Phase One: Across the United States from California to Connecticut
(June 30, 2024)

It all started with the Reunion. My Yale Class of 1964 was convening in New Haven in late May. This 60th anniversary felt like a last roundup; a good one not to miss. But how to get there from California? Nancy and I shun air travel’s increasing stress. And an Interstate marathon would hold no appeal for a one-driver couple in our eighties.

Amtrak seemed an inviting solution. Spicing a cross-country railway route with layovers would let us visit friends and family along the way.  And speaking of routes, why settle for a boring identical return? A jump to the north could bring us back across Canada. The loop of a lifetime. We started to plan. Our actual itinerary ended up spanning 44 days and 8,500 miles.

In this month’s post, I’d like to share encounters and impressions from our expedition’s trans-American first phase. Next month I’ll do the same for trans-Canadian Phase Two. Both installments will feature lessons Nancy and I learned and relearned about the attractions and challenges of North American rail travel for oldies like ourselves. A candid journal of a transformative journey. Welcome aboard!


          Before proceeding to our transcontinental trek, let me open with a few generic words in praise of trains. Nancy and I have long been train enthusiasts. During 16 years of residence in Italy, we rode comfortable, punctual trains all over Europe, from Edinburgh to Budapest. On retiring to the States, we took up that practice and enjoyed long-haul Amtrak journeys, alone and together, along the West Coast and across the heartland. Truth to tell, American passenger trains were no competition for European or East Asian equivalents. Amtrak equipment was comparatively aged, roadbeds wobbly and velocities timid. But passenger-train scenery remained exhilarating, navigation stress-free, and the combination of en-route sleeping and dining services refreshingly civilized. Arrival at city-center train stations, in contrast with perimeter airports, was a bonus.

          On this Reunion trip, we discovered three additional advantages of train travel that were particularly attractive to seniors:

  • Amtrak (and Canadian ViaRail) Customer Services offered live, telephone contact with travel-planning professionals to customize routes, schedules and fares. Complete e-tickets and receipts were emailed to us immediately as soon as credit-card deposits were paid. Any subsequent departure and arrival modifications were promptly transmitted.

  • These cross-country itineraries offered hop-on/hop-off flexibility, at no extra charge, so that our journey could be frequently enhanced by visits and layovers.

  • And redcap/attendant services were offered free-of-charge in big-city train stations to help passengers transport heavy baggage from curbside to train boarding and reverse. (We tipped appreciatively, a voluntary gesture.)

          As we made our transport plans, we encountered a welcome variety of available sleeping accommodations on both American and Canadian overnight trains: luxury suites with fancy furnishings and complimentary happy-hour refreshments; family cabins with bunk beds and private bathrooms; snug bunk-bed berths with shared restrooms down the corridor; and individual roomettes like private pods. Deciding that ladders and upper bunks were perilous for arthritic elders, we opted for paired roomettes. During daytime travel, we could sit together or apart in our pods directly across the corridor from each other. At night, our seats were converted by attendants into single beds, with mattresses, sheets, pillows and blankets.

          For sleeping-car passengers, three complementary meals per day were served in a nearby dining car. Tables were set up for four; the maître d’ would direct Nancy and me to share a table with one or two fellow travelers. We especially enjoyed meeting and chatting with foreigners: from Australia, China, England, Germany, Italy, Iran (refugees) and Turkey.

          None of this praise is to pretend that our train arrangements were perfect. Two scheduling practices on both national systems were particularly vexing:

  • Several departures and arrivals were scheduled for the crack of dawn. When departing from a layover city, this required us to request hotel wake-up calls at ungodly hours in order to finish packing, check out and summon a taxi to the station. When arriving at a comparable early hour, it delivered us a half-day before our hotel would accept late-afternoon check-in. We realized that every train route must have a starting and ending time, not all for passengers’ convenience. But too often on this trip departure and arrival times seemed unnecessarily early in the day.

