Amtrak Across the USA – Day 2 of 3

This post covers the second of three days of an Amtrak trip from Washington, DC to San Francisco, CA.   For previous posts see  The final day will be posted this weekend. 

At 2:00 pm we boarded the California Zephyr, and again I got a room on the second story which guaranteed better viewing.  

Very soon out of Chicago the landscape smooths out and  for over two hours across Illinois there was vast impressive farmland as far as the eye could see.  Occasionally in the countryside of VA or MD I will see an old farm with a wide open field and in the center is a farmhouse, a barn, and some shade trees all clustered together.  Here I saw one after another of these clusters like ships on the ocean.  The land just extends in every direction, open, and so vast!  I have never seen farmland on this scale.

Huddles of Farmhouses Like Ships at Sea.
Farmland as far as the eye could see!
Illinois Farmland

We made a few stops including Galesburg, IL, home to Knox College.  The stops did, however get farther apart.

Knox College, Galesburg, IL

At dusk, we crossed the Mississippi River into Burlington, IA.  As we did, a bald eagle swooped down off the bridge, skimmed the river, and  pulled out a fish!

Burlington is the town for which the Burlington Northern Railroad was named and looked quaint and possessing  of a midwest charm, although we only stopped for a couple minutes.  By the time we left it was dark.  I turned off the lights in my room, and as I looked out across the snow-covered plains lit by the full moon, could see strong winds whipping up the snow and felt like I was inside a Willa Cather novel! 

I also love the grade crossings.  We think of a railroad crossing as something that costs time, and especially in the west people race to beat the train before the gate goes down, but when you’re on the train, the gate is always down and people wait for you!  Every time I heard the long wailing horn I would look out and see a line of cars behind the lowered gate as we passed.  Just a perspective I had never considered the few times I have ever had to wait for a train to pass.

The gates were down at every grade crossing!

From Burlington we went on to Ottumwa, IA.  This town was familiar to me only as the hometown of MASH’s Radar O’Reilly.  It was a long enough stop for smokers to get out and have a cigarette, so I thought I would step out and get some air and stretch my legs.  Holy shit!  It was 6 degrees!  It was so cold I could not stay out for even a couple minutes without a coat.  So much for air and a stretch!

The Mississippi River, Burlington, IA

When it was time for my 7:15 dinner reservation I made my way to the dining car but not  without first making a wrong turn.  My room on the Capitol Limited had been on the left side of the train. Now on the California Zephyr it was on the right side, and furthermore, was the very last car in the train.  I learned this when I approached the door to what I thought was the dining car and I could see it snowing outside the window!  Then I noticed there were bars blocking passage just on the other side of the door.  Beyond that was just track, speeding away from me and about 15 feet down! 

Curious, I pushed the button to see what would happen and sure enough the sliding door opened!  It was snowing outside, very cold, and loud.  I was in a mild state of shock when the porter came up behind me and said, “That first step is a doozie!”  It startled me and I think I may have screamed.  He asked me to please not open that door anymore.  I was like, “there’s 25 different safety signs in my tiny little roomette about things like not walking around without shoes and how to avoid pinching your finger when folding down the bed, but Amtrak doesn’t think they need a sign that says “Don’t open this door because you might fall out of the train!?!?”

Dinner was great, Colorado trout with a blackberry compote and rice pilaf served with an Oregon Chardonnay, and followed with apple-pear crisp and vanilla ice cream and strong delicious coffee.  It all felt so very civilized!

I joined a guy about my age from Charlottesville and we had a great conversation.  When I asked him why he was on the train he said he was on a no-fly list and I learned that his son was a bit of a celebrity!

earlier this month, on New Year’s weekend his 21 year old son made news when he walked into security at the Richmond airport and took off everything but his shorts and had the 4th Amendment to the Constitution written on his chest!  He was charged with Disturbing the Peace but tonight I learned today that all charges were dropped and he actually made his flight!  His dad now jokes that he’s about the no-fly list but really  just wanted to do a train trip.  He had boarded at Harpers Ferry and was bound for Aspen to go skiing.

He asked me why I was on the train and I knew why, but what I didn’t know was why I liked it as much as I did.  I really loved travelling this way!  I think it was the idea that on the train, you live your life in a very natural way, reading, watching tv, dining, showering, etc, and meanwhile the train never stops making progress.  It’s almost like time itself, marching on as you live your life. 

Just before we pulled into Omaha, NE, the porter made up my bed for me.  I turned in, and once again set my clock back one hour.  When I woke up we would be on Mountain Time.

