Writing on the California Zephyr

The Pfizer vaccine clinched it for me. I’d been stir crazy in my 470-square-foot studio, so I used my Amtrak points to book a roundtrip ticket on the California Zephyr from Davis, CA, to Chicago for spring break. I got this idea after I noticed how Amtrak was advertising these little rooms as a great way to travel during the pandemic. They’ll bring you your food. Masks are enforced in the public areas. They’ve worked on their air filtration system. I spotted an ad with a person sitting with a laptop in a roomette, and the writer in me said, Yes! I’d been wrangling with a 450-page novel manuscript throughout the year of COVID and was ready to move into some concentrated work on the project. As the trip drew closer, I began to waffle—worrying I’d be making a huge mistake. Then California opened their vaccine list to educators, and I inadvertently received my doses in time for the trip. 

I boarded the train feeling nervous, though I quickly settled into the routine. I could lock my door, shut the curtain, and remove my mask. I enjoyed a few hours of scenery. Then I pulled out my laptop. The pressure cooker that is a roomette on a long Amtrak journey proved to be no joke for me. I wrote for hours during my seven day trip (two nights on the rails, two nights in Chicago, and two nights on the rails). My level of focus ratcheted up—I felt like I was in a bubble. Needless to say, the novel is not completely finished, but it is close. For me, this is no small feat as I’ve been grappling with this manuscript since 2002. I plan to give it a final polish over the summer before moving on to the pitching process.

Our COVID laden world did present some challenges. No surprise there. When I arrived at Union Station in downtown Chicago on a Saturday afternoon, I noticed most businesses were closed. The .2 mile walk to my hotel felt safe enough, though eerie. There weren’t many folks out and about, not even homeless ones. I took this as a sign I should continue working on my manuscript in my hotel room. I did have a ticket to The Art Institute of Chicago for Sunday. This allowed me to check off one item on my bucket list. I managed to track down a Chicago style pizza at Giordano’s (another checkmark). I’d wanted to see Lake Michigan but decided I shouldn’t roam too far.

Thus the trip proved to be a solo experience, one that put me in a meditative state of mind. Did I mention the California Zephyr rolls along a most scenic route? Deserts, snow-capped mountains, forests, rivers, and streams. I didn’t experience much boredom until day 6, after I’d written for about six hours. I imbibed in a glass of wine. Then a moment of crankiness overtook me. I was stiff and sick of sitting. I looked out the window to note the sun going down on a Utah desert. This most spectacular sunset—ending with a red sky above, the black silhouettes of quirky land formations below—pulled me back into the journey.

One takeaway from the adventure was the realization I was doing my own testing of the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine. It felt good to begin facing the world, though I did not act normally. I wore my mask in public. I frequently used hand sanitizer and wipes. I didn’t talk to many people. I felt sadness over that last point, because during prior Amtrak trips, I’d nattered with all sorts of folks. Still, I found myself loosening my COVID prevention tactics. For example, I shared a bathroom with other passengers in the sleeper car, which made me feel uptight the first day or two. At some point, I stopped thinking about it. And on the trip out, I received all of my meals in my roomette. On the trip back, I decided to take a few of these meals in the dining car. As an FYI, the dining car practices social distancing by making use of only half their seating. And they don’t seat more than one party together as they do under normal circumstances. Needless to say, on the final day of the trip, I decided I’d left some COVID fears behind. I will do what I’m asked to do in terms of social distancing as America works through this, but I feel ready to move forward.