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Posts Tagged ‘California Zephyr’

I’m not sure where to begin. Or in this case to end. Though the fact of the matter is that this journey is only half over. In less than three days I board Amtak’s California Zephyr for the return trip to Chicago.

First and foremost I have to commend Amtrak employees. Despite everything these folks go through on a daily basis, from bumpy rides, to tight quarters, to chronic delays, to having to inspect the train’s undercarriage in complete darkness in a Utah canyon, they remained upbeat, positive and never once scowled at daily adversity. Hats off to all of them.

It wasn’t long after departing Denver that our ascent into the Rockies became the magnificent sight most everyone aboard paid to see. While there wasn’t much snow, the amazing vistas, the s-curved winding tracks and the rocky canyons brought clicking cameras in virtually every window. The observation car filled, as were the narrow aisles of the sleeping cars.

Having visited the site of the Golden Spike and having read about the great lengths it took to connect the nation by rail, one can’t fully appreciate the work it took to build this until actually riding the rails. In terrain that is utterly and amazingly beautiful but utterly and amazingly unfit for human labor, these tracks were laid with precision and determination. Sides of mountains were blasted, tunnels were carved, land was graded and most all of it by human hand. These tracks, this route must certainly be one of the great American achievements.

The train’s engineer came on the PA system to tell us that we’d soon be entering Moffat Tunnel, a six-mile long tunnel that would take us over, or in this case through, the Continental Divide. We were told to stay in our respective cars because the doors between cars would have to remain closed in order to prevent the intake of exhaust from the train’s engines. Elevation; 9,239 feet.

From this point on the train began its descent. For hours the train descended into evermore narrowing canyons until at one point, it seemed as if we were descending into the very center of the earth. Layers of geological time carved away for the narrow track, such that had the windows opened I could have leaned out and touched prehistoric time.

At one point the train slowed to a crawl. The engineer told us that track sensors indicated a potential rock slide ahead. This canyon is lined with an electronic fence of sorts that triggers a warning system when something, be it a rock, a branch or an animal comes into contact with it. His eyes would be the first witness to whatever may have tripped the warning signals on this single line of track.

We passed through without incident but had their been something on the track, rocks or otherwise, Amtrak’s personnel would have had to attempt to clear it. There was no other track and no other way for the arrival of assistance.

Night fell in western Colorado and while I had thought I had seen the darkest skies ever over Iowa, I soon discovered otherwise. I dozed off after dinner and awoke to a narrow view the stars above.

In a canyon between Helper and Spanish Fork, Utah, the train stopped suddenly such that boxes tumbled to the floor and the steel wheels sounded as if they were skidding against the rails beneath them. While I have no idea how jumping a track may sound or feel, this is what I thought it might be like. The train was still upright so we hadn’t derailed but we were stopped in complete and utter darkness. The train’s electricity went out and from my window I could see only the dim rays of flashlights moving under my car.

For a good thirty minutes I watched and listened, but couldn’t see or hear anything other than shadows being emitted from under my car. Because most people were sleeping, or had been prior to the sudden stop, no announcements were made as to what had happened. Amtrak’s staff was obviously under the train inspecting something.

Eventually we were back in motion and on the relatively flat surfaces of Utah County headed northbound through Provo and into Salt Lake City. At 3:00 am the train arrived at Salt Lake’s new intermodal station where light rail, commuter rail and Amtrak converge. On the opposite track, the eastbound California Zephyr prepared for departure.

Initially pissed off at being four hours late, I realized that on a journey this far, though so many adverse geographical conditions, four hours isn’t that bad. I wouldn’t want to have to depend on this schedule, but I imagined how little four hours must have been to the thousands of people who once traveled across a country on a journey that at one time could have only been accomplished on foot. The fact that a nation once made this a priority is truly remarkable.

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On Wednesday the 18th I begin a day and a half journey that I’ve been waiting years to experience.  It’s said to be one of the most beautiful American journeys, particularly during the winter months.  It is the Amtrak ride through the Rockies to Salt Lake City.

The trip is scheduled for thirty-four hours each way.  By Thursday morning at 7am the train is scheduled to arrive in Denver.  After an hour in Denver the train begins its ascent into the Rockies and arrives fourteen hours later in Salt Lake City.  Only half of this portion of the trip will be during the daylight hours, and I intend to be glued to the windows, either of my room or in the observation car.  I suspect there will be plenty of competition for seating in the observation car.

I’ve reserved a sleeper car for the trip, paid for with Amtrak points I accumulated during my commutes to and from Ohio prior to the move to Chicago.  While Amtrak’s coach-class seating is ample for a journey such as this, and very reasonably priced, being able to sleep in a bed and having access to showers and complimentary meals in the dining car seemed to be a more comfortable way to go about the journey.

I’ll attempt live updates from the train, be that on the blog or via Twitter.  Data coverage will be spotty at best as this segment of Amtrak does not offer Wi-Fi service.  I look forward to sharing this trip with you.

Photo by Ann Owens

The entire trip will be completed with the use of public transportation.  From my flat in Chicago I’ll travel by bus to Union Station, board the train and once in Salt Lake City I’ll have access to the Utah Transit Authority’s buses and trains.

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