Like many train trips, it was the novelty of crossing the US by train which provided the draw. The quintessential American road trip only without the car. To include one of Americas best kept secrets – the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, regularly appearing in the travel pages in Europe as a train classic, but barely ever worthy of a mention in the land of the automobile.
June 25th, 3.45pm, New York Penn Station. We boarded Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, the starter train. We were just settled in our (tiny) compartment before being called for dinner. Dining on the train is a communal affair which proved less awkward than feared and a great chance to meet the cross section of Americans than had not only discovered but were passionate about train travel. The food too surpassed expectations so long as you stick to the house specials like the Railroad french toast.
Switching trains in Chicago, the California Zephyr was a cut above. Its a towering double decker train, which, as we would find out, offered a unique vantage point. At first we tracked through corn fields and small nondescript towns and just kicked back and settled in, crossing the Mississippi just before tea time.
When we got to Denver the trip ratcheted up a notch. Anticipation along the train was building as passengers jostled for seats in the observation car – offering the best views both sides of the train, as the park service’s voice over informed us we were fast bearing down on the Rockies. This was it.
Over the next 24 hours we snaked through mountain ranges, canyons, and tracked rivers through pine forests, snow peaks and the desert. The wonderful thing about train travel is you have amble time to absorb it all, you aren’t merely looking at the landscape but traveling through it.
First came the cragged mountain tops of the Rockies and our first mountain tunnels. We climbed up and up, the tracks clinging to the mountainside. No road access up here, which was precisely the point. Next came the three canyons – each one distinct from the last. Pulling out of the Red Canyon was one of those travel moments of silent delight. The sun was dropping as I looked back out of window at the orange rocks piled high, glowing with warmth.
We stirred the next day crossing the desert in Utah and as the day wore on we reached the Sierra Nevada range where we we quickly enveloped by pine trees and snow covered peaks. We passed through deserted ski resort towns, spying all but a Moose. Then as we left the peaks behind we made our way down to the California coast.
Even starting out with lofty romantic notions of train travel I was blown away by the California Zephyr. The views had been breathtaking and life on the train took on its own character. As we pulled into the underwhelming Emeryville station I didn’t want to leave. This made way for a real sense of achievement once we reached the Ferry Building in San Francisco. A glass of bubbles at the Gold Dust Lounge in honour of Kat Rogers was a fitting toast.