Along the California Zephyr

September 22, 1951 (written to her friend, Lili, in Cincinnati)

Dear Lili,
In spite of your good wishes at my departure, I know that in your heart you thought that I was a little out of my mind to give up my job and room and take a train alone to an unknown place; a young girl without any contacts, any friends or relations. I remember how relieved you and your mother were when I told you that I bought a round trip ticket just in case… But let me tell you that although that ticket is still in my possession, although I do not have a job — and it is most important that I get one soon — although I do not have a room of my own, I am going to stay and I am convinced that I am doing the right thing…
Yours, Hana

Lili’s Response, 1951
Dear Hana,
It is almost two weeks ago since I received your very interesting letter. As much as you in your letter admire the pioneers who came to Salt Lake City with Brigham Young, as much I do admire you. You seem to me a modern pioneer. I truly think that is is wonderful that you have so much faith in the new surroundings and look with such optimism towards the future. I hope with my full heart that your plans will materialize. You were quite right in suspecting my disapproval and my doubts about your leaving. But your letter assured me that I really did not have much to worry about. Still I will feel easier when I’ll know that you are permanently settled. 
Yours, Lili

In the fall of 1951, Hana embarked on what would be her first trip fueled by curiosity rather than necessity. After twelve years of repeated escape, she made a personal decision to head West. She had spent nearly a year in Cincinnati and during the time became comfortable with the English language and saved enough money to follow her heart to San Francisco.

In 2010, I sat on the edge of my grandmother’s bed, feeling the energy and enthusiasm that she still, at the age of 85, felt for her cross country travels. She recalled, “I took the California Zephyr. It was the most magnificent thing. It was a train with two floors. And it has all glass enclosure so you can see the whole countryside. I had never seen such a big countryside. I stopped in Chicago… I then took the train to Denver, Colorado and I decided that this is where I wanted to stay because it was so beautiful… I then thought, maybe I should see San Francisco first.”

As I listened to my grandmother’s descriptive imagery about the flat lands of Nebraska and the rolling Rockies in Colorado, my curiosity and need to see the country that I call home consumed me.

I have let my month and a half of traveling in America be grounded and directed by Hana, the lifelong explorer. She lived for adventure and desired experiences. I like to think that she has left a streak of that in each and every one of her descendents.

I know that if she were alive today, she would want to see all of my pictures and know what this cross country trip was like for me, in the year 2015. So with that, I leave you with a visual narrative of this highly anticipated part of my journey.

Chicago, Illinois

I spent a little less than a week in Chicago. Having never been to the Windy City, or to the State of Illinois, I was looking forward to exploring. I spent my days running along Lake Michigan, walking through the city streets, staring up at the urban architecture, and anticipating my approaching 60 hours of observing the American landscape via Amtrak.

Downtown Chicago seen from the Lincoln Park neighborhood. The word skyscraper originated from Chicago in 1885 when the first one was built.

Downtown Chicago seen from the Lincoln Park neighborhood. The word skyscraper originated from Chicago in 1885 when the first one was built.

A local blues musician and a Chicago native spends a Monday evening listening to music at Kingston Mines.

A local blues musician and a Chicago native spends a Monday evening listening to music at Kingston Mines.

Two of many bikers along the coast of Lake Michigan.

Two of many bikers along the coast of Lake Michigan.

The California Zephyr : Chicago, Illinois – Denver, Colorado

The California Zephyr went into service on March 20, 1949 and traveled between Chicago and Oakland. Most of the route is the same today as it was when it first began. I boarded the first leg of my train ride knowing that I had 18 hours to settle in before arriving at my next destination. We chugged through the state of Illinois as some light rain tapped at the window. I made my way to the lounge car which I had heard was the place to be during these long rides. I immediately made friends and fed my curiosity for the individual stories of travelers. Behind me sat a young couple accompanied by their nine children. I spoke with an older Australian couple who were traveling the world; they were about halfway through their itinerary. And, an American couple, the husband being a veteran of the U.S. Navy, said to me, “We don’t have a bucket list, we just live life.” I told him that I would hold onto those wise words throughout the rest of my journey.

Leaving Chicago Union Station.

Leaving Chicago Union Station.

This is James, a Chicago-based artist and the first person I spoke to on the train. I was drawn into conversation with him while admiring his art. We talked about self-publishing books after he showed me the graphic novel he is working on.

This is James, a Chicago-based artist and the first person I spoke to on the train. I was drawn into conversation with him while admiring his art. We talked about self-publishing books after he showed me the graphic novel he is working on.

This is Eric, a love-stuck guy from Illinois who was headed to Denver to see his girlfriend. He raved about her beauty and intelligence and showed me the countdown he had on his phone to keep track of how many hours he had left until he saw her. Our random conversation turned into a friendship that lasted all the way to Denver. His calm demeanor helped keep me sane during a vicious tornado warning we witnessed just moments after this picture was taken.

This is Eric, a love-stuck guy from Illinois who was headed to Denver to see his girlfriend. He raved about her beauty and intelligence and showed me the countdown he had on his phone to keep track of how many hours he had left until he saw her. Our random conversation turned into a friendship that lasted all the way to Denver. His calm demeanor helped keep me sane during a vicious tornado warning we witnessed just moments after this picture was taken.

We had entered Iowa and just crossed the Mississippi River when the sky quickly transitioned from a light blue to a deep, dark grey. Lightening flashed continuously in the distance and the rain came pouring down. The trees and the leaves moved with haste and intensity. An alarm started sounding and my phone, similar to the other passenger’s, lit up with an amber alert. There was a tornado warning and we were told to seek shelter. I couldn’t help but laugh as there was no where for me seek shelter; I was on the second level of a train. I have built up quite a tolerance for uncomfortable situations throughout my travels, but I still become frightened by unpredictable weather. My heart was beating too fast for my liking, so I distracted myself by people watching and thinking about how obvious it was who was from this region, and who like me, was not.

We stopped for a tornado warning somewhere in Iowa.

We stopped for a tornado warning somewhere in Iowa.

I was incredibly lucky to find such an open and enthusiastic group of people on the train. Perhaps if we had talked about religion, politics or gun laws, we would have created a division that would make it hard to become friends. But rather, our travels together inspired conversation about tragedy, love, adventure and the importance of being a good model to future generations. We were a group of strangers brought together by nothing more than a common destination and mode of transportation. Thank you to Eric, Frank, Frankie-T, Kathy and Adam for keeping me company and telling me about your world as we chugged across America.

As the sun set, conversation continued in the lounge car on Amtrak’s California Zephyr.

As the sun set, conversation continued in the lounge car on Amtrak’s California Zephyr.

After some hours of rest, I opened my eyes to find myself staring at this golden light illuminating Nebraska. The beautiful orange glow engulfed the flat fields, bringing added depth to the haystacks and individual farm houses.

After some hours of rest, I opened my eyes to find myself staring at this golden light illuminating Nebraska. The beautiful orange glow engulfed the flat fields, bringing added depth to the haystacks and individual farm houses.

Denver, Colorado

Of all of my American destinations, it is easy for me to say that I was most excited to visit Colorado. It did not disappoint. Rather than spending time alone, I had the pleasure of staying with my friend Kiersten and her mom Patty who are former New England residents. For the week that I was there, they provided me with the most perfect sampling of what Colorado has to offer. I explored the city of Denver, visited Boulder, and recreated in the beautiful nature nearly every day.

The sun sets over Denver, known as the mile-high city.

The sun sets over Denver, known as the mile-high city.

My dear friend Kiersten leads me through Roxborough State Park.

My dear friend Kiersten leads me through Roxborough State Park.

Simple and beautiful nature found in Roxborough State Park.

Simple and beautiful nature found in Roxborough State Park.

The Evergreen Reservoir in the evening light.

The Evergreen Reservoir in the evening light.

The California Zephyr : Denver, Colorado – San Francisco, California

This was the longest leg of the journey and in my head, the final push before wrapping up this incredible year-long adventure. I still have some weeks ahead of me, but after this ride, everything becomes easier. Unlike my first ride on the California Zephyr, I kept to myself during this day and a half on the train. My energy level was different and my head was consumed with all that I had done in Denver and over the past year. The nature was so magnificent as we left Denver and entered the Rockies; I stared out the window and appreciated the untouched, natural beauty which carries the stories of so many past centuries.

After a four hour delay, the California Zephyr rolls into Union Station in Denver.

After a four hour delay, the California Zephyr rolls into Union Station in Denver.

The California Zephyr snakes through the Rockies. I loved being able to see the front of the train winding through the mountains – a sight you would never see in the flat lands of America.

The California Zephyr snakes through the Rockies. I loved being able to see the front of the train winding through the mountains – a sight you would never see in the flat lands of America.

The Colorado River and the Rocky Mountains.

The Colorado River and the Rocky Mountains.

Just one of many strange sights seen while crossing the country by train. The chameleon’s name is Ruby and she traveled from Iowa all the way to California, most of the time perched on top of someone’s head.

Just one of many strange sights seen while crossing the country by train. The chameleon’s name is Ruby and she traveled from Iowa all the way to California, most of the time perched on top of someone’s head.

During the second half of this 33-hour ride, I sat in silence appreciating that I had the chance to see such a diverse and beautiful part of America.

During the second half of this 33-hour ride, I sat in silence appreciating that I had the chance to see such a diverse and beautiful part of America.