This Woman Traveled Solo Across the U.S. by Train During the Pandemic — Here's What She Learned

“What this whole journey has taught me is that I am a lot braver than I think I am.”

Brenda Nguyen on train and view outside window
Photo: Courtesy of Brenda Nguyen

Brenda Nguyen didn’t initially intend to take a train across the country. When she accepted a job in California earlier this year, her plan was to take a road trip from Boston to her new home in San Francisco. However, due to the many complications brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, her cross-country move didn’t exactly go as she anticipated. Nguyen will be the first to admit that it certainly wasn’t the quickest or most cost-effective way to get to her final destination, but she told Travel + Leisure that the trip changed the way she views herself as a traveler for the better. And for the skeptics, she documented her entire journey on TikTok.

“I’ve always wanted to do a road trip across the country, but considering how there would be so many stop points and … more opportunities to be exposed to people, that was concerning to me,” Nguyen said. She ultimately decided on the train because it would limit her touch points with people along the way.

View of mountains from train car
Courtesy of Brenda Nguyen

Nguyen’s trip was split in two parts; first, Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited train from Boston to Chicago, which took around 21 hours. Then, the California Zephyr, which travels through the Rocky Mountains and the American West, ending in Emeryville, CA, though she disembarked in Sacramento. On the first train, Nguyen booked a Viewliner Roomette, which she described as a “cozy and cramped space.” The private cabin has space for two passengers, with a chair that converts into a bed, as well as a top bunk, toilet, and sink, with a shared shower in the hall. Nguyen said she was able to remain socially distant from staff and other passengers for the majority of the trip, and noted that the only time she spent in common areas was the dining cart for dinner. For guests’ safety, Amtrak takes reservations ahead of time and staggers tables, which Nguyen said reassured her sense of safety.

Interior view of train car
Courtesy of Brenda Nguyen

By the time she boarded the California Zephyr, Nguyen had hit her stride. The name of the train itself meant she was that much closer to her new home. But first, a two-and-a-half day journey that took her across the rest of the western U.S. She stayed in a Superliner Bedroom on the Zephyr, which is a bit more spacious, since it includes a bed, chair, and in-room bathroom, with both a toilet and private shower. Perhaps most importantly, this train provides stunning views of the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas.

While on the train, Nguyen kept herself entertained with her Nintendo Switch, journal, and, of course, the breathtaking views outside her window. Some areas had limited cell phone service and Wi-Fi, which Nguyen said she was ultimately grateful for. “It was really a time to unplug, reminisce, stare out the window, and soak in all the views. At one point, I had my camera out to take some photos, but I just didn’t want to take any photos anymore because I wanted to take it all in.”

Nguyen’s itinerary happened to coincide with the start of the Grizzly Creek Fire, just outside of Glenwood Springs, CO, on Aug. 10. The resulting views were some of the most striking of the trip, she said. “That was the moment I remember saying to myself, ‘I’m definitely not on the East Coast anymore.’"

View of mountains and smoke from train
Courtesy of Brenda Nguyen

Nguyen also pointed out that this trip taught her to slow down, especially when it comes to travel. Since so much of travel is often about powering through various modes of transportation to arrive at one’s destination as quickly as possible, it’s easy to see flights, train rides, and car trips as merely a means to an end. But Nguyen pointed out that transportation can very well be part of a meaningful travel experience, especially within the context of the pandemic. “I’ve always been very ‘go-go-go,’ especially when it comes to traveling; working a 9-to-5 schedule, there’s only so much time off that we have," she said. "[Now] it’s really about how to maximize the time that I have. For this chapter in my life, time is so different than what it once was ... it really gave me the opportunity to take a breath, and appreciate the journey to the destination, as opposed to to just looking forward to the destination.”

While her train journey was clearly an experience full of personal growth, so was the process of sharing the trip online. Sharing content is nothing new to Nguyen; she’s managed a food and travel blog and Instagram account for nearly five years, though TikTok is a more recent venture. She told T+L she hopes her experiences help people understand that travel is more accessible than they might think.

“At the end of the day, this is my subjective experience, but here are some the objective ways you can go about this process, and some of these personal experiences that may occur may vary, but we can go along the same path and maybe get to the same destination,” she said. And while it will likely be some time before we travel again in the same ways we used to, Nguyen’s experience is proof that safe travel during the pandemic can still be both meaningful and enjoyable. And in the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with a little TikTok-inspired wanderlust.

Madeline Diamond is an e-commerce editor at Travel + Leisure, and she’s constantly fighting the impulse to overpack for her next trip. You can follow her on Twitter @madgdiamond.

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