America by Rail, On the California Zephyr

When I first told my friends that I was going to spend fifty six hours on a train to San Francisco, they first asked me if I was crazy, and then asked how the heck I wouldn’t die from boredom. I’m not crazy, I didn’t die, and I certainly was not bored.

First i’ll give a little history, and then i’ll go in chronological order of the train ride. The original California Zephyr in the 50s and 60s was the most luxurious way to travel between Chicago and San Francisco. It was very popular and was used by the rich and famous.

After jet travel was invented, the original railroads wanted to cancel passenger service, because it wasn’t profitable for them. In the end, the US Government created Amtrak which was allowed to run for free on the tracks of the railroads that had cancelled passenger service.

Today, the Amtrak California Zephyr largely runs the same route as the original train. 

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The trip started in Chicago at 2:00 PM. The train ran out west on Metra, and then BNSF tracks through rural Illinois. The expression “If you’ve seen one cornfield you’ve seen them all” proved to be true, but I never got bored. At about 5:00pm, we crossed the Mississippi River into Iowa, which *gasp* had more cornfields.

The bridge over the Mississippi
The bridge over the Mississippi

The river was very high, and some of the roads close to the river seemed to be flooded. After talking to some farmers, they told me that the recent rain had led to a lot of flooding, but also saved them from high water bills.

Typical Scenery in Iowa
Typical Scenery in Iowa

The scenery in both Iowa and Nebraska (I slept through most of Nebraska) was cornfields. Although that may sound boring, it was very pretty in the evening. Another way that I passed the time was talking to people in the lounge car. All long distance Amtrak trains have a lounge car with giant windows and a glass ceiling. Most of the people that decide to spend three days on a train have very interesting stories which they are willing to share. The first person I met was a machinist from Vermont, who was traveling to Denver to cycle with his friends to San Francisco. When I asked him how long it was supposed to take, he said, “At least 25 days.” I guess that made the train feel like a Concorde.

Many of you may be wondering how I slept on a train. I traveled Sleeper Class instead of Coach, so instead of just a seat (which is equivalent to first class on any airline) I had a small room with two seats that folded into bunk beds. What was interesting about being on a train is that people get on and get off. In fact very few people make the entire journey between Chicago and San Francisco. Most of the people who went the entire way (probably about 35 of the 200 people on the train) had Sleeper class.

My tiny room with the suitcase on the bed for comparison.
My tiny room (bed down) with the suitcase on the bed for comparison.

The next morning we were supposed to wake up in Denver, (7 AM arrival) but instead we learned we were stuck in a cornfield in eastern Colorado. I looked out the window and noticed multiple ambulances.

Ambulances meeting our train at a railroad crossing.
Ambulances meeting our train at a railroad crossing.

The conductor informed me that someone had a stroke, and that they had to get them off the train. We sat in the middle of the cornfield for three hours, putting us far behind schedule. Hopefully the passenger was alright, but we were never updated on his status. Unfortunately that wasn’t the first delay we had that day.

About an hour after we were moving again (90 mph to try to make up some time) we slammed on the emergency brakes. I looked out the window and saw a truck speed off the tracks. It turned out that a trucker drove right in front of the train at a railroad crossing, with us nearly hitting him.

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This trucker doesn’t know how to look or listen

We had to stop for an hour to check and make sure the brakes and passengers were alright. I flew about four feet when they hit the brakes. One thing I did notice which was sort of funny was this stop sign with what seemed to be bullet holes through it:

Target Practice?
Target Practice?
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That’s our track, a few miles back

We finally made it to Denver four hours behind schedule, and began our ascent into the Rocky Mountains. During this portion of the trip, I spoke with a photographer and a web developer. The photographer gave me photo tips, and we shot out the window for about four hours, the web developer told me (very adamantly) to swap from wordpress.com to wordpress.org.

While going up the Rockies, we went through numerous switchbacks, and passed through over 40 tunnels. The longest tunnel was the Moffat Tunnel, which was 6.2 miles long under the Continental Divide. The scenery was breathtaking. I shot over 1000 photos on the train, but I can only show one picture here (Message me or check my Facebook or Flickr for more):

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About three hours out of Denver, the train stopped in Winter Park, where I got out to get a breath of mountain air (and shot the photo of the engines near the beginning of this post) We then drove along the Colorado river through a series of canyons, the most famous being Glenwood Canyon right before Glenwood Springs.  I talked with a power plant engineer who told me all about coal, power generation, and renewable energy. I guess tradition has it that when rafters see the train, they must moon it:

Glenwood Canyon was extremely pretty, and I shot about 60 photos there, but here’s a good one: IMG_9962

We stopped in Glenwood Springs, and about thirty Amish people got off the train. I was told that certain Amish communities have a big reunion in Glenwood springs, where they spend a few weeks hiking, white water rafting and camping. Amish people are not allowed to fly, so they must take the trains. I really wanted to talk to them, but unfortunately I didn’t get the chance. I was wondering what their rules were in terms of technology, as I spotted them on the train eating Doritos and playing Uno, but I will have to save those questions for next time.

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From Glenwood Springs, the scenery became flatter and slowly turned into desert. I talked to a young couple (with a love for hunting) who lived in the area. We talked about the benefits and trade-offs of Hydraulic Fracturing  (Fracking), what it was like to live in the middle of nowhere and how to shoot Elk. I stepped off the train in Grand Junction CO to get some fresh air:

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We then moved into the desert , and speed along at 90 MPH in order to make up some time for our 2 AM arrival into Salt Lake City.

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The deserts in Utah and Nevada were perhaps the greatest examples for me on how huge our country is. It was a very humbling feeling, as for 14 hours, we drove through the desert. There were hundreds of miles of nothing in every direction, just us and our track.

Amtrak California Zephyr Green River - Floy, Utah.jpg

That evening I met perhaps the craziest person on the train; a blind, hippie, roller coaster enthusiast who travels the country to ride roller coasters. He just was going back home from going to 15 different parks in 25 days. On our way to Reno Nevada, we passed some ranches, complete with cowboys and lassos: IMG_0093

We also (through the entire trip) got a glimpse of small town America, and sometimes saw some funny things:

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Lajdromat?

After driving for hours in the desert, we arrived at Reno NV. From what I hear, Reno is basically a worse version of Vegas. Honestly, it looked pretty depressed when we drove through the town, but here’s a photo of a sketchy motel:

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After Reno, the California Zephyr ascended into the Sierra Nevada mountains. Apparently in 1965, someone on the highway drove too fast around the switchbacks. They still haven’t been able to get the car out of the canyon:IMG_0173

Other than that, the scenery was beautiful. We saw black bears, elk, and  what seemed to be mountain goats.  Unfortunately I was not able to get a picture of them.

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During this portion of the trip, tour guides from the California State Railroad Museum boarded the train and narrated our journey. I also talked with two British ladies, who thought the best way to see the United States was to fly from London to New York, take the train from New York to Chicago, then from Chicago to San Francisco and finally fly back to London. I also met a New York University student who bought a 15 day rail pass and planned to go New York-Chicago-San Francisco-Los Angeles-New Orleans-New York. I think i’d be sick of riding on the train after fifteen days.

The California Zephyr stopped in Truckee (near Lake Tahoe) and then drove through Donner Pass next to Donner Lake. The pass was built in the 1860s by Chinese slaves as part of the original Transcontinental Railroad. Photos can barely capture the beauty of this scenery:

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Donner Lake

We stopped in Colfax and descended out of the Sierra Nevada mountains. On the ride to Sacramento I spoke with a long range military sniper. He told me all about sniping terrorists. They usually engage targets about 800 to 1600 meters away. I was surprised to learn that he has never missed a shot (apparently military snipers pretty much never miss.) They also are usually used as support positions so they don’t fire too often. He also told me about the war in Afghanistan, and how lucky we should feel to live in the United States. He was returning from his base in New York to meet his family.

On the ride from Sacramento we passed through some desert, but also a lot of grape orchards. (The scenery wasn’t really too interesting)

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I spoke with a young couple that decided to travel across the United States while their children were at camp. They weren’t even staying in San Francisco that night, flying back to their home right after the train got into Emeryville.  As we neared the final stop, we passed WWII era ships, and drove alongside the San Francisco Bay for about an hour.

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The Pacific!

We arrived in Emeryville at 7:10 PM, about three hours late, making up time from our  five hour delay in Colorado. Emeryville was just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, a free 30 minute bus ride to the Ferry Building brought me into the city.

After 56 hours and 2438 miles we made it!
After fifty six hours and 2438 miles we made it!

When we pulled into Emeryville, I couldn’t help but feel accomplished with how far we had come since Chicago. After meeting very interesting people, going through two deserts, two mountain ranges, 5 canyons, and hundreds of corn fields, I really felt like I had been through a journey. Taking the California Zephyr really made me appreciate how large the United States really is, and also how lucky I am to live in Evanston, in comparison with some of the towns I passed through.

A week after the train arrived in San Francisco, I went to SFO Terminal 2 and boarded Virgin America flight 210 to Chicago, a four hour flight. I couldn’t help but think about all the great people, experiences and scenery that everyone on the plane missed by flying. I understand how much faster flying is, but if you have the time, try the train once. Step out of your comfort zone and take the train, i’m sure you won’t regret it.

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If you want to hear more stories from my train ride (I only talked about 1/5 of the people I met in this post) or if you have any questions, please feel free to comment below or contact me. Thanks for reading!

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2 thoughts on “America by Rail, On the California Zephyr

  1. Although I was nervous about letting you go, I am so glad you went on this adventure. What a great way to see the country and meet all kinds of people.

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