The Amtrak Journeys:
California Zephyr, Empire Builder, and Coast Starlight
By Scott Sutton
The waiting area inside Omaha's Amtrak station is little bigger than
the average living room. About a half dozen passengers sat watching the sunrise edition of the local news. Outside, the faintest tinge of blue edged over the horizon, partially erasing the night. The train was late, as usual. The California Zephyr, one of America's great trains for decades, was rarely on time.
By the time I'd finished off a cup of hot tea, dawn had arrived and the train still had not. My girlfriend Yoli sat patiently reading an autobiography by Michael J. Fox while I strolled outside the tiny station, set barely a hundred yards from the now-dilapidated Burlington Station. Throughout the first half of the Twentieth Century, it had been an elegant lady, a hub of society with dozens of trains passing through daily, all criss-crossing the nation. Now it was uninhabitable, in ruins, a haunting reminder of a time when the world was a larger but less complex place. I could easily imagine those now-forgotten decades, when scores of people regularly crowded into the cavernous station, excited to board a train that would magically whisk them to their destinations. In those days, getting there was half the fun. Businessmen caught the Union Pacific to Chicago, families took the Burlington Northern to Saint Louis or Kansas City, and Middle-aged couples set off to see relatives in Denver, all experiencing the keen anticipation that comes with riding the rails. The trip meant enjoying a fine meal in the dining car, or perhaps a game of canasta (for the gentlemen in their suits) in the club car. Or if you were fortunate enough to be
traveling overnight, a curtained-off berth made up by the conductor before
My mind withdrew from the mammoth corpse of Burlington station and
returned to the present with the startling announcement of the imminent
arrival of the Zephyr, made over the loudspeaker. I waited until I could
see the Amtrak engine gliding slowly around the bend towards the station.
Perhaps it lacked the grandeur of former days, but the train was still
impressive as it approached the station. I re-entered the station, where over a dozen
passengers-dressed down, as it were-- now stood waiting by the door. A
uniformed man walked around looking at our tickets before we were allowed to
Yoli and I were traveling coach to Chicago since the trip would be only ten hours. After we strolled up to one of the coaches, a conductor glanced at our boarding passes and gave us our seat numbers. We entered the car, dragged our baggage up a cramped set upstairs and found our seats. It was gratifying to find that regular coach seats were superior to first-class seats on an airliner. As the train pulled out and passed through the forest south of downtown Omaha, along the Missouri river, we settled down in the lounge car.
Amtrak's observation lounge cars reveal the world to you. Strung along each side are seats facing large floor-to-ceiling windows. On the lower level, there is a snack bar as well as several tables. For ten hours, we either sat looking out the windows at the pretty scenery and small towns through which we passed, or rested back in our coach seats. Once we sipped tea and snacked down in the lower level at a table. Perhaps one of happiest diversions while traveling by train is a trip to the diner. Our waiter was a tall black gentleman who reminded me of the actor Scatman Crothers.
"We sit two by two," he announced to us in a loud but cheerful
voice, showing us the table near the end of the car. Amtrak has a policy of
sitting four people together at one table, which serves as an excellent way of
meeting other passengers. I wasn't sure, however, whether Yoli and I
were to sit next to each other or across from each other.
"You want me to sit next to her?" I asked.
"Unless you want me to," he boomed with a chuckling voice. "I don't
A word about the Amtrak menu: it doesn't vary from train to train
anymore, but is sadly standardized throughout the US. The good news is
that the breakfast and dinners are pretty good, with only lunch leaving something to be
desired. Anyway, we didn't eat lunch since breakfast had been enough.
The Chicago skies were gray and dismal when the Zephyr pulled into downtown Chicago's glorious Union Station, a wonderful working version of Omaha's dead concrete hulk. We took a $6 taxi ride to the Cass Hotel, just off Michigan Avenue.
After three wonderful days in America's third largest city, it was time to head west on the Empire Builder. In the early afternoon, we took a taxi to Union Station, located the First Class lounge, and waited to board the Empire Builder. Union Station does have a waiting area that is as it must have been decades before; it's a huge, open cathedral-like "room" reminiscent of a great rail age. Most Amtrak passengers wait, however, in a spartan waiting area; for the first class passengers, there is the Metropolitan Lounge, very comfy with deep cushioned chairs and sofas, magazines to read, complimentary soft drinks and tea, and security for the baggage.
