My Train Trip Across America: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Beauty in deep cold.

Sometimes bucket list items are not what you expected

As I write this I am riding north from Santa Barbara to San Francisco. The ocean is to my left, looking for all the world like a dreamscape to this northeasterner, who knows what life looks like at home. Cold. I’m watching huge waves break near San Luis Obispo, under a clear blue sky. Minutes ago, I watched surfers and saw a pod of dolphins break the surface. But under the idyllic Californian surface, there is a price to pay for this paradise.

I had a fantasy of crossing the US by train, and I did it. But I’d say there are reasons why I would not recommend it, at least not the way I did it. This has been a trip where the contradictions between one experience and another, the same day, have been stark, to say the least.

In one 48 hour stretch I went from watching the sunrise over the high desert of Nevada, a landscape I’d only seen from the air, that looked bleak and brown from 30,000 ft. I’d planned on sleeping through it, but a very late train (four hours) coming into Denver, had shortened our time in the light in the Rockies and given us the morning light for the Nevada desert. And it was beautiful, stark and mountainous with great desert plains between. And those dull browns became ochres imbued with light.

But I’d had a terrible night trying to sleep in my seat, and was tired and sore. I was up at dawn because sleep was not worth it. And it would be full eighteen hours before I got to a bed at five pm the next day in Santa Barbara and slept for twelve hours like a dead man. During those eighteen hours I saw my train come in too late for a hotel to be worth it and a weary slog through San Francisco to catch the last Caltrain to San Jose, so I’d be there for my next leg. I arrived there at 12:30 at night to find the train station closed. I’d assumed I could wait for a train there.

I was wrong. Six months earlier, plagued by the homeless, they had decided to lock the doors from midnight till six, the only Amtrak station I’ve seen lock out passengers with tickets. I was left to fend for myself late at night in San Jose with a rolly bag and a backpack. It was not a cheery moment. I wandered around the station area looking for a well-lit place to sit it out. And realized I was one of dozens doing the same. In fact, except for being a little neater, I was indistinguishable.

Every flat surface that was sleepable was taken. At one point, exhausted, I sat on my bag with back against a concrete wall and contemplated my situation. This was a short simulation of being homeless and I didn’t care for it at all. But those around me lived with this daily, 24/7. In this overstimulated civilization, this should never be, but here where the weather is mild, the homelessness issue is wildly out of control. In fact, southern California is a kind of promised land for the homeless. This afternoon I was talking to a woman who keeps the homeless from gathering in groups in Santa Barbara. She works for the city and knows many of them. Her job is to inform them of services and keep them from creating encampments. Not a threatening person, a woman in a t-shirt with a walkie talkie and a friendly face. She told me that one of her street friends told her they saved money to buy a bus ticket to get there from someplace cold.

So, I spent a couple of hours wandering. Finally, seeing some people waiting in the train station for a late train I cajoled a ticket clerk into letting me in. I still had four hours before my train came.

Waiting is integral to the train experience. The trains I was riding (Lakeshore Limited, California Zephyr, and Coast Starlight), only run once a day in each direction. The traveler who gets off to see a place is committing to 24 hours there, like it or not. This proved to be a core problem of my trip fantasy, as I’ll detail. There were others.

The fantasy. It’s real for some of us.

The Amtrak stations are a very mixed bag, insanely mixed. Chicago’s Union Station is a huge domed marvel but curiously devoid of life. It’s possible its muted grandeur overwhelms. The more lively areas are the typical food court and waiting rooms in a seventies section. The contrast with my next stop, Denver, was fascinating. Union Station there (a popular name, based on the Union Pacific railroad) is easily the best station in the US. It too has vaulted grandeur, but on a smaller scale. Recently renovated, a boutique hotel was built around the main station room and the first level contains a variety of excellent coffee places, bars and restaurants. No chains in sight. Better yet, the station is furnished with dozens of posh seating areas with sofas and leather chairs and work tables with pop-up charging stations. It looks like an exclusive club but it is there for everyone. Which brings us to San Jose.

My next station was my supposed respite from the homeless experience, San Jose. Here I must direct my wrath at those tech titans with their billions and their towers nearby. Yes, that means you Adobe. It is shameful that you can’t invest in your beautiful California Mission-style station. This gorgeous small station has high gabled ceilings with huge beams and old (very uncomfortable) church pew-style seats. But it is a dump. Old fixtures have been torn from the marble walls and the ugly holes left in view. Half the toilets don’t work or are broken and unrepaired. It is not clean. It could be a slowcase with so little effort. Meanwhile, the Caltrain station attached, a seventies dump, sees hundreds of highly paid young tech workers passing through daily. The old station should be a grand entrance to this; instead they are routed around it to an ugly entry.

