Aboard the California Zephyr:
Chicago’s Union Station is clammy and calm as my girlfriend Alyssa and I step off and wade into the sea of travelers and commuters, all in a rush, all with places to go, all but us. We have four hours to kill before climbing back down the old, stone staircases adorned with golden handrails, then back up the steel steps, through the sliding doors and onto one of the longest, continuous train rides in the country, following more than 2,000 miles of tracks between Chicago and San Francisco.
Two days earlier, I grab my duffle-bag, stuffed with cloths, toiletries, and more books than I could possibly read in two weeks, hand one of Alyssa’s bags to Tony, our roommate, friend and temporary chauffer, and we pack them into his old station wagon. The day is a perfect day to embark on a four-day train ride across the continental U.S.—blue skies, a warm breeze—as we set out, from our New Britain, Connecticut apartment for Hartford’s Union Station, early, on a Sunday morning.
Setting out for Springfield
Reaching into our grab-bag of train tickets, from Harford we set out for Springfield. We spend an hour in Springfield and then set out for the Albany station and hop on the overnighter train to Chicago, getting the preliminaries out of the way, anxious to embark on our three day plunge across the Midwest and into the Rockies by way of the renowned California Zephyr.
“That’s it,” he says as I set down a liter of Bacardi on the worn counter, and he checks our I.D’s. “You guys are from Connecticut?”
We tell him about our trip, and he tells us about his first time to San Francisco. He says he used to own a liquor store for years in the bay area.
“It’s—” he says and then pauses, searching for a fitting word. “Beautiful.”
After leaving Chicago we schedule our dinner, and I go down to the snack car for a drink, and soon we’re passing through the cornfield of Illinois, then Iowa, and I stare out at a beautiful emptiness I have never seen before. One minute the train is passing through someone’s stretched-out backyard, or through a tireless cornfield, and the next there is a sudden nothingness that makes you question what you just saw. The towns are little spots on the horizon and the come as quickly as they disappear.
At dinner we are seated with a couple from Utah, recently married, on their way home.
“It’s our first time,” Alyssa answers while I swallow my microwaved, but somehow still decent, train-steak.
I stare through the window as the train glides past a small town, but less like a town than anything a New Englander would expect. There are maybe fifty very small houses, some trailers, and they are all grouped together in a cluster.
The couple tells us that they ride it frequently. Over a few glasses of wine, they tell us about the things we’re going to see while traveling through the Rockies and into Utah, and which side of the train to sit on for them—information usually only known by seasoned Zephyr riders.
This is another unique aspect of traveling by train on the Zephyr. At each meal, if you choose to sit down at a more formal dinner (the snack bar offers a decent menu also) you’re seated with people at random. We met people from all over the country who’ve been all over the world, and we found out, that, among other things, a three day train ride really weeds out the weak at heart.
After dinner we sit in the sightseeing car reading and gazing out over the plains, perpetually curious as to what’s coming next. Dusk sprinkles gray spots into the twilight of the day, and we watch an unknown world grow dim.
At around 11:30 the train makes a quick stop at the Omaha, Nebraska station, where the smokers dying for a cigarette race out, and where we get out briefly, to breath in the soft air of middle America. After a few minutes we climb back on board the train again where we quickly fall asleep, reclining in the bucket seats, not yet too jealous of the passengers sleeping soundly in their sleeper cars, although the use of their showers, at that point, would have been welcomed.
During the night the train passes though the rest of Nebraska and when we wake on the third day of our journey we’re greeting by the Rocky Mountains in the distance.
Into the Mountains
The engine pulls the cars hard up the slope, drawing the train in a half circle, and at the same time winding the long line of cars up into the Colorado tree line, while daylight unfurls around us, and we push our way up into a cloudless, blue sky. Running along the route on parallel tracks are old rusty cars full of sand to help block the wind while we comfortably rise, wind that can reach speeds 100 miles per hour.
The sightseeing car is packed now as we enter the first of the many tunnels we’ll encounter during our journey through the Rockies, and the car goes dark. The most famous is the Moffat Tunnel, during which the train crosses the Continental Divide at 9,239 feet through a 6.2 mile tunnel and about 10 minutes of darkness (before the tunnel the ride would have been more than five hours longer).
Rocky Mountain National Park
“On your left you’ll see Rocky Mountain National Park,” erupts from the speakers, and all the passengers shift over to the left side of the train, the side we were lucky enough to have been be told to sit on.
Helicopters are circling and spraying water down on the flames. I take a few snapshots of the helicopters circling, and as we pass one of the highest peaks, which seemed to hang almost over the lake, the train slows, the guide announces it, and all the sightseers prepare their cameras. The color of the lake mirrors that of the sky and from that elevation the boaters looked like ants steering toy boats across an azure puddle.
But more than that we met people from everywhere, who’ve done just about everything, and found that the one thing that bonds us all is the big expanse that we consider home, and we came away with a bigger appreciation for that than we could have prepared for.
As the train pulled into San Francisco at around 11 o’clock P.M, about six hours late, I was too busy trying to regain my equilibrium, thrown off by staggering up and down a train for four days, walking like a unhorsed cowboy, for our lateness to matter much, feeling too much like a new-age pioneer of the west by way of a warm, western wind.
Bryant Scott currently living in Tangshan, China, where he teaches English, writes and travels. He has recently contributed to The Global Times and The Helix literary magazine.
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