Start with this simple truth: crossing the country by train is an adventure. Whether you’re out to see the country in a relaxed manner or avoid the hassles of flying or driving, a train journey will be an adventure.
As soon as train wheels begin to turn you’re in a different environment. There are revelations for first timers. Whether in coach or sleeper, you’re close to people for an extended period. You will be placed with others in the diner, as waiters insist that all four seats at the table are occupied. You’ll find your own place in the observation car as seats are first come first serve.
My February journey aboard the California Zephyr from San Francisco Bay to Chicago and on to Washington, DC was superb. But it was an adventure.
I began in San Jose in the Silicon Valley traveling three hours through the East Bay to Davis, the university town near Sacramento. In the morning I joined the California Zephyr on its 2,400 mile run to Chicago. The Zephyr is rightly regarded as Amtrak’s most scenic train across the Sierras and Rocky Mountains.
Settling in, you make your way to the observation car and join the slice of life already on display.
There are four-person tables and fixed position chairs close together, a configuration promoting conversation. Across from me are Caitlin and Jason, an engaging couple fresh from hiking in the northwest. They are headed home to Maine where they hope to start a school. These intrepid naturalists have spent two years in the Himalayas in Kashmir where they embraced the lifestyle of the rural Buddhist population.
Across from them are two computer engineers from the Silicon Valley. Max and Will are escaping their San Francisco routines for a get-a-way in Denver, a day and a half’s journey ahead.
Traveling east from Sacramento the beauty outside demands attention. The six-car Zephyr climbs into the Sierras reaching for Tahoe and Reno. Volunteer historians have come aboard to provide historical perspective as the sights grow more spectacular the higher we climb.
“Here,” says docent Bill Schuldt, “is where members of the Donner Party perished in an early winter blizzard that blocked their wagons and left them snowbound in 1846.” Here also, he explains, on this very track in 1952 a premier Southern Pacific train with 226 aboard was immobilized by drifting snow and stuck for three days.
Arriving in Reno in early evening, two dozen travelers disembark. Their places are taken by others, most headed for Denver. Travelers who have splurged for a roomette will sleep laying down in a snug compartment with facilities, including a shower, close by. In coach passengers sleep sitting up as the Zephyr races into the night for Salt Lake City and points east.
I’m pleasantly surprised that despite rattles and jerks I sleep well in my roomette. It’s a treat to awake in the morning anticipating breakfast in the diner. Parting the window curtain, I feel the romance of the road as traffic zips along beside us on Interstate 70. I wonder where the big rig in the distance is headed. What does its driver think of us as our silvery line of cars speeds past?
Dawn along Interstate 70, eastern Utah
Breakfast is the best meal on the Zephyr. The pancakes are so tasty that I can fool myself into believing the batter was just stirred up and that the sausage has just been sliced. Amtrak tries hard on food service. There are linen napkins, white tablecloths and stainless-steel cutlery. But this well-intentioned effort fails when drinks arrive in disposable containers. Worse, the monogrammed plastic plates go into the trash instead of being recycled.
The morning has dawned sunny and this second day on the Zephyr is perfect for observing the reddened buttes and mesas outside. As we climb the landscape evolves from arid to green. Rushing streams and snow signal our arrival in the Rocky Mountains.
By midday we’re high in the Rockies. Every seat in the observation car is filled as the train threads through narrow mountain passes.
At midday a stop at Glenwood Springs is an unexpected treat. Several passengers disembark at this popular rustic resort. Our time at Glenwood Springs is long enough to soak in the ambiance of the 19th century when trains were the principal means of transportation.
By late afternoon the Zephyr descends from the highest elevations as it approaches Denver. I feel a momentary sadness that Max and Will, the computer engineers I’ve enjoyed talking to, will be departing. Max puts aside his Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a book he calls a recipe for self-actualization, and heads to his compartment to collect his things. Jason, who is going on remains in his chair skillfully shaping a serving spoon he is carving from a red cedar block.
At six p.m., on time, the Zephyr backs into Denver’s beautifully restored Union Station. It’s an hour-long stop. The tour group of 12 Japanese pensioners– who in ten days have done LA, San Diego, San Francisco and now Denver– disembark. Others come aboard.
Denver Union Station
I meet Barbara Seawall, a kindred spirit in a tie-dyed shirt. She is returning to Chicago from driving her daughter to Utah. At dinner I meet Dee, a large man also from Chicago, who is hopeful his 20-year-old son will join him in Salt Lake where he’s found work and escape the perils of the bigger city. We discuss urban schools and then Mississippi where he grew up. He remembers a childhoo gathering pecans from trees and how his mother made wonderful pecan pie. We choose pecan pie for desert.
There is no Wi-Fi on the Zephyr but its absence prompts few complaints as passengers adjust to the slower rhythms of train travel, leaving behind workday concerns. The ambiance aboard the Zephyr changes east of Denver. There are fewer people. Most sightseers gone, there are spare seats in the observation car. Our numbers have dwindled to about 100. We traverse the great plains at night and reach Omaha at 5 a.m. As dawn breaks we cross the Missouri River and begin the trek across Iowa and Illinois.
By midday we’ve crossed the ice-strewn Mississippi and begin the sprint into Chicago. Appropriately perhaps, it begins to snow.
The Zephyr arrives on time at 2:50 p.m. Travelers collect their luggage and make their way into the vast Union Station. With four hours before the Capitol Limited departs for Washington, I venture into the snowstorm and spend time walking city streets exploring a fascinating city. Returning to the station and eager for the warmth of the sleeping car, I join the several dozen passengers boarding this overnight train bound for South Bend, Toledo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and D.C.
Aboard long-distance trains you’re likely to find a railroad buff like Mike Kulc, a securities analyst from Frederick, Maryland. Now partially retired, he knows pretty much everything about Amtrak and American trains. Etched above the pocket of his shirt is a steam engine and the words “End of the Line.”
Mike believes in Amtrak and dismisses the view that four money-losing transcontinental routes are too many. People love trains, he says, and congress will continue to allocate tax money to keep them going. “Amtrak’s problem,” says Mike, “is not having enough spare capacity to accommodate all the passengers who fill up trains in summer.” Capital investment, he continues, must be a priority, like rebuilding the century-old tunnels across the Hudson River into New York City.
When I meet Mike for breakfast in the diner the train is well beyond Pittsburgh, moving through scenic Appalachian highlands and towns like Connellsville and Cumberland, Maryland. An overnight snowfall has made the countryside particularly attractive. Our route follows the Potomac River to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, one of the last stops before Washington, D.C.
My three and a half days crossing the country by train have been very enjoyable.
What have I learned? That a transcontinental train trip is indeed an adventure and a great way to see the country.
Amtrak station, Harpers Ferry, WV
My advice to would be train travelers? Do it now, these wonderful trains can’t last forever. Consider traveling in off peak seasons as the trains are crowded in summer. And keep in mind that the journey is not cheap. For example, my roomette fare from Davis to DC was $1,000, but that includes all your meals. #
(This piece appeared in USA Today, March 25, 2018)