April 30th, 3:09 EDT I'm on the plane, about an hour to go till I'm back in New York. I'm trying to sleep, but I can't. Everything feels uncomfortable. Compared to the train, this feels like a tiny sardine can. There's still sand falling out of my hair. My skin is sunburned, or sun-kissed, that sounds better. I should've put sunscreen on, stupid. I didn't think the weather would be that beautiful, that warm, that sunny. It's gonna be weird to get back to New York so fast. It took me 76 hours to get to the other side of the country, and now I'm traveling the same distance in 5 hours. I can still feel the sun on my shoulders, they're definitely burned. And the sand is still in the corner of my eye, behind my ears, in my shoes. I didn't know my eyebrows could hold this much sand. I can hear my parents telling me to sit on a towel in the car so I don't get sand everywhere. I feel happy. I feel charged. Being on the train made my mind empty, completely drained everything that was in there, and it was amazing. Spending these two short days discovering San Francisco fully charged me again. It's been a while since I felt fully charged. I want to write more, but there's not enough light here.
I’m a 23-year-old Dutch woman, and I recently graduated from an extremely intensive graduate program at NYU. Even though I feel like I found myself there, I also feel like I don’t know who that is. I needed to be alone for a while: no busy city, no plans with friends, no work, no deadlines, no subway rides, no bike rides while being shouted at by cab drivers. I had a strong desire to see something I’d never seen before, to see more of the country that I’d been living in, and an even stronger desire to get to know the person I’d become… What’s the easiest way to do all three of these at once? For me, it was getting on a train and traveling through eleven states in three days. Penn Station to Emeryville Station. New York City to San Francisco. Atlantic Ocean to Pacific Ocean. You get the gist: it was a long train ride. A ride that took 76 hours to be precise. Three days of sleeping in a chair on a rumbling train, without access to a shower. It was not the most comfortable trip. But it was worth it.
Truly worth it.
The second I stepped on the train, I knew it was gonna be an unforgettable experience, so I started documenting it. I’ve taken more pictures through that train window than I’ve ever taken of anything else, but the best memories are jotted down in a notebook. I kept a detailed journal to remember the views, the people, the landscapes, the sunrises, and the sunsets. Now, when I miss my three days of living the train life, I grab my journal, a glass of white wine, and I’m back on the train in my mind. A few of the entries are very long – some people thought I was writing a novel – other entries are just two sentences:
April 26th, 15:04 MDT I think I’ve finally run out of ways to describe this view. It feels like I’ve been teleported to another planet.
… so let’s go on that adventure!
The first leg of the trip takes you from New York Penn Station to Chicago Union Station on the Lake Shore Limited. I didn’t take me long to adapt to the train life. Amtrak promised me this was the fastest way to slow down, so that’s what I did. I slowed down, I slowed down fast. I just stared out of the window, watched all the mountains of the Hudson Valley pass by my eyes, dreamed of hiking up every single one of them, and I did nothing more than that. Quiet. Easy. Slow.
April 24th, 20:58 EDT I'm getting settled in for my first night on the train. I just saw the sky get darker and darker. I never see the full transition from light to darkness. I'm always inside. But now I could see the sun set, slowly. Going this slow feels good. There's no rush. Just scenery. Little towns. Houses in places where you wouldn't expect to see houses. I can breathe.
Yes, I did go to bed at 9pm. No, I didn’t sleep much because there was a kid in the seat in front of me screaming almost the entire night. He probably just graduated from an extremely intensive kindergarten program and needed some time for reflection as well.
April 25th, 09:12 EDT I woke up with the sunrise. I think I was somewhere in Ohio. I don't know exactly where we are right now. I don't have any phone service. It's good. It's time to stop for a second. Stare at the trees, the houses, the deserted cars, the stretches of land, streams of water, electric lines above ground, freight trains rushing by, my fellow travelers, their quirks, their habits, their routines away from the routine, the bridges, the cute little penguin waving at me.
And it was time for breakfast. Bread with chocolate spread. The train charges a ridiculous amount for food, and I wasn’t gonna pay $10 for a small snack or $20-25 per meal, so I packed most of my food: bread, chocolate spread, bananas, grapes, kiwis, granola bars, raisins, chips, cookies, chocolate, and plenty of water. That sounds like a balanced diet, right?
We rolled into Chicago around 10:30 CDT, the first time zone change! I got off the train, walked to the Metropolitan Lounge at the station, looked at my saver fare ticket – cheapest of the cheapest – and sheepishly asked the receptionist if I could get into the lounge with my ticket. Nope, but I could pay $25 and get access to one small free glass of champagne, ‘healthy’ snacks (cubes of cheese and cucumber), luggage storage, and the best perk of all: an actual shower. I just got my student loans for the month. I felt rich. I laid down my Dutch bank card and paid the entrance fee. I took one of the most glorious showers I’d ever taken. And then I stored by bags and sprinted to the Cloud Gate before I had to get on the train again.