Despite the "doctor's sumptuous waiting room" feel of the Metropolitan Lounge, it retained an essence of rail travel with a video monitor announcing the departure and arrival times of many trains. Chicago is Amtrak's hub, so something was always a train in the station. A crowd of passengers disappeared from the lounge when boarding was called for the eastbound California Zephyr. Soon afterwards, an announcer gave the call to the Empire Builder's first class passengers to assemble. We collected our luggage from the security room and a uniformed man pointed to the exit we should take. We walked to track number seventeen, where we found the Empire Builder.
"Wow, it's so big," said Yoli. I could see that today's consist included three Genesis locomotives, two sleepers, four coaches, a diner, a lounge car, and a baggage car. Quite a long train! And it was to be our little world on the rails for the next 42 hours. At our sleeper car, a tall man in his fifties glanced at our tickets and said, "Right inside and down the hall, room #12."
Shortly after 2pm, on time, the train pulled out of downtown Chicago, and Yoli and I sat comfortably in our standard sleeper as we glided through the south side (hmmm, this looked familiar). Our car attendant, the man whom we'd seen initially, came
around and introduced himself as Dennis ("Dennis the Menace," he said cheerfully),
and soon after brought us some chilled soft drinks.
That first afternoon, we sat for awhile in our sleeper, relishing our privacy in the tiny "room". I have to admit, it was cute and cozy. The suburbs of Chicago rolled by-or rather we rolled by the suburbs and out into America! As soon as the first freight train thundered by us with a shudder heading towards Chicago, I remembered the words to Arlo Guthrie's famous song, The City of New Orleans: "passin' trains that had no name, freight yards full of old black men, and the graveyards of rusted automobiles." All that we'd be seeing on this trip would be America's "back yard," and I found it compelling. None of the images would be "throw away" material, but would be examined and thought over. I could have stared out of the window for hours. The Empire Builder slices through pretty countryside heading north through Wisconsin. By late evening it chugs into the totally unmemorable station in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Actually not even in St. Paul, but some remote industrial area that by night looked totally uninviting.
Life on the Empire Builder was good for the two days we traveled out
to Seattle. A long distance train trip is a journey in a self contained world, the illusion of safety and separateness suffusing throughout the train. The feeling for me is stronger at night, when the rhythm of life on board a train slows to a hum. The lights are dimmed in the lounge car after dark. I loved walking through the sleeper car, with tiny curtained-off cabins on either side and the glow of amber lighting bathing the car. The shaking and jolting of the train only underscored that we were on a journey, that which nomads have done for millennia. At night, after playing Boggle and drinking tea downstairs in the lounge car, we retired to our standard sleeper, which Dennis had made up: Twin berths, upper and lower, looked inviting. After changing (done in the berth since there is barely enough room for one skinny person to stand next to the berths when the door is shut and the curtains drawn), we shut off the light and sat together looking out the window.
I love this part of train travel. My mind turned back the clock to all those train rides I'd had in Europe over the years. I told Yoli about sharing a cabin with some Austrian guys and a fat American dude named George, whose full-time job back in Hawaii was growing Marijuana. George had been a kick, though. The Austrian guys loved him because he was buying the Greek beer for us all. And he had a great sense of humor, particularly when drunk. I also remembered a 72-hour train ride from St. Petersburg, Russia to Sofia, Bulgaria. I had run out of reading material after five or six hours, and there had been no lounge car. In fact, after the first day, there was no dining car. Fortunately, my Russian friends had packed half a roast chicken, a bunch of hard boiled eggs, and bread. Tea was plentiful and free on the train. On all those train rides, though, there'd be a time in the quiet of late night when I would stand at the window and stare out. The moon, if out, would cast its glow onto fields or forests or mountains. Every couple hours European trains stop at obscure (to me at least) villages.
The second day of travel on the Empire Builder-the journey from Minot North Dakota to the edge of Glacier National Park-is one of the longest train rides in the United States. Heading west, you have two time changes-to mountain time and then Pacific time. Plus, it being summer, it wouldn't get dark much before 10pm. We spent much of the day in either our sleeper or the lounge, with its expansive windows revealing ever changing scenery: the blue lakes dotting the undulating hills of North Dakota or the "big sky" over Montana. I read a bit, but couldn't get into the story with all the scenery. The funny thing is that the scenery that second day on the Empire Builder is rather tame. After all, it's North Dakota and eastern Montana. Pretty drab stuff to most folks. Yet most of the chairs in the lounge were taken, all kinds of passengers knitting or reading or chatting amiably, but every few minutes heads would look out at the passing farms or frontier towns or the ubiquitous grain elevators.
