From San Francisco to Chicago: The Amtrak Odyssey


This is a guest post written by Gaia Zol of Grumpy Italian Traveler.

I occupied the last seat in the last car of the California Zephyr. The tiny window behind me opened onto the tracks, allowing me to imagine what I had just left: the rush of Union Square, the never ending party of Mission Dolores Park and the sweetness of Giddy Candy. In front of me, I had the unfamiliar landscapes of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa.

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I had decided to take the Amtrak from San Francisco to Chicago not because I am afraid of flying or because I am masochist. Well, that might be actually false, given the three day odyssey. I wanted to cross the U.S. while comfortably sitting in a warm coach, with plenty of Doritos and a new book I had bought at the Bookmark Bookstore in Oakland – I devoured A Canticle for Leibowitz.

The day of the departure I woke up at 6am, walking down Market Street at dawn. The city was wrapped in the calm of the enchantment between night and day. A bus picked me up, crossing to the Bay to reach Emeryville. The small station buzzed with life despite the early hour, the passengers trying to understand the conductor’s instructions. When the train arrived, a wind of excitement overtook me.

“Chicago in the last coach,” the conductor yelled.

The adventure began. Ciuf Ciuf.

From San Francisco to Chicago: the Amtrak Odyssey

For a while, the ocean accompanied us. We passed by Sacramento and I remembered the Christmas lunch I had with my family and my mother humming to holiday songs while walking in the Old Town with intermittent colored lights on the balconies.

Suddenly, the Sierra Nevada surrounded us with rivers running parallel to the tracks and peaks marking the train’s route. Once again, I remembered my family trip, the days we spent in the Death Valley with the Sierra’s silhouette as a guardian. I remembered getting lost on our way to Beatty, but also the in the colorful shapes of the Artist’s Palette with my father.

We passed through Nevada in a heartbeat and by the time we reached Salt Lake City, I was sound asleep. I had found the perfect way for sleeping on a train’s seat. My head leaned on the window, three layers of clothes became my pillow and the jacket my blanket. If I bent my knees at the right angle, I could fit in two seats, my feet resting in the armchair. To make sure another passenger didn’t invade my fort, when I left I covered it with all my possessions (mainly consisting of a giant, intimidating backpack) and when I was there, I kept a grumpy face.

By the time we arrived in Colorado, I learned how to shower in the restroom designed for contortionists. My legs pried on the walls, I put the deodorant on the toilet seat, my arms stretched to the ceiling, with one hand I reached for the soap on top of the toilet paper pile. Somehow, I came out of there decent -and without cramps.

I came out to the red of Gore, Byers and Glenwood Canyons, the trees heavy with snow and the slopes just as bare as the villages we passed, the train calling out to the few residents. In Glenwood Springs I envied the tourists dipping in hot water and pampered in the spas.

In Denver we finally enjoyed an actual stop longer than the usual five minutes. After reinforcing my fort, I stepped into the winter air and bought more Doritos (they go perfectly with the gourmet burgers on the train). I longed for the Rocky Mountains, which reminded me of my Alps, those were I have been hiking with my family since I was a toddler clinging to my mother’s back. Little did I know that one day I would travel to Denver in a magical couple’s trip after years of solo traveling.

After a dinner in the Observation Car, I leaned my head in the window and fell asleep while gazing at the stars, the movement of the train comforting me. I slept through another state, this time Nebraska, and I woke up in Iowa. When I saw the ice covering the world, I was ready to take the next California Zephyr back to temperate San Francisco. I didn’t do it just because my desire to graduate was stronger.

The flatness of Iowa slowly gave way to the suburbs of Chicago and eventually the Loop appeared, the Hancock welcoming back to town. After the small stations that didn’t even have a ticket office, Union Station seemed like a cathedral and the buzz made me dream of few more quiet moments on board. But I had to get off.

As much as I missed Italy, my home country, Chicago was home -at least for now. And I was back after the Amtrak Odyssey, ready to finish college and with new memories to cuddle me when nostalgia hit. Little did I know I was about to begin the best memory of all: falling in love. Ciuf Ciuf.


Gaia Zol is an Italian reporter who lives in the United States, from the rain of Venice to the ice of Chicago. She is a traveler and a wannabe ballet dancer. As every typical Italian, Gaia loves pasta (especially carbonara) and complains about everything… but she can’t sing opera nor cook decently. You can find Gaia online on Twitter, Instagram, and her blog.


From San Francisco to Chicago - The Amtrak Odyssey

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6 Responses

  1. maxwell ivey
    | Reply

    thanks for sharing about your trip; am headed to new york city later this month via amtrak as one of their writers in residency. thanks, max

  2. eumna
    | Reply

    thanks for sharing about your trip.

  3. Kate and Kris
    | Reply

    I love train journeys, although this one seems very long. Would you recommend it? When doing cross country journeys across Europe, we usually get a sleeper car. Is that possible?

  4. Charles McCool
    | Reply

    Sweet article. Such a romantic notion to make epic train journeys. Last month, I was in remote Colorado and saw an Amtrak train snake through the canyon. I wonder if you were on it. :D

  5. We remember that wait for the bus, and then again at Emeryville Station. Only we headed south to sunny San Diego. Ever since, we’ve wanted to hop a train on the route you took! Thanks for sharing – we love the stories and the memories it brought you, and it really fueled our desire to board the train again!

  6. Emma AKA Size15Stylist
    | Reply

    Your trip sounds amazing. I keep hearing about these great cross-country US trains from the West to Mid-West, and I’d love to do this with my daughter in the summer!

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