Railroad,Tracks,In,Sierra,Nevada,Mountains,During,Winter.We experienced one example of thoughtful passenger-oriented scheduling that set a high standard and gave us an impression of what might be more broadly possible. Amtrak’s California Zephyr departed its Emeryville Western terminus at a comfortable 8:30am. After crossing the Sacramento River Delta, it climbed the dramatic Sierra Nevada range by mid-day. (On our passage, the 7,000-foot Donner Pass was covered with sparkling snowpack.) By night, the passengers slept while the train crossed the uninspiring Nevada desert. Then we were awake on the second day while our train clung to sheer cliffsides above plunging Rockies gorges. We pulled into Denver by 7pm. Train timing seemed to maximize customers’ scenic enjoyment.

  • A second irritation: on both national systems our passenger trains were frequently delayed and shunted onto sidings to allow higher-priority freight trains free passage. We understand that freight is a higher revenue generator; and some rail right-of-ways are actually owned by freight carriers. But smoother, uninterrupted passenger progress would have improved the quality of service.

          Apart from these two logistical criticisms, we greatly enjoyed our Grand Adventure train rides. I’ll have more to report about Canadian trains in next month’s Phase-Two post. For now, I’d like to emphasize that the Phase-One Amtrak portion of our journey strengthened our rail-buffs’ enthusiasm. We loved the big-window vistas, the up-close proximity to geology, flora and fauna, the dramatically varied regional terrain, the flexibility of layovers, the roomette privacy, the dining-car sociability and the consistent courteous service.  Amtrak offers multiple east/west routes as well as north/south coastal runs. A comfortable, stress-free, civilized senior-travel resource. Give it a look.


            Enjoying solo sleeping compartments and passing scenery was not the sole purpose of our cross-country adventure. We also wanted to reconnect with scattered family and friends. Phone calls and emails are animated but remote. There’s no substitute for in-person contact.

            Frank Olsen in Denver

            Frank’s one of my oldest and dearest friends. He and I were first-year law students together at UC Berkeley. Over the intervening decades, Nancy and I visited him on his Appalachian farm; he came to see us in Central Asia and Italy. Frank is now contentedly settled in Denver, closely bonded with son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. As a hobby, he’s helping reconstruct the pipe-organ in his local Episcopal church. The three of us spent a leisurely lunch exchanging family news and future plans.  

three people standing behind a panda statue            My Nephew Thom

            Nancy and I have grown very close to Thom in our dozen years back in the States. We’re child-free, and he’s become a virtual son. Thom and his spouse Jay live in Colorado Springs where Thom works at the iconic Broadmoor Resort. This hundred-year-old, five-star oasis occupies 5,000 acres, encompasses 800 hotel rooms and 18 restaurants. Originally envisioned and constructed as a Rockies retreat for railway moguls, it evolved into a nationally prominent PGA tournament venue. Today the focus is squarely on conventions and conferences, hosting 8,000 meetings a year. Thom knows these numbers in his capacity as Assistant Manager for Convention Services. He’s daily involved supervising “international employees” who make up 40% of the Broadmoor workforce. We learned about America’s current upscale hospitality industry while catching up on family activities.  Nancy and I were definitely paying guests but Thom graciously facilitated our upgrade to a Founder’s Suite, complete with bedroom, balcony, two bathrooms, a conference table adjoining a living room/library, an enclosed conservatory and sheltered patio. Not our accustomed layover hotel room; we tried to act as if we belonged.

            Clasping Hands across a Bridge

            While riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr five years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting some Amish fellow passengers: the Miller family from Orwell, Ohio. Patriarch Daniel and I struck up a spontaneous series of on-board conversations. We have since become monthly pen pals. (The Amish don’t use electronic mail so Dan writes me in longhand and drops his letters in the post. I type and mail my letters, enclosing blog-post copies.) Our friendship grows steadily closer.  

man standing with a dog and horses

            On learning of this year’s planned Amtrak expedition, Dan and his wife Irene invited us to stop in for a visit. I was delighted. Nancy was enthusiastic about meeting the Millers in person. We rented a car in Cleveland, navigated a maze of country roads and checked into a local inn. Our visit was all we could have hoped for. The Miller clan’s multiple adjacent farms were immaculate. Operated without motorized equipment, the properties make daily use of teams of massive Belgian horses. Everyone pitches in, exchanging labor as needed.

