Zephyr-initely a Trip to Remember — From SF to NYC on Amtrak: The California Zephyr & Lake Shore Limited

Zephyr-initely a Trip to Remember — From SF to NYC on Amtrak: The California Zephyr & Lake Shore Limited



Day 1: Emeryville, CA


“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”


After we returned from LA yesterday night at 11pm, we turned in at our lodgings situated immediately next to the Emeryville train station, which provided us a false sense of security in making the 9:10am 3-day long Californian Zephyr train tomorrow morning.

Because right as everyone woke up at 8:30am, Sina and I headed out with our rental car to the local Avis (also located at the train station) thinking we had plenty of time.

  • 8:35am – Then we remembered we had to fill up the gas tank
  • 8:45am – Return the car to a closed office despite it having a posted opening time at 8:00am
  • 8:50am – Try to get the car into the garage, which was locked
  • 8:55am – Sneak in behind another car that did have access to the garage
  • 8:57am – Leave the car behind in that garage hoping for the best (luckily the Avis person would return a minute later with her coffee berating us for coming 5 minutes early…yeah makes no sense)
  • 9:00am – Run to the train station
  • 9:03am – Arrive to meet up with Evie and Mihaela who had brought us coffee, with only 7 minutes to spare before the train would leave us.



Thank goodness the train station is tiny at Emeryville, otherwise we would’ve very likely missed it.

Here’s the posted timetable on their website, even though the Californian Zephyr is frequently late.



Once we boarded and as the train was about to take off, we were led to our 3 roomettes that were thankfully switched around at the last minute so we could all be together:



And just like the trains Mihaela and I (and 16 others) rode in Egypt only 9 months prior, each roomette fits 2 beds with the top bed being able to flip up to provide more room during the day.



About an hour into the train ride we were asked for our lunch orders and time slots to eat in the dining car (to provide ample physical distancing):



We began our lunch at 11:45am:



Despite what you may have heard and if you manage your expectations well, the food on the train was surprisingly good:



Each meal starts off with a salad:



And some favorites were the red wine braised beef:



Shrimp in Lobster Sauce:



Chicken Marsala:



…and more controversially, the Creole Shrimp & Andouille:



The viewing/observation car, located just past the dining car, is where most of us would spend our time:



If you need more food, snacks, beverages, or liquor, there’s a bar car downstairs below the observation deck where you can pay for items with a credit or debit card.



And once you have your setup ready (whether it’s music, speakers, headphones, a book, a laptop, a phone, snacks, a beverage, or any other combination), kick back and enjoy the views.

The first “sight” would be Donner Lake of the morbid and infamous Donner Party incident.



Nearby is the cute town of Truckee, California:



The sunset over the plans of Nevada:



And by 8:30pm it was completely pitch black. Although the observation car is open all night for socializing, movie watching, or staring off into the abyss, it remained completely empty on our first night.



So make your bed and sleep in — this very well may be the best sleep of our trip!



Day 2:


“My whole wretched life swam before my weary eyes, and I realized no matter what you do it’s bound to be a waste of time in the end so you might as well go mad.”


The next morning I woke up at 6:30am, mountain time:



And in the back of the observation car, I set up my home office for the morning:



Once we arrived at Grand Junction, CO, we assembled a SWAT-style strike team at 11:30am to pick up our pre-ordered food at the adjacent Puffer Belly Restaurant within the 10 minute window we had before the train would leave us.



Mission success!



By 2:30pm we reached the valley past Glenwood Springs, CO. Commonly regarded as the most beautiful parts of the California Zephyr, we instead witnessed the profound devastation of the Grizzly Creek wildfire; a currently active (at the time of posting) wildfire that has now been regarded as the worst in Colorado’s history.



It will take over 200 years before the trees here will grow back.



Then by 2:45pm we had come across a boulder that had fallen onto the tracks, damaging them. Our train thus backed up into Glenwood Springs where we disembarked for a few hours as the maintenance teams arrived to remove the boulder and repair the track.



Not a bad town to get stuck in for a few hours:



It was at this point our train conductor Brad, walked up to me and asked if our group really did bring a guitar (Evie brought her ukelele!). When I answered in the affirmative, Brad became excited about the prospect of an physically distanced jam session outside the station as we waited for the tracks to be repaired.

Within minutes he was on his phone giving his credit card information to buy a $498.99 Ibanez guitar at a local music shop in Glenwood Springs, after which Evie and a new friend we made on the train, Crosby, took an Uber to retrieve it.

When they returned, the next 2 hours was all magic (remember what I wrote about COVID not spreading well outdoors, as well as the fact the all Amtrak staff and our group have all tested negative before going on this trip)



The impromptu concert then continued inside after we were back on our way at 5pm, and it made all the feels as the sun was setting outside:



Day 3:


 “I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all.” 


The next morning we woke up an entire day of this as we traversed across Nebraska and Iowa:



Endless cornfields as we finally took this pause to reflect on an adventure still unfolding.

As the sun began to set on our final night of the trip, we begin to receive and give one another feedback on how to do better on future trips. This is after all, our first monsoon since the pandemic began and there was no way any of us would be able to execute anything perfectly the first time — let alone during a pandemic.

In fact, we’re grateful to know that as things could have been much much worse leading a travel group across the country twice during these uncertain times, we knew we would and could always make the best of it. Although at the time of positing I’m currently unsure how much I can convey without the consent of others onboard the train, let’s just say when the right humans collide in the right way, that is everything.



We then say goodbye to our new friends:



…and rush over with 20 minutes on the clock to catch our 9:30pm Lake Shore 48 train from Chicago to NYC.

The train is newer than the California Zephyr, and hence the roomettes are a little spruced up:



Unlike the roomettes on the Zephyr, each roomette has its own toilet and sink:



But it didn’t matter as our onboard wagonmaster was able to score us a proper full sized bedroom since nobody else was on our train:



Unlike the roomette with the toilet, the bedroom also has a shower:



Although there’s no observation car with ceiling windows on the Lake Shore, it makes up for it with a larger, swankier lounge car:



But in order to get food during off hours, the snack bar is 5 train cars away:



And despite 3 days of trying, we finally make time for movie night with one of my favorite travel films:



Day 4:


“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.”


Our final day on the roads across America. Once we woke up after our late night movie night, this was our office for the rest of our train ride:



And unlike previous trip endings, where there would always be the next “cab” and “flight to catch” that would rush our goodbyes, this first purely overland monsoon on RVs, vans, and trains would now have us instead waiting for our goodbye; the ending came to us.

The slow farewell thus left us a lot of time to reflect on not only the past 3 weeks of traveling together but also the preceding 5-6 months of lockdown that prevented us from even leaving our homes. And from that juxtaposition I can’t describe the feeling any better than Mihaela (who’s been on 10 of these monsoons with me now) when she writes: “This trip doesn’t feel real . . . like it was a long dream.

I felt like we were in an alternate dimension; one where the pandemic is real but also distant — we traveled within the confines of the pandemic yet there were so many moments of what felt like freedom or some type of liberation from the confines of the virus even though the type of travel was because of the virus. I feel like the closest thing I could relate to is it felt like I was in a comic book and we would sometimes break the 4th wall.

And now I’m crying again.” – Mihaela

You’re not alone.



Once we arrived at Penn Station at 6:30pm, we were received by none other than our vlogger Noeleen (from the first part of the trip!) and then our videographer Raubern (also from the first part!) at the very spot where we had our orientation 22 days ago:


August 7, 2020


Oh how time flies:



We stayed out until midnight, just because saying goodbye will always be just too difficult.



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The Big “Sur’ved”

The Big “Sur’ved”


“Something, someone, some spirit was pursuing all of us across the desert of life and was bound to catch us before we reached heaven. Naturally, now that I look back on it, this is only death: death will overtake us before heaven. The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate to admit it) in death.”



We woke up bright and early to a smokey San Francisco haze, remnants of nearby wildfires that’s currently regarded as the “worst in history.”

The morning’s overpowering smell of burnt ash triggered both memories of past travel as well as the symbolic novel sentiment that I feel like I have been jumping from one wildfire to another this year.



