I’m not a fan of working remotely. Motivation is hard to conjure when the collaboration that need to make things are more distant than usual. It’s just not for me. Slumping into a malaise and looking for something unpretentious, I booked a train ticket on Amtrak for a forced change of scenery. “Maybe I should give being a digital nomad a try for a week”. Train travel in the US feels like an afterthought left in the dust by driving and flying. Something about a much slower pace of transit that doesn’t take itself seriously felt… enticing. The thought of taking a train any day I wanted and deciding where to disembark as I go felt liberating. Even more so while negotiating air travel that’s buckling under every possible staffing and logistical issue possible.
My only criteria for a trip was having a comfortable space to work from during the day with enough cell coverage for the occasional Zoom call and taking no longer than 24 hours to complete. Needed accommodations ruled out business or coach class. There’s something to be said about an endurance run schlepping from city-to-city in the cheapest seat you can — I appreciate that sort of stamina, though I wouldn’t wan’t to convert a seat mate to an unwelcome participant in a group Zoom call. I opted for a Roomette — effectively a WeWork on wheels with a transforming bed.
Trains departing San Francisco (Emeryville specifically with a connecting bus or Uber) meant cities like Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Tahoe by way of Truckee, Denver and parts of Arizona (with a questionable transfer in LA) were in reach. I opted for the back-to-back journey of departing San Francisco to Seattle, backtracking to Portland and then returning to San Francisco.
A trip between the Bay Area and Pacific Northwest takes roughly 24 hours assuming all goes according to plan. Less than a thousand miles of alternating single and double tracked rail twisting through the open plains of Northern California, lakes of Southern Oregon and crisscrossing the Cascade Mountain Range don’t leave a lot of room for error. Even more so when your connecting trains departs hundreds of miles away in Los Angeles. Long distance travel even with the best of accommodation is still long distance travel. Delays become more acutely the longer they persist. Comfort comes at a cost, yet still comprised from the familiarity of home. However, this trade off is a welcome bargain to experience an adventure in a far away place or grow through the rigors of traveling while perhaps making a friend along the way.
I was sold and planned my departure from San Francisco at 9:47 PM by way of the Coastal Starlight — the only daily departure to Seattle from the city. Amtrak differs from the concept of high speed rail in other countries by using a multi-day caravan to serve as segments riders use to criss-cross the US. Chicago, IL (pop. 2.71 million) is reachable from Minot, North Dakota (pop. 48,261) after a train has departed west from Seattle almost a day earlier. While majestic in breadth of scenery, limited departures mean you may begin your journey at an inconvenient time of day. Amtrak’s Empire Builder connecting Seattle, WA with Chicago, IL and everything in between would drop you off at 2:45 AM in Spokane, WA should that be where your trip ends. Not easy for those with well-adjusted sleep schedules.
A Room With A View
A Roomette begins to feel like a cabin on a spaceship with dramatically less technology — gravity controls notably absent. A small fold out tray table that oddly fits a 16-inch MacBook Pro perfectly is your only choice of desk. No Eames chair? No problem. An oversized and well cushioned reclining lounge chair more than makes up for it. The familiarity and utility of my own work setup at home or the office didn’t feel missed while I hopped between my Roomette for Zoom calls and less focused work in a communal Observation car. I’m pining for the day of 3D holograms in a mixed reality environment but I don’t have much room to talk considering my sudden fascination with aging American rail infrastructure.
Back to working in a Roomette. Two passengers are allowed which felt spacious for myself and two bags worth of carry-on luggage. A Roomette’s configuration is two large chairs facing each other which collapse to form a cot with a pulldown bunk above. The amount of space is fine during the day — though you may literally be rubbing knees depending on leg length — but at night things get tricky. When a Roomette is converted to sleeping mode, you’re robbed of standing space. Being locked in a never ending loop of “Oops sorry let me squeeze on by” is a likely outcome if you need to maneuver around. Pleasure from close quarters contact is sapped from the hurdle of getting your toothbrush from your dopp bag while in a compromising position. That’s not to say someone more creative couldn’t pull off a discount membership to the Mile High Club in the cabin of an Amtrak sleeper car.
Speaking of sleep: you can pull it off on Amtrak with some creativity. The cot I was given — helpfully setup by a friendly attendant — was manageable. Rocking back and forth in a Sleeper Car felt no worse than attempting to sleep during an overnight flight rocked by turbulence. What I didn’t plan for well enough was noise. Yes, trains have horns and they’re used frequently. Do you really want several thousand tons of steel colliding with every moving object caught unaware? My earplugs while great for sparing me from tinnitus at a concert didn’t fully drown out the long blares of a horn at every rail crossing and a malfunctioning air vent. I eventually switched to my noise cancelling AirPods which allowed for enough quiet to fall asleep. A sleeping mask and room permitting in your carry on, your own pillow. If you’re not in tune with firm vs soft pillows, you can skip this advice and rely on what’s supplied by Amtrak.
