Skip to content ↓
alan avatar

eighty hours (pt. 1) by Alan Z. '23

two trains, twelve states, 540 pictures, one Speaker of the House election, and more!

Last week, I took Amtrak across the country, from Boston to San Francisco. Along the eighty-hour journey, I took some notes about what I was up to, what was happening around the train, what I was feeling, and a number of…other things. Over the course of the next four days, I will be posting the notes from the trip, lightly edited, with accompanying pictures. Here are the notes from the first day.


Hour -1: 12:04 PM EST, January 3rd, 2023

location: South Station, Boston, MA
currently listening to: the beautiful sounds of South Station (nothing)

I am sitting on a wooden bench in South Station, just across from the Au Bon Pain. I am about to embark on a bit of an adventure, perhaps the biggest journey I’ve gone on since starting at MIT. I am nervous, but I am also very, very, excited. True to form, I’ve arrived at South Station perhaps a little earlier than I should have, but I suppose that I’ll find some way to kill the time.01 notably, I’m watching the House Speaker election very closely.

The plan is as follows: I will be taking the Amtrak across the country. More specifically, the Lake Shore Limited will take me to Chicago, arriving at 10:12 AM CST on January 4th, some twenty-two hours later. From there, the California Zephyr will take me to San Francisco, arriving at 5 PM PST on January 6th, by way of a bus from Emeryville, CA, another fifty-six hours later. All in all, the trip totals seventy-eight hours of travel, with a four-hour layover in Chicago.

That is, of course, if everything goes to plan. By the looks of it, there’s nasty storm system located out west that will probably put a pretty big dent in the already-not-great on-time track record of the Zephyr. We will have to see exactly how it goes, but I suspect that this trip will probably end up over seventy-eight hours. In the meantime, I’ve brought everything I need to entertain me: more books than I can imagine finishing in three days, a notebook and a couple of pens, the piano-conductor score to the musical Heathers (more on that later), and a friendly seal plushie named Nat (short for Gnat).

I’ll keep updating this log, probably once every two or three hours, but, in what is perhaps not a great omen, one of the South Station pigeons has just…left its leavings with pinpoint accuracy on my shoe, so I will have to go find a napkin. See you again soon.

Hour 0: 12:51 PM EST, January 3rd, 2023

location: just outside of South Station, beneath the I-90/I-93 interchange
train: #449, currently running on time
currently listening to: Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

And we’re off!

The Lake Shore Limited starts off in Boston and New York and joins up to form a larger train in Chicago; today, they’ve got just one coach car on the leg from Boston. It’s still a pretty spacious environment; definitely lots more legroom than on a plane, and, for the moment, there’s nobody sitting next to me, which is a bonus. There’s also an outlet on the wall right next to me, which is even better. I suspect we’ll be picking up more people in Back Bay, but we’ll see how that goes. The people behind me are talking about Ohio, and the Amtrak conductor has just gone and rambled through a list of all the stations we’re stopping at…it’s certainly a lot.

stations on the lake shore limited

Not much to talk about at the moment, since we’re still in home sweet home, Boston. I think I’ll sit around and follow the House leadership election for a little longer, and then start reading something. Updates to come.

Hour 1: 1:59 PM EST, January 3rd, 2023

location: Worcester, MA
train: #449, currently on time
currently listening to: Rachmaninoff, Variations on a Theme of Corelli

We’re currently waiting outside of Worcester, MA. So far, the theme has been nothing out of the expected; Massachusetts continues to look like Massachusetts, and the world ticks on. Most of the landscape has looked the same; a thin strip of trees between us and a row of houses, which must be incredibly loud to live in. This is not to say it is completely boring, but it will almost certainly not be able to compare with some of the landscapes which will come later along the trip.02 read: Rocky Mountains.

On the other hand, Worcester, marks the edge of the unknown for me, personally. The path of the train up to Framingham was pretty familiar, passing the Boston Bruins stadium on the way out, as well as portions of Newton I’ve walked through countless times. Framingham and Ashland, a little further out, also occupy special places in my heart, having walked through them on my marathon walk. Finally, I’ve taken the Commuter Rail03 trains run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority which cover the region, helping commuters get to work in Boston and helping me go exploring! to Worcester before, for an appointment with the Massachusetts RMV,04 what Massachusetts calls its DMV for whatever godforsaken reason. although I was only here for a few hours that time. Now, we are covering untrodden territory.

On a more logistical note, Worcester also marks an important turnover with regards to train routes. One of the reasons Amtrak gives for its somewhat poor on time performance is that it often doesn’t own the tracks it travels over, instead contracting for “trackage rights” on freight railroads. This means that trains are often asked to stand-by in order for freight trains from the railroad in charge to pass them, resulting in cascading delays.05 this is technically prohibited by federal law, but sometimes happens anyways, and, in any case, is too deep of a rabbithole to be relevant for this post. The exceptions to this lie primarily in the Northeast; Amtrak owns the track for the Northeast Corridor, and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), which runs the Commuter Rail, owns much of the track it runs on, and, from my limited impression, is much more cooperative. Past Worcester, the train runs on track owned by CSX, which has a B on the Amtrak report card, meaning that this journey that has thus-far ran on time may end up falling behind more. We will see.

Inside the train, there is now someone in the seat next to me, reading about monetary policy, funnily enough.06 as discussed <a href="https://mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/difficult-difficult-lemon-difficult/">here</a>, I had to do a final paper on Ben Bernanke. The two people behind me are still talking, flitting from subject to subject, but mostly discussing travel and the Armed Forces. Despite my earbuds’ best efforts, I can still hear them. Alas.

Oh, yeah, and Kevin McCarthy has failed to win on the first ballot. Interesting.

Hour 3: 3:59 PM EST, January 3rd, 2023

location: somewhere between Russell and Huntington, MA
train: #449, currently on time
currently listening to: train horns (nothing)
currently reading: Burt & Mikics, The Art of the Sonnet

The landscape has certainly gotten more interesting since the start of hour 2; shortly after Worcester, the houses next to the track gave way to deeper tranches of fields and forest. I’ve quickly discovered how hard it is to get good pictures in the fog, especially when moving at high velocity; we’ll have to see how that affects the rest of these entries.

a blurry landscape, shrouded in fog

WHY IS THIS SO BLURRY

We pulled into Springfield, MA, which seemed like a nice, quaint city, after which the terrain began to change. We crossed the Connecticut River and then spent a significant amount of time next to the Westfield River. The generally flat terrain has started to become significantly hillier, as we enter what I assume to be the Berkshires. To be honest, I don’t know that much about the Berkshires; I only have a vague notion of them, trickled down from pop culture, of being a magical place where rich people live. It does seem quite mystical from the window; fog blanketing hills extending off into the distance above a river with unmelted snow lining its banks—this is good stuff.

The talkative duo behind me kept at it for another hour or so, but they finally quieted down around Springfield. Regardless of their interference, I have been reading Burt & Mikics’ The Art of the Sonnet, a book my thesis advisor recommended to me. I’ve been working on writing a collection of sestinas, and one of the approaches I’ve been considering is combining a sestina with lines of iambic pentameter, in that sort of classic Shakespearean way.07 e.g., 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun.' It also helps that reading poetry is relaxing regardless of the intent of the reading, and the authors do a good job of presenting interesting sonnets, accompanied by clear explanations. Still, it’s dawning on me that I’m less than ten percent of the way through my journey, and the first hints of a combined boredom and exhaustion are creeping in. We will see how this goes.

Oh, and last updates! The person next to me has, thankfully, stopped reading about monetary policy. They spent a little while reading about mergers & acquisitions, which I’m not convinced is better, but that, too ended after a while. And, of course, Kevin McCarthy has failed to win a second vote, and is perhaps on his way to losing a third. (I’m not sure about the latter; the train’s Wi-fi and my phone’s data plan are both not working right now.)

