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ZEPHYR

TWENTY YEARS AGO, in 1991 and 1992, I rode the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco Bay and back sixteen times to research my book Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America, published in hardcover in 1994.

Just last week an ebook version with new photographs and a new epilogue bringing everything up to date appeared in Kindle and Nook formats. (For full details, see my website.)

Of course, to update the book it was necessary to ride the train once again (my 24th or 25th trip; I lost count long ago) to refresh all the important facts and stories, as well as to get some new pictures.

And so last March 19 Debby and I, cameras in hand, set off on still another railroad journey I never get tired of despite its familiarity.

Our first leg on the Zephyr was the 22-hour jaunt from Chicago to Denver and Glenwood Springs, Colorado. We arrived at Chicago Union Station in plenty of time for me to capture a few images of it.


Chicago Union Station headhouse

The headhouse at Chicago Union Station, eastern embarkation point for the California Zephyr.


Great Hall at Chicago Union Station

The Great Hall of Chicago Union Station, one of the grandest public spaces in the nation.

Once we boarded the Zephyr, the first thing I checked was the quality of the on-board service. It can be spotty, but on this part of the trip the crew was uniformly excellent. Amtrak has been trying hard to upgrade its service standards, and the effort seems to be working, for the most part.

We had the good luck to meet Isaac Heath, brother of Bob, the sleeper attendant celebrated in Zephyr. Isaac, himself a "Train Attendant/Sleeper," in official railroad terminology, is a genial, hardworking man of rich humor, announcing on the PA as we left Chicago at 2 p.m. that he was "Isaac, like Isaac of the Love Boat, except this is the Love Train."

He seemed to be everywhere, often sticking his head in the bedrooms to ask if anyone needed anything, chatting gaily with passengers at smoking stops, and keeping the bathrooms spotless. He told us Bob had won an Amtrak President's Award, the railroad's most coveted internal prize. Isaac deserves one, too.

When we asked Isaac about Reggie Howard, one of the few Amtrak on-board crew I hadn't yet been able to locate for the update of Zephyr, he said he'd find him for us. An hour later Isaac appeared in the door of our roomette and handed his cell phone to Debby, announcing, "It's Reggie!"

Debby told Reggie of my enterprise and he seemed enthusiastic about it. "People are always asking me about that book," he said. "Just recently a passenger handed me his copy and asked me to autograph it."

Later in the evening a coach attendant came by and stuck his head in the door. "I just wanted to shake your hand," he said. "Thank you for that book." Now that's the way to make a writer feel good.


Farm near Kewanee, Illinois

The scenery during the first afternoon and evening  is comparatively boring, for the most part. This bucolic scene appeared near Kewanee in central Illinois.

Station at Galesburg, Illinois

The Zephyr reaches Galesburg late in the afternoon. The station is the building at right.

It was an uncharacteristically restless night for me—I'd had too much dinner (Amtrak's on-board cuisine has improved greatly in the last few years) and that made itself known. Debby didn't sleep well, either, and we were both up and in the lounge car an hour before breakfast at 6 a.m. Mountain Time.

Our dinner companion the night before had been a young Irishman, a Cantabrigian studying for a doctorate in Russian literature at Northwestern, and he and Debby (a retired teacher and librarian) engaged in a merry international trashing of "mollycoddled" young American students who won't "step up to the plate" because hovering parents have hindered their intellectual aggressiveness.

Our companions at breakfast were a widely traveled couple from New Jersey heading for California to visit their children. Like so many we have met on the train, they were rail lovers and we exchanged information on the best North American trains.

This communal seating in the dining car is one of the best aspects of long-distance train travel. One meets interesting new folks from all over the world, people with lively stories to tell. From time to time one also encounters disagreeable people, but that is thankfully rare.

On this trip we heard a surprising number of assertions that the assertee was traveling in order to experience as much as possible before the End of the World arrived later this year, as seems to be regularly foretold. This is odd, because nothing about a train trip suggests the Apocalypse. But one meets all kinds, and one must tolerate them.

Exterior of the temporary station at Denver

The temporary Amtrak station at Denver lies across a busy street from the platform.

We arrived at Denver at 7:40 a.m., 25 minutes late, and after peering about the temporary station there, quickly claimed our spots on the right side of the lounge car for the long pull up to the Moffat Tunnel.

Denver's historic Union Station is shuttered until 2014 while the area is being rebuilt into a huge transportation center. There is a well-constructed platform near the old station, but the concrete-block-moderne temporary Amtrak depot lies across a busy thoroughfare passengers have to negotiate with the help of traffic lights.

As always, the scenery through the Rockies was unbeatable, full of rushing rivers, beetling cliffs and snowy peaks. It was fun to hear newbie travelers in the lounge car gasp and point every time a spectacular new scene appeared from around the bend.

