Part One: Prologue
Eleven days and 8,720 miles.
I am what I like to call a road trip connoisseur. Coincidentally, I have taken a solo multi-day road trip around the country every two years since 2016. I didn't even realize I'd been on this biennial cadence until I looked back while planning this Amtrak trek in 2022. Funny how that worked out. I love to travel and explore new places, experience new things, and taste local foods and coffee. I've always been this way; as a child, when travel wasn't an option financially, I was the kid who would spend all day exploring the fields and the woods at my grandparents' property looking for hidden creeks, ponds, and animal bones. (I truly should have been there to visit my grandparents... but instead I was out earning the nickname “The Bone Collector” from them with all my quests among the trees, creeks, and ponds. That's neither here nor there. I digress.)
Looking back at those days on my grandparents' 40 acres in the Texas Hill Country feels like I'm staring at the micro version of what was to come as I grew up. As an adult with a car, I gained access to the macro version: Packing my modest Ford Focus full of whatever I thought I'd need to sustain myself and hitting the road for six, eight, or even 17 days at a time; usually sleeping in my car along the way. My road tripping took me from Houston, where I lived at the time, across the South and up the Eastern Seaboard, or out west through the deserts of New Mexico and up into the mountains of Colorado.
I always travel on the cheap, too. I grew up in a hard-working family of limited means, meaning that I know the value of money and how to get around without a lot of it. Typically, the cost of gas was the biggest expense. As mentioned above, I usually opted to sleep in my car instead of hotel rooms. If I was feeling especially extravagant, I might throw down $15-20 to book someone's couch on AirBNB for the night. I would bring my own food on the trip, too, only spending out of pocket for one (maybe two) meals in each city I stopped into. You can travel on a serious budget, but I will acknowledge the privilege I did have that not everyone else does: Each road trip I took, I would either take while working from coffee shops on the road (I was a writer for a freelancing agency for a while there), or would take PTO once I took up an office job. I understand that these options aren't feasible for everyone.
A few years back, while still living in Houston, I looked into booking a trip on Amtrak. I thought I'd go from Houston to Seattle, then planned to fly back home from there. I'd always wanted to take an Amtrak trip cross-country, but as I booked the segments of the journey one by one, the price tag glared back: I wasn't even done booking and I was up to $1,200+. I set that dream on the backburner and—you guessed it—took a road trip instead.
Fast forward a couple years. It's March 2022 and I receive a sponsored Instagram ad from Amtrak promoting a heavy discount on their Rail Pass.
What the heck is a Rail Pass?
I hadn't a clue. The Amtrak Rail Pass is a single-purchase pass (regularly priced at $499) that allows you to book a generous 10 segments. And it was on sale! Ten segments on Amtrak—the opportunity to explore the nation—for a sale price that was less than the cost of peak season roundtrip airfare between IAH and LGA? I jumped at the opportunity. And then there it sat in my Amtrak account, collecting dust, as I knew not where I wanted to go.
Do I wish I had known about the Rail Pass a few years ago? Sure. Am I complaining that I found out about it when it was on sale? Absolutely not.
Fearing my pass would expire if I didn't do anything with it, I sat down one night and booked my master plan: Over the course of 11 days, I would travel from New York City (where I currently live) to Washington, D.C. From there, it was New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago again, D.C. once more, up to Boston, and back to my home base of Moynihan Train Hall, Manhattan.
No, it would not go completely according to plan. But that was part of the adventure.
Along the journey, I'd even enjoy the privilege of experiencing three of Amtrak's most storied and beloved routes: The Southwest Chief (between Chicago and Los Angeles), Coast Starlight (between Los Angeles and Portland), and Empire Builder (Portland to Chicago).
The California Zephyr, which runs between Chicago and San Francisco and is one of Amtrak's other most coveted routes, would have to wait for next time.
The United States has some of the most beautiful topography: From the vast plains of the Midwest to the deserts of the Southwest; to the Pacific coastline of the West Coast to the mountains of our northern states that kiss the Canadian border. By train, you can witness them all.
Dear reader, I hope you'll stick with me through the five installments of this series, publishing each day this week (June 6-10, 2022). I can't wait to share all the ins and outs: Sleeping in coach, the characters I met along the way, the itinerary itself (should it inspire another traveler), all the brilliant scenery, and of course: travel hygiene.
See you tomorrow.
Train Fact 1:
Q: Why are there so many Union Stations in the USA? Did we collectively get lazy when we named our train depots? Is it because we're the United States? What gives?
A: According to Smithsonian Magazine, there are, like, nine million Union Stations across the country because historically, these stations served as transportation hubs for multiple passenger rail lines, before the Golden Age of Rail Travel came to a close. These stations, where multiple rail companies united, were each typically named Union Station. Northeasterners may also be familiar with how New York City, Newark, and Baltimore all have a Penn Station. Same concept here: Historically, these three stations were all owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad and were named accordingly.
Part 1 of 5.