Standing on the platform in Emeryville waiting to board the California Zephyr at its origin station, we heard a crackling intercom announcement telling us that our train would be arriving forty-five minutes late. Failing to turn off the PA, a low hum followed the conclusion of the announcement, and, moments later, the station attendant’s voice returned as she complained to her coworker, “They can never get them out of the yard on time.” This seemed to confirm our families’ smug claims and our bubbling fears that this entire thing could be a shitshow. When we booked our tickets in early December for our cross-country train trip from the Bay Area back to New Haven, we vowed not to obsess over Amtrak’s chronic delays. But in the week leading up to our departure, worries spurred by crawling through train-travel threads on Reddit made it impossible not to check the train’s delays.
If the Zephyr accumulated six hours of delays between Emeryville and Chicago (an entirely possible, if not likely scenario) we would miss our connection and the first days of spring semester. But as the train departed eastward and the lost time mounted, paranoia of arriving late was quickly forgotten.
The most important part of the train on any long distance Amtrak journey is the observation car, where the ephemeral community of Zephyr congregated to stare out across the rolling landscapes. With its tall windows curving up to the sky and chairs facing out towards the expanses of the American West, a seat in the upper deck was a prized possession; each morning, the early breakfast crowd would rush to finish their yogurt or eggs just to secure a spot.
Despite the occasional announcement about an approaching stop, the quiet in the car was disturbed only by passengers pointing out frozen rivers and towering silver mountains. “Look at the snow,” an elderly man said to his wife as we climbed into the Sierras. United in our awe of the world outside, we would spend most of our days and part of our nights staring out these windows as the train swayed and swerved. It was the ideal place to witness the section of track when the train would round a sweeping bend, allowing us to see the two engines at the front. Lovingly referred to as “big curves,” which we quickly shortened to “B.C.s,” these moments were the only thing important enough to rouse us from our trance.
After winding our way through the Rockies and racking up five hours of delays, a sixty-something regular rider named Keith promised that we would “haul ass across Nebraska.”
Our fears assuaged by Keith’s prudent words, we dozed off in our twenty-eight-inch-wide beds (“the same width as a standard casket,” per journalist Katie Weaver) ready to wake up just hours outside of Chicago. But upon waking we were informed by a strangely amused fellow passenger that a freight train had flipped over in the middle of the night and blocked our nocturnal Nebraska path, not only ruining our chances of making up lost time, but in fact adding even more. But nobody really seemed to give a shit—most cross-country riders exude a slightly concerning (yet admirable) carelessness when it comes to punctuality. As we crossed the Mississippi River, we found ourselves adopting this attitude as our own.
Amtrak works in mysterious ways, one of which is the disappearing act of delays on the Amtrak Train Tracker website. One moment, California Zephyr #6 was going to deposit us in Chicago with just thirty minutes to spare, and the next we had regained enough time to get mediocre Thai food in the Loop instead of eating another Amtrak signature black-bean burger. Boarding the Lakeshore Limited, our next train, the Zephyr’s peeling faux wood detailing was replaced with shiny, white plastic trim. The twenty-two-hour journey along the southern edge of Lake Erie and down the Hudson Valley felt like one long coast into Penn Station. It had been eighty-five hours since we got on the train back in Emeryville.
As we rode the sleepy Metro North line up to New Haven, its regimented stops—9:25 p.m., Stamford; 10:09 p.m., Bridgeport; 10:41 p.m., New Haven—shook the spell of the Amtrak Time Warp.
The continental United States’ four time zones served as a gentle benchmark for our cross-country project. Trundling west to east and crossing a temporal boundary each night, we’d wake up to a ritual of setting our watches forward one hour. Rather than jolting our circadian rhythms like the Zephyr’s airborne alternative, the change from Pacific to Eastern was gradual—welcome, even.