But somehow, by regaining autonomy for our lives and standing in line for breakfast at popular bakery Tartine somehow helped alleviate the apocalyptic feelings that we’ve long been associating with 2020.



With breakfast and coffee in our stomachs, we set out from San Francisco at 9am for a 2 hour drive to Monterey.



We spent about half an hour here walking around Old Fisherman’s Wharf and watching random otters lying on their backs.



Then another hour driving down Highway 1:



Once we saw Bixby Creek Bridge we knew we had reached the grand finale of the Pacific Coast Highway — The Big Sur.



Some traditions don’t change —

3 years ago:


Sampson and I: January 2018 in Uluru, Australia





After passing through the photogenic and recognizable Bixby Creek Bridge, we took our time down this road, taking in all the splendid sights this legendary highway has to offer.



By 2pm we reached Nepenthe for a well timed, much needed lunch:



Although our original plan was to continue onwards to McWay Falls (a unique, 80-foot-tall waterfall flowing onto a small beach), and the seals at Elephant Seal Vista Point, the current wildfires in the area made Highway 1 inaccessible less than a mile past Nephente (the red shaded areas are the active fires).

Not wanting to get in the way of essential work and evacuees, we turned our car around towards Salinas:



Hopping from Highway 1 to the 101 and then onto I5 (currently devoid of traffic given a combination of the pandemic, wildfires and that it was a Sunday), we made good time on a 5 hour drive south towards Los Angeles where an impressive welcoming party was waiting for me at Chosun Galbee BBQ’s outdoor patio in KTown:



Balkans trip 2017 reunion!:



Finishing off our long road trip down the Pacific Coast, we had one more round of drinks outdoors at La Ddong Ggo:



The next morning we woke up at our accommodations at The Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica where we finally took our time with a lazy breakfast:



And after giving ourselves an entirely free day in LA, we eventually set back north again towards San Francisco for our 5 hour drive and a step closer to the end of our journey: a 4-day Amtrak train on the California Zephyr from SF to NYC via Chicago.

I gotta say, even with all the half-hearted grief I’ve given to Los Angeles as a biased native New Yorker all my life, the past 21 hours in this city on our last official stop on our Pacific Coast Highway itinerary have been nothing but cathartic — and it appears to be not just for myself. Witnessing so many people directly and indirectly pour out pent up emotions from their lockdown/pandemic experiences in front of us have been sobering; keep in mind as a group of COVID-negative, antibody-positive, or naturally immune New Yorkers we’ve been relatively liberated from our single prolonged lockdown for almost 4 months now, whereas Californians are currently in the midst of or emerging from a second lockdown. Therefore for many of our friends in LA, our arrival and dinner together was the first social interaction (and for some, a real hug) they’ve had in months.

After my 21 hours here I’ve now viscerally internalized the difference to not only “know,” but also feel through these human connections that we’re not alone and that there is light at the end of this long long tunnel.

So if our brief sojourn into your lives from NYC made any difference for you to keep going — even if it’s just for an hour we had together — then I’m already more than thankful that we came.



And somewhere out there, a mother and her son just found the random note I left behind at Sea Level Bakery in Oregon!!



- At time of posting in Big Sur, it was 23 °C - Humidity: 56% | Wind Speed: 16km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear


“Humboldt” by the Avenue of the Giants

“Humboldt” by the Avenue of the Giants


“And for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven. 

I could hear an indescribable seething roar which wasn’t in my ear but everywhere and had nothing to do with sounds. I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn’t remember because the transitions from life to death and back are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and waking up again a million times, the utter casualness and deep ignorance of it.”


Setting out from Eureka at 10am we first picked up some breakfast at the nearby Starbucks and then drove 30 minutes south into Humboldt National Forest, home to the tallest and oldest trees in the world.



There’s a reason why they call this drive through Avenue of the Giants.



Then we drove 2 hours south along the Pacific Coast . . .



. . .  before reaching Glass Beach, a uniquely rocky waterfront filled with colorful, broken pieces of glass washed up on the shore.



The beach sits by the town of Fort Bragg, also famous for being home to the Skunk Train, a historic train leading through meadows, canyons & redwood forests.



