Train Across America: Journey on the California Zephyr (Part I)

There are no neutral responses when you tell someone you’re taking a train across America.

“You’re crazy!” was the standard reply, followed by more creative ones like: “You’re never going to want to take a train again after this.”

This was a bucketlist item, and as a graduate student, with a more flexible summer schedule, I thought, what better time to slow travel across America? So I bought a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Philadelphia on Amtrak. There would be one train change in Chicago, with an hour layover.

Here is the journey.

 

 

I boarded in Emeryville, 20 minutes from San Francisco.

This train would be my home for the next 52 hours to Chicago.

3

(*A side-note about traveling coach: it’s way more comfortable than an airplane’s coach seating. The seats are big, recline, and include a foot rest. However, if you’re traveling coach, absolutely bring a pillow. Earplugs, an eyemask, and blanket will make it even better. That’s not to say it won’t be uncomfortable at times, but if you come prepared, it makes it a whole lot better. Amtrak is unassigned seating, and luckily, nobody sat next to me the whole time.  If this doesn’t sound like your thing, and you feel like paying for a sleeper car ticket, that’s definitely the way to ensure the best night’s sleep in your private room. But I digress!)

The train began moving at 9:10am. The guy in front of me was absolutely bewildered. “Damn, they don’t mess around!” he laughed as our train departed exactly on time.

As we passed through Martinez, a booming voice filled the room: “Welcome aboard everybody. Looks like a beautiful day for a train ride!” It was our cafe-car attendant.

During this part of the train, I chatted with a sign-language teacher from Petaluma, CA. and her friend who were heading to Reno for vacation. Her friend was deaf, and her friend translated my words to sign language. When they heard I was studying education, her friend said, “Ohhh, you’re going to have your work cut out for you with Betsy DeVos…” I agreed that U.S. public education was under threat.

Next, we stopped in Davis. A woman got on the train carrying a giant yellow “Minion” toy.  She had won it at a fair. She laughed: “Great. Now what am I gonna do with this?” Someone pointed her to the luggage room, and the Minion stayed there until Denver.

After Sacramento, we climbed into the mountains, following the American River.

With all of the 2017 rainfall, the mountains were glimmering with runoff streams and snow.

FullSizeRender (37)

We climbed higher in elevation, passing Donner Lake at 5,935 feet.

IMG_1889.jpg

We made it to Truckee, CA.

1

4

I settled into the observation car. It’s the social hub of Amtrak double-decker trains, with glass windows extending to the ceilings. I spent a lot of my time here, gawking at the scenery and chatting with other passengers. In these trains, you’ll meet a lot of different people, and it’s interesting to hear everyone’s stories and reasons for taking the train…

2

After Truckee, we got into Reno, NV around 6pm. After a quick break, we were off to the Nevada Basin.

nevada.jpg

It was vast and beautiful.

nevada 2

So much salt…

9

5

We stopped in Winnemucca, NV for 10-minute break. “Don’t get any ideas about wandeing off too far…” the train announcer joked, “Or else, the train may leave you…”

6

FullSizeRender (32).jpg

The train lulled me to sleep as the sky turned orange, and then dark.

FullSizeRender (36)

I woke up in Provo, Utah around 6am. We were 2 hours past schedule. I found out that in the middle of the night, our train was sidelined as we gave the right-of-way to freight trains. (Amtrak rents the rails from these companies, so priority is given to the freight).

I went and sat in the observation car and met a couple, Alex and Yvonne, from Taiwan.

Right when I sat down, the intercom clicked:

“Wake up, wake up, wake uhhhhh—-upppp……”

The familiar, cheery voice of the cafe car attendant filled the air. “We got coffee folks, it’s ready in the cafe car.” Alex and I jumped up before he even finished his sentence. I had a coffee and some hot water for my instant oatmeal that I brought on board. I threw in a banana and walnuts, and called it a morning.

Suddenly, we were surrounded my massive cliffs. Utah was incredible….

FullSizeRender (34)

More people trickled into the observation car. I met a Dad and his 15-year-old son who were traveling to Chicago. The son was obsessed with train travel , and combined with a slight fear of flying, they decided to train 52 hours to Chicago.

We pulled into Helper, Utah next.

FullSizeRender (33)

“You Are Here.” in case one forgets.

17

 

 

 

I settled into my seat and watched the most epic landscape unfold.

