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Taking the Train Across America: California Zephyr Line

Roger Holmes 2 comments

Train Across America Part 2: Chicago – Reno, on the California Zephyr

This is the second part of a series of blog posts which chronicle the adventure of riding the train across America. Click here for part 1, which recounts the journey from New York City to Chicago on the Cardinal Line.

I boarded the iconic California Zephyr and found to my dismay that I had a seating partner. When riding coach class on the Amtrak lines out of season, you will probably have a double seat all to yourself. I had enjoyed that luxury on the Cardinal line from New York City to Chicago. But now I had a bulky Mexican in the seat next to me. His first action was to take the window seat, close the curtain, and curl up in search of sleep. A 52 hour westward journey lay ahead of us. I lasted around ten minutes before getting up and seeking a better view or better company. I found both in the lounge car.

The beautiful sightseeing car on Amtrak’s California Zephyr

The lounge on the Zephyr is actually a sight-seeing car. The diverse seating arrangements include booth-style seats, fixed seats facing the passing scenery and swivel seats. The car has larger windows, which are supplemented by further overhead panes which curve around onto the roof of the carriage for increased light and visibility. I went downstairs to the little cafe and ordered my now Amtrak staple lunch of cheeseburger and pepsi. Upon returning upstairs, I found that there were no vacant individual seats, so I found a table with just one occupant, and asked if I could join him. The middle-aged man’s name was John, and he was deep in concentration over a crossword puzzle.

John opened our conversation by asking if I was Irish, and when I confirmed that I was, he told me: “I hate Irish men.” Charming. Thankfully, he then laughed and explained himself. John owned a bed and breakfast right on the Husdon River, around an hour north of New York City in a nice little town called Nayak. He had been dating a girl for a few years and had plans to marry her, only for her to suddenly ditch him and take up with an Irishman! We instantly hit it off despite the humorous inappropriateness of my nationality. I only broke off our conversation to walk through several cars to the back of the Zephyr to make a video as we crossed the Mississippi River, and watched as we rolled in to another new state for me – Iowa.

A postcard advertising John’s Bed and Breakfast at Nayak, New York

Evening turned to night, and Iowa turned to Nebraska, but John and I remained deep in conversation at our table in the sightseeing car long after the passing scenery had been swallowed by the darkness. He was such an interesting man. Holding his hands up in admission, John confessed that the relationship breakdown had led him to question the direction his life was going in. So he hired his nephew to manage the bed and breakfast, and had taken to the road. Hawaii aside, he had since seen every state. His experiences were incredible.

John’s primary residence was now his old van, which he had modified to include what he assured me were very comfortable living quarters. It was waiting for him in Denver; their onward destination as yet unknown. “Id say, wherever the wind takes me” John had stated philosophically, “but the wind would then be a factor. I like to be free from any choice factors. I just decide at the spur of the moment and take off.” We both pondered this for a second before I asked, “So you’re freer than the wind?”, to which John replied “Yeah. I like nothing to guide me but momentary intuition.”

John’s wanderlust had seen him stay on farms, in cities, on riverboats, with naturists in the Arizona deserts, with bikers in California, on his own on a Colorado mountain and partake in more spontaneous outdoor parties than a hundred men would encounter in a lifetime. “I want to know America; my home. Only then can I know myself.” John’s final philosophical offering was profound. “I had to travel tens of thousands of miles, through every state in America, to find what was already with me when I set out. Im happy and Im free.”

While contemplating this, I noticed a group of Amish teenagers playing cards at a nearby table. “They are on their Rumspringa John told me, explaining that many Amish and Mennonite communities send their young adults out into the world for a year. When the year is up, they can either return and be baptized into their church, or decide to remain out in the outside world. The vast majority return for baptism. John then laughed before saying, “I guess my Rumspringa is lasting a little longer than a year!”

During this time, another group of conversationalists had taken up residence at a nearby table in the lounge. Their common denominator was alcohol. When the cafe/bar had stopped serving at 11pm, they had remained for a short time before returning to the now silent coach cars to settle in for the night. Around that time, one of the conductors who John and I had greeted when he had been doing his rounds, now came and sat with us as his shift had finished. Soon the three of us were alone in the lounge. It was incredibly relaxing. We had just been considering going back to our respective seats, when a highly animated man came into the lounge, looked around and then told the conductor “You have to do something! My children have just been verbally abused!”

John, the conductor and I looked at each other in disbelief. The train had seemed so peaceful! I felt very sorry for the conductor. Of course, he simply had to take some sort of action given the brevity of the allegations, so he straightened his cap, stood up, and followed the man back to the coach cars. It transpired that one of the drinkers who had been in the lounge – a scruffy looking guitarist (he had bizzarely kept his acoustic guitar draped over his shoulder all the way from Chicago) – had gone back to his seat and obviously taken some more liquor or drugs. He had then allegedly proceeded to walk through the train, stopping at each seat, and randomly asking for sexual favors. As impossible as this was to imagine, it appeared following some hastily arranged investigations that the man was indeed guilty as charged.

