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The next morning I woke somewhere around Helper, Utah, crawled upright in bed and stared out at passing rumpled clumps of mountains, mild-mannered hills clad in mild colors, low fog, yellow scrub, two lane roads. The world looked unexpectedly relaxed, sleepy. I tugged on a pair of jeans and a fleece and bobbed down the hall to where Tony, our cabin attendant, somehow managed to keep a continually fresh, hot pot of coffee, filled my cup and crawled back into bed to watch the sun spreading over a yellow river valley.
The California Zephyr offers
rare views of brilliantly colored
cliffs above brilliantly colored
Fall was in the air. The morning light wasn't a summer glare or blinding winter white, but subtle and crisp. A thick quiet enfolded the California Zephyr, far from interstates and cities — I've come to appreciate the train for everything it doesn't offer: swarms of speeding trucks and cars, road rage, billboards, internet, trampoline air, rough seas, traffic jams.
I spent the next few hours padding back and forth between my cabin and the aisle, trying to connect the views outside my windows with the train’s exact location:
9:15 Golden trees, red cliffs, precariously balanced rocks. Now yellow and red striped cliffs