It takes about two hours to fly between San Francisco and Denver. A little less flying east if there's a good tailwind. By train, that same itinerary takes about 38 hours either way. You do not want to travel by rail if you’re in a hurry.
I wasn’t in a hurry. Not to get to Denver. Not to go anywhere. Denver wasn’t even my destination in the conventional sense of the word. The train ride itself — through the Sierras in California, across the vast desert of northern Nevada and Utah and through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado — was my destination. I would catch the California Zephyr, which runs from its western terminus in Emeryville, California, a tiny municipality wedged between Oakland and Berkeley, all the way to Chicago.
Amtrak’s 9:10 a.m. California Zephyr left Emeryville at 9:10 a.m. It was an auspicious start. Being on time is underrated. In travel, departures and arrivals are mostly aspirational.
I had chosen to ride in coach class rather than get a sleeper, or roomette, as Amtrak calls them. I knew from past train trips that the coach seats are quite comfortable, wide with plenty of legroom. The privacy of a sleeper and shower were certainly tempting. But I worried it would be isolating. Alone in a tiny room for hours and hours. It is the collective experience — being around other travelers — that is a key aspect of the allure of train travel. I'm also frugal.
The Zephyr headed north along the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay. I had a window seat on the left side — the seat next to me was unoccupied — so I had a great view of the bay and on the other side, Marin County set against the silhouette of the Marin Hills. I looked to the right to see what that side of the train was revealing. I saw a blurred stream of suburban houses and shopping centers. I liked my view better.
On my side, we passed mudflats bathed in the golden morning light. I could see a few people fishing or walking dogs. I also saw the isolated homeless encampments. I would see many more soon enough.
San Francisco Bay
I left my seat and went to the observation car. This is where I knew I would be spending most of my time, taking in the changing landscape, mile after mile. It’s mesmerizing. Not just the view, but the totality of sensations. Scenes of America rushing by — rivers and bays, small towns and larger ones, farmland and suburbs, rolling hills and soaring mountain ranges, the magical light and harsh landscape of the desert as you’re rocked by the gentle sway of the train’s movement and lulled by soft pure of the train’s noise. Every so often, the muted blare of the train's horn. This is traveling.
Near Truckee, Calif.
As we turned east, we skirted the Sacramento River delta and then drew alongside Interstate 80. For a long stretch, we ran parallel to the highway, separated by a ditch where I saw more of the tented camps of homeless people. Among the bric-a-brac of domestic possessions that could be seen, many had the skeletal remains of bicycles. I wondered why? I tried to imagine the circumstances or misfortune that would lead someone to pitch a tent in a ditch in a rural patch miles outside of Sacramento.
A small, rotund man wearing huge opaque sunglasses appeared in the middle of an observation car and, without prelude, started talking, loudly and in a stilted but authoritative manner. He was some kind of official guide, I gathered from his uniform. He described our route and talked about notable sights we would be seeing over the coming miles. The Sacramento and American rivers. A bridge that was once the route of the old transcontinental highway. The rise in elevation as we entered the foothills of the Sierras.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes with more,” he intoned. “Welcome aboard."
The guide would return at irregular intervals the rest of the day to inform us about the advancing terrain. When he wasn’t delivering these mini-lectures, I saw him seated alone at a table in the cafe car, which was below the observation level. Behind those huge sunglasses, his expression was placid, inscrutable. He never appeared again after the first day.
The attendant who had checked our e-tickets when we boarded came through the observation car a couple hours out of Emeryville. I flagged him down to ask when the dining car would open for lunch and about the seatings for dinner.
“The dining car is open only to passengers with roomettes,” he said. Covid restrictions. Only the cafe car was open for the rest of us. This was disappointing news. I’d been looking forward to meals in the dining car. I knew from a trip I had taken in 2018 from L.A. to Chicago (the Super Chief) that the food on Amtrak's long distance trains is surprisingly good. But what I had most enjoyed was being seated at a table with fellow passengers. Strangers on a train uniting over a meal. It’s one of the grand traditions from the golden age of rail travel. Almost everyone taking long distance trains these days has a story to tell about why. Train passengers on these routes tend to be curious, adventurous or eccentric. They want to take their time and see where they are and where they’re going. They are seekers.
The only food option was the cafe car. There wasn't much to choose from, so I ordered a hot dog and a beer for lunch. The beer was good. The hot dog, which was microwaved in its cellophane wrapper, was indigestible. As I left the cafe car, I heard another passenger ordering a vegan tamale, whatever that is.
Two women I met in the observation car told me they brought their own food knowing the dining room was closed to coach passengers. I don’t know how they knew that. No doubt it was posted somewhere on-line when buying a ticket, but I had missed it. Luckily, they took pity on me and offered to share what they had. Bananas. Peanut butter. Crackers. I gratefully accepted.
The greatest attraction of the California Zephyr is the scenery. I’ve mentioned the mountains and deserts and farmland. But I found the less attractive, even ugly, stretches fascinating in a different way. We passed utility plants, trailer parks, industrial wastelands strewn with debris, yards chockablock with dismembered vehicles and piles of tires. In a barren field, I saw a car jacked up. The hood was propped open, the front tires missing and within the interior blossomed a deployed air bag. This too is America, a view behind the Potemkin Village, a collection of debris and detritus. Monuments to failed dreams or just failure? The dark side of a consumerist culture is all the stuff we discard or abandon or hide.
