Standing on Platform 1 at Emeryville station waiting for Amtrak train number 6 to arrive. Excited and impatient we reflected on the responses we had received when we first told family and friends that we had booked a 35 hour train journey across the United States of America.
“Are you absolutely crazy? That’s one and a half days sitting on a train!“
“What are you going to do on a train for all that time? Just sit there?“
“THIRTY SIX HOURS !!“
“At least you’ll be able to sleep. What do you mean you haven’t booked a sleeper?“
The universal reaction had been a mixture of misunderstanding and complete disbelief. We didn’t really get it. Doesn’t everyone know us by now? It’ll be an adventure ………………… won’t it?
The California Zephyr
Instead of flying from place to place we prefer to use as many different forms of transport as possible. Remember the DBahn train trip from Nijmegen to Munich, or the Interislander ferry from Picton to Wellington, or even the InterCity coach from Rotorua to Auckland? It’s not always possible but when we heard there was a train that ran across the USA we just couldn’t help ourselves. We wanted to get from San Francisco, California on the west coast of America to Denver, Colorado in the middle of the country.
Bit of background. The USA has a medium to long distance train network called Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. It runs over 300 trains a day on over 21,000 miles of track and services the whole country plus a few cities in Canada. The train we required is called the California Zephyr and actually runs from Chicago, Illinois to San Francisco (and back of course) and is 2,438 miles long. That’s a long long way! It’s almost as far as London to Baghdad (think about it, that’s far away). The Zephyr started running in 1949 and is the second longest train route in the USA but universally acclaimed to be the most impressive scenery wise.
So our ridiculous, ‘what were you thinking’, irresponsible decision was to book the whole journey and break in the middle in Denver for a couple of weeks. What an adventure eh?
Emeryville Amtrak Station
The California Zephyr doesn’t actually run into the centre of San Francisco, it goes to it’s own Amtrak station over in Oakland called Emeryville. An early morning taxi from the Imperial Inn got us there nice and early (you all know how I like to get everywhere as early as possible) and we checked in our cases, grabbed a coffee, and sat in the sunshine waiting for the Zephyr. As we waited we noticed a little Oriental gentleman wandering up and down directing passengers and announcing train arrivals. What a busy guy we thought until we realised that he didn’t work for the railroad at all but was just some sort of demented power-mad train spotter! That’s when it became funny.
Suddenly there was a low rumble and we turned to see the enormous twin locomotives of the California Zephyr edging into Emeryville station. Double deckered, it looked enormous. Excited? We were beside ourselves as what seemed like 5 miles worth of train trundled by.
As it stopped multiple doors sprung open and a whole team of Amtrak stewards appeared on the platform all along the train organising all of the unorganised passengers. We were directed up into one of the carriages and chose a couple of seats on the left, after being advised that this was the best side to sit by the very friendly ticket fella at Emeryville. Within minutes we were off! Well we weren’t exactly off, the massive train inched it’s way out of the station incredibly slowly as we began our trip to Denver.
Apologies in Advance
If any of you have read Peril on Flight 433 you will know that we love to give people that we meet on our travels all sorts of nicknames, hopefully affectionate but occasionally not. So can I apologise before we start the journey for all of the subsequent ridiculous names and stories that follow. I just can’t help it.
Coach Class as we leave California
Our carriage had around 25 rows of seats, two on each side, and stairs down to toilets and lower sleeper cabins in the middle. Each seat was at least one and a half times as wide as a standard airline seat with a massive amount of legroom. I could easily lay full length without touching the one in front! Tons of room.
As we got comfy and organised our carriage attendant passed through the cabin. Now to say she wasn’t sweetness and light would be an understatement. She appeared to be extremely irritated by every single passenger and every request was obviously far too much for her to take. She was a Lucy Lieu lookalike but without the smile.
We were well settled as other people searched and evaluated the seating situation walking up and down and occasionally sitting then standing again to reposition. All of this was having a negative effect on Lucy Lieu and she stormed out of the cabin whacking ‘Reserved’ labels on as many seats as she could. Presumably just to annoy us all. The seats in front of us were occupied by a nice young American couple Dan and Roseanne (not their real name obviously but they were spitting images of them).
The train wound it’s way around San Francisco Bay as Roseanne leaned back to chat and we learnt that the two of them had quit their jobs and lives, sound familiar, and were on their way to Wyoming to work in a National Park for the summer. Great huh? At this point, only 3 or 4 minutes into the actual journey, Dan decided to drop a whole pack of biscuits and they exploded all over the aisle. Crumbs everywhere. From nowhere Lucy Lieu materialised with a vacuum cleaner and we all had to then sit through 10 minutes of hoovering and intense moaning!