Our day was punctuated with meals in the dining car, mini social affairs in reality. Unless you're antisocial, this is where you make new acquaintances. It's really quite hard to avoid since the dining car steward seats you with strangers. During our 42 hours on the Empire Builder, we had five or six meals, and consequently met quite a few people, usually couples over fifty, a few of whom were teachers. Rosalyn and Tom, from Hawaii, had spent their honeymoon-quite a few years back-at Glacier National Park, and were now returning after all these years. Then there was the professor of geography and his quiet wife with whom I had breakfast one morning. He was notable because he related a story of having taken a trip to Vienna for free, courtesy of friends. Another couple was Jeanne and John, who were on their way to Alaska. I remember them as progressives that were pro-Clinton (virtually everyone with whom I dined was anti-Bush).
We had a respite from the rumbling and constant movement of the train only when there was a lengthy halt for train servicing. At one station, under a hot sun blasting down enough heat to raise the temperature to 105 degrees, passengers headed to the red-brick station to either make calls, or go to the bathroom, or purchase some goodies (all of which you can actually do on the train, so it was nothing more than an excuse to stretch legs). One family kicked around a soccer ball. I strolled up and down the length of the Empire Builder, admiring the silver carriages with the red and blue stripes and the word "Superliner" splashed across the sides. I also chatted with Dennis about Amtrak's financial woes. "All them politicians in Washington just make it worse. Me? I've got three years til retirement."
"Where ya gonna retire?" I asked, to which he replied quite succinctly, "As far from any tracks as possible."
So time and the train rolled on. Time was meaningless. In the afternoon, we slowed to a crawl and then stopped. The heat wave oppressing the northern US had done some mischief to a rather crucial part of the engine, and we sat idle on the northern plains for a good two hours. It didn't really matter, except that there was a danger we would get into the mountains close to dusk, thus preventing the great views most of the passengers were looking forward to. Eventually, the Builder continued her journey west, and the first of the low mountains greeted Yoli and I-and a packed lounge car-an hour or so before dusk.
Sitting in a chair beside Yoli was an eleven-year-old boy named James who was quietly excited about his first big trip ever. His sister and parents had boarded in Milwaukee, a few hours after we had departed Chicago and were in a deluxe sleeper room just down the corridor from us. Their destination was Glacier National Park.
A cute kid with "cool" sunglasses, he chatted with Yoli and I towards dusk in the lounge car as we looked out the floor-to-ceiling picture windows at the first of the mountains. "So have you been to some other cities?" I asked him.
"No, I've never been west of the Mississippi. I've never been really anywhere outside Milwaukee," he stated. "This is my first big trip." James had a walkie-talkie with him which he used to communicate to his parents back in the sleeper car. Watching him, I could feel that sense of exhilaration that he must have been experiencing. After all, the "first big trip" a human being undertakes is like any other major "first", a first love, a first car. For me it had been a family trip to Florida, which had promised at the age of seven to be a period of adventure as our family crossed great mysterious expanses in a station wagon. James was lucky, I thought. I could sense his building anticipation as we neared to Glacier National Park.
The sun had receded behind the forested mountains, but it was still light when we were called to the dining car for our 9pm dinner. After our lunch with Jeanne and John, we'd occasionally chatted with them in the lounge car, and decided to share a meal in the dining car. The four of sat down, ordered, and gazed out the windows at a breathtaking sundown. A banner of reddish-orange unfurled across the sky as we chugged steadily up into the mountains. Distant peaks shone, and as the train curved, hugging the side of a mountain, we witnessed a valley open up. In the distance, the sun was only a ball of lucent crimson, half hidden. "Oh! Look at that! whispered Jeanne in a hushed voice usually reserved for cathedrals. We'd been enjoying our dinners and the company, but all eyes were drawn to the fire in the sky, the bursting of orange soon followed by a blush, fading to deep cherry over the forest of green pines.
We relished that sundown for hours afterwards, when we lay in our berths, letting the train's gentle rocks lull us into safe slumber. The next morning started as sunny, but the deeper we got into Washington, the more dismal the sky. We pulled into the King Street Station only ten minutes late.
It was more than a week later, after our trip into Canada, that I got the chance to really look over the station, which looks nice from the outside, an old dark-red brick structure rising square and squat. Nothing grand like Union Station in Chicago or New York, but attractively quaint, reminding me a bit of a few stations I'd encountered in Eastern Europe. Inside, the place was rundown, quite unappealing. The nice thing was that it was big and open. A few rows of worn but adequate chairs were half filled with travelers reading or chatting quietly. A line was forming in front of the ticket counter, and a couple people were looking out of the doors which would lead us all to the embarkation area. If it weren't for the high pealing walls and the stained floor, I would have quite liked it. Actually I think I did. I hadn't yet felt like I'd been even once in a real train station. Union Station in Chicago had been almost luxurious (in the First Class lounge); Omaha's was a nonentity it was so tiny. But this building emitted a feeling of venerable age that was respectable even in its decline. I suddenly remembered that the King Street Station had been mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guidebook to Seattle. The 1998 edition warned of the decrepit condition and explained that refurbishment of the station was expected to be completed by 2000. "I think the city government is slightly behind schedule," I remarked to Yoli.
I wandered a bit outside in the immediate vicinity, where there was a good photo op for the station with the backdrop of downtown. I walked into a nice-looking coffee shop offering a variety of pastries and ordered a coffee and donut.
Back at the station, Yoli and I got in the first-class passengers line. I was getting excited about boarding another train again. A voice on the loudspeaker announced that the first-class passengers would be boarding first. Then came the announcement of all the stops along the way to the train's final destination of Los Angeles. Then the heartbreaking news. "Unfortunately folks, the Pacific Parlour Car won't be in the consist today, but we're running an additional coach lounge for first class passengers."
I couldn't believe it. I'd discussed this horrible possibility on a train-fan website where rail lovers meet to discuss Amtrak. I had been assured by Allen that the Pacific Parlour Car was only pulled off the Coast Starlight once or so every two or three months. When it was time to present my ticket at the ticket stand beside the door, the agent just said, "Real bad timing, that's what it is."
Well, there it was. I hate disappointment so I usually shrug it off as an annoyance as soon as possible. Besides, this would give me a great excuse to take the Coast Starlight yet again. I decided to add it to my great North American train trip, which I was due to undertake sometime in the next couple years. With that consolation, we walked out with several other passengers and strolled alongside the great machine itself. There were at least twelve or thirteen cars, and the sleepers were towards the front, so it was a bit of a stroll. I didn't mind, though. I loved looking at the cars, colossal cars of steel, carried along by equally impressive undercarriage and wheels. A narrow streak of silver, a "cruise ship" without the pool, the train is a grand, desirable throwback to the simpler days we all dream about. As we approached our car, again I thought that Americans were foolish people to always travel frenetically. Why do we insist on constant movement and noise in our lives?
We had the same room number as we'd had on the Empire Builder: #12. It was lower level, which we'd asked for. This meant easy access to three bathrooms, the shower, and fewer people. We settled in, shoving our packs onto the shelves provided for larger luggage and then snugging Yoli's smaller daypack into a nook beside my chair. There was time to go outside and loiter before departure, so we did so. When you fly, you're trapped in the aircraft sometimes for up to half an hour, crammed in and wishing evil upon the airlines. But with train travel, there is a freedom of movement that translates into a lightness of being, and that tinge of excitement that should build within a traveler about to embark on a voyage of discovery is allowed to build, not be crushed with frustration when the pilot announces apologetically that five more 767's have priority clearance.
When the familiar "All aboard!" cry came, an affable giant of a black man ushered us into a car, which happened to be the first-class lounge car, the substitute for my beloved Pacific Parlour Car.
Actually it was pretty nice. On the lower level, white tablecloths had been laid carefully over the plastic tables, and an impromptu continental breakfast was waiting for us. "Just help yourselves folks! There's plenty of fruit and cereal, and beverages are right over here…" he pointed to the buffet counter in the corner, "for free of course!" He chuckled. "So have your fill, and then come upstairs in about another fifteen minutes. I'll be giving you all a little talk about our new Pacific Parlour Car."
We had eaten at a friend's place in the early morning, but since a body never knows when it might get food again on the road (is this actually some genetic factor within human beings, pressing them to consume more), both of us chowed on some cereal and fruit. Good thing I was planning on all that walking up and down the length of the train!
Upstairs, Ross explained where the games were (a checkers set and a chess set), pointed out a few novels from the library (How to Raise Daffodils?), and promised to do everything he could to make our trip a great experience. Of all the Amtrak employees we were to encounter on the trip, Ross was to be the most polite and genuinely friendly. If he was acting, he should have won an Academy Award. He told us to be in the car promptly at 3 for the wine tasting ceremony, and then went downstairs to man the bar.
