The last five days have been nothing short of an extraordinary passage back in time. Four days ago I boarded the Amtrak Zephyr in Chicago’s Union Station, but not before taking a moment to pose in the grand stairway where that epic slow-mo shot in the Untouchables was filmed. Yes, I do have my tourist moments!
Sleeper car passengers make use of the Metropolitan Lounge and enter through a different area from coach passengers. I was expecting the luxury of the Titanic (I blame my overactive imagination), and got a few comfy couches and a newspaper. There was a lot of gray in the lounge and for a moment I felt as if I should have perhaps waited another twenty years to experience train travel. At mealtimes we soon discovered that the train experience bridges all age groups. We met young people and older people–it was a mix.
The young(er) crowd gathered in the lounge cars after hours and did a lot of boisterous drinking. My husband and I soon learned that trains and the people that ride them are a quirky microcosm that you won’t experience on other forms of transportation. The best part is that you get to interact with many of your fellow passengers and, (if you are lucky) might even make a new friend.
The train is the bane of connectivity. In fact it is a void. Cell signal is intermittent and absent most of the journey. Anyone craving Facebook or Netflix or other wired activities will be disappointed and relegated to the amazingly stunning views. On our way from Chicago to San Francisco we experienced the majesty of all four seasons. We encountered severe winter weather going over the Rockies, braving a storm that dumped 3 feet of snow. The conductor was flipping switches with snow up to his chest and the train looked like a snow blower on both sides. Arching jets of snow were displaced on either side of its metal body as it plowed through 8′ drifts at 40mph.
Gray skies and fog followed us all the way to Reno where the weather finally let up. We began to see the snows slowly recede from the peaks as we passed the high dessert speeding through canyons and landscape resembling pictures sent back from the Martian rover. There is so much to take in that the mind is sort of lulled into passive oblivion. The Sierras offered a panorama of grand lakes and springtime foliage and in Truckee California we began to see the signs of summer. Fields of flowers and colorful foliage ringed rivers and marshes. Startled by the train, cranes took flight before our eyes.
We discovered that very few weather conditions deter the train. Along the track there are train cars filled with sand to break the treacherous winds along the passes.
The Amtrak behemoth and the rails it travels are a true marvel. In some stretches the railroad cost a whopping 26 million per mile.
I grew up on trains and my fascination for them has never waned. My father was a train engineer in Cuba servicing Central Hershey. Some of my fondest memories as a kid revolve around trains. The sound of the train whistle in the distance and my father coming home were synonymous.
The idea of going on a train ride cross country was something that appealed to both my husband and I. Train travel summons feelings of nostalgia–of connecting to a time when life was slower and more glamorous, but the reality (even with today’s technological advances) was far from the Orient Express experience we had conjured. For one, the train is noisy. Anyone imagining smooth sailing on those rails will be disappointed. My advice for anyone considering the journey: Bring duct tape.
In the next 52 hours after leaving Union Station, my husband and I would be turned into reluctant Mcgyvers. We shoved plastic water bottles between rattling doors, shower hoses and vanity mirrors. We used books and clothes in every rattling nook and cranny until the cabin was “livable.” Noises on a train begin to resemble Chinese water torture after six or so hours. The seats are pragmatic, which means uncomfortable. Everything in the sleeper cabin has to transform and Swiss designers weren’t involved. Our space was cramped.
After hearing a few stories from the people in coach, we counted our blessings. We met a gentleman whose wife booked him in coach from Washington DC to San Francisco. We began to suspect that his wife must really hate him. By the time we made his acquaintance he was three days into it and looking rather green about the gills. He finally managed a shower on the fifth day.
Speaking of showers overweight individuals will not find comfort on the train. The toilet and shower were ONE unit–that while serviceable–was nausea inducing. Imagine an airplane bathroom and take away 1/3 of the space–add a shower hose and some water. The drain is slow and by the time you are done there are 3″ of water around your ankles. While you are in there, imagine being hit by the worst plane turbulence you have ever experienced, except it doesn’t end. If you can imagine that, you have showered in a sleeper car.
After not sleeping for 24 hours because of our fellow passengers’ all night toilet flushing and the jostling of the train, we were thrilled to take a hot shower in our tiny box. I just imagined I was on a terraforming trip to Mars on a spaceship.
