In Defence of Discomfort

  • Jun 5, 2017

Have you ever wondered what it feels like to sit on a train for 55 straight hours?

I’m guessing not. I hadn’t either, until I booked two tickets for the California Zephyr on a whim this March. After a quick Google search and a “why not?” shrug, my boyfriend and I set ourselves the task of traversing the U.S.A and touching both the Atlantic and Pacific ocean within the space of a week. We would travel from Boston to San Francisco – a journey that takes six hours by air, two days by car, and over half a week by rail.

Spending 80+ hours in economy seats (broken up by a three day visit to Chicago) might sound insane to some, especially when you consider that, for a little extra cash, we could have flown comfortably from coast to coast in the time it takes to complete a shift at work. Restricted recliners, shared toilets and the violent rattling of wheels over rails designed for freight trains might be most people’s personal vision of hell, but I couldn’t imagine travelling any other way.

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To fly would have meant missing the tangled woodlands of Massachusetts bursting into spring, and the endless unfolding farmlands of Ohio and Indiana. Flying would have cut out the verdant fields of Iowa, lime green from long-overdue rain, and the slow crawl through the canyons of the Rocky mountains, where sheer cliffs stretched 1,000 feet above us and churning rapids boiled below. We’d have skipped the sandy stacked mountains of Utah and the salty Nevada desert, the snowdrifts surrounding Lake Tahoe and the evening sunlight over Sacramento’s hills.

I had barely any sleep and no access to a shower, but it was worth it to watch America unfurl itself as I stood at the very back of the train, face pressed against the glass and staring out at the tracks that bent, curved and twisted off into the horizon. No in-flight movie and comfy hotel bed could have compensated missing that view.

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In any case, the basic conditions on board weren’t all that harrowing because my boyfriend and I are used to travelling on the cheap. Sadly, we’re not made of money, so our wanderlust has to be tempered by frugality. Rather than blow our budget on a week in a fancy resort, we choose to stay longer, see more, and travel further. For the most part, this involves staying at places that a lot of people would run screaming from, but that doesn’t bother me. Comfort, after all, is a concept that is sold to us, and it’s relative. All we really need from a hotel is the shelter of four walls, a place to get some shut-eye and a firm lock on the door. Anything else is an added bonus (although a fridge never goes amiss – you save SO much money when you can prepare food in your hotel room).

Sure, it’s a pain in the ass when the radiator in your room is stuck on maximum, or when the breakfast offered by your hostel turns out to be a bag of supermarket bread and a single toaster, but the benefits outweigh the gains. That overheated room facilitated a week-long stay in New York for under $200. We met wonderful people from all over the world next to that toaster in Boston, bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase “continental breakfast”. Our hotel in San Francisco might have had some dodgy characters stalking the hallways, but our room looked straight into Francis Ford Coppola’s office and was next to the bar where Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti drank and ignited the Beat revolution.

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Our train seats might not have reclined as far as we would have liked, but we had legroom, a blanket, and access to a panoramic viewing carriage that allowed us to watch the sun rise and set over 11 different states. I’d take another ride along the Colorado river over a penthouse suite any day of the week.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate luxury as much the next person, and I wouldn’t turn down a first-class ticket or a room at the Ritz if it was offered. I know that for many people, staying at a fancy hotel is as much a part of the travel experience as the destination itself – in fact, we splashed out at the Allerton hotel in Chicago and had a whale of a time in our king-size room (the concierge saw how tired we were and instantly upgraded us – result). However, I believe that sometimes the sweetest things are discovered when the frills are stripped back. Besides, anyone can come back from a luxury hotel and brag about the nice en suite and perfect parfait. Only the extreme budget traveller will come back with a hilarious yarn about how their “room” actually turned out to be a mattress in a kitchen.

Comfort is all well and good, but it doesn’t pay to be afraid of the basics.

Photography: Betti Post-processing: Raelfb-signature

 

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Betti Baudelaire

Betti Baudelaire is a Berlin-based freelance journalist and part-time barista extraordinaire. She enjoys making the most of her monthly travel pass, searching for bargains at flea markets, and pretending she is still a ballerina.

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  • Rail travel from sea to shining sea is definitely something I’ve thought about before, and I’m glad that you enjoyed your experience. For myself, I don’t know if I could stand actually taking Amtrak across the US, but I am probably going to make my first “long haul” rail trip from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe this summer.

    Reading this post reminded me that a college friend blogged all about his bike ride from Washington, DC to San Francisco two summers ago.

    I really enjoy reading non-Americans’ impressions of the great American West, especially the Sierra Nevada. One of our great Californian heroes was John Muir, a Scot.

  • My mom has mentioned she would like to experience traveling from coast to coast in the USA via train. It does sound like quite the adventure =o)

    https://dreamofadventures.com/

  • Bivisyani Q.

    This got me thinking: travelling is so different in various countries.
    For instance, in Europe—especially Germany, the one I’m very familiar with—travelling with train is basically the norm. Otherwise, they have intercity buses—which has started becoming a trend in the past 3-4 years—and even carpooling websites—where strangers basically meet up to go together to the same destination while paying the driver for the gas and trip. Hostels are in abundance and they’re often student-friendly, offering communal kitchens and dorm-like rooms for smaller price. Not only do they promote cheaper travels, but also a sense of community because we are able to connect with fellow travellers that we didn’t necessarily know beforehand—I once met an English traveller and Indian couple in Brussels and in a few short hours learnt a little about their life stories. Best part: they often also offer comfort—though not in the form of room service or fitness facilities.

    In Indonesia, it differs depending on the region, province and island. For the most part, people still make good use of the train—because most people can’t afford the plane—except if they want to travel to a different island, for which they go by plane. Otherwise, buses and mini buses are usually popular—along with boats to visit smaller islands. It’s not unusual for people to go on roadtrips with their own cars too—although normally not on regular basis. Cheap lodgings can also be easily found in Indonesia and street foods are everywhere, offering not only snacks but often healthy main courses for everyone at practically all hours. Natives often have friends and family they can stay with, though, so it’s often not a problem.

    In the US, I’ve noticed, people often travel by plane—sometimes maybe roadtrips by car—but trains seem to be quite unpopular. It feels like such a shame, because the US is a huge country, filled with beautiful desserts and forests that are just too good to miss. Often when I see this scenery in films, I feel jealous and have a sudden pang of wanderlust to go frolicking on those landscapes.

    P.S: Betti, you are officially my favourite writer on LFB! I just LOVE your writing style and musings!

    Alive as Always

  • Diana D

    I couldn’t agree more :) I am definitely the type that travels because of the journey itself, and on low budget most of the time, however I still enjoy every moment of it. Traveling by train, especially through places you haven’t visited before, is magical, and stays in your memory way longer than that fancy meal you had on a first class flight.

  • Beautiful piece, seriously! And I agree, it’s such an adventure, travelling on a budget. There’s not much of a story, when you take a direct flight and a shuttle to your 5 star hotel.
    I’d love to take that train across the states as well, it sounds so inspiring! :)

    Meg @ http://its.meg-ramsay.com