La Serenissima

Friday, May 21, 2010

Chicago to San Francisco on the Zephyr

This time we continue our journey across the USA by train traveling from Chicago to San Francisco on Amtrak’s Zephyr. Taking 2 days and nights, the Zephyr crosses 7 states, including Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and finally, California. It’s a 2,422 mile run.

We checked in to catch the train at around 4 in the afternoon and enjoyed relaxing in the first class lounge – comfy seats, magazines, juices, tea and coffee, TV if you’re so inclined, and good toilets. Then we rode overnight through Illinois and across the Nebraska state line.

On the first day the train winds up through the US Rockies or high sierra to Denver, Fraser Winter Park – near Aspen – and on through a great number of canyons. The US Rockies are a stunning series of mountain ranges that run all the way from Mexico to the Canadian Arctic, really quite overwhelming in their magnitude. They also proved a tough and formidable barrier for the early settlers and pioneers who strove to “go west, young man” (not to mention young woman, who toiled so hard and long each day to keep “young man” fit and able to continue).

Somewhere near Fraser, we couldn’t resist taking a picture of a wonderful red “match box “ truck – the kind small boys used to collect – snowed in at a parking lot.

On the second day we zoomed through Utah, including Salt Lake City and Reno, and then the Sierra Nevada. All the scenery is just spectacular, as you’ll see. Even a fun place called Truckee (yes, that’s right) was lovely – we spent 3 hours there whilst snow moving gear was used further up the mountain to dig a path for us!! They had an avalanche on the tracks early in the morning!

Our eyes feasted on more winter wonderland along the way on both days – just beautiful. A continuation of the visual meditation that is scenic rail travel. Wonderful for the soul.
The US landscape is different from the Canadian. In the Canadian Rockies the landscape feels more intimate because the railroad is built in narrow ravines. At times, the trees are only about 10 feet from the side of the train and you feel that you could just reach out and touch the branches and feel the cold of the snow. By contrast, the US landscape is vast and wide, with soaring volcanic rock mountains – red in colour – layered with horizontal stripes of snow and dotted with trees. It’s easy to see that such rock formations are the beginning of the Grand Canyon further south in Nevada. Along the way of course there were more snow covered pines and firs; frozen waterfalls, snow covered mountains; ski resorts and snow-blanketed little towns. 

The sunset on the snow covered landscape was truly breath taking. It looked like a translucent painting, shimmering in opalescent light. And the rocks appeared to be on fire.

Well, so much for the scenery – what of our continuing Great Train Incidents? Aahhh…… having an en suite shower in a sleeper is of course very convenient, but getting the hang of the technology (that is, if it’s working) can be challenging. I had first shower on our first morning on the Zephyr. Now, Julian had said to me to run the hot water in the hand basin to make sure it was pumped through, but, well, I forgot didn’t I? I got into the shower which had a single water lever with hot and cold clearly marked (blue to the left, red to the right). So I confidently set it into the red, but not all the way (didn’t want to scald myself) and pressed the button that turned on the water. I didn’t point the water on the bod, as I knew it would take a few seconds to warm up …  Well, after a minute or so, it wasn’t getting any warmer, so I put it full on hot. If anything it got colder, so much so that the tap fitting itself began to ice up!! I proceeded to soap up and flick freezing water onto bits of me that are better not to be mentioned in this epistle (it’s PG after all). When I flung open the door to grab my towel, I was only a pale shade of blue and Julian enquired merrily “How was the shower?” I told him what had happened. “Why didn’t you call out? Obviously there’s a problem with the fitting – maybe it’s installed upside down” (Hmmff – I hate it when there’s an obvious explanation that has eluded me….) Yes, sure enough, blue meant hot in our shower and red meant cold. Suffice to say Julian had a great shower – even steam he said!! … I cleaned my teeth and kept a low profile … meanwhile, the view outside continued to inspire …

On day 2 I thought I was an expert. Ran the water in the hand basin; set the dial to blue, pressed the button. Nada. We were stopped and the engineers in their wisdom were changing engines, so all power was off!! After about 15 minutes (seemed a lot longer) we were in business and I did in fact have a great shower – at last!!

Julian followed me and got so carried away with the shower that he washed his hair. At the same time, I was getting dressed etc and to ensure there was no unnecessary baggage in the floor space, I put my bag back up on the shelf. Alas, the hair dryer was in it. Julian wasn’t of a mind to wrestle the bag down (and wasn’t exactly thrilled that I had been so organised with the dryer), so we used umpteen towels to dry the hair … Perhaps more photos would be good right now?

The point of all this hurrying was to get to breakfast; so here we were showered etc and good to go… that was until we tried to slide our door open. Sadly, the lock mechanism had slipped shut too far and was jamming. So, in essence, we were locked in!! I pressed the emergency button several times to no avail (we learned later that our attendant was at breakfast himself). Julian was doing much pushing and shoving with the door (and swearing quite a lot by now) when we noticed one of the other crew go past. Lots of banging and yelling followed to get his attention and it worked! He came rushing back and we told him the problem. He said, “No problem, I’ll just get a tool”. Seconds later he arrived with a crow bar! There was a lot of lifting and bashing (I was convinced Julian would loose several fingers) but – voila, the door sprang open and we sprang off to brekky!!

Describing the Zephyr would not be complete without saying something about the Sightseer lounge/café bar. A very enterprising and personable crew member named Cammy operated it. She would come through the intercom every so often…you have to read this with a Southern accent  “Hi, this is Cammy from the café car. I have some real great specials for you today – cinnamon cookies, apple muffins, nachos with spicy dips, coffee or if you prefer something a little stronger, beers, spirits and sodas to mix. So why don’t you stop by and say hi. I’ll be here waiting for you…” Needless to say, Cammy did a roaring trade … and, by the way, the Sightseer Lounge was a great spot for viewing and taking photos. Individual swivel chairs offered comfort and ease to take in the views on both sides of the train. And, of course … you could get a beverage to go from Cammy – what else did a person need?

Traveling on the trains in Canada and the US was really something; very relaxing and the scenery was majestic and mesmerizing – a visual meditation. 

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