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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Alinea: A Meal Of A Lifetime

Alinea: A Meal Of A Lifetime

After an unbelievable 12 hour drive across 553 miles from Needles to San Francisco, let alone 2 weeks of cross-country traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast, we had to pack up and head back to Chicago to speak about travel at a national youth conference in Madison, WI.

So it’s kinda ironic after spending 6 grueling days driving 3 RVs from Chicago to San Francisco, we would celebrate by taking a 4 hour flight BACK to Chicago immediately afterwards.

Well, that’s no proper way to celebrate, is it? Months ago we had somehow scored tickets (don’t ask) at one of the top restaurants in the world, Chef Grant Achatz’s flagship 3 Michelin-star restaurant Alinea. So after disembarking our flight from San Francisco, we headed straight there with our oversized backpacks and gear, changing in the cab and rolling into their restaurant for a 9pm reservation. It was funny to see the suited-up staff becoming wide-eyed, and doing their best to welcome 2 dirty backpackers. And yet, we still got great service without any judgment for the rest of the night.

And there we experienced a marathon 16-course molecular gastronomy tasting meal without any expectation of what would come next.






Here’s the tasting menu, in order:


OSTERA, traditional:

OSTERA, traditional


SALSIFY, branch camouflage; dehydrated root jerky that you have to “find” among the branches


SKATE, brown butter, lemon herbs, served over hand molded “napkin plates”:


GRAFFITI, spring, with black truffle “concrete” served over concrete “plates”:


GURNARD, white pepper, vietnamese coriander, broccoli:


SUNCHOKE, hazelnut brittle, white truffle vinegar


Something hanging above our heads the entire time then is taken and placed into a teapot, which turns into…


EGGPLANT, banana, cocoa, curry:


CRAB, rice green curry, cilatro; TAMARIND, young coconut, nam prik num; SIAM SUNRAY, lemongrass, chili, soda


HAMACHI, shishito, bean, pine branch


MAITAKE, lobster, dashi, shiso:



…the previous dish then transitions into…

PORK BELLY, parsnip, black trumpet, butter:


HOT POTATO, cold potato, black truffle, butter (a steaming hot potato is then pulled by a pin and dropped in a liquid nitrogen cold potato/black truffle/butter broth before consuming):


RABBIT, morel, ramp, mastic:


CHOCOLATE, frozen distillation:


QUINCE, almond, grapefruit, oxalis:


BALLOON, helium, green apple (yes, a floating helium-filled balloon completely made out of green apple taffy):


And finally…


TROPICAL FRUIT, rum, vanilla, kaffir lime spread out (or “painted”) on our table by the sous chef:




- At time of posting in Chicago, IL, it was 8 °C - Humidity: 66% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: Mostly sunny


Living Vicarious: Chicago To St. Louis

Living Vicarious: Chicago To St. Louis

After 12 spirited hours in Chicago, I headed back home to NYC this morning to work two 12 hour shifts in the ER. Today the rest of the group continues onwards from Chicago to Springfield, IL to St. Louis, MO while I plan to rejoin the group wherever they are on Monday.


Testing our walkie talkies



Map & MoveMorning mayhem. Our tire was two seconds away from popping off as it hung onto a single bolt on the way to pick up our RVs.




Map & Move3 brand spanking new RVs just for us.






Road Warrior Jorge


The Gemini Giant: One of the last statues left over from the 60s on Route 66





They arrived into St. Louis at around midnight, and promptly disembarked to take advantage of City Museum, which is famous for it’s late night exhibitions after hours.


Taken by William Lau
The 10 Story Slide At City Museum; Taken by William Lau
Taken by William Lau
Taken by Kelvin Sage


- At time of posting in St. Louis, MO, it was 19 °C - Humidity: 25% | Wind Speed: 19km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy


“I Must Go Now, Gotham Needs Me”: Chicago, IL

“I Must Go Now, Gotham Needs Me”: Chicago, IL


Route 66. Let’s begin.

If it’s not already playing, press play. And then start reading.


The official start of Route 66
The Cloud Gate just got served
The Willis/Sears Tower just got served


Despite American Airlines delaying our 6am flight to 9am and then canceling it due to unknown reasons (they literally said “we don’t know what’s wrong with the flight”), we were moved quickly to a 9:30am flight to catch up with everyone else in our group. After all my travels, this would be my first experience ever with a cancelled flight.

Jenn and I landed promptly at around 10:50am and blitzkrieg’ed it to drop off our bags at the hostel. We then briskly walked up through Millennium Park.




With the majority of the group reunited at Millennium Park, we then walked down Michigan “The Magnificent Mile” Avenue to the official start of Route 66 at Adams Street.




Then we took a subway down to The Bongo Room, where we had their highly recommended brunch:


Vegetarian Croissantwich
Red Velvet Pancakes


Afterwards, we headed back up to the original and legendary Garrett popcorn shop on South Jackson:



From there we walked 5 minutes westwards to the formerly tallest building in the United States, the Sears/Willis Tower:



From the Sears Tower we walked north up along the river to Chicago’s redeveloped and photogenic RiverWalk.




After about 3-4 miles of burning the Bongo Room’s pancakes from our system, we stopped by Portillo’s for their famous sausage and hotdogs.


The Big Combo - Italian Sausage with Steak
The Portillo's Hot Dog, complete with mustard, relish, freshly chopped onions, sliced red ripe tomatoes, kosher pickle and sport peppers piled onto a perfectly steamed poppy seed bun


All of this, by the way, wouldn’t have been possible with our dear friend and local Chicagoan, Norman Chen, who provided all the recommendations for the places we’ve seen (and in order!) today. Portillo’s was one of them (along with what to order: “hot dog? Hell no. Get the big combo”). Norman himself then stopped by to meet us at Portillo’s after work to see how we were doing. From that moment on, I let him take over (I’ve never been to Chicago before!).


With Norman’s guidance, we walked northeast to complete our day at the Signature Lounge, located on the 96th floor of the John Hancock Tower (the 2nd tallest in Chicago). There, we ordered a few drinks and watched the sun set over the Chicago skyline.


Taken by Jenn Li of Map&Move.Me
Taken by Jenn Li of Map&Move.Me


Taken by William Lau


After that I said goodbye to the group as I bolted to hostel to pick up my bags and head back to the airport. There I would catch my 10pm United Airlines flight back to NYC where I would fly in at 2am and begin working my 7am day shift in the ER.

At around 9pm, however, I got a text announcing that my 10pm flight was cancelled due to “not enough crew members to staff the plane.” WTF.

That makes two cancellations in a single day. In all my travels, I never had a flight cancel on me until this morning, and now it was happening twice in a row, on the same day in 2 different states on 2 different airlines. Ironically, I would be rebooked on a 9:50pm American Airlines flight (the same airline had cancelled on me earlier this morning), which got me into Newark Airport at 2am.

I promptly made it to my ER shift at 7am, with a minor sleepless-associated headache. I am now to work for 2 days in the ER before rejoining the group wherever they are on Monday.


One of the only buildings in Chicago that survived the devastating 1871 fire


The group would quickly forget about me and go on to eat classic Chicago deep dish pizza without me. Jerks.

But thanks for showing them everywhere and everything, Norman. This day wouldn’t have been possible without you.


Norman second from the right. Photo taken by Kelvin Sage
Chicago Deep Dish Pizza at Lou Malnati's; Taken by Jenn Li of Map&Move
Taken by William Lau


- At time of posting in Chicago, IL, it was 9 °C - Humidity: 36% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy, scattered showers