Tuesday, 27 September 2011

california zephyr

It may not be your idea of a room with a view, but how about a train? Catch Amtrak’s California Zephyr from San Francisco to Denver and it takes you up and over two mountain ranges, through deserts, forests and canyons. All visible from your seat – and it takes your bed with you! Reclining seats in coach are amazingly cheap at $63, and spacious compared with flying; and you can get up and walk around – drop by the restaurant, snack bar or the observation car, with comfortable seating and panoramic views as the scenery rolls on by sedately at about 50mph.
The crew are jovial, and determined to make this enjoyable. Many have been with the service for many years, and are very happy to tell you about the history. (Our car attendant, D, got stuck in traffic and missed the start – he told the cab driver to keep on going and eventually caught up with us at Sacramento, having to fork out $213. There’s dedication!)
More comfortable than coach are the ‘roomettes’ – two facing reclining seats that convert into bunk beds at night.
The journey and your stay start with a check-in at San Francisco’s Ferry Building, where a bus takes you across the Bay Bridge to pick up the train (bags can be checked through to your destination). The train starts off beside the Bay, then striking to Sacramento. Soon it starts to climb - two feet for every hundred travelled – through dense pinewoods and resorts. There is a delightful original station building at Colefax, one of several en route. The trees become sparser and we are out onto the plateau of the Sierra Nevada. Scrub yields to sage brush, then bare sand as the sun falls stark behind distant ranges.
Dinner time, and they sit you together – ‘sociable-like’ – so you get to meet your fellow travellers in a way you never would in a plane and car. Where else would you meet a trustafarian who after four month road-trip is on her way back ‘the slow way’ to Manhattan because she misses her parents’ scolding; a retired guy who has traveled this route 11 times in 5 years; a respectable (jacket for dinner) couple going to visit their children; a geologist going gold prespecting?
Later, in the observation car, the trustafarian breaks out her harmonica and channels the hobos who once rode the box cars along here. We are developing a little community in this strange linear village on wheels. There are also long stops at lost-looking desert halts, where you get a chance to meet fellow smokers and leg stretchers. The cries of ‘All ‘board!’ bring us all dashing back.
Time to scramble into bed. Personally, I loved the swaying of the train at night, with the mournful hoot of the locomotive and the falling clangs of the road crossing bells rushing by, deep in the night – almost a a part of folk memory.
The sandstone bluffs of Utah, purple shadowed in the early morning, accompany breakfast, but the best is saved for last as we rise up again into the Rockies, following the Colorado and its smaller and smaller white-water tributaries, through deeply incised canyons. When we travelled in late September, the palette was simple but gorgeous – the yellowest autumnal aspens and bleached grasses against deepest green pines and the bluest skies – ever changing, never tiring. Then the streams are suddenly flowing not west, but east to the endless plains, and the train flows on too, to Denver, where we got down, then on to Chicago. To our fellow villagers we gave our hope-to-see-you-agains – knowing we never will. The train moves ever on, building its next transient communities.

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