I Took a 52-Hour Scenic Train Ride by Myself, and It Totally Redefined My Views of Solitude and Silence

Photo: Courtesy of Sojourner White/Well+Good Creative
A strong sense of wanderlust has long dominated my every move. Pre-pandemic, I was the girl constantly catching flights to take on new adventures, as both a social-work graduate student studying to practice internationally and a travel-content creator. But when global travel came to a halt in 2020, I was forced to reconsider both the role of travel as a regular feature in my life and all the hustling I was doing to make that possible. A year later, as I searched for COVID-safe travel opportunities close to home, a Google result for “U.S. scenic train rides” changed everything. A mode of transportation I once saw as a means to an end turned into a solo trip complete with big life lessons on rejecting toxic productivity and redefining the art of being alone.

I’ve been your classic overachiever most of my life, pouring myself into multiple jobs and running half marathons on the side, leaving little time for self care that felt restorative. However, the pandemic required me to slow down. My last eight weeks of grad school in St. Louis went remote in 2020, and my international job opportunities disappeared. Upon graduating, I moved back to my childhood home, in Milwaukee, where I now live and work as a remote social worker. But to stave off the restlessness I felt being back in my childhood bedroom, I soon began plotting future travel.

I’d taken plenty of not-so-scenic train rides in coach between Milwaukee and St. Louis during grad school, so I hadn’t ever considered a train trip as a vacation in its own right.

Since international travel seemed likely to be off the table for some time, I focused on domestic, looking for ways to make it more interesting than simply flying city to city. To my surprise, a search for U.S. travel-bucket lists yielded scenic train rides. I’d taken plenty of not-so-scenic train rides in coach between Milwaukee and St. Louis during grad school, so I hadn’t ever considered a train trip as a vacation in its own right. But images of Amtrak’s California Zephyr gliding across the mountainous west coast caught my eye.

As I researched further, this scenic train ride (which traverses a 52-hour route from Chicago to San Francisco) seemed like a promising COVID-friendly travel option. I’m not someone who enjoys driving long distances, so a road trip wasn’t in the cards for me. And I also didn’t want to deal with the COVID-testing requirements still necessary to fly at the time, in 2021, to many locales. The train option was also simpler to plan; I didn’t have to book hotels or activities because the ride itself would be the trip.

Pre-pandemic me, on a grad-school budget and time constraint, would not have entertained an $800 room on the Zephyr. But now that I had a big-girl job and available vacation time, I felt drawn to book the private roomette in the sleeper car. What I would later learn is that I was actually craving the remoteness and solitude of such a setup on a three-day scenic train ride.

For the four months leading up to the trip, I immersed myself in research on long-haul train travel to better understand what my trip would entail. I Googled how to avoid motion sickness and bought Dramamine, nausea-relief bands, and ginger chews. I watched Amtrak YouTube videos about which side of the observation car to sit on for the best views. And when train trip day finally arrived, I packed books and my journal and downloaded all my favorite podcasts since I knew there would be no Wi-Fi on board. I felt giddy at the chance to act on wanderlust and reclaim the sense of adventure I’d so missed.

Since I had previously only ridden in coach, I was enamored by the train’s sleeper car. In my roomette were two chairs, which could be converted into a bunk bed, a small closet for my things, a mini desk, a full-length mirror, and a big window fit for viewing all the natural scenery we'd encounter along the journey. Before the three-course dinner on the first night, I sat down to take it all in. The simple setup was just what I needed to rest, relax, and recharge for a few days.

Though the bumpiness of the ride made it tough to sleep, I woke up in time to watch the sunrise and journal in the empty observation car before breakfast. I felt my shoulders relax as the pink and orange colors cascaded across the Nebraska sky. Since I began working remotely during the pandemic, I’d been consumed by work day and night, and now, I was finally on my own time. I could exist on the train without so much as thinking about the ping of a client email since I had no cell service. And unlike on other solo trips, I had no obligation to book any activities to fill my time because the train ride was, again, the trip. I felt light, calm, and free as I walked back to my roomette to soak in the rest of the early morning silence with breakfast.

I felt a weight lifted, as the restlessness that had consumed me at home slowly drifted away.

As I ate my French toast with berries completely alone, I had the realization that I was not the least bit lonely. I did not miss my loved ones back home, and, remarkably, I wasn’t anxious or bored despite the fact that I was technically stuck in a very small space with only my thoughts. Instead, I felt a weight lifted, as the restlessness that had consumed me at home slowly drifted away.

Sure, I wasn’t in another country sightseeing or working abroad as the international social worker I intended to be. But in having nothing to do but look out the window at a stunning display of rolling hills, I realized that the pace of my life before the pandemic wasn’t sustainable. And while relying only on a laptop to work has its perks, the ability to have constant connectivity can be draining. I embraced the silence, solitude, and leisure of the scenic train ride as an opportunity to reflect.

Journaling in the observation car while overlooking the Rocky Mountains, I realized I had been running myself ragged for years. In my quest to be “the girl who had it all,” I’d sacrificed all semblance of balance. Gazing at the brownish-orange desert and rock formations of Grand Junction, Colorado, gave me a sense of peace I hadn’t experienced in a long time. The ride had granted me the opportunity to disconnect with the world and reconnect with myself in a way you can only do sitting solo coasting through the mountains with nowhere else to be or go.

I now know that what I was seeking was remoteness—to lead a remote life, not just work a remote job.

While preparing for this train ride, I thought I was just planning another solo trip. But deep down, I now know that what I was seeking was remoteness—to lead a remote life, not just work a remote job. I wanted silence. I needed a forced stillness—a Wi-Fi-less, private room shuttling through nature—to diminish the noise in my head about what I should be doing and who I should prepare to become. The seclusion of the roomette gave me space to daydream.

Lying down on the bed, I peered out the window at the Sierra Nevada Mountains and sequoia trees. I closed my eyes. The tension I’d become accustomed to in my legs from half marathon training surrendered. I took a few deep breaths, letting the sun’s glimmer hit my face as I opened my eyes. I did not fully realize this solitude was a choice I made for myself until I was immersed in it. And it’s forever changed not only how I travel but how I live, too.

As the girl who always caught flights, I now catch more trains since riding the California Zephyr. The quiet solo time to reflect and the sunrises in the observation car over natural landscapes make it worth the lengthier trip. While my desire to have it all persists, I also rest and reflect more deeply now. Those 52 hours didn’t just reignite my wanderlust as I had initially anticipated. Instead, that ride helped me reignite a passion for my life, purpose, and inner peace. And no matter where I am, I listen to my mind and body more intentionally now to ensure I do not let that sense of quiet solitude stray too far from this over-worker again.

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