“What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on before you get on?” – George Carlin
As some of you may, or may not know (or care), I recently crossed off another bucket list item. I had come to the realization that I had traveled all over Europe on trains, but had never been on a train here in the US of A. (Excluding a very non-memorable jaunt on the Metro in Washington, DC which my darling daughter pointed out). Accordingly, a substantial train trip was added to the list of things to do before I die. Ironically, the timetable for this item had to be moved up when, after proposing the trip idea to Mrs. Lawrence, it appeared that my lifespan may be considerably shorter than originally anticipated. Thus began an intense research/planning project which I completed in 5 hours because my ADD doesn’t allow for lengthy, intense research/planning projects.
Spoiler alert….link to photos here.
- Wanted to go across country with an ultimate destination of San Francisco. I had spent a considerable amount of time in SanFran while attending school at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA., but hadn’t been back there since 1976.
- Amtrak. Because there are no other options. All stages of the trip were booked in coach, mainly because my intense research/planning determined that Amtrak coach is far superior to airline coach. (Far superior = adequate space for my 6’5′, 255 lb frame….more on that later).
- Accompaniment – none. Offered to Mrs. Lawrence but her response indicated a probability of an even shorter lifespan.
- Packing: I opted to take only what I could carry. An older military backpack with clothing and a messenger bag with laptop, camera and writing materials. NOTE: My intense research/planning did not adequately address my personal hygiene questions. Therefore, I ordered these from Amazon, problem solved. Maybe.
- North Charleston to New York. Amtrak calls this train the “Silver Meteor“. Departed from the very shabby North Charleston station at 9:22 PM and arrived in NYC Penn Station at 11:00 AM. A good portion of the ride was during hours of darkness and spent trying to get some sleep in my coach seat. Daylight travel through the DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Trenton areas displayed some highly blighted and graffitied views. In other words, “nothing to see here, move along”.
- NYC Penn Station to Chicago Union Station on the Lake Shore Limited train. Departed NYC at 3:40 PM and arrived in Chicago at 9:45 AM. NY Penn Station is a bustling place and the people watching was enjoyable. Also used the downtime to upgrade the remaining trip to “sleeper compartment”. Coach was OK, but couldn’t see spending another 11 days longing for any privacy and hoping for window seats. Sleeper compartments, though small, afford both of those and an ability to get some proper, albeit bumpy and noisy rest. The sleeper cars also have their own bathrooms (1 per car which normally has 13 compartments), as opposed to the two being shared by lots of people in coach. This leg of the trip was also primarily during the hours of darkness and I got some much-needed rest and seriously dipped into the Dude Wipes.
- Chicago to SanFran on the California Zephyr. This. This is what the trip was all about. Departed Chicago at 2:00 PM and arrived in Emeryville, CA, 2 days later, at 4:10 PM. Chicago Union Station was huge, clean and awesome. Step outside and you’re right smack downtown. Amtrak does this trip the right way. They time it so as to traverse through places like Iowa and Nebraska at night and make certain that the awe-inspiring Rockies and Sierras are daylight, photo ops.
- Emeryville to SanFran: Amtrak rails end in Emeryville, however, they provide luxury bus service from that station, to several locations in San Francisco. I opted for the full journey to Fisherman’s Wharf and had booked a three-night stay in the Sheraton, 3 blocks from the Wharf.
- Every bit as enjoyable as I remembered. Weather was great (upper 60s and sun), took the obligatory photos of Alcatraz and the sea lions, reacquainted myself with the best damn calamari in the country, and even got some new ink on Pier 39. Eschewed transportation options and according to my FitBit Charge, I put over 45 miles on my feet and had the bloody socks and shoes to prove it. (Tossed a decent pair of Nike sneakers and replaced with New Balance). The hotel was upscale, clean and comfortable with an added bonus of multiple outdoor fire pits.
- For the most part, the outward bound trip in reverse, with some minor exceptions and the first hiccup of the trip.
- California Zephyr back to Chicago. Overnight, on day two, the sleeper car attendant advised that a freight train derailment, somewhere in Nebraska, meant an alternate route. It was slow going and ultimately, we arrived in Chicago too late and instead of a layover of several hours, we just missed the connecting train for the next leg of the journey. Amtrak to the rescue. They provided all of the affected passengers with overnight accommodations at the very exclusive (in my standards) Swissotel in downtown Chicago. They included taxi vouchers to and from Union Station and meal vouchers. (And a much needed and welcome shower!) It meant an extra day tacked onto my trip, but Amtrak stepped up and made it enjoyable.
- The scheduling issue led to a Chicago to Washington DC trip instead of NYC. The Capitol Unlimited train left Chicago at 6:40 PM and arrived in DC at 1:05 PM the next day.
- A 6-hour layover wasn’t a problem since the station in DC is akin to a small city. Lots to see and do.
- Finally, an overnight trip back to the sad, shabby and dreary North Charleston station.
Things I Learned:
- Booking coach was wishful thinking.
- Sleeper compartments are small, but adequate for one person, although I encountered several couples sharing one. (None my size)
- I have zero skills in photography. Couple that with attempting to take pics from the window of a train, moving at 70 MPH, and you end up with approx. 1,000 photos getting deleted. (To all my photographer friends, and you know who you are, BE KIND!)
- Regardless, I ended up with several hundred good (in my opinion) pictures of the incredible vistas provided on this trip. Links to a public album, of a scaled down number of pictures, appears at the top and bottom of this post. They’re in no particular order but include shots of the Rockies, the Colorado River, plains of Nevada, buttes of Utah, and of course, San Francisco.
- Dude Wipes. Yes.
- The 12-day trip, which turned into 13 days due to the aforementioned missed connection, exceeded my needs as jammed into a backpack.
- Having your face and a camera pressed against the window of a 70 MPH train, when a freight train, also doing 70 MPH passes, just inches away, can also decrease your expected lifespan.
- Amtrak food in the dining car is surprisingly good.
- The glass observation car on the California Zephyr is incredibly awesome.
- Mrs. Lawrence didn’t even know I was gone.
- Although well worth the time and cost, this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me. I was spent and exhausted when I got back. (But, much like cruises, I met a lot of people who make this trip often and who were a wealth of information as we passed through several historic areas, such as the infamous Donner Pass.)
- Highly recommend the California Zephyr trip.
Public Photo Album Here via Flickr (Again, in no particular order)