This kind of thing underscores my ambivalence about the Golden State. It is only Golden for the few. For those of us with some means, it can be glorious, all rows of palms, dolphins surfacing in silver light, and surfers. But it has a dark side.

This contrast was reflected across my journey. One thing I wanted to experience was the incomprehensible breadth of this country. I have seen much of it but only in chunks separated by plane flights. Crossing in four days or so, on the ground, with no attention needed for driving, reveals much. I started late at night from Rochester, NY on a cold evening. The trip was a blur of desolate late fall farm towns and fallow fields. Northern Ohio doesn’t look like it’s doing well at all. This ‘flyover’ country elected our current President, likely out of desperation, a call for help. We ignored them and we are paying a hard price. Sadly, they are not getting whatever they thought he would bring them. Another half of the dichotomy.

Chicago is prosperous but it passed in another blur of sleeplessness. I spent a night in an AirBnB sleeping like a dead person, when I would normally be searching out a good restaurant and a cocktail. Instead I slept in a condo in Chinatown lived in by a nice couple who spoke no English. It was fine, clean and cheap. I did manage to see the Art Institute, whose collections never fail to amaze with their staggering breadth. A great American institution. The next morning, refreshed, I wandered Millenium Park. I was early and not much was open, a pattern repeated most days, including this morning in Santa Barbara where I rose very early after another sleep of the dead. I do not do well without my coffee!

The next stretch, from Chicago to Denver, goes through endless cornfields and small towns, most passed in darkness and another night spent squirming in my seat, followed by another crashout in an AirBnB. Then my 48 hours of heaven and hell.

The Nebraska stretch of the Midwest looked more prosperous. The farms were neat and the fields obviously under the management of huge enterprises. And it does have beauty, those wide open spaces that define America outside of cities.One of my best pictures is snowy sunrise just inside the border of Colorado. I saw all the sunrises on this trip.

Union Station Denver

The takeaways? Food on trains is awful. Bring your own when you can. The scenery is mindblowing or boring. If you want to see scenery, fly to or from Denver and do the San Francisco to Denver leg with a sleeper room. It includes that terrible food, but you’ll be well rested for those vistas. Well worth it. Sleeping in a seat is hell on earth and the effects last for days. If you go for the scenery, get to the observation car before sunrise and save a seat. You’ll see the best stuff as the light comes up. Finally, try not to do all this and then see the scenery through a camera or phone. Talk to the people around you. Don’t worry about which side is the ‘best’ side to sit: the train weaves and the best side changes constantly.

My office on the train

This brief trip was far different than I’d imagined. At times I was nearly out of my mind with sleep deprivation. I was actually hallucinating once I got on the train at San Jose, but that was interesting, because the Central Valley and So-Cal are so bewitching to this Easterner. I’m questioning why I don’t live there. As a writer I saw stories everywhere. Some are here but others may surface. I went from sitting with the homeless in the wee hours to eating at a posh restaurant in Santa Barbara a few hours later. The contrast is not lost on me.

After I wrote this I spent a few days in San Francisco in a nice hotel on the edge of the Tenderloin, San Francisco’s notorious Skid Row. I walked through to get to the Asian Art Museum. It was the worst I’ve seen, row upon row of people lining the streets, nodding, begging, rough sleeping, and panhandling. There were literally hundreds. After my experience in San Jose, I started seeing the homeless everywhere, including ritzy communities like Santa Barbara. From the train you see them camped under bushes all along the tracks.

On the pier, Santa Barbara. The total train mileage was north of 3500 miles.

Our country is in trouble. We cannot pretend these fellow humans are somehow beneath us. Yes, there is mental health, drug and alcohol addiction, PTSD, and hopelessness. These are things we cannot ignore. Any one of us could find themselves there or know someone who is.

This magnificent country is almost unimaginable in its gifts. I’m afraid the dream that anyone can make it through hard work is gone. The leap from uneducated or minimum wage just isn’t there. If we don’t have some kind of path to a better life we are going to live with a permanent underclass of angry or disenchanted people. Pretending they don’t exist is not a solution. In California, they can no longer ignore them. The rest of the country is not far behind.

Former software marketer. Former musician. Writer, nine non-fiction books, two novels, Buddhist, train lover. Amateur cook, lover of life most of the time!

Read everything from MartinEdic — and more.

Upgrade to Medium membership to directly support independent writers and get unlimited access to everything on Medium.

Become a member

Already a member?Sign In

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store