I woke up around 5 a.m. to a low but incessant rumbling. Faint hints of daylight had appeared over my fellow passengers’ heads, most of which were still bent in rest. Some people yawned; others stared intently out the window on the valley. I had been aboard the train for about 40 hours, and there was still an extended solution to go before our scheduled arrival within the San Francisco Bay area.
Riding westbound, I walked to the back of the train to see the rising sun reflected on the tracks. We were passing through Nevada. A number of minutes later we stopped in town of Winnemucca, Nev., right in front of the Martin Hotel, which, at the top of the nineteenth century, catered to the Basque immigrants who’d moved there to work as shepherds.
Amtrak’s California Zephyr, considered by many rail enthusiasts to be amongst essentially the most scenic long-distance train routes in the US, operates between Chicago and Emeryville, Calif., near Oakland. All the route takes some 52 hours and includes 33 stops. In 2018, while traveling through the US on a three-month photography project, I accomplished a majority of the trip, departing from Mount Nice, Iowa, on a sweltering mid-August day.
I boarded the train at 5:59 p.m. within the golden light of a superbly clear day, glancing outward at the primary of an extended series of soy and corn fields, and small-town backyards which are so often ignored.
At 10:55 p.m. the 12 silver carriages of the Zephyr slowed and stopped in Omaha. Connie, one other passenger, got on and sat next to me. At 72, she had short gray hair, a sun-kissed face and sort eyes. It was too late to start out a conversation, so we each just tried to get some sleep. (Neither of us fully succeeded.)
Within the early morning, while the yellow hills of Nebraska and Colorado rolled throughout us, Connie told me she’d been visiting her daughter in Omaha and can be getting off that afternoon at Glenwood Springs, Colo., to fulfill her husband.
Eventually I began wandering through the cars, shyly but restlessly, wanting to fulfill and talk over with everyone. It felt just like the first day of summer camp. Small groups of individuals were mingling here and there, exchanging just a few words. Others preferred to maintain to themselves of their roomettes, or sat alone of their coach seats reading or napping.
The current-day California Zephyr began service in 1983, though an earlier iteration of the train — sharing the identical name, but operated privately on a rather different route — ran between 1949 and 1970.
Within the Nineteen Seventies, long-distance passenger trains just like the Zephyr were unreliable and unprofitable and couldn’t compete with airplanes or the booming interstate highway system. But within the early ’80s, the truth reversed: Air travel worsened (fares skyrocketed, carriers abandoned marginal routes, competition intensified), and a few Americans turned again to their network of trains. Short-distance train travel was often cheaper and more convenient, and the routes, conveniently, began and resulted in city centers. In 1979, Amtrak added recent Superliners — bi-level intercity railroad passenger cars — on its Western routes, and a few people rediscovered a long-lost commodity.
As Henry Kisor describes in “Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America,” published in 1994: “The Zephyr represented a recent conception of rail travel: the train as tourist cruise ship through a sea of scenery, not merely as a way of transportation from city to city.”
And the train’s schedule, as Mr. Kisor points out, encouraged passengers to sleep while the less exciting scenery rolled by — the Great Plains, and the arid landscapes of Utah and Nevada — and luxuriate in dramatic alpine views during daytime.
I spent most of my first full day within the remark automobile, also often called the Sightseer Lounge (and previously called the Vista Dome). The automobile’s floor-to-ceiling windows offered the most effective possible views across the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River Valley, the Continental Divide, the Sierra Nevada and the green forests of Northern California. The soft blue chairs grant riders a little bit of privacy, however the tables for 4 are where many of the socializing happens. Sitting across from Connie, I made friends with nearly everyone around us.
For a majority of individuals I met, traveling on the California Zephyr wasn’t about getting somewhere. As a substitute the trip was a reward — a slow and much-anticipated few days carved out of a busy lifestyle.
I met Joe, 33, and Mo, 38, a newlywed couple from England who had crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary II, gotten married after which boarded the California Zephyr in Chicago, planning to ride all of the solution to Emeryville. This was their honeymoon.
Then there have been John, 33, and Emma, 27, two Amish parents from Pennsylvania who were headed to Grand Junction, Colo., for a specialist doctor’s appointment. Emma was crocheting a phenomenal centerpiece on what was her very first train ride.
Rose, 18, Jenna, 23, two cousins donning neck pillows, were traveling home to San Francisco.
On the very end of the train, by the back window, I met Robert, 40, and his 2-year-old daughter, Madeline, who was napping in his arms. They were on a birthday trip, together with Madeline’s mother and grandmother. That they had hopped on in Denver and would detrain at the top of the road.
Sitting next to Connie and me were Tyler, 10, and his grandfather, Bruce, 66. That they had boarded the train in Iowa. Their plan: to tour Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon. They decided to each wear flashy T-shirts in order to not lose sight of one another.
Seated behind me was a bunch of florally clad Mennonites from Michigan. They were on their solution to Glenwood Springs, and were talking animatedly about something they’d spotted outside the window.
Apart from the remark automobile, the train’s other social hub is the dining automobile. I missed breakfast the primary morning, so, on my second full day, I headed straight there. An attendant was busy setting the tables. The automobile’s booths sit 4 people, and all of the meals are communal — meaning that, should you aren’t a part of a bunch of 4, then you definitely’ll likely be seated with other passengers.
Fifty years ago, having a meal within the dining automobile was a chic affair — think linen tablecloths, high quality china, silverware. The waiters would dress in white jackets and blue bow ties, with long white aprons and towels over their arms. Now, they wear light blue shirts, red ties and blue aprons. The china and silverware are still there, but, based on old photographs I’ve seen, they appear cheaper. There’s no linen in sight; it’s been replaced by large sheets of white paper.
At any time when I’m on a long-distance bus trip — I’ve traveled extensively around the US on the Greyhound network — I get the sensation that passengers are there not because they decide to be but reasonably because they must be, since the bus is either the one available or the most affordable option. (This was all the time true for me, anyway.)
When traveling by train, though, the atmosphere is totally different. There was a way of community aboard the California Zephyr. In any case, there aren’t many places where Mennonites, a Japanese student, smiley newlyweds, parents with their kids and grandkids in tow and retirees are all bundled together for such an extended time period, sharing their life stories.
And that, as Henry Kisor wrote, is an element of the appeal for long-distance train passengers — “the enjoyment of encountering humankind in its limitless variety.”