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The California Zephyr: Amtrak Trip Outtakes

The Coast Starlight charges through the mountains

It is 11 a.m. and the sun barely skirts the mountain top, striking the aspens bright yellow. The poplars are golden against the dusky lodgepole pine. The train is moving slowly, yet again, as the tracks follow a cliff’s edge, with a creek tumbling far below.

Image by Ray Miller from Pixabay

The California Zephyr is making its way across the Rockies from Denver to Sacramento. We soon enter Glenwood Canyon.

“Is there wi-fi?” a newbie rider asks the conductor strolling through the train.

“Look out the window! That’s your wi-fi,” the conductor responds.

After barren stretches of Utah, north of Arches and Canyonlands, we enter northern California and the Sierra Nevada where the train climbs almost to the ridgeline. The magic of riding the train is it goes through the mountains without highways. Our train is in and out of tunnels, as it was across the Rockies.

The sad truth is I am almost wearying of all the lovely landscapes and return to a paperback book I might finish.


The people on Amtrak have been interesting and varied by region. Across North Dakota and small-town Minnesota, many Hutterites and Amish boarded the train, heading, I presume, to distant friends and families.

The Amish can travel by bus and train, but airplane travel is too modern. When I had a cabin in Amish country in the Midwest, I was amused by the rules of what was modern and what was not, what was allowed and what was not.

The traveling Amish families are large, with three generations. A Hutterite woman is probably my age; her neat gray hair is pulled back in a bun beneath her starched white bonnet cap, and we smile warmly at each other.

She contrasts with the many-tatted and pierced young man with ripped jeans she passes on the train.

The Chicago to Denver leg of the trip is a packed car. I share my seat with an elderly black man, who is very kind. I fell before I got on this train, and my knees are sore. He is solicitous and offers to share his small sandwich, later insisting I switch seats so I can lean against the window. Despite the jolting ride, I sleep for a few hours.

Four brassy women get on our car in Reno, Nevada. (Why is that no surprise?) They appear to be retired friends, one a grandmother with her adult daughter, beautifully made up with artificial eyelashes and carefully applied color on pale cheeks, and the granddaughter, about nine years old.

The granddaughter quickly makes friends with two other nine-year-old girls, with black hair in long corn-rowed plaits. The three girls make the rounds of all the cars, front to end, upstairs and down, going to the snack bar to refresh their Skittles and chips.

The women head to the lounge car/viewing car at about noon for their first cocktail. A few hours later, they are back, loudly gesticulating and announcing they’ve been thrown out of the lounge for being disruptive.

Why is that no surprise?

A young man several seats behind me is loudly discussing his intimate relationship on a cell phone and a passing conductor reminds him “Language, this is a family car,” which causes him to whisper for a couple of minutes until the conductor is on to the next car. I learn his girlfriend is “hot but crazy.”

The train staff is almost uniformly upbeat and kind, even though the announcements make no sense. “Chicago passengers, the train is two hours late. Some of you have missed connections. Since the marathon is this weekend, almost all hotels are full.”

Hmm. Factual, but not helpful.

Garbage and Graffiti

The railroad tracks are treated as out-of-site, out-of-mind dumps for townships and even for large stretches of grazing land. Old mattresses, bottles, and rotting furniture is discarded close to the railroads. I don’t know why.

Graffiti is everywhere in the corners of this nation. Highway stanchions that cross railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere sport graffiti.

The box cars of freight trains flash graffiti across the country.

The warehouses that line the side tracks to load the goods on freight cars are painted with pictures, common cuss words, and stick figures.

In even small cities, fences below the highway sight line and within hailing distance of the trains host homeless tents and encampments. In one major city with many elevated highways crossing railroad lines, each underpass is a shelter for makeshift lean-tos and other make-do housing.

When did we become a nation of the houseless? Shunted people off to the waysides, the underpasses, the no-man’s-lands, unclaimed plots of “public” lands?

Train Ties and Train Whistles

Track maintenance and track repair are ongoing. I see varied ties stacked at construction sites and remember an ancient federal request-for-proposals (in one job, I had to scan the federal register) for railroad tie materials, an experiment to identify the best materials.

I discovered that railroad ties can be made of varied woods preserved in creosote; concrete, plastic composite, or metal. Each type of tie has advantages based on altitude, rainy or dry climate, etc. Wood is most commonly used, but some other materials last longer. Some materials are inter-spaced at regular intervals.

I also listened to that train whistle interminably. It seemed to me it shifted, with trains, from a minor chord to a major chord. In looking at various websites (there are train chord horn nerds), it appears that the older version was a 4-horn minor chord which is now a 4-horn major chord, to have a more “upbeat” sound. The horn is supposed to be sounded at all railroad crossings, although particular cities have asked for noise abatement, no horns at night. Since I live within night-time hearing distance of the train horn, I can tell you that rule is widely disregarded.

The wildfire and drought

Some stream beds in the Sierra Nevada and the southern Oregon Cascades are very low or completely dry. I have seen the red on drought maps for this region, but the reality is still startling. Some forests have many evergreen trees tinged with brown.

As we pass through the Cedar Creek wildfire, the conductor announces the air exchange system will be turned off for an hour. Active flames are burning in the understory, the duff, the dried pine needles, and forest floor detritus. In some areas, the trees are torched, and black spears have fallen or still point skyward. In other areas, the trunks of the trees are scorched about six feet, but the branches are green and it looks like the trees will survive.

Amtrak is a unique way to see and appreciate the vastness and differences in our country. I wish it were managed and operated well, like European train systems. It is not a reliable way to get from Point A to Point B by a certain time.

For a retiree, like me, with no in-stone timetable, it is a cheap way to see the country. On the other hand, for retirees like me (and many gray-haired people with stiff joints after sitting so long nodded to each other), the stairs are steep, the long sitting difficult, and the assistance at stops almost non-existent, but for fellow passengers.

What are my takeaways? We are a vast, interesting country. We have varied peoples and regions. Most people are very kind, especially strangers in passing.

While our problems are stark, optimism is also on display.

And I love sleeping in my own bed.

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3 Responses

  1. Keta McCarthy
    | Reply

    Very much enjoyed reading about your memorable trip

  2. SingingFrogPress
    | Reply

    Just wonderful Sharon, I love the portrait you’ve woven of all the people you saw and met and all the places you passed by. and I’m happy you’re safely home.

  3. Patty Wilder
    | Reply

    Love hearing of your travels Sharon! I love riding the train as well, though my memory of riding in my youth exceeds current conditions on trains. Back in prior times, linen table cloths and the special dinnerware that each railroad commissioned was part of the specialness of the trips. I learned to play blackjack from an older gentleman on the coach car along with my brother. It still is a great way to see the world and to get a glimpse of humankind. Thanks for sharing!

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