When was the last time you were on a train? How long of a ride was it? Being an East Coast girl born and raised, I always tended to think of the train as the best way to travel between Washington, D.C. and New York City, or between Washington, D.C. and various points in Maryland or West Virginia when I don’t have access to a car. One time, I took the train from D.C. to Miami, a trip that took approximately 24 hours (I think — but it was almost 20 years ago now). When was the last time you rode the rails?
And now for another question: How do you think of “The West”? Do you still think of it as it is presented in your schoolbooks, as a great empty frontier? Do you think of covered wagons, sprawling ranches, towering mountain ranges, wild horses, gold rushes, and rowdy saloons? Do you think of it in terms of counterculture, surfers, the start of Starbucks, flannel and Doc Martens, grunge music, grand sequoias, and towering redwoods?
Like so many before me, I like to romanticize the West and how to get there. At the end of 9th grade, I had a grand plan to rent an RV at the end of 12th grade and take a road trip across the country with my friends, going all the way to California. In the West, I have been to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Albuquerque. In high school, I went on a school-sponsored (educational) road trip down the coast of California. From the East, I’ve been as far as Chicago. But I hadn’t seen anything in the middle, between Chicago and Albuquerque. So when I came across a page describing the California Zephyr route, I was intrigued.
See, I already had a trip planned out to Lake Tahoe for a friend’s wedding. (I had never been to Lake Tahoe either, so the excitement was already there.) I had flights booked and my sights set on a hotel. And then I got to pondering, and went over to Amtrak’s website just to see…and the adventure became apparent. I rearranged my flight plan (since my original flight connected through Chicago on the way to Sacramento anyway, and Southwest is great about that stuff). I flew to Chicago, and boarded the California Zephyr at Union Station.
In Greek mythology, Zephyrus was one of the anemoi – the wind-gods ascribed to the cardinal directions. Zephyrus himself was assigned to the western wind: the harbinger of spring, the gentlest of the winds. He served Eros (the god of love, known in Rome as Cupid), married the goddess of rainbows, and fathered Karpos (the youth associated with fruit). In Roman lore, Zephyrus (by that time known as Favonious) was the god of flowers and other plants.
In more recent times, there have been several railroad lines called Zephyr. These lines primarily serve Chicago and points further west. (Coincidence?) The various Zephyr trains have been operated by various train lines. Amtrak runs the current California Zephyr service, launched in 1983; it runs from Union Station in Chicago to the Emeryville station in California (near Oakland).
Rolling out from Chicago’s Union Station on the Zephyr, the first sight is of suburbs, and then fields. The train quickly crosses the Mississippi River, entering Iowa, and rolls through cornfields. Iowa flattens out into the plains (and more cornfields and soybean fields) of Nebraska. At some point in Nebraska, past the fields, small towns, and country roads, the sun sets on the first day of this two-day-plus journey; the train trundles onwards across the flat eastern portion of Colorado while the passengers slumber and reawaken, reaching Denver by mid-morning. Pulling out from the Denver station, the train leaves green pastures behind as the tracks rise into the first foothills of the Front Range, skirting the Colorado River; getting through this part of the journey takes the better part of the second day, over the Rocky Mountains and through mountain tunnels (including the several-miles-long Moffat Tunnel). When the train is delayed (as mine certainly was), passengers might sleep through the mountains in Utah and see the second sunrise over a salt-flat landscape. This portion of the trip is easier to make more quickly; the train pulls into and out of Salt Lake City, crosses the barren Bonneville Salt Flats, and reaches Nevada stops easily. The train then ambles over the Sierra Nevada, passing Donner Lake, with its first California stop at Truckee. A few more stops bring the train into Sacramento and points west to Emeryville.
Passengers traveling on the California Zephyr have the option of booking a coach seat on the upper or lower level of the train; a Superliner Roomette with two foldout beds; a family room with four foldout beds (two adult sized and two child sized); or a Superliner Bedroom (with two foldout bunk beds, the lower one accommodating two adults). The rooms with beds have the added bonus of their own windows; regular coach passengers share a window for every two seats, but can relax in the Observation Car, with larger windows stretching all the way to the ceiling. Nearby there is a car with booth seating at tables, for passengers to enjoy their own picnic-style food, or food purchased from the café car just below (which also has a few of its own booths). Needless to say, I always found a window to watch the west unfold before me.
The café car offers standard Amtrak snack and light meal fare – microwavable pizza, popcorn, a variety of chips, candy, soft drinks. The train also offers a traditional dining car, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, although the seating times are not as formal as train voyages in bygone eras. (In fact, nothing about the California Zephyr feels as formal as train service in bygone eras – but that does not take away from the charm of the journey.)
Something that does seem nostalgic is that this journey encourages (but does not force) interaction with other passengers. Unlike a direct flight, or a shorter train ride, passengers – solo passengers especially – on the Zephyr are somewhat of a captive audience for the better part of two-and-a-half days. I ended up making friends with my seat-mate, Jimi…to the point that when the train was running several hours behind (and I would have missed my car rental in Emeryville by a long shot), I jumped off at Reno with Jimi, and gave him a ride to South Tahoe, and then made my way around the lake to Carnelian Bay. (It turned out to be a benefit, since this city girl had never driven mountain roads like these before, let alone in a Chevy Spark (or Sparky as we affectionately dubbed it) – but Jimi had, and was a calming, instructional co-pilot.) I missed the Donner Pass and much of the Sierra Nevada; but I made a friend and had a hilarious second adventure.
A ticket on the California Zephyr might not run all that much cheaper than a cross-country flight in the long run – especially for a solo-traveler, or if booking a roomette or full bedroom (although in some cases, meals are included with these reservations) – but it does provide access to various western destinations for non-flyers and nostalgic types alike. Ticket prices vary depending on how far in advance bookings are made; but the price of the adventure – and the nostalgia – was priceless for me. (I had only booked a regular coach seat. I have no regrets – but a friend who did the same trip sometime later, with his husband, said they would never dream of not booking beds.)
The California Zephyr travels the opposite direction as old Zephyrus himself; when we ride this route, are we searching for the source of this gentle wind? Who knows; but if I were an ancient Greek, I would honor old Zephyrus and his gentle winds.
More photos from the peanut gallery seats: