You might not know this, but Maggie and I recently took a transcontinental (well, almost) train trip to my “Alabama on Alabama” show at Heath Ceramics in San Francisco. We stopped for a night in Chicago (which was wonderful) and when we boarded the California Zephyr, took our seats and started to move from the city, I felt my breath release and I said to Maggie, “I don’t think that I’ve ever been happier than this moment.” There is something about sitting and watching the world go by that is good for the soul. On the trip, I thought a lot about the women and men who settled this country and how they must have felt watching this immense landscape roll by.
I wish that you were with us. I know that you would enjoy our lively conversation (and regular naps).
I thought so much of you as we were traversing Nevada on our railway adventure. There is a spot where the rocks are red—and in some places pink. It’s a land that makes you think of John Wayne and the plethora of movie westerns that so defined film in America. I think that this might have been my favorite part of the trip. It’s a brief glimpse that makes you want to saddle a horse and find out what is at the end of each small cavern. It feels wild and I remember the time that we laid in a garden of roses staring at each star in the sky. I miss you.
Dear GramPerkins and Granddaddy,
You’re not alive anymore to read this but I’m going to write it anyway and mail it to our house. Maggie and I are on day two of our adventure across America and I can’t help but think of you and the postcard you once sent from the Painted Desert. I take out my phone to find out how far we are from that spot and see that we are about six hours as the crow flies. My imagination takes wing and goes there—or at least to the postcard that you sent. I miss you every day. I’ve taken lots of pictures—in homage to the slide shows you used to “present” to us after each one of your explorations. I wish that I had those slides now. If I did, I’d look for each crevice and corner of America that you saw.
Lots of love from this adventure (from Maggie too),
I’m sending this from somewhere in the middle of the “heartland.” It goes on and on and on… It’s the first time I really realized how BIG this beautiful country of ours becomes when you transverse it field by field, rock by rock, and tree by tree. Maggie and I have taught ourselves all the words to “America the Beautiful”—which we sing off-key and a little too loudly. I’m sure our neighbors are annoyed but we sing anyway. I would say that I miss the studio but I don’t really. But I do miss all of you… give my love to everyone.
Dear Olivia and Hope,
Thank you. Thank you for taking care of our new puppy, Rowdy. I hope that he is being a good boy. I’d say that we wish he was with us—but we don’t really. It’s been so lovely to sit with Maggie—just the two of us—and dream, and sing, and make origami, and just stare out the window. Train travel is just that, lots of staring, and all that gazing out the window does the soul good. We’ve settled into a schedule and I think that we might be sad to see this leg of our journey come to an end.
Thinking of you all—squeeze Rowdy,
xoNatalie and Maggie
P.S.: Maggie’s taught herself to knit!
Dear Cathy, Robin, and Jasper,
We can’t begin to thank you enough for inspiring us to take the train to California. Your trips to Alabama each year seemed like a dream and now Maggie and I KNOW why you love them so. It’s been such a beautiful journey—to you and back again. We can’t wait for the next time and the next adventure with you. Let’s plan that meeting in Texas—the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle await! Thank you again for good food, good stories, and good company.
Until we meet again,
xoNatalie and Maggie
If you’re thinking of train travel, here are a few tips we learned (and Cathy shared with us):
Join the Amtrak Guest Rewards program before you purchase your ticket (they have lots of promotions that you can take advantage of).
Make sure you pack only one suitcase and that it is small enough to fit under the Amtrak seat.
If you need more than one bag at your final destination, check it through and take only what you need on the train.
If you can afford it, get a bedroom. (You can get deals on day-of travel.)
Bring your own coffee (if you are partial to the stuff in the morning). I packed my vintage Krups espresso machine, a good thermos, and had fresh cappuccino every morning. I ordered milk each night for dinner and used it for my morning coffee.
Bring a good bottle of wine (if you are partial to the stuff in the evening). I like my white wine over ice, so it wasn’t an issue to keep it cool. Red wine works too.
A pillow from home and a good duvet go a long way on a long night.
Make friends with your attendant straight off—they know all the best stuff about every train and are incredibly helpful.
