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I Get a Kick Outta Train Number 6

New Friends and Fuzzy Slippers on the California Zephyr

Ann Beman

Based in California's Southern Sierra Nevada, Ann Beman pens adventure travel stories.

Parting the curtains, I see 'Restaurant' in flashing neon whiz by my window — the window of my Amtrak Superliner Economy Room, car 631, compartment 8. I slept for 3 1/2 hours before I woke to the steady, comfortable bounce of a moving train. Now I'm thinking about why it's so comfortable. What does it remind me of? Grampa bouncing me on his knee? Nana rocking me in a porch chair? No, it's something else.

4:09 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, June 28

Somewhere east of Reno

Historic downtown Colfax, California, proudly displays a wood-sided caboose on Main Street. Photo: Thomas Besemer

A chorus of squeaks, rattles, muffled harmonica toots, purrs, and whirs settle deep within my prone, cradled body. It's... jazz. Free-form and tail-wagging and easy to listen to. The train speaks to my rhythms. How fitting, I think, to be moving toward a jazz city.

I am on the California Zephyr, which I boarded in Sacramento's former Southern Pacific Railroad Terminal Building, and which I will ride to its eastern terminus in Chicago's Union Station. I am only a fraction of the way into the 2,353-mile trip and already much of what I've experienced is thrilling.

I should have known this was not going to be a routine adventure as soon as I stepped into the vaulted Sacramento Amtrak Station, with its marble floors, cathedral glass windows, chandeliers, and mural of Southern Pacific history.

10:45 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, June 27

Sacramento Amtrak Station

Ticket in hand, I plant myself on a wooden settee and take in the details: a family sporting dreadlocks, more dreadlocks, wheeled suitcases, backpacks, giant teddy bears that will need a seat to themselves, ponytails, tank tops, an enormous French guy leashed to a six-month-old boxer puppy named Maximus. Maximus's human drops off a friend, Leticia, who will travel on the Zephyr to Colorado.

The late afternoon lounge car crowd. Photo: Thomas Besemer

Waiting on the platform near Leticia and Maximus, another Colorado-bound passenger practices his golf swing while his three buddies stand by. They're all on their way to a 90th birthday party in Scobey, Montana.

On the train, the first people I encounter are Amy Lew and Bob Heath. Amy Lew, a retired nurse from New York City with a Jamaican accent, will send me a postcard from New York when she arrives home, and a Christmas card after that. Bob Heath, "like the candy bar," introduces himself as my sleeping car attendant and shows me my compartment's fresh towels, call button, light switches, electric outlet, and so on. "I've been here 33 years. I stand six foot, five inches, and I am a 33-year veteran," he informs me. An easy smile and I've-seen-it-all expression play across his clean-cut features. He has taken the liberty of making lunch reservations at 11:45 for Amy and me in the dining car, next door.

Elliott, our dining car waiter, and the third person I encounter on board the Zephyr, is another 33-year train veteran. At lunch I simultaneously participate in conversation and prick my ears up for tidbits from other lunch tables.

Does grass grow? Do Colorado river rafters "moon" the Zephyr? Even if they're both difficult to photograph, the answer is YES!

Outside, the green hills of Roseville trundle by. Horses, goats, and llamas graze on fenced properties; here and there globs of rock intrude the landscape rolling from Roseville to Auburn.

I order a Mississippi Mudcake for dessert.

"You've got an old Southern Pacific hat?" I overhear Elliott saying to a man at a nearby table. "Well, I've still got my old whistle."

Arleigh "Lee" Henninger worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad for 35 years, based out of the San Francisco Bay Area. "The train came in, and I'd tell the conductor what I wanted done." He retired 25 years ago. Lee and Clara Belle Henninger's daughter, Joan Fosdick, has joined them on this trip to a family reunion in Iowa.

Lee doesn't like "those lines at the airport," and he didn't feel like driving, so here they are. According to Joan, her dad is a big reader, but he hasn't even touched his book while on board. "He's just been enjoying the view out the window." [continued...]