Last weekend I returned from a three and a half week visit to the U.S., my annual pilgrimage to see family and friends, mail forwarders, lawyers and accountants. A highlight of the trip was our two day, two night journey across the west on Amtrak's Calfornia Zephyr.
We flew from the east coast to Chicago to catch the train. Originally we'd planned to go all the way across the country, but it turned out that the stretch from Boston to Chicago was almost twice as expensive as the rest of the trip, although it's only a quarter of the distance. The train left at the highly civilized hour of 2:00 PM from Chicago's historic Union Station. We had to check out of our hotel at noon, but Amtrak provided a comfortable lounge with secure baggage storage for its "first class passengers" - that is, anyone who had shelled out for a sleeping car! We left our suitcases and went to grab lunch at the station food court. By the time we got back, the train was ready to board.
We'd purchased a so-called "roomette". This turned out to be a compartment about the size of a small closet, with a window and a sliding door lockable from the inside. During the day, it contains two facing seats. At night the bottom seat folds down into a bed, and a second bunk drops from the ceiling. It's a good thing my husband and I are short and not too fat! And I will forever bless him for being willing to take the top bed, where there wasn't even enough headroom to sit up.
We'd traveled in a roomette a few years before, on a twenty four hour trip from Florida to Boston, but this one was smaller because the Zephyr is a double-decker train. There was no room for anything other than two bodies. We had the devil's time finding space for even the small bags we'd packed with our toiletries and changes of underwear.
Fortunately we were on the lower level; the motion of the train is much less noticeable there and we were also closer to the toilets and the shower. The shower was "interesting". It had hot water, but you could only get it in 30 second bursts. I decided that I'd wait until the end of the trip to try washing my (very abundant) hair!
The train also includes a dining car (all meals are included if you buy sleeping accommodations) and an observation car with big windows so that you can appreciate the scenery. We opted to spend most of our daylight hours in the observation car rather than in our own cramped quarters. After all, a major reason for taking this trip was to enjoy the glories of the American west.
Amtrak provides an attendant for each sleeping car, rather like a concierge. He or she is responsible for making up and breaking down the beds, providing linens and towels, making coffee, emptying trash, and so on. Our attendant, Marion, told us that she'd been working on Zephyr for thirty six years. I immediately started to think about how I could incorporate that into a story, although Marion was far from glamorous
The schedule very cleverly transits the flat areas at night and saves the mountains for the daytime. The first afternoon, we covered the plains of Illinois and Iowa. We reached Omaha, Nebraska, sometime around midnight and arrived in Denver right after breakfast the next morning. Our first full day on the train was mostly devoted to Colorado. The route took us through Rocky Mountain National Park and spectacular, rugged Gore Canyon. Unfortunately, it's a bit difficult to get good photos from inside the train, because the window glass creates reflections. You'll just have to take my word for it - the views were spectacular.
As night fell, we headed into Utah. Salt Lake City passed us by while we were asleep. One feature of the dining car (aside from fairly decent food) was the fact that you could purchase very good California wine. We availed ourselves of that opportunity both evenings. As a result, we slept quite soundly!
The morning of the second day found us entering California. We stopped briefly at the picturesque border town of Truckee, which looked like something out of an old Western, and picked up an extra engine to help us over the Sierras.
Once out of Truckee, we began to climb, the train taking switchbacks as the elevation increased. We'd first seen some snow in the Rockies (an exciting moment for us since we've been living in the tropics for a decade) but things got seriously snowy in California.
When we crossed into the state, two volunteer guides from the Railroad Museum in Sacramento joined the train. Throughout the day they provided us with fascinating information about locations along the route and the history of the area. According to what they told us, just the previous week heavy snow had closed the regular tracks and the California Zephyr had been rerouted south (resulting in significant delays).
The route traverses the infamous Donner Pass, where during the winter of 1846-1847 nearly forty pioneers died of starvation and illness on the road to the Gold Country. As the Zephyr crested the pass and headed down, the sun broke through the clouds, turning Donner Lake an exquisite shade of blue. Magnificent scenery continued to surround us. Above the valley of the American River, our guides pointed out a spot that had been the end of the wagon trail. At that point, they told us, the covered wagons were dismantled and the pieces lowered by rope more than 2000 feet to the valley below. Several companies apparently provided this service to arriving pioneers.
I had expected that when we reached the lowlands, the view would become boring. However, the train traversed the marshes of the Sacramento River delta and then skirted Suisun Bay, which turned out to be quite dramatic. The brilliant green of the springtime hills was a delightful change after hours of snowy, monochrome mountain vistas.
The train arrived in Emeryville, across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, at 3:20 PM, almost an hour early. We were amazed, since every Amtrak train we've ever taken in the past had always been late.
It turns out that a long train voyage like this is very social. Seating at meals is handled by the dining car staff rather than by choice, since space is limited. As a result, we sat with different people at every meal, and had lots of opportunities to chat and share stories. Almost everyone we met was a railroad veteran. Some people regularly traveled on the Zephyr.
As for us, we had fine time, but I don't think we'll do this particular trip again for a while. On the other hand, we'd love to take the Coast Starlight at some point, which runs along the Pacific Coast from Portland to Los Angeles.
One slight disappointment: although the historical aspects of the trip had an element of romance, it would pretty difficult to find much that was erotic in our journey. Tiny, narrow, one person bunks - the same basic clothing for two days - thirty second showers - let me just say that this was not the lavish world of the Orient Express! It was more like camping, to be honest. Of course, I could use my imagination and ignore a few of these inconvenient facts...
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed our journey on the California Zephyr. If you're considering doing a voyage like this yourself, I encourage you to go ahead. It's surprisingly affordable and great fun - as long as you're not in a hurry.