Ten minutes later the train had rolled to a stop in a tiny  Nebraska town, and the man was ejected. There wasn’t even a platform. The train had stopped right on a railroad crossing, so he was literally dropped off, complete with his acoustic guitar, on the street. I watched from the window as he staggered around by the side of train, still remonstrating with the conductors, before the street behind him lit up with the flashing lights of a police car. He was immediately taken away by the police, and the train was free to continue. John and I were left to wonder how his fate would pan out, and how the evidence would be relayed to the judge.

It was now time for sleep. Before saying goodbye, John told me “Set your alarm. We get into Denver at around 7am. You will get moving again around 8. Trust me, you will want to be in the sight-seeing car for the first three or four hours out of Denver.”

I returned to my seat, where my Mexican comrade was now completely passed out, and made myself comfortable. Surprisingly, despite being in a car with around two dozen other passengers, all of whom seemed to be emiting one odor or another and in the midst of sounds ranging from talking/snoring while in mid sleep, to coughs and gas, I managed to get a solid five hours sleep.

The traditionally styled, but newly refurbished Union Station in Denver, Colorado

I awoke at six thirty, and had freshened up and sipped some coffee in time to witness the Zephyr arriving into Denver. We were told that Denver’s Union station was a ‘one way in – one way out’ station, so it would be over 30 minutes before the train would finally settle by the platform. I used this time to find a quiet corner of the train, and started my morning meditation. At that point I had been practicing Transcendental Meditation for around a month, having been given the training in midtown Manhattan. It has been one of the best decisions of my life to date. I have felt clarity of decision making, increased ambition, a greater sense of creativity, more patience and an all-round better enjoyment of life since I started using TM twice a day.

Arriving into Denver at dawn

I had finished meditating just as the announcer informed all passengers that we were now permitted to leave the train for up to forty five minutes. I spent the time stretching my legs on the platform, enjoying the fresh morning air coming off the still snow-capped Rocky Mountains, and taking some pictures of the beautifully refurbished Union Station in the mile-high city.

The newly refurbished Union Station in Denver, Colorado

For some, the forty five minute layover was just enough time to walk the few blocks to the nearest herbal  supply store, AKA weed dispensary. Colorado has of course legalized marijuana, and several passengers on the Zephyr were keen to avail of this opportunity. Weed tourism is quite the contributor to Colorado’s coffers, but it is a case of ‘caveat emptor’, as there is definitely some information asymmetry.

Under Colorado law, the herbal store is perfectly entitled to sell a certain quantity of marijuana products to anyone who meets the qualifying criteria. However, it is illegal to take the product out of state. Road-trippers and Zephyr riders often sidestep this little misdemeanor by purchasing and consuming edible marijuana products while still within the state.

A beautiful little house sits all alone, near the top of the Rocky Mountains at Winter Park Ski Resort

After stepping back onto the Zephyr, I heeded John’s advice regarding the sightseeing car, and while many other passengers were still stepping around on the platform, I snagged a great swivel chair by a large window. For several miles out of Denver the morning views were pleasant, but then we gradually started climbing into the ‘Front Range’ of the Rocky Mountains, and I found myself with a front row seat for one of the greatest displays I have ever seen.

The California Zephyr slowly climbing into the frontal range of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado

Slowly the Zephyr climbed into the forested mountains, weaving one way then the other, sometimes revealing a magnificent view of one or more of the ‘Fourteeners’, sometimes clinging tightly to the rails, right on the edge of a vertical drop into a river valley. Sometimes sheer rock walls passed by, and sometimes complete darkness descended as we passed right through a mountain. The longest tunnel on the Zephyr route is Moffat Tunnel, which is 24 feet tall, 18 feet wide and 6.2 miles in length. It cuts right through the upper peaks of the Frontal Range, so when we re-emerged, we were well and truly in the middle of the Rocky’s.

Approaching the highest point of the California Zephyr line through the Rocky Mountains

There were gasps and wows from all and sundry in the sightseeing car as we climbed through one final valley to Frazer – one of the highest towns in Colorado, and home to Winter Park Ski Resort. The snow was a little worn out looking, but the panorama’s were amazing.

A couple relax while admiring the beautiful Rocky Mountain scenery

After departing the mountain town, we continued along a large upland valley where surprisingly, the locals existed by ranching. The tracks followed the Fraser River northwestwards, and after a few miles there were calls to look out the left side of the train. On the far bank of the river was a solitary and very hungry looking moose. I had never before seen one of these great animals.

Rocky Mountain National Park, as seen from the California Zephyr

From the center of the valley, just past the town of Granby, we were surrounded by the large snowy peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. The size and scale of the United States comes into particular focus in places such as this. I had seen it before, while cycling through the great valleys of northern Nevada. Sometimes the valley is of such proportions that despite moving, it looks as if the surrounding mountains are still no closer or further away. The view up there was beautiful, and having the mostly glass-sided sightseeing car of the California Zephyr to enjoy it from was just such a privelage.

A mountain top delta on the Colorado River

In Granby we picked up the trail of the legendary Colorado River; water source to so much of the American south west, and followed it out of the valley and into the most spectacular gorge canyon which we followed for around an hour. The steep walls of the canyon are so close together in places that there is just enough room for the river, the railroad and the i70 freeway (which sometimes has to go double-decker through here). This section of i70 is said to be the most expensive road construction project ever undertaken.

The sightseeing car of the California Zephyr offers plenty of photo opportunities while passing through Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

As the steep canyon gave way to a more traditional river valley at Glenwood Springs, I suddenly became aware that I was seated right in the center of 6 or 7 people who had struck up a conversation. All had been traveling alone, and all had been sitting in silence for the previous hours admiring the scenery. But now, as we headed for the Colorado/Utah state line, a spark had lit the conversation. This conversation, between a uniquely eclectic mix of people, would last for several hours, and was as surreal as it was stimulating.

To my immediate left was Sarah, a PhD student from Devon, England, who was on vacation from her English Literature studentship position at Northwestern University, Chicago. To my right was Mike; a high-school history teacher who was on his way to Las Vegas. Then there was Peter; an IT worker in the financial district of Lower Manhattan, who was on a cross-country trip to visit his son in San Francisco, and his sister in San Jose.

Stephanie, who was sitting behind me was a self-proclaimed (or self-confessed) clairvoyant, who was a keen proponent of the notion that we are all somehow connected via some sort of energy. Beside Stephanie was without doubt the most intriguing member of the party. Benjamin was a twenty-something year old nuclear physicist, who did not speak too often, but when he did, it was intellectually profound. And lastly, there was Laura, a friendly and attractive young lady whose interest in the conversation quickly subsided, and who retired to her coach seat after around thirty minutes. It was at around this time that the conversation had started to simmer.

Someone had mentioned Trump. There were two immediate responses. Benjamin, the nuclear physicist had declared the president to be “without doubt the biggest fucking asshole in American political history.” James, the high-school history teacher was not amused. While leaving us in no doubt that he had voted for Trump, I think he parked his ideas of pledging further allegiance, having realized that he was in the company of two democrats, and two tourists who had absolutely no intention of becoming embroiled in a heated debate. It was only then that I became aware that yet another passenger was listening in on the conversation, but who at this point had not introduced herself or contributed.

A new kind of trading post in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado

When the train stopped at Grand Junction for an extended break, almost everyone took the chance to wander through the local stores at the small station (some in search of more marijuana). I made sure I was walking next to our observer. There was something about her. She was interested in the conversation, but had no interest in talking. After breaking the ice and introducing myself, I discovered why.

Sarah was the British television network Channel 4’s news correspondent for the US presidential election, and was finally getting some vacation time now that the election and inauguration were old news. She had spent the previous two years following the Donald Trump presidential campaign, the election, and his inauguration. I was fascinated, and asked her as many questions as I could, without being overly pushy. She freely recounted how she had been to all of Trump’s campaign rallies, and relayed some of the funnier and more harrowing stories of journalists jostling to get their questions on the list.

Back on the train, Sarah slipped back into anonymity, and the conversation continued among the others. With seemingly no apparent intro (we had been talking about the election), Benjamin suddenly launched into a verbal account of detailed designs for a perpetual motion magnetic tool for generating electricity. He hoped to patent the design. Im not sure about anyone else, but he was in no danger of me stealing his idea, because he had lost me after about two sentences.

I really enjoyed meeting the unusual mix of people. One of the marvelous things about traveling across America by train is that you get to meet some really diverse and interesting fellow passengers. People you simply would not get to converse with if you were to fly or drive across America.

Beautiful Ruby Canyon reflecting the evening sunlight as we left Colorado and entered Utah

As afternoon turned to late evening, we resumed our silent appreciation of the passing scenery. We crossed the state line into Utah and had a brief stop at Green River. I needed no reminding about how barren Utah can be, having cycled through there. But if anything, it seemed even more desolate from the train. As the day ended, the rock formations caught the low sunbeams and we got first hand evidence of how Ruby Canyon got its name. It was absolutely beautiful.

One by one the eclectic conversationalists returned to their coach seats, and I sat on my own in the sightseeing car. I practiced my transcendental meditation for twenty minutes, before having supper and settling in to write for a while. Taking the train across America offers so much opportunity for relaxation and reflection, and I found it to be a really great environment. Somewhere on the tracks over the Great Salt Lake, I brushed my teeth and settled in to my seat for the night, feeling as content as I have ever felt. The gentle rolling of the carriage soon rocked me into a peaceful sleep.

Early morning sunshine while passing through the deserts of northern Utah

I awoke to bright sunshine coming through the gap in the curtains beside my seat. We had crossed the remainder of Utah and most of the desert in northern Nevada. We were now in Fernley, which acts as a major distribution center, and were soon following Trukee River. I washed, had breakfast and got my things together. My epic 3000+ mile train ride across America was coming to an end. I would get off at Reno Nevada, just before the Zephyr started its climb into the Sierra Nevada, passing by the town of Truckee and Donner Lake, before descending into California.

The reason for my trans-american train ride, was to visit two ladies who I call the Desert Angels. These ladies had given me so much help and encouragement as I had cycled through Nevada on my charity cycle across America.

I would spend a few very enjoyable weeks in their home, before once again riding the train all the way across America to New York City.

 

 

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