There’s a difference between travelling and commuting.
I happen to mix with a lot of people that at some point or another head over to San Francisco to pitch their (soft)wares to the good and the great stateside. Invariably this often involves a flight to the central aviation hub that is Chicago, followed by another flight out to the West coast. Well in this blog post I am going to try and convince you that you should get off at Chicago Airport, head downtown, and catch the “California Zephyr”, a train which snakes across 2/3rds of the United States and over the course of 55 hours will give you an experience you’ll never forget.
Taking this train is truly travelling, not commuting. By the end of it you’ll feel like some sort of explorer.
An amazing world rushing past your window.
Two years ago I took the California Zephyr all the way from San Francisco to Chicago, and out of all the travelling I have done in the States, I think this train ride beats everything else to a pulp. Over the course of two and a bit days you will pass through California countryside, the perma-snowy Sierra Nevada, the Nevada Desert, the dramatic upper Rockies and then rural USA all the way to Chicago. It really is amazing to sit there is comfort as an awe inspiring, and at times literally jaw-dropping.
You get your own room(ette).
Now to be fair Amtrak don’t have the cheek to try and call the space they sell you a room, rather opting to call it a “roomette”. The space consists of 2 pretty large chairs facing each other, which at night can be folded together to make a bed that is surprising comfortable. There is also a bunk bed which slots out from the ceiling, I’m glad I never had to try to climb into it because that looked like a challenge.
Now, the only thing about this roomette, is that the dimensions are a bit tight if you are giant-sized like me. If I recall correctly, it was 2.5 feet wide by 6ft 6 inches long. I am quite sure about the length of the room because as I lay down on the bed at night I fit perfectly from tip to toe in the roomette, with not a millimeter to spare at either end. (Sorry for mixing imperial and metric there…)
I was travelling along and in the daytime configuration the space was more than big enough, if one wanted to there is definitely room to whip out a laptop and do some work, but I promise you’ll be so enthralled with what is going on outside that you won’t get a tap of work done.
There is a restaurant carriage. YES a restaurant carriage.
There are lots of more public places on the train if you want to go have a natter with someone. There is the viewing carriage which is made up of about 90% windows, a particularly cool place to be as you work your way through the canyons of the Rockies.
Another place you can mingle with people (whether you like it or not) is the restaurant carriage. If you don’t have a party of 4 to fill a table they’ll slot you in with some other travelers, and to be honest that’s where the most fun chats you’ll have will be. The “roomette” train ticket comes with three free meals a day… which is pretty awesome when you think about it. Now, you’ll probably be assuming that the food here is somewhat similar to airplane food right? WRONG.
There are individual breakfast/lunch/dinner menus, with outrageous diversity. I had the steak for dinner both nights, and they asked me “how do you want it done?” – So we are talking pretty damn fine cuisine standards given that its all being cooked on a feckin train!
You’ll see some interesting people along the way.
I have taken a few trains throughout the States and for whatever reason it seems you are far more likely to encounter more interesting people via this method rather than any other. I guess maybe they are weirdos like me that actively pursue 55 hour train journies or something like that. Either way you’ll see some interesting stuff.
Unendingly interesting sights.
I’ve mentioned it a few times at this point, but I need an excuse to show more photos, so let me just say again, you will be glued to the window watching unreal scenes go by. If you are a fan of the classic Western movies you’ll feel right at home!
We are so hyper-connected these days that sometimes it can do your brain a bit of good to take a few days off, and this train is the perfect chance to do so. There is no wifi on the train, and even if you have a smartphone with you chances are that you won’t be getting much internet connectivity in rural Nevada or Utah!
There are withdrawal pains when you realise you can’t check your email/Facebook every few minutes, but soon enough you give up and start to enjoy the silence, apart from the rythmic sounds of the train of course (I’m convinced they’d make a good sleeping aide).
One thing I would say is that if you are ever going to get this train, pay the extra for the roomette, otherwise you’ll be sitting in a regular chair, possibly beside a weirdo, without any food for 55 hours… this is not a winning combo.
I think my ticket set me back $440, which when you consider the awesomeness of the journey, the food included in the ticket, the comfort and the fact I wasn’t paying to sleep in a hotel or hostel those nights I consider it outrageously good bang for your buck.
You’ll be sad when it’s over.
When you reach your destination you’ll be a little sad to depart the train, now when’s the last time you could say that about a flight? If you take the full route from Chicago to SF, or vice versa, you will have passed through 7 States and some of (if not THE) finest scenery in the USA.
To put an end to this rambling blog post I have a short video that I took when I traveled a small section of the route 2 years previous to doing the whole route. I shot the whole thing on my phone (my first ever Android phone, The HTC desire), so forgive the video quality.