The California Zephyr train near Winnemucca Nevada

Finding peace on a 72-hour train across America

A writer rides the rails from New York to San Francisco, discovering dazzling landscapes and fascinating fellow passengers along the way.

The California Zephyr train travels one of America’s longest—and most scenic—railway routes between Chicago and San Francisco. Over 51 hours, it passes through the plains of Nebraska (shown), the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and the deserts of Nevada.
Photograph by Robert Haidinger, Laif,Redux

In Iowa, I had dinner with an elderly woman who introduced herself only as “Mrs. Alvarez.” The train was rocking from side-to-side as it shot forward in the darkness, and she almost lost her balance when she sat down across from me at our booth. Mrs. Alvarez was short and stout, with curly gray hair cut in a bob. She wore a dark dress with large, round buttons.

“Would I offend you if I said grace?” Mrs. Alvarez asked me. “I believe in God, but I wouldn’t want to impose Him upon anybody else.”

“Not at all, please go ahead,” I replied, bowing my head as Mrs. Alvarez recited her blessings. When you’re traveling alone on the California Zephyr, the two-and-a-half-day Amtrak train from Chicago to San Francisco, you take your blessings as they come.

Only recently, Amtrak had brought back what it calls “traditional dining” on some long-distance trains, serving passengers in the dining car on white linen tablecloths with silverware, china, and blue napkins emblazoned with the logo of the railroad. 

The attendants paired travelers for meals at random—blind dates for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and you just had to hope you’d get along. I ate lunch one afternoon in Colorado with a former touring drummer for the band Santana, and had French toast for breakfast in the Utah desert with a couple from South Dakota. Riding past the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, I dined with a cable salesman for Spectrum communications.

(Learn why pilgrimages could be a post-pandemic travel trend.)

But none of these people were quite like Mrs. Alvarez. She had a precise, matter-of-fact way of speaking that I found to be very comforting.

After she finished saying grace, the first thing Mrs. Alvarez asked me was if I’d had a chance to smell the flowers. She gestured to a tall vase of pink roses on our table. I hadn’t noticed it; I was so busy looking out the window at the land going by. “They are quite beautiful.” Mrs. Alvarez continued, focused, now holding the vase up to her nose. “You wouldn’t expect to see roses this nice on the table of a train.”

I asked her, in turn, if she was enjoying the ride. “Oh, extremely,” she said. “I don’t need much to be happy. I pack a simple lunch. I always carry a book.” She didn’t use her cell phone. “I turn it on when I want my children to know where I am. Otherwise, I don’t want to be bothered by it.” She paused and lowered her voice. “I will be honest with you, I don’t quite know how to use it, either.”

On the California Zephyr, she was not missing much in this respect. There was no Wi-Fi on the train, and hardly any decent cell phone reception along its route, which runs through Illinois and Iowa, the plains of Nebraska, the Rocky Mountains, and the Utah and Nevada deserts before crossing the Sierra Nevada and descending towards the San Francisco Bay.

The slow way there

There wasn’t much to do but read, chat with the other passengers, and look out the window. There were vast, empty deserts, formidable mesas, and fire-devastated forests. In the Rockies, the great Colorado River wound its way along much of our route, and river-rafters mooned the train as we passed them by.

Mrs. Alvarez remarked that she had come on the connecting train from Boston and would disembark at Glenwood Springs. “I have a brother,” she said, by way of explanation. She preferred not to fly for a number of reasons, and since she was retired she had the time to make the roundtrip journey (nearly a full week of travel) on the rails.

“And what brings you here, Jordan?”

Part of the reason I’d decided to take a 72-hour train ride from New York to San Francisco was because I wanted to slow down. It had been another strange pandemic year, but very different from the last. Twenty-twenty one was marked by a kind of push-and-pull between isolation and freedom. In isolation, we continued to speak of a hopeful return to “normal,” even as we soon started to realize that there wouldn’t be much of anything “normal” about our lives anymore, at least not in the way we knew things to be before.

(Explore why Iran hopes its legendary railway will revive its tourism industry.)

But after more than a year in quarantine, we’d also managed to convince ourselves that our lives before had been, in many ways, too fast-paced. There seemed to be great virtue in slowing down however we could—in reevaluating our priorities and passions, and in promising to live more deliberately when “all of this” (waving our arms) was over.

Yet, somehow, we seemed collectively to abandon that concept as soon as there was even the slightest hint of renewed freedom. In certain parts of New York (the parts where people could afford it) the city seemed to roar back to life. Newspapers proclaimed the summer of 2021 to be the new “summer of love,” suggested a second-coming of the roaring 20s, and even heralded the potential beginnings of a new Renaissance. 

Twentysomethings like me poured out of East Village bars and restaurants every evening. After midnight, nearby Washington Square was so often crushed with throngs of revelers that wealthy residents in the towers around the park complained, setting up nightly melees with riot police, another round of eye-grabbing dystopia and must-see TV.

Suddenly the “summer of love” also became the summer of making plans: plans to see friends, to go on dates, to find apartments; plans to travel, plans to return to the office. Plans to make up for lost time. 

Seeking solace in open spaces

Of course, it all links back to one simple point: we will do anything not to be lonely. And especially when you are just starting to find your place in the world, the pressure simply not to feel alone can be almost overpowering in itself.

Because what was 2021 if not a year of tremendous, Great Gatsby-level loneliness? Drowning in empty plans of my own making, I realized that after many months of more time than I knew what to do with—and after many months of resolving to lead a life of greater slowness and stillness back in the world—I’d suddenly found myself in a race to “catch up” with myself. My time had become anything but my own.

I was anxious, tired, and deeply lonely. I knew I needed to do something to get away from it all—something purely for myself, something that I knew no one else would ever agree to do with me. 

So there I was, heading west on a train across America. (This actually requires two trains: The first, the Lake Shore Limited, departs New York at 3:40 p.m. bound for Chicago, where a six-hour layover leaves just enough time for a brisk walk to Lake Michigan and to stock up on snacks before returning to board the westbound California Zephyr.)

I told all of this to Mrs. Alvarez, and she nodded in understanding. “I was one of the first female corrections officers in the history of the Florida prison system,” she said. 

Unwaveringly, she described more than four decades of counseling inmates, some of them on death row and others facing imminent release after many years locked away. In these moments so charged with emotion, from greatest renewal to deepest despair, people often shared what truly mattered most to them for the very first time in their lives. So she understood why, perhaps, we were still all trying to put things into perspective now.

“It is important to give some thought to your future,” Mrs. Alvarez said later, “but you can’t let the question of the future prevent you from taking this life day by day.”

(See photos of the best train trips in the world.)

The next morning in the Rocky Mountains, I was still thinking about what she’d said when a little girl, who looked around eight years old, ran panicked into the observation car, out of breath and in tears. “I’m lost,” the girl said, to no one in particular, in between choked sobs. “Can someone help me find my mom?”

There again appeared Mrs. Alvarez, who calmly took the girl by the hand and invited her to sit a while. Out the large windows, the sun gave light to golden aspens and deep evergreens in the tall hills.

“There, there,” she said, trying to explain to the girl that her mother had to be nearby, that everything would be all right, that at least on the train you didn’t have to worry about where you were going, even if it felt like you’d lost your way.

Jordan Salama is a writer and the history reporting resident for National Geographic. His first book, Every Day the River Changes, was published in 2021. Follow him on Instagram and TikTok.

Read This Next

Do spiders dream? A new study suggests they do.
Why monkeypox cases are still rising at such an alarming rate
Thunderstorms are moving East with climate change

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet