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Romancing the rails: hop on board to experience the utmost in train travel and explore the beauty, romance, and history of the scenic western frontier.

As I was growing up in the 1950s, my family went on vacation by car. I often enjoyed the trip more than the destination. I was always fascinated by trains and longed for a different kind of adventure.

Finally--many years later--the opportunity arrived! To celebrate my 60th birthday, my wife and I boarded the legendary California Zephyr on a first-class cross-country trek.

The journey began in Chicago's Union Station, an impressive structure built in 1926. Covering almost blocks, the historic landmark serves about 6,000 people daily (what O'Hare International Airport is to air travel, Union Station is to rail travel). The westbound Zephyr departs Chicago at 2:00 p.m. daily, destined for Emeryville, California, across the bay from San Francisco. As we left the urban scenery behind, the landscape of north-central Illinois spread out around us. Corn and soybean fields stretched from horizon to horizon, and grain elevators stood silent sentry in every passing town.


Dinner Is Served

Soon after crossing the Mississippi River into the plains of Iowa, the dining car supervisor, Donna, called us to dinner with menu options ranging from an Angus Beef Burger to Stir Fry Vegetable Mix to Stone-fired Roasted Chicken Pizza. The meal was tasty and well presented. However, at this juncture, the train track was a bit uneven, making dining an adventure. Securing tableware with one hand, we ate with the other. Fortunately nothing spilled--thanks to the acrobatic skills of the servers, who didn't drop a crumb.


At each meal, we shared our table with a fellow traveler. This evening, Tom, a businessman from Cincinnati, was traveling to Denver to visit his daughter and her family. Tom had not traveled any distance on a train since returning to Pittsburgh after the Korean War (and the Army didn't spring for first class). Like so many of us on board, he enjoyed seeing the countryside from the train windows.


Bed and Breakfast

Soon we retired to our comfortable room, converting the sofa into sleeping accommodations. Although taller than my spouse, I was relegated to the upper berth. Getting in is not much of a challenge; one simply places a knee and roils in. Getting out, however, requires navigation, especially considering the rocking and rolling motion of the train.

The next morning after breakfast, we pulled into Denver's Union Station. The layover allowed time to enjoy a walk around the depot destined in the next decade to become the hub of Denver's new FasTracks rail network and hum with sounds of retail shops and pedestrian traffic. Back on board, everyone felt a buzz of excitement. In the bilevel observation car, crowds gathered to enjoy the panorama of the Rocky Mountains. The massive grandeur stirred a buzz of excitement among all sightseers. The lower level has a small bar with snacks and drinks, plus several comfortable booth-style tables. The upper level boasts large comfortable seats and wide, dome-like windows offering front row seats to the ever-changing natural beauty rolling by.

Crossing the Continental Divide

Before heading into the mountains, the Amtrak engineer adds another engine to compensate for the demands of the steep climb. In the 50-mile trip to the Continental Divide, we scaled 4,000 feet; by comparison, we had already climbed 4,700 feet from the Mississippi River to the foothills of the Rockies. In the foothills, the tracks led us through switchback loops, allowing passengers to see the front and back of the train simultaneously while it traversed through numerous tunnels. As we ascended the great Rocky Mountains, snow began to fall. Soon the ground became a soft white blanket, with conifers topped in a thick icing. The scene was starkly beautiful--doubly so because I wasn't driving.


At 9,200 feet, we entered the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel, which penetrates the Continental Divide in northern Colorado and takes 15 minutes to pass through. We exited the tunnel near beautiful Winter Park, home to spectacular year-round skiing and outdoor sports. As the snowy landscape rolled by, we enjoyed lunch with a Seattle-bound couple, also train "newbies," from Ashville, North Carolina.

A River Runs Through It

At the town of Granby, the gateway stop to the Rocky Mountain National Park, the track met the Colorado River near its source--La Poudre Pass Lake, high in Rocky Mountain National Park. The next 200 miles of endless valleys and canyons, the Colorado River, and spectacular vistas of the Rockies were awe-inspiring.

Once in Utah, the train crossed the valley of the Green River--the lowest point of our trip between Denver and Salt Lake City. We stopped briefly in Helper, Utah, named aptly enough after the engines enlisted to assist on steep climbs, in this case over Soldier Summit. For dinner the next night, we ate in our room, enjoying a delightful meal on our cloth-covered foldout table--grateful that the track ran smoothly throughout the meal.

The Great Basin and the Donner Pass

Our trip from Salt Lake City to Reno ran across the "Great Basin"--an arid intermountain plateau that covers most of Nevada and half of Utah. Located roughly between the western front of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah and the eastern front of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, the basin features no outlet to an ocean. Consequently, water flows into the basin and stays there, evaporating and creating salt fiats or sinking into underground aquifers. Several low mountain ranges punctuate the landscape. Only the banks of the Humboldt River show any sign of life.

After leaving Reno, the train followed the Truckee River toward Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Famed American naturalist John Muir called the Sierras the "Range of Light," describing the range as "... the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen." The route is also the most direct from the east to San Francisco since the unfortunate outcome of the ill-fated pioneer Donner party during its attempt in October of 1846 to cross the pass, named in their honor. Survivors weren't rescued until April the following year.

By evening, the Zephyr descended the western slope of the mountains. For the first time in more than a day and a half, the train was below 4,000 feet. The descent occurred so quickly that my ears popped a few times before reaching Sacramento's modern station. As our many new friends disembarked to catch north- or southbound trains, we said our good-byes.

San Francisco Bound

After 58 hours, the California Zephyr arrived in Emeryville. The thoroughly enjoyable experience cost less than traveling by plane or car and included meals and lodging. The train "excursion" became part of the vacation, and was just as enjoyable as my time in San Francisco. To some, trains are "retro" and, to others, romantic. Certainly, seasoned travelers call the California Zephyr one of the most memorable train trips in all of North America, delighting the senses and stilting the imagination.


Crossing America by land on board the Zephyr fulfilled a lifelong dream, allowing a glimpse of America's vast rolling frontier. The train trip harkens back to an earlier time in our history when the pace was slower and the world seemed a little larger. We're already planning our next rail trip, to New Orleans. Crossing America by rails is, as one author so aptly wrote, "... a grandly nostalgic gesture." We wholeheartedly agree. Sit back, relax, and see the real America.

Making the Connection

The Zephyr runs daily between Chicago and San Francisco, coursing through the plains of Nebraska to Denver, across the Rockies to Salt Lake City, and then through Reno and Sacramento into Emeryville/San Francisco.

Scenic highlights:

* Rocky Mountains

* Sierra Nevadas

* Moffat Tunnel

* Colorado's Gore, Byers and Glenwood Canyons

* Winter Park

* Truckee River

* Donner Lake

* San Pablo Bay and the Carquinez Strait

The California Zephyr connects to San Francisco and Oakland stations via Thruway Motorcoach Service at Emeryville, California.
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Article Details
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Author:Lamb, Dwight
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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