The sun was setting as we rolled across the Great Basin Desert of northern Utah. Only in recent years have I learned to appreciate the beauty of the desert. The desert west of Salt Lake City in the fading golden light was enchanting. The landscape was arid and brown with scrubby vegetation. In the distance rose the blocky plateaus of buttes. I saw movement and my eyes found it. It was a lone deer — I think it was a deer — loping somewhere.
Sunset, northern Utah
The passenger who had taken the seat next to mine had gotten on at Reno and gotten off at Winnemucca, so when it came time to sleep, I was able to use both seats to fashion a makeshift bed. With the seat backs tilted back and the leg rests up, it was adequate. After a lot of writhing and testing, I found a reasonably comfortable posture that allowed me to sleep.
Looking out the window the next morning, I saw a smeared palette of grays and greens. The sky was low and dark. The landscape had changed from desert to startlingly lush with trees, mostly hues of green but bursts of yellow aspens, it seemed to my inexpert eye. We were racing southeast toward the Colorado state line. We were entering the Rocky Mountains.
A river appeared beside the train and we followed it for hours as we ascended into Colorado. Over the PA system, someone — definitely not the little round man in sunglasses; someone cheerier with a generic American accent — announced that we would soon be coming to a tree dubbed the Eagle’s Nest.“Keep an eye out on the left in a few minutes,” the voice said. “We’ll be coming to a tree where an American bald eagle lives. When we came by yesterday, he was there.”
We rounded a bend, then the track straightened. Everyone watched, alert and anxious.
“There he is,” said the voice. “In that tall tree to the left of the nest.”
All I could make out was a huge white head. Even that glimpse was somehow exciting. An eagle in the wild.
In the observation car, I saw several people I recognized from the day before. The woman, in her 50s or so, who spoke softly but peppered her conversation with obscenities. She said she was headed ultimately to East Hampton. The college student from Indiana with pink, green and blue streaks in her hair who wrote furiously in a notebook with a cramped, tight grip on her red-ink pen. The young Chinese women I thought of as the twins because they were dressed identically in salmon pink hoodies, black tights and white sneakers. The middle-aged white man who stared motionless straight out the window. Two Black women -- a mother and daughter -- who sat together, but rarely spoke. After having spent most the past 24 hours together in this part of the train, they felt almost like companions.
There were new people too. I took notice of a potbellied little White guy, in his 60s, who wore his face mask like a chin strap as he directed a harangue at a Black guy he clearly didn’t know but who listened patiently. I caught snippets of it, something about being a former Chicago cop and how he admired Mayor Daley — “The first one. The one with guts” — for issuing a shoot-to-kill order to police during some long ago race riot.We threaded our way through the Rockies, an untamed land of mountain peaks, twisting rivers and plunging valleys. The sky stayed gray and occasionally it rained and while that muted the beauty, I couldn’t help but feel grateful. The West is visibly parched from years of insufficient precipitation. Climate change from carbon emissions is real just as the Earth is round. Not many people question the latter. Too many still question the former.
The pandemic hit Amtrak hard. From 2019 to 2020, overall ridership crashed 48%, from 15.3 million to 8 million. Every single route saw double digit declines. The California Zephyr was down 37.8%, from just under 400,000 to 247,535 as service was cut to three days a week. trains weekly. Daily service resumed last spring.
We crossed the Continental Divide through a tunnel, then began our descent toward Denver.
I went back to my seat to gather my things. We were due to arrive in a couple of hours. When I returned to the observation car, there was a ruckus in progress.
The ex-cop was loudly insulting and berating an Amtrak attendant who was walking away from him toward the front of the train. The man was enraged, shouting, cursing and threatening. He was very drunk. A young woman in a knit cap was chiming in in support. F bombs ricocheted in the cabin. No one said anything. No one protested. No one intervened. We all pretended like it wasn’t happening. It reminded me of the New York City subway.
Finally, the cafe car attendant came up, trying to calm the ex-cop, warning him that he would be arrested in Denver if he didn’t quiet down. It had no effect, the little guy shouting that he would beat up the Amtrak guy and also sue Amtrak for good measure.
The train stopped. We sat there astride a rural road for 15, 20 minutes. No announcement. No explanation. Then we saw the police cars.
Two burly cops boarded and came into the observation car, quickly identified the belligerent passenger and started to escort him away.
Drunk, disorderly passenger removed by police
I heard the drunk guy say “I’m a former police officer.”
One of the policemen said, very solicitously, “Yeah? Were you? Where?”
When they appeared on the road beside the train, I saw the passenger opening his wallet, apparently flashing some proof of his former status.I could hear nothing, but from their body language, the two cops seemed to soften. As they walked away toward the police car with flashing lights, one of the cops even carried the guy’s bag.A passenger next to me muttered bitterly about it being the gentlest arrest he had ever seen.
Union Station, Denver
An hour later, we were in Denver, half hour late thanks to the drunken ex-cop. I was ready for a meal, a bed and shower. I walked toward the train station. It was a very pretty old train station with an ornate facade. At the top were bright red illuminated letters that read: UNION STATION. Travel By Train. And I thought: Yes. I will.
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