Hour 5: 5:57 PM EST, January 3rd, 2023

location: Albany-Rensselaer, NY
train: #449, currently on time
currently listening to: My Brother, My Brother, and Me

We’ve just pulled into Albany, NY! I spent a little time staring out of the window, up until Pittsfield, MA, or so. I was surprised by the number of people who took the train one stop, either from Springfield to Pittsfield or from Pittsfield to Albany, although I suppose that it may actually be reasonably convenient. In any case, it is now pitch black outside; nothing to be seen at all, nothing whatsoever.

At Pittsfield, a particularly loud passenger got on; I put on my earbuds, put on a podcast, and zoned out for a little while, which was surprisingly restful, despite not having gone to sleep. It seems that the loud passenger has now departed—somewhat unwillingly, perhaps, since there seems to be some transit police involved at the back of the car—and a lot of people have gotten off the train. We’re here for another hour, so I’ll spend some time wandering the station, and then we’ll be off again, hooked up to the train coming from New York.

Hour 6: 7:11 PM EST, January 3rd, 2023

location: just outside of Albany-Rensselaer, NY
train: #49, currently on time
currently listening to: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini 

And we’re off again! I got off the train briefly, spotting the train from New York pulling in on the neighboring track as I went. The station building was quite pretty, and it was nice to stretch my legs briefly and take a look around. I eventually returned to my segment of the train, which pulled forward, and then reversed to join the cars from New York! This was pretty cool.

The scenery outside the window is sparse but what scarce scenes we do get are quite pretty. Right out of the station, we crossed the Hudson River, next to which I spotted a pedestrian path, lit up with all sorts of colors. A little further down the road, a very old supermarket building with large painted lettering. It seems this area of the state is just slightly more populated than the section we were in previously, especially as our next stop, Schenectady, is only 20 minutes away, but I expect wilderness shortly thereafter.

a river, with a city on its bank

the hudson river! please excuse the reflection of my hands; you will be seeing a lot of them

So far, everything on this trip has gone exceptionally smoothly. Bad omens—beyond just the pigeon, of course—continue to pile up out West, however. Two trains have been stuck waiting for boulders to be cleared off the track near Denver for some hours, and there is a flurry of different weather warnings and watches: avalanche, winter storms, flash flood, the list goes on. The California Zephyr for today – i.e., the train immediately before mine – left four hours late due to incoming equipment issues. This is all to say, I’m increasingly nervous – but we’ll see how it goes. (Also, the person next to me is now reading Jordan Peterson Tweets, which does not help the vibe.)

And, most importantly, my several-days-after-the-fact-for-you political reporting. Kevin McCarthy has lost a third vote and the House has adjourned until tomorrow at noon, when I will be exploring Chicago. At the moment, it still seems unlikely that my train ride will outlast the election for Speaker, but it seemed unlikely (to me, in any case) that Kevin McCarthy’s plan for “getting elected speaker” would be “try the same vote three times,” so anything could happen! We will see…

In the meantime, I’m getting quite peckish. Perhaps a visit to the cafe car will help.

Hour 9: 9:49 PM EST, Jan 3, 2023

location: Schenectady, NY
train: #49, four minutes early!
currently listening to: a child, talking loudly in the back of the train car (nothing)
currently reading: Burt & Mikics, The Art of the Sonnet

The trip continues; we are now waiting at the station at Schenectady, NY, presumably because of the train that seems to be going past us on the right. Surprisingly enough, the train is still running on schedule! I am now feeling reasonably ready to sleep, but the train car lights are still on, and, besides, I am waiting for the person sitting next to me to leave at Rochester, the next stop, so I can grab a couple things from my suitcase. The past three hours have passed in a kind of daze: I bought a cheeseburger at the cafe car, ate it there, and then eventually returned to my seat, alternating between reading poems and reading Twitter, which is perhaps not the healthiest thing to do, but is better than just reading Twitter.

a cheeseburger in a box. (it's not appetizing.)