The second leg of the trip takes you from Chicago Union Station to Emeryville Station, a 20-minute bus ride from San Francisco.
April 25th, 18:55 CDT The landscape is slowly changing in front of my eyes. There’s still a whole lot of nothing, though. It’s a different kind of nothing than I’m used to. It’s not the nothing that I know, with the flat, monotone landscapes, the kind of electricity lines that I'm used to, and the farms where I know people will speak the dialect I speak. I know that nothing. I’ve grown fond of that nothing. What I’m seeing now is different. There’s a soft glow in the sky that somehow gives me the feeling that life here is even slower, easier, more quiet than where I’m from. I could be wrong, of course, cause after all, I'm just rolling through it, and not even breathing the air. I'm breathing dry, purified, AC air. There's a whole lot of thing, is the point of this. A simple, healthy amount of nothing. Is it bad that I can’t seem to write right now? Maybe because my mind is finally sort of empty. I'm just floating above the ground, feeling the little bumps in the tracks. I can see exactly where every sunbeam starts and stops, where they cree through the branches and where the leaves are already too thick. I'm trying to figure out where the random gates in the fields come from: are they the first of yet-to-be-built fences or the last ones standing? I'm wondering how much water the puddles next to the tracks hold. Ugh, you know what, I don't have to try to be a goddamn poet. I can write about how I see Bruin the Bear almost drown in those streams of water. The gates? They're there because there used to be a field of gallows here. The sun that looks so soft is actually a raging ball of fire.
I had quickly found my routine on the train: when the sun is out, you’re awake; when the moon is out, you try to sleep. When you’re not sleeping, you’re staring out the window or (trying to) write…
April 25th, 20:47 CDT I'm sipping on a glass of wine, slowly getting tired, staring out the window at an almost fully dark sky, good music in my ears. I feel very happy, like I can finally breathe because I can see the sky and the air. It feels a lot like vacation. It feels like those late summer evenings in France, where my brother and I could have one last bowl of chips before bed, with our hair still wet from the last dive in the river. Sipping wine and staring out this train window feels a lot like that.
April 26th, 09:32 MDT I woke up in the middle of nowhere in Nebraska this morning, almost going into Colorado, almost crossing another time zone. We're in mountain time now, and we're gonna start the ascent into the Rocky Mountains right now. It's beautiful. I can't believe I'm making my way through this mountain range on a train. The rocks are red. It's been a while since I saw red rocks. I can see the front of the train. We're going through tunnels. This feels like a true American adventure. I wish I should stick my head out the window and breathe that fresh mountain air. Can I jump off and climb those rocks? Five tunnels. Six. A long way down. We can see Boulder. We can see the Eldorado Mountains. Seven. This is gorgeous. After every tunnel there's a new surprise waiting for me. Eight. A picture. Nine. I'm dreaming of standing on one of those mountaintops. Ten. We're in the middle of nowhere. Eleven. truly nowhere. Twelve. I wish my eyes could film this, and replay it over and over and over again. Thirteen. I can see the tracks. Fourteen. When I started counting the tunnels, I didn't know there'd be so many. The middle of nowhere is beautiful. I don't think I've ever seen something this away from everything else.
April 26th, 10:09 MDT Twenty-one tunnels. I thought I'd only see things like this in movies. Twenty-two. A small stream. A canyon. Timing my pictures is hard. Twenty-three. A tree that looks like it has been tortured by lightning for decades. My ears have popped. We just came out of a long tunnel. There was a unanimous cheer here in the observation car the second we exited and were dropped in yet another completely different landscape. I just realized I've never been this far away before. This far West. This far away from home.
April 26th, 13:33 MDT I just enjoyed an extremely good lunch in the dining car. I was seated with an older woman, Linda. She was 75, but she didn't look 75. She's retired, after living her life moving around the country and working a lot of different jobs. I was shocked to hear she even did modeling work until she was 51! I asked her if she was happy, and the answer was a very sound YES. She lived without regrets. She did what she wanted to do, and if she couldn't, she'd find a way to make it work. I aspire to live like her. I aspire to have as few regrets in life as Linda does. And I aspire to give as few fucks about life as the teenagers who mooned us from the Colorado River.
April 26th, 16:01 MDT We've been through forty-three tunnels since leaving Denver. It has just started to rain. I can see that the rocks look like they could break off, create a dangerous and rocky avalanche. The mountains look even more looming in the rain. I keep wishing my eyes could take pictures, but nothing comes close to seeing the real thing. The mountains rumbling, thunder. These views make me feel like nothing is impossible.
April 26th, 18:04 MDT Conductor: "We have caught up to the maintenance guy working on the signal issue. We will let you know when he lets us know that he has completed his work." So we're stranded somewhere in Utah.