Coal cars on the Big Ten Curve

Coal hoppers are permanently anchored around the "Big Ten" Curve climbing up the front stoop of the Rockies outside Denver. They protect passing high rail cars from stiff winds.

Tunnel 1

Tunnel No. 1 on the Front Range, the first of many, many tunnels on the old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway (now Union Pacific) line across Colorado.

Fraser station

The Zephyr calls at Fraser, the stop for the Winter Park ski area that serves Denver.

Byers Canyon

Byers Canyon, the first of three breathtaking gorges in east central Colorado. (This is the view from the vestibule of the last sleeper of an eastbound Zephyr, as are the next two photos.)

Gore Canyon

The Colorado River drops precipitously as it and the Zephyr traverse spiky Gore Canyon.

Little Gore Canyon

Little Gore Canyon is a short gorge lying several miles west of its big brother, Gore Canyon.

Rancho Starvo

The aptly named Rancho Starvo lies in grazing country on the Dotsero Cutoff, which links two historic rail lines, the old Moffat Road and the old Denver & Rio Grande Western.

No. 5 and No. 6 meet

No. 5 meets an hour-late No. 6 in Glenwood Canyon as Interstate 70 soars over the tracks.

Glenwood Canyon station looking west.

An eastbound Zephyr stops for a smoking break at Glenwood Springs, a family-oriented tourist town.

The beefburger at lunch wasn't terribly good. In the past Amtrak burgers have been unbeatable, but evidently the specifications have changed, or the patties are pre-grilled off the train and reheated aboard. The result is all right, but only all right, and I was disappointed.

We detrained at Glenwood Springs on time at 1:40 p.m, giving the smoke breakers and sunshine lovers 13 minutes at trainside before No. 5 headed west again.

I have to say that this overnight trip ranks with the top five or six Amtrak journeys I've taken in the last 20 years.

In years past we have stayed at the Hot Springs Lodge hard by the thermal pools, but this time we chose the Hotel Denver, an elderly but well-kept pile just across the street from the station. Our room, facing the tracks, was huge and well-appointed, and the hotel offered us a $5 "green" voucher at the attached Glenwood Canyon Brewpub for every day we chose not to have housekeeping tidy up the room and change our towels.

Glenwood Springs station and the Hotel Denver

The Hotel Denver lies right across the street in back of the Glenwood Springs station.

Hotel Denver room looking east,

Hotel Denver room looking west

Two views of our room in the convenient Hotel Denver. The red roof of the station is visible through the window.

Glenwood Springs has expanded a great deal since we began visiting there in the early 1990s. Fueled by tourism, the population has grown by 30 per cent. New hotels, chain motels and restaurants have popped up in and outside town.

A huge family-oriented "adventure park" with bungee jumping, an alpine coaster ride and a giant swing over the canyon, as well as cave tours, opened in 2003 and lies a cable car ride up Iron Mountain from the Glenwood Springs valley. There's an enormous lot more to do in that town today than skiing, river rafting and soaking in the hot springs pool, the mainstays of recreation 20 years ago.

So much so, in fact, that there's now a free shuttle bus that runs through the entire town. Unless you're interested in visiting points well out of town, there's no need to rent a car. We were told, however, that the "free" is disappearing soon, thanks to rising fuel prices. The fare will be $1 a ride.

View of Glenwood Springs from Iron Mountain

Glenwood Springs from the top of Iron Mountain, reachable by cable car.

The place retains the raffish frontier charm I had found in the early 1990s, however, thanks to dozens of tattoo parlors downtown that serve the Pierced and Illustrated Generation, and to several medical marijuana emporiums ("OUR MEDS ARE SO STRONG MONKEYS STOP THROWING THEIR POO"). That surely sounds therapeutic.

*  *  *

It's too much to expect every train trip to be superb all the way from bumper post to bumper post, and the second leg of our Chicago-to-San Francisco Bay adventure proved that.

When we boarded the westbound Zephyr in Glenwood Springs on March 23, it was a little more than an hour late, thanks to heavy freight traffic on the old D&RGW (now Union Pacific) line up from Denver. Our sleeper attendant, a fiftyish woman, seemed out of sorts. Instead of helping us muscle our bags on board, she winced and grasped the small of her back. The attendant for the other sleeper, however, dashed down to lend a hand.

A couple in our bedroom had debarked at Glenwood Springs, so our room wasn't ready for us. We deposited our bags in the room and headed for the lounge car while Bedroom B was made up. I stopped back a little too soon and the attendant from the other car was just finishing the tidying.

At dinner the salads were limp and warm, evidence of having sat in the galley too long. The chicken, however, was fine—tender and moist. In years past I'd avoided chicken entrees because they tended to dry out on the steam table. Debby did say the barbecued ribs, so good on the way out, tasted dry.

