Riding the Zephyr

Written: June 13, 2024 • Last nontrivial edit: June 30, 2024

Long-distance trains in the US are slow, expensive, and frequently delayed. Compared to air travel, the centrally-located stations and lack of security theater are real improvements, but they can in no way make a 52 hour train ride competitive with a 4 hour flight.

Yet some romanticism of trains, aided by a few Youtube videos, persuaded me to take the California Zephyr—the longest daily train in the Americas—on its full extent from Emeryville just south of Berkeley to Chicago.

As far as I can tell, there are two good reasons to go on a long train trip: the landscapes and the people.

Of course the scenery on the Zephyr is incredible, particularly in the canyons and mountains of Colorado. I encourage any Bay Areans to take the train to Denver to see what I’m talking about, perhaps with an overnight stop along the route.

But another thing I came to appreciate was the continuity. In my head I had a few scattered images of the deserts of Utah, snowy peaks of Colorado, cornfields of Iowa. I didn’t know how big they were, how far apart, and what lay in between. On the Zephyr I not only got to see the vistas firsthand but saw them fade in and out. What I regretted most is aside from a few ten-minute “smoke breaks”, I had no opportunity to step out and interact with the landscape. To touch grass or rocks or water.

Who takes long-distance train trips? Certainly not hurried businesspeople. But aside from all having time to spare, there was a remarkable diversity in my fellow travelers.

I almost never talk to my seatmates on planes, opting to don my noise-cancelling headphones at take-off. Trains are more civilized: their engines fade into the background, and the seats offer plenty of space to stretch out. You can walk to the observation or cafe cars and sit down at tables. There you will find passengers who readily engage in conversation, having little else to do in the miles between cell towers.

Out of the long-haulers, I encountered a few fellow first-timers, and several wanderers for whom this was but one leg in a circuit criss-crossing the country. There was the Mormon family we picked up in Utah and the Amish from Colorado. The Alaskan fellow visiting his lover in Nebraska. The Filipino immigrant and Chinese tourist. A man who recounted how he found Jesus and his wife. A woman who proudly talked about the marketing business she started.

I think all of them must have loved America, to want to savor in the traversal of her exquisite beauty.