The Wild West.

15

1819

FullSizeRender (38)

FullSizeRender (39)

IMG_2098 (1).jpgFullSizeRender (40).jpg

Before we entered Colorado, I decided to have lunch in the dining car earlier rather than later on this day. Colorado’s canyons are some of most famous sections, starting right after the Glenwood Springs stop. It’s smart to get a good seat in the observation car by around Grand Junction, CO.

(*A side-note about dining on Amtrak: In addition to a cafe car (which is essentially a snack bar/alcohol bar), there is a dining car serving meals. If you book a sleeper car, meals are included. Not the case for coach. On Amtrak, in order to utilize space, you’re always seated with another party (unless you have 4 people) at a table. This ensures some good mingling and crossed life paths.

As for the food quality? It’s like a baseball game’s but with slightly higher prices. For that reason, definitely bring your own snacks and food if that’s important. I am so glad I brought fresh fruit!

 

 

 

I was seated with a couple from England on holiday in the U.S., and Claudette, a woman in her late 60s, from Chicago. Claudette told us how she worked at Xerox for over 25 years, and had to fly constantly for business. After she retired, she now prefers to take the train and enjoys  slow travel. (This is a common sentiment amongst Amtrak riders, I’ve discovered.)

With no wifi on the California Zephyr, and social seating situations like this, it’s wonderful to just slow down and connect with people from all walks of life.

As we ate lunch, the topic of politics emerged. We discovered we were all on the same page. At one point, we all paused, in thought, and looked at the great landscape passing us by through the windows. Claudette broke the silence. “We need to protect this.  This isn’t forever if we don’t protect it.” We all agreed.

It’s easy to have one’s dedication for environmental conservation renewed or instilled during a train ride across America.

After lunch, we went to take seats in the Observation Car, ready for the epic-ness of Colorado.

After the Grand Junction stop in Colorado, we got ready for 12 miles of sheer Glenwood Canyon awesomeness…

13FullSizeRender (41)

We followed the Colorado River for miles, as rafters waved at us…

FullSizeRender (43)

FullSizeRender (60)FullSizeRender (44)

FullSizeRender (45)

FullSizeRender (46)

FullSizeRender (49)

The train slowed down significantly here to snake along the cliff overlooking the Colorado River.

FullSizeRender (47).jpg

Rocky Mountain National Park…

FullSizeRender (51)

A rest stop in Fraser, CO…

FullSizeRender (58).jpg

It started raining as we departed.

FullSizeRender (61).jpg

12

Someone’s got a nice house on the hill..

FullSizeRender (50)

As we neared dusk, we saw the end of the Rockies, and the great, flat planes ahead of us…

Denver was below…

FullSizeRender (53)

We got into Denver around 8pm. I  figured I better hop off and took a photo. 21 more hours till Chicago!

FullSizeRender (59)

I fell asleep to Rogue Wave’s latest album, and watched the sun set behind the Rockies.

The next morning, I woke up with cornfields outside the window. We passed a sign: “Stanton. Population 689.” Green lawns, church steeples, and brick houses broke up the fields.

Suddenly I felt very far from the West Coast.

In a few hours, we stopped in Ottumwa, Iowa.

There was not much around, so I took a photo of this station. One guy put on his lime green running shoes and did laps around the station on our 7-minute break. Soon we heard the whistle, and the “All aboard!” call.

IMG_2356

As we trained through Iowa, I heard a woman say to her friend, “There are so many more windmills than when I was here last time!” That was reassuring.  Then, a young boy walked through our car in a bright orange shirt that said: “Next gen climate.org. 100% renewable energy.”

Go Iowa. Here’s their website: https://nextgenclimate.org/

FullSizeRender (56)

After endless fields, we suddenly crossed a mighty river.

The Mississippi!

FullSizeRender (54).jpgFullSizeRender (55)

A few hours later, around 4:45pm, we reached Chicago!

IMG_2368FullSizeRender (57).jpg

The next train, the Cardinal, would depart in an hour. I grabbed my things.

It was time for the second part of the journey East…

Advertisements

In Memoriam

August 2015. The last show I attended.

The last show I would ever hear him mix. August 2015, Portland, OR.

Last Wednesday, December 9, 2015, my dad passed away after a 3-year battle with cancer. He was only 58.

As I sit here and reflect, despite the growing void, I am comforted and amazed by all of the people he inspired and how enthusiastically he lived his entire life.

