Riding the Zephyr: SF to Chicago

I wrote this on the train ride back from Chicago.

On the train. Right now we’ve stopped in snowy Ottumwa, Iowa, population 25,000.

It’s been a fun and exhausting several days, between the two day, two night train ride, the four days and nights in Chicago, all the sessions, and all the AWP attendees (about 10,000, their highest attendance ever). Now it seems almost strangely quiet in our little private roomette, with the darkness outside, and the falling snow.

I should have kept up with my blog this whole time, but I didn’t. (I did tweet all along the way though.) So here’s a recap in brain-dump form.

Day 1

I wrote about how I was worried that our “roomette” would be too small. It’s definitely cozy but not as cramped as I thought. It did indeed reminds me of the Hogwarts Express, and I keep waiting for someone to walk by with a cart and sell us chocolate frogs. There are no chocolate frogs, but there is free water and coffee.

I had great plans to spend most of the train ride writing, and while I did get a bit done, I mostly just daydreamed and stared out the window, fascinated by little towns like Colfax, a name I love though it’s just the name of the guy who founded the town.

Plus there was a guy who sounded just like Fred Willard giving lots of info about the surrounding areas. At first I found him annoying, but then I got into it. It was quite fun sitting in the lounge car/observation deck, listening to the little stories the guy told about what we were looking at.

The meals were included with our ride and accommodations, and they were mostly average, and got a little tired of the same thing every day. (Also, they make you sit with other people to fill up the tables, which is fun if you’re in the mood but not if you’re, well, not.) But it was better than airplane food.

While I had fun looking at scenery during the day, night time was more difficult, at least for me. It’s dark out so there’s nothing to look at, but it’s too early to go to bed. We brought our own wifi, but internet was quite spotty so we weren’t able to watch Hulu or Netflix. Then when I finally went to bed, I couldn’t sleep although I was tired. You’d think the rocking of the train would be soothing, and although I’ve fallen asleep plenty of times sitting up on a train (I remember in particular the train ride ES and I took from Kamakura back to Tokyo, and how I fell asleep so hard I could barely wake up to get off the train), I couldn’t sleep that whole first night. And it was really quiet too, the only noise the shaking of the train.

Day 2

Although I was exhausted, early the next morning (they started making announcements at six) I still wanted to get up have coffee and breakfast. As always with some caffeine in my system, I felt way better.

By then we were in the Nevada desert.

The Fred Willard-tour guide was gone, and I missed him, but I still enjoyed the view.

The second day I was just mostly exhausted. After lunch (meat loaf and garlic mashed potatoes, which were surprisingly good), I took a much-needed shower and a short nap. The night before I slept in the bottom bunk, and for my nap I slept on top since MB was working. It was pretty comfortable.

After my very short snooze, I felt invigorated and returned to the lounge car to enjoy more of the view and try to write. For dinner that night, we both tried the crab cakes, which one of our previous dining companions, who was from Louisiana, didn’t like, but which we thought were quite good (so much so we had them again tonight for dinner).

During the day, MB had managed to download several shows, so we had stuff to watch that night. Plus we were in flatter territory and more easily to get a signal.

Because I had fallen asleep that afternoon in the top bunk, I though I’d try it that night. No luck. I didn’t sleep well again. Although on the top bunk you feel more removed from everything, it’s also more cramped. When I turned on my side, I kept feeling like, whenever the train lurched, that I’d go tumbling out.

I did eventually fall asleep, and dreamed 1) that the shaking of the train was someone jumping on the ceiling, and that 2) I looked out the window to find a psychedelic Nebraska landscape. Lush neon green leaves, a purple-blue sky, and (I think) deep blue cows, and I thought of my friend Sarah from college who was from Nebraska, who once scoffed at the idea that I, a Jersey girl, knew what a real farm looked like.

Day 3

I felt somewhat better this day, and was up early again for food and coffee. More writing/daydreaming.

By the afternoon, however, I was fed up with being on the train. I hadn’t organized things well so I felt like I had too much shit and at the same time, couldn’t find anything. Plus I was tired of the bathroom. It was like a bathroom on any Amtrak train – tiny and cramped with shitty faucets.

But after lunch (veggie burger), I felt renewed and excited because we were almost there. And then we were there, finally, in Chicago.



  1. What a cool adventure you had! My current client is Amtrak and I’ve been sent out to these small towns in the middle of nowhere, like Stanley ND pop. 1458 and I can understand the fascination with these small towns and places. Lots of fodder for stories!

    I also notice that you write in a spiral notebook? Is that typical process or just because you were on the train?

    • Tom, you’re right that these small towns are great fodder for my writing. They’re just so different from what I’m used to.

      Writing in a notebook is a typical process for me. Usually I hand write something first, if not the whole thing, then at least the beginning, especially for longer pieces. I feel like it forces me to slow down. Afterward I type up what I’ve written and edit along the way. Sometimes what I type is totally different from what I’ve hand written, but it’s still in my brain somehow, if that makes sense.

    • Hmm, that’s a good tip. I tend to do all my writing on the computer, but I find I skip many things and it just feels so rushed. I will have to try the spiral notebook method – thanks!

      I also find taking lots of photos, which it appears you did, tends to also help me remember and describe places better.

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