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The scenic California Zephyr route is 2,438 miles long and boasts views of the upper Colorado River valley in the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Amtrak has 17 tunnels consisting of 29.7 miles of track and 1,186 bridges consisting of 42.5 miles of track.

Of the 391 national park sites, 248 are within 100 miles of an Amtrak route or station.

Tracking the Western Wind

Through Time on the California Zephyr

Mija Riedel

San Francisco-based writer and photojournalist Mija Riedel writes about travel, art and the environment.

The California Zephyr often appears on lists of the world's top train trips. En route from San Francisco to Chicago, the train crosses the Sierra Nevadas, the Rockies, and the Continental Divide, traveling 2,500 miles, and climbing from sea level to 9,000 feet. The heart of the journey lies in the Rocky Mountains and the American West.

The California Zephyr traverses a uniquely American mix of human and natural history, winding through Colorado's red cliffs and river canyons, time-traveling through California's gold country, and tracing hundreds of miles of the first transcontinental railway — an epic 19th century achievement involving an international cast of thousands along with substantial amounts of steel, steam, snow and nitroglycerine.

The California Zephyr passes
through Colorado's Ruby

On my recent, two-and-a-half day trip from San Francisco to Chicago, I caught glimpses of 19th century California from my cabin windows. As the train climbed into the Sierra, two theatrically gifted docents from the California State Railroad museum, Robin and Jim, used the PA system to describe a narrow gauge railroad that carried one-quarter of a billion dollars in gold out of the Sierra. This was soon followed by a stretch of land beneath the tracks near Gold Run that required police protection from would-be hydraulic miners hoping to rinse it away in search of gold. As we passed hills of deep red earth spotted with green pines, Robin announced an eagle’s nest, a pair of beaver dams and Donner Lake. I slipped from my cabin into the aisle to take a picture. The surrounding mountains and granite boulders reminded me of Yosemite.

A fellow traveler appeared from the cabin beside mine, leveled his camera in the direction of the lake, and began snapping. For the next minute the only sound was the frantic clicking of shutters. I studied my camera screen — spots of blue water eclipsed by towering evergreens. "Did you get it?" I asked, as Donner Lake receded.

Jane Head and Alan Hayes
traveled from England to ride
the California Zephyr and see
the Rocky Mountains.

"Yep," he smiled, staring at his screen, "right behind that giant tree."

The PA crackled to life: Jim summarized the unhappy plight of the Donner Party in 1846.

Not to be outdone, one of Amtrak's own commandeered the mike every so often to draw our attention inside: "This is Brian in the Café Car and we've got hamburgers hot off the grill, hot dogs, pop, Pepsi, a mess of Mountain Dew, Heineken, good ol' Budweiser — cold, just like the game. Come on down."

And so it went, the competing pleasures of the train delivered in dueling monologues:

Jim: We're now passing Boca, California, proud producer of Boca Beer, featured at the 1880s Paris World's Fair.

Brilliant Colorado cottonwoods
line the river.

Brian: The Café Car is open, open, open. Anyone wants a barbeque chicken sandwich, Pepsi, diet Pepsi, Corona, play cards —

Robin: … Verdi, Nevada — on November 4, 1870, site of the first western train robbery carried out by a group of local citizens including a Sunday school teacher.

Brian: The Café is still open, still located in the bottom of the Observation Car …

By 5:00 we had crossed into Nevada, Jim and Robin had detrained, and I had toured the train — two sleepers, the Dining Car, the Observation Car and three Coach cars — while mulling over the day's coastal marshes, alpine mountains, and the drastic shift to dry hills and scrub east of Reno. Shortly after 6:00 I took a seat in the diner, ordered grilled chicken and a glass of pinot grigio, and introduced myself to the couple seated across the table, Franklin and Brenda. After the usual exchange — where are you from, where are you going, business or pleasure — Franklin redirected our conversation: "I have a philosophy of life."

Brenda smiled and glanced at her napkin, as if she might have heard this before.

I studied Franklin's brown eyes, set in a broad face framed by a trim, salt and pepper beard.

Nicolette Beck, a farmer from
Northern California, appreciates
the multiple green aspects of
train travel.

"People do things either for love or money," he continued.

"And you?"

Franklin's smile lit his countenance with uncommon candescence. "I do things for love."

Franklin was from Reno, by way of Portland, Oahu, and ancestrally, Portugal. He had spent most of the past thirty years, starting at age 16, traveling the world as a merchant marine. Over carrot cake, he described a few of his memories — in the middle of the ocean, a bird riding on a turtle's back — and I described a few of mine from our current journey: the white egret beside San Pablo Bay, the junkyard littered with contraptions that had been intended to revolutionize something, and the empty parking lot where a motorcycle stunt man refined one-wheel acrobatics.

"That's why I love the train," Franklin said. "It's not what you imagine. It's reality. You see it." [continued...]