OpinionAdrift on the tracks less traveled

Adrift on the tracks less traveled

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LOUIS, MISSOURI– When I told my aunt that my husband and I would be traveling from Chicago to Salt Lake City via train, she thought we were crazy; while my cousin — without saying it out right but probably thinking I was broke — offered to lend me money for plane tickets.

Undeterred, my husband and I embraced the idea of kickstarting the holiday season with a leisurely ride through the picturesque landscapes of America, taking it slow, and allowing the landscape to change and unfold as we sat back on comfortable, plush coach seats.

I didn’t mean that sarcastically. Much to our pleasant surprise, our $187 tickets got us nice, spacious seats in a carriage that was almost half empty.

While my husband was diligently organizing our belongings in the overhead compartment, I was busy admiring how much bigger our window was compared to the solitary window of my first apartment in Cebu City. Technically, this was coach on a train, but it felt more luxurious than business class on an airplane.

The added bonus? We didn’t have to subject ourselves to the added stress of going through airport security, and we had the pleasure of lugging in two big luggages free of charge.

Choosing to travel at a more deliberate pace has always been our style. For us, traveling is not about ticking off countries in rapid succession but a time to slow down, decompress, and savor.

Armed only with a basic framework of arrival, departure, and accommodation, we embrace the philosophy of dérive (French for “drift”), French situationist philosopher (and noted alcoholic) Guy Debord’s concept of exploring new places guided by mood and feelings, rather than a rigid itinerary.

The absence of a bucket list allows us to discover architectural gems, quaint cafés, and forgotten literary treasures in second-hand bookstores, all while sipping our coffees slowly, and immersing ourselves in the charm of each location.

Our curiosity about exploring the United States by train led us to the California Zephyr which would take us on a 50-hour, almost 4,000-kilometer journey from Chicago to San Francisco, following the westward route of the gold prospectors.

Having relocated to the U.S. over half a year ago, we were eager to experience the diverse natural landscapes that define this vast country.

The month-long winter break provided the perfect opportunity for an unhurried journey, a welcome change of pace after a tumultuous year marked by personal tragedies, professional upheavals, and a mad dash to the airport.

Experienced travelers say this is one of the most scenic train trips in all of North America, something a lot of people found hard to disagree with.

Disembarking in Salt Lake City, however, meant that our journey would end 20 hours earlier than everyone else traveling from point to point. Nonetheless, 30 hours was more than enough time to sit back unencumbered by the demands of school and work, popping notifications, and new emails.

As the California Zephyr departed from Chicago Union Station, I reclined my seat, kicked off my boots, and wrapped myself in the warmth of my saffron-colored winter coat. Chicago’s urban jungle gradually faded, making way for the serene prairies of Illinois.

The journey unfolded with the train crossing rivers, traversing states, and offering glimpses of quaint small prairie towns I used to see on the pages of a Lady Bird book.

The absence of Wi-Fi allowed us to disconnect from the demands of daily life, providing a rare opportunity to reflect and appreciate the shifting landscapes as we coasted by.

This marked my inaugural experience with long-distance train travel.

As I settled into my seat, I felt an inexplicable tranquility in the subdued hum of the train as it steadily moved forward. The afternoon sun cast a golden glow over vast fields, occasionally interrupted by the quaint presence of water towers, rustic barns and farmhouses, reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s painting, Roads and Houses.

It was a surreal contradiction to what was really a frigid winter, despite the absence of snow. Amidst the warm coziness of the train’s interiors, I could feel the winter chill whenever I pressed my palm against the window.

Late in the afternoon, our train traversed the formidable Mississippi River upon reaching Burlington. As it charted a course through the Missouri River between Council Bluffs and Omaha, we were given a glimpse of quintessential American towns: pastel-colored buildings from years gone by, modest houses, and charming white picket fences. From Omaha, the train made its way through southern Nebraska, and northeastern Colorado for the rest of the evening.

We woke up to a snowy morning in Denver, and opted to savor our coffee in the train’s Observation Deck. Flanked by expansive windows stretching from floor to ceiling on both sides, the deck became a communal hub, as more and more passengers began spending time here, taking any available seat, as the train began its ascent into the heart of the Rockies.

By midmorning, the landscape had changed dramatically from vast plains to rugged terrain, delicately dusted with snow. The train wormed its way through tunnels, momentarily enveloping us in darkness before unveiling breathtaking views of snowy, cookies-and-cream peaks before following the path of the Colorado River. Occasionally, we would pass alongside frozen bodies of water, and pine tree forests, adding to the enchanting scenery.

While the views inspired contemplation, they also sparked conversations among strangers— a unique characteristic that sets train travel apart from flying. Shared spaces, extended hours together, the absence of internet, and the communal experience of dining with fellow passengers we shared a table with during mealtime all encouraged interaction, and sparked new connections.

There was a nostalgic quality to it, harkening back to a time when genuine human interaction was the norm, before the era of isolating oneself within the virtual walls of mobile phones—no doom scrolling or chatting with absent others.

On the train, a sense of community and connection prevailed, turning these seemingly-ordinary aspects into extraordinary rarities in our modern world.

Our brief stop at Grand Junction in Colorado was a welcome break to breathe in some fresh air, and stretch our legs. I made a beeline for a quaint family-run shop near the station for some chips and a postcard, only to be told by the cashier they had run out of stamps. I returned to the train with a bag of chips and the postcard I intended to mail before leaving Grand Junction.

By the time our train entered Utah, Colorado’s winter wonderland faded into sweeping, rust-colored desert landscapes, with towering mesas and dramatic rock formations as we glided along the southern rim of the Book Cliffs, and headed towards Helper. As evening descended, Christmas lights outlining the homes and buildings in Helper twinkled brightly, reminding us that we were only a few days’ shy from Christmas.

The California Zephyr continued its journey, crossing the Wasatch Mountains, and reaching Soldier Summit before descending into the Wasatch Front.

Finally, just before midnight, we arrived in Salt Lake City, exhausted but exhilarated, bracing for the next three weeks of hiking and quality time with family. As we stepped off the train, I couldn’t help but feel inspired by the vast beauty of America, and the enriching experiences that come with taking the scenic route.

This journey was not just about reaching a destination, but about savoring every moment of our first long-haul train ride.

In the gentle rhythm of the train wheels and the ever-changing landscapes outside the window, I discovered a profound beauty in train travel that transcends the mere act of reaching a destination. It’s a journey that unfolds like a captivating story, each chapter revealing the diverse tapestry of America’s natural wonders.

Beyond the convenience of avoiding airport stress, and the charm of watching the scenery change before your eyes, there’s a deeper magic in the shared spaces of a train, where passengers become part of a fleeting community.

Conversations spark, connections form, and for a brief period, the virtual walls of mobile phones fade away, allowing us to embrace the genuine human interactions that define our shared humanity.

In a world that often races toward the next milestone, the value of slow travel has become a precious gem waiting to be unearthed. Train journeys offer the luxury of time, an opportunity to savor the journey itself rather than rushing to the destination.

The joy lies not just in reaching the endpoint, but in every station, every encounter, and every breathtaking vista along the way.

As the train gradually pulled into its final stop, I am left with a profound appreciation for the beauty of the world observed through the lens of a train window, and the sense of community forged in the shared spaces of travel.

In embracing the unhurried pace, we not only discover the richness of the landscapes but also the profound richness of the human connections woven into the fabric of the journey.

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Author’s email: thedumalady@gmail.com

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