Seeing America Slowly

Many years ago when I was maybe 8 years old, my parents picked up a stack of pamphlets at a travel fair and among those where a bunch praising Amtrak‘s trains. Most of the pamphlets ended their lives by being cut up by my sister and me and used in scrapbooks. I remember pouring over the ones which showed trains rolling through the colored leaves of New England, past lakes and mountains, along the coast and through the desert. Train travel looked luxurious and fun and like something I would enjoy.

Now, trains are a part of my life. I take them to and from work, when visiting friends and family, and when going on trips. I am very fortunate to live in a country where getting around on a train is a way of life, and it’s not even necessary to own a car. I have been on luxurious trains, and I have been in trains which are just a bucket full of bolts. I have spent many a sleepless night in a sleeping compartment, and I have spent one very restful night while traveling across northern Norway. There are several tourist trains I would like to travel on and that are within my budget, e.g. the Canadian from Edmonton to Vancouver and there are some I’d love the travel on and are way out of my budget, e.g. the Royal Scotsman.  Let’s not even talk about the Orient Express… I think I’ll have to be content with the fact that it once rolled past me while I was standing on the platform waiting for my commuter train to take me home!

Still, those pamphlets never left my mind and I decided it was time for me to make a trip across America on a train. Originally I thought it would be fun to fly to Boston and then take a train from there, but I quickly tossed that idea after seeing how long it would take and the issues one could come across (missed trains due to delays). When I found out it was possible to take a train from Chicago, Illinois to California without changing trains and potentially missing any connections, I decided that was the way to go. It takes two days to reach the west coast and it is the perfect way to see the country. It’s not a high speed train, and I didn’t have to worry about missing out on something because we were rushing by. Tickets were bought for the California Zephyr (commonly referred to as America’s most scenic train ride), and I looked forward to hearing the conductor shout “All aboard!”.

As we sat jet-lagged in the lounge of Chicago’s Union Station, I peeked at the other travelers who would be traveling with us: among others, an Amish family, an elderly British couple, a group of laughing Australians. Where were they going? What was their story? Our train was called and we lined up to walk to our train and after settling into our sleeping cabin, I couldn’t sit still while waiting for the train to move out of the station. So instead, I eavesdropped on our fellow passengers: the Australians were in our car and immediately asked for a bucket of ice to cool their drinks. Everyone knew their names about two hours into our 48 hour trip! Our car attendant introduced himself to us while we waited. He had the most infectious laugh and was kind, helpful and funny. Suddenly there was a whistle and a jerk and we were off!

We chugged through Chicago’s suburbs and were soon out in the wide open spaces of the American Midwest. The scenery changes are subtle and yet mesmerizing. I turned not one page in the book I had brought with me but rather spent every minute looking out the window. This was a part of America I had never seen, but looked forward to discovering.

We crossed the Mississippi River and made our ways towards the softly rolling hills of Iowa. The river was different than I had imagined it. The wide, sludgy looking water slowly moved south under the railroad bridge. And still it fascinated me. How often had I heard stories about the Mississippi and wondered what it would look like?

After dinner we watched the sun set behind the trees and then climbed into the converted sleeper beds where we were lulled to sleep by the sound of the train horns. There are five horns which blow 4 different notes simultaneously (D#, F#, G#, B, D#) and create a very distinct sound. A sound I remember hearing often in my childhood and in some ways also comforting. When asked to describe it, I’d say it is the way aluminum sounds, obviously a nod towards the siding of the train.

Awake at the crack of dawn, I sat in my bed and watched the world go by, my thoughts flying through my head. This type of slow travel is perfect for letting thoughts come and go, for staring out the window for hours on end and for letting things happen at a certain, slow pace.

After breakfast we reached Denver, Colorado, and we were ready to embark on our journey through the Rocky Mountains.

Our conductor for this part of the journey, until we arrived in Grand Junction, supplied us with information about the train, the landscape, the building of the railroad and other general information such as where we’d see a bald eagle. This is one of the highlights and the lounge car was filled with tourists. Luckily we had secured a spot at the window early on.

The scenery changes are more distinct on this part of the journey, going from mountainous and tree covered to different types of deserts. We rumbled along the Colorado River, which at times was calm and at times rushing through gorges. A woman, possibly on her honeymoon, sitting next to me constantly jumped up to take photos from the other side of the train and then rush back again.

At some point I asked her if she was enjoying herself and where she was traveling from. She had a very happy look on her face as she told me she was from Virginia, was on a train for the first time and was having the time of her life. She was giddy with excitement as we both looked out the window to spot the bald eagle nesting in a dead tree next to the train tracks and couldn’t stop exclaiming how special this was. I agreed with her, especially when later I couldn’t find the words to say I had just seen another bald eagle. All I managed to do was point my finger and gasp.

We rolled into Grand Junction and were allowed to get off for a few minutes. The smokers greedily sucked their cigarettes, while others rushed to the General Store. I nosed around the old train station which is currently being restored to its former glory.

There was another change in the scenery as it became drier and drier. Dinner was spent crossing the desert north of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks where we would be visiting two weeks later. The clouds rolled in and there was the promise of rain.

I woke up twice that night, once in Salt Lake City and when I peaked out the window I noticed everything was wet. Passengers who disembarked there were carrying umbrellas and train attendants wore jackets and hats to stay dry. The second time I woke, we were crossing the Nevada desert. It was pitch black out, but there were a million stars. The big dipper was low on the horizon, but looked so close it felt like I could reach out and touch it. When I finally woke the last time, it was dawn, foggy and rainy. We had crossed the second time zone and were close to California. After breakfast the sun came out and the desert took on yet another color.

In Reno, at the border between Nevada and California, two docents from the California historical society joined the train to narrate the journey through the Sierra Nevada mountain range down to Sacramento. This part of the ride was one I knew fairly well, having often been in the area but I had never seen it from the train. As we passed Donner Lake, I talked about the Donner Party who spent a nightmarish winter at the lake in 1846 and gave the lake its present name.

Finally, we made our way across the Sacramento River and disembarked the train at the next station. It was the experience of a lifetime. We met interesting people during the meals and while sitting in the lounge car and the view out the window was never boring. I’d highly recommend the journey to anyone and if you’re only up for one night on the train, get on in Denver, Colorado and travel westward from there.

4 Replies to “Seeing America Slowly”

  1. Oh! This makes me want to take the train so badly. Thank you for sharing your experience and lovely photos!!

    1. It’s a wonderful experience you’d really enjoy. There are so many stories to hear in the dining car and to see in the lounge car.

  2. I can see you had a wonderful experience on the California Zephyr. You were able to get a real sense of the enormity of the Great Plains and the long distances across the United States west from the Great Lakes to the Central Valley of California. I enjoyed your photos and descriptions.

    1. Thanks! You should really think about taking the train from Denver to Davis. I think you’d enjoy it.

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