Time to Ride the Zephyr

Trip Start Dec 16, 2012
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Trip End Jan 12, 2013


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Flag of United States  , Illinois
Friday, December 28, 2012

Our plan to see a bit of the coutryside was a 2438 mile trip on the Amtrak 'Zephyr' from Chicago to San Francisco. This meant a verry early start on day 1 (28 Dec) to pack, leave the apartment in Washington and make our way on the Metro to the airport for a 7:45 flight. We didn't make great time, but fortunately the flight was delayed by half an hour, so we made it OK.
As we arrived in Chicago it started snowing and from that point we were pretty much in snow until we descended into California 2 1/2 days later.

We had a couple of hours to kill in Chicago before the train left at 2:00. We thought about the Sears Tower, which is only a block from the station, but the top was in cloud. So we walked the streets - up to Millennium Park and back - didn't quite make it to the Al Bundy Fountain.

After noting the average age of long distance rail passengers in the Amtrak lounge we were able to settle into our sleepers. We had 2 twin sleepers, which could be joined together. This provided a decent amount of room for 5, although sleeping accommodation was tight for the smallest two, who had to share a bed. The combination also meant that we had 2 rest rooms/showers together.

Once we got rolling we could sit back and watch the scenery drift by. Through Illinois it was empty farmland, gradually succumbing to snow, dotted with the occasional small town. Across the Mississippi in the evening, through Iowa and Nebraska during the night. Everyone thought of Penny. By morning we were in Denver for a longer stop, and just out of Denver the rise through the Rockies starts. This was a highlight - peaks, valleys, snow covered pines and rock formations that just aren't like home. A lot of the path follows the Colorado River as it winds through the valleys. At one point we emerged from a tunnel right in the middle of a ski resort, with people waving to us as they waited for the ski lift. We stopped 10 minutes up the track, which gave the boys their best chance to (briefly) play in deep powdery snow.

It was not too much further from here where things ground to a halt. Just as my camera batteries ran out, the train also pulled up and wasn't to move again for 7 hours. A freight train had broken an axle and torn up the track ahead of us. We only understood the details many hours later. Much like airline announcements, we were always given hope that the problem would be fixed at any time. At one time we were told to look out for a train coming in the opposite direction because this would show that the all was fixed. Instead all we saw was a maintenance truck heading along the tracks towards the hold-up - another 4 hours to wait.

People were remarkably relaxed about the whole thing - in our case, perhaps because it was more than 24 hours before we were due to arrive anyway, although there were some who had been due to get off half an hour down the track. In the end the strain showed most on the Amtrak staff who were in a pretty grim mood by the time they were forced to serve an extra free meal to everyone on board the following evening.

So we eventually got moving, after sunset, with no fanfare, in fact not even an announcement. Instead of making Salt Lake City late at night, we arrived early the next morning. From there we had daytime viewing of snow-covered salt lakes and plains surrounded by mountain ranges right through Utah and Nevada. A final 'smoking' stop at Reno, before our third dusk on the Zephyr as we passed through the Sierras, with more pines to book-end the deserts in between, and descended into California. The final few hours as we approached Emeryville passed slowly, but eventually we made it at about 10pm, tipped our hostess, found a large enough taxi and drove over the Bay Bridge to San Francisco.

The train had been a great experience and tolerated by the children much better  than it might have been. Communal meals where you always shared a table with other travellers was part of the experience. Plenty of different stories, perhaps the most interesting the animator who was heading back to San Francisco to work on the prequel to Monsters Inc, but many others who for one reason or another decided to do the trip the slow way.
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