On Board the Zephyr

I am told that the Amtrak California Zephyr is among the most scenic train trips you can take in the US. it is Amtrak’s longest route, stretching just shy of 4,000 miles and taking 51 hours to travel from Sacramento to Chicago. I will spend the next 20+ hours riding as far as Grand Junction, Colorado.

The layover in Sacramento was short, but the trek from the station to the platforms was unexpectedly long (1,200 feet). If travel in Europe has taught me anything, it was to not pack more than you are willing to carry for a mile or up three flights of stairs. Once again I land a window seat with an empty seat beside me, and find very little difference between this coach class seat and my previous business class ticket, aside from the seats in coach being upholstered in fabric rather than leather. Meal choices are the same selection of packaged sandwiches, salads, chips and snacks, with hot meals being limited to whatever the Cafe steward can toss into the microwave. But they also sell beer, wine, and limited cocktails, so there is that…

Today’s announcements from the stewards: “Please wear shoes. Smoking and vaping are not allowed. If you are caught smoking or vaping you will be tossed off the train. Clean up after yourself. Be courteous to your fellow passengers.” Most of which should really go without saying…

We pass through a lot of tunnels. I start to see red clay, and more diversity in the species of trees here. The Sierras are under a blanket of smoke, and Donner Lake (namesake to the ill-fated Donner party), is completely obscured. The combination of smoke and the 7,000 foot elevation is making it hard for me to breathe. I spend some time in the observation car, with its curved glass ceiling and seats facing outwards, trying to peer through the smoke that lays over the trees like a dense fog.

Further into Nevada, the landscape changes as we near Reno, which looks a lot like Yakima in Eastern Washington, down to the sagebrush and scrub. The sky has switched from brown-grey to pale blue, though there is still haze at the horizon. But I can breathe better now. The Zephyr has fewer stops to make, though we are still slowed by freight trains, one of which had heavy graffiti on nearly every car. The sun is still red but no longer obscured by smoke, and at 7:15 I am treated to the pastel pink, gold and blue sunset that I look forward to whenever I’m in a Western desert. When the moon rises half an hour later, it’s as red as the sun was.

Our car has nearly emptied out, except for an unruly passenger behind me who gives me cause to move to the other side of the train. It’s a quiet night after the passenger departs in Utah sometime after 3:30 AM, and I finally drift off to sleep.

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