The diner crew did not seem quite as polished as that on the previous leg—there was an overly long time lag between being seated and our orders taken—but our waiter was friendly and remembered who among the four at the table got what entree without having to ask. That's a rare talent even in an upscale restaurant these days.

Near Grand Junction

The high bluffs of a giant mesa just east of Grand Junction in western Colorado. The place is famous for its fruits and vegetables, including grapes.

Grand Junction station

Grand Junction is a crew change and smoking stop. This is the old D&RGW station, now a boarded-up ruin. The Amtrak depot is visible in the distance.

Ruby Canyon

Ruby Canyon, west of Grand Junction at the Colorado/Utah line, is breathtaking.

Eastern Utah

Agate siding in the great forlorn desert expanse of eastern Utah.

When Debby asked the sleeper attendant that evening for more bottled water—a perk for passengers with beds—she said she had only a few left and had ten people getting on at Salt Lake City. She gave Debby the water, though, and she made up the room for the night when we asked. Slowly and painfully.

We were up at 6 a.m. as the train left Winnemucca, Nevada, and at breakfast by 6:30. The diner crew again seemed a little lackadaisical, but our waiter was again cheery and said in answer to my question that the buttermilk pancakes (excellent!) were griddled on board, not off the train and then nuked. The first cup of coffee tasted as if it had lain at the bottom of the pot all night long, but the second was fresh.

A full hour after we rang for the sleeper attendant I decided to put the beds back up myself and she arrived just as I was finishing. "I've got 44 beds to do," she said without apology, and stuck fresh sheets in the upper bunk. "I'll make up the room while you're at lunch." (She never did.)

A little later we heard the attendant from the other sleeper saying to a passenger in the neighboring bedroom, "I know you're angry, ma'am, but I'd like you to meditate on this: Sometimes things and people are not the way you want them to be, and you just have to learn to accept it." We suspected that had to do with our attendant.

It was obvious that she was cursed with a bad back (I am a fellow sufferer) and the full load in her car simply had overwhelmed her. The sleeper attendant job is tough and physically demanding, and sometimes those who work in it are unwilling or incapable of stepping up to the plate. In this case it was clearly the latter, because the attendant from the other sleeper was trying to cover for her. He was extraordinarily busy and efficient while working both cars.

Just before we arrived at Emeryville our attendant told us she was taking early retirement at age 60 in June. Now we knew. She was just hanging in there until then, with her crewmates doing the best they could to help. I have often heard that Amtrak service crew members treat each other like family, and in this case I believe it.

All the same, I wish there had been a better solution for this situation. Sleeping cars are expensive and passengers have expectations.

East of Lovelock, Nevada

A westbound Union Pacific freight stops on a siding near Lovelock, Nevada, as an eastbound Zephyr passes it early in the morning.

Truckee River east of Reno

Hints of the Sierra: Evergreen trees along the Truckee River a few miles east of Reno.

Reno station

The city of Reno, worried about long freights blocking emergency vehicles on its cross streets, made the Union Pacific depress its main line 14 feet below street level. Zephyr passengers can use the smoking break to go up for a glimpse of the colorful Reno casinos.

Leaving Truckee

The Zephyr departs Truckee, California, and begins its long climb over the Sierra Nevada.

Snowshed

This snowshed protects the entrance to a tunnel at the top of the famous Stanford Curve.

Colfax, California

Passengers alight from the Zephyr right in the middle of a street in Colfax on the western slope of the Sierra.

Davis, California

You know you're in California when the Zephyr stops at the hacienda-style station at Davis.

Fishery ruins near Martinez

Ruins of a fishery on the Carquinez Strait west of Martinez.

Emeryville station

The station at Emeryville serves Capitol Corridor as well as Amtrak trains. The overpass leads to the Hyatt House parking lot on the other side of the tracks.

The train tied up at Emeryville 1 hour 10 minutes late, not so bad for a 2,438-mile trip. If the Chicago to Glenwood Springs leg rated an A-plus, the Glenwood Springs to Emeryville run deserved a solid B.

Actually, the worst part of the second day was the rain that greeted us on the west slope of the Sierra. From Sacramento on to the Bay, conditions for photography just weren't good.

Before then, however, the trip over the Sierra Nevada was breathtaking as always. Though the Zephyr route is as familiar to me as my back yard, its scenery never fails to thrill me. This time, while Debby spent the ride "Over the Hill" in the lounge car with her camera, I stood in the vestibule of the last car pointing my lens out the rear window in that reverse engineer's-eye view of the sights.

And we had the return trip, Emeryville-Chicago, to look forward to.

