Amtrak Across America: Journey on the California Zephyr

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

“You’re crazy!” was the standard reply, followed by, “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.

The Trip Basics:

Depart: Emeryville, CA

Arrive: Philadelphia- 30th Street Station

Total trip time: 74 hours, 45 minutes

Total Trains: 2- California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago and the Cardinal from Chicago to Philadelphia.

Cost: $232


Traveling Coach

On the long haul trains, you can reserve one of two tickets:

  • Reserve Coach The most economical option. You get a seat on the upper or lower level of the train. Meals and showers are not included, but you get access to the dining car and awesome observation car, with ceiling windows.
  • Superliner Roomette For a big jump in price, you can get a private room with a couch that turns into two beds. Showers and meals in the dining car are included.

What to bring:

This is for if you have a Reserved Coach ticket. One of the first questions people asked me was: Is it comfortable? Fairly! And definitely more so than an airplane’s economy seating. The seats are big, recline, and include a foot rest.

Here’s what to bring to make it more enjoyable:

  • A pillow
  • Earplugs 
  • Eyemask
  • Light travel blanket 
  • Fresh fruit and snacks – This made a huge difference in the quality of my experience! While you can get food on the train (we’ll cover that later), it’s pricey for the actual quality, and there’s a lack of fresh fruit and more healthy snack options. I brought instant oatmeal, oranges, apples, Kind Bars, dried cheese, crackers, and supplies to make PB&Js when I wanted a quick bite.
  • A good book – There’s no wifi onboard, so get ready!
  • Baby wipes – To replace showers
  • An open mind – You’ll meet all different types of people, from the retired couples to families (more on that later).

The Journey on the California Zephyr

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 as promised by our ticket.

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.

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


We made it to Truckee, CA.



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…


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


It was vast and beautiful.

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So much salt…



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…”


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

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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….

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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.

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“You Are Here.” in case one forgets.


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

The Wild West.



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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.

Dining on Amtrak:

What kind of food options are available on the California Zephyr?

Cafe car Essentially a snack and drink bar. You can get coffee, tea, and some light breakfast food. They also serve alcohol.

Dining car Serves the meals. 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…

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

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

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Rocky Mountain National Park…

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A rest stop in Fraser, CO…

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It started raining as we departed.

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

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

Denver was below…

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

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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.


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 100% renewable energy.”

Go Iowa. Here’s their website:

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After endless fields, we suddenly crossed a mighty river.

The Mississippi!

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

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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…

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 the great gig in the sky…


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


The last night in Torres del Paine


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.


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.


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”.



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.

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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.

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.


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!



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


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”.


A quiet afternoon.