The Coast Starlight wound its way through the greenery and high hills of Washington, headed for Oregon. Contrary to its name, it never hugged the coast, but traveled well inland. Only between San Francisco and Los Angeles does the CS provide views of rugged coastland and sea. Anyway, I had the sea in Dubai so didn't care. It was enough to sip on cups of hot-and free-tea and coffee. We spent quite a bit of time in the lounge, as we had on the Empire Builder. We played a game of Boggle downstairs; we hung out in our sleeper. We'd asked the car attendant to make up the lower berth, so Yoli could stretch out and take a nap. Besides, the berth made up just makes the little cabin cozier. You can draw the curtains and just look out the picture window at the passing scenery. Time to slow down, to relax. I sometimes read. I was nearly finished with a novel about 17th Century traders off the coast of Africa. It had all the elements I loved: British mariners, travel to exotic locals, Arab sailors, all kinds of larger-than-life characters having adventures, and in this case, pirates and hidden coves.
But often I found my eyes drawn out of the fictional world and to the moving landscape. Even though much of it was unspectacular, really nothing more than "pretty countryside", it was land I'd never seen before, and had a strange appeal. When in the observation lounge, I could sit for quite a long time simply gazing outwards at a world that I wasn't a part of. And though many of the other passengers were either engaged in conversation or reading or knitting, their eyes too often strayed to the ordinariness of that ever-changing landscape. When you pass a farmhouse, you can't help but wonder who lives there and something about their lives. Faint images of a solidly-built farmer in overalls, a teenage girl throwing hay to her colt, or a boy pounding a nail into a faltering fence, passed by my eyes like a series of flickering visions.
During a tea mood, I made my way down the staircase that turns in two sharp right angles on its way to the lower level. A few people were sitting at the tables, still draped with the white table cloths. One mother was playing cards with her three kids; a young couple sat at one booth looking at each other as well as the Washingtonian forests. A couple men, looking comfortably unstressed, stood in front of the bar, behind which Ross stood handing out drinks and snacks. "What cha need buddy?" he asked me. I ordered some tea, chatted with him a bit, and said so-long.
"Okay, bud. Hey, if there's anything you need at all, just say the word, okay?" he threw out. I swear that by the time I started climbing the steps, he'd asked another passenger if there was anything he could get for them. And the darndest thing is, I was sure he wasn't putting on an Amtrak show; he was the genuine article. What you saw was what you got. I would have liked to parade him before a herd of stressed-out airline stewardesses.
Lunch was sometime around 12:30 or 1:00. We lingered at the table with an older couple over tea and dessert, happy to be in the dining car. It's always kind of a thrill to be in the diner car. I don't know exactly why. Even though you have to learn the art of eating while moving (with all the tiny bounces and occasional sharp jolt), it's an adventure. Perhaps eating and moving, ordinarily being separate episodes in one's life, when combined illicit a sense of fun. Maybe it's the genetics again, the promise of survival through nourishment while away from the safety of "home". At any rate, I enjoyed my dessert: deep dish apple pie, the real stuff, with succulent slices of sweet glazed apple. One thing is for sure, Amtrak understands the importance of dessert. On the dessert menu was apple pie, chocolate truffle, cheesecake covered with cherries and/or chocolate syrup, and ice cream. I could never understand when I'd see a first class passenger, for whom dessert is free, settling for a measly scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was so unimaginative anyway, so irritating. But of course they didn't get fat, as I did.
After lunch, I rested in our sleeper, perhaps dozing a bit. It was nice to wake up, stretched out languidly, and relish the torpor into which I could happily and lazily exist without guilt. The trouble with me is that I find indolence to be too exhausting; my natural energy simply throws off the yoke of idleness and searches for something new and, if not exciting, at least different. I went upstairs where a large coffee urn had been filled with fresh coffee, the aroma strong and pleasantly wafting down the narrow corridor between sleeper rooms. I poured a cup and headed back for the lounge car. Balancing a cup of coffee in a ramblin' train is a bit tricky, but I'd achieved enough victories on the Empire Builder to allow me to proceed all the way to where Yoli was sitting without a drop spilt.
