Coast to Coast USA: See where a train can take you.
I was in New York City for an International University Exchange; I enjoyed the long walks in Central Park, fun convos at Brooklyn Surf Bar, crazy dances on magic rooftops, secret speakeasy bars, and lovely jazz and jam session nights. But after six months of waking up to read California guidebooks, articles about the west coast, and watching videos about surfers and Californian musicians, I had made my decision. After exams I packed up all my belongings and sent them back to Italy, put on my huge backpack, and started my journey from East Coast waves to West Coast waves.
I was dreaming of California. Getting there was too significant for me to simply jump on a flight and step into Cali 8 hours later. I wanted to earn it; traverse every kilometre of land between myself and my dream. I didn’t want to jump the States; I wanted to walk on them, step by step, taste the air, enjoy the sky, and touch every plot of land I could. So, I bought one train ticket and chose to take the Long Road, as Eddie Vedder sings.
The National Railroad Passenger Corporation (AMTRAK) offers a customised cross country train trip; you buy your ticket at the fixed price of $459 and plan your trip from there. All you have to do is respect the schedule that you’ve created with the company before you leave (which went against my new found travel philosophy). In the end I managed to follow the schedule and enjoyed it so much that I never once wished that I’d rented a car.
I had my last beer and yucca fries in my favourite bar in New York, The Surf Bar, and I left my college room. The first official AMTRAK train would have brought me from New York City to Chicago two days after, but to have the perfect wave to wave trip I jumped on a train in Penn Station instead and headed east to Long Island instead. I went all the way through the Hamptons until Montauk. The breeze, the cold waves, and the surfers riding them made me feel like I was inside the pages of Finnegan’ s Barbarian Days – A Surfing life. The call from the Pacific Ocean was as loud as never before; and I was ready for it, and for everything in between.
New York, New York – Chicago, Illinois
States crossed: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana
Train: 49 Lake Shore Ltd.
Departure: New York (Penn Station), New York
Wednesday May 18, 2016 3:40PM
Arrival: Chicago (Chicago Union Station), Illinois
Thursday May 19, 2016 9:45AM
I had a seat reserved on the train, but as soon as I found out about the observation car I knew I had to get a seat there. For long trips, AMTRAK offers an amazing train car with glass sides and top, and seats that can turn 360 degrees. I quickly fell in love with the observation car, it was a completely immersive experience. I had 10-15 co-travellers with me, we’d all made ourselves at home in the carriage for the upcoming hours of gorgeous natural landscapes across huge States. It was very refreshing to have a break from the internet as well, it felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere. My playlist for the trip were the stories of the strangers sitting around me as we shared each others company. We had a new member join the observation car in Indiana; a woman who’s name I cannot remember… However, I do remember loving listening to her as she explained her hat; it was a dark green cowboy hat, and it was full of patches, crests and brooches collected from all the places she had been or people she’d met. Every mile of that train ride was fulfilling.
Buddy Guy’s Legends, Chicago, Illinois
The trip ended in Chicago, the energy of the city was contagious. I spent the next 2 days walking around the light blue waters of Lake Michigan and visiting Millennium Park, taking pictures in front of the Bean (Cloud Gate), imagining someone performing at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, enjoying some classic blues at the Buddy Guy’ s Legends Club, and randomly running into a street photographer from Kenya who invited me to a photography exhibition. I skipped some “must see” tourist attractions, but I discovered much more of the hidden city life instead.
Chicago, Illinois – Denver, Colorado
States crossed: Iowa, Nebraska
Train: 5 California Zephyr
Departure: Chicago (Chicago Union Station), Illinois
Saturday May 21, 2016 2:00PM
Arrival: Denver, Colorado
Sunday May 22, 2016 7:15AM
Street Art in Denver, Colorado
The warm pancakes generously included in my hostel reservation were the perfect beginning to the next adventure. I took my last picture in Chicago and headed towards the sign for Route 66 in front of Union Station. I jumped on my 5 California Zephyr, ready for the 15 hours journey inside the observation car. I decided to spend the first hour in my seat and wait for the observation car to call for sunset. The announcement was made a little earlier than I expected so and I was not quite ready to head there yet.. I heard someone and I turned to meet Martin and Teo, two young guys from Belgium. They were trying to speak to me but I was having trouble understanding them through their thick accents. It turns out they were high school friends on a journey after their graduation. We went to the observation car together, which they didn’t know existed, so I was happy to share it with them! I love randomly running into people like that.
The sunrise came and I was on to a new destination: Denver.
Hostel Fish, Denver, Colorado
Denver Union Station was pretty, small and quiet, especially early in the morning. I actually hadn’t reserved a hostel, but managed to find a place to leave my heavy backpack at Hostel Fish. I was in a nine person mixed dorm that had amazing three tiered bunk beds! I wandered through Denver, got lost, took photographs, visited the Platte River, had tasty falafels and hummus on the grass, and spoke about life and feelings with a stranger named Dave in the Art District. Dave was a Buddhist from Canada who had just returned from 4 months of isolation, mediation, and solitude in a monastery in India. I still feel the peace that he emitted. The next day I was set on reaching the Red Rocks Amphitheatre; a place I had always dreamt about seeing for myself. There is no public transportation to get there, so I decided to hitchhike in order to make my dream a reality. Just standing over the amphitheatre that stretched out of the rocks made me envision Jimi Hendrix on the stage in 1968, hear Bono and U2 in their 1983 War Tour, and feel the vibrations of Ben Harper’ s guitar strings. My parents had told me about this place so often, I only wish they could have been there with me to witness it.
Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Denver, Colorado
Denver (Colorado) – Glenwood Springs (Colorado)
States crossed: Colorado
Train: California Zephyr
Departure: Denver (Denver Union Station), Colorado
Tuesday May 24, 2016 8:05 AM
Arrival: Glenwood Springs (GSC), Colorado
Tuesday May 24, 2016 1:00 PM
I left Hostel Fish early in the morning. I was supposed to jump on the next train and head straight to San Francisco, but a local woman told me that I could not leave Colorado without stopping in Glenwood Springs. I went to the AMTRAK box office added the 2-day stop, but had to give up one day in San Francisco and one in Venice Beach to get it. Glenwood Springs was about 5 hours from Denver, the shortest train trip I had; but Colorado’s mountains, the Colorado river, and the blue sky with white, fluffy clouds made it equally as stunning. I felt as though I was in the middle of the Alps, in some mountain village forgotten by everyone. The air was cooler, which made the natural hot springs so much more enjoyable! At the hot springs, four guys called out from a small yellow car and were wondering where I was headed with my big backpack. They had just finished their semester at the University of San Diego and were driving back to New York. We ended up spending the evening together, swimming in the warm healthy waters, playing music, taking pictures, and sharing our experiences. One of the guys was from Hawaii, which is another destination I’ve been obsessed with, and I could not stop asking him questions about the islands. I wouldn’t have met these people if I rented a car…
Glenwood Springs (Colorado) – San Francisco (California)
States crossed: Utah, Nevada
Train: California Zephyr
Departure: Glenwood Springs (GSC), Colorado
Thursday May 26, 2016 12:00PM
Arrival: San Francisco (Emeryville), CA + bus to center (20min)
Friday May 27, 2016 6:00PM
The 6 hours in the California Zephyr to San Francisco were when I met the most influential people of my journey. Jane and Greg were an 80 year old couple who were completely addicted to adventure. They told me that for their 40th wedding anniversary they crossed the States by bike. I was in love. I also met Devin and Allie, who where two friends from Iowa heading to Hawaii to visit the Hawaiian part of her family. They seemed to come from some sort of hippy fairy tale and delighted the train car by playing an old acoustic guitar and singing some spiritual songs. We drew imaginary animals together, which attracted a guy named Jake. He was a glass sculptor from the northern forests of California. Jake showed us some of his works, carefully packed inside a silver suitcase. I showed him some photographs of the Venice glass work and of the island of Murano, he promised to visit one day; and he did, two years after.
Jane on the California Zephyr
San Francisco completely swept me away. I wandered up and down the streets, sometimes feeling as though I was climbing the road because of how steep they would get. I loved the feeling of being in a big city full of creativity and ideas; and I loved getting lost in the Haight District, the birthplace of the 1960s hippy movement. I could hear Janis Joplin singing Oh lord, won’ t you buy me a Mercedes Benz together and the other big tunes of the psychedelic rock era. I spent hours taking pictures of the Painted Ladies and the colourful Victorian houses. I loved Linden Road and Hayes Valley, where the wooden Temple by sculptor David Best stands. I loved napping Golden Gate Park grass; and sharing an entire day with a kindly woman named Sue, a 70 year old Japanese woman that had been living in San Francisco for the last 30 years. We went to the Japan Centre where I had the best sushi of my life at Isubone restaurant. Later on, I drank in an amazing view of SF from Sausalito, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, and went crazy while watching the June fog thicken around the bridge from the boat that was taking me back to SF.
On Monday May 30, my last day in SF; I decided to take a day trip to Santa Cruz, one of the most famous surf spots in history. A train from Emeryville brought me to San Jose Diridon Train Station, where the Highway 17 Express Bus brought me to Downtown Santa Cruz in 45 minutes. I was on a mission to visit the Santa Cruz Surf Museum.
San Francisco (California) – Los Angeles (California)
States crossed: California
Train: California Zephyr, Pacific Surfliner Train
Departure: Emeryville Station (San Francisco)
Tuesday May 31, 2016 10:00AM
Arrival: Los Angeles (Union Station)
Tuesday May 31, 2016 11:00PM
Folk Music Centre, Claremont, Los Angeles, California
I left San Francisco in the morning, this was my last train trip. I didn’t move from my observation car until 11pm. I was blessed with the best view I could possibly ask for on my last journey: a sunset along the Pacific Highway. I can’t count how many nights I spent in New York imagining this moment. It was magical to see something that I’d imagined in my mind for so long manifest before my eyes. Los Angeles was chaotic and vast. It was a crazy ant nest of perpetual motion compared to New York or San Francisco. I skipped the common attractions except for the HOLLYWOOD sign and observatory, it was breathtaking to view the city from that vantage point. Finally, I took an hour bus ride and travelled 33 miles to Claremont. This city is on the eastern edge of LA County, and the birthplace of my idol: Ben Harper. I spent the entire day inside the Folk Music Centre, opened by Ben Harper’s grandparents in 1958- Another dream come true.
Los Angeles City (California) – Venice Beach (California)
Transportation: car – hitchhike – 20min.
Departure: Los Angeles Union Station
Saturday May 4, 2016 10:00AM
Arrival: Venice Beach Skate Park
Saturday May 4, 2016 10:30AM
My final stop was in Santa Monica, the end of the historical Route 66 and my wave to wave journey.
I took a moment to reflect on where I’d started and how far I’d come- Montauk (New York) to California. My hostel was right behind the famous Venice Beach Skate Park, which I spent hours at everyday watching the skaters. I took long walks by the ocean at the beginning and ending of each day; through the vibrant Venice streets and crowds of people. I spent three hours at a bench on the boardwalk taking photos of passersby; it was a funny anthropological experiment. Afterwards, I went to experience the fusion street food in the trendy Abbot Kinney area and went surfing with my Australian friend from high-school.
It was an amazing way to end an amazing trip.
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