            The best part was being welcomed with relaxed hospitality, as if it were an everyday occurrence for fundamentalist conservatives to open their home and th eir lives to secular California liberals. We talked about families and travel like relaxed next-door neighbors. Although our cultures and beliefs were worlds apart, we came quietly together.

            We met the nuclear family of seven children and their spouses plus the extended family of 50. On our first evening, Irene and the children served a light meal of locally produced meat, cheeses and breads before the extended family arrived with sweets to celebrate Dan’s sixty-fifth birthday. The next night, around a roaring campfire, the featured dish was walleyed pike freshly caught by son Rob. Nancy lent a hand with serving the fare, like a resident aunt. An impromptu chorus of young women and girls serenaded us with Pennsylvania Dutch hymns. Chuck, the aging black Labrador Retriever, presided over all proceedings with slumbering composure.

            One day Dan and Irene rode with us in our rent-a-car to visit his store, where he and his offspring sell equipment and supplies for harvesting and producing maple syrup. Dan’s the regional distributor for a major New England manufacturer. He commented that normally he would rides his bicycle the eight miles between home and store, standing on one pedal and pushing off the ground with the other. This scooter simulation lets him and other Amish farmers move rapidly around the area without violating the Community’s prohibition on motorized transport.  

            Dan and I had candid conversations about our respective concerns. I mentioned the pending presidential election, Ukraine and Gaza. He emphasized his leadership responsibilities as head of a three-generation family, as well as community representation liaising with county and state authorities. He showed me a framed genealogical table tracing his Swiss Anabaptist lineage back centuries. We found dozens of grounds for empathy, humor and respect. For me, this sharing was restorative. The surrounding secular society may find the Amish quaint, buggy-riding relics. But these are strong, successful survivors.

            Kindred Spirits

            The trans-American first phase of our adventure was blessed by one more rendezvous with life-long friends. Foster Knight and I had been classmates and pals at Berkeley Law in the 1960s. (Together with buddy David Moon, we’d joked we might form an entertainment-law practice if only we could find a Day.) I was a groomsman at Foster’s and Kathy’s wedding. We kept in touch over the years; I visited them in Rhode Island and Merida, Mexico when they were seasonal snowbirds. Two dimensions kept our friendship special for me. Foster and I both pursued careers as international development-assistance lawyers. And Foster and Kathy shared Nancy’s and my sustained attraction to living abroad. Today the Knights live year-round on the north shore of Lake Chapala in Mexico’s Jalisco State. Bilingual and thoroughly comfortable in Mexican culture, they are contented expatriates. We met for lunch in New Haven while they were visiting offspring and I was attending my reunion. It was refreshing to discuss North/South relations from both sides of this national border. My friends have no illusions about Mexico’s political and economic problems. But their looking-north perspective gives them a different take on bilateral trade and investment, immigration, drugs and guns. Few of my American compatriots are deeply international. It’s a pleasure to have these emigres as soulmates.


            Hertz Headaches

            No journey of any duration is smooth and simple. On this adventure, we were particularly flummoxed by rent-a-car foul-ups. We’d thought it would be simple to utilize rented cars for local layover visits. But in Denver, the main Hertz agency neglected to tell us (and several other customers) that the outlet where we collected our car would be closed on Sunday, when we planned to return it. After enduring a frustrating rain-soaking and unanswered phone calls, we were rescued by a mechanic working overtime at the padlocked drop-off destination.

            More disconcerting was the mutiny of the unsolicited electric car we rented in Cleveland. Outside our Orwell inn at 9pm, this mind-of-its-own vehicle erupted into a cycle of flashing interior and exterior lights plus opening and closing windows and trunk. Nancy called Hertz’s centralized “800” troubleshooters. They dispatched an independent, Cleveland-based tow-truck operator to drive 60 miles the next morning and collect us, our luggage and the car for return to Cleveland. There were more complications before we turned over the car and were transported back to our Cleveland hotel. The main consolation was the opportunity to get to know the inspirational roadside-assistance contractor. He had extricated himself from a treacherous adolescence and was building a multi-vehicle enterprise to support his family. 

            Trail Ailments

            Old age commonly brings illnesses and injuries. Many elders’ conversations open with “organ recitals” of ailments and remedies. The bottom line is not are you ailing but how are you coping. On this cross-country adventure, Nancy and I were both ambushed by debilitating medical infections.

            A short week before our scheduled departure from California, my nagging cough was worsening. I consulted our family doctor. After an office examination and chest x-ray, she diagnosed pneumonia. The immediate question was whether we had to cancel our long-planned trip. She recommended that I first try a double-whammy of antibiotics. When she then detected improvement; Nancy and I decided to press ahead.

            Once underway, my symptoms persisted, despite an arsenal of en-route remedies including saline nasal sprays, cough syrups, salt-water gargles, lozenges and inhalers. I experienced near-constant fatigue and a rough cough after meals that prevented most conversation. Fatigue also precluded most planned layover sightseeing. Train-station passenger assistance relieved most luggage-schlepping challenges, but Nancy had to change her role from traveling companion to ambulatory care-giver.

            Just when I seemed to be improving, she independently contracted a Urinary Tract Infection. Not your ailment-of-choice on a cross-country train trip. By the time we reached New Haven, we were both wobbly and weakened. Having looked forward to this celebration for a year, we spent hours in our hotel beds. Instead of dressing for a Reunion dinner, we rushed to an Urgent Care clinic for Nancy to be tested, then on across the New Haven Green to CVS to procure just-prescribed antibiotics.

            Our family doctor remained in close touch for email consultations. Local doctors and pharmacies were normally accessible.  Although no one enjoys being sick, we did enjoy working together as a couple to cope with roadside challenges — and not just infections. Daily life in our comfortable California retirement community can be insulating, even pampering. One reason for seniors to get out and travel is to renew self-reliance. It’s therapeutic to stretch our retired capabilities. Problems will inevitably arise on the road. How well do we deal with them and how do they turn out in the end?  


group of men embracing

            Missed Participation

            Despite our lives overseas, Nancy and I have always enjoyed and attended my Yale Class Reunions every five or ten years. We love reconnecting with life-long pals and their spouses, attending cutting-edge lectures by A-team professors, listening to cherished acapella singing, strolling through the verdant campus. This time felt especially meaningful; all of us ’64 grads are in our eighties. Five more years into the future, who knows how many will be able to reassemble?

            Our transcontinental train trip added spice to this anticipation. I was also gratified to be invited by the 60thReunion organizers to make a presentation at a classmates’ program on senior writing. Alas, our overlapping illnesses caused Nancy and me to miss most components of this three-day gathering. We showed up for one class lunch and one dinner. I learned a lot from a program on student protests, free speech and governance at Yale, choreographed by classmate Joe Wishcamper and keynoted by Len Baker. Fortified by cough syrup, I managed to honor my commitments to the writers’ panel. But that was about it. Having come all the way across the country, we were disabled on the doorstep.    

            Vicarious Reconnection

            Consolation came in an unanticipated form. Our Reunion has been commemorated in a dense volume compiled and edited by two diligent classmates, Bill Galvin and Sam Francis. Titled YALE 1964 AT 60, this directory is bringing me vicariously into contact with the friends and families I missed seeing at the gathering. There were 1,000 of us in our original class; 700 are still alive. For almost all of the survivors, the book collects biographical data and contact coordinates. For 250 willing participants, it also includes personal essays on “a subject important to you.” I’m finding this trove a welcome window. Here are some preliminary impressions:

  1. I’ve been startled by how many of these distant acquaintances I remember. In most cases, I haven’t seen these guys in 60 years. Yet their student photos bring them back into sudden recollection. (Much more so than their current photos: white hair and wrinkles under wide-brimmed safari hats!) Printed names and nicknames boost further retrieval. So do references to undergraduate majors, residential colleges, student organizations and activities. I discovered that I recalled hundreds of these individuals, not dozens. The key may be that we all spent Freshman Year rooming together in dorms on the Old Campus and dining together in Commons. Images must have imprinted for this Southern California adolescent a long way from home. The memories summoned by almost every page were evocative. I felt curious but also nostalgic. “Whatever happened to Fred?” The personal essays connected the dots.

