I wasn’t surprised by the reactions I received when telling people along my journey that I was taking a train from Coast to Coast…”You’re taking a what?” “There is a train that actually runs coast to coast?” “how long does that take?” and my favorite “why?”
A journey is the act of traveling from one place to another; an adventure is an exciting or remarkable experience, and through that experience you gain knowledge. I was on an adventure. Not only to master the Amtrak train system but to rediscover myself, my freedoms, and my attitude towards life. After some discussion with a few people that had taken the Amtrak to closer destinations (Philly to Chicago, or Philly to DC/Boston), I decided to look further into the train system — it goes just about anywhere! My plan? Book at ticket via Amtrak to Mississippi and join my friends in New Orleans for Mardi Gras – then from there I will figure it out!
Day 1-8; Philadelphia (30th St Station) to Meridian, MS
The trip from Philly to Meridian via Atlanta on the Crescent Train is about a 24 hour trip. This train goes from all the way from Philadelphia to its final stop New Orleans. I would make it to New Orleans (NOLA) eventually but I wanted to stop by Mississippi State to see friends before I continued on (plus my friends from MS State were the ones going to NOLA for Mardi Gras). I spent 4 days catching up with friends and then we drove to NOLA Friday night to start the New Orleans, Mardi Gras experience! There is really only one way to “do” Mardi Gras….all in. I’ll explain. While I was in in Mississippi I discovered that my friend Bridget was on a similar trip as mine, however she was only traveling the south, but in her Van. Now, most people say I should have just hopped in her van and saved money and you’ll see why as you continue to read more, but I was on my own journey, I had other reasons for my trip than Bridget. Bridget did, however, find herself in NOLA. Mardi Gras is hard to explain…picture the young, the old, the desperate, the poor, the rich, the horny and the typical college kid from all ethnicities and put way too many of them in one location and for one reason – to party and not care what anyone thinks. Voila! Mardi Gras! The thing to learn about the train is that it only leaves on certain days, at certain times, so you have to be incredibly flexible. Well after all of my friends had left on Sunday I realized that train doesn’t leave until Monday, Bridget offered a sleeping space in her Van for me and we decided one more night in NOLA wouldn’t be so bad. I find that traveling in a smaller group or on my own I get to meet the most interesting and fun people. We went to an Irish Pub off of Bourbon Street, away from the chaos, and had more fun there then trying to push through the crowded street of Bourbon with the threat of being knocked out by beads flying through the air. At about 4am we made our way back to the Van where we slept for a couple hours.
Day 9-15; New Orleans, LA to San Antonio, TX
Monday morning we sleepily woke up at 0730 and the van was sticky and stuffy from the southern air, or maybe it was just us with lack of a shower in 2 days and an increase in drinks. I grabbed a head band to put in my greasy hair and hopped on the Amtrak Sunset Limited at 0900 for San Antonio, 15 hours of peace, quiet and most importantly rehydration. I arrived in San Antonio around midnight and my good friend that I had been stationed with in Guam, CJ, was there waiting with a smile. I gave him a huge hug and was grateful for the bed and shower he supplied to me for the week. I’ve been to San Antonio a couple of times but I always had a car, this time I was outside of the downtown area, carless and wondering what to do while CJ was at work. Day 1: Relax and recover from New Orleans, go for a run and enjoy the warm Texas weather. Day 2: call a Taxi and go hiking. FAIL. The park was closed and 1 hour and $100 later I was back at CJ’s apartment, angry and wondering what to do next. So instead of giving up on the day, I decided I should figure out how to use public transportation. I walked an hour to the main bus station near the hospital and bought a ticket. Hoping I was going the right way and walked around the river walk until CJ called me and I went back to meet him for dinner with some co-workers. It really is the best feeling to get to a city you don’t know and once you look at a map, you automatically become an expert in minutes. I had a great time Hiking around Texas, discovering the Alamo, drinking and dining by the River Walk, discovering new places to eat, meeting up with Family (my then Fiancés’ sister and brother-in-law live in San Antonio), meeting new people, and running fun desert trails. Day 6: Daniella and Blake (sister and brother-in-law), took me out on the town until my train was to depart at 2:45am for Phoenix.
