Marco Greenberg and his son travel by train across America. Time gets conveniently suspended while they roll through geography, history and place.
It should be a mandatory right of passage for a father and his kid. No fly-over country here, no ubiquitous mini-market highway exits off a major interstate. Instead, as you return to your routines at the end of a long summer, start contemplating a very different kind of vacation next year.
Slow down and stay close to the ground. Soak up the scenery. Make textbook concepts come alive in real time: Topography, geography, history, manufacturing, economics, immigration, agriculture and architecture all literally rolling before your very eyes.
How, you ask? Take your kid on the Amtrak California Zephyr running daily from Chicago to Emeryville California on the San Francisco Bay.
You can get off for a breath of fresh air on the 33 stops along the 52 hour journey, or you can get off and explore and get back on the next day or several days after. Hopping off (and offline) is recommended.
My son Noah and I started with an architectural riverboat tour through Chicago, looking down at the city’s shore from the 95th floor of the John Hancock Building, and then jumping on a speedboat on Lake Michigan. As we headed out of the City, we were soon in the lush green flat farmland in Illinois and Iowa. We pulled into Omaha, Nebraska late that night.
The next morning we hung out in a rejuvenated downtown on a sunny and low humidity late July day ending in a field-of-dreams-like setting, watching minor league baseball on the outfield grass with my son commenting on how friendly the people are. This is the same kid who is used to fighting for a seat on the subway.
I’ve travelled to Cambodia and Tanzania and countless points in between, but until this trip had never stepped foot in Omaha where my mom and grandparents were born. “What took you so long?”, my grandfather would have said. I even tracked down his last surviving friend whose memory is still sharp and who was eager to share vivid recollections of our family some 70 years later.
Back on the train that night, 24 hours later, in the sleeper, waking as the sunrise hits your face, we approached the mile high city of Denver. Off for more sports and exploring, from Broncos training camp (my son’s a sports freak and he’s rekindled my interest) to river rafting down the Roaring Fork River, then back on the train through more of the Colorado Rockies, sunset through the red rocks of Utah, wild horses on the desert high plains of Nevada and then up again through the alpine forests and lakes of the Sierras in California.
There are no shortage of small joys, such as resetting your watch to Central and Mountain and Pacific Time and exposing a kid from Manhattan to small town America: Ottumwa, IA, Helper, Utah, and Winnemucca, Nevada.
Rather than a landlubber, I felt like a navy sailor, with my first mate in tow, laughing and cracking juvenile jokes along the way, sleeping in bunk beds weaving through the night as we made it to the next destination.
And in between, getting perspective from other travelers in a glassed-in observatory car. People like Sandy Reid who’s been on the Zephyr seven times this year alone. It’s a “rolling national park” ” that lets you “peak in the backyards of America,” a place where “time gets suspended” as she astutely points out.
It’s the opposite of the harried traveler throwing your belongings into the bin at the TSA checkpoint. Instead, it’s a place where a cross section of middle-class and educated America can still come together and express collective wonder and appreciation for the vastness, and diversity of the land and its people. A seemingly disproportionate number of teachers, European travelers and father and sons, intellectually curious, flexible minds, social but with respected boundaries—the African American engineering professor from Tennessee State making his yearly pilgrimage on the Zephyr, the half-Philpinna teacher from the big island of Hawaii, the middle aged son (also a teacher, in Japan) taking his 80 year old father from Arkansas on a journey to reconnect, the 37 year old mom from Elko, Nevada (also a teacher) who turned to religion to overcome parents who became meth addicts who now is proudly raising two clean cut blonde teenagers.
Now for a few caveats.
The elegant and proud train stations of the past are mostly memories, museums (in the case of Omaha), but sometimes intact with all their big window splendor as in Glenwood Springs, Colorado or in the middle of massive renovations as in Denver. But most have been stripped of their dignity and instead resemble mid-60s greyhound depots. While the trains lag behind Europe and Asia, and the food is adequate to mediocre (if you eat healthy, you should pack your own) but served with loving care on white table clothes in the dining car.
The service is helpful, upbeat and efficient with people who by and large seem to relish their cross-country jobs and they’ll be quick to tell you how Obama and Biden are pro-passenger railroad and how the 35-year-old trains, and tracks, are in need of an upgrade.
Many take their shots at Amtrak, (I have myself in the past), but when you travel on the Zephyr I assure you, you’ll become a defender of this national treasure.