Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Rolling across America

(This article was published in the travel section of The Dominion Post, October 26.)

THERE can be few better ways to travel than in the observation car of an American train on a golden autumn afternoon with a cold beer in hand.

I’m on the California Zephyr, speeding westward through the gently undulating farmland of Illinois. We’re about four metres above the ground, on the upper of two levels, and the train is quiet and smooth.

To my surprise, the observation car is half-empty. Either my fellow passengers have all done this trip before and become blasé about the sights, or they are unmoved by the beauty of the landscape.

The view through the floor-to-ceiling windows gives new meaning to the line from America the Beautiful about amber waves of grain. Cornfields stretch to the horizon in all directions, interrupted here and there by dark clumps of trees indicating the presence of a lonely farmhouse. Some of these habitations look like exquisite little doll’s houses.

We are at the start of the great Midwestern prairie and it will take us the rest of the day and all of the night to cross it. The landscape changes little but it’s easy on the eye and I’m never bored.

As evening approaches, we cross the Mississippi into rural Iowa. The sunset is like molten copper. Much later, in the darkness, we rumble across the inky-black waters of another mighty river which a fellow passenger confirms is the Missouri, the border between Iowa and Nebraska.

My wife and I boarded the California Zephyr in Chicago at two in the afternoon. If we were to stay on the train all the way to Emeryville, near San Francisco, it would be a 52-hour trip. But because we couldn’t get a sleeper compartment and didn’t fancy sitting for all that time, we’ve decided to break the journey for a day and a night in Denver, Colorado, before resuming.

We could have saved time and money by flying, but it goes without saying that you see a lot more from a train than you do from 30,000 feet. Rail remains one of the most rewarding forms of travel – and sociable too, since you naturally fall into conversation with your fellow passengers. As on a ship, a camaraderie soon develops among the people temporarily brought together in this confined space.

In the dining car on our first night we sit opposite a genial young man from Perth, Australia, and a shy female student on her way back to Stanford University after the summer vacation. Because space is limited in the dining car, people are required to share their table with strangers; but rather than being an imposition, it adds to the enjoyment of the journey.

Our companions at dinner on the second night are a charming elderly couple, retired teachers from Wisconsin, who are on their way to visit relatives in Oakland, California. They have a sleeping compartment but complain that it’s claustrophobic – that once they’re in there with the door closed they feel shut in.

It’s a comment we hear from other passengers too, and we’re pleased that we’re travelling coach class. We even sleep reasonably well, since the train is barely half-full and each of us is able to stretch out over two seats. The only problem on the first night is that it’s cold – a malfunctioning thermostat, apparently.

The food in the dining car could be described only as basic – at best, on a par with airline meals. It’s not cheap, either, but you either eat it or starve, since there’s no opportunity to buy food along the way. But the dining car serves wine and beer, which makes the meals seem more palatable; and in any case, no one ever travelled on an Amtrak train for the innovative cuisine.

It’s the scenery that makes this journey unforgettable. The prairies, pretty as they are, are merely an appetiser; the main course, in visual terms, is served once the train starts climbing into the Rockies west of Denver.

Here the California Zephyr passes through terrain that makes the usual superlatives seem feeble: spectacular rocky bluffs, deep canyons, rushing mountain creeks and idyllic alpine meadows. Though it’s only early autumn, the forest foliage at this altitude (the railway climbs to nearly 3000 metres) seems to show off every colour in nature’s palette, from pale yellow to brilliant scarlet.

We’re soon following the upper reaches of the Colorado River, where we pass parties of white-water kayakers, the occasional fly fisherman and even a prospector panning for gold. Here the railway passes through Upper Gore Canyon, whose walls rise nearly 500 metres and seem to reach out menacingly over the train.

But wait: there’s more. After the Rockies come the vast deserts of Utah and Nevada – a lunar landscape where wind and rain have sculpted the rock into all manner of improbable shapes. In the distance I see massive buttes, similar to those of the famous Monument Valley, rising from the desert floor.

The train rolls through the desert all night, occasionally passing desolate little towns almost hidden in the sagebrush. At 3 am we stop briefly in a place called Elko, Nevada, where there’s not even a station – just a shelter with room for two or three people. Obviously someone got off, or on, the train at Elko and I can’t help thinking the latter would have been the better option.

We also pass the town of Winnemucca, where the conductor, a man with a voice that reminds me of Fozzie Bear in The Muppet Show, tells us Butch Cassidy robbed the bank in 1900.

But there are more mountains to come yet – namely, the majestic range known as the Sierra Nevada. Here we cross the Donner Pass, scene of one of the darkest episodes in the history of American settlement. Trapped by thick snow in the terrible winter of 1846-47, 39 members of a party of 87 settlers died of malnutrition and exposure. Some members of the party famously resorted to cannibalism.

It’s hard to reconcile this grim story with the scene presented by Donner Lake on a gloriously sunny day, shimmering under a powder-blue sky criss-crossed by vapour trails.

Once out of the mountains, the train makes a last dash across California’s broad Central Valley and skirts the shores of San Francisco Bay before reaching its ultimate destination. From Emeryville, we catch an Amtrak bus across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, where we say our goodbyes.

We’ve spent 33 hours on the California Zephyr since Denver but it doesn’t feel like it. In fact we get off the train feeling infinitely fresher than at the end of a 12-hour flight cooped up like battery hens on a Boeing 747. Even as lowly coach-class passengers we have experienced travel as a pleasure in itself, rather than merely as a means of getting somewhere.


State-owned Amtrak operates the California Zephyr service daily each way between Chicago and Emeryville, in the San Francisco Bay area of California – a distance of nearly 4000km. The train leaves Chicago at 2pm and arrives at 4.10pm two days later. In the reverse direction the train leaves Emeryville at 9.10am and arrives in Chicago two days later at 2.50pm. Cities it passes through include Burlington, Iowa; Omaha, Nebraska; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Reno, Nevada; and Sacramento, California. “Superliner” sleeping accommodation is available and the dining car provides a full meal service, including wine and beer. Smoking on the train is prohibited. Prices range from $US152 for a coach-class seat (not including meals) to $US1396 for a superliner bedroom for two (meals included). Superliner bedrooms are self-contained with their own hand basin, toilet and shower. Note: fares may vary depending on the time of year.

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