Day 16 -21 San Antonio, TX to Maricopa, AZ (Phoenix)
When I found out I was going to Phoenix (I had a plan to get to Phoenix so I could go hashing and meet up eventually with Bridget in her Van), I realized I didn’t have anywhere to sleep. It truly is amazing to know people in various locations or know people, that know people. I posted on FB asking anyone for a place to crash, when my friend Christina came to the rescue. She hooked me up with her friend Vicki and side-kick pup, Schooner, who drove the hour south to the train stop to pick me up at midnight and took me in for the week. As much as our plan was to hash on Monday, we ended up going to the Ren Fair (my first ever!) and it was a blast. Beers, Comedians, crazy people in fun outfits, and great food. We were in no rush. After the Ren Fair, the next day I wanted to test my luck at public transportation. I felt I had done so well in San Antonio, why not try to figure out Phoenix? Vicki gave me her Metro Pass and I was off. The train basically just goes through the entire city in a straight line. I was able to take it all the way to Central Biltmore then back to Tempe for an amazing taco lunch, and then hopped on the bus that took me to the zoo, where Vicki met me and we went to the Desert Botanical Gardens (Free for military!). ALL IN ONE DAY! I met up with the hash Wednesday night for a nice run and some drinks at a bar that overlooks an ice hockey rink. The next day Bridget came to the house along with our very pregnant friend Jamie (who is now a happy mother to a healthy little girl) for Thai food. Bridget and I decided Vegas was next on the trip, but first we would have to stop in Sedona and get some hiking in!
Day 22 – Van Trip to Sedona then Las Vegas
We hopped in the Van early Friday morning so we would have plenty of time to get to Sedona and get some hiking in. When we got there, it was about 9am, so we ate and went venturing for Bear Mountain. Bear Mountain Climbs from about 4600 feet at the parking lot/trailhead, where there is a natural stopping place at elevation of 6150 feet. Go about another 50 feet up and you get to the peak. It’s a beautiful view of red rocks and, at that time of year, snow on cacti! We finished in a couple hours and decided we wanted more, so went on a search for Devil’s Bridge. This time we would run it. Devil’s Bridge is a natural stone arch that has a moderate amount of climbing (up some 400 feet). It is about 1 mile to the arch. If you are afraid of heights or fear of falling off steep cliff edges, I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s well worth the view when you get there! It was about 5pm when we finished and with a 4ish hour drive to Vegas, we had to hit the road. So, muddy, sweaty and a bit tired, we loaded up on caffeine and made our way to my friend Will’s house where we will spend a couple days in Vegas.
Day 22 – 26 Vegas
After arriving in Vegas around 9:30pm, we pulled up to Will’s mansion like house that he shared with a young couple and their little baby girl. We unpacked and with martini’s in hand, the 5 of us sat in the hot tub and enjoyed the cool Vegas night. The next morning, after a much-needed day to sleep in, we had some party planning to help with. Will and his friend were throwing together a Murder Mystery Party and we all had characters to play. So after Bridget and I ran in a half marathon “Blood Sweat and Beers” Desert Dash race Saturday morning, we drove around to various thrift shops picking up our costumes for the night. If you’ve never been to a murder mystery party, I highly suggest holding one or going to one, it is so much fun! On Sunday Will and I went to a farm that he volunteers at and fed the animals, then we decided we all needed to spend a night downtown. My suggestion for Vegas, is to go to Downtown Old City and stay at the Golden Nugget. On and off night (like a Sunday) or in the off season it is $30/night, even right now it’s only $47/night. It’s right on Tremont St and in the middle of everything, plus the pool is heated and has an aquarium in the middle of it, with a water slide that goes through the aquarium! It’s amazing. After spending a night downtown, don’t waste any more time in that part of Vegas, there is so much more to see and do! My last day we took a hike into the Red Rock Canyons, bouldering our way for a couple hours through the canyon and to the top. It was a great way to end my trip in Vegas and prepare myself for the Greyhound Bus I was going to take the next morning to Los Angeles.
Day 26 – 28 Vegas to Los Angeles
You haven’t lived until you’ve taken a greyhound bus 5 hours from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Seriously. It’s actually not as horrible as some people made it out to seem when I first booked the ticket. BUT it does get sketchy when you get closer to LA and realize that you may not be in the safest of locations anymore and the people that come on the bus don’t look like people from your local mom and pop store down the street anymore. BUT I survived. A friend from High School, Sarah, was taking me in for the couple days I planned on staying, but she was in Long Beach so I had to find my way to Long Beach from LA. Back to the public transportation drawing board! After getting off of the Bus in the downtown LA area I needed to find the bus, that would led me to the train, to take me to Long Beach. Whew. I stood in line thinking I was just going to take a train for Long Beach when two older ladies asked me where I was going when I obviously looked confused. “Ohhh Girl, you are in the wrong place!” Wait what? “Yes you need to go out the door there, turn left, go to the McDonald’s a block away and get on the Bus there, then take that bus to the Subway Green Line” Ok. I messaged Sarah, my phone was dying, I only hoped I could get to the train before my phone died so she knew I was on my way. As I sat down waiting for the Train, a boy came up to me and asked if I needed help, apparently I looked homeless. A hiking pack on my back and 2 bags filled with stuff, my hair a giant greasy mess and I was “homeless”. Go figure. That week I met up with my good friends Glenna and Joel, and Glenna being off of work that week, we explored downtown Long Beach and LA together and had a great time catching up. By the end of the week I needed to get on the Starlight Coastal for Sacramento, so I bid adieu to Sarah and Glenna and Joel and Sarah got me back on the bus to make my way to the LA Amtrak Station for my next trip.