And so passed the afternoon and evening. We had dinner later in the evening. The dining car steward seated us with Al and Divora, who, not surprisingly, were over 50. Divora, a pleasant, exuberant woman, told us that she'd been a teacher. I forgot what Al did, but he was a nice old guy. They gave us a lot of tips about San Francisco. They certainly were big fans of San Francisco. "You have got to go to Golden Gate Park!" insisted Divora. "You can spend a whole day there. There's a wonderful old Japanese gardens with a teahouse." I had my usual steak dinner and Yoli had her favorite: fish. I hate to admit to having dessert again, feeling a bit guilty for doing so. Being borderline diabetic, huge chunks of chocolate truffle were not on the dietician's recommended list of food substitutes. I justified the treat with a vow to walk a lot in San Francisco. Besides, I reasoned, the city is a myriad of steep ascents. When we had finished dinner, Divora suggested having breakfast together in the morning. We agreed on 7, and returned to our sleeper and passed time by talking, playing boggle or just enjoying the rumble of the train. Around 11pm, most of the sleeper car passengers had drawn the curtains and were either sleeping or getting ready to sleep.
You have to be a little bit lithe to get into the upper berth. There is no ladder, so you have to use the armrest beside the lower berth as a stepping stone, swing your right leg onto the upper berth and roll over onto your back. I didn't have any trouble, but I cannot imagine how some of the older people on the train do it; I don't want to imagine it either. The other negative thing about the upper bunk is that there is no window, and it's smaller. Still, I reasoned, I wasn't there to gaze out the window all night, but to sleep. So I did.
I wondered if all the jolting during the night was due to California's famous earthquakes. Not really, but if not mother nature, Amtrak engineers are speeding. It's rough being in the upper berth in a two-story train. You are literally shaken out of dreamland every few minutes.
In the morning we had breakfast with Divora. Al, mistakenly believing his wife had wanted to sleep in, found two younger women to accompany him to the dining car. Yoli, Divora and I passed a leisurely breakfast as the train rolled towards San Francisco.
THE CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR: SAN FRAN TO PROVO
I had just entered a near-empty lounge car when a man asked, "Hey, what's your T-shirt say?" I turned back to them. One was forty-something, with short, blond-gray hair and a friendly demeanor. The man beside him was older, perhaps in his fifties, thin-faced with half a head of brownish hair. "Oh, Dubai," I replied, showing off the T-shirt I'd thrown on that morning.
"Isn't that over in Saudi?" the man asked. "My name is Jack, and this is John." I shook hands with the men and leaned back against an empty seat. "Actually it's in the UAE," I explained, not for the first time to Americans. I will never understand how the citizens of a country with the greatest access to information can no so little about the world in which they live. Nearly everyone I knew in Nebraska had never heard of Dubai, so I was really starting from scratch in the heartland. I began talking about my life in UAE. Yoli came in after a bit and took a chair and introductions were made.
We were on the California Zephyr for the second time (we'd taken it from Omaha to Chicago), and like the previous time, had elected to travel coach and save a bit of money. I had known that we would be spending an inordinate amount of time in the observation lounge car since this route was arguable one of the most stunning of all the US train routes. And that's the way it turned out. Most of the day was spent there, or in the diner, or on the first level of the lounge car for a change of internal scenery.
The Zephyr, historically one of America's great trains, had departed on time at 9:45am. Yoli and I had packed, checked-out of the Grant Plaza, and gotten a free cable car ride down the hill to the one-room station house from where the Amtrak bus would return us over the Oakland-Bay bridge. Our three day pass had run out, and a kind older man on the car said, "Aw, forget the ticket. It's only a block."
Now the Zephyr was moving through the lush Napa Valley vineyards. We'd been sitting gazing out the windows and conversing with Jack and John. Sometimes one of us would get up and go downstairs for tea or coffee, but none of us wanted to miss the increasingly beautiful vistas. Jack was full of questions about Dubai. Just as we'd be silently admiring the world beyond the glass, Jack would pipe up with something like, "So can you touch any of the women there?" or "It's all tax free there in the Gulf, isn't it?" John remained pretty quiet. He was amicable enough; he just didn't have a lot to say.
The train sweeps along the valley along Suisun Bay, where a collection of weather-beaten old ships from WWII sit looking forlorn in the still water. Mothballed by the Navy, they gave me the creeps, like ghost ships abandoned in the Sargasso Sea.
"So what do they think of George Bush over there in Dubai?" Jack asked.
"Not much," I answered. Actually, Americans strangely enough find it peculiar that the citizens of the world have pretty much united against George Bush, including virtually every American I know overseas. I told Jack as much. As it turned out, he didn't like him either.
