Saturday, July 30, 2016

The California Zephyr (A train ride through the Rockies)

[Kyle]To return from Denver to Oakland, we decided to take a classic and scenic train journey aboard the California Zephyr. I had taken this same journey a few times in my youth both in full and in part; sharing it with Maryanne had always been on my list of things to do before leaving the USA. Along with the views as it crosses the Rocky Mountains - the added luxury of our own cabin and first class service made the journey something we were both looking forward to.

Waiting for the train to arrive and allow boarding

We boarded early in the morning (after an arrival delay) and departed with our friends waiving us off with coffee in hand. The train initially made very slow progress through a long and rather unattractive rail yard before another train cleared the track and allowed us to pick up speed as we headed up into the mountains. Just outside Denver, at the foothills, the train did several switchbacks to gain altitude before entering Eldorado Canyon (where we had so recently hiked). Here the route becomes incredibly scenic, high on the mountain the train passes through pine forests and dozens of tunnels as it continues its climb to the continental divide (which is crosses in the 6 mile long Moffatt tunnel).

On the western side of the divide the track follows the Colorado River (the same river that is in the Grand Canyon), which expands from a small creek to a roaring torrent as it progresses westwards. Most of our time on the train was spent, not in our private cabin, but in the lounge car, where we would play cards, chat with other guests and enjoy the view from both sides. Meal times also came with a view. Unfortunately our sleeping car appeared to be having a holding tank issue, making visits back and forth rather pungently unpleasant (luckily the aromas did not extend to our compartment!). The characters on the train were as interesting as the scenery. Each had rather different levels of sociability, and while most were taking the train as a touristic opportunity, a few were business travelers or fearful flyers; many were riding one way and flying back. Some had even joined the train from Chicago (where it starts). Some foreign tourists were making a vacation of multiple long distance train rides – making a circuit of the country and stopping in key cities.

One ‘special’ memory was of a woman who joined us in the lounge car at our table and would NOT stop talking. Her conversation rarely stretched to the scenery or any of the general courteous topics, but were a string of random conversations about her neighbors or someone she didn’t even know but had heard about. There were no gaps in her conversation to interject or change subject, and slowly our politeness declined to the occasional nod. Eventually we established that she was not on her own (as we had initially assumed) but traveling with children and grand children – all of which avoided ever being in the same carriage with her. She regularly barged between families sat at tables to take a picture of a view she wanted, and even knocked over other people’s drinks without acknowledgement or apology – quite a unique example of a woman in her own world. When she did ask a question, it was pointed and probing (way too personal) and any answer you might give simply met with some criticism and another story. Over the two days we managed to find tactics to avoid her (sigh).

We did befriend one group, a grandmother treating her two young grandsons to a wonderful journey, and we found ourselves spending much of our time playing cards, swapping games, and even sharing meals together, with the youngest boy taking a particular shine to Maryanne.

Views from the journey

As the train’s path regularly brushed against the Colorado River, we would be able to watch fisherman, rafters, and kayakers drifting down the river. We soon learned it was ‘expected’ that any of the smaller groups of water users liked to mark the passing of the train, not with a wave, but by baring their bottoms (mooning). Some were quite creative and did it while standing on their heads. The ‘meeting’ was fleeting as the train passed by in a matter of seconds, but there seemed to be good humor inside the train after each such incident.

Nightfall luckily coincided with a significant stretch of rather less dramatic scenery – so we were able to sleep well. Daylight awoke us in western Nevada which gave us just enough time to eat breakfast before settling into the lounge car for the views as we crossed the Sierras into California.

The California Zephyr terminates in Emeryville (just short of Jack London Square) so a connection was required to get us all the way home. Rather than spend the wait time between trains in Emeryville, we exited early, stopping over in Davis. Davis is a small town, famed for its university and has a charming center just steps away from the station. The temperature was 108 F (42C) and even a short walk about town quickly wilted our enthusiasm for the charm. We attempted to enjoy the labeled plants on a scenic walk, but soon gave up as the heat sapped all interest. We located an ice cream store and after a brief chat with the station master realized we could take an earlier train out – ahhh air-conditioning! This train followed the path of the Sacramento River and snaked its way along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay before depositing us just a block away from Begonia; arriving home for the first time in weeks.

No comments: