By far, out of all my social media moments this year, the one I got the most questions, comments and DM’s about was my cross-country train trip across the USA. And I’ve been meaning to answer them all, for months now, but there’s something about turning your life upside down, that makes it hard to write about the specific moment it happened. At least right away that is.
7 months later, I have a blog post for you.
13 years ago I sold everything I owned, and moved across the country, from LA to NYC a week before I was to start grad school. It was the first week in January, and I had never seen snow falling before, (California girl). As I was carried from JFK to the East Village, in a taxi that was driving so fast, I thought we were levitating, I looked out the window. It was snowing. Actually, I was caught in one of the worst blizzard’s NYC had on record. But, I didn’t know the difference at the time. As we flew through the streets of New York, I stared out the window. Specifically, I remember flying through the West Village. All of the Christmas lights were still up. I felt like I was trapped in a snow globe, looking out at a movie. Everything felt, looked and smelled so different, that it was hard to believe that I was actually a part of it. It felt like a dream. I couldn’t fully believe, in that very moment, I lived in New York City.
13 years later, I stood in my empty apartment in Greenpoint, after I sold (nearly) everything I owned. The next day I had a train to catch at 3 pm. It would be the first of three trains I would take, across the USA, to my final destination in San Jose, California.
Why travel by train?
Part of my choice to leave my life in New York had to do with wanting to slow down. But it wasn’t an easy choice, and it’s one that took me about four years to get up the courage to make. When I did decide to leave, I knew that I needed time to process my leaving. A 6-hour plane ride didn’t seem right to ponder 13 years of life. I needed in-between time. That’s why I choose to travel across the country by train.
How do you book a cross-country trip by train?
I booked my ticket on Amtrak. The site is not as user-friendly as it could be, and their customer service isn’t amazing, but the good news is, it’s easier to book on their site then it seems to be. All you have to do is put where you’re traveling from and then add your final destination. Then the site will show you all the different route options. And you can decide which type of route you’d like to take, based on which parts of the country you’d like to travel through, and how long you want your trip to take.
For me, it was more about the journey, then the destinations, so I choose the shortest, most efficient route to California. I did purposely book a long layover in Chicago because I’d always wanted to go to the Art Institute of Chicago (which was so worth it!). My iternary ended up being: Lakeshore Limited (NYC to Chicago), Southwest Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles), and finally, the Coast Starlight (Los Angeles to San Jose).
What sort of seat should I book?
There are several options in terms of the type of ticket to purchase. Coach (which is just a seat in the coach section), two different types of Roomettes (one with a bathroom, one without), a One-Bedroom, and a Two-Bedroom. Not all routes have all of those options, but most do. The Roomettes, One and Two Bedroom tickets are considered first class. This means that you are in the first class cabin. They are private cabins, and you are only allowed instead if you have a first-class ticket. It also means that if you don’t have a bathroom in your room, the bathrooms in these cabins are very clean because they are virtually unused. Riding first class also means that you get all your meals free (more on that in a bit).
For my trip, I booked a Roomette for the first and last leg of my journey. The Southwest Chief was about 53 hours, so I decided to splurge and get a One-Bedroom with a shower.
I actually don’t recommend booking anything above a roomette. The shower that I was so excited about was in the bathroom, and so small I would basically have to sit on the toilet to have a shower. The room, although bigger, wasn’t any more comfortable. You can save hundreds of dollars by sticking with roomettes for the whole journey.
What’s it like to travel by train?
Ok, general question, but most of the questions I got in relation to this were related mainly to food, alcohol, and general comfort.
If you have a first class ticket, all meals are included. Amtrak serves three meals a day. Your porter will knock on your door and ask what time you’d like to eat, and make you a reservation for each meal. You have to have a reservation. When you arrive in the dining car, you are seated with whomever else happened to have a reservation at the same time as you. It’s a little awkward to sit with complete strangers and share a meal, but can also be completely fascinating and compelling…. it all depends on who you get seated with!
The food is decent. The burger is surprisingly great.
Not included with the meals, but for sale, is alcohol. (I got a lot of questions about this one!)
Sleeping on a train is surprisingly comfortable. During your dinner reservation, your porter will transform your seats in a bed. The gentle rocking back and forth of the train put me right to sleep, every night.
I learned right away, that while traveling by train, waking up early and going to bed early is the way to go. The most exciting moments for me were waking up at dawn, watching the sun rise while sipping coffee in the dining car, and trying to figure out what state I was looking at, and what states we had passed through in the night.
What to pack
I recommend packing durable basics that don’t get dirty too easily. I wore a lot of jeans and flannel shirts.
I’m really glad I packed dry shampoo, make-up remover wipes, sanitary wipes, and hand sanitizer.
During the entire trip (which took nearly four days) I kept asking myself the same question, over and over again:
Am I leaving home, or going home?
The final leg of my journey was from Los Angeles to San Jose. It was by far the most beautiful. Most of the trip is right on the coast. At times you feel like you’re literally on the beach, as sand and seashells are on the tracks. Other times, the Pacific Ocean always in view, you travel up and down the surrounding rolling hills, which at the time, was exploding with Spring’s lovely wildflowers. Staring out at this view, which felt both familiar and new, I felt something deep in my heart stirring… I knew I had finally come home.
I am so glad I decided to take the road less traveled and make my way back to California by train. So many people who live in the USA don’t end up seeing much of it… maybe the coasts. There is something beautiful to me, and fascinating, about seeing everything in between. The places you wouldn’t normally think to go. The farmlands of Indiana, the cornfields of Kansas, the red otherworldly mountains of New Mexico. I couldn’t recommend seeing the country by train enough! If you’re ever thinking about doing it… do. 🙂