California, here I come

Note:  this post is going to have a LOT of photos.  Choosing between the bazillion shots that I took while on the most scenic train ride of my life has proven to be more difficult than I thought.  So my apologies if this post takes forever to load on your computer or device!

Right as I was boarding the train in Denver early Saturday morning and sorting away my luggage , a jovial, 50-something-year-old African-American man in a baseball cap approached my seat.  “Well, it’s about time!” he cheerfully said to me.  “I had just been askin’ the Lord to give us some eye candy on this train, and he has answered my prayers!”  Not exactly sure how to respond to this gentleman caller (what do you say after being referred to as “eye candy”?),  I smiled, thanked him, and awkwardly returned his enthusiastic high-five.

If the population of the train from Chicago to Denver was mostly leisure travelers, the group from Denver to Emeryville, CA took that and raised it to the level of Full-Fledged Train Geeks.  Almost everyone that I met that first day, even if that person was traveling for work, was taking the train because they loved trains.  There were many conversations in the observation car – a hopping place on this scenic route- about previous long-distance journeys and future dream trips.

As the train left Denver, the course was flat, then started to slowly gain elevation, zigzagging its way toward the distant mountains.  Every one of us was chomping at the bit in the observation car, cameras in hand.

At the table, eating my oatmeal and coffee, I was seated across from a young woman.  Her name was Shelby, and she had recently made the decision to leave her small hometown in Iowa and start a life for herself somewhere out west. As we exchanged travel stories, she was impressed by the long list of places that I have seen, but I was even more amazed at the sheer gutsiness of this 20-year-old to just buy a one-way train ticket and head off on her own!  I would never have been brave enough to do that at her age!

Passing through consecutive tunnels, we watched as the landscape turned white with snow.

Passing through all of these quaint little ski towns made me want to get off the train and hit the slopes myself!

I’ve been to the desert through a town with no name. 😉

Soon we were seeing signs for “a place where the beer flows like wine. Where women instinctively flock like the salmon of Capistrano. I’m talking about a little place called Assss-pennnn.”

Every so often, the train would make a 10-minute stop and allow the passengers off for a stretch of the legs and some “fresh air,” which contradictingly was thick with cigarette smoke.  Glenwood Springs was one of the most scenic stops.

The train continued along the Colorado River through mountain passes.  What I love about these routes is that there is really no other way to see them except by train.  There are no other roads.  Passing through is like discovering a hidden treasure.

(I really wanted to post a video here from Gore Canyon, but it is refusing to upload either from my home or from either of two different Paneras.  So I think this is a no-go.  Sorry).

Slowly the snow began to dissipate as we approached Colorado’s western edge.  The gray peaks became a  blend of oranges and reds.We stopped for about half an hour for a streching break in Grand Junction while the train restocked and had a staff change.  I took this as an opportunity to check out the old station nearby and wander around the block.  Across the street, I could see a Pawn and Loan with snowy peaks in the distance.  The dilapidated old station was a sad sight:  what was once a beautiful structure had fallen into severe disrepair over the last 40 years.  The art deco arches were crumbling, the old Pufferbelly Station sign was faded and chipping, and wooden boards had been nailed behind the jagged glass of the windows.  I overheard someone say that the property was $300,000 to buy but would cost over $1 million to renovate.  Although it seems doubtful now, I hope that someday the station can be restored to its historic grandeur.

The modern Grand Junction Amtrak station

Entrance to the historic station

Back aboard the train, we piled back into the observation car, where one of the Amtrak staff members was serving as a tour guide.  He knew the route like the back of his hand and pointed out all sorts of landmarks and interesting sites, from the hillside “graffitti” marking the border between Colorado and Utah to the rock formation known as the Three Sisters to the barely-visible rocky arch from Arches National Park in the distance. Also noted but not part of the official tour was a naked man hitting golf balls off a nearby plateau!

Entering Utah

Our “tour guide”

Along this river were several canoes and kayaks, who know to expect the train at this hour. It is customary for the boaters to either wave to or moon the train. 😉

Zoom-in of the Three Sisters

During the time between the “tour’s” end and dinner, I sat in a single seat in the observation car, listening to my ChooChoo! Mix on shuffle and recording the song titles for a later blog post.  This looked somewhat obsessive-compulsive, I’m sure (What, me?  With OCD?  Never!) and piqued the interest of two of my fellow passengers.  Justin lives in Brooklyn but was traveling to a conference in Salt Lake City;  James lives in the southeast and was heading to San Jose for a work meeting but had decided to take the train.  He was one of the few passengers I met who had splurged on a roommette.  We were all green with envy, notably Shelby, who had grown so disgusted with her overnight-from-Iowa-train-hair that she had given up and washed it with considerable effort in the sink of the moving train.  The guys were excellent company, and they joined me and Shelby for a incredibly fun meal in the dining car.

The following morning, I woke up bleary-eyed to the sight of the Nevada desert.  Within minutes,  my Gentleman Caller approached me from down the aisle.  “Has anyone ever told you that God made you perfection? You are just perfect.”  I was half asleep and still wearing my mouthguard, with matted overnight train hair and the remnants of eye crusties still behind my glasses.  To each his own, I guess.

We were not far from Reno, where a large number of passengers disembarked and an even greater number boarded.  The route between Reno and Californbia is quite popular as a short trip, as was evidenced by the several groups of friends who boarded after their Reno getaway, including a gaggle (I call them this because they were as collectively noisy as a bunch of geese and complained just as much) of well-dressed gray-haired ladies.  I did not get to see much of Reno as the train travels beneath the city.

Back in the observation car, I enjoyed my last oatmeal-and-coffee breakfast.  The cafe car attendant had for some reason grown to dislike me.  The day before, when I had asked for a cup of hot water (free, but after which I always tipped him), he had accused, “You know, you’re going to have to stop using so many cups!  There won’t be enough for the other people on the train!  Once we’re out, we’re out!”  (I had used two).  Not wanting to incur his wrath again, I saved my cup for reuse throughout the day, still tipping every time. That morning, when I offered him my cup and asked for a water, he scowled and shook his head in irritation as he returned it to me. It’s a cup of water, for crying out loud!

This second and final train day was a real treat, as volunteers boarded the train to serve as docents and read information about key points along the routes.  As we curled through another mountain pass, a gray pall was cast over the entire landscape.  Through the gloom, the bleak, colorless vegetation was covered in frost that looked like a fine layer of ash.  It felt like rolling through a graveyard.

Truckee, California: another pit stop

Our first view of the infamous Donner Pass. Almost as impressive as my nonexistent view of Vesuvius last year.

The mist cleared *just* before we left the pass, giving us a brief glimpse of Donner Lake.  The area is named after the Donner Party, a group of settlers from the Midwest who became stranded here in 1846 and were forced to resort to cannibalism in order to survive.  (Whether or not they ate Robin’s minstrels and subsequently rejoiced has yet to be determined).

The cute little town of Colfax. I would love to come back here and look around someday.

And to see The Goonies on the big screen!

Shelby was beside herself with excitement at seeing her first palm trees.

As we continued deeper into California, the mountains tapered down annd we entered a lush green agricultural area.  I learned that much of the country’s produce comes from this region.  Among others, we passed farms for California raisins, almonds, oranges, as well as fields of dairy cows.  Because you know, the best cheese comes from happy cows ;).

It’s log! It’s log! It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s wood! It’s log! It’s log! It’s better than bad; it’s good!

The fields soon became logged (haha, see what I did there?) with water, and entire roads alongside the tracks looked impassable.  A house made of wooden planks with a sign saying “BANJO LESSONS HERE” stood on stilts over the marshy ground outside of Davis, CA.

Before too long, the first glimpses of the coast came into view.  The tracks abutted the shoreline, and we crossed the bridge into Martinez, the last major stop before Emeryville.

And then in the far distance came the sight which meant that my transcontinental journey had come to an end:

At 3:05 pm, over an hour early, our train arrived in Emeryville, CA.  I had made it coast to coast.

James helped me take some celebratory photos at the station.  (Excellent camera work, James!) Both of us would be taking a later train, the Capitol Corridor, further south, but we had over an hour until the next scheduled train. James checked his luggage, and we explored the neighborhood looking for a bite to eat and a beer.  Sadly, this place wouldn’t be opening until 4pm:

James, looking thoughtful over Italian beer and Indian takeout.

Right on time, we boarded the Capitol Corridor and headed south through Oakland toward San Jose.  My ultimate train journey was now complete, but more fun awaited.  My friend Jill would be picking me up at the Santa Clara University stop, and next few days would be spent exploring Silicon Valley and San Francisco.  I couldn’t wait.

Categories: amtrak, california, colorado, emeryville, nevada, san francisco, Train, utah | 4 Comments

A Rocky Mountain High:  My Weekend in Boulder

Megan met me inside the train station with a huge hug.  You may remember Megan from such previous stories as “Adventures in Guatemalan Karaoke” and “How I Almost Passed Out at Palm Sunday Mass.”  She was a fellow Spanish student while I was staying in San Pedro de Atitlán last spring, and we have kept in touch over the last year.

And here she is with Ken from Chicago!

We threw my luggage in the car and headed to Boulder, only about a 40-minute drive away, where Megan lives with her husband, Craig.  It was my first time driving near the Rockies, and the scenery was breathtaking.

