My four day journey from San Francisco to New York by train


It's as if the train is a confession booth where people step in to share their deepest thoughts.

March 18, 2018

When Jeremie said he had to go to New York for work, I jumped at the opportunity. Who doesn’t love NYC? The food and art scene is phenomenal. And the bustling streets allow me to practice what I've learned from my photography class.

It was a spontaneous idea driven by my curiosity to do something different. Flying had always been how we traveled to New York. But since I wasn't in a hurry to go there, I considered other options. I remembered an article about a guy who took a train from San Francisco to New York and that gave me an idea. I’ve always wanted to travel from coast to coast the old-fashioned way and wondered what that was like.

I booked a one way train ticket for about $232—good deal considering the last minute cost of a plane ticket. But after getting the confirmation email, I wondered what was I getting myself into? First, the trip was going to be approximately 80 hours or roughly 4 days! And second, I was taking this trip alone which means I either had to isolate myself or interact with random strangers for 4 straight days. Both of which made me anxious.

I ultimately convinced myself that this was the perfect opportunity to be brave. Sure, I’ve taken trains alone in Thailand and Indonesia, but neither took days to reach my destination. Luckily, I booked the ticket a week before the trip so I had no room to overthink my decision.

The beginning of the journey

The trip started in San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal where an Amtrak bus took us to Emeryville. This is where the California Zephyr train departs. The terminal was smaller than I imagined but there's a small snack bar where you can buy last-minute snacks.

After a 30-minute delay, our train finally arrived. People who booked a sleeper room were herded to one side of the platform while the rest of us poor coach passengers were moved to a different area.

The coach section of the train (comparable to an airplane's economy class) had two levels. The only difference is that you get better views on the upper deck and have easier access to the observation car while the lower deck was closer to the restrooms. I opted for the top deck knowing I'll be taking in the views rather than use the restroom often.

Side note: restrooms start clean but degrade over the next few days. Okay, I'm not going to sugar coat it—It was nasty! And coach folks don't have access to a shower room so there's that.

"All aboard!" the conductor announced and we were off.

Looking through the panoramic glass

The main reason why I opted to take the train was to see the scenic landscapes of the country. The California Zephyr has an observation car with panoramic glass windows that give you wider views. After the conductor checks your ticket, you can head over to the observation deck. On some parts of the journey, this room gets packed but most people are polite enough to share the view.

There wasn't a lot to see in the bay area—the train ran close to the water and we mostly saw small farms, hills, and factories. I spent this time enjoying my sandwich and catching up with work emails.

More people boarded the train in Sacramento as well as a local guide who told stories about the places we passed.

As we climbed up the Sierra Nevada, the world outside turned white. Snow covered the small towns almost as if you were inside a snow globe. I imagined how cold it was outside and was glad we were warm and cozy inside the train.

As we entered Nevada, the terrain shifted from winter wonderland to barren desert. If you blink for a second, you get transported to a different world. I didn't even realize I spent the entire day staring out the window and doing nothing at all.

The next morning, we saw the canyons of Utah. It reminded me of scenes from Westworld. I've never been fond of western movies. I don't get the appeal of cowboys vs indians but I've got to admit, the scene outside was mesmerizing.

We reached Colorado by noon. For some reason I thought Colorado would be completely covered in snow. Turns out I was wrong.

At some point, I made a conscious decision to put my camera away so I could be more present. This explains why I don't have a lot of photos in this part of the trip. I get so caught up with taking pictures that I sometimes forget to appreciate what's in front of me.

The route from Nevada - Utah - Colorado was my favorite part of the entire journey. It felt like being in a completely different world. I felt so tiny and insignificant but in a good way.

We traveled through Nebraska at night so I didn't see much of it. And by the time we reached Iowa, I was wishing we'd reach Chicago sooner. The lack of sleep and proper bathroom had taken its toll on me.

It took us longer to reach Chicago on the third day because our train was behind schedule. I planned on exploring the city before transferring to the next train that traveled straight to New York but I only had 3 hours instead of the original 6 hours of layover. My mission was to have dinner in Nando's Peri-peri chicken (the best!!!), buy some Garrett popcorn, then race back to the station. I made it just in time before the train started boarding passengers.

People and conversations

I love listening to people's stories. It allows you to see a glimpse of someone's life much like a photograph. But I'm not good with strangers. It's not that I'm afraid of what they would think of me. I just get uncomfortable with small talk. I prefer deeper conversations, but with strangers you certainly need to start somewhere.

And sure enough, some conversations never went past small talk. It's like navigating through a maze and you try to figure out if you have anything in common. Thankfully, others moved to something deeper. I learned that it was easier to talk to people who weren't afraid to share their vulnerabilities.

