Photo Credit: Alison Mason
Traveler Story: I'm A Black Woman Who Loves Long Train Rides Across The US
Flying may be the swiftest way to travel, but Alison Mason enjoys the scenic experience of long train rides that provide more than getting to the destination quickly. Her bucket list trip happened in 2018, when she went from New York to San Francisco. It’s her goal to take every long distance route Amtrak offers.
“Amtrak has about eight long-distance trains, and three of them, the California Zephyr, the Southwest Chief and the Coast Starlight are often listed as the most scenic in the world,” Alison told Travel Noire. “I plan to ride all eight, from start to finish. I do all my trips solo. You meet more people that way.”
Ever since she was a little girl in Brooklyn, Alison loved trains, and aspired to be a conductor. That passion took on new dimensions in adulthood, and though she went a different direction career wise, trains have a special place in her heart. The long hours allow her to connect with other passengers, reflect, rest, and take in dramatic scenery.
“Trains in the United States travel through picturesque, small towns, and when I was young, I liked to fantasize what the lives of the people living in them were like,” Alison said. “There’s a sort of romanticism when it comes to train travel. It’s slow, relaxed and easy. It’s hard to describe, but it feels like an escape.”
Most of the die-hard train fans Alison meets are white male retirees with the time and finances to put towards frequent train travel.
“I haven’t met too many Black train enthusiasts, but I think Black people do travel by train quite a bit. Some use it as a means to get from one city to another- more as transportation than as a journey.”
The long haul from the east to the west coast was life-changing for Alison, and she described the transition from state to state in vivid detail.
“I started out in New York City, on the Lakeshore Limited train. We pulled out of the city, hugging the Hudson River. We passed into upstate New York, then through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and finally Illinois.”
Alison enjoyed a few hours’ layover in Chicago, taking advantage of the perks of being a First Class passenger, like access to a special lounge with televisions, snacks, showers, a bar and more.
The second half of the trip saw her on the California Zephyr, known for taking passengers along some truly beautiful routes.
“I traveled in a first class sleeper car, so I had my own little private room with two couch-like seats that folded into beds,” Alison said. “We pulled out of Chicago, and it was mostly rolling plains in Illinois for the first few hours. Then I headed to dinner in the dining car. It’s a full-service, white tablecloth meal served by waitstaff and prepared by the chef.”
Here, Alison befriended other passengers, and when she retired for the evening, her bed had been made with fresh linens, courtesy of the attendant.
“Falling asleep to the faint rumble of the tracks, the rhythmic rocking, and the muted horn in the background was the most relaxing thing ever.”
When she woke up, Alison was treated to a spectacular sunrise in Denver. At the suggestion of other passengers, she went to the observer car, which afforded an enviable 180 degree view.
“We left Denver’s Union Station and did a slow climb high into the front range of the Rocky Mountains to the Moffat Tunnel, which crosses the continental divide,” she said. “The energy was palpable, and as we entered the tunnel, my friends warned me to keep my eyes peeled for what was to come when we exited. We burst out of the tunnel to a total whitewash of snow, and a huge ski resort in Winter Park. Everyone gasped, and as I looked down, we were skirting the side of a cliff with nothing but forest below. It was amazing.”
Alison interacted with passengers of different backgrounds, from the retired Texan couple who invited her to join them for lunch, to the photographer kind enough to calibrate her camera for her. There was a woman traveling to see her mother for the first time in nearly twenty years, a family with two young kids, and a student who was traveling home from college.
Other highlights towards the end of the trip included the wild mustangs running across Nevada, the trip past Truckee and over Donner Pass at the entrance to the Sierra Nevada, and finally the ride from Reno to Sacramento. After arriving in Emeryville, there was a bus that took Alison into San Francisco. She recalled a sense of accomplishment and sadness, knowing the trip was in its last act.
An excursion like this must cost a fortune, no? Actually, considering how much of the country you get to see at once, it’s not terrible at all if you know how to budget.
“The total for a one-way ticket was $850 for First Class and $220 for coach,” Alison explained. “The price fluctuates based on how full the train is, and I’ve seen this trip priced between $450 and $1,500 for First Class.”
Alison has already planned her next train adventure.
“My next route will be Amtrak’s Sunset Limited which starts in New Orleans and ends up in Los Angeles. You start off in Bayou country, then across the Southwest, hugging the Mexican border, traversing the deserts before the last push through the California mountains and into Los Angeles. It’s a 48 hour trip and I’ve heard the scenery is amazing. I’m also excited to travel on the Empire Builder which starts in Chicago and ends in Seattle. The train passes Glacier National Park and goes through the Pacific Northwest, which is just breathtaking.”
She’s also interested in writing, psychology, linguistics and hot-air balloons. Her international trips include Mexico, Italy, United Arab Emirates, France, Greece and Colombia, among others.
Feel free to follow Alison on Instagram @broadenmagazine.