“Take your time like a turtle… and you will see more.”
Before the Journey
A few years ago, I wanted to take the train to travel in the United States but hesitated. In the U.S., the train is not as popular as in Asia and Europe. I was curious about the difference. I have been used to traveling by airplane and car in this country. Now, the train calls me again. Train travel might give me a new perspective and different way to see things and life. I decide to take the California Zephyr route, which is operated by Amtrak, a total of 2,438 miles, a 52 hour adventure, departing from Chicago, across seven states: Illinois- Iowa – Nebraska – Colorado -Utah – Nevada – California, with 33 stops, terminal at Emeryville, California, then take a connecting bus to San Francisco.
Looking back the history of the California Zephyr, the service began on March 20, 1949. It offered dining experiences with lines and china; from the elegant staterooms complete with bathrooms, showers and bedrooms to the cozier “roomettes”. The Vista Dome affords unobstructed panoramic views of the great scenic West. By 1970, heavy federal investment in the Interstate Highway System and aviation technology had strained many railroads’ ability to privately fund passenger trains. The Zephyr made its last run on March 22, 1970. In 1983, Amtrak took over the train and offers passenger service daily. (If you are interested in learning more information of the Zephyr, please find it here).
The Zephyr itself experienced a long journey, giving me a deep overview of the American railroad. I carried on an adventurous soul and was open minded to start a long-distance westbound journey on April 25, 2023, to perhaps transport me back to that era.
About my “moving” home
Onboard the train, I gazed out the window, the city skyline disappeared slowly. I was like a curious kid, glimpsing the train inside: from my cozy roomette to other passengers’ roomettes, then rest areas and bathroom at the lower level. On the upper level, I observed each detail of the bedroom suites and family bedrooms, and I walked through the dining car, observation car and coach car. With the motion of the moving train, sometimes I cannot stand still.
I “lived” in a moving home. The endless houses and old factories passed by the window. My roomette was transformed to an office, I worked and had a meeting when the train passed by the Mississippi River in Illinois and Iowa, with a soft sunset light reflected on the desk. Wow!
My furniture transformed into a bed at night. I slept on the train, the sound of the train whistled and grinding along rusty rails. I woke up due to the strong train motion, like an “earthquake”, the train swinging. I half opened my eyes, did not know where I were at all, sometimes seeing the weak lights moving and heard the melodious sound “Hoot” “Hoot” vaguely. I only had a light sleep onboard the first night.
I listened to music, connected to this “moving” home and “lost” in the vast lands with endless unique landscapes, daydreaming quietly. It was very relaxing and I was in no rush at all.
The hot shower onboard was as luxury a “gift” as the long train ride. I got a refreshing shower in an only 8 feet wide and 10 feet long mini room. Ha. The bathroom can “move” too, so fun.
The moving “home” is on the tracks, day and night.
About the history and spectacular scenery
“How did pioneers immigrate West before train travel was so prevalent in the U.S.?” The question floated in my mind. The train was crossing through the plains of Nebraska.
The time zone was one hour behind the Midwest when I woke up the next day. The train was heading to Denver’s Union Station, Colorado. I debarked briefly for “fresh-air”, like a happy kid, running to the front of the train along with the mist and cold air, each detail of train delivering the long history of railroad in the U.S.
The Denver’s historic Union Station building with the open-air train hall showed me appreciation for rail history and the power of transit-oriented urban design. It is a Beaux Arts masterpiece located on the edge of the city’s central business district. The station was transformed into a major regional transportation hub: adding commuter and intercity rail, bicycle and bus routes and pedestrian pathways into an intuitive intermodal hub, the new elements of design make it more functional and efficient.
The train was moving slowly again. It climbed up the majestic Rocky Mountains, one of the most scenic landscapes of the Zephyr route. I was transported to a magic white snowy world immediately, the wind kicked up a flurry of snow, sweeping the massive mountain and I can feel through the observation car with floor-to-ceiling windows.
The epic sight and the experience on the train were totally different from traveling by plane or car. With nonstop twists and turns, sprawling mountain vistas and endless dizzying array of tunnels, the train followed the rail and kept climbing the mountain terrain. I lost count of tunnels along the journey….
Hey, I just passed through the famous Moffat Tunnel, which passes under the continental divide. Named for railroad pioneer David Moffat, who designed this exactly 6.2 miles long difficult route 120 years ago, it carries pipes that provide drinking water for Denver, too. I dreamt in this tunnel in the darkness.
We kept moving, the breathtaking scenery changed as the day progressed. It was slithering along the sheer rock walls of Gore and Byers Canyons, while the roiling Colorado rushes past more than 100 feet below, I looked ahead where the tunnels in a row cling to the cliffside, I glanced down to see the Colorado river during my lunch time.
My time slowed down completely. I saw red color rocks; I saw my good-luck charm deer again that cheerfully appeared for my adventure.
Around 4:50 PM, the Zephyr ran along a range of arid hills at the edge of an open plain, the familiar Utah’s buttes and mesas passed. I knew I was in the wild west.
I sat next to the window and witnessed the spacious lands and vehicles moving parallel with the speed of the train, the intoxicating freedom of a sort that I have felt almost nowhere else in life.
Unexpectedly, the train stopped for more than 30 minutes, and the conductor said the arrival time at Salt Lake City would delay to midnight. I did not feel nervous and continued to enjoy the tasty dinner with others. It was a rare experience in modern America.
