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eighty hours (pt. 4) by Alan Z. '23

notes from the last day

This is the fourth and last part of a series, consisting of a lightly-edited compilation of notes from my cross-country train trip from Boston to San Francisco. If you haven’t yet, you should start by reading part one, part two, and part three.

Hour 70: 7:50 AM PST, January 6th, 2023

location: just outside of Winnemuca, NV
train: #5, one hour and 58 minutes late
listening to: two people, one white, one Black, discussing race relations (nothing)

Good morning!

The inevitable has occurred; our train is now running two hours behind, although if the Amtrak schedule is to be believed, we may recover some of that time by Emeryville. The reasons for this delay are unknown to me, but I did remember waking up once and being stopped outside Elko, NV, and then waking up again with the train in the exact same place, without having moved, so it must have been something there. Despite the waking, my sleep was fairly restful; I had one particularly bad nightmare, but nothing much to complain about, and, surprisingly, my body has not developed any aches or pains over these 70 hours. All is well, out in the American West; we will just have to see whether I make my dinner plans.

The landscape out here in Nevada is somewhat incredible, at least to me, in the sense that I have literally never seen anything like it. The prairie, smooth and rolling, juts up almost instantaneously into snow-capped mountains, shrouded with clouds. I suspect we will be going through those mountains soon enough.


snowy mountains peeking out above grassy plainsOther than that, no big updates. The train is slowly emptying, with more and more seats open in coach, and the lounge is not yet fully awake, I suspect. It is my last day here, and we will see what new surprises it brings.

Hour 74: 11:57 AM PST, January 6th, 2023

location: between Reno, NV and Truckee, CA
train: #5, two hours and 51 minutes late
listening to: Do By Friday

It has been an interesting few hours. We have lost even more time; apparently, the signals were out on the mud flats between Winnemuca and Reno, and so we proceeded at a crawling pace for a number of miles. Eventually, we picked our pace back up, arriving into Reno almost three hours late. This has truly become the tragedy that I expected all along; I simply did not expect the catastrophe to develop so quickly. Because of this, the journey will likely reach 80 hours; we will have to wait and see. I suspect that, regardless, my dinner plans may be a bit of a hopeless case.

hills above mud flats, with power line strung across

the aforementioned mud flats

I did a little bit of reading for the first hour or two, slowly waking up, and then transitioned over to revising poetry once more. I continued to make good progress; honestly, even though I’ve only edited two or there poems a session, with a sufficient number of sessions, I’ve gotten through most of them, and I am surprised both at the ideas I have for revisions and the original quality of the poem, having gotten some emotional distance from most of them. We will see to what extent my thesis advisor agrees with me, but I am glad to have that as a souvenir of this trip regardless.

The landscape got snowier and snowier as we got closer to Reno; I was impressed by the snow cover in Reno, as well as the sense that it was immediately at the foot of the mountains. My sense of the physical geography on this side of the country has never been particularly strong, and so the countryside has been full of surprises. As we left Reno, the mountains became steeper and rockier, covered with tall pine trees. Our route has been accompanied by the Truckee River, which bears the name of our next stop. It is just beautiful out here; the snow is pristine, the river is mighty, the trees are tall and proud. The mountains extend as far as the eyes can see, rocks peeking out beneath the snow, an occasional house here and there. I suspect that the next few hours may be just as much a wonder as the Rocky Mountains.

All of this, however, is not quite as important as my stop in Reno. I had told the bloggers that I was going on this trip, and Paolo A. ‘old told me that the route went through Reno! So, after the train’s many delays, the two of us met up on the platform briefly during the train’s designated “smoke break.” It was great to see a familiar face in an unfamiliar place on a long journey; we chatted for a while before it was time to get back underway. He also did me the great kindness of bringing me some In-N’-Out and some bread and cookies. I still do not understand the West Coast obsession with In-N-Out—as far as I am concerned, it is not particularly better than most of its competitors—but it was nice to be welcomed to the region in this way. The burger was fine and the fries were good. Paolo also got me a soda; I had asked for Sprite. They were out, so he panicked and forgot and told me to identify it when I sat down. It…just tasted like Sprite, with maybe a hint of ginger. Not sure what to say about that one.