…it doesn’t look great, does it

I will rate the Amtrak cheeseburger a solid 5/10 experience. It was food and, unlike some food I have eaten, was not so bad that it brought me negative value. Unfortunately, that is about all I can say about it. I will try a different offering when the cafe car opens for breakfast.

I am quickly running out of things to describe, so I will include just two anecdotes:

PA: “Our next station stop is Amsterdam.”
me, internally: God, I wish we had a train to Amsterdam. Imagine that. Overseas travel.
PA: “Sorry about that, our next station stop is Utica.”
me, internally: My already palpable disappointment has multiplied sevenfold.

Child at the back of the train car: “When do we get to Waterloo[, Indiana]?”
Parent: “7 AM.”
Child: “7 o’clock in the morning? That’s a hundred years from now!”

Okay, that’s enough of that. Off to read something different and wait for our eventual arrival in Rochester.

Hour 10: 11:31 PM EST, January 3rd, 2023

location: Rochester, NY
train: #49, still four minutes early!
currently listening to: sodagreen / 苏打绿

And, finally, Rochester. I’ll be going to bed after this post, I think; it’s been a solid day one, and we will see what the next three days bring to us. Thus far, I’ve been pretty satisfied with the train, and reasonably satisfied with the experience; there’s a little more active work I have to get done in the next few days, which I’m sure I’ll write about, but for now, I’m very happy.

So—what occupied the last hour? Exactly nothing. I stared out the window and listened to a bunch of sodagreen, a popular Taiwanese indie band that I happen to like a lot.08 the lyrics! The melodies! The rhythms! The extended instrumental breaks! What’s not to love? My focus shifted in and out, between the landscape, which was marginally more evident when they turned off the lights in the car, with silhouettes of trees evident against the slightly brighter sky; deciphering the lyrics of the music as much as I could; and just thinking: thinking about what I’m going to do tomorrow, thinking about what I need to get done over the coming few weeks, thinking about how close I am to graduating. The last thought nearly brought me to tears, so my mind skated off of it quickly. Alas, time keeps moving.

As we got closer to Rochester, more lights and roads were visible, and so I spent more time appreciating the outside; it’s either slightly rainy or just extremely foggy and moist, and I am a sucker for the sight of lights reflected on a slick pavement. We eventually pulled in to the station, and after my seatmate departed, I grabbed my suitcase, unpacked some important objects, and then went and brushed my teeth, which was a huge crisis of confidence.09 I hate public restrooms, with a burning passion. There are only a few restrooms on campus which I am willing to use, and the list grows smaller every day. I will spare you this rant as well. I returned to find a mother and a baby as the new occupants of the seat next to mine—exciting, because it’s a baby, but immensely scary, because I want to sleep, and it is already going to be a struggle in coach. We will see how it goes.

For now, however, good night. I leave you with a picture of the most important object: Nat.

a seal plushie on a tray table

  1. notably, I’m watching the House Speaker election very closely. back to text
  2. read: Rocky Mountains. back to text
  3. trains run by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority which cover the region, helping commuters get to work in Boston and helping me go exploring! back to text
  4. what Massachusetts calls its DMV for whatever godforsaken reason. back to text
  5. this is technically prohibited by federal law, but sometimes happens anyways, and, in any case, is too deep of a rabbithole to be relevant for this post. back to text
  6. as discussed here, I had to do a final paper on Ben Bernanke. back to text
  7. e.g., 'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun. back to text
  8. the lyrics! The melodies! The rhythms! The extended instrumental breaks! What’s not to love? back to text
  9. I hate public restrooms, with a burning passion. There are only a few restrooms on campus which I am willing to use, and the list grows smaller every day. I will spare you this rant as well. back to text