Traveling overnight and through the day continuously felt absurd when my destination could have been reached in 2.5 hours vs the near 24 hours I’d be clocking. Amtrak requires some suspension of disbelief as every con about travel — delays, chatty passengers, slow pace of movement — are its pros. Amtrak makes the most sense when time is dispensed freely and delays are another reason to take in sights you’d rarely see. While planes give you the best overhead view of the rural US, you can’t truly appreciate it until you’ve traveled at much more level ground. Driving commands your full attention from the surroundings lest you compete with similar multi ton boxes of travelers gawking at the same kitschy gas station sign colliding into you. Amtrak’s sales pitch is connecting extreme rural communities with major metros and everything in between.
The in between is worth the cost (equal parts time and money) of admission alone. Waking up at sunrise to see Mt. Shasta light up from my Roomette, traversing the desolate snow covered ranges of the Cascades and taking a Zoom call while passing Klamath Lakes is a visual feast for the gluttonous. I can’t speak for all routes Amtrak has but seeing wide swathes of California, Oregon and Seattle I couldn’t get to even if I tried is a majestic experience, even more so when taking the sights lazily from a room to yourself.
A Roomette on paper should be claustrophobic. Its tiny dimensions — 6.6’ x 3.4’ — leave a lot to be desired. Dampening the space-age feel is Amtrak’s visibly aging rolling stock. When put up next to the most ambitious cabin money can buy on a domestic or international flight, it feels like a throne room. Even more so when you consider how well space is used with compartments capable of storing toiletries, outerwear and most importantly, your carry on. Daytime views of your environment defeats the illusion of being in cramped until night rolls in. I never felt myself concerned about space once I figured out how to properly store my carry-on and if I needed more room, the cafe and Observation cars were a welcome hang-out spot.
WeWork On Wheels
While I bragged to coworkers and friends I’d be able to work on a laptop from a train as if I just discovered this new mode of productivity, I wasn’t totally sure how this would function in practice. Manageable cell access would be crucial to my workday, something they conveniently left out in the brochures about remote work. Save for a few hours in the Cascade mountain range, I had robust service. I can forgive tectonic forces over millions of years for erecting a barrier to Verizon’s lush coverage for a couple of hours. Outside of the mountains I felt comfort being the only noticeable civilization for miles on end while receiving 5 bars of LTE service.
Amtrak’s Observation car provides similar vibes to a coffee shop. Think rural diner and less Sightglass hangout spot. Lacking in hipster creature comforts means your experience isn’t overly dressed up while a seemingly infinite change of views occupies your periphery. At times I felt myself wishing my computer would suffer an unrecoverable malfunction and I could stare at the never ending forest rushing by.
Amtrak attracts a particular group of die-hards who swear up and down that train travel in the US is the best kept secret. If it’s that confusing, think when was the last time someone raved about hurtling across the sky at 500 miles per hour and living to tell about it. I was easily converted within several hours. I could see why a U.S president would evangelize Amtrak elevating it to the same level of funding significance as domestic crises and crucial social initiatives. If I had the powers of commander in chief I’d put aside my only-fun-at-parties technolibertarian views and take a significantly more radical approach toward revitalizing train travel in the US. Amtrak fans — myself now among the faithful — are friendly and continuously ready to strike up a conversation about anything. I rarely tolerate being talked at in one-sided conversations but appreciated the background noise of someone describing their monthly rides to parts overlooked in the US or where to find the best food in Las Vegas (New Mexico, not Nevada). The alternative is the oddly confrontational silence we force ourselves in while sitting forcing unawareness of the humans next to us on an airplane.
The best way to describe who you’ll find on Amtrak is the exact inverse of who’d you find at an airport. Amtrak is rarely cost competitive and absurdly inefficient for travel times or reliability — delays are common due to track sharing with freight cars and mechanical issues — when compared to driving or flying. People who appreciate a much slower pace of travel, shy away from the anxieties of flying, come from areas underserved by transit or want to skulk away from checkpoints at airports are who I counted as a crowd on my marathon trip mixed with the odd travel super enthusiast. I’m not sure where to slot myself in — somewhere between newly radicalized rail fanatic and wannabe digital nomad who only owns an iPad — but I felt in good company. Perhaps a moment of liberation from the tyranny of a flight attendant or blatant disregard for passengers: phone conversations were common, loud and very descriptive. Frequently I had to remove myself from the character development brewing from “Margaret, you can’t keep doing what you’re doing” and “I have to go soon, my phone is at 1% and I don’t have a charger”. Having a Roomette comes in handy for needed quiet time.
