Amtrak Across the USA – Day 3 of 3

Full Moon at Dawn - Nevada Desert

This post covers the final day of an Amtrak trip from Washington, DC to San Francisco, CA.   For previous posts see 

After this posting I will return to my primary subject, food and cooking!


On my final night in the sleeper car, I slept like a baby.  There were hours between stops and it was a very smooth ride across Utah.  I awoke to the Nevada desert with the sun rising in the east, the moon setting in the west.  The landscape was like the movie set of a cowboy western, tumbleweeds, sagebrush, distant snow-covered mountains, and countless miles of barren arid landscape.  My ears had been full and popping the entire day before at altitudes between 6,000 and 8,000 feet.  Now we were close to sea level and the popping was gone.

Nevada Sunrise with Setting Moon

I got a cup of coffee and watched the sun rise and illuminate this amazing landscape. 

The Nevada Desert
Desert Mountains

At breakfast I watched the desert slowly turn greener and climb to a lush snowy mountain scene.  We were pulling into Reno.   We went by  lot of beautiful cabins and homes that were obviously built to take full advantage of the natural beauty.

Headed for Reno

I was joined at breakfast by an English woman named Denise.  She was approximately my age and traveling with a girlfriend.  They had sailed across the Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth!  After a few days in New York she took the train to Chicago, spent a few days there (which she pronounced surprisingly impressive, and very American).  She was now headed for San Francisco.  Unfortunately, some health issues had taken several of these glorious days away from her and the previous day through Colorado she was essentially sick in bed.  Today she was feeling much better and ready to seize the day.

Mountains of Nevada

We sat at breakfast and talked for about an hour and while I have met a lot of people on this trip and enjoyed all of them, Denise was the type of person I had hoped to meet. We connected.   We talked about our lives, our parents, our spouses, and the fact that we were both still trying to extract meaning from our lives.  She had a thoughtful sensitivity and like me, was traveling not only to meet people, but to reflect on her life.

Denise eventually left to find her travel companion and I went back to my room to watch the scenery.  It was, however, one of the more enjoyable meals.

I looked at my phone to see a text message from my friend Jack.  Jack had recently taken the train from Denver to San Francisco.  His message said,

“If you thought yesterday’s scenery was good wait till you go through the Sierra Nevada’s today!”

Truckee, CA

I don’t know if anything could compare with Glendale Canyon, but the Sierra Nevada’s did not disappoint!  Charming towns like Truckee had quaint resort-town train stations, and the views were great for 360 degrees!

Ascent Into Tunnel

We went up Mt Judah, a remarkable feat of engineering   The train heads west along the valley floor and at the end of the valley makes a long horseshoe curve to end up 180 degrees, eastbound ascending Mt Judah.  At the top it goes into a tunnel which is also a horseshoe curve so on exit, the train is again headed west, but now atop Mt. Judah (named so for the engineer who designed this system).

Also upon exit riders are presented with possibly the most spectacular view of the trip!  Below us is  Donner lake, pristine glacier fed lake that reflected the distant snow-capped mountains.   It was three miles long and so absolutely gorgeous that I imagine it must be featured in countless movies.

Donner Lake 1
Donner Lake 2
Donner Lake 3

From here we would proceed through the legendary Donner Pass.  Here was the spot where a doomed party of early settlers had become stranded under unthinkable amounts of snow, many of them perishing.  One notable feature of the story is that for many of them survival led to some cannibalism before the ordeal was over.  I texted a list of friends that I was in Donner Pass and several of them texted back that I should look around the train for the tastiest looking passengers!  

It was sunny and beautiful, with snow everywhere.  At points we were near 6000 feet and always on the very edge of the mountain so that you could look out your window at what looked like a drop straight down!  Accordingly, my ears began to pop again.

Ski Lift Near Lake Tahoe
The Sierra Nevada Mountains, California
California Mountains

I was now in California and by this afternoon I would be looking at the Pacific Ocean!

Three days on the train had not been a problem but at this point I was ready to get off  the train because I was now thinking about the fun weekend in SF and Napa that lay ahead.  My wife had boarded a plane that morning in DC and was now texting me from Phoenix where she was changing planes.  Michael Mina, the restaurant where we would have dinner that night called to confirm the reservation.  I was ready to move on.

I went up to lunch for my final meal on the train.  I would not be disappointed!  I sat with a retired couple, John and Mary, both scientists retired from Lawrence Livermore Labs.  They had gone to Reno for an overnight fun trip and were riding back.

We talked forever.  They were avid train fans and loved DC.  They also gave me recommendations for restaurants in SF, and especially a great Dim Sum place in Chinatown that they said would be right near our hotel.  They were delightful!

Davis, CA

I returned to my room for the final three hours.  Sacramento was coming, Davis, Martinez, and then down the San Pablo Bay into an Oakland suburb called Emeryville.  We would be bussed from Emeryville into the city.

The landscape, temperature, people, and architecture had all changed dramatically.  I saw people playing golf in shorts, farm workers with wide-brimmed hats to protect from the sun and green farmland everywhere.

California Farmland
Martinez, CA

At Martinez, I saw a charming looking hillside town called Vallejo, and shortly afterward got a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.  I was quite surprised at the feeling that welled up in me.  It bordered on emotional.  All I had done was sit on a train for three days, but still I felt this huge sense of accomplishment.  In the last three days, I went from the rolling hills of Virginia, and Maryland, into the Appalachians of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.  This took me to the industrial landscape of Indianna and Chicago, followed by the vast farmland of Illinois and Iowa.  From there we crossed the open and empty plains of Nebraska up into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and down into the deserts and mountains of Utah and Nevada.  Now I had come out of the California mountains to emerge in this mild beautiful and fertile valley and onto the Pacific Ocean!  I could see the skyline of San Francisco and just marveled at all I had seen in three days.

Westward to San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean

I had set out to see this scenery, meet people, and do some thinking.  It was thinking about turning 50, about family and work, and happiness in life.  The trip had been a success from top to bottom!

At Emeryville I said goodbye to the porter, happily left him with a generous tip and thanked him for his gracious hospitality.  I walked off the train, through the station and onto a waiting bus. 

One final amusing story.  As I de-trained, I got a text from my wife that she had just landed in Oakland.  She would take BART, the subway system into the city and we would meet at a downtown hotel.  When I boarded the bus I saw Denise whom I had met at breakfast and sat down with her.  I explained how my wife was taking a plane then subway and I was taking a train then bus and we hoped to arrive at the hotel at the same time.   Denise insisted that I must get there first and be waiting in the lobby.

The bus made several stops and Denise got off before me.  At the front of the bus she turned and in her charming british accent yelled, “Good bye Tony, I hope you beat your wife!”

Sheepishly I turned to the others on the bus looking at me and said, “It’s a race….”

We did arrive at our hotel within 5 minutes of each other, and for the record, Alice got there first.  We went on to enjoy a fantastic evening in downtown San Francisco, and then headed out to Napa for a surprise 50th birthday party for my cousin’s wife.  On Sunday we flew home.

I sat on that plane thinking how barbaric it seemed to be all strapped into seats in tiny rows eating only small bags of pretzels and having to stow our electronics on takeoff.  Still, it was nice to be home a mere 6 hours later!


One comment

  1. Tony,

    I loved reading all of this!!! I loved the photos and your story. I’ve traveled trains in Europe and it does seem so sophisticated, but after 12 hours on the Glacier Express from St. Moritz to Zermatt, I was ready to get OFF!!! I love how you write and cant’ wait to read future posts. Food, life, travel, whatever. I’m glad that we not going to let 50 be the point when we stop asking WHY?


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