While here, pick up some homemade ice cream at Cowlick’s:



From here we were then supposed to drive another 3 hours to reach Bodega Bay, another hour towards Point Reyes, and then 45 minutes to the Muir Woods National Monument, but sadly this is happening right now:



We started this trip worried about COVID-19, but the biggest dangers would instead be the annual Californian wildfires:



Maximizing safety, not wanting to burden emergency services, and ensuring that necessary roadways would be set aside for evacuees and essential workers, we instead took a shortcut through Santa Rosa that ensured a 3 hour drive to San Francisco and our lodgings in The Mission District.

Of course, as if we wanted a story, we would accidentally lock our keys in the car.



And yet, this fiasco would be short lived as thankfully Evie had JUST signed up for an AAA membership on a whim a month ago!

They showed up within the hour:



And somehow during all these nighttime shenanigans that took place in The Mission district, my friend from college Samantha, as well as monsooner Sampson (whom I last saw in Australia 2 years ago in 2018),  would came by to join us for celebratory dinner and drinks afterwards:

Crisis averted!



“It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness of the late afternoon of time.”


- At time of posting in San Francisco, CA, it was 20 °C - Humidity: 64% | Wind Speed: 24km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear


Oregon-na Go on an Adventure!

Oregon-na Go on an Adventure!



“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.” 


This morning we woke up to a grey, dreary sunrise in a quiet motel inn in Westport.



Saying goodbye to my medical school friend and co-resident ER doc William who had joined us for all of yesterday’s drives, we soon set out at 8:30am for an early 2 hour drive into my first time into Oregon for the cute town of Seaside.



After a brief photo stop, we drove another 15 minutes south to the better known and epic Cannon Beach.


The drifting sands along the beach against the backdrop of Haystack Rock would leave anyone breathless.



Fun fact: this is where The Goonies was filmed!



Here we also stretched our legs and picked up a brief meal at the famous Sea Level Bakery + Coffee, thanks to the recommendations by more than a handful of my instagram followers:



I even left behind a note for one of them who couldn’t quite make it to us in time:



…while one actually did meet up with us!



We then continued onward another 20 minutes’ drive south to Neahkahnie Mountain and into Tillamook, where we stopped for a quick guilt-ridden dairy filled (and I mean ice cream) at the famous creamery.



Pressing onward another hour and a half, the monsoonal storms caught up with us. Throughout nearly the entire rest of the drive we were soaking in rain, which I felt only added to the surreal atmosphere of driving along where the land meets the sea. Full disclosure: We also got by listening to episodes of Esther Perel’s podcast “Where Do We Begin.”

By 3pm we reached the scenic rest stop at Devils Punch Bowl and enjoyed a clam chowder at the local Mo’s:



A further south is Thor’s Well, a gaping, seemingly bottomless sinkhole that swallows the endless seawater around it. 

Being caught under the rain and seeing the waves crash with the sounds of thunder against the natural rock formations here was something else:



Then we continued with another 2 hours drive to the Bandon Dunes. Yes, there are actually sand dunes here!



Finally, we took a deep breath and made one final push to the most remote part of the Pacific Coast Highway — into the arguably hard-to-describe areas of Northern California.



The random stop to catch a gorgeous sunset definitely helps break up the long slog towards California.



And then as our conversations got deep and penetrating about past traumas, we passed state lines into CA and the majestic redwoods at night . . .



. . . we eventually made it to our lodgings in Eureka by 1am at the Redwood Riverwalk Hotel, where they had accidentally under-booked us by giving us only one room instead of two.

After a bit of polite negotiating, and luckily since there were only 5 of us, we were able to fit all of us in a single room with a rollaway cot.


- At time of posting in Eureka, CA, it was 17 °C - Humidity: 87% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: rainy


California: The Promised Land

California: The Promised Land

After bidding adieu yesterday to Gareth’s crew of himself, Clay, and George, we were left with only 4 drivers. Given over 550 miles left to our end destination of San Francisco, and needing to be there within 24 hours, transporting our 3 RVs with our anemic crew seemed like an insurmountable challenge. We had spent weeks looking for alternative drivers for hire and every time we had a potential offer, the deal would eventually fall through (no time, too much payment, shady background, timing issues, unresponsiveness). So we were left with just ourselves.

So you can imagine the kind of indescribable adrenaline we needed to get us from point A to point B. In Needles, CA a few of us slept for a few hours and others pulled an all-nighter to get ready for the final long haul, and at 7am we set off for the 8-11 hour drive across California and the Mojave Desert from Needles to San Francisco.

Historically, this was regarded and the most feared and intimidating part of Route 66 due to the relative lack of rest stops and places to refuel along the Mojave Desert. In our experience, that would be the case as well; while we definitely did not suffer nearly as much as those before us on Route 66, today’s drive proved to be the most challenging by far.



But who says in the middle of a grueling drive you can’t enjoy a pit stop every now and then? A couple of miles past Barstow, we noticed an odd abandoned ghost town and decided to go check it out…



If I knew any more about what went on here, I would be writing about it now.

When we reached Bakersfield, we came upon Murray Family Farms, an oasis farmer’s market in the middle of the Mojave Desert:



After a coffee and meal break here with a small nap, we pressed onwards towards the final stretch.



Our sanity barely intact after 12+ hours on the road within a single day, we finally made it to San Francisco at 2:30am the next morning.



But our story doesn’t end here.

The next morning I woke up at 8am and went to double-confirm the drop off time with Cruise America. Unfortunately, I realized that although the San Francisco Cruise America site is named “SFO” after the airport, it IS NOT LOCATED AT THE AIRPORT. They neglect to tell you this unless you specifically ask (or get lost).

So I asked.

Their “SFO” location is actually located in Newark, CA, which is an hour south of San Francisco. Shit.

Realizing this, and knowing Jenn and I had an 11:30am flight to catch at the actual SFO airport (which is another 40min drive away from Newark, CA!), we scrambled our 3 RVs with a skeletal crew of 5 people and drove as fast south as we could.

And inexplicably, we arrived promptly at 9:25am. It then took us about 45 minutes to clean out our RVs, have them inspected for damage (oh boy), and pay the remaining balance.



It is now appropriate to take one last celebratory photo:



And then, saying goodbye, Jenn and I booked it to SFO airport for a flight BACK to Chicago (ironic, isn’t it?)


On the flight: my facial expression is pretty much one of incredulousness.


We did it.


- At time of posting in San Francisco, CA, it was 14 °C - Humidity: 61% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly sunny


The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon


Today’s journey led us to the one and only Grand Canyon.


The Grand Canyon just got served
Photo Credit: Kelvin Sage


But before we got there, we woke up this morning to check out more of our wigwams during the day and said farewell to 3 members of the crew: Gareth, Clay, and George, who we will be meeting up with again in Venezuela in 3 days.



Then we drove 3 hours west and north towards the Grand Canyon:



Getting to the Grand Canyon wasn’t as quick as I had hoped:

1. 30 minutes in traffic

2. Pay the $25/vehicle fee at the entrance

3. 45 minutes looking for parking.

4. Hop on packed shuttle buses that run on a constant circuit.

5. 20 minutes on the bus

6. Reach the Visitor’s Center

7. Walk north another 5-10 minutes towards the South Rim. . . .



Worth the journey.


Photo Credit: Kelvin Sage


After around 2 hours walking around The Grand Canyon, we then traced our steps back to the parking lot and took our RVs south towards Flagstaff, which had its own share of pretty views fitting to Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” playing in the background.



After a quick dinner in Flagstaff we headed 3 hours west in the pitch blackness and are now staying overnight in the border town of Needles, California.

Tomorrow, we complete the last leg of our 6 day, 9 state journey along the entirety of Route 66 with an 8 hour drive across the Mojave Desert and northwards to San Francisco. (Yes, we know the historical end of Route 66 is supposed to be Los Angeles, but we got a ridiculous deal to drop off our RVs in SF instead of LA, so please forgive us).


- At time of posting in Needles, CA, it was 31 °C - Humidity: 5% | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: clear