Day 28 – 30 Los Angeles to Sacramento
It is a beautiful trip to go up the Amtrak train from LA to Sacramento. The ocean/mountain views are immaculate and the whole time you are looking out from the observation area, you feel like you are right on the edge of a cliff (which you are) and it’s amazing. Probably the prettiest part of my trip. Christina (the same one who hooked me up with Vicki in Phoenix) was picking me up from the train station at midnight. I wasn’t too pressed to do much in Sacramento, I had been there before but it was nice catching up with Christina and partying like rock stars like we seem to always so when we get together. And after a couple days later (which not sure I could keep up after any more days), I was back on the train to make my way to Seattle.
Day 32 – 35 Sacramento to Seattle
Back on the Starlight Coastal I slept off the weekend as I made my way to Seattle to visit my cousin Liz and her husband Mike (and newest addition to their family 7 month old Claire). Liz picked me up when I came in to town and after relaxing that night we went downtown the next day to eat lunch. It was my first time in Seattle so we first went exploring at Pike’s Place, chewing gum and placing on the gum wall, watching the fish guys, window shopping at all of the crafty tables, and tasting all of the yummy homemade local jams and honey they were selling. It was so amazing. We go some lunch just outside for fish market area, I nice little seafood restaurant then decided if we were in Seattle we needed to get coffee! Starbucks seemed overrated, we wanted something more local and original, so we discovered this little place called Moore Coffee on 2nd Ave. It was absolutely amazing coffee and hit the spot after a nice lunch. The next day I wanted to test my wits again at public transportation. Liz and Mike live in Redmond, which is a bit of a drive over the bridge to Seattle, so I hopped the Bus to get to the downtown area. Once there, rainy and a bit chilly, I found a coffee shop and wondered what I would do for the day. After a nice lunch and coffee I discovered the Pike Brewing Company where I was accompanied by some fellow hashers. The brews were awesome and the food and company were great! I would be leaving the next day to go to Cincinnati, OH so I headed back to get some sleep before my long 2 day train ride.
Day 35 – 37 Seattle to Chicago to Cincinnati
I settled myself in for a long ride from Seattle to Cincinnati, knowing I would be spending not just one night but two on the train, I wanted to be as comfortable as possible. The cool thing about the train is they try to give you your own seat if you are a single rider. They also will let you sleep in the observation train at night if you happen to be next to someone. But the best thing? The seats lay back pretty far and it becomes a recliner. So if you are little, like me, you can curl up and it’s like lying in a small bed. There was a man across from the whole trip, we didn’t talk for a day. It was to the point where it was almost awkward to start talking. But as we started to make our way into North Dakota, we made eye contact and he said “So you’ve been here a while, where are you going?” Cincinnati, you? “My stop is in a couple hours here in North Dakota” Oh so not much further for you! “Only like 6 hours!” As we got to talking he was in his mid 50’s and telling me about how we was a coal miner and was visiting his son in California the last week. He invited me to dinner, but I declined since I always feel bad when people pay for me and I didn’t want to spend $15 on a chicken and mash potatoes meal. So he then forced me to take once of his Roast Beef sandwiches (which was amazing). I offered some carrot sticks that I had and we chatted. His wife had passed away from Cancer and he was on his own, seemed a little lonely with his son so far away too. But he was in good spirits and a very nice guy. I told him about my wedding plans and what my trip was about and what I had been doing. As the train stopped, he looked up and said, “well that’s me, here take this, you should eat a good meal soon”. As I watched him leave the train and head towards the station, I opened my hand to see a fifty-dollar bill. I guess I should have let him pay for my $15 dinner.
Day 37 – Arrived in Cincinnati
After a bunch of hustle in the Amtrak station in Chicago (one of the busiest hubs for Amtrak), and a few more hours to Cincinnati I arrived at the station and met with my friend Jesus (‘J’) who was on his way to the east coast via his car and offered to take me to NJ for the rest of my trip. With the train growing weary on me gladly accepted his offer and we drove 9 hours to New Jersey where much needed sleep and recovery was in order.
The thing about Amtrak is if you have the time to do it, then I would recommend it. They have a set schedule that is usually on time and it may not be as flexible as getting in your car but you also don’t have to worry about the driving. I’m sure I would pick a car over Amtrak to have a little more freedom with time, but the train was such an awesome experience with awesome people. This blog only sums up what I was able to do, see, and people I was able to meet on the smallest scale of my adventure. I want to thank everyone that let me sleep on their couch, in their spare room, picked me up, dropped me off and entertained me for over a month. You are all amazing people and one day I hope I can return the favor!