From Reno, Nev., to Sacramento, one of the most historic stretches, volunteers from the California State Railroad Museum hopped on board and talked about the first train robbery, epic fires and snowstorms, and the building of the transcontinental railroad.
We climbed into the Sierra Nevada and followed the Truckee River. I saw snow-capped mountains reflected in Donner Lake and small communities where townsfolk shot pictures of the train. We reached an elevation of 6,939 feet before the scenery started changing. Soon we’d hit Roseville, Calif., home of one of the nation’s largest auto malls.
The train arrived nearly an hour early in Emeryville, near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The track ends here, but an Amtrak bus takes passengers into the city — a rather anticlimactic ending to the Zephyr’s journey of 2,438 miles.
Of course, Amtrak has its shortcomings. The bathrooms are cramped, the sinks are the size of melons, and water tends to spray everywhere but on your hands. Some routes use china and glass on the white tablecloths, while others stick with plastic and paper. The food, for the price, was largely disappointing (overcooked vegetables, so-so fish), especially knowing that the chef is able to pick up fresh ingredients at stations along the way. And although my trains were generally on time or early, that’s not always the case. Railroad companies such as CSX and Union Pacific own the tracks, so Amtrak — a guest on the rails — is at the mercy of the freight trains’ schedules and mishaps.
The experience seemed to be a blend of family car travel, scenic rail tour and summer camp — complete with star-gazing and walking around in PJs. The conductor reminds you to wear shoes if you get up in the middle of the night “so you don’t hurt your tootsies.” And you’re never far from a meal.
Once in a while I came across an Amtrak employee who was simply clocking in. But it was clear that most of them felt as though they had the best jobs in the world.
I visited friends and family in California, making my way to the southern part of the state. The night before I left, my grandmother asked me to speak to the women’s group in her assisted living facility. As I told them about my journey, a few faces lit up. Bea, a 96-year-old with white hair and tiny spectacles, said that she’d taken the Zephyr decades ago. “There were these great big windows,” she said, lifting her arms above her head to illustrate the view. “You really saw the country.”
The next morning, I drove out of the Mojave Desert toward Los Angeles International Airport. I passed a freight train running parallel to the freeway, and I realized that this must be Amtrak’s Sunset Limited route. My rental car sped me toward the airport, and the jet would later zip me home. But for a few moments, as I stole glances at the train, I forgot that I was on asphalt. All I could think about was being back on the rails.
Kaplan is a freelance writer in Washington. Her Web site is www.melaniedgkaplan.com.