A Passage by Amtrak

Crossing the US by Amtrak train. Tips on making the best of your journey. Sharon Roth photo.

Amtrak: A Passage from One Place to Another

By Sharon A. Roth

Looking out the back of the Amtrak train across the US. Sharon Roth photos.
Looking out the back of the Amtrak train across the US. Sharon Roth photos.

I needed a journey. My adult son was in chemotherapy, had been for about five months. The last treatment was scheduled for early in the month, his life partner needed a break from full time care, and his father and I always spent some part of winter with him every year.

Journey as defined in a dictionary is the getting from one place to another or a passage from one stage to another. I also needed to get to San Francisco to be an in-house mother.

Escaping winter

The back of the train view.
The back of the train view.

Winter in New England can be harsh, and the invitation to enjoy San Francisco was always a welcome respite from it. Early each new year, when winter was at its harshest, we would go off to San Francisco to spend time with our son.

Although this visit would include life care, we also were just parents, helping to change the light bulbs, or carry lumber for some project, or put together the dresser just purchased from the local furniture store.

This year would include the need for providing personal care. San Francisco is not a bad place to do just about anything!

We generally flew, always desperately wishing that the storm of the century would wait until after the day we had to get to the airport. This year, I suggested we enjoy the journey via train.

Although, if you paid attention you know that winter in New England had hardly shown up this winter – and it finally did, of course, on the day we had to drive to the Amtrak Station!

The dramatic scenery out the window.
The dramatic scenery out the window.

It’s not a bad idea to have a back-up plan, such as staying the night before in a local hotel, to get you to either the airport or train station in winter.

Many of us often speak of the misery of air flight: the delays in winter, the waiting in line, the feeling like a herd of beef cattle being driven down the shoot, and the numbness of the knees when you get to enjoy the middle seat between two snoring bears for seven hours.


I’ve been across the USA on Amtrak four previous times, and my husband had done it on one of those occasions with me. That first time together, we’d shared a roomette –- a tight, but doable, fit for two adults traveling together for three nights. This time we went with the larger bedrooms; and on the long haul of the California Zephyr, we ended up with the Family Sleeper as that was all that was left when we booked our tickets.

Napping in the train cabin.
Napping in the train cabin.

Tip: For some excellent information on Amtrak train travel see “Fear of Flying” Although this article is about a different train, the details are applicable across the Amtrak system. Jim Loomis, Trains and Travel also has great advice about which room to choose and more on his website and in his book.
I could spend quite a bit of time relaying the unevenness of the tracks and how that might effect your sleep (the issue for our trip was with the Lakeshore Limited between Albany, NY and Chicago, IL), the slight unevenness of the service provided by the staff; or even the argument that train travel is “much more expensive.” But I want to take you on my journey.


It was a journey without really much Wi-fi coverage to speak of, although in the larger cities along the way you could catch some for quick email checking along the way.

But, if you spent that ten or twenty minutes inside the train checking email, you gave up the chance to get outside in the crisp air of winter of varying temperatures, with snow falling, and walk or jog up and down the platform watching the people detrain or get aboard.

A journey with limited cell phone usage available. If you had cell coverage on your phone or small device, you could check for a decent amount of the ride, but then you’d be sitting with your eyes down and not looking through those windows. Some gorgeous sights are to be seen along through the American West.

And, lest you think it’s all about deer, moose, dhal sheep, and elk (yes, we saw them all and many birds); the back yards of Americans, the businesses, the traffic you aren’t in are all there for gawking.

When’s the last time you saw anything more than clouds and far away images of the earth or ground from an airplane window? If you were lucky enough to even have a window seat? Or event wanted one?

It is Amtrak’s policy to limit at least where you make your phone calls, and if you choose to listen to music or watch videos, it is expected you will use earphones.

Even in your own room, if the volume is too loud and your neighbor mentions it to an assistant, you’ll be reminded of the policy. The whole train is quiet from 10 pm to 7 am with announcements being made only in emergencies.

The family room with bed.
The family room with bed.


When you go to the dining car, (and all meals are included in the price of a sleeper), as we were in a sleeper, you are required to sit next to the person you are traveling with so that other diners may be seated across from you.

The accepted etiquette on train travel is to introduce yourself with your first name, and engage in conversation about where you’re headed and a little about why.

Although I did not choose to always talk about my son’s illness, we always had marvelous discussions about San Francisco and other cities in the US, our work lives and the pleasure of a journey. Eating dinner with good company on a moving train while you watch the sun set is a pretty spectacular way to spend a couple of hours.

The Amtrak train seats, always way more comfortable than any coach airplane seat.
The Amtrak train seats, always way more comfortable than any coach airplane seat.

We met farmers from Minnesota, a professional fisherman and his wife from Colorado on his way to gamble at Reno for the weekend, a ex-vineyard owner and his life partner enjoying their first US train trip.

We discussed gardens, fishing, farming, farmers markets, and more.

And, given that this is the Presidential primary time of the year, we hardly brought up politics. American’s reluctance to get too heated in such a small public place I think is what drove that; but it was a pleasant release to avoid that topic for me.

Feeding the soul

The choice to take three nights and four days to get from one coast to the other was about the journey for me. I needed time to soothe my soul, to rest my heart, to think about my chores once I arrived, to feel the pain of my son’s illness and let it own me, and to practice some yoga of the senses.

This was possible on a train where I had some room to sit and just look out the window at the passing majesty for hours on end without conversation, without having to get in another line, without worrying about getting there. Amtrak was going to get me there regardless of the weather at 30,000 feet or at the airport. They were going to get me there well fed, showered, in clean clothes, and not jet lagged.

That was the journey I needed. A journey to the other coast and a passage from retired professor back to full-time mommy for a few weeks.

Consider a journey at least once in your lifetime of travel. Get yourself from point A to point B while also absorbing the sights, the sounds and your soul along the way.

Sharon A Roth

Sharon A Roth is a retired education professor who loves journeying to other places, good food, folk music and cooking. She lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts, where there is now an Amtrak station.

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