Even after he began chemotherapy, he continued to work and travel the world, from Scotland to China and all across the U.S. with the same band he’s toured with for over 30 years. He loved what he did as a live sound engineer, and for as long as he could, he would not let cancer dictate how he would live the last years he had on this Earth.

Hearing his colleagues and friends speak and remember a lifetime of great memories at his life celebration on Saturday put a lot in perspective for me.

It’s easy to fall into the routine of the day-to-day grind, but hearing my dad eulogized by his friends was a wonderful wake-up call to live more vibrantly, and with deliberate purpose to find the joy and fun in every day.

As the grieving begins, I am trying to also see the gift he left us, and I think this is it. The gift of realizing how quickly one’s life can end, at any day, but also realizing that you can live a rich, full life, no matter how short it is. In the few days before he passed, I remember him saying, as his consciousness gently surfaced within the morphine haze, “It’s all just about being a good person…” he smiled. That is how he summed up what life meant.

One of his friends said that every time after they had a rough gig, whenever someone would ask him, “How did it go?” he would always reply: “Best show ever.”

He would spend his days off exploring local parks, riding his mountain bike 40+ miles, and taking us camping in the Sierras. He loved to get up extra early in the mornings to explore, go on walks, and get the most out of each day. He kept a box of maps in our garage from over 30 years of travel. Whenever Led Zeppelin came on the radio, he would crank up the volume exponentially.

As a father, he inspired our curiosity. I remember one afternoon, when I was about 6-years- old, he told me he discovered some dinosaur bones in our backyard. As a kid who was  obsessed with dinosaurs and anything archeology, this was epic news. We spent the afternoon searching the sand for these treasures. (Years later, I found out he had buried the turkey bones from Thanksgiving…)

In each person’s passing, there is a void. I am feeling it now, and I know it will grow as years pass and I still don’t hear from him or when he doesn’t come home for the holidays. But his departure left a gift. By witnessing the outpouring of love from all of his friends, it has inspired me to make the most of the rest of my life, and to live it as he did: with exploration, adventure, and kindness to others.

I love you, Dad.

See you again one day at that great gig in the sky.

Dad_Ski

12/22/1956 ~ 12/9/2015. Rest in Peace, Dad.

screen-shot-2015-12-10-at-9-55-00-am

The last night in Torres del Paine

IMG_3549

Day 2 : the hike from camp Grey to camp Italiano.

Nature had won.

It was time to turn back.

We were at the bottom of the world, at the tip of South America. After five days of backpacking in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, we were just minutes away from the final camp of the “W Treck.”

But the weather had turned.

Snow fell. The farther we walked into the mountain valley, the bigger the cold feeling in the pit of my stomach grew. I knew that even if we reached the camp, the path would be covered in black ice tomorrow morning, when it was time to descend.

Suddenly, my traveling companion and I stopped at the top of a hill. The path descended into a tunnel of trees.

“I don’t want to go down there,” is all we said.

IMG_2077

The last day of the hike. The weather turned as we hiked into this .

 

To this day, I don’t know what made us stop at that moment. We were so close! Why stop now? There were even a few people ahead of us. Of course, it would be fine. Why go back now?

But the heart overruled the head.

As we began the hike back down, the sickening feeling in my stomach dissolved away. A calmness and deep relief settled over me.

 

Approaching Campamento Chileno.

Approaching Campamento Chileno.

 

We made it back to “Campamento Chileno” at dusk.  Staff welcomed us in, we joined a table by the fire, and uncorked a bottle of Carmenere wine. It was a Canadian man, Anti’s, birthday, and we all raised a glass.

Suddenly, I realized that those famous granite towers at the end of the hike did not matter at all. We turned back when we were so close to the most iconic sight in the park! But it did not matter. I was grateful to simply be sheltered inside, with others, enjoying a warm meal and wine together next to a fire.

To this day, I am glad my friend and I listened to our gut feeling. I am glad we respected Mother Nature’s power, the snow, and did not let our pride of finishing the hike cloud our judgement.

At the end of the day, it’s not always grand achievements or “completing” something that matter most. Sometimes it’s just sharing in a community with others. That last day in Patagonia, in those cold, wild mountains, I understood what that meant.

1907906_10101386371028387_1713415058917304899_n

In awe of the French Valley. The ice falls and it sounds like thunder through the night.

