RIDING THE AMTRAK: BRING A PILLOW


…And a blanket. As we rocket through the Nevada desert, you’d think the sun would bake this metal tube into a canister of humany sausage meat. But no. They run the air conditioning so arctic that you’re likely to get lung frost and chapped nethers while outside the desert parches like a college hangover. Typically British, maybe, to complain about the climate in any given scenario, even inside…but this is more a travel tip than a gripe. Because riding the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco (actually, it stops short of actual San Francisco, leaving the rest to a bus ride across the Oakland Bay Bridge from Emeryville), is an experience you shouldn’t not do. (But take your own food, a blanket and a pillow). Unless you want to pay $1000 or so for a sleeper compartment (those that did looked much fresher in the viewing carriage than us smelly, showerless coach-class pugs so delirious with sleep deprivation that it felt like a Hunter S. Thompson episode), you’ll be in a ‘reclining seat’ for 2 days. By reclining, it means your spine being forged into an accordion. In our case, included in the price was the couple behind us providing a complimentary leaking ice box that generously seeped under our seats and into our pillows and blanket, ruining them, and then absolutely free of charge, denying it. Credit to Amtrak for moving us away from the cool-box terrorists and providing one free small blanket between us. But enough of the inconveniences. Stop being so British.

The viewing carriage is a big long glass tube that glides you through the Rockies and other bizarrely sculpted landscapes cut-and-pasted from Star Trek planets. It’s surreal. It’s like watching a movie in 4k from behind a window, or wearing VR goggles; floating on a cloud - because you’re there, but you’re not really there. You’re scaling mountains, traversing prairies, swifting through cities without so much of a whiff of snowball, prairie dog nor downtown gutter. It’s a 2-day glimpse of the geological diversity America has to offer through your own eyes but in a cinematic format, all without breaking sweat. And trust me madam, with air conditioning like a supermarket freezer section, you ain’t gonna sweat one drop. And to add to the oddness of ‘having America’ without even courting it properly, actual park rangers join the fun train and tell you all about whatever it is you’re pretending to visit. So glorious are the views that you sometimes forget the bitter-but-unsaid political battles that ensue surrounding territorial claims on prized seats in the viewing carriage, or the horridly over-priced beige food, or the drinking water taps that don’t accommodate filling a bottle. These were 2 days that I don’t want back. Keep ‘em, California Zephyr, and thank you for keeping me cold-stored in the desert. We got to go places we couldn’t afford to actually visit, and we loved it.

We took the California Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville, which took 52 hours and cost $167 / GBP£117, booked online at www.amtrak.com.


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