January 1st, 2022 – snow swirls forcefully in the air as I step onto the Grand Ave bridge and cross the Chicago River. My footprints are the first to be left in the fresh powder, having encountered no other pedestrians – and few drivers – in a quarter hour of hiking.
My trail leads much further back than the El station; today’s travels began some 4000 miles away. Already, then, I have flown further this year than the previous two combined: a deliberate act, seeking to mark the new year by putting some literal as well as emotional distance on 2021.
This trip is very much about the journey, not the destination – ahead of me stretches some 2400 miles of rail travel, taking in seven states. But almost as soon as I reach the apogee of my orbit, I’ll turn tail and loop back: erasing a week’s slow progress across America with a few hours of flight, placing myself once more in the windy city before the long arc home.
But all that is to come. I grab a video, resettle the pack on my shoulders, and press on through the snow.
The seeds of all this were planted way back in 2020, with lengthy periods of furlough and lockdown requiring distractions. Whilst I often couldn’t venture beyond Bristol, let alone the UK, I could daydream about doing so. Having become intrigued by the world of ‘systematic’ travel, I spent a lengthy quarantine transcribing my existing records into the NomadMania site. I also dove deeper into an interest in architectural history, completing two ten-week courses from the University of Oxford with an emphasis on western modernism.
Both of these would prove influential when, bookings stalled by the third UK lockdown, BA launched some highly attractive business class fares to the US. The best deals would require deferring travel for almost a year, but this was arguably a benefit: surely the pandemic would be resolved by then? From my studies, Chicago had placed high on my architectural shopping list; but its central position in the Amtrak network also set travel-geek wheels in motion.
Despite many visits to the US, as a non-driver in a country built around cars I had only rarely ventured beyond its megacities. Taking on the full run of the Coast Starlight had given me glimpses of a different America, but only as passing scenes, framed by windows. My most recent explorations stateside had opened up Oregon beyond Portland, with a stop in Eugene and tour of the Columbia river providing an enjoyable change of pace. So I wanted to build upon these by tackling another epic rail route, but this time with plenty of stops along the way. A chance YouTube recommendation immediately sold me on the California Zephyr. Taking over fifty hours to not quite reach San Francisco, this is the longest-distance option with daily departures – meaning I could build a hop-on, hop-off itinerary with 24 hour visits in each state en route.
In a flurry of timetables, maps and spreadsheets, I built myself a two week adventure for ten months in the future. 2021 played out as a series of setbacks – some international, some deeply personal – and so I came to cling to this project as a totem, wondering whether it could/would/should ever take place. Testing the waters with a couple of trips in Q4, things seemed to be headed in the right direction, not least with the lifting of the US travel ban in November. But then along came Omicron… I got myself boosted then hid from the world, entering a self-imposed festive lockdown with one goal: passing my pre-departure test on New Year’s Eve. Until then, I wouldn’t know if I would be starting 2022 with my longed-for travels, or a more official isolation.
As you have no doubt guessed, the verdict was favourable, and so by the next evening I found myself where we came in – crunching through the snow in Chicago.
Documenting this journey proved more exhausting than travelling it… in my usual fashion, a full chronological account will eventually be put together for Flyertalk, but in an upcoming series of posts here I’ll instead be grouping content thematically.