A Home In Paris

After the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, I came upon this article, about how the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore sheltered people during that terrible night.

George Whitman, the legendary owner and resident of this magical place, passed away in 2011. The news affected me more than I had expected. Across the ocean, I mourned with Paris and all of the community who had set foot through his doors.

A few steps away from Notre Dame, this tiny yellow bookstore is one of the few places in the world where I feel completely at home. And I am not the only one.

I remember my first time here. A mix of nostalgia, comfort, and peace soothed me as I climbed the wooden staircase to the second floor.

You can’t miss the bold, black letters painted above the doorway: “BE NOT INHOSPITABLE TO STRANGERS LEST THEY BE ANGELS IN DISGUISE”.

IMG_6409

 

PH: Sylvie D. Huhn

Photo: Sylvie D. Huhn

On the second floor, books are not for sale, but you are welcome to browse the tattered covers and read for as long as you like on one of the many beds.

And why are there so many beds? Because George Whitman created a haven for writers. In exchange for working in the store, writers can stay here while they write.

Every time I return to Paris, I return to this bookstore.  I love to bring people here.

Below is a journal entry from when I studied abroad in Paris in 2008, when George Whitman was still alive. One Sunday, I was invited to tea with the staff and others in the bookstore, which was a custom, I learned, every Sunday.

PH: Sylvie D. Huhn

Tea upstairs with staff and other patrons. Photo: Sylvie D. Huhn

~March 2, 2008~
All of a sudden, the most ancient human being I’ve ever seen appeared in the doorway.
He was a tiny, scrawny man, with shoulder-length white hair, the skin on his face wrinkled like one of the books on the shelf.
And he was in pajamas.
This was George Whitman. The one and only.
 And we were in his living room having tea, I suddenly realized.
He said something that I couldn’t quiet understand and waved to everyone in a single sweep of his arm, before disappearing back through the door to his room.
IMG_7786.jpg
IMG_7785_1

Photo of George Whitman outside the shop.

I can’t believe a place like this still exists. I look out the window and see the souvenir shops, the congested Avenue St. Michel, the honking cars and the double-decker tourist buses.  Modern day Paris bustles by outside the window, but right now all I care about is this group of strangers I’m sharing tea with, in this tiny room from the past.

Here is a great article about the history of the original bookstore founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919.

IMG_6411
IMG_6504

The stairway up to the room to have tea.

Exploring Lima’s Seaside Neighborhood

Last year, I spent a week in Lima, Peru’s sprawling capital. I stayed in Barranco, a sleepy, seaside neighborhood south of Miraflores. Barranco is a place of crumbling mansions. Rusting gates line the narrow, cobblestone streets. Ravens perch on fences, as still as gargoyles, while the ocean mist creeps to shore. Barranco is coated in nostalgia during the day, but at night, this sleepy neighborhood swings open its doors, the Pisco Sour flows, and the rock n’ roll bass is so strong it can beat your heart for you.

Here are some of my favorite places in this neighborhood, from the weekend food stalls, to the quiet side streets near the Bridge of Sighs. If you’re ever in Lima, Peru, make sure to check out this neighborhood!

IMG_5726

IMG_5718

Cuy, or roasted guinea pig, is a Peruvian specialty.

IMG_5685

Preparing local food at the weekly feria gastronómica in Barranco.

Ceviche restaurant in Barranco.

Ceviche restaurant in Barranco.

A walk across the famous "Bridge of Sighs".

A walk across the famous “Bridge of Sighs”.

IMG_5733

A quiet afternoon.

Himno Nacional de Chile

They shout it three times.

“Que o la tomba serás de los libres,

O el asilo contra la opresíon!”

(Either you be the tomb of the free, or the refuge against oppression!)

Whenever I heard Chileans sing their national anthem, I noticed how they always shouted these lines. People went from singing, to raising their voices in unison. A local teacher told me that during the Pinochet dictatorship, this part of the national anthem became a way for the people to empower themselves. The habit has carried on.

Here’s a version of the modern, official anthem- (with English and Spanish lyrics)

Reflections on Reverse Culture Shock

Brian (in sadness and shock) with his last Pisco Sour at the airport. Our final hours in South America.

Final hours in South America. Brendan, in sadness, with his last pisco sour at the airport.

There’s this amazing line at the end of The Motorcycle Dairies. 

