A Girl's Guide to Riding Alone

I'd read somewhere that Amtrak's California Zephyr, 52 hours from Chicago to San Francisco, was the most beautiful train route in America. I'd been stateside again for almost a year when I thought, why not? I'd never been to San Francisco. I had a job with paid vacation days. I booked a ticket.
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It never occurred to me to travel alone until I'd turned 30.

When I first started traveling without my parents -- which is to say, when I first started traveling much at all -- I had my college roommates as companions. Together we saw the Great Wall of China, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Myrtle Beach. Travel with the girls bled seamlessly into travel with the boyfriend. From our home in London, Europe was our backyard.

So it wasn't until I was single again, living back in my hometown of Cambridge (Massachusetts, not England), that I considered traveling on my own. That's when I fell for Amtrak.

Strictly speaking, I wasn't new to long-distance train travel. I rode my first cross-country train when I was seven. My mother doesn't like to fly -- she rode the train from Boston to Los Angeles to visit my aunt and uncle, while my father and I met her there. When Dad flew home, I rode east with Mom. My mother had always loved trains; she hoped I'd catch the bug too.

Eventually, I did.

I'd read somewhere that Amtrak's California Zephyr, 52 hours from Chicago to San Francisco, was the most beautiful train route in America. I'd been stateside again for almost a year when I thought, why not? I'd never been to San Francisco. I had a job with paid vacation days. I booked a ticket.

What I learned is that trains are the perfect way to roll for solo travelers. Especially nerdy, introspective solo travelers. Here's why:

For one thing, the rooms are tiny. Amtrak's Superliner Roomette, the smallest and cheapest of the sleeping compartments on the Zephyr, can technically sleep two, but it's certainly more comfortable for one. Sleeping on a train is romantic for one. For two, it's just crowded.

You're not likely to get mugged or raped on a train. So that's a plus.

Long-distance train travel is relatively affordable. If you consider the journey the vacation itself, it isn't a bad deal. You can get from Chicago to San Francisco in a Roomette for around $500 (less if you book well in advance, ride coach, or start racking up points on an Amtrak MasterCard). The fare includes two nights' accommodations, all your meals, and of course, your sightseeing activities.

And about sightseeing...On the train, there's no worrying about activities that are better in groups. Your whole itinerary is pre-determined. To start, you can look out the window. Then there's some time to look out the window. And to top it off, you look out the window.

Of course, I jest -- there's plenty more to do on the Zephyr. You won't have Internet access, but you could read. You could watch DVDs on your laptop. You could knit, I guess.

But here's the thing: you won't want to do any of those things. All you will want to do is look out the window. It's that beautiful.

The Rockies are, of course, predictably stunning. The Zephyr passes over the Sierra Nevadas too, through the Donner Pass and then down into northern California's lovely Carquinez Strait. It's gorgeous, all of it.

But I found almost as much beauty in the scrappier parts of the journey. I loved watching junkyards go by, and the backsides of tiny towns with their churches and American flags and gun shops. A long-distance train provides a unique window into the expanse of this country, the way one landscape shifts into the next, the many ways people live.

Finally, you'll make unlikely friends. The other beauty of solo train travel is that you'll not only see those different faces of America through the window: You'll eat meals with them, too.

Passengers in coach and sleepers eat together in the dining car, at booths for four. In Iowa, I ate dinner with a former Naval officer who told me he'd been a "decent stepfather"; in Colorado, I had lunch with a rail buff who recommended the veggie burger (and ordered his with bacon); in Nebraska, I had a bleary breakfast with a father-daughter duo from Florida. On long-distance rides, I've dined with a casino worker from Vegas, a mother and her developmentally disabled son from Fresno, a former Hill staffer from D.C., a congressman from Kansas, an Amish couple, a British couple, a French couple, and a whole lot of senior citizens. I've been asked on more than one date. ("Are you traveling alone?" "Meet me in the bar car later?")

With these people -- most of whom I would probably have no other reason to meet -- I've had conversations about politics; about education ("Lemme ask you about this 'Common Core' I keep hearin' about..."); about healthcare; about the weather; about terrorism. I rode the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles two days after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested for the Boston Marathon bombings. When I told my tablemates that I was from Boston, they offered their condolences; they asked me how my city was doing. On trains, unlike airplanes, even the introverts talk. Trains crack open humanity. They connect disparate people as much as they connect far-flung towns.

Convinced? Since I've taken up long-distance train travel, several friends have offered to join me. But my answer is always the same: Sorry, you're not invited. I ride the rails alone.

On trains I've learned that traveling alone is not a "rite of passage." It's not something one has to get through to get to the other side. It's a thing in itself, wholly distinct from sharing a trip with loved ones. When I arrived on the west coast via the Zephyr, I found myself telling friends, "You had to be there." No one was there but me. That was exactly the point.