The Sierra Nevada
The first part of the trip wound up through California into Nevada and featured quick stops at stations such as Martinez, Sacramento and our favourite Truckee. The climb through the Sierra Nevada Mountains was fabulous though, some of the scenery was breathtaking as we reached the highest point of the snow covered mountains at 6000 feet.
The first big stop was to be Reno, Nevada around 4pm after seven hours aboard the train. A bit more information about the train. As well as the standard carriages there was a snack bar, a dining car, multiple restrooms in every car, and the very impressive observation car.
Big comfy seats that swiveled and side tables plus windows all around to get an amazing view of the scenery as you passed through. Anyone could wander up to the observation car for a change from their normal seat but it never got busy. We loved being able to go for a walk and sit in a variety of different locations throughout the journey as it just the experience much more interesting.
Reno and the Fresh Air Stop
After lots of reading and people watching, and a fair bit of snacking we rolled into Reno and raced off as the announcement said we had 20 minutes for some fresh air and a stretch. Fresh air? Was he kidding? The platform was just a fog as our fellow passengers all lit up and smoked as many as possible in as short a time as they could. Not nice, so we got back on. Sorry Reno. I did notice however the shadow of someone doing intense press-ups on the platform through the smog, bit odd. The only entertainment was Lucy Lieu grumpily directing new travellers to appropriate seats and shouting ‘Reserved’ at regular intervals at everyone.
At this stage we were starting to feel that we should have something substantial to eat so when one of the stewards, who looked remarkably like Cuba Gooding Junior, came around I impulsively booked a table in the dining car for dinner later that evening. Not like us at all but we felt that we wanted to treat ourselves a little. On the way to the dining car we passed one of the most annoying passengers ever, in fact I think he won the Most Irritating Passenger Award three years on the trot! An incredibly tall long haired ex-roadie, who we shall call Jimmy Page, was entertaining anyone he could corner with tales of how he knew Elton John and had worked with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. He knew everyone! He’d been everywhere. And he had a very loud voice.
Dinner in the Dining Car
Dinner was a mix of great food and strange people. Roast Chicken and baked potato was shared with a miserable, constantly texting Indian girl and a bizarre cross-dressing mute transsexual. Sparkling conversation was something we didn’t experience. Also, at the next table a red-neck Donald Trump supporter was engaged in a loud political ‘discussion’ with Mahatma Gandhi. They didn’t see eye to eye at all.
Food was great however and we loved watching the incredible scenery as we enjoyed each others company. Last ones out of the dining car obviously. Plus we stopped at one of our favourite stations called Winnemucca.
Sleeping on the way to Salt Lake City
Returning to our seats we found a few empty places so decided to spread out on two seats each. As long as Lucy Lieu didn’t patrol too often we’d be fine. Dan and Roseanne were fast asleep and Victor Meldrew across the way looked completely comatose so we snuggled down and tried to get a little sleep. We knew the train was stopping at Salt Lake City in Utah around 3am so knew we had a few hours.
Amazingly we both slept well and woke just before Salt Lake feeling remarkably okay. This was Roseanne and Dans stop so we wished them well as they went off to change their lives. Another ‘fresh air’ break but this time we were ready and got out early and wandered away from the smoking posse. So strange to be outside at that hour in another state, Utah. We couldn’t really get our heads around the fact that we were moving across the USA as we slept. Upon boarding I again noticed something or someone face down on the platform doing more aggressive press-ups. Still very odd.
More sleep until half past 5 when I woke Jo from her golden slumbers and dragged her along to the Observation Car to watch the sunrise. I think she was pleased. In two prime swiveling seats we watched a sky full of stars transform into a beautiful sunrise, absolutely beautiful. We were the only ones up and about apart the two young Asian girls from our car. We’ll refer to them as Snap and Snack as the first must have taken 500 photos of the sunrise from every conceivable position in the Observation Car, and the other just didn’t stop eating!
Time for some breakfast as we passed through Provo, Helper and Green River stations, the last ones in the state of Utah. A lot of passengers at this stage were still laying under bundles or blankets or clothes dead to the world. We just wanted to experience as mush as possible and were loving the journey.