  2. My second impression, from the biographical data, was that we were surprisingly diverse. Mostly white males, to be sure. But by no means all New England preppies. I recalled that in fact most classmates came from public, not private schools. And our hometowns covered the country. Yale further tossed this salad by offering us a rich menu of majors and degrees. The essays illustrated this wide variety of paths and personalities. Many wrote chronologically of careers and families. But others contributed wit or deep loss, tales and parables, even song lyrics, poetry and prayers. No conformity during or after college for this bunch.

  3. That said, I found a high degree of congruence. Lots of JDs and MBAs, a sizeable array of MDs and PhDs. Science, Engineering and Architecture vocations were definitely in the minority. But almost everyone pursued advanced degrees, and at the nation’s best graduate schools. I was struck by the prevalence of 50-year marriages, coming from a state where 50% of weddings end in divorce. Lots of community service. Lots of travel, preoccupation with health and fitness, ailments and disabilities, particularly in senior years.

  4. This was/is obviously a posse of super-achievers, explicitly and implicitly boosted by Yale. The bios and essays listed columns of awards and recognitions, patents, positions and publications. I’d have preferred fewer declarations of professional and personal self-satisfaction, even tempered by acknowledgements of luck. But this book was an invitation to show-and-tell.

  5. I was surprised how little attention these essays devoted to the future, given the invitation to write about subjects important to us. (For the record, the editors had asked submitters to eschew divisive politics. Otherwise, more of us might have felt the future too encroaching to ignore.) Only a few alarms about climate change and inequality were expressed, balanced in a sense by some optimistic forecasts for Artificial Intelligence. I’d expected more declarations of societal concern or aspiration from these leaders and visionaries. Even Bob Kaiser’s thematic essay on “Where do we go from here?” was mostly about where we have already been. Context, however, always shapes content. We’re in our eighties, with few years of life remaining. Moreover, Yale is part of our pasts, not our futures. Reunions look back more than forward. For most of us, this one was a warm goodbye.

            This commemorative volume is helping me salvage my mostly missed reunion. It will remain a valued personal reference resource, a contacts directory and a compact archive. For future researchers, I can even imagine it serving as an insightful time capsule. Who were these elite elders? What were they thinking just before their world transitioned?


            At the end of next month’s post, I’d like to share some cumulative conclusions that Nancy and I brought away from our entire transcontinental loop. For now, here’s a preliminary comment I feel is particularly pertinent to our adventure’s trans-American first phase.

            Conventional wisdom and nightly TV news headlines play up American polarization. Not only do we disagree about almost everything, as the cliché has it, but we hate each other in the process.

            To our encouragement and surprise, this was emphatically NOT the prevailing emotional climate that Nancy and I encountered when crossing the United States. To the contrary, we repeatedly, without solicitation, were treated with courtesy and consideration. By employees of railways, hotels and restaurants, to be sure; but also by random passers-by. Yes, we looked old, and I was slow-moving. Yes, we were corralling too many suitcases. But time and again, strangers reached out to help us, give directions, offer suggestions. This was not a sly come-on; we recognized spontaneous kindness.

            We especially remember one encounter exemplifying this generosity of spirit. It was 6am on a rainy morning outside Penn Station in New York City. A taxi driver had delivered us to the wrong station entrance for passenger-assistance services. A young black man in an Amtrak jacket came out of the building and noticed our curbside predicament. Although going off-duty, he changed direction and leant a hand. Helping schlep our bags inside the correct door, he continued on with Nancy to connect her with on-duty assistance. Firmly declining a tip, he wished us a safe onward journey and said goodbye. This in downtown Manhattan, pilloried by the media as a jungle of predators and con-artists. I don’t want to romanticize one Good Samaritan. But I’m reporting to you a constant pattern on this trip. Freak good fortune? Or food for thought?

On to Niagara and Phase Two! See you next month. rbs@agileaging.net



With thanks for photos to Jay Chavez, Nancy Swing, Stephanie Hartnett of the Yale Alumni Association and Shutterstock