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Cross country by train: Part 1

Over Memorial Day weekend MJ and I decided that instead of flying to Philadelphia, we’d get ourselves a pair of Amtrak tickets and take the train instead. We had always wanted to, but the trip lasts three and a half days and it’s difficult to rationalize such a long journey when we have precious little time off. Ultimately, we realized we could take the long weekend to do it, and besides, when else will we get the opportunity? Since we had a home at the end of our trip, we didn’t need much luggage, which was important for the final legs of the journey that lacked check luggage options.

Our trip took us all the way from San Francisco to Philadelphia. It consisted of a town car to the first station, a bus, three Amtrak trains (California Zephyr, Capitol Limited, and Northeast Regional), a SEPTA regional train, and the final mile to our townhouse in my father-in-law’s car. We switched Amtrak trains in Chicago and Washington DC before arriving in Philadelphia where we picked up the SEPTA regional.

We left early on Friday morning, taking a 7:50AM bus from the Amtrak station at the temporary Transbay Terminal in San Francisco. This connector bus was part of our cross-country train ticket, a necessity since the train doesn’t come to the San Francisco side of the bay.

The bus delivered us to Emeryville station where the California Zephyr begins the journey across the country at 9:10AM.

The train arrived on time, and in spite of the process of people herding that hasn’t changed since the 19th century (a woman shouting out where people should stand in line based on the car number they’re in), we all seemed to get where we needed to go and boarded the train.

For this 51 hour journey to Chicago we went with a bedroom on one of the sleeper cars. It includes a couch that folds into a bed, another bed above that that folds down bunk bed style, a chair and a private little toilet/shower room, which I ended up being incredibly grateful for. Big windows in the room allow for great views throughout the journey.

California was beautiful. I spent Friday morning doing as much work as I could before we lost internet access, which I had via a hotspot (no WiFi on the train). I got a lot done, but by the time we got deep into the mountains it was too spotty to do much online and I switched to reading. We’ve visited the Sierra Nevadas before, but going by train was a whole different experience. It was also fun to be so far up in the mountains where there was still snow on the ground.

We crossed into Nevada in the late afternoon, first going through Reno and then through the vast stretches of brown-colored landscape that none-the-less rivaled some of the other mountains I’ve seen around the country.

There were also stretches in Nevada where water poked its way in, showing us a wet and green foreground, with the backdrop of rolling brown hills, a scene we enjoyed during dinner.

Meals on the train are served communally, so for each meal we’d have a couple across the table for us to chat with while we ate. As bedroom customers our breakfast, lunch and dinner were included in the price of our ticket. The train was pretty full throughout our journey, so for breakfast and lunch we typically had to get on a waiting list which they’d call out numbers for as they seated groups. Dinners were reservation-based, which you’d book in the afternoon.

The first meal we had on the train was lunch. Sadly for us, the menu was a bit pork-heavy (lots of bacon), but it was ok to eat around the pork options, both of us having a hamburger for our first meal. It wasn’t the best hamburger I’ve ever had, but it was fine. They served dessert with lunch, I went with the lemon tart. For dinner on the first night a salad was waiting at the table when we arrived, and then we both had steak which was quite good! I had shrimp with mine. For dessert I made it about halfway through a chocolate cake before realizing I wasn’t feeling very well.

The night didn’t go well for me. The train rode through Utah as I had intestinal problems that took me to the bathroom frequently, but couldn’t be explained by motion sickness. No one else on the train was sick, so I’m thinking I boarded the train with a bug or some food poisoning. By morning I was through the very worst of it but my stomach was still upset, so I skipped both breakfast and lunch as we made our way through Colorado. I wasn’t feeling well enough to spend much time reading, but just taking in the sights and relaxing was perfect for me, dozing off here and there as I tried to give whatever sickness I had some room to recover.

And enjoy the sights I did. The first parts of Colorado we saw were a bit more green than Nevada, but still had the beautiful brown/red hills

We had a late afternoon stop in Fraser, Colorado where MJ insisted I get off the train for a few minutes for some fresh air. It was a brilliant idea, in spite of being sickly and pale as I hobbled off the train, the fresh, cool air made me feel a lot better. From there it was further up into the mountains as we approached Denver, giving us some of the best glimpses of Colorado mountains and even a bit of active May snowfall as we came out of one of the tunnels!

That evening we made our first major stop at a Union Station, this one in Denver. We had about a half hour at the station, which gave us time to leave the train and explore a bit. It was a really nice station, clean and open, with lots of fancy shops and trendy places to eat. It was a bit too trendy for me though, I wanted some simple crackers to munch on and ended up with a small, five dollar box of fancy crackers instead. Still, they did the trick.

We re-boarded the train around 7PM, right in time for our dinner reservations. I still wasn’t in shape to eat much, so dinner that evening for me was a dinner roll and some sparkling water. It was OK though, in spite of not feeling well, I was still enjoying the trip, and if I was going to be curled up on a couch not feeling well, it might as well be one on a train!

Over night we crossed into Nebraska, waking up the next day in Iowa.