Around this time a commotion broke out as Smokey Old Molly Sugden, sitting downstairs, began to shout for assistance. Louder and louder she called for help as apparently ‘she couldn’t walk up stairs’ and couldn’t get to the dining car. Eventually Lucy Lieu appeared as if by magic and somehow calmed Molly down. Perhaps a whispered threat in her ear? Anyway a request was sent through and fairly soon Cuba Gooding Junior arrived carrying coffees and breakfast delights for the fast-fading Molly. This was all a little strange as at every ‘fresh-air’ stop I had personally seen Molly leap from the train and proceed to simultaneously smoke, chat, walk, stub, and smoke again. Every time!
Colorado and the Rocky Mountains
Our first stop in Colorado was at Grand Junction. A real cowboy-looking town that we would have loved to have jumped off and stayed in for a couple of nights. It was here that our favourite passenger ever joined the train.
Have any of you ever seen ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles‘ with Steve Martin and John Candy? If not then you should as it’s pretty funny. My point is that our new neighbour was exactly like John Candy in that film. He took the seat right in front of us and the entertainment began.
In the next 30 minutes he lost his glasses, dropped all of his files and papers all over the floor, banged his head on the luggage rail, couldn’t find the toilet, couldn’t find the dining car, dropped his mobile phone, and couldn’t get the seat to work properly! He made 3 or 4 work calls too which were all cut off as we entered tunnels. His constant ‘I’m having a bad day’ remarks to himself just cheered us up even more. And when he had to repeatedly spell out his surname 14 or 15 times in a later call we could hardly contain our laughter. He was comedy gold.
The next stage of the journey was undoubtedly the most impressive as we climbed up high into Glenwood Springs and on into the Rocky Mountain National Park. The views on both sides were just so dramatic as the train wound slowly up steep cliffs and through narrow canyons. At several places in the steepest canyons you could see car wrecks scattered down the mountain side where vehicles had crashed off the road high above us and there was no way of recovering the wreckage.
The Colorado river ran alongside us for most of this section and it was weird to think we’d seen it in the Grand Canyon a few weeks ago and passing through the Hoover Dam. It just looked so powerful and some of the wild water rapids were terrifying. However there were long sections where people were canoeing and rafting and as we all looked out the windows to see a bunch of guys rafting they turned, dropped their shorts, and gave us a group moon! Apparently happens every day.
With the unbelievable scenery passing by we returned from the Observation Car to share some quality time with our new fellow passengers. As we sat in our seats, John Candy was spreadeagled across both his seats with his arms hanging over our side and crumbs all over his shirt. To our right we had a couple of ladies playing cards and one of them repeatedly did a Las Vegas style shuffle very loudly. Behind her sat the dressed-in-black Linda Lusardi and behind her a quiet non-descript fella keeping himself to himself. Or so we thought. He decided to phone his wife and then loudly discussed the third-degree burns he’d got from their previous afternoons love-making! The Vegas card Shuffler didn’t know where to look! Lucy Lieu wasn’t impressed at all.
One of Americas biggest and most important rivers, the Colorado is 1450 miles long and passes through seven states on its way down to Mexico. It passes through the Continental Divide in the Western Rockies and the California Zephyr route passes through the canyons that the river created over the previous thousands of years. We wandered back up to the Observation car and as we sat the park ranger commentary mentioned that we were just about to pass the hot sulphur springs on the banks of the river. As the whole train snapped photos and looked across two young fellas removed their swimmers and gave us all some full frontal dancing! Snap and Snack, the two Asian girls, almost passed out with excitement and Jimmy Page even stopped talking for a moment!
Descending into Denver
The final twisty turny descent from the Western Rockies down onto the flat plains of Denver was equally impressive as we left the mountains and trundled into the city. It looked like we were virtually there but issues with signals etc slowed us down and if Linda Lusardi said ‘why is it taking so long’ once she said it ten times! The huge Amtrak train eventually had to back into Union Station Denver and we arrived 34 hours after we’d left Emeryville. Strangely not tired at all, I guess we were excited about our stay in Denver and meeting our new hosts.
As we climbed down from the train we wished John Candy and the other passengers goodbye, without all of them the journey really wouldn’t have been so good. We do love people-watching as you may have gathered.
Our thanks go to ….
Big thanks and maybe hugs to Dan and Roseanne, Lucy Lieu, Vegas Card-Shuffler, Smokey Old Molly Sugden, Third-Degree Burn guy, Cuba Gooding Junior, Linda Lusardi, Snap and Snack, the German Press-Upperer, our cross dressing dinner guest, Jimmy Page, and of course John Candy. Without all of them this would just have been an incredible adventure ………… they didn’t add to it at all.
31.4 – 2.5.2016