“So what type of trucks do you drive again?” the lady seated across from me asks my husband in her Midwest accent. Every fibre of me resists rolling my eyes and groaning. This is the fourth time we are seated with Mr. & Mrs. Midwest in the dining car. How we manage to arrive for meals and be seated together at exactly the same time baffles me. The conversation flows to their favourite topic– truck driving differences between Australia and the USA. Mr. Midwest drives his Big Rig cross-country, often away for weeks at a time. It’s hard to imagine his scrawny frame behind the wheel. I try my best to escape the chatter. As I get lost in the passing landscape, the occasional grunt is enough to pretend I’m as intrigued as they are.
Long distance rail journeys are dying. The familiar clickety clack is fading. Trips of epic proportions are reserved for luxury travel through Europe on the Orient Express or across South Africa on Rovos Rail.
It was a gamble to purchase a ticket onboard the California Zephyr to travel from Emeryville (across the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge) to Denver. The 1400-mile odyssey across varying landscapes takes 33.5 hours. A flight between the two cities is over in a mere 2.5 hours though lacks the finesse of rail travel.
I come crashing back to reality when I hear passengers referring to “the Australians”. Speaking to another passenger onboard, I am surprised to learn that the main passengers who ride the Zephyr are local residents who live at the small towns or cities along the line who use the daily rail service to visit family and friends. They travel the route regularly and it is uncommon for them to bump into tourists, let alone Australians. The carriages are buzzing with news of foreigners onboard and most are surprised to see us. Small crowds gather around to hear our accents and are astounded that we spent 14-hours on a flight to reach California. Between our age (at least 30 years younger than anyone else on board) and our accents we were a novelty for those who regularly rode the rails.
In the comfortable compartments the scenery passes by. I long to stop the train to get that one photo of the stunning landscape that was mesmerizing me. Soon after departing Emeryville the train passes through gold rush country before winding its way through the Sierra Nevadas. Amtrak have aptly scheduled services to allow for the finest scenery through daylight hours.
As we gently gain altitude and crisscross the American River the view from the carriages is a sight to behold. During the climb over the Sierras to Donner Pass there is a magnificent panoramic view of Truckee Basin, stretching as far as the eye can see.
Crossing the border into Nevada, the train passes by numerous historical sites including the site of the first train robbery in the West (1870) in Verdi.
Somewhere between Reno and Winnemucca, the sun begins to set over the vast, open land of the West. The fading light transforms the dry landscape into a glowing haven; the setting sun changes browns and pale oranges to deep yellows and reds. While most passengers are enjoying dinner, I make my way to the last carriage; to a secret hideout. At the end of this carriage there is a small window that looks directly out the rear of the train. Cracking the window open I take a moment to ingest my surrounds. I welcome the smell of the dusty, yet fresh air that has a slightly cool nip. My eyes feast on the most spectacular landscape, the light is dimming and the colours are fading; yet the rails glisten in the moonlight. The perfectly clear sky is a mix of light blue, yellow and orange. To my left is the silhouette of the mysterious Humboldt Range. I listen – there’s nothing but the clickety clack as the carriage rocks slightly along the rails. I realise that in this moment I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. I realise it’s pretty close to perfection, and in that second the sun is gone and darkness falls on the desert.
By mid-afternoon the following day we are deep in the Colorado Rockies. Paralleling the Colorado River for 235 miles – the trip is often referred to as the most scenic stretch of track in America. The pinnacle of the journey is Moffat Tunnel. It carries the California Zephyr for 6.2 miles through the Rockies and across the Continental Divide. When the tunnel opened in 1928 it eliminated a series of switchback loops and steep grades, essentially cutting 176 miles off the trip between Denver and the Pacific Coast. In this section of the journey we pass through 31 tunnels in total, not to mention the numerous snow sheds which protect the track from heavy snowfalls.
The California Zephyr has been operating this same route since 1983, travelling cross-country from Chicago to Emeryville (San Francisco) across 2438 miles.
I am suddenly jolted back to reality as the Zephyr pulls into Denver’s Union Station. It is early evening and darkness is descending on the city. I rise from my booth and with a polite nod; wish Mr. & Mrs. Midwest a pleasant onward journey. Stepping onto the platform I take a moment to absorb the impressive sight of double storey carriages and squint to see the engine in the distance. The Zephyr is drawing me back on board. Although I had enjoyed rail travel in the past, I realise an addiction has been born over the last 33 hours. It was a much better choice than taking a flight. It’s not just a way to get from A to B, but rather a journey where you have no choice but to appreciate your surroundings. There is hope for the future of rail travel –the California Zephyr is one of world’s best long distances rail journeys. I yearn to continue to the end of the line, Chicago. In that moment, the horn sounds and the Zephyr carries on into the evening. I wave goodbye to the train and I vow that I will return and continue my journey. Next stop, Fort Morgan.
** I’m working on my writing skills – I’d love if you could leave any feedback of how this is written – thanks! **