The California Zephyr

I woke up early with the dual intent of getting to the shower before there was a line and catching the sunrise. Both were accomplished. The shower on the lower level was compact, but reasonably easy to use. Towels were provided. I was in and out fairly quickly and there didn’t appear to be anyone waiting on me to finish up. Unfortunately the sleeper car attendants had not yet begun to brew the coffee, so I made my way to the observation car without the aid of my morning caffeine.

The was starting to make its way up in the east as the sky began to color. There were already a few people in the observation car, a few I think from coach they may have spent the night there in an attempt to get some more room to stretch out. An older couple sat down next to me. They were on there way to San Diego, California to see their grandson graduate from Marine Corps boot camp. One thing I learned quickly is that train travel provided ample opportunity to meet and talk with others. Breakfast was served starting at 6:30am. The food was great and the company even better. I was seated with a couple from Roanoke, VA and an elderly lady from Front Royal, VA. Having formerly lived in Virginia for a few years, there was plenty to talk about. The ladies husband had served in the Air Force and she had lived various places around the country but now lived back near where she grew up. We had a long stop in Denver (the station is next to Coors Field) which allowed everyone to stretch their legs. Reading some of the tips on traveling on the California Zephyr, I knew after the break in Denver, I needed to get a prime seat in the observation car for our trip up into the Rockies.

I sat next to two gentlemen farmers from Nebraska who were traveling to Grand Junction, CO to do some sightseeing around Utah and the northern side of the Grand Canyon. One of the gentlemen had a son who was serving with the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley and preparing to soon go overseas. The farmer himself had served in the Army during Vietnam and we got to talk lots of Army stuff having both attended basic training at Fort Leonardwood, although about 20 years apart.

The scenery as we made our way into the Rockies was truly remarkable. The train slowly climbed and weaved its way up the mountain, passing through many tunnels, the longest being the Moffat Tunnel. You could not have ask for better weather; the blue skies with a few high clouds stretched across as far as the eye could see.

I had lunch with a grandmother from Salt Lake City who had been visiting family out east. She traveled the route frequently and pointed out the Glen Canyon river rafters who were enjoying the an exciting trip through the rapids. We had a long stop at Grand Junction, CO where we were able to detrain and walk around a bit. It was hot! That made me realize how comfortable we had it on the train, which always seemed to be kept at a comfortable temperature.

The old train depot there was for sale an Amtrak was using a building next door as its station.

Dinner was steak with potatoes and green beans. I also had some merlot to go with it. A really great meal. I sat next to a woman who was in the process of moving from Portland to Cheyenne to pursue her artistic desires. She had dabbled in photography, making video documentaries, music videos, and other creative medium and decided to dedicate all her time to it to see if she can make a go of it. The couple heading to their grandson’s boot camp graduation were also there and I got to hear about the gentleman’s Army experience (he also went to basic at Fort Leonardwood, MO), winters outside of Chicago, and other interesting dinner conversation.

Sleeping the second night came easier. I think this was due to the lack of the train passing through populated areas and sounding its horn, which seemed to happen often the night before. Again I was able to make my way to the shower early and watch the sun come up as we passed through eastern Nevada, getting closer to Reno.

When we arrived at Reno after breakfast, a tour group of about 20 got off and were going to continue to see Reno, Tahoe, and then explore California eventually heading down to Los Angeles. Shortly after the Reno stop, the train began to make its climb up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I enjoyed the picturesque views even more than the Rockies.

The train followed near US I-80, passing Donner Lake and making a stop in Truckee. On the way down on the western side of the mountains I had lunch with a couple and their boy who had gotten on in Reno and were taking a weekend trip to Sacramento. The boy, Gabe, age 7, was a train fanatic and had his own layout at home. The couple had originally lived in Colorado, briefly in Chicago, and had settled in Reno. I enjoyed hearing about Gabe’s home layout where he had a number of different gauges. The family planned to enjoy the rail museum in Old Sacramento, which has always been one of my favorites.

After Sacramento, the train made its way down towards the San Francisco Bay Area. Crossing a bridge in the East Bay and making our way around the water, we could finally see the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco in the distance. The final stop of the California Zephyr is Emeryville, north of Oakland, and that is where I got off to change trains in order to make my way further south to San Jose.

Unsure how the transition to the next train would work, I took my ticket to the Amtrak agent and told her I was headed to San Jose. She asked me, “San Jose? You want to go to San Jose?” and I said “Yes, I really do hope to get there.” She said the train would be there shortly and to hop on. The train arrived on time and I hopped on and found a seat. Soon we made our way south and pulled into San Jose.

I had a great time. Amtrak had been on time (mostly), the sleeping arrangements were fine, the food was excellent and the company and conversation even better. My Amtrak experiment had been a success.