Our Train Trip to the West – Part VIII

The return on the California Zephyr

Thursday, May 15th:

At 5.00 am we had our wake up call. A fast shower. Get dressed. Put the bags outside on the corridor. Check that we had everything with us. You call this a vacation? Anyway, by 6.30 am we were on our way to Emeryville’s (a suburb of Oakland) Amtrak Station. Here we would board the train that would take us back to Chicago, in two stages, with a stop in between at Salt Lake City.

We took our seats in a coach of train # 6, The California Zephyr, which left promptly at 8:10 am. Our first stop was Davis, home of one of the branches of U C and about 2 hours later we were again in Sacramento. Then Roseville and Colfax. Outside Colfax the train stopped for a long while. We were informed that ahead of us there was a fire next to the track and it was unsafe to continue. Some of us were concerned, because we all knew about the damage that those fires can cause in wooded areas. Luckily, the fire was extinguished promptly, without any serious consequences, and we continued our journey.

The snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada range were ahead us and we started our climb to the pass that would bring us to the other side of the mountains. We were going up a narrow ledge, at our right a beautiful valley and our left, conifers and other trees covered the rocky side of the mountain. We passed the American River Canyon, with its breathtaking views, as well as various lakes and valleys, all beautiful to behold. We finally got up to the Mt. Judah tunnel that would take us to the eastern side of the Sierra. Donner Lake was at our left. Its name is a reminder of the tragic fate of the Donner Party, a group of 89 Illinois settlers that were stranded near by, for months, in the winter of 1846/47. Almost half of the group died of starvation and cold exposure.

California Zephyr
A stop of the California Zephyr

Now the train descended the mountain crossing back and forth in a horseshoe turn, into the Truckee Basin, which brought us into the last station in California: Truckee. About half an hour later we were crossing into Nevada. Our next stop was Reno, the “Biggest Little City in the World”. Now famous for its casinos, in the 1930’s it was also dubbed the “Divorce Capital of the United States”, because of its lenient divorce laws. Outside of Reno we passed a red tiled building on our right, the Mustang Ranch, which is a famous institution unique to Nevada.

The train followed a river to our right for a while, but the terrain was mostly barren. A mountain range could be seen at the distance at our left. Although monotonous, the landscape was impressive, and reminded us of the wide panoramas we had seen in Patagonia.

At a town called Winnemucca, the train left the Southern Pacific tracks and switched to the Union Pacific tracks (a little railroad trivia, for those interested). Night had involved us, when we arrived at Elko, NV were we would overnight. Our faithful driver, Mark, was waiting for us to take the group to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express, for our rest that night. There was only one night female clerk to accommodate 40 plus passengers, an she wasn’t very pleasant. She did request from each of us our credit cards, and that we sign some document that would make us responsible for any additional charges not included in the bill already paid by the tour operators, something that had never happened before. Jerry and Ann, were able to reach her supervisor, who agreed that the procedure was unnecessary. So we got to our rooms, but didn’t unpack much. We were tired and needed some sleep. We were getting up early again next morning to continue our trip, now by bus, to Salt Lake City, UT. We would board again the California Zephyr two days later.

Click here to tour Salt Lake City


Saturday, May 17th:

By 7.00 am we were again lining outside to get to into the bus. The morning was cool (probably into the 50’s). The peaks of the mountains surrounding us were white. Although we were already in the middle of spring the snow hadn’t melted yet in the high regions. At the Helper station, we said our goodbyes to Mark. He had been a very likable, conscious and helpful driver. We were sorry that we probably would never see him again.

The train arrived on time, so by quarter to eight, we were seating again in a roomette. On our left we could see high cliffs, composed of sandstone and shale that indicated that the whole valley was once under water. As we continued, we could make out the outline of some mountains to the right; we were getting closer to the Rockies. However, now we were crossing a desolate region, with little vegetation and with mesas erupting here and there. Then, we entered a canyon, called Ruby Canyon, because of the reddish color of its rocks, formed by the Colorado River. We would follow the river for more than 200 miles.

After crossing into the state of Colorado we stopped at Grand Junction. The Colorado River was now at the right of the train, and we couldn’t see it. We heard loud laughs in the corridor at the other side of the train and we went to see what the commotion was about. We found out that this section of the river is frequented by rafters, and it appears that there is a tradition of among them to “moon” at the passengers of the passing train. Everybody was having fun, the mooning rafters and the mooned passengers.

We continued our trip among several canyons and a slow ascent up the Rocky Mountains. Aspen and evergreen trees dotted the high cliffs. By mid-afternoon we arrived at the confluence the Colorado and Eagle rivers, approximately at the midpoint of the California Zephyr’s 2,427-mile journey. Passing the town of Granby we changed our direction to the South, to follow the Frazer river. About half an hour later, we crossed the Continental Divide, at an altitude of over 9,200 feet, through the 6.2 miles long Moffat Tunnel.

The train started its descent into Denver, and we crossed many tunnels on our way down. Around 7 pm we started to see the skyline of the “mile high city”, but it took us another 45 minutes to reach its station. The train didn’t stop there long enough for us to go up to the station proper or the street and we stayed in the platform, which we walked end to end, in order to help the circulation of our legs.

Night had arrived by the time we left Denver and the attendant prepared our beds, but we still lingered on. We went to the lounge car and stayed there a while reading. The light in the car didn’t let us see how it was outside, but we could imagine the scene out there. We were now crossing the Great Plains, it was a clear night and the stars were brilliant above in the sky. Once in while you could see some lights coming from a house or from the headlights of a car. Besides the whistle and the rumbling of the train, there was silence out there. On the other hand, perhaps, that was only an illusion. The night has its own sounds: the barking of a dog, the hooting of an owl, the rustling of the tree leaves, the almost quiet footsteps of a wild animal, but we couldn’t hear them. By the time we went to bed, we were already in Nebraska. We set our watches one hour ahead, as we had moved to a new time zone (Central Time) and tried to sleep, but it wasn’t easy.

During the night the train passed through Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska, and around 6.00 am we arrived at Omaha, a big transportation hub, with large stockyards. About one hour later we crossed the Missouri River, we were now in the state of Iowa. We crossed some low hills, but most of the terrain was flat. We could see the land being tilted in many places. Farming is very important in that region.

The last town in Iowa, before crossing into Illinois, is Burlington, after which we crossed the Mississippi again. The first time it had been 14 days ago on the other direction. We had our last lunch in the Dinner Car, where we sat with Ann and Jerry. They had been very helpful during the whole trip, and we wished that we could have shown our appreciation in some way. Then, we went back to our compartment, rested a while and prepared our hand baggage. We were ready for our arrival at Chicago.

When we detrained we said goodbye to some of our fellow passengers, but most of them didn’t seem to have time for pleasantries. On our way to pick up our checked luggage, we noticed a lot of people dressed oddly. There was, what appeared to be smoke coming out from one of the platforms and police mingled around. For a few second we thought that there had been an accident, worse a terrorist attack, but no, it was only a movie setting.

And so it ended, our trek across 11 states and many cities and places. It had been an exhausting trip, but full of experiences, which we will treasure for many years. We still had some touring to do in Chicago and we invite you to read all about going back to the lower section of the first part of our trip.