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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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 ;).
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.