California Zephyr Train Trip

Nightly Dinner with New Friends Grows On You

By Bryant Scott

viewing car
Inside the viewing car of the California Zephyr. photos by Bryant Scott.

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.

Exiting from the Chicago station, mist from Lake Michigan blows through the air of the windy city as we step out onto damp streets. The Sears Tower looms in the distance, pressed against a cloudy, gray sky. We cross the busy street and follow it until we come to an old liquor store—which looks like a relic from pre-prohibition Chicago—and meet a man that could have been the single owner since. The store, unfinished oak floors, dusty old bottles, is dimly lit, and the old man watches us curiously from behind the cash register.

“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 nice out there, huh?” I ask him.

A river winds by as the miles roll along.
A river winds by as the miles roll along.

“It’s—” he says and then pauses, searching for a fitting word. “Beautiful.”

We talk for a while, and it begins to feel like a different world, way out, somewhere far from the eastern coast where I’ve spent the majority of our lives, and he tells stories of the coast, and his travels when he was younger.

We head back to the Sears Tower and wander around inside looking for a place to eat, but they all appear to be closed.

“There’s a Mexican place on the second floor,” a big woman in a security guard uniform says, watching us.

“Is it any good?” Alyssa asks.

“Not really,” the guard replies, frowning as if she can taste the food.

I still want to try it—because it’s a Mexican place and because they probably serve margaritas—but Alyssa asks her if there are any good places around and the security guard tells us about a famous Chicago pizza place a couple blocks away.

We search for the pizza place, while checking out menus on doorways as we pass other restaurants, and we come to an old-style Chicago pizzeria.

Just in Time

Chicago's Sears Tower.
Chicago’s Sears Tower.

We make it back to the station just in time, and hop on what feels like the last train out of Chicago, and at just after two the California Zephyr pushes us out into a country unknown to those who have not ridden on this specific wind.

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.
“Have you ever taken this train before?”

“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.

Sitting with Strangers

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.

Rapids outside the train windows.
Rapids outside the train windows.

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.

The train pulls into the Denver station, and everyone gets out briefly and heads for an antiquated general store. The store is old and probably looks the same as it did when the first travelers on the original California Zephyr, first launched in the 1940’s, went in to buy snacks before heading into the Rockies.

Into the Mountains

Back aboard, the train begins its ascension into the mountains. The sun glares in from the east and, unbeknownst to me at the time, is fragmenting the light back into most of the images taken by my horde of disposable cameras.

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.

As the cars wind in an almost endless circle, it is, at least to one weary of heights, easier to gaze out at the widening blue and white sky than it is to look down at the jagged cliffs the train so daringly has draped itself upon.

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.

At a little after 4 P.M. the train pulls into the Grand Junction Station, just before entering Utah. At this point we have passed through eight states, stopped at many major cities and many small ones, passed through national parks, passed over the Mississippi and the Missouri River’s, gone through the plains and up and over the Rockies, and past its highest peaks, traveled for hours along the Colorado River, and chugged past a horizon full of red rocks and canyons. We have even been welcomed by the “mooning” rafters, which has become, over the years, a kind of rite of passage for the train’s sightseers.

A town by a Butte out west.
A town by a butte out west.

After dinner we are weary of travel and although it has been the ride of a lifetime, we are ready for it to be over. After stepping out in Salt Lake City briefly we go back to our less and less comfortable seats and I let my old CD player send me to sleep. As I struggle to get comfortable I notice that our car is almost empty, and that many passengers have gotten out at the stops we’ve made along the way.

On the final morning we make a stop in Reno and then push on through the Sierra Nevada range, and past Truckee, California, where we are privileged to an almost aerial view of Lake Tahoe. One of those quintessential California forest fires pushes deep clouds of smoke into the air around the lake.

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.

As we begin our final dissension the attendants are taking dinner reservations, but we decide to save some money and get food from the snack bar (we also heard the dining car tends to run out of many of the popular options by the third day).

Bryant Scott.
Bryant Scott

When planning this trip I had no idea what was in store for us; we just did it, knowing that if we were going to cross the country by train we were bound to see something incredible, though not knowing what. What both ended up coming away from the trip with was an experience of a lifetime, coast to coast through eleven states, seeing much of the variety our huge continent has to offer.

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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