I entered another time zone, one more hour behind again, when I woke up next. I saw the change of sky from dawn to a blood orange sun blazing with the “moving” bed, the barren and baking landscape I had rarely seen in life, as we crossed the Nevada desert horizon.
We arrived in California and came to the Truckee station, another scenic treat in store awaited. The train climbed high into the fir-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada, passed the Donner Lake and headed through the Donner Pass. I thought about the history of the Donner Party, a group of American pioneers who migrated to California in a wagon train from the Midwest, they spent the winter of 1846-47 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada, some of them resorting to cannibalism to survive.
Around noon, the full forests on the mountains appeared in front of us, and the scene still stays in my mind. The train brought me to central California. The train makes its way toward to San Francisco.
About the passengers
I felt almost unplugged with precious little cell service, I slowed down and had a chance to meet and talk with other passengers. I was curious why others decided to take such a long train ride. Are their reasons the same as mine? I got many interesting answers from them, and helped me to understand their journey better.
- “I want a different way to see my country”.
- “For fun! We do not want to take a long drive cross-country, even though flight is the fastest, but you do not have time to meet and talk with people”.
- “The name of Zephyr is like a west wind blaze the train moving. I want to see the specular scenery and history by the wind”.
- “I came from Denver and will get off at Salt Lake City, then explore and get back on the train to my next destination, using the train to complete my cross-country travel”.
- “The views I never saw by train”.
- “I was from Boston, but I did not want to take the whole trip from East to West, so I took half from Chicago to San Francisco”.
- “It is my vacation; I am from London. It is totally different from UK”.
Different aged group of people have different reason and needs about their rail travels.
“For adventure!” This surprising answer I heard from a humble old lady, Shirley, 96 years old, who I met at the same table in the dining car. She was a school nurse and completed many adventures in life. At her senior age, she cannot drive, or stop and see things and explore as fast as young people, so she decided to take the Zephyr journey by herself, seeing different scenery and enjoying the food. This impressive lady and her courage touched my heart deeply. She shared her family life and travel story to me. Her son will meet and pick her up at the terminal. We smiled again. I know it is her adventure!
I am thinking, if I were 90 years old, if I still would have enough courage like her to do the thing I want? I have no answer at this time.
I met some Amish people who are known for simple living, plain dress, Christian pacifism and slowness to adopt modern technologies, still maintaining self-sufficiency. I started to understand why the rail travel might be their preference. I can feel the satisfaction from their faces and conversation.
I walked through the coach car back and forth. I glimpsed another side of life I never saw: For some passengers, due to limited budget, taking the train is the most reasonable way for travel and commute to other places. Some just take a short trip, exit the platform somewhere; due to the sleeper cars sold out, some have to stay overnight at the coach. There has few people with weird behavior and mental challenges. I might disagree with them, but I do not have their perspectives and past experiences. Please be open to all.
Travel by rail is heaven for the train lover. I met another impressive guy, Dave, with a cowboy style. He is from the Midwest. He told me: when he was young, his mom gave a “toy train” as a Christmas gift, and he has kept a passion with train and engineering, and he worked at Amtrack for more than 40 years. He shared the highlights and rail history of each route in the North America with me.
He said the train has a special meaning for him, if he does not rush, he will take the train for travel, even most routes he took multiple times already and the scenery is the same, but the weather and people can change each time.
The train like a mini-life, different people with different background are on the same journey in a short period. I was experiencing life, too.
I “lost” myself in the conversation with other passengers. Oh, the train has reached the Bay Area, and for a short stretch approaching Oakland it runs alongside the glistening waters. It is a sense of elation that airline passengers will never know.
Fifty minutes behind schedule; the Zephyr pulled into Emeryville, finally. I actually have done it! I’ve crossed country by train! Woohoo!
At the terminal, I witness the best moment in this journey: the impressive 96-year-old lady met with her son, a 70 year-old man. Standing by his mom, the 70-year-old man still looks like a “little boy”, silently, unparalleled. I was glad to capture it, making my adventure more special.
The family bound connection always happens on the station. A son greets the train to meet with his mom at Grand Junction, Colorado, then traveled to California together.
It is about a family adventure too.
It is not a destination; it is about the journey itself.
My attitude and perspective changes. I felt nervous when my train was delayed departing Chicago Union Station, till I was onboard, and my pace and time slowed down. I got used to the train motion and accepted the delay would happen, and took time to immerse myself to enjoy the whole journey. I think the difference of train travel is that it is more like an experience in the U.S., but more functional in Asia and Europe. Compared to a long flight, taking a long train does require more patience and flexibility. It is more the journey itself.
In today’s culture, we often try to push things into order when they aren’t happening on our timeframe. I find myself doing that from time to time, too. But l learned, taking the train should take time, you cannot rush, don’t have anything important planned for the day of your arrival, otherwise you would feel very nervous, delays always happen. Like our life, sometimes we need to take time like a turtle, and you will see more things. If you have time, I would recommend you to take the train once, enjoy the long journey itself.
Thanks for another incredible adventure again! Now a 53 hour (including 1 hour delayed) cross-country train journey is in the books! The journey itself was an amazing adventure already. It was not just an adventure, but also about American history, railroad, train operation, scenery, life experience, people and … family too.