Riding the Zephyr through the Mountains

I managed to resurrect my camera temporarily and take a few pictures in the Rocky Mountains

I managed to resurrect my camera temporarily and take a few pictures in the Rocky Mountains

I took the California Zephyr, the United States’ longest passenger train route (well, if you combine the Texas Eagle and Sunset Limited, that is actually longer, but whatever) from its origin in Chicago to its terminus in Emeryville (which is very close to San Francisco) for a few reasons. First of all, I was travelling in winter, so I figured it was not the best time of year to take intermediate stops. Second, I had never been to the Rocky Mountains at all before, nor had I been to the Sierra Nevada in winter. Third, I wanted the experience of taking the longest possible passenger train ride in the United States (excluding the Texas Eagle / Sunset Limited combination) nonstop.

In my post on the Sunset Limited I commented on the demographics of the train passengers. The California Zephyr’s demographics are a bit different. For starters, there were a lot more white people, particularly east of Denver. West of Denver, the train passengers became more racially mixed, including Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans, as well as some visitors from outside the United States. However, the most represented group of all on the train were retirees – older people who had quit worker, and had time to spend on trains. They were also well-represented on the Sunset Limited, but based on my observation, it seemed that there were more retirees on the California Zephyr than on the Sunset Limited.

After leaving Denver, we entered the ‘Tunnel District’. We passed through 42 tunnels (I did not keep count, but some of the passengers did, and they counted them out loud). The train had to make sweeping curves to get up into the mountains. During one of those sweeping curves, we passed a large herd of wild elk which were only about fifteen feet away from the train tracks. The mountains facing Denver, suffice to say, were covered in snow, with some coniferous trees as well.

Now, way back in Union Station in Chicago, I had felt some strain on my back, probably from several weeks of travelling with luggage, but I thought little of it. After all, how much strain would I put on my back while I sat on a train for a couple of days. HA HA HA HA HA HA. During my second day on the train, my back felt terrible, so much so that I ended up taking ibuprofen (it had been more than ten years since I had taken ibuprofen, or any other painkiller). My back was probably already in a delicate condition due to hauling luggage, and the sleeping position I had taken that night had tipped it over the edge. I had never had a problem before sleeping in coach – I had found decent sleeping positions – but the sleeping position I had taken that night had been a mistake. Never again.

We eventually went through the Moffat Tunnel, which is the highest altitude point of the entire Amtrak system (its elevation is 9,239 ft./2,816 m above sea level).

This looked much more beautiful in person. I had to point the camera upward at one of the windows in the roof of the train car because the cliffs are that high above the train tracks.

This looked much more beautiful in person. I had to point the camera upward at one of the windows in the roof of the train car because the cliffs are that high above the train tracks.

The tunnel district was lovely – and we passed right next to a ski resort (the Colorado residents told me that the ski resort had been hurting until that week because, before the recent snows, there had not been enough snow to ski). However, my favorite scenery in the Rockies was along the Colorado River. The train goes by a section which is only accessible by rail and by boat – no roads. The river flows even in winter, and it cuts a groove into the rocky mountain terrain (there’s a reason it’s called the ‘Rocky’ Mountains). Incidently, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen the Colorado River. I enjoyed watching the soaring cliffs, frosted with snow, and seeing the rocks change from grey to brown to red to white.

The sun set around the time we arrived in Glenwood Springs. That meant I did not get the greatest view of Glenwood Canyon, but maybe I’ll see it another time. It sure would have been nice to take a dip in the hot springs!

After Grand Junction, I went to sleep, woke up when the train arrived at Provo, Utah, stayed awake until the train arrived in Salt Lake City at around midnight, then went back to sleep. There was snow in Utah, but not as much as Colorado.

The next morning, I woke up and found out that I was in Nevada. I really liked the Nevada scenery. The grassy valley was yellow, with a dusting of snow. Meanwhile, the hills looming over the valley on both sides were coated with white snow, with little tufts of yellow poking out.

I met some of the young people who boarded the train in Salt Lake City. Since I had planned on being on the train for more than 50 hours, the fact that the train was a few hours behind schedule did not matter much to me. However, to people who were waiting to board the train, the fact that the train was a few hours late was a big deal. I heard that the young people waiting for the train in Salt Lake City had had a little party at the train station while they were waiting for the train to show up.

My back was feeling better, but I was glad that this was my last day on the train, especially since I had already eaten all of my tastiest food. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the Nevada scenery and the company.

We got to Reno at around noon, and followed the Truckee River. The Truckee River is unusual in that, unlike most rivers, it never touches any ocean or sea.

Finally, we crossed the Nevada/California border, and stopped in Truckee, the first California stop. Riding this train gave me an appreciation of just how large the states of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada really are, so crossing the final state border felt like a big deal to me. In Reno, we also got a national parks guide, who commented on the scenery we were passing through.

The train passed through some snow sheds – built to protect the train from snow. Only about 1 mile of train track is still covered with snow shed, but the guide said that, when the trans-continental rail line first opened, there were over twenty miles of snow shed.

As on the Sunset Limited, I got to talk to people of various different walks of life on the train. I still continue to consider this one of the highlights of train travel. In my experience, the only other mode of transportation which encourages strangers to meet and talk with each other to the same degree as the Amtrak trains are long-distance ferries (by long distance, I mean more than four hours).

We passed Donner Lake. It’s big, and it has a nice reflection of the mountains but … I was overwhelmed. Maybe I had had enough of scenery by that point. What I did really enjoy was looking a the trees. The Sierras have beautiful forest, and the trees at high elevations are not like the trees I get to see in my everyday life. They were right next to the train tracks, so I could get a close look at them.

The sun set when we got to Roseville, and by that point, I was so done with being on the train. As more passengers got off, I retreated into my book. Finally, the train got to Emeryville station. I took the bus to San Francisco, and my journey ended.

If you have read all of my travel posts this month, my comment is: wow. I am so flattered that you would be willing to read all of that. I am amazed at how many lengthy travel posts I have written this month, and I am amazed that I had time to write all that. Of course, it was easier to find time to write travel posts when I was actually travelling since it helped me unwind after a day of tourism, whereas it is harder to find time to blog when I am at home!

I might write a post with my concluding thoughts about this travel. Or maybe I won’t because I am moving on with my life. We’ll see.

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