A crucial part of the Amtrak experience is communal dining. You’re seated 4 to a table during a chosen time slot to optimize for space. Perhaps you’ll be alone. A fellow solo traveler may pop in. A family of 3 could be you’re dining mates. You’ll be guaranteed good (by travel standards) food and conversation at the very least.
To Amtrak’s most devoted I’m committing the ultimate sin: I don’t care for communal dining. Don’t get me wrong, I love talking with people - less so over food. What I don’t enjoy is being talked at by people. Based off previous observations I’d be playing Russian Roulette with a fatal dose of socialization even the most hardened introvert could do little to deflect. If you can handle the wheel spin of non-stop conversation, this is a sales pitch not a warning. I opted for meals to go — a weird concept on a train when you have nowhere to go from. No judgment to my fellow passengers but food and conversations on my own terms is a welcome trade off. Besides, the Observation car acts as a better lobby for connection.
An Ace Card
Riding Amtrak force its pros and cons become more acute. Delays of several hours caused by freight train traffic caused an excess of anxiety cured by elastic trip planning and a forgiving co-traveler. In this spur of a moment trip I opted to visit the cozy pad of Ace Hotel in Seattle first and then Ace Hotel Portland. I can wax poetic about Ace to no end. A mix of preserved history, efficient yet comfortable room designs and an easy outlet to a community of locals mixed travelers is an easy sell. The problem is, I still need to get there on time.
My original itinerary had me arriving at Seattle’s King Street Station around 7:30 PM. Well ahead of the 1 AM front desk shutdown at Ace in Seattle. Delays on Amtrak become compounded but were no different than the feeling of trying to make a connecting flight plagued by bad weather, crew changeover or technical malfunctions. However, Seattle became a midnight arrival at best with the opportunity for more delays from a mandatory engine inspection. I was in a position of missing my checkin and waiting overnight with no concrete lodging options. An hour out from Portland I thought “What’s stopping me from getting off at Portland now?”
My ticket with Amtrak guarantees I can arrive in Seattle. Nothing is stopping me from getting off at any point in between. 20 minutes way out from Portland’s Union Station I made the call to flip my itinerary - stay in Portland then trek up Seattle and double back at some point. A quick call to both Aces and my scheme was validated. My eternal gratitude to the flexibility and hospitality to the front desk staff who answered my call to accommodate an abrupt change. I’d be hopping off technically on time (7:21PM at this point) just at the wrong station.
This could have been catastrophic. What if I had an event that required my physical presence to attend the following day? In the absence of obligation a feeling of triumph washed over me. Cheating the system of chaos to my benefit felt too good to be true. I can’t conjure the same feeling of euphoria parachuting from a domestic flight 35,000 feet in the air into Tucson, Arizona en-route to Austin, Texas even if physics worked in my favor.
I laid my head down at the Ace Hotel in Portland where I’d spend the next five days. Would I make it up to Seattle? Likely, but I could figure that out later. The next morning I’d take a morning zoom call without the sophistication of my at-home setup and wing it working from the communal lobby.
Well versed in the ways of Amtrak I was ready to return home from Seattle. Sorry, I forgot to mention I did end up making it to my original destination by way of Amtrak’s Cascade Line connecting Portland and Seattle exclusively. Five days later but not late. Now prepared for a marathon 24 hours at least on a small moving city I schlepped to King Street Station. Renovated in 2014 to its former glory it’s hard not to say embarking from this mashup of Beaux Arts and Italian Renaissance felt like the pinnacle of train travel. Stripped of over engineered techno wonders, decorative TSA agents and infinite food courts you can spend only as much time as you need. You can even do what I did and spend half an hour gawking at every ornate detail. A real rejection of modernity and embrace of tradition moment.
The beauty of Amtrak isn’t solely arriving at your destination or getting there quickly but filling out the in-betweens of travel. Sure I could have saved time flying or even driving but can your car traverse the upper edges of the Cascades through snow at night while stargazing? Didn’t think so buddy. Don’t get me wrong, the wonders of flying astound me but doesn’t quite compare to an egg omelette watching red and orange painted plains come into their own in the morning. The amount of casual bravado traversing mostly inaccessible geographies and communities is humbling. I’m somewhere between penchant introvert and bombastic talker on the social scale but the community of die-hard Amtrak fans, fellow laptop toting millennials and the occasional odd ball who may or may not be on the run from the law since 1993 was comforting.
Would I do this again? Absolutely. The thought of scaling east into Nevada or snaking through the high deserts of Utah is tantalizing. My reservations about spending a full day in a metal tube went away as my perception of time warped. Arriving in Portland from San Francisco ultimately felt like commuting a far away suburb.