NEW YORK – CHICAGO
Route (main stops): Chicago – Omaha – Denver – Salt Lake City – Reno – Sacramento – San Francisco.
Time zones crossed: Central, Mountain and Pacific
There’s no denying that America is a vast country and the temptation to fly from East coast to West or vice versa is particularly easy to give into, especially when time is limited. The rumour that the country is not all that interested in investing in its rail network doesn’t help coax travellers away from the airport either but read between the lines and you’ll find a different and somewhat alluring story…
When I had to travel from New York to San Francisco last year, I decided to make the journey part of the trip and do it by train. I had arrived in New York in the middle of a suffocating heat wave; the pavements were scorching and the only people brave enough to tackle the tarmac were street sellers peddling iced drinks. This was no place to be in such weather so after a brief overnight stay I made for the train station and took the Cardinal to Chicago. I am quite a fan of the ‘windy city’ and the shores of Lake Michigan provided a great place to relax while I waited for my connection – the California Zephyr which would take me all the way to San Francisco via Denver, the Rockies, Salt Lake City, the Sierra Nevadas and Reno. Quietly humming to an REM track stuck in my head, I arrived at the station with a little time to spare and was allowed to wait in the lounge area as I had booked a sleeper car for the three night crossing. The sleeper carriage was small but comfortable, with two seats that faced each other during the day, transforming to a bunk bed arrangement at night (with the help of the carriage attendant). Each sleeper has its own sliding door allows you to shut yourself off from the rest of the goings on in the train and just take in the sights from the panoramic window.
Day 1 – Chicago, Illinois to Lincoln, Nebraska
On day one we headed out of Chicago – through a town called Aurora which is famous as the setting of Wayne’s World – and then on into farmland territory.
As we approached the Mississippi, the ground began to get more swampy until eventually we were passing stagnant ponds full of green algae. Crossing the Mississippi itself at sunset was the first real highlight of the day.
I overheard a conversation between Jim, the ‘car’ attendant and a fellow passenger further down the carriage about flooding in the area we were crossing – apparently it was completely submerged earlier in the year and Omaha had also been experiencing severe flooding causing delays to freight and passenger trains. According to Jim, it’s now “one thing after another” – the basin used to flood once every seven years, but recently the floods have been occurring once every four. These are the kind of things that are easy not to notice when taking a plane. Jim makes the Zephyr journey forwards and backwards frequently and had become something of an expert on the changes which have occurred en-route over the years.
Not long after we reached the other side of the river, we crossed the Iowa state line into Burlington. This was a fading industrial town with an outer shell of operating factories and machinery but many dilapidated areas and empty warehouses in the inner town. Most operating business seem to be centered around construction, trains and auto-mobiles.
Dinner on long distance passenger trains becomes something of an occasion as it is the only real area in the train (apart from the scenic lounge) where you mix with passengers from other carriages. During the day, Jim had come around to take our preferred dinner time and you are seated on a first come, first served basis when you arrive in the dining car. Surprisingly there were a few options on offer, including a vegetarian one and the food and conversation was pretty good. After dinner, we came back to the cabin to find the beds already folded out, with reading lights switched on and new bottles of water on the side tables. With a storm brewing outside, and rain beginning to pelt the windows, I settled in for the night.
Day 2 – Lincoln, Nebraska to Salt Lake City, Utah
By the time I woke up the next morning, the train was stopped at Lincoln, Nebraska (we had crossed the state line sometime the night before). According to the timetable, we were slightly delayed due to having to wait around for a freight train to cross the night before (they take priority over passenger lines in the US). I met a couple of Australians at breakfast, who had just returned from a visit to one of the Amish communities (Bird in Hand in Lancaster County) which was fascinating to hear about.
