If you could choose between a three-hour flight or a 36-hour train trip up the US West Coast, would you take the train? I did -- and it was breathlessly romantic, tedious, relaxing and cut off from the outside world.
Long-distance train travel isn't popular in the US, and that's a shame. It's true that airplanes will get you to your destinations far faster and will fit better into your schedule-crammed life. It's also true that the horrendous internet on this particular train route makes connectivity-dependent work a nightmare. (East Coast Amtrak routes have Wi-Fi. This one did not.)
Still, there's so much ease in just walking onto a train car at a station without excessive security, settling in your seat and rolling along the rails as cities and countryside sweep by your window.
Who can afford to slow down their lives for a long-distance train? Retirees, mostly, judging by the couples we dined with. They also had the money to pay for private rooms. While a ticket from LA to Seattle costs around $250 per person, around the same price as airfare, reserving a small room with a pair of fold-down beds is an extra $400 per person -- or $800 total. The deluxe sleeper room for two with a bathroom and shower costs $1,400 total.
I took this trip in July with my dad, who generously plunked down the cash for a deluxe sleeper to travel in a little bit of comfort. This was a trip he'd dreamed about taking with my mom for decades. And when she passed away earlier this year, I gamely arranged to go, eager to slow down for a little time together and see the West Coast from a window.
But I'm also a millennial with a job and responsibilities who, in my arrogance, thought I could mix business with pleasure and have a "working vacation." While there was nothing stopping me from plinking away on my laptop thanks to plentiful power outlets, the lack of Wi-Fi was a major obstacle, and backup measures like tethering barely helped as the train sped through sparsely populated, low-cell service areas more often than not.
Thus punished for my hubris, I spent most of the trip doing low-connectivity tasks when I could. But even I was forced to slow down and take in the sights.
It's not something we Americans do much of. Amtrak passengers took 12.2 million trips last year, a fraction of the 674 million passengers carried by US airlines in 2021. The pandemic affected Amtrak just like the rest of the travel and hospitality industry, but even the pre-pandemic levels of 32 million passenger trips in 2019 are far lower than those taken by airlines.
Americans have a ways to go in embracing rail travel as much as regions that use it more regularly, like Europe, which still had 223 million passenger trips in 2020 amid the pandemic. Despite Europe having twice the population of the US, that's still over nine times the ridership per capita.
Once underway, the train left downtown Los Angeles just after 10 a.m. and headed north through Burbank, winding through the small airport where bigwigs take private flights and then past a litany of prop and costume shops that service Hollywood's voracious TV and film needs. We traveled further up to Northridge, where houses get bigger and temperatures get higher. Then we came to smaller cities between the rocky chaparral and desert plains of California inland.
Any seasoned commuter in the US knows the land alongside freeways by heart, but the places along the railways are forgotten, and it feels a bit voyeuristic to look silently from the train, like peeking through the fence into America's backyard.
As the train left Los Angeles County and traveled up the coast through Santa Barbara, we got views of the California beaches as we zoomed over the bluffs above, watching pods of surfers angling for waves and hawks lazily circling for lunch. Beachside towns came and went, as did RV lots full of recreationists using the afternoon to grill. This was all against a backdrop of water pounding the shore, silent behind the airtight windows.
I would catch a fraction of these seaside vignettes if I had to concentrate on driving, or none at all if I was scraping the sky in an airplane. Taking the train gave me the vantage to see and the freedom to think.
The 36-hour experience: cozy, yet constricted
Like other Amtrak trains, the Coast Starlight route that we took had a lounge car with extra-large windows giving ample views of blue skies as we sped past California beaches. It was the best place to sit for working and wondering, but that made it popular -- and crowded. Thanks to relaxed transportation mask mandates, about half the passengers were masked, and COVID anxiety negated some of the tranquil vibes watching landscapes pass by.
I spent the first day shuttling between the lounge and my private room, which was a great escape but too cramped to work in for hours at a stretch. The room is snug and could probably seat four people if they didn't need to move around at all. The room is crammed with a couch that folds flat to a bed, a bunk above that folds down for a second bed, a chair, extendable desk, sink and mirror, and bathroom. The latter also has a shower, though it's more appropriate to say the bathroom is the shower, with a showerhead sitting above the toilet and drain on the floor.
(Yes, the shower worked fine, and a little privacy goes a long way. The alternative for the smaller private rooms without bathrooms: a single shower for the rest of the car to take turns using. Or skipping a shower entirely if you can stand it.)
For a 36-hour ride up the coast, it's home enough, though my dad and I had to do plenty of clambering over each other to get around. The line between cozy and cramped is measured in hours.
We boarded in the morning, but as the day wore on, my dad and I were pacing the handful of cars on our train like zoo animals. Thankfully, meals broke up the monotony. But you can't just waltz into the dining car and get seated, as the attendant circulates among the private rooms in the sleeper cars to take your reservations. Appointment eating added a premium touch to an otherwise constrained experience: When we sat to eat, there was a white tablecloth, silverware and the finest-dining plastic plates I'd ever seen.
There were other guests seated across from us. Like a cruise ship trip, there's a little forced elbow-rubbing on a train. Making full use of dining car booths by cramming couples together is one of them. This is, in the end, a delightful contrivance. When was the last time you chatted up a couple of complete strangers?
I discovered an instant camaraderie among fellow guests who had paid good money to slow their lives down for a few days, and it was pleasant to swap stories about benign topics -- no politics, just hobbies and vacation itineraries. The guests were all couples, and I wondered if my dad would talk about his 40 good years with my mom, but he didn't. Our memories would stay ours, and we kept to less private topics in our conversations on the rails.
Though at first it was alarming, losing touch with the world felt sublime. It's not so bad to be cut off from constant notifications and the Twitter hellscape. The sweet beach views also distracted me from the trap of my own thoughts. Forcibly disconnecting is a blessing — as long as I didn't need to stay up on current events for, say, a job reporting the news.
It took me more than a day to decompress away from a daily grind watching tech developments and industry news. Since there's always something going on, there isn't really a good time to take a trip like this. Trying to take my desk job mobile made me more aware of how frequently I have a small interaction over Slack or email that escalates quickly if I don't respond.
Or at least, that's what it feels like: I got enough reception to receive a text from my boss asking how the trip was going but left the signal pocket before I could send my response, leaving me to check every few minutes to see if we'd somehow crossed into an area with a nearby cell tower.
After years spent stuck at home dreaming of working vacations, this trip dispelled the myth that remote work is easy. I've been spoiled by good mobile coverage letting me tether in coffee shops and bars that didn't have fast-enough Wi-Fi. I brazenly assumed that coverage gaps would be few and far between. As carriers race to activate more 5G coverage, I assumed that the relatively populated West Coast was fully blanketed in at least basic 4G LTE service. Not so.
My dad didn't even try to work, and relaxed into the trip with a book and his phone, commenting on the sights, occasionally noting that my mom would've loved the views.
With dinner done and the first day waning, my dad and I started feeling restless in our train enclosure. Our only breaks from the half-dozen cars to walk through were intermittent stops in bigger cities when the train stopped for 10 to 15 minutes. The duration was never constant, and a conductor told us we had until departing travelers' bags were unloaded from the baggage car to walk around. We paced the length of the train without straying far, not even peeking into a station for fear of being left behind. If we did miss this train, the conductor joked, we could just hop on the next one coming in…tomorrow.
On top of a general restlessness was an absence my dad and I felt as the night wore on. In our haste to pack, neither of us brought a bottle of wine or whiskey for nightcap toasts to my mom and to all the West Coast she wasn't seeing with us. We concocted elaborate schemes to resupply during a brief stop -- sprinting out to a nearby liquor store and risk being left behind, calling a Bay Area friend at 10 p.m. to pick up a bottle and make a hand-off at the Oakland stop at precisely 10:30 p.m., or ordering DoorDash/Postmates and hoping the gig worker was game for some very specific and time-sensitive instructions.
Ultimately, we let the matter go, but swore to do better on our next train trip. (Only passengers with private cars can bring on alcohol and consume it in their rooms.) We unfolded the beds and tucked in for the night. My last thought before I drifted off was wondering if I'd wake up to a shrill scream and gather with the other oddball passengers to unravel a mysterious murder. Trains inspire better stories than planes.
Training through the Pacific Northwest
As might be expected, I didn't get very restful sleep on the train, though it might have owed more to the orientation of the room -- my bed was perpendicular to the motion of the train, so I was rocked head-to-toe as the car shifted over the rails. Still, it was far superior to curling up in a regular seat and eking out sleep among a bunch of snoring, shifting and talking passengers.
But after a breakfast omelet, tons of coffee and a shower, I was back in business. Overnight we'd passed the California border into Oregon, and as I settled into the lounge car to work, verdant forests sped by the windows. It's hard to pout about not having internet when you're greeted with a pristine alpine wonderland filled with hundred-foot-tall trees lining mountain slopes right up to the edge of spacious lakes.
Despite the beautiful landscape, my dad and I passed the 24-hour mark with weary resignation for another half-day on the train. But it was also still lovely, and the lunchtime conversation was still delightful -- and humbling, as we met couples who had spent the better part of a week on the rails from as far as Pennsylvania, train regulars who repeatedly sought out slow voyages overland. It wasn't hard to see why they kept coming back. Unlike driving or flying, train travel is pretty effortless as you're taken places. You just have to give up control.
Being on the train requires surrender. You have to give in to the rhythms of a schedule and circumstances you can't change. Every form of travel has its own constraints, but with an open mind, we can see them as opportunities forcing us to shed unnecessary burdens and become leaner versions of ourselves during the trip. How many of us swear that we'd write that novel or reach out to that friend if we only had the time?
"I'd been looking forward to doing nothing but reading my book," my dad said, reclining in his seat as the West Coast's heartland sped past him. "But that's a lot of work!"
I could have saved myself some difficult workdays by only giving up four or five hours of my time for a flight instead, but that's just compacting all the travel stress. Every once in awhile, it's good to put different guardrails around yourself to glean new insights. I mean, isn't it boring if we only torture ourselves in the same ways?
After a last meal with a couple from Kansas who were headed to Seattle for a Pokemon Go convention, my dad and I packed up our things. When the train pulled into King Street Station at around 7 p.m. near Seattle's International District, we practically sprinted out of our room and onto the platform. We walked among some of the oldest areas of the city, gleefully walking at our own pace and peering into store windows and up at buildings that would've sped past windows on the train.
As we headed toward my aunt's house, my dad and I reflected on a day and a half on the train and agreed that we probably wouldn't take the same trip again. But it was worth getting time together, letting go of control and seeing more of the coast from vantages we never had before. After a successful trip seeing family and friends in the area, we boarded a plane to fly back to Southern California -- relieved it would only take a few hours.