Healthy snacks aren’t really an option—stock up ahead of time.
A deck of cards is a great conversation starter.
Bring origami cranes to each meal. Everyone loves an origami crane.
Plan to get some fresh air at each stop, where it’s possible. A little skipping helps get the blood flowing.
If you do choose to get a bedroom, the showers are very small. There is a larger (shared) shower on the lower level. You may prefer this.
If you do shower in room, remove the toilet paper from the room. No matter how careful you are, it always gets wet.
Take a million pictures and share freely. Everyone loves the train and will love you for sharing.
Watch the sunrise from the back of the train at least once—set your alarm if necessary.
Don’t be in a hurry. Trains are often late and that’s just the way it is. Embrace the moment, relax, breathe, and enjoy.
Look for heart rocks and double rainbows. They seem to be common occurrences.
P.S.: Plan an overnight stay in Chicago and (if your schedule allows) every stop along the way… you won’t regret it.
P.S.S: When you see a train track, listen for the whistle, heed the warnings, and don’t try to race the train across, or play on the tracks, or attempt anything silly or heroic. A train is a giant object, moving through space at a terrific speed, and an engine, as strong as it is, can’t stop the train quickly.
Be respectful. Be safe.
Side note to teenagers: You cannot camp inside a train tunnel in the Rocky Mountains.
(Yes, that happened. You’ll be glad to know that there were no injuries but the train was stopped for 1 1/2 hours while the local authorities removed them to a more appropriate campsite—causing us to miss our connecting train two days later.)
Thanks for following along. Join us on Instagram for more pictures and adventures every day (or almost every day).
Thanks for that! I am an avid Alabama Chanin fan and Florence, AL. Your stories remind me of our travels from Missouri To California and back, somewhere around 5,500 miles by car. I have to agree that traveling our country by land is a glorious way to see it! I have truly enjoyed your posts. Thank you!
So many of your pictures look like the ones we have taken on our train trip. We like in a beautiful country, and this is a marvelous way to see it.
i really enjoyed this, Natalie! Living in Europe and it’s easy train traveling I never pass up the opportunity to ride somewhere. The scenery and relaxed atmosphere never gets old! Thank you for sharing.
I love that a new knitter was born on the train! I’m teaching my 8- and 10-yo nephews next week when they’re staying with me for a few days. My family took Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” from WI to OR 20+ years ago; it would be fun to do it again! Lovely photos and letters. Thank you.
Great story! Thank you for sharing.
I love this post! As I mentioned before on Instagram, I take this Amtrak route with my kids to Grand Junction, CO every summer. We all love the adventure! Kids on trains are perfect! I love all of your tips (and that you bring your espresso machine!) and it’s so true that you must get to know your attendant early – ours this year, Daryl, was our favorite so far. Thank you! On a side note, I am planning to see your exhibition at Heath this week – I can’t wait!
great pictorial and accompanying letters, may have inspired me to take a train trip and just relax….looks like you could get lost just in the scenery
Thank you for sharing this with us…it was beautiful…..I am going to put this on my bucket list….xx
I Love, Love, Love riding the train. My first was from Reno to Virginia Beach to meet my daughter and drive back home with her to Nevada(Via Texas to visit Grandma). The next trip was from Reno to San Antonio…Reno to Sacramento through the Sierra’s on the Califonria Zephyr..as you know it is beautiful..Then Sacramento to LA on the Coast Starlight which heads toward the Coast so that the last couple hours into LA is so beautiful. From LA to San Antonio on the Southwest Chief which has wonderful food in the dining car. And then San Antonio to Reno one month later, Anyway I read an article in Southern Living on Alabama Chanin and am so happy I went to your website and looked at the Journal section. Thank you for sharing. Everytime I hear the train whistle I get that yearning for another train trip..Until then It was nice to read about yours and see your photo’s. Brings back wonderful memories. Joan
Thanks for sharing. After you’ve visited most every state, you begin looking for a new adventure. I think I found it! Can’t wait to ride the Zephyr.
So enjoyed your sharing… Now I have the urge to “train”