"Where are you guys headed?" I asked Jack, realizing that they knew a lot about Dubai but I didn't know much about them except that they were from San Francisco and Jack worked as a pilot for a company that, among other things, flew tourists around the bay area.
"Salt Lake," said Jack. "We're going to a wedding out there, but it's a funny thing. Though I'm a relative, I can't go to the actual wedding cuz I'm not Mormon, but I can go to the reception."
"And give a gift," I mentioned. "Hmmm." Organized religion could be awfully screwed up, I thought. "Hey, the Zephyr gets into Salt Lake pretty late."
"Yeah, around 3am if it's on time," said Jack. We returned to our outward world as the Zephyr glided through the Great Central Valley, riding on elevated ground above the rice fields, which were purposely flooded periodically. That scenery continued for awhile. Jack made some joke about all the land not being used by people, and a forty-something woman sitting a few seats away cried, "Hey don't be sayin' that. This land needs to be left alone; Civilization is spreading out enough as it is." We kind of bantered the topic around for a few minutes, Jack kind of enjoying teasing the woman. The only irritating thing about trying to hold a conversation in Amtrak's lounge cars is that the chairs all face the windows on either side, so while two people can enjoy chatting, it's difficult for any group to make any eye contact while sharing a conversation. Maybe it's okay, though. Conversations usually jump start in the lounge car and become sporadic.
Jack went to stretch his legs. Yoli returned to the coach section to take a nap before we got to the more appreciable scenery. I read for a bit, until I noticed we were passing through the beginning of the Sierre Nevada. I returned to coach to get Yoli. She'd curled up in our two chairs with a blanket over her. But she returned a bit groggily to the lounge. Over the next hour or so, Jack returned, and we were joined by a couple in their late thirties who turned out to be from Cedar Rapids Iowa. Also, there was an older man, mostly balding, whose job it was to point out the various natural sights we'd see. I don't know if he were simply a retired naturalist that Amtrak had hired or what, but he did a good job of pointing things out. He let us know when the Zephyr was about to cross a long trestle over a deep ravine. Passengers started filling the car now, some practically pressing their faces against the glass to look down. The pine-covered mountains into which we were penetrating began to surround us, and it wasn't long before we reached American River Canyon. "Ooh"s and "Ah"s filled the lounge as we could see 2000 feet down into a valley. There were areas of bare rock and slag, which were around old gold mines, according to the naturalist.
A highlight for most of the passengers had to be Donner Lake. After passing through a tunnel, the Zephyr emerges at a height far above the placid, lake, which stretches for several miles, a carpet of sapphire amongst the pines. Our naturalist told the story of the Donner party, settlers who had been stranded in the mid Nineteenth Century when caught by a surprise blizzard. Most of the pioneers died during the harsh winter; those who survived did so by resorting to cannibalism. Scary thought.
Then came a series of descending plateaus. As the breathtaking views decreased, passengers began slipping back to their seats or wandering off to the diner. Towards dusk, we began passing over an area known as the Lovelock Region, considered by the pioneers to be the nastiest part of their wagon train journey. It's sheer desert for three-hundred miles, with only hills and buttes to alleviate the nothingness. To me, the vast emptiness was appealing. I like the desert, it's mysteries. As with the sea, you feel small, ephemeral, a miniscule entity floating on all of history.
The train makes a stop at Reno, Nevada, where a long white banner proudly proclaiming "Biggest Little City in the World" had been hung over one of the main streets. We had about ten minutes to walk about a dreary, dusty station in the middle of what looked to me to be a god-forsaken wasteland. "Now way I'd live here," I announced to Jack on the platform. Yoli had wandered off to buy some fruit at a stall someone had set up. To the East of the train there was nothing but brown for miles, with a few reddish-brown hillocks poking up here and there. The city itself seemed like a conglomeration of dull, dust-collecting office buildings and hotels. There was nothing remotely pleasing about the town, and I was happy when the Zephyr pulled out.
In the diner, we shared a meal with Jack and John, again delving into politics. I was elated to discover, all along the journey thus far, a great number of people were adamantly opposed to the world according to George Bush. When dealing with people in the Midwestern US, you would get the idea that here was a true leader, a man or principle who wished nothing more than to venture forth and slay dragons. Fortunately, to my way of thinking, the rest of the planet-not an inconsiderable number of human beings-disagreed with the majority of Midwesterners. "So why does George Bush single out Saddam Hussein as the world's #1 bad boy?" I asked. And plowing right ahead, I answered my own question: "Because he can't find the Al Qaeda network, so the government needs to find a scapegoat."
