My epic cross-country train trip

It’s been a while since I have written here.  I judge myself, sometimes, for my lack of discipline in keeping up this blog.  And then, sometimes, I am able to instead empathize with myself—to recognize the obstacles that get in my way, and also celebrate all the other ways I choose to spend my time and energy instead—and just let things be as they are.

But I feel drawn to write now.  I am embarking on a journey I wish to document and share.  Many of you know how much I love train travel.  For the past year and a half, I have been dreaming up the trip that I am just now beginning.  (As I type, on Thursday evening, September 5th, I am sitting in the Sightseer Lounge car on the Amtrak Coast Starlight train, with panoramic views of the Willamette Valley countryside.  It is beautiful.  Dry at this point in the season, with the trees just beginning to change color.)

I have crossed the country by train before, more than once, on the Empire Builder. (The colonialism/manifest destiny of that name now makes me wince, whereas initially when I took it to my ten-year high school reunion back in 2000, I was enthralled by the implied power and adventure in it.)  That route stretches from the Pacific Northwest across the top of the nation, through scenery including the breathtaking Glacier National Park, all the way to Chicago.  In Chicago I transferred to the Capitol Limited, which took me through Pennsylvania and West Virginia to Washington, DC.

I wanted to try something different this time.  I had heard the name of the fabled California Zephyr, described by many as the most beautiful route of the 15 in the Amtrak long-distance-train system.  I had taken the Coast Starlight to southern California several times, and absolutely loved the views.  And I wanted to try a new way to get between Chicago and the DC area, so I looked up the Cardinal, which goes through Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia. 

I also wanted to see various sights across the country, and visit various friends and family members.  I had seen Luray Caverns, in Virginia, with my grandmother at age 6, and it had mesmerized me.  I wanted to see it again!  I also wanted to bicycle a rails-to-trails project, the Washington & Old Dominion (W & OD) Trail, which opened when I was about 8 or 10.  It ran from Washington, DC, out to Purcellville, the small rural town where I was to attend middle and high school.  At the time, I had never heard of the rails-to-trails concept, but I thought it sounded cool.  My family lived out in the country, without bikes, so it didn’t occur to me as something that I could personally use, but I liked knowing that it existed, and that some adults in the area apparently enjoyed biking and/or walking along it.

When I moved to Portland in 1990 to go to college, it only took a few years before I adopted the city’s bicycling ethos and took up cycling as my main form of transportation.  Every time I would go back home to visit my parents (who still live in the old stone farmhouse they bought in its shambles state the summer before I was born in 1972, and spent decades lovingly restoring) I would think to myself, “Hey, I ought to bike that W & OD Trail one of these days!”

But I never did, because I never had a bike when I was back there.  I decided that this trip would be the perfect time to prioritize it.  (More on the amazing logistical details in a future post!)

I’ve also grown obsessed with Japanese gardens, ever since my remarkable partner Johnny decided, more than five years ago, to build one inside the maximum-security prison where he resides.  In that span of time, as I have watched and supported his efforts to bring the garden to fruition (it’s nearly there now) I have made a point to visit at least a dozen Japanese gardens, around the United States and Canada.  This trip seemed like a perfect opportunity to see several more, and to revisit one that was built by the same world-renowned Japanese garden designer, Hoichi Kurisu, who has partnered with Johnny to build the prison garden.

I also have cultivated a love of botanical gardens over the past few years, and I plan to see several of those as well.

So… this feels like a trip of a lifetime.  My hope is that I will fully enjoy every moment riding the rails—drinking in the scenery, meeting interesting strangers, enjoying the vegan dining-car meals I worked hard to secure—as well as fully enjoy all the cities and towns I visit, and the friends, family, and strangers I connect with along the way.  I also hope that I may be able to inspire someone reading this, whether to take a train trip of your own, or to work toward realizing some other travel or life goal.  (And, as always, I am here to support any such endeavors if you need some co-brainstorming, strategizing, or emotional support of any kind.)

My intention is to post regular updates here, detailing how the trip is progressing.  Thank you for following along with me!

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