Signal problems. I usually get annoyed when a train is delayed. I can get angry. I get stressed. I start counting the seconds and the minutes. This time I didn’t. I honestly couldn’t care less if we were stuck there for an hour or even more. I realized I had already gotten rid of so much stress that had built itself up in my body like concrete. “The fastest way to slow down.” In that moment I realized that spending my money on this trip instead of buying way too much food from McDonald’s was the best decision I could’ve ever made. Besides, I don’t care about chicken nuggets when I have this view…
April 26th, 18:55 MDT Of course we started moving again when I was in the bathroom. Luckily the bathroom stalls are so tiny here that I didn't fall on the ground, I just fell onto the wall. Great. I can't wait till I can take a shower again.
April 27th, 08:26 PDT I woke up to these beautiful mountains and I feel happy. Sonoma Peak. Middle of nowhere, Nevada. We were hobbling towards a tiny town called Winnemucca. The landscape is so vast, so stretched out. I just had breakfast with two men on their way to Alaska to take a cruise from there. They're both members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. One of them has seen his fair share of Broadway shows, though he said he didn't like Hamilton. I had to suppress the urge to ask him about The Book of Mormon, I got the feeling he wouldn't like that show. And now I'm back in the observation car, staring out the window, staring at the changing landscape in front of me. Every single inch is different.
April 27th, 10:42 PDT We passed a rock that said 'bite me'. I’m in California. We're going through another set of tunnels, and it feels exciting. I don't know what to expect next. I don’t want to take my eyes off the window cause I don’t want to miss a single thing. Today I don't have to do anything besides stare out the window and enjoy the view. There's still so much to see in this country, and the rest of the world, but I just made a good start. Eleven states in three days. When we get out of this mountain range, we'll be making our way down to the bay area. I'll finally get to see the Pacific Ocean. I know it's basically just a large body of water, but it's kind of a completely different side of the world, and I have to see it. And dip my toes in the ocean.
April 27th, 11:37 PDT Can I do this for the rest of my life? Be on a train and see the world? See everything? I feel like I'm on a never-ending summer vacation. The trees, the ground, the blue sky, the sun, the laziness, the 'I don't have to get up until I want to', the good life. Why can't it always feel like this? I know I did not choose to have a lazy life, I don't want a lazy life. I want a fulfilling life, but I also want to breathe. I should be able to breathe. I should allow myself to breathe.
April 27th, 15:26 PDT I’ll be in San Francisco in less than an hour. I can’t believe I actually crossed the country by rail. It sounds crazy - and it feels crazy - but looking at these California hills right now, I think this trip was the best idea I’ve ever had.
I made it to San Francisco!
April 28th, 3:17 PDT I'm suddenly out of the woods. Muir woods. The tallest trees I've ever seen, and now I'm looking down on them. I just ran up here cause I wanted to see the view. Feels kind of crazy, it probably is crazy, cause I'm by myself and there were definitely a few spots where I could've easily tripped and fallen down a cliff. But I'm alive. Completely, and utterly, alive.
April 29th, 12:49 PDT I just dipped my toes in the Pacific Ocean, and now I'm doing nothing but listening to the ocean, enjoying the quiet and calm of this moment, of this place, of this little slice of time. A little slice of happiness.
How do I slow down?
I needed to slow down, I needed to get to know the person I’d become after going through an extremely intensive graduate program, I needed to be alone. Crossing the country by train was the perfect solution for me. This whole experience, as short as it was, transformed me in a way. It made me just a little more patient, more appreciative for the beauty in nature around me, and it made me feel more like myself again. This trip made me a human again. Sometimes it was not the most comfortable way of traveling: sleeping in a chair for three days doesn’t guarantee a full eight hours of rest. Despite that, it was the best choice I could have made for myself. And with this story, I hope to inspire others to do the same. Maybe you want to cross the country by train… Maybe it’s something completely different. Whatever it is, take the risk and go for it.
The cross-country train trip is easy to plan. There’s two legs: The Lake Shore Limited and The California Zephyr, both easily booked on one ticket on the Amtrak website. And here’s the kicker: if you book the saver fare, the price could be as low as $186. Yes, you read that right.
That’s not a lot of money for the adventure of your life, for the chance to completely slow down and channel your inner sloth.
The Lake Shore Limited
- New York Penn Station – Chicago Union Station
- 959 miles
- 3:40pm ET – 9:50am CT (+1)
- New York – Pennsylvania – Ohio – Indiana – Illinois
- Sights: Hudson Valley, Lake Erie, Lake Michigan
The California Zephyr
- Chicago Union Station – Emeryville Station
- 2438 miles
- 2:00pm CT – 4:10pm PT (+2)
- Illinois – Iowa – Nebraska – Colorado – Utah – Nevada – California
- Sights: Mississippi River, Rocky Mountains, Ruby Canyon, Colorado River, Sonoma Peak, Nevada Desert, Lake Tahoe, Truckee River, Donner Lake, San Francisco Bay