And, in Washington D.C., lawmakers are making their best efforts to beat the arrival of my train in Emeryville. They’ll be back from adjournment around 10 PM EST, probably, which will be 7 PM PST. If that holds, I’ll beat them, but it’ll be close.

Hour 76: 2:08 PM PST, January 6th, 2023

location: the Sierra Nevada, approaching Colfax, CA
train: #5, three hours and one minute late
listening to: Sammy Rae and the Friends, “Good Life

It has been a wonderful few hours. The contrasts between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, at least in the areas I have been awake to observe, is the vegetation and the rock formations. These hills are covered with what the train conductor informs us to be Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine; whatever they are, the do a good job of breaking up the scenery, such that you will be looking at trees for quite some time before, suddenly, there is a clearing and you can see off into the valleys.

I think the adjective which has most stuck in my head on this portion of the journey is pristine. So much of the path seems completely unsullied by human hands, apart from the rails beneath us and the railroad tunnels which occasionally interrupted our path. The snow is untouched, the mountains extend off into the fog without a hint of civilization, and everything seems quite unburdened by man.

This is not to say that there is no motion in the hills; as we go by, nature keeps her works. Wind and gravity disrupt the snow on a tree branch, sending it earthward; a river sneaks its way beneath the snow, causing tiny cave-ins above it. It is almost magical. Regardless of your beliefs about humanity, it is quite a profound experience.

I have been watching the scenery go by while also finishing up edits on my poetry. I think that, once I get back to a real laptop, I will be able to compile all of these changes and have a reasonable draft of most of a thesis stuck together, which I am excited about. I can also turn my attention to other things which I have been putting off over the course of the trip now, which is a great relief.

Other small notes: we crossed the infamous Donner Pass, which was quite fun. There’s a member of the staff whose only job seems to be giving us guidance on things we can see, which has been informative and come in handy numerous times over the trip. Our train is going to be quite late to Emeryville, but I have come to accept my fate; it has been wondrous regardless.

The journey is nearly complete. It has been quite the time, and I can’t say that all of it has been unequivocally good. Despite this, it’s been a nice little vacation at the end of a busy winter break, and I am excited to dig back in at the start of IAP. For now, however, four more hours. Just four more hours.

Hour 78: 4:23 PM PST, January 6th, 2023

location: Sacramento, CA
train: #5, currently three hours and eight minutes late
listening to: Heathers (West End Cast Recording)

It is now after the time when we should have been in Emeryville, but, instead, we are out here in Sacramento, still over an hour out. My dinner plans are moribund; it seems deeply unlikely that I will make it to the intended restaurant sufficiently before closing time for it to be reasonable. Perhaps they will be postponed to tomorrow, perhaps they will simply be cancelled. Pity my naïveté, but also the on-time performance of the California Zephyr.

I have not been paying great attention to the landscape since we last spoke; indeed, I have not been paying great attention to anything except for the ticking of time and the soundtrack I have been listening to. In the fall, I had wanted to be part of the pit orchestra for the Musical Theatre Guild’s production of Jekyll and Hyde. Unfortunately, that orchestra fell through for logistical reasons, and—since, of course, the thing that most motivates me is a fear that something won’t happen without me—I put in for orchestra director for the IAP show, Heathers. Two months later, and here we are. I am coming to the crucial reckoning that I actually have no idea what I am doing, but I am doing my best to at least get my head around the music, and we will see how the rest of it goes. I am certain to learn a lot along the way, both in terms of the practicalities of conducting a pit orchestra and in terms of general musicianship, but I am flying by the seat of my pants, and I have not studied enough. We have signed up for it; we will make it happen. I have almost filled all the parts; it is time to dig deep into the music and internalize the tempos and whatnot.

