Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Voyage on the California Zephyr

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.

Chicago's Union Station

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.

View from the Observation Car

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

A break for leg-stretching and our attendant Marion

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.

Eastern Colorado plains

In the Rocky Mountains

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.

Main Street, Truckee, California

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.

Snow-covered conifers

Sun in the Sierras

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.

Donner Lake

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.

Suisun Bay

Sacramento River Delta

Springtime in California

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.

Historic depot, Grand Junction, CO

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.


Unknown said...

What a wonderful journey. I'm taking notes on your trip. You certainly made the best of it, I could just feel the warmth and beauty of your experience. Thank you for sharing such a lovely time with others.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Karen,

Thanks for taking the time to relive the trip with me!

It really was a trip of a lifetime.

Bronwyn Green said...

This is so cool, Lisabet! I'm not sure I'd survive 30 second showers, but the scenery is breathtaking and it sounds like a really fun trip!

Word Actress said...

Like you, Lisabet, I have a ton of hair, so I guess I'd skip the showers
and they probably don't allow dogs, so that's that for me! It looked like a
really fun journey. I just saw something yesterday about Suison Bay. I'd never heard of it before, and then here you show us all a picture.
Maybe that needs to make it into one of my stories.
I came across the country by car 20 years ago from New York City to
California. Thanks for reminding me of that and for sharing your lovely travelogue with us...

Heather Haven said...

Lisabet, Norman and I were just talking just yesterday about doing another, longer train trip. We went from the East Bay to Reno once on the Amtak Special, which isn't much of a trip, but it was enough to tantalize one. My mother used to travel from NYC to Oakland and loved it. It took 4 days but she had a ball. Thanks for sharing this.

Colleen said...

I do not know about those 30 second showers, but I enjoyed going along your trip through your pictures! What wonderful looking places! :)

Randall Lang said...

Hi Lisabet,

Beautiful pictures, and I do know how hard some were to get. I had to laugh at your reaction to the 'roomette' and sleeping quarters. I had to compact my 6' frame into the 6'2" upper bunk. Everytime I opened my eyes I wanted to pound on the ceiling and scream, "I'm alive! I'm alive!". Documented the trip on my blog I hope someday to take the same trip that you did, the scenery looks gorgeous. Thank you for the journey.

J.Q. Rose said...

Thank you for sharing this amazing journey. I was not aware of such a voyage. Your photos are gorgeous and I imagine the scenery breathtaking in real life. What a delightful way to spend time with your hubby.

Lisabet Sarai said...

Greetings! Thanks for all your comments. Blogger just swallowed my long reply, darn it, but let me try again!

Bron and Colleen - The showers weren't all that bad. You could push the button multiple times to get multiple 30 second increments. And Amtrak did provide
very nice, big, fluffy bath towels, though with that little water they were hardly needed. You can understand why they limited the length of the showers;
they had to carry all the water with them, for 52 hours of travel.

Mary - Hi! My husband and I drove cross country together at the very start of our life together. We took three weeks to do it - obviously not the most
direct route - and had a marvelous trip. He proposed to me in Taos, New Mexico. I told him to wait a year and ask me again. After all, we'd only been together for two weeks! Still, driving across the U.S. is an excellent test of whether two people can get along!

Heather - I strongly encourage you to do another train jaunt, if you have the time. We loved the 24 hour trip from Daytona Beach to Boston. The food was excellent, and the scenery, though not as dramatic as this trip, was worth seeing. The section from NYC to Boston runs along Long Island Sound and includes some lovely vistas.

OMG, Randall! I can only imagine how you must have felt! Good practice for writing vampire stories! I'm just shy of 5'2" and my husband is about 5'9", so
we're pretty compact. Got to go read your travel epic!

JQ - Actually there are three routes across the west from Chicago. The Empire Builder is the northern route, to Seattle. I believe that it goes through
Glacier National Park. The Southwest Chief goes south, through Albuquerque, to Los Angeles. I imagine that it passes through some pretty dramatic desert regions. I love the fact that they've kept the historic names for these trains. Originally they were operated by different rail companies.

To all - if you're interested in rail travel, and you live in the U.S., I encourage you to lobby your congresspeople to give more support to Amtrak. The
U.S. rail system is in a sad state. We were told he cars on this train were more than 30 years old (though they'd been refurbished). Amtrak is really limping along. Meanwhile, train travel is far more ecological than flying or going by car.

Janice Seagraves said...

How fun. I'd love to be able to go on a train trip. Thank you for sharing.

Maggie Nash said...

Beautiful photos Lisabet. Your description of the cabin facilities reminds me of a trip my dh and I made from London to Edinburgh back in the 1980s. I can so relate! But the fantastic views were it all evened out!

And it's so much more relaxing sitting in a train than driving :-)


Lily Harlem said...

Lisabet, thanks for sharing, that is a trip I would love to take.

Lily x

Lisabet Sarai said...

Greetings, Janice, Maggie and Lily,

Thanks for dropping by to share my journey!


Nina Pierce said...

It sounds like a great adventure. Mr. Nina is tall and big. I'm not sure he'd do well in the sleeping compartments.

desitheblonde said...

wow i wish i would go on something like that
hope you have more to do and have fun

Pat Dale said...

Thanks for the insightful travelogue, Lisabet. I made that trip once when I was only twenty. I never noticed the cramp quarters, though I never noticed lots of things I do now. LOL
The scenery is magnificent and well worth the price. Having lived in several locations along the Zephyr's route since then, I suspect that I made those decisions partly based on what I'd seen as a brash youth. Thanks again for sharing!
Pat Dale

Lisabet Sarai said...


Actually, if you're willing to spend the money, you can get a full sleeper car, which offers much more space. We booked one of those once, years ago, on a trip to Washington, and it was very comfortable.


You can! It's surprisingly cheap. The whole trip, including the basic tickets, sleeping car, and food, was only about $600. I doubt we could have flown for much less.


Yes, when I look back to the stuff I did when I was in my twenties, it's hard to believe. Seems like I cared a lot less about comfort!

Sue Swift said...

Lisabet, thanks, this was wonderful. I noticed the many compliments you gave to my home state. California is wonderful, isn't it (smirking).

Christine London said...

We had so much snow in the Sierras this year. The drought declared officially 'over' in California. What a beautiful ending. :)

Thanks for sharing.

Christine London

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hi, Sue and Christine,

So you're both from California? Amazing state. You can go to the beach and skiing on the same day!

Bumpa said...

Beautiful trip. As a kid, I never rode the Zephyr's original route, but watched it go by many times, with much longing. As a comparison to your recent memorable trip, here's a glance at what I remember:

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