I encountered so many different kinds of characters on the train: the man who only talked about work, the optimistic young lady who left her home so she could train (no pun intended) to become a Shaman in New Orleans, the early 20s guy who grew up in a dysfunctional environment and almost ended up in prison if not for his son who inspired him to become a better person, the adventurous old lady who has taken the cross-country train three times, the middle-aged man who quit alcohol and was proud to be sober for 10 years, the middle-aged woman who has not quit alcohol but is perfectly fine with that.

I met Mr D. on the first morning as we traversed Utah. He saw me fiddling with my camera and asked what kind of camera it was. He told me he dreamed of becoming a photographer and even studied film. But because of financial reasons and to support his family, he had to give up his dreams. He gave me a few tips about which side of the train to sit to get better views and was nice enough to let me practice taking portraits of him.

On one of our stops, a woman saw me taking a photo of Mr D. as he peeked out of the window and asked if I could take her photo as well. I was happy to do it!

Dining cars

The antique-looking dining car is one of the highlights of the train experience. It looked like stepping into a Wes Anderson movie. The food wasn't that good (IMO) but you get to meet different people. They had a system where the staff assigns you a seat so that you get seated with random people. The food prices are a bit steep but you have an option to order at the snack bar where the food is more affordable.

On some occasions, when I didn't feel like interacting with people, I went down the lounge car, got myself a hotdog or a pizza and ate at my seat. Some people even brought their own food which they stored in a cooler. Tap water is available in the coach cars but I didn't like how it tasted so I spent a few bucks on bottled water.

Sleeping in coach

My seat was bigger than a standard economy seat on an airplane plus it had more space for my feet. You can recline the seat and not have to worry about the person behind you because of all the space. And since it wasn't peak season, there were a lot of empty seats so we got to occupy two seats! Hooray!

Essentials for a comfortable night:

  1. Pillow(s). They don't provide this for free. You can purchase one though.
  2. Blanket. See comment above.
  3. Eye mask. Lights out at 10pm but if you're like me and you like sleeping in complete darkness then this is essential.
  4. Ear plugs. I wish I brought a pair with me. The man behind me kept listening to weird religious propaganda the whole two nights I was on the train.

Sleeping was not easy despite all the space. As a light sleeper and unreasonably paranoid person, I kept waking up every time someone walked past the aisle. Surprisingly, I slept better during the day. Not sure why, but maybe I was too exhausted that my brain just shut off on its own.

Border patrol

The last part of my trip was spent on the Lake Shore train from Chicago to New York. At this point, there was nothing interesting outside the window unless you're into dead trees, and miles and miles of snow.

Nothing much happened inside the train either until we reached Syracuse. A few men in green uniform with the words "Border Patrol" written on them boarded the train and marched along the aisle next to me.

I thought nothing of it until they started asking people (mostly people of color) if they were US citizens and if they had paperwork to prove this. They did jokingly ask white people if they were citizens but it was almost in a rhetorical sense. At one point they pulled an Asian guy out of his seat and escorted him off the train. I looked around and everyone seemed unconcerned about this activity. Is this normal???

It wasn't until we started moving again that the whole incident sunk in my head. What if they asked me? Sure, I was in the country with a valid visa but I wasn't bringing my passport with me. I didn't think it was necessary since I was traveling locally. Would they have kicked me out too?

I did a bit of research and learned that border patrol agents have authority to perform random checks within a 100 mile radius from any border on anyone they deemed suspicious. You can legally refuse to answer but obviously that creates more suspicions.

I read about this on the news but have never experienced it in person.

The Trolley dilemma

Not so fun fact: I found out from one of the conductors that if you feel a bump while the train is running, there's a chance it meant they ran over a cow. Poor cows. 😢 Apparently it happens everyday and they'd rather hit a cow than derail the train and cause more damage. It reminded me of The Trolley Dilemma.

Traveling alone

While everyone was asleep, I snuck out of my makeshift bed and went straight to the observation car. I was alone. I took a seat facing the window and put my headphones on. I had curated a playlist before my trip and listened to it as we cut through the landscape.

I can't remember the last time I was that emotional. I've seen a lot of beautiful places while traveling but this was different: We were moving at a steady pace and I was completely alone with my thoughts. It felt like being in a dream. I was floating, I was in a trance.

I noticed that nobody—not one human—asked me why I was alone. In my previous trips in Asia, everyone seemed concerned that I was traveling alone and asked where my boyfriend/husband was. Because of this experience, I mentally prepared myself with answers in case someone asked. I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn't a big deal in this side of the world.

What's great about being alone is that people seemed to approach me more than when I wasn't. And they seemed eager to share their stories. It's as if the train is a confession booth where people step in to share their deepest thoughts to a stranger before getting off at the next stop.

I reached New York late Thursday evening. The staff played Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" on the speakers as we approached Penn station. My journey had ended and I was ready to explore New York. But first, I had to desperately take a shower!

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