Sex in outer space (I mean…the train) required stealth and a sense of humor. The walls are paper thin and rest assured you WILL see your fellow passengers at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was great to sneak it in though without anyone knowing. If you have ever played a game of Twister, ‘nough said.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining car was fun. I really loved the whole communal dining experience and meeting some of the other passengers and exchanging stories. Train travel forces you to talk and connect. There is no other entertainment. After the first day, the view becomes a backdrop. There are only so many hours that you can stare out a window regardless how beautiful it is. The zeal of the scenery had worn off by day two. We relaxed into a lazy rhythm of conversation, dining and viewing that felt natural. The canyons with their striated layers of dirt flew by one after the other like writing prompts. “We are less than an eye blink,” I said to Rob. And from there we talked about the universe and our place in it.
Between bouts of conversation, mingling, dining and spending time with each other the journey on the train still left us with time to read. During the last three years I have devoted so much time to writing that I have scarcely had time to read. Opening a book and knowing that I had my own book to write left me with a sense of guilt. Now that the novel is finished and in the safe hands of the editor I felt comfortable picking up a book. I finished The Sinner’s Grand Tour by Tony Perrottet and eagerly dove into his second book Pagan Holiday. Both are highly recommended travelogues and I was soon swept away by life in ancient Rome.
But I digress. Many of my friends have asked me about the food. The food is not five star, it’s more like something you will find at a mediocre diner. It’s decent food, fills your belly, but it’s not memorable. In all honesty it doesn’t have to be. The journey is about the view. Sitting in the dining car is a very unique experience. There is something truly magical about dining as the world whizzes by. Time spent in the dining car (with the extra leg room) was time well spent. I had read that back in Amtrak’s heyday they made burgers from scratch and actually cooked food, but those luxuries are over. Most of the food that is served is by the numbers and reheated. Don’t expect anything even remotely resembling a gourmet meal. The turkey meatballs over brown rice were, however, quite tasty.
At 3AM coach passengers had a hell of time trying to sleep. Almost by osmosis the younger guys on the train congregated in the lounge car to drink. Beer and wine aren’t cheap, but the crowd we had on our train apparently cleaned them out. If you expect a quiet train ride, don’t count on it. We didn’t care. I was amused by the whole thing.
What did I learn on my journey? Quite a few things. There is a three person town called Cisco in the middle of nowhere Utah that you would think is an abandoned ghost town, but indeed it is populated by (get this) three people. There were four a few years back but when one moved out they promptly used his hut for firewood. Don’t believe me? See for yourself. Not far from this lush desert oasis we passed Thompson, Utah where portions of Thelma & Louise were filmed. Yep, that’s where they pick up that handsome, sleight-handed cowboy Brad Pitt. So Utah, yeah, haven’t lost anything there.
Just west of the Mile High City we began our ascent up the “Big Ten Curve” into the Rocky Mountains and passed some 26 tunnels on the way to the Moffat Tunnel. The pressure in our ears began to build from this point forward as we climbed to 9,270 feet above sea level. The 6.2 mile long tunnel that spans the Continental Divide is nothing short of an engineering marvel. It takes 20 minutes to vent The Moffat Tunnel after each train goes through. Even with each venting, the tunnel is packed with coal fumes and passengers are forbidden to open train doors on the way through. Between the motion, the darkness, the elevation and the fumes, this is the part in the trip when I began to feel a bit queasy. On the way down (relatively speaking), it was snowy all the way through Winter Park and Fraser, the ice box of America.
During the second day of travel I began to feel sympathy for convicts stuck in tiny cells all over the world. We were struggling to get comfortable. Past Denver the ride got a little smoother, but having lost several hours to snow and freight traffic, the conductor decided to step on the gas in the middle of the night. Luckily, it occurred to me to properly use the restraining harnesses on the top bunk. During a spectacular slow down I rolled right into the suspended cage. Falling would not have been glamorous.
In closing, I’d like to mention that while our journey was enjoyable, it did not match the illusion we had in our heads. Where did that illusion come from? Well for starters prior to 1983, the California Zephyr was privately run by three train corporations. From 1949-70 the “Silver Lady” boasted five sightseeing cars topped with semi-circular glass domes and passengers dined on fine china and real silver in the dining cars. Young hostesses called Zephyrettes assisted with sightseeing information and made the journey pleasant. All of this luxury was swept away and the train was modernized.
The Zephyr today feels more like a means to an end for people who don’t like flying rather than the means itself. I love trains and I love planes, so for me the experience was really amazing and worth it. Vini, vidi, vinci and all that aside, I think my next long train journey might be on the train of my dreams. Orient Express here I come.
Last tip for anyone considering the journey…bring vino and drink (you are allowed to on a sleeper) just don’t overdo it, you might really regret it.