The Civilized Traveler
In December of 2021 I made a decision to take a summer sabbatical. A dear friend had passed away unexpectedly and I was struggling to make meaning. I was missing his laughter, his daily text messages that became such an important part of my pandemic isolation, and most of all his friendship. I needed time away from the day to day of my life, and while I have a good life, perspective and the lack of it had become an exaggerated aspect of my daily existence, especially in my pandemic/endemic world. Everything seemed so small and fragile, as if any misalignment would result in a catastrophic implosion leaving me without the tenuous stability that I had fought to create.
When asked if I wanted to teach in the 2nd summer term that stretched from the first week of July to mid-August, I declined. I knew that it was important to continue teaching. In an adjunct’s life, turning down a gig creates an opening for someone else to land that spot, and you may never get it back, but I needed some time. I have come to love teaching, and I see my life’s work has led me to this point. I will do far more to benefit and influence the Higher Education profession by educating its future leaders, rather than being limited to a single campus regardless of how positive a work environment it promises to be. But, I knew myself and I needed time.
From the platform in Ottumwa, Iowa
Most importantly, I wanted to spend time with my daughter. She had just finished her first year of high school and we were overdue for an annual tradition of sorts. I also wanted to do something that was completely foreign to either of us – something we could experience together for the first time. I had never traveled overnight by train, and I have never visited entire chunks of the continental United States, so the idea of an Amtrak adventure seemed to be ripe. When I presented her with the idea, she was excited. Once she found out that the wifi on the train was limited to the observation car, and even there it was not going to be adequate for streaming, she remained cautiously optimistic, and planned to download as much fan fiction as possible before boarding the train.
After some exploration of routes, we decided on the California Zephyr. It travels from Chicago to Northern California, requiring 2 overnights on the train. We booked a flight to Chicago where we would spend 48 hours exploring the city and a return flight from San Francisco which would take place after a couple of days visiting with friends in Northern California. Eight days in total for the full trip (3 days 2 overnights on the train).
I must note that my husband flew out to California and met us there. I do not want him to feel slighted after reading this. So I’m including it here. He was ‘along for the ride’ the entire time we were on the train as part of our family group chat, which I believe he enjoyed. OK, back to the meat of it…
When booking the train, we opted for a roomette (a very small sleeper car), and arranged to disembark for a 24 hour visit in Denver, Colorado as a half-way point in our journey to San Francisco (actually Emeryville). As such, we would have a day to explore Denver and take a hot shower. I am not a camper, and while there are a large number of blogs that outline how one can take the California Zephyr using a coach rail pass and get on and off and sleep in the wilds of our great American landscape, I knew my limitations. Continental breakfast included.
Union Station, Denver, Colorado
Amtrak guest services were helpful as I navigated the booking process. The booking agent helped me to understand how the ‘get on and off’ thing worked, made sure we were booked into a top level roomette (better view) and gave me some good tips. I was urged to pack snacks, because the cafe car can be expensive and limited and without prompting was told that yes, I could bring alcohol but would need to drink it in your sleeper car. While I didn’t bring wine or booze, I did stop at the Trader Joe’s near our hotel in Chicago and purchased enough snacks to graze our way across half the country.
In the weeks leading up to the trip I was surprised by how many people said they were ‘jealous’ of our trip. We weren’t going anywhere exotic - unless you are a M*A*S*H fan, a 10 minute stop in Ottumwa, Iowa is not the equivalent of Paris or Rome, but it appears that there are a lot of people out there who want to see America, by train. And based on my experience, I would say to book that trip.
Over the course of our short journey we were greeted by landscapes and a glimpse into life outside of our insular world. The corn fields are plentiful in Illinois and into Iowa, where we picked up cows and horses as well. The homes were spread out by miles or inches, depending on where we were. As we rode through rural communities the local post office or water tower consistently served as a way-finder informing us to what zip code we were in, or what the local high school mascot stood on the sidelines at football and basketball games. “Home of the lions!” proudly emblazoned on the drum of the tower, but sadly, no lions of any ilk were seen from the train.
As advertised there was no Wifi in our sleeper car, but there was enough cell coverage that we were able to post on social media, text with friends and family and keep the world updated on our #deveautrippin2022 adventure. Yes, we had a hashtag - feel free to judge. A “twitter friend” (aka, someone I have never met in person but have struck up an online friendship with through mutual shared values and a love for a specific 2020 presidential candidate) saw our progress and being that he lives in Omaha, Nebraska promised to meet me on the platform when the train pulled in for its 15 minute stop. You see, some stops are for disembarking only, others are longer and considered ‘stretch stops’ … Omaha is one such stop.
Only problem was that it arrived at 12:30am, an hour later than it was scheduled, but my Twitter friend, Wes, was there waiting. He sent me a text, which woke me up. And after pulling on proper foundation garments I met him on the platform for a hug in my pajamas. My sleeper car attendant, OC, witnessed it (more about him later). Something about train travel and the platform meet-ups and hugs is far better than anything you can experience with airline travel. I remember the days when you could say good-bye or greet someone with a hug and kiss at the gate. The platform hug in Omaha is as close to that traditional ‘gate welcome’ as I have experienced since pre-2001.
Rocky Mountains, Colorado
Each sleeper car is assigned an attendant, and our first attendant, OC, was a 30 year veteran of the Amtrak life. He lived in Chicago which serves as a bit of a hub for Amtrak travel. The California Zephyr was a newer route for him, but he had a great deal to share with us about how to get the most of our adventure. He took care of our dinner reservation for the dining car and turned over our roomette for sleeping. The attendants also make sure to get you off the train if you are scheduled to disembark as we were in Denver. OC assured us that he would make sure we were awake an hour before arrival in Denver, which was comforting. Our attendant for the second leg of the trip was a gentleman from Long Island, NY named Ainsley. He was a NEW YORKER, so we completely connected over all things loud, gruff and New York.