Outside the window, the landscape has certainly transformed quite a bit, into the green grass and red, tiled roofs that symbolize California to all kinds of people. It is mighty pretty out here, and I’d be a lot happier to see it if it were not for the fact that I was supposed to have seen it three hours ago. We will make it through eventually, though. We absolutely must.

I’m not sure what I’ll spend the last hour doing; I suspect I will listen through Act 2, but, as my tone suggests, I am tired and I am losing spirit, perhaps understandably, after 78 hours. We will see what happens.

Hour 80: 5:50 PM PST, January 6th, 2023

location: Martinez, CA
train: #5, currently two hours and nineteen minutes late
listening to: Heathers (West End Cast Recording)

My mood recovered a little from the local minimum from earlier; I continued studying Act 2 for a little bit, until I ran into one particularly difficult song that I’m probably going to have to listen to and look at for an extended period of time. We are around half an hour away from Emeryville, so this will likely be my last dispatch from the train. I am almost there, and my dinner plans are still on (although for 9 PM), so I will get to see my friends tonight! It’s been a wild eighty hours, but I’m glad to have made it through. I think I’m mostly hungry more than anything, so that dinner will be doubly pleasant.

I feel like this journey ought to mean something; that I ought to provide a little note at the end of all of this to sum it up. But, ultimately, it doesn’t mean much. It allowed me to get a break, see some new sights, feel some new things, and on the grand scheme of things that is mindnumbingly small. I’m happy to have taken it though; happy to be working on making things that could putatively be called art; happy to just be living. Most of my conclusions of travel were already made yesterday; today is just the icing on the cake; just as this journey as a whole has been the icing on a difficult semester. Sometimes, we all just need a little bit of icing, and maybe there’s no sense to it at all.

Without a proper conclusion in mind, therefore, let me leave you with one last picture from the train:

seal plush with view of water out of focus through window

Good night! See you in Palo Alto!

Hour 80+6: 11:59 PM PST, January 6th, 2023

location: Palo Alto, CA
currently listening to: the pure silence of a hotel room (nothing)

Well, it’s done. This certainly was an adventure for the record books; I don’t think I’ve been on a journey quite like it, nor do I suspect that I will be going on a similar one anytime soon. I am sitting in a hotel room in Palo Alto that is, perhaps, a little nicer than I expected it to be, and I am just minutes away from finally being able to rest in a nice, soft, comfortable bed. In the intervening hours since I last wrote, I have taken a bus from Emeryville to San Francisco, run to catch the Caltrain, taken the Caltrain to downtown Palo Alto, and spent a good amount of time walking around and catching up with some friends here; one, my current roommate,01 hi Matthew :D one, a friend who graduated last spring. We ate dinner together, stopped by Stanford’s campus, bumped into yet another MIT student just walking down the street, listened briefly to a live ABBA cover band, and then sat at the transit center, waiting for the bus to my hotel to depart. Despite my exhaustion, I felt wholly fine for the whole time; the moment was enough to sate my tiredness.

I think I am eminently satisfied with it all now. It has been a long day, and a long journey, but something about coming into this big city, quite different from the suburb-dominated environment of Boston, and then feeling like I can do anything, like there is so much more to discover—it is a wonderful feeling to have at last. And, of course, there is nothing like the pure joy of meeting a friend moved away once more.

I will be in the Bay Area just one more day; by the time you are reading this, I will be back in Boston. I have some more just-graduated friends to meet, and some small adventures to be had. Those will be mine to keep, however, a story for some other time. The story of this journey, finally, ends here.

Oh, yeah, and I beat the election of the Speaker by like three hours, measuring to Emeryville, and one hour, measuring to Palo Alto. Alan: 1, US House of Representatives: 0.

seal plush sitting on a hotel bed


  1. hi Matthew :D back to text