LONGFORM: The California Zephyr may be one of the more well-known of the named Amtrak. Routes at one time before Amtrak criss-crossed the entire country but over time they narrowed down to a few storied lines. The California Zephyr connects Chicago to San Francisco (actually Emeryville station as this writer can only assume the original San Fran station was turned into Startupdotcomcondoslofts. This line has been in operation since the Golden Age of Travel (GoAT) taking passengers and adventurers away from the “safety” of “civilization” (such as Chicago could offer Re:Gangsters) and providing access to the then Wild West. In those days the rail was the only access to the major parklands of the Great Rockies and today while the rolling stock does not offer the sophisticated luxury of bygone GoAT travel, the experience is that of a great inland cruise penetrating wilderness. This rail system still travels across other named routes as well as a few time zones from sea to shinning sea. For your seat, Romlet, or the observation car you can witness the nation pass by, our texture, that is the geography and environments are quite varied and offer a much variety and entertainment may be provided by conversing with other passengers or just looking out the window. The landscape can be experienced in a number of other ways and these are currently more popular however they cannot offer the same experience.
From the air we can traverse the Nation from above the clouds. An atmosphere’s point of view and through the thin air at times one can see features of the landscape; lakes mountains, rifts in the land describing brutal and eternal movement of the plates, clusters of cities and the rivers that drain this nation into the oceans. “Oh look daddy, the people look like ants” or at a higher altitude a think pancake of cloud and upper atmosphere incomprehensible to the human spirit as much as our brain may understand the mechanics and science of it all.
One can traipse across the land by car. Like flying, driving used to be fun. Like flying today driving is a drag. Although no one yet touches your junk in a very special frisk as they do for air travel. Driving is no longer the famous journey of Route 66 Marlin Brando whatever whatever nor any chapter from Motorcycle Diaries filled with adventure and small towns and meeting some Saltoftheearthpeople. Today, one zooms down the highway avoiding ass-wipes and the chronically Road Raged, from rest stop to rest stop in order to fill up on gas, spin the “can I pee here?/is is safe to pee here?/will I get a disease from peeing here?” roulette wheel, buy energy drinks, erzats turbo dogs, Whizz d’Cheese, and Soylent Green the wrappers of which accumulate in the back seat until the car starts to take on that unmistakable aroma of trash/New Jersey.
Driving has its moments. The private car allows one to venture to the smaller roadways and dusty lanes that turn out to be private driveways protected by red-faced screaming minis. One may also stop and get lost as much as one wants or however much the GPS goes on the blink. However, for the long-haul distances, for those days needed to cross a prairie, driving takes one slog through the unbroken Geography of Nowhere along the highway seeing nothing manmade in Tucson that one hasn’t already seen in Pittsburgh, Chicago, or any number of other areas and the joy of having to pay attention all the time to a task that is quite boring.
By rail, this writer proposes, one may appreciate the scenery and have the time to contemplate and reflect, activities that today have been expunged from all but the monastic of us. As the national parks were intended to ground our diverse population in a unique American Experience, that of commune with raw nature, the rail allows that vision to be accessed from our major hubs, the once Great American City. It seems unusual, in such a Nation that has gone from being built by railway to hating passenger travel with such political fervor that is almost seems a fetish, that one may still be allowed to travel across the country by train without being inspected for being a communist or some other type of communitarian when one gets off. Nevertheless, as much as the government-industrial complex has moved to restrict travel by rail, one can still get on an Amtrak train and ride through some of the most beautiful and historic lands and do so in greater comfort that the above options.
Traveling from Chicago to The West, the Union Station gives a grand start to the journey, as long as you remain in the great hall. Much of the more “contemporary” station resembles a bus station. Nevertheless, in no time the traveler boards the train for what will be a three day journey, plus or plus-plus a few hours.
One of the drawbacks of the current state of rail travel is that the passenger trains, few as they are, share rail lines with the great and elongated freight. And freight has the right of way in most instances. Especially if Amtrak is late, and Amtrak is always just a little late. Just enough to let it “lose it’s place” in the line up. This means a few holds on the track or at a station as a line of chicken semen tankers or rendered goat juice passes by or overtakes. The inability to be on time ensures that as a rule one must not take Amtrak long distances and have a tight schedule. Again, the reward for being flexible is that you can take it easy on board.