OC recommended some other routes, one of which was his favorite, the overnight from New York City to New Orleans. Ainsley made no such recommendations “do what you want”. I love being a New Yorker.
Our visit to Denver was a favorite for my daughter who found the city’s climate, funky nature and views to her liking. “I could live here” was uttered at least once, and my heart started to ache a bit thinking about what the future may hold for her and her dreams. She will move on someday, but not yet, and for now we will continue to make memories as a pair and as a small family. We decided to stay at the Crawford Hotel which is located at Denver’s Union Station. The Crawford was recently fully renovated to glistening hipster chic, the staff was attentive, and we even got a free cup of coffee and single scoop of ice cream at the cafe in the lobby. I mean - wow. And, when it came to getting to our train the next morning, I could literally look out the window of the room and see that the train had arrived, grab my bags, check out of the hotel and walk to the train. Completely civilized. Civilized. Besides ‘landscapes’, ‘civilized’ was the theme of the trip.
Meals were eaten with other travelers or alone, depending on how busy the dining car was at the time. As previously mentioned, you are required to have reservations for dinner which were made by your attendant or the dining car staff. The attendants check in on you to be sure that you were ok, delivering water, making coffee and are saddled with a thankless job of bathroom management and cleaning. These are chemical toilets, and they fill up and not to get graphic, some people over use the toilets. Ainsley was not having it - and made several announcements on our boarding the train in Denver to remind our fellow travelers of proper toilet usage (who still puts paper towels down a toilet?).
Onward. Despite paper towels and chemical toilets, there was a level of civility that the fellow passengers had for one another that has become a far to rare experience on plane or even road travel. While this was my one and only experience on the train, I will say that I was overwhelmed by how kind people were. My daughter learned how to play gin from a woman my age who was traveling with her 83 year old father. I spoke to two Coloradans by way of upstate New York who clearly had political opinions different from my own, but whose values were similar. They educated me on the best places to explore caves in the Rockies, and how to not get lost when exploring said caves. I tuned this part out as I am not exploring caves. Our dining car attendant, Dave, showed me how to best set the exposure on my camera and shared with me some gorgeous photos he had taken at the MLK Rodeo in Denver a few months back. Civilized.
My 15 Year-Old capturing the trip (in between fan fiction reading)
Back to the landscapes. With Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska behind us, now was time for the most stunning views of the trip - Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. As we moved deliberately along the tracks, I was awestruck by the views but I could not get out of my head that we were on TRACKS that were put there by HUMANS … it messed with my pragmatic nature. Reminding me that dreaming is essential, because if someone hadn’t dreamt this, we would not be seeing this.
At this point, my daughter and I had gotten in the habit of turning on music in our roomette to provide a soundtrack. She picked the music and I was happy to sing along (poorly). We had an ongoing joke about how we were on the lookout for mountain goats, bobcats and bears … but I was deprived of the wildlife other than some predatory birds who did grace us with their presence.
We arrived in Utah as Dua Lipa sang in the background, and unlike the Rockies where rivers and trees and all sorts of green and blue life hit your face, the simplicity and sweeping nature of the desert and sandstone canyons and mountains were breathtaking in their own right. No better place for a sunset.
Sunsets and sunrises hit differently on a train. The observation car is the place to be at sunset, but your roomette is more than sufficient for an early morning view. My daughter is a sunset planner, and we made sure that we were in the observation car to take it in on both nights we were on the train. In the morning I awakened much earlier than my 15 year old and that made for a special time of quiet and reflection. When the world is waking up and you are gliding through their cattle ranches, tribal lands or small towns on tracks laid by strangers decades ago, you have a different perspective on what life is all about.
We woke up in Nevada and truth be told, it was my least favorite of the landscapes. While sunrise was lovely, there were sizable places along the route that were either abandoned ghost towns that required investigation via the Google as to the reason for their death (spoiler alert: it was the interstate highway) and some junkyards. Indeed, there were some lovely spaces, but for the most part, Nevada became a place for my daughter and I to talk about and relive #deveautripping2022 thus far. And then we saw the first evidence of forest fires that had ravaged the western part of the country. First in Nevada and later in the Pacific mountains of California, acres of land where trees were gone, or only a burnt giant trunk stood alone. What struck me was the juxtaposition of the highways with 18 wheelers and passenger vehicles running alongside the landscapes - either rich and green or burnt and attempting to reinvigorate itself. Regardless of what mile along this stretch of highway, life carried on.
That’s when I knew the trip was over. While we had a few more hours until we had made it to our final destination, the arrival of commerce, tourists and commuters reminded me that life carries on. Rather than looking at homes and ranches, I was looking at vehicles and passengers. Each of them had a reason to be on the road and a specific level of urgency to get where they are going. I began to think about why I decided to take this trip, to see the country and to reset myself. I thought about my departed friend, who I wished I could have shared this experience with via text and later this summer over a cocktail. I thought about my responsibilities later this summer and into the fall. I thought about the memories I had made with my daughter.
I was grateful for the time, and I was more grateful for having made a decision to do something so civilized. The landscape of America that I captured in my mind and in photographs has given me perspective on the ground that I walk each day, especially as it relates to the human that I seek to become. Civilized.
“What’s Up in the Academy?” will return the week of August 15 with a new, more robust, publication schedule for the 2022-23 academic year. In the meantime, please feel free to catch up on the past year’s library of entries. I am also thrilled to announce that select ‘evergreen’ episodes from Season 1 of “Office Hours with Dr. De Veau” are now available on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio Podcasts, and Spotify Podcasts.
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