I woke up once at 4am and the landscape was so beautiful!  The full moon was close to setting and was huge and it lit up the plains of Nebraska.  I probably watched out the window for 20 minutes and never saw a home or town or even lights.  I fell asleep to the rocking lulling motion of the train and the last thing I remember being aware of was a sense that we were climbing uphill (The attendant made my bed up with my head at the forward end and I think he knew what he was doing!)

There’s no sleeping in on the train!  At 7:00 am an announcement comes on, loudly, in every room of the train.  We were in Denver where a lot of people were both boarding and departing.  The diner car was open and a new day had begun.  I suppose I could have stayed in bed, but the real scenery was about to begin and if I missed breakfast I wouldn’t eat again till noon.

Coming into Denver at Sunrise, Mtns in the background

I pulled on some jeans and got a cup of coffee and stepped outside.  12 degrees!  We were right outside Coors Field and you could see it had just snowed the night before.  I find Denver a really beautiful city and the view from the train platform was superb.

Downtown Denver
Coors Field as seen from the tracks.
Denver from the Back of the Train

I went to the diner car and got breakfast corned beef hash topped with a couple fried eggs and more coffee…outstanding!

Breakfast on the Diner Car as We Approach the Mountains

I ate breakfast with a nice guy named Rick who lives in Fremont, CA.  Rick is a union employee of a Toyota assembly plant that was shut down in April.  He has a year of benefits but has not been able to find work.  This trip had been a trip to Dallas for possible work.  When he got there he realized he could never uproot a life that had been entirely in the Bay Area and just become a Texan.  So he seemed a little down, but felt something would happen before his benefits run out.  He was one of 4500 people who lost their jobs when the plant was shut.

When he heard I was from DC, he lit up and told me about a trip he had made when he was young and how much he loved it.  His one regret was that he didn’t make it to Gettysburg because he loves civil war history.

Once out of Denver the approach to the mountains is incredible. 

The ascent begins with several horseshoe curves and on each one you see the rest of the train laid out before you.  At points they had old coal hoppers loaded with stone to buffer against the heavy winds. I had moved to the observation car which has a glass roof and comfortable chairs.  It was filled to capacity and clearly a younger crowd had boarded in Denver.  There was an Amish family, a lot of Brits, and an interesting group of young musicians.

Train Tracks Snaking Across the Valley Floor

The scenery was breathtaking, but the lounge was crowded so I went back to watch it from my room.  There were a lot of brief tunnels and when  I looked out the window I was often staring down a steep cliff.

We were now climbing steeply and entering canyons and long tunnels, the longest being the Moffit tunnel at 6 miles long.  10 minutes of total darkness followed by a blinding blaze of sunlight glinting off the snow.  Here was also a 3000 ft damn that creates a reservoir for Denver’s drinking water.  There was wildlife all over, deer, elk, eagles!  I was snapping pictures like crazy but the scenery just kept getting better and better!  We pulled into Winterpark/Fraser and it was so picturesque it was overwhelming!  Then came Granby, CO which begins 200 miles of tracks along the Colorado River.  It would be three hours of deep and majestic canyons, the last of which is the storied Glenwood Canyon, leading to Glenwood Springs, the home of Aspen.

The Train Entering Moffit Tunnel

Somewhere during this I went up to lunch.  I was seated with three people, Simon, a film maker in LA, though he was careful to point out that he’s a New Yorker.  Barb, a professor of Geology in Utah who made sure we knew that  she was neither Morman nor a Polygamist, and Judd, a traveling laborer who remodels hotels.  He had just finished a job in Sioux Falls working and living there since Halloween and was now on the way to San Mateo for a few months.  He calls Atlanta home.

Simon told us he had breakfast with the guy whose son had protested at the airport by removing his clothes! 

We continued to glide through scenery that put me in awe.  The cliffs of the canyon walls were so high!   Every now and then there would be a spectacular looking cabin perched on a hillside.

Granby Station
Mountain Scenery
Winter Park, CO
Glenwood Canyon
Glenwood Canyon 2
The Colorado River

One glance at the town of  Glenwood Springs and I knew I must visit this town some day.  It was so charming looking and the buildings are nestled in these spectacular mountains.  It is the home of natural hot baths and you could see steam coming off the river where the hot springs emptied into it.  It was a favorite location of Teddy Roosevelt.

Glenwood Springs, CO

Gradually the mountains and canyons yielded to a more arid desert landscape.  Here the Colorado River took a turn south and we continued on west.

The landscape became more industrial and notably less charming.  There was a backdrop of mountains, but even they turned from lush green to shale, bauxite, and stone.  By the time we got to Grand Junction it was clear we were in a less charming part of the world.  I sent a text to friends that Grand Junction looked like a place where a guy could get his ass kicked and next thing I know, we are all off the train because there were sparks shooting out of the diner car wheels!  It looked for a minute like I might have a chance to get  that ass kicking!