But first, let’s take another look at the awesome Denver station sign!

The drive to Boulder. Warm weather and no local snow in sight.

After showering away the grunginess from my overnight train ride, Megan and I returned to the car along with her dog Jameson and another little cutie, JTag, whom Megan was pet-sitting for the weekend.  We took advantage of the beautiful weather and headed to the park, where Megan’s friends slack-lined, the dogs looked on, and I promptly passed out on my sarong on the ground.  Perhaps I had not slept as well as I thought on the train!

Happy dogs looking forward to the park

Megan and JTag

JTag, all smiles, as Meggie tries to stay on her slackline

Afterwards, we dropped off the dogs and stopped downtown for margaritas and nachos.  Sadly, neither the view from the rooftop deck nor the cool weather could keep me awake, so we stayed in the rest of the night watching movies.  I promised that I would have more energy after a real night’s sleep that was NOT in a moving vehicle.

Jordan, Megan, and Craig (and a devoured margarita)

The rooftop deck of Rio at dusk

The next morning, I felt 100% better.  Megan and I had decided to make a day of free factory tours.  We started off in Boulder at the Celestial Seasonings tea factory.  Megan has done this MANY times but still welcomes the opportunity to take another tourist friend there, because hey, free tea!  Delicious!

We were checked in at the front desk and given a packet of tea as our “ticket.”  Inside is a gallery with all of the whimsical framed artwork used on the tea packages as well as a tea bar, where you can sample as many cups as you want of any of Celestial Seasonings’ dozens of flavors.  Yum.

Vicious prarie dogs guard the entrance with ugly, big pointy teeth;)

Hee hee. So cute.

Mandatory start-of-tour photo

Part of the artwork in the gallery. Reminds me of a challenge on Project Runway.

The tea bar. I had no idea there were this many flavors. I tried to pick the unusual ones.

Once we put on our hair nets (super classy)  and watched a short video, we were taken through a tour of the facility.  There was no production happening that day since it was a Sunday, but it was still really interesting to walk through the warehouse and get whiffs of all the different ingredients as you walked along.  First peach, then chamomile, then maybe licorice root or vanilla.  Megan’s absolute favorite is The Peppermint Room:  because of the strength of the mints’ oils, CS has to keep all of the peppermint, spearmint, and catnip (apparently this is also in the mint family.  Ya learn something new every day!) sequestered in a separate room of the warehouse to prevent scent and flavor contamination of the other ingredients.  Upon entering the room, it took about 30 seconds for the pleasant but potent minty smell to clear our sinuses and make ours eyes water.  Mmm…hurts so good!

After some  time in the Celestial Seasonings gift shop and a stop in Boulder for a snack, we hit the highway for Golden, going from bear hug…


…to beer hug.

Although it was late in the afternoon, we were able to make it into one of the last tour groups of the Coors Brewery.   I have done brewery tours before (hello, Sam Adams!), but never one on this grand a scale.  I love the warm, earthy smell of brewing beer.  And the best part:  a few free samples at the end.  Megan travels extensively (she and her husband recently returned from Sri Lanka, India, and the Maldives on their honeymoon.  Girl puts me to shame!), and apparently, so did our Coors bartender, so we practically closed down the bar talking like the travel fangirls that we are :).

After returning to downtown Boulder for dinner, we made it home to find Megan’s cat Oliver in a comfortable new spot:

Puss in (my) Boots

We woke up at the crack of dawn on Monday so that I could catch my train from Denver to Emeryville, CA, the final leg of the trip.  Miraculously, we did not encounter too much traffic on the ride there.

It was so good to be able to spend some time with Megan and Craig.  It never ceases to amaze me how close you can feel to people after knowing them for such a short time.  You guys are welcome in Cleveland anytime!

Megan and I hugged goodbye, and I went inside to squeeze in some final photos of Union Station before my ultimate train journey -through the Colorado mountains and Nevada desert- began.

Hmm…tempting pastries, but I’ll stick with my oatmeal cup, thank you.

I love this mural!

Categories: boulder, celestialseasonings, colorado, coors, denver, golden, Train | 4 Comments

On a Plain: Chicago to Denver

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!

Hangin' out in the table section of the observation car

Hangin’ out in the table section of the observation car

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.

I was one of those little girls who really really really loved dolphins.

I was one of those little girls who really really really loved dolphins.

Flat and snowy and peaceful

Flat and snowy and peaceful

I loved rolling through little towns and seeing the local shops and restaurants.

I loved rolling through little towns and seeing the local shops and restaurants.

