places changed me; they removed my blinders and connected me back to wonders of the natural world.  I was ill prepared for what I saw in Colorado and Utah, and how those places would affect me, both in the moment, and in the moments since.  Those places and experiences have lingered, and have quietly yet continually beckoned me to come immerse myself in their wonder again.  
So, when planning a trip to SF, when my friend Sara asked if I might be interested in taking a train rather than a plane; a train called the California Zephyr; a train that travels through the Rockies and Utah, I was sold.  Going to SF and being able to travel through CO and UT was like a buy-one-get-one no brainer. 
Another reason why this trip appealed to me was the romanticized notion I have of riding the rails across the country.  There’s something to be said for the art of slow travel, the way it used to be, and all that comes with it.  While driving, all you see is the interstate and what surrounds it, and a seemingly endless row of golden arches at exit after exit.  While flying, all you see are clouds and the sprawling tapestries of land beneath.  Both offer interesting perspectives of this country, but both are limiting and fairly cut-off from the reality of the cultures, landscapes and communities that comprise our country.  The thought of seeing small towns that I otherwise would never see, witnessing the rolling vastness of the prairies, getting to see the majesty of the mountains and canyons from places where no cars can travel, and waking up to a gorgeous sunset over the desert, all the while meeting a variety of strange and wonderful folks from around the world; this my friends, is the experience I sought.  Also, just enjoying the journey rather than being hyper-focused on the destination is what appealed to me. 
The final reason why I agreed to join Sara on the train was because it’s Sara, and we always have epic adventures when we’re together, no matter what.  Truthfully, I would not take this trip with most people, but Sara and I travel so well together that I couldn’t pass it up.  I knew that even if we had an awful time by conventional standards, we would still have an awesome time according to our standards, and would create memories to last forever. 
So, that’s why I’m sitting here on a train, just west of Washington, DC, heading towards Kentucky.  This is our second train of the day; the first took us from our neighborhood in Philadelphia to 30th Street Station, also in Philadelphia.  Then we hopped on the Cardinal, which will take us to Chicago.  We had a brief layover in DC, so we took the opportunity to marvel at the architecture of Union Station and even got a peek of the Capitol.  Prior to arriving in DC, we ventured into the Dining Car and had breakfast as we rolled over what we think may have been the Chesapeake Bay.  It was spectacular. 
Now we’re just outside of Manassas, Virginia, heading due west for the hills of West Virginia, and ultimately, California.  I’ll write frequently and will upload whenever I can get a signal.  Stay tuned for the next report from the rails…