Two years ago, Cathy Bailey and her son Jasper came to visit Maggie and me in The Shoals via train. It was Jasper’s spring break and they boarded the California Zephyr to Birmingham by way of Washington D.C., and traversed the entire country to spend time in North Alabama. Needless to say, Jasper and Maggie became fast friends, our collaboration with Heath Ceramics continued to grow, Cathy and I became even better friends, and the next year, they came again. In a few short days, Maggie and I will be taking the California Zephyr to San Francisco. We’ve come to call it “Jasper’s Trip,” since Jasper has given me (and Maggie) a renewed love for trains.
When I was younger, the idea of train travel was so romantic. One thought was of movie stars, drinking cocktails together in a club car. There were movies, like White Christmas, Strangers On a Train, Murder on the Orient Express, and A Brief Encounter, which helped to cement those romantic notions. Nonetheless, growing up in Alabama, train travel was not part of my vacation or travel experience. While we had a deeply elaborate train track system, by the time I was of the age to travel, that rail system was being used for shipping coal and steel. I seemed to have missed the “golden age” of train travel. It remained romantic and distant in my mind until I left the United States. Traveling the world, I discovered that rail travel had not declined in the way it has in the United States. It was and is alive and well—and I LOVED it.
The brilliant thing about train travel is this: it’s nearly the counter opposite of travel by car. When traveling by rail, you step onto the train, find your seat or car, and—that’s all. You don’t have to worry about when and where you will eat (or how quickly you will have to do it); the food is provided for you in the dining car. You don’t have to search for a hotel room; your sleeping quarters are already arranged. And that is part of the appeal of train travel for me right now. I’m ready to hand over the reins to someone (or something) else and enjoy the scenery as it passes by. I am also excited to introduce Maggie to a little of the sense of adventure and romanticism I felt as a child.
Like Cathy and Jasper, Maggie and I will traverse some of the most beautiful scenery in the country—from Chicago to Emeryville, just across the bay from San Francisco. Florence to Memphis by car, Memphis to Chicago for an overnight and tour of the museums, and then the train leaves Chicago and heads southwest, through Illinois farmland, and crosses the Mississippi River. Over the course of its journey, the train will pass through 27 tunnels. From Denver, the Zephyr ascends the Rocky Mountains (traveling from a mile high to 9,000 feet) and follows the Colorado River. I’ve heard the view is unparalleled. We will travel through Salt Lake City and cross the Nevada desert, over the Sierra Nevadas and down into Sacramento via the Donner Pass. The forests here are lush and beautiful. And then: hello San Francisco. We’ve arrived.
I’m anxious to see the trip through Maggie’s eyes. I’m also excited to take a slow journey and relax a bit. Perhaps both Maggie and I will come out the other end viewing this beautiful country, and one another, a little differently.
P.S.: Thank you to Jasper and Cathy for the lovely book they sent to Maggie documenting their travel to North Alabama (and for letting us share it here).