Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Back Home Via the California Zephyr

California Zephyr
On board the California Zephyr!

We took the train (yes, the train, not plane) back home from Chicago, IL to Emeryville, CA aboard the California Zephyr, which is run by Amtrak. It is a 52 hour journey, passing by some spectacular scenery along the route. We bought two coach seats for slightly less than the price of a plane ticket. You can buy tickets on Amtrak's website in advance. The train also has sleeper cars, but they were very pricey (it would've cost us almost $1000 for the trip in a sleeper room). Although I'm sure its very luxurious, sleeping flat for the two nights of the journey, having access to a shower, and every meal included in the dining car, we weren't going to pay that much! In fact, we thought that the coach seats were pretty good. They were like extra large versions of a plane seat, with ample leg room, and almost fully reclining.

California Zephyr
Passing through the flat farmlands of Illinois. Notice how its not very interesting.

We boarded the train in Union Station in Chicago. It leaves here everyday at 2:00pm, and gets to Emeryville two and a half days later at 4:10pm. After leaving the gates at the train station (similar to an airport gate waiting area), we were hustled to the platforms, which were dark, loud with the sound of roaring locamotives, and stinking of diesel fumes. A conductor looked at our tickets outside of the train (which was two stories tall) and told us which car to get on. "Go upstairs, take a right," She told us, and pointed to the first door. She also gave us our seat numbers (55 & 56). She organized the people by their destination. Everyone in our car was either getting off in California, or taking a short trip and jumping off in western Illinois or Iowa. You could tell every person's destination because a second conductor came by shortly after we left the station and pinned a three-letter destination code above each person's seat (ours was EMY for Emeryville, CA).

California Zephyr
We spent most of our time in the observation car, which has open seating.

We pulled out of Union Station slowly, but soon the train began to speed up. All the familiar streets were streaming past us. My dad gave me a call, knowing we were leaving at 2:00pm, and told me he was going to wave at our train as it passed by his house, near the Berwyn station. We saw him waving, but we passed by so fast! Before we knew it, we were already in Lagrange, Hinsdale, then Naperville, then Aurora. Then the scenery began to change from urban to country side. We passed many grain silos and farms, but strangely, it seemed all the fields were bare. Either the sprouts did not shoot up from the ground yet, or a lot of farmers were paid off to not grown this year, or something.

California Zephyr
The dining car serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner for all passengers.

There was lots of room in the overhead bins for all of our baggage and food. We had double seats with a full, unobstructed window. There was even a 12 volt plug at every pair of seats. We were halfway between the stairs and the end of the car, which had a double door that opened to get to the next car. Soon we learned that we were seated in the car right next to the observation car (which also has a small cafe in the lower level). How convenient! Although our seats were very comfy, with a huge window, we ended up spending most of our time in the observation car. It has open seating, first-come-first-serve, in swiveling chairs which face towards the windows. The ceiling has curved windows too, so you can see above you if you want to watch the clouds, canyon walls, or tall mountains. There was also 6 tables with bench seating for eating your own meals, playing cards, or socializing.

California Zephyr
Having a snack in the observation car.

After the observation car, the next car was the dining car. It was entirely filled with the table and bench style seating, except they put a fancy tablecloth over the tables, and had waiters and waitresses buzzing around. The dining car was almost always full with passengers who were staying in the sleepers, since they had all of their meals included in the price of their ticket. We tried the dining car for breakfast, which was the least expensive meal they served, just for the experience. I remember when we took the Trans-Siberian train in Russia and went into the dining car once for a beer and pistachios. It was completely deserted (Russians seem more frugal).

California Zephyr
The train starts to climb into the Rockies, outside of Denver.

The majority of the people taking the train were taking it for pleasure, and were retired. The retirees were mostly staying in the sleeping cars, while the younger people stayed in the coach seats. We had an interesting car. The guy behind us looked like he was straight out of Burning Man, complete with weird juggle balls that he swung around when the train stopped long enough. On the opposite side of us we had who we called Grumpy California Woman, slightly pudgy and easily upset (although understandably). She was on her way to Sacramento. Behind Grumpy was Young Party Girl sitting next to Disgusting Douche Loud Guy. She was from Arkansas and he was from 'Frisco' (the dumbass name for San Francicso). He was flirting with her the entire time, although she was only 23 and he was divorced with a couple of kids. Ewwww gross. They kept talking about parties and stupid stuff, and very annoying loud. Loud Guy also could not just sit idly and look out the window. He needed to talk to somebody constantly. So much so, that he was always on his phone and sometimes it was funny overhearing his stupid conversations (this is how we pieced together his retardedly dumb life story). Finally, Grumpy California Woman yelled at Loud Guy, basically telling his to shut up and go somewhere else if he wanted to be loud (like the tables in the observation car).

California Zephyr
Climbing through the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

The second day of the trip, we spent almost every hour of daylight in the observation car, since it was the day the train went through the Rocky Mountains. There we were sitting near Amateur Tour Guide Man, who was also a photographer. He was retired, and boarded the train at the stop before Denver (around 5am) to make sure he got a seat in the observation car when it started climbing up into the mountains. We were sitting in our seats since 5:45am, which might have been a little overkill, but we were awake from the excitement! He was sitting next to Polite Silent Older Couple, who he gave a non-stop narrative of the entire journey (which was honestly interesting) through the mountains until they had enough and decided to leave. He quickly found a new set of ears to keep talking to. Soon after we got out of Denver, the observation car was packed with people! Everyone had their cameras out and were taking pictures as the train took us up the mountainside and through more than 25 tunnels and stunning canyons! There was one older skinny guy who we called The Raptor (after the type of dinosaur, Velociraptor) because he was taking pictures as if he was hunting or something. He had such a strange look in his eyes, wildly flipping his head back and forth, like he was after prey, but the prey was a perfect shot. He stopped at nothing, even almost knocking me over as I threw a banana peel into the garbage bin, because there was something cool out the window he had to take a picture of.

California Zephyr
Following a river in eastern Colorado.

The first of many canyons began as we were leaving Winter Park, Colorado, which still had plenty of snow. The train here followed Hwy 40 most of the way, which we recognized from our road trip last summer in the two bajas. But the dramatic part was when the train branched away from the highway and took a route right along a river through the Gore Canyon, which is accessible only by the train track that runs through it, kayak, or by foot. The walls of this canyon rise more than 1,000 feet, and its only as wide as the river. However, after that, the scenery began to tone down a bit, as we were crossing the rest of the Rockies. A few hours later, we were going through Glenwood Canyon. Although its a highlight of a roadtrip on I-70 in a car, on the train it wasn't as exciting as I thought, probably because there was so much better scenery we've already seen that only a train track runs through.

California Zephyr
The Colorado River in Utah.

I personally liked the scenery in Utah and Nevada the best. I guess that's because I like the desert. The second evening, we took a seat at one of the tables in the observation car, and we were planning on having some wine, chips, and hummus for dinner while we went over Soldier Pass. We had our bottle of wine out, and the conductor saw it. He said you could only have alcohol purchased from the cafe downstairs and not your own. I didn't know that! They sell Heineken Beer in the cafe by the bottle (for an outrageous price), so bringing your own Heineken would be a stealthy way to BYOB, since they couldn't tell the difference. But they don't sell entire bottles of wine, so we looked obvious. We decided to save it and drink it at our coach seats, where we could be more discreet (or we could've pouring it in a different bottle first, but it was too late).

California Zephyr
The red rocks of Utah.

While we were sitting in the observation car, there were two Amish couples that frequented the car as well. They already smelled like B.O. on the first day of the train ride, so you can imagine what they smelled like after 52 hours. But they were very nice, and most of the time they spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, so we couldn't understand them. They perpetually played Yahtzee and checkers on a paper checkers board. And it seemed they were always laughing and having fun.

California Zephyr
Cisco, the ghost town on the way to Moab!

The second night on the train seemed more comfortable than the first, because I discovered better sleeping positions. We brought our selk bags to sleep in, and they seem to make you comfortable no matter where you are or what position you're in, so they made sleeping in the reclining seat better. We also brought our own pillows, but the conductor hands out pillows every night if you need them. They don't provide blankets though. At night it was very quiet in the train. All of the bathrooms were downstairs, and they were very similar to an airplane bathroom (there were 6 bathrooms in each car). They even had the extreme suction flush, which reminded me again of the Trans-Siberian train we took in Russia. The bathrooms on that train in Russia were much bigger (although there was only one in each car) and there was no flush. There was just a hole in the bottom of the toilet bowl which dropped everything straight onto the train tracks below! Be careful when you walk along the tracks in Russia, you might step in somebody's shit. The conductor had to lock the bathroom door 10 minutes before a stop in major cities to avoid people shitting near populated areas. I have no idea where everything went after you flushed on the Amtrak train, probably into a tank.

California Zephyr
The Humboldt River snakes its way through Nevada.

The train traveled through Nevada on the last night. That kind of sucked because I really like Nevada, and I would've liked to see it in the daytime. I woke up when the moon was setting outside of our window. It was very bright (almost full). As soon as it set, the sun started rising on the opposite side of the train. Once it got bright enough I could see mountains covered in fresh snow, low hanging misty clouds, and wetlands with numerous steaming springs! Many people think the desert is very boring and plain, but the low angle of the sun rising over the mountains and the desert made everything so colorful. There was the pink and orange of the sunrise, the white clouds hanging over the mountains with fresh snow, green patches of sagebrush, a bright blue sky, and purple and brown rocks in the mountains. It was my favorite part of the trip, and after waking Romy up we ran into the observation car as soon as we got out of our sleeping bags. It was still a while before the cafe opened and started serving coffee.

California Zephyr
Nevada in the early morning hours with fresh snow.

That morning, the conductor told everyone that we were all stopping and getting off in Reno, which we arrived at about 8:30am. The Zephyr from the previous day had an engine breakdown just west of Reno, and was blocking the only track through the Sierra Nevadas. So it meant that we would have to take a bus from Reno to Emeryville instead of the train. That sucked because there was supposed to be a train historian between Reno and Sacramento that told you about the history of the gold rush in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. So Reno was effectively the end of our trip, since the bus was not very interesting, and we've driven on I-80 through the Sierras that way a millions times already. Its okay though, since we really liked the train trip and we will do it again. It was much better than flying, in my opinion, even though it took 52 hours. It was very comfortable and scenic, and relaxing to veg out for a few days and enjoy yourself and the journey!


tinyyellowteardrop said...

Thanks for the great post on what seems to be a dying way to travel in the U.S. I wish more of us had the time to travel by train and really enjoy the landscape. I enjoy your blog. :0)

Unknown said...

Sounds like a awesome trip! I'm planning to take this train next month from chicago to california, so this post is really helpful!

nuggetry said...

Thanks for the detailed descriptions. did you happen to notice the level of cellphone service along the way?