Jack chimed in, "And why isn't that Bush can't provide we the people, and our allies, with any evidence whatsoever that Hussein has weapons of mass destruction?"
John nodded, chewing on a bit of steak. Our waiter, an extraordinarily genial black man in his forties, came by for the fifth or sixth time to ask us about dessert. I forgot what we ordered. After awhile, and all the meals on all the trains, the four dessert offerings sort of merged into one blob of sweetness in my mind.
Yoli and I spent some time down in the lower level of the lounge car doing our usual thing: drinking tea and playing a game of Boggle. We hadn't actually brought the game along since it would have been too bulky for my backpack, and certainly wouldn't have been squeezed into Yoli's toiletries bag. So we improvised, drawing a grid of squares and quickly writing one letter in each square. From the twenty squares, a player joins letters to create words.
After awhile, in the midst of the late night serenity that envelops the train, we headed back to our coach seats. Luckily, there weren't too many passengers, so Yoli took our two seats for herself, and I grabbed the seats across the aisle. It was a fitful sleep to Salt Lake, where in the dead of night I got up to say good-bye to Jack and John. An hour or so later, the conductor woke Yoli and I about ten minutes out of Provo.
PROVO TO OMAHA
An hour before the train arrived, we were at the station. The Zephyr was late. So in the pre-dawn hours of a humid morning, we sat in the taxi van, the Columbian (named Joseph as we found out) groggily recounting his early days of marriage and living next to the railroad tracks. "I wondered why the rent was so cheap," said Joseph in that thick Columbian accent. "And then, wow, I found out at three o clock in the morning when the train roared by. Man, I thought it was an earthquake at first. Those were hard months." Then, he related a story about a man who wanted to be driven by Joseph all the way to North Carolina, promising $2,000 in cash upon arrival. "I said, 'No way, how do I know you're gonna pay?' Oh, he was weird."
The train showed up after a long wait, and it felt good to get to our sleeper. After breakfast in the diner, we just hung out in our cabin. When we did go up to the observation lounge, we were entering the Rockies. For hours we viewed the scenery, and chatted to other passengers. In Grand Junction Colorado, at a stop, Yoli bought some fresh peaches. Our car attendant was a funny black guy in his fifties, short and squat, who complained incessantly about the stupidity of Amtrak management, after I'd asked him at one of the stops.
We dined at lunch with two women, one in her forties, a businesswoman from the northwest, and a petite woman in her late sixties. The old gal was pretty silent through the meal, until we started talking about Omaha. I told the woman from Seattle that Omaha didn't have much, to which the old woman piped up, "We got nothin'" She lowered her head as if to whisper, and with a chuckle, repeated, "Nooothing!" Then she got started on a story about her sister, who was traveling with her now. "I had to push her up to her berth since they don't got no ladders, and man, I was pushin' her behind when she let out this loud fart! Oh my God! I started laughing, and then looked out into the hall to see if anyone was lookin', and oh man, she did it again!" She thought this was hysterical and kept shaking with laughter. Yoli was giggling.
In the lounge car, I met Stu, a hulking man who looked a bit like Rush Limbaugh. He was fairly conservative too, though he didn't like Bush. I met him again while he was "exercising", walking from car to car, one end of the train to the other. We chatted quite a bit throughout the evening, and he joined Yoli and I and some quiet old guy at dinner. I remember we sat at a table across from a father with three kids. He was asking all kinds of nature and science questions, like it was a quiz or something.
Around 10pm we pulled into downtown Denver. We got to disembark and hang around the station for about twenty minutes. The car attendant and I were standing next to our sleeper car along with a Finnish man and his son who were traveling around the States. The car attendant started telling this story about how he'd gotten rich working for a wealthy man, and that he had lived in Denmark for several years, and how his sons, now grown, owned Mercedes. I found it difficult to believe that a worker with Amtrak was secretly wealthy, but who knows. I think the Finnish guy was skeptical. To him and his son, this slightly weird American black man must have been pure entertainment.
Our last night on the Zephyr was the bumpiest. In my upper berth, there were a couple times when I was sure that we'd derailed. Scary stuff. But in the morning, we had breakfast in the diner just as we pulled into Lincoln's quaint little downtown station. Afterwards, we spent our last half hour in our sleeper, gazing at the cornfields of Nebraska until we began passing through industrial Omaha. Soon, the three towers of downtown Omaha came into view, and the Zephyr came to a halt, back in Omaha, Nebraska. We were home.