Wind turbines in the distance

Wind turbines in the distance


Galesburg, Illinois

Galesburg, Illinois

An Illinois sunset

An Illinois sunset

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.



Me with Jim (in his Boston Strong shirt, haha)

Me with Jim (in his Boston Strong shirt, haha)

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.


I feel like this could be on the cover of a copy of Atlas Shrugged.

I feel like this could be the cover of a copy of Atlas Shrugged.


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.

A popular spot.  People had already staked out seats and were playing cards.

A popular spot. People had already staked out seats and were playing cards.

The Rockies!  Yay!

The Rockies! Yay!

So pretty.  Having grown up in Ohio, the sight of mountains in the distance always gets to me.

So pretty. Having grown up in Ohio, the sight of mountains in the distance always gets to me.

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….

Blue skies and warm weather at Union Station

Blue skies and warm weather at Union Station


Inside the station/Crawford Hotel.  Drool.

Inside the station/Crawford Hotel. Drool.

Such a cool sign.  I love it.

Such a cool sign. I love it.

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.

Categories: amtrak, chicago, denver, Train | Leave a comment

Choo Choo!: Soundtrack to a Train Ride

No trip is complete without the appropriate musical accompaniment.

Candidates for making the Choo Choo! Mix must satisfy any combination of the following criteria:
A) Songs with titles and/or lyrics about trains or travel, either in general or specific to this trip.
B) Songs with bass or drum lines that bring to mind the motion of a train (or in other words, anything by Johnny Cash).
C) Americana/country/folk songs, or some blend of the three genres.
D) Songs that I like, especially gloomy, atmospheric, winter-appropriate songs. No further criteria needed :).

I know this is a long mix (56 songs), but do you KNOW how many hours I’m going to be on the train? I better have a long mix!

Choo Choo! Mix
1. “Baby Did a Bad Thing,” Chris Isaak
2. “Set Out Running,” Neko Case
3. “I’m a Wheel,” Wilco
4. “Civilian,” Wye Oak
5. “Lake Michigan,” Rogue Wave
6. “Via Chicago,” Wilco – bonus points for mentioning both Chicago *and* San Francisco
7. “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash
8. “The Way It Goes,” Gillian Welch
9. “Going to California,” Led Zeppelin
10. “Broken Train,” Beck
11. “Hey Porter,” Johnny Cash
12. “Black River Killer,” Blitzen Trapper
13. “Universal Traveler,” Air
14. “Move Over Mama,” Justin Townes Earle
15. “Right Down the Line,” Gerry Rafferty – best country-esque rock song written by a Scottish dude
16. “One Big Holiday,” My Morning Jacket -their album It Still Moves is just one big road trip mix
17. “Rox in the Box,” The Decemberists
18. “Scarlet Town,” Gillian Welch
19. “Straight Shooter,” He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister
20. “Love is All I Am,” Dawes
21. “Louise,” Bonnie Raitt
22. “Bluebird,” Jim White
23. “Company in My Back,” Wilco
24. “Why Not Me,” The Judds
25. “Are You Ready for the Country?,” Neil Young
26. “The Vagabond,” Air
27. “Workin’ on the MTA,” Justin Townes Earle
28. “Shippin’ Up to Boston,” The Dropkick Murphys
29. “Ride Like the Wind,” Christopher Cross
30. “What Goes On,” He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister
31. “American Goldwing,” Blitzen Trapper
32. “On the Road Again,” Canned Heat
33. “Houston, TX,” Deer Tick
34. “Train in Vain,” The Clash
35. “Ride,” Lana del Rey
36. “Night Rider,” Jonny Corndawg
37. “Driver 8,” REM
38. “Steam Engine,” My Morning Jacket
39. “Real Live Bleeding Fingers and Broken Guitar Strings,” Lucinda Williams
40. “One Way Ticket,” The Darkness
41. “Twenty Miles,” Deer Tick
42. “Mykonos,” Fleet Foxes
43. “I’m on Fire,” Bruce Springsteen
44. “Rooster Mountain,” The Court and Spark
45. “Man of Constant Sorrow,” O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
46. “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Johnny Cash -makes me smile, as the train passes through many of these towns!
47. “Country Down,” Beck
48. “I Wanna Holler (But The Town’s Too Small),” The Detroit Cobras
49. “Entrance Song,” The Black Angels
50. “In a Big Country,” Big Country
51. “White Winter Hymnal,” Fleet Foxes
52. “American Goldwing,” Blitzen Trapper
53. “Harlem River Blues,” Justin Townes Earle
54. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Paul Simon
55. “Horse with No Name,” America
56. “Golden,” My Morning Jacket

Shuffle. Repeat. Enjoy :).

Categories: music, Train | Leave a comment

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