I think anyone who’s returned from living abroad can relate to this:

“Wandering around our America has changed me more than I thought. Me? I am not me anymore. Or at least I’m not the same me I was.”

I’ve been back from South America for several months. Chile’s culture shock sure hit while I was living there, but now, this reverse part is more noticeable.

The big differences I notice are:

 Closeness and greetings In Chile, you greet and say goodbye with a kiss on the right cheek. You do this everyone. I’ve been back to California for several months, and it feels weird to not have this physical contact with people anymore. (So I’ve developed this habit of giving awkward half-hugs when I say goodbye to groups of people.) In Chile, people also frequently touch arms or shoulders in conversation. I love this. Not so much in America, though.

Community Upon returning to the Bay Area, my roommate and I had a talk about the bustling, technology-driven, work work work pace of the bay area. She said it seems like no matter how many events, shows, or meetings you go to, it still  always feels like you’re missing out on something. And it’s true. The Bay Area has everything : every kind of trendy restaurant, live music event, art gallery, film festival, networking meetup, and street fair.  There is always something happening, and it would take talent to be bored. But I find that with this constant stimulation, it’s also more easy to be unsatisfied. Because we move so fast and try to absorb so much, we run the risk of not making connections more than surface deep with the people around us.

My first shock with this was at the Dallas airport, when I first landed in the US. I spent my layover in a cafe packed with people. Shiny grey MacBooks dotted the room. Earbuds in. The only noise was the espresso machine and the staccato “tip-tip-tip” of fingers on keyboards. I remember looking around and being amazed at seeing so much new technology in one room. I hadn’t seen an internet cafe in months. So much happening, but so much isolation.

In Chile, I remember slowing down. I remember not feeling overwhelmed by all of the choices, because, well… there weren’t as many. Sure, there were still modern conveniences and amenities, but people also had this deeper human connection.

Latinoamerica, te echo de menos.

Who Inspired Me To Travel

It’s interesting to stop and think about what initially sparked the desire to travel often. Was it a semester abroad? Childhood travels? A book?

For me, it is my dad: The person who introduced me to language barriers and foreign roads. Taking our family on work trips when I was a kid, we went off-the-beaten track as much as possible, staying in remote villages in Liechtenstein and finding tiny restaurants along the Costa Brava.

I remember our rental car pulling up to a small farm house in Peratallada, Spain, and wondering “How does he FIND these places? Does he just Google ‘farthest town from nearest road’?'”

The woman who ran this little farm guest house was named Daniella. She didn’t speak English, but we didn’t need a common language to communicate, and I’ll always remember her as one of the most hospitable people I’ve met on the road.

It’s in these places my dad took us- the hills of western Ireland or kayaking in the Pacific Northwest, that I learned how to really connect with a place. When I travel now, I find myself looking for those hidden corners, and wanting to learn the stories of the people who live there. Thanks to my dad, these “off-the-beaten-path” experiences have become my foundation. They’ve shaped me into who I am now, and I can only give thanks.

Cheers to the all of the people who inspired us to travel!

Dad

Dad

Valparaíso

Valparaíso… a coastal city about an hour and half from smoggy and congested Santiago. It’s Chile’s cultural center, an eclectic mix of crooked streets, bright walls, and cafes .

Cerro Alegre, one of the two main hills in Valparaíso. Cerro Concepcíon is the other.

Valparaíso used to be one of South America’s biggest and most important ports, and its crumbling facade represents this era gone by. Despite this, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003.

Mural of late President, Salvadore Allende.

Chile 3

“El Desayunador” cafe

Chile1 chile 6

Chile 2

Where’s your mama?

Valdivia’s heart & soul

You know you’re at home in a new country when you establish your local hangout. This place became my touchstone and main meeting point. When everything else was unfamiliar, I knew I could come here to see the same people and begin to adjust to this new town.

This spot is near and dear to my heart. A Berkeley and San Francisco vibe right here in Valdivia. Navigado mulled wine. Pink Floyd. A warm fire. This is La Ultima Frontera, my favorite cafe-bar in Chile.

The front door, bearing stickers from worthy causes.

“La Ultima Frontera” means the last frontier, or the final border. My friend Maribel explained to me that it could have to do with the Mapuche, the indigenous people of Southern Chile, and their struggle to retain their land as it was colonized by foreigners.

Crafty

Salud!