After meeting for lunch nearby with my friend Pete (who declined to be photographed for this blog), I made my way back to Chicago Union Station to catch my train, the California Zephyr, which terminates just outside of San Francisco. This would be my second overnighter, arriving in Denver early the next morning. I took a spot in line behind a young Asian man with a remarkably minimalist backpack. “This is to Denver?” he asked me. “Yup, that’s where I’m headed, too,” I replied. “Where are you from?”
“Japan,” he answered, “but my English not very good.”
“Ooh, Japan!” I responded. “I would LOVE to go to Japan. I was traveling around Asia a few months ago, but Japan was much too expensive to include in my plan. Maybe next time!”
“Excuse me, where have you traveled in Asia?” asked the man in front of us in line as he shuffled his snowboard bag forward. He wore a patterned wool hat and carried a large backpack. It looked as if he was bound for Colorado as well. I described my trip itinerary to him, and it turned out that he had also traveled to Hong Kong and much of Southeast Asia. As we boarded the train, we sat in seats across the aisle from each other so that we could continue our conversation. I learned that his name was Jim, and even though he lives and works in the New York City area, he is originally from outside of Boston. Go figure.
I was excited to be on the Zephyr because this train has a bit of a different layout than the Lake Shore Limited that I had taken between Chicago and the East Coast. The Zephyr is a double-decker train with the majority of passenger seating on the upper level. In addition to a cafe car and a permanent dining car (unlike the LSL’s dining car which splits off from the Boston-bound train in Albany), it also has an observation car, which includes both tables and a large area of single seats which face the high windows. Excellent sightseeing opportunities!
I was immediately impressed with the frequent updates (unfortunately in regards to delays, but appreciated all the same) by the train staff. Maybe it was because the Chicago-East Coast route is populated more by commuters rather than leisure travelers, but I noticed that everyone on this route – staff included – was a bit more relaxed and convivial. We also noted the presence of mostly older couples wearing red America by Rail tour nametags on lanyards around their necks. What a fun vacation to take!
Jim and I spent the next several hours talking and watching the flat and snowy landscape go by.
After dark, we passed an exciting milestone by crossing over the Mississippi River. Sadly, my photos were so blurry and underwhelming that they do not warrant a spot in this blog.
A train attendant had come by earlier to take reservations for dinner in the dining car. Since I had been keeping to a pretty low food budget with my oatmeals, Easy Macs, and snacks, I decided to treat myself to an actual cooked meal. Jim and I signed up for a 7:15 dinner time and were seated at a table with another passenger, Marla, who works in the publishing industry. My meal was…okay, but the company in the dining car (including conversations between all of the tables about which celebrity we would most like to take on a date) more than made up for it.
After dark, we passed an excitiing milestone when we crossed over the Mississippi River. Sadly, my photos are so blurry and underwhelming that they do not warrant a spot on this blog.
I was finally getting the hang of overnighters on the train and slept without a problem. When I awoke just before dawn, I blearily looked out the window, expecting to see the outlines of the Rockies in the distance, since our train was due to arrive in Denver at 7:15 am. In my myopia, the skyline was a block of orange sitting upon a sea of black, but as I fumbled for and donned my glasses, I saw… an orange sky over a dark plain. Um, weren’t we supposed to be in Colorado? A thought came to mind (note: some objectionable language in this clip):
[from Dumb and Dumber, New Line Cinema, 1994]
I soon heard rumblings from other passengers that our train had managed to fall behind by four hours during the night. Sigh: oh well. It’s one of the joys of leisurely train travel that a delay might simply mean that you have more time to enjoy the scenery. Which is what I did, popping my ChooChoo! Mix on my iPod and quietly watching the shadow of our train pass over the golden fields and small towns of Nebraska.
Once Jim woke up, we headed back over to the observation car for breakfast in the hopes of catching our first glimpses of the mountains.
Our train finally rolled into Denver Union Station around 11:15 am. We stepped off the train into -what? Warm weather??? Just two days earlier, I was wearing two pairs of pants in the snow, and now a long-sleeved shirt would suffice. Union Station is gorgeous, having been recently restored. I strolled around, taking photos and drooling. All I know is that someday I will spend a night at the historic hotel (I know, I know, me and my historic hotels) within the station, the Crawford, which is both a) super swanky, and b) completely out of my budget right now. But someday….
Jim and I said our goodbyes. He was off to rent a car to meet up with friends for a ski vacation. I headed in the other direction to find my Guatemala friend Megan and start our fun-filled weekend in nearby Boulder.