Grand Junction, CO

I got a call from a friend  in New Hampshire who leads hunting and fishing trips to Colorado.  He verified that I could indeed get my ass kicked in Grand Junction and told me if I ended up in a bar not to tell anyone I was an Obama-loving liberal!  He also told me he knew a guy in Grand Junction and if I was stranded overnight I was to look up “Wiggy” who though a crazy bastard, would show me a good time.  For better or worse,, I would not get that opportunity.

They replaced a burned out battery unit and we were on our way with a delay of just a little over an hour.  This, I was told, would be made up during the night.

I sat and watched the scenery go by and as we left Colorado, we went through a really memorable place that I hope to visit again one day.  Ruby Canyon is accessible only by river, by foot, or by rail.  No roads here.  The walls of the canyon were very red.  It was sunset and I watch the line of the sun slowly move up the far wall of the canyon as the sun set behind me.  It was so beautiful I just kept taking pictures, I couldn’t stop myself.

Ruby Canyon

Somewhere in there we crossed from Colorado to Utah, and when we exited Ruby Canyon, the landscape was desert for as far as the eye could see.  Nothing but vast empty space with a long range of stone mountains in the distance.  These were called the Sliprocks, which I remember from a trip to Utah years ago.  There was a brewpub that featured a Utah made beer called Sliprock Ale.

Sunset and the Sliprock Mountains

At about Moab, or Green River it became dark.  I watched the moon come up and went up to dinner.

Prejudice & Pleasant Surprises

I mentioned in my introduction that I learned a few things.  Here I have to comment on a phenomenon I noticed on this trip.  I’m pretty open to new experiences and to meeting lots of people and this was, after all, one of the goals of my trip.  What I didn’t realize was that I was doing some filtering of those I wanted to meet.  At a glance I would decide in my mind if this person looked “interesting” enough to spend time with and I’m embarrassed to say I was doing exactly what we would counsel our children not to do!  We think of pre-judging, or prejudice as something based primarily on race, but this had nothing to do with race.  I was determining with very little information who I thought would be boring, annoying, uninteresting, too old, too conservative, etc! 

So here I am on this train where they seat you with other people and you have no control over who joins you.  It was  like a TV show where I would spot a person earlier in the day and think to myself, “man, I hope I don’t end up sitting with that guy” and sure enough, would be seated right next to him! 

In EVERY case I found the people interesting and enjoyable!  This still did not seem to be enough to make me stop pre-judging and throughout the trip I had been watching this father and young son, maybe 8 years old.  They guy seemed totally overbearing to me.  Every minute of the trip seemed to be an excessive lesson to the kid, and so politically correct it made me sick.  “Son, be respectful to the gentleman, he’s asked you a question,…son, I want you to focus on those mountains over there and envision settlers and horses trying to pull wagons through there…son, we did not come on this trip to play video games, now in a few minutes we’ll go read another chapter of Harry Potter…”

So of course, I walk up for dinner and spy one of only a few attractive women on the whole train sitting by herself, while on the right is the father and son.  I look at the hostess seating people and I’m subtly jerking my head toward the woman, but of course, I was seated with the father and son.  Later I grudgingly watched my dinner partner from Tuesday, Angus that Scottish devil seated next to the woman as they both ordered wine and laughed the night away!

So I sit with these two and the boy is wearing a Red Sox shirt…ok, good start.  he tells me his name is Jasper and we make chit chat for a while and then the dad asks me what I do, and I ask him what he does.  Turns out he is a farmer. He grows vegetables in southern Minnesota, and in the winter goes to Sacramento to learn new farming techniques!  He turns out to be a very interesting and enjoyable guy and we have a great conversation.  Jasper falls asleep and we discuss CSA’s and the food industry for a very long time. 

He was thrilled to learn that I subscribe to a CSA and that I cook and he asked me what vegetables we got and how I prepared them, and I asked him about what his family did to preserve them.  We talked about Farmers Markets and sustainable agriculture and I think the guy was just starved for adult conversation!

Finally he decides he needs to go put Jasper to bed and we part after what was a really enjoyable meal. 

I went to the lounge for a while and there was a group of guys with guitars who were playing and singing.  At first I thought wow this is very cool!  But very quickly it seemed contrived and these guys seemed like hobo-wannabes.  (It’s hard to quit pre-judging cold turkey).

I went back to my room and watched the Utah desert go by.  We pulled into Provo around 10pm, and by 11 we were in Salt Lake City.  I asked the Porter to make up my bed and once again, turned my clock back an hour for tomorrow I would wake up on Pacific time.


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