Hyatt House

The Hyatt House lies a five-minute walk west from the Amtrak station. Here an eastbound Zephyr pulls into the station.

Hyatt room

Hyatt House room

Hyatt House room

Three views of the Hyatt House suite where we stayed for three nights. It was surprisingly inexpensive for the Bay area, and the hotel management kindly gave us a view of the Amtrak station, as we had requested.

Our hostelry of choice at Emeryville was the Hyatt House, recently renovated and right across the tracks from the station. A pedestrian overpass with elevators at both ends takes the passenger from station platform to the Hyatt parking lot.

When I made the reservation, I asked the Hyatt to give me a room overlooking the station so that I could photograph it. The hotel did so, a nice suite on the seventh floor with a balcony. Its free hot breakfast is substantial and excellent, and so is its dining room.

The Hyatt is a convenient headquarters for jaunts north and south and across the bay to San Francisco proper. Right in front of the hotel is a stop for the a free Emery-Go-Round bus that goes to the MacArthur BART station. Capitol Corridor trains that stop at Amtrak Emeryville will get the rider to points north and south.

Emeryville by night

The view of Emeryville station from our room in the Hyatt in the late evening.

*  *  *

On the return trip aboard No. 6 that began March 25, our sleeper attendant, Roland, was a friendly, laughing veteran who made everyone feel comfortable and whose standards of service were impeccable.

But we didn't get lunch until after 2 p.m. Several tour groups bound for Reno had boarded at Emeryville, and of course they all wanted lunch at the same time, making for such a madhouse in the dining car that one of the sleeper attendants had to be press-ganged into waiting on table.

Despite the hullaballoo, the dining car staff was exceptional, never losing its cool and remaining cheerful in the face of constant "When am I going to be called?" demands.

The veggie burger turned out to be quite good—better than the beefburger, in fact—and I'll have it again.

After Reno the train seemed almost empty, and I whiled away the hour before dinner nursing a glass of white zinfandel, a wine I don't ordinarily care for. But the tour groups had cleaned out the lounge-car attendant before Reno, and that was all he had left in the cellar. I hoped he'd replenish his stock at Salt Lake City during the night. (He didn't, but the dining car still had cabernet when we arrived at Denver.)

Dinner before Winnemucca, Nevada, was tilapia, the "healthy" low-cal menu choice (it was just OK, a bit on the rubbery side), with a very good lentils-and-carrots garnish. The last night, I decided, I'll have the steak. (And I'm glad I did. The last several Amtrak steaks—mostly New York cuts—have been superb.)

On the second day out, for a change the Zephyr stayed ahead of time all the way to Denver, arriving at its crew change points as many as 15 minutes early. We didn't go into "the hole" for a single freight train.

At Denver, we watched as a young dog, a redbone coonhound by the look of it, strained at its leash and lunged at passengers on the platform. It had been aboard in coach since Emeryville, along with a woman and several small children. To Debby's question the conductor said brusquely, "It's a service dog."

"Ain't no service dog," our sleeper attendant said contemptuously. But despite its no-pets policy, Amtrak's hands were tied. The Americans with Disabilities Act, as interpreted by the Justice Department, forbids institutions to draw conclusions about service animals—that's illegally inquiring into a person's medical history. If the passenger says it's a service animal, it's one, and the conductor can't ask for evidence that it is. Only if the dog is obstreperous or unhousebroken can the crew banish it.

There will always be unscrupulous passengers who try to game the system and Amtrak just has to put up with them.

On the third morning, we left Omaha on time at 5:14 a.m., roaring into a drizzly storm system that slowly lifted as the train rolled east. By Mount Pleasant, Iowa, we were running half an hour late, but it seemed that the slop built into the schedule would enable us to arrive on time in Chicago, maybe even early.

Unfortunately, a freight-train bottleneck at the Mississippi River bridge at Burlington, Iowa, coupled with trackwork there, caused us to drop back 2 1/2 hours.

We arrived in Chicago at 3:55 p.m., just 65 minutes off the advertised, and were home in Evanston by 5 p.m. Rating for the trip: A-minus, mainly for the madhouse at lunch before Reno and the consequent destruction of the lounge car's wine cellar. (Delays don't bother me at all.)

A few days ago I applied what I'd learned to the new Epilogue for Zephyr. Most of the foregoing photographs have been added to those already in the hardcover edition.


If you go:

To reserve a seat or bedroom on the California Zephyr, call 1-800-USA-RAIL or visit amtrak.com.

In Glenwood Springs, make reservations for the Hotel Denver at www.thehoteldenver.com.

In Emeryville, reservations for the Hyatt can be made here.

Links:

Please visit my blogs:  The Reluctant Blogger  and The Whodunit Photographer

Also see my books website, www.henrykisor.com


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