When my daughter put two California colleges on her list, I casually wondered whether it would be cool to take the train there from Chicago and maybe drive down the Pacific Coast Highway from Berkeley to Pomona. Her eyes lit up, and the decision was made.
Parenting tip: When your 17-year-old agrees to spend 57 hours on a train with you, followed by three days in a car, you say yes and book the tickets as fast as you can.
This tendency of mine to turn school visits into diversionary adventures might seem like parental avoidance. I look at it as an aging dad shaking his fist at the modern college-search stress machine.
The plan was this: Sally and I would ride Amtrak's venerable California Zephyr to the Bay Area, where my wife, Mary -- whose love for me does not extend to my fondness for rail journeys -- would arrive by air and join us. After a tour of Berkeley and a few days in San Francisco, we'd rent a car and drive south at a leisurely pace, with a short hike in Big Sur and stops in Monterey and Santa Barbara. After a night in the Los Angeles suburbs, er, the bucolic foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, we'd hightail it home in the traditional manner, uncomfortably folding ourselves into an airborne metal tube.
The first thing you need to know about taking a 2,438-mile train ride is that patience is both required and rewarded. Also, reserving a sleeper car is highly recommended. It's not cheap, but all meals -- in our case, seven of them, times two -- were included for a grand total of $1,119.
Our Superliner Roomette was tight but efficient: two comfortable seats facing each other, with a pop-up table between. At night, those seats slide down to make one bed, while an upper bunk drops from above. Both beds are made up with mattresses, sheets, blankets and pillows -- hardly a four-star hotel, but comfortable enough.
And there is something lovely about sleeping on a train. The gentle rocking of 2 million pounds of steel surging across the Midwestern prairie at 70-plus miles an hour is oddly soothing. And when you feel a stop, you can pop up on an elbow and groggily look out at, say, Holdrege, Neb., at 2:30 a.m.
I'll be the first to admit that I pull out my phone in idle situations that might otherwise involve conversing with strangers. But I found the polite conversation that the dining car requires refreshing. Sally and I were seated with two strangers for each of the seven meals we had on the train, and all were pleasant, interesting companions. Even better was watching my daughter smoothly rise to the challenge of seven consecutive "So what do you want to study in college?" questions. (She isn't sure yet.)
Especially memorable was meeting the grandson of a recently deceased literary legend, who was returning from the funeral. Our conversation continued in the cafe car, where he offered my daughter kind and helpful observations on his own college experience.
A big allure of the Zephyr is the scenery, specifically the two giant mountain ranges it crosses. After a morning stop in Denver, the train begins its long, wandering path through the Rockies, with breathtaking views around every turn. Later come the Sierra Nevada mountains of eastern California, where we ooohed and aaahed at the sweeping vistas through Donner Pass.