While the seats are roomy and for the most part comfortable, the best section of the train is the observation car. Those denizens of the Northeastern Corridor will no nothing about this car as it is an addition only outside of the eastern shores where the historic tunnels, bridges, and signals do not allow for this addition. The observation car has tables as well as single and double chairs. The non-broken chairs can swivel so you can view both left and right of the train without leaving your seat. Windows are from the floor to the ceiling and allow in a vintage of the sky as well as the taller mountains the train passes through. The observation car is the social hub of the train. It is strange to see, but in no time those who fill it early on will return again and again throughout the journey while many if not most others remain planted in their seats.
The train upon leaving Chicago plunges into the vast expanse of Soy&Corn and other genetically modified wonders. The first stops are in Iowa. (The train stopped in Ottumwa, subject of a previous post HERE). The land rises and falls quite a little until it seems to settle on a hight and opens to an expanse of flat. This flat continues for the remainder of the first day as well as throughout the night as one passes through terrain interesting because it is uniquely alien and uninteresting.
In this direction, night falls over the heartland and such classic midwest cities as Omaha (also a previous post HERE) pass by occluded by sleep and drawn curtains. Then daybreaks over the steps of Colorado. Flat land, however, there is a subtle gain in elevation as the train moves closer and closer to the mountains. There is little warning of what is ahead. The foothills of the Rockies are but rends and bumps in the fields. Pulling into Denver, if one can brook the random and chancy sprawl, the reward is a station stop long enough to stretch the legs, shake off the easychairesque slumber of the night before, and quickly visit the old historic station, if not for a moment since as travelers are warned again and again, you may be left behind and this is a frequent enough event as to cause some joking among the conductors.
Back aboard, the train is joined by parks department volunteers.
The parks department raises the ire of so many tax payers as well as those who can afford to avoid all taxes whether as a natural or incorporated person. It is a maligned branch of government and not without blemish nor collaboration with those forces that seek to plunder Nature. However, the office yet works hard to broker our relationship with the unbuilt environment and like other named lines reaching into the Western lands, volunteer interpreters board the train and provide a running commentary as well as providing context to so many features from small crumbling piles that once were stations to certain geographic features as well as the heroic story of how the rail was pushed through the mountains by hand and shovel and just a few pinches of black powder.
Through the Rockies the train brings the wonders of this range. Photo and word can only serve to confound since this must like so many other places have to be experienced in person.
From the rockies the parks department volunteers depart to return in the opposite direction on the Chicago bound Zephyr and the train again enters the edge of night and curtains are again drawn. Those voices in the observation car are now hushed and bottles of wine opened are finished and those with greater means separate to their rooms while those others return to the relative comfort of coach and another night of easyboychairesque slumber after a meal in the dining car where the food was more than adequate and company welcome. (The train practices community seating so you will dine with strangers. This was great on all occasions except for the weird and serious man from a foreign country who didn’t seem to appreciate the rule of law and caused some ruckus with the staff involving petty demands of the staff – he was traveling with a family that consisted of two cute children and a very pregnant wife who seemed rather submissive either culturally or from a personality proclivity and none of them bothered to so much as open the curtains the entire way from Chicago to Sacramento… but that is none of this writer’s business…)
The final day of travel takes the train into the Serra range. Already fatigued from trying to make sense of the green carpet of the middle states, the epic mountains, the dry bones of desert the mountains came up again and again the guides, older folks and part of a collaboration between the railway museum and parks department.
While by the end of the third day I, and perhaps all others, were glad to remove ourselves from the rail cars, there was no section I would have done without and an overall present journey from start to finish.
The American rail system will more than likely continue to be relegated to some side note, an archaic and quaint relic of sorts, never the high speed connector of cities and people found in Europe, Russia, and Asia for reasons far too obvious to any casual or serious student of American culture, politics, or stupidity. Nevertheless, we have some of these lines left. And I encourage you, communist or not, to take advantage of them while they last.