We were now very much in rural ‘middle America’ and as the train chugged on I paused reading my book to watch some incredible lightning flashes across the sky – a result of heat and dust reacting to form static electricity apparently. This was also the territory of large scale cattle-farms with huge metal feed towers. Although we are only seeing a small cross-section of the area, it did really reinforce the scale and harm caused by some methods of modern industrial food production, especially as this was the first of many we would pass over the next few days.
When I went to lunch, I wasn’t as lucky with my breakfast seating arrangements and was sat opposite a strongly-opinionated man who had just returned from a shooting meet in Ohio. He was quite frightening and had a cold, detached stare. My travelling companion and I put on our best Louis Theroux impressions in an attempt to get through lunch while he banged on about San Francisco being a cess-pool, Obama being an idiot and various other homophobic and racist comments. Luckily he left us in the middle of lunch so we could calm ourselves down by watching the unfolding scenery outside.
Photography tip: Make your way to the end of the last carriage of the train where it’s possible to take some great unobscured shots of the landscape and track behind.
Our next stop was Denver, Colorado, where a longer break was scheduled and passengers were able to stretch their legs on the platform. I was surprised by the heat that greeted me as for some reason I had expected biting winds in the mile high city with its Rocky Mountain backdrop. The station is right next to the Denver “Rockies” baseball stadium which was emitting some sound but otherwise all was eerily still other than the occasional rattle of passing freight trains loaded with coal. Half an hour later and we were back on the tracks, crossing the rolling hills, accentuated by snaking mile-long freighters.
This marked the beginning of our slow and steady climb into the Rockies. Along this part of the track, the winds are fierce enough to knock a train over so disused train carts (or hopper cars) have been filled with sand and welded to an adjacent track to act as wind breakers. Flowers and trees have naturally grown in the cars so they are now referred to as the trackside garden.
For many this is the highlight of the journey (scenically speaking) as the train makes its way along the mountain pass via the many tunnels carved through the rock (the Moffat tunnel is the longest at 6.2 miles long). When not in tunnels, I was able to glimpse sweeping tree-lined valleys, circling eagles and the Hoover Dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado river. The US creates around 6% of its total electricity by hydroelectric power, a significant proportion of which is produced in this area.
We were soon passing through the small mountain communities of Fraser, Granby and Glenwood Springs which one passenger referred to as “South Park” territory. They were surprisingly populous towns with plenty of coffee houses and even an artists’ residence with skis for fence posts, patiently waiting for the snow to return.
By the time the sun had started to properly set, I was back in the dinner car – this time seated opposite a young boy and his grandpa who were heading to Yosemite for a holiday. They were both very interested in trains and always travelled on them instead of planes, when given the choice. The Grandpa had travelled on the Santa Fe in the “good old days of rail travel” and regaled us with stories of what trans-American train journeys used to be like before flying became the most popular way to travel cross-country. His grandson hoped to start his own trans-America train company one day and had even built a model construction of it in his parents’ basement so it was good to know that enthusiasm for rail travel was not completely dead in the US.
Day 3 – Salt Lake City, Utah to Emeryville, California
One of the things I grew to love about sleeper trains is opening the windows in the morning, not knowing what scenery would greet me the other side. The moonlit Colorado river of the night before had been replaced by the magnificent Salt flats which surround Salt Lake City.
The shores of the lake were filled with early morning risers, including a coyote – the first I’d ever seen in the wild. My travelling companion and I spent most of the day playing cards in the observation car or watching films on our laptop. Time drifted away and the landscape turned from white to orange as we entered the Nevada desert.
The track follows some impressive curves at this point so it’s a good time to take some shots of the front of the train.
As we were a little delayed we wouldn’t be reaching Emmeryville (where a bus would take passengers the short distance to San Francisco) until later that night. We packed our bags and soaked in the last hours on board this amazing travelling community, arriving in San Francisco with an enriched knowledge of the country and a few new friends.
For information on prices/timetables for the California Zephyr see http://www.amtrak.com/california-zephyr-train
For other firsthand experience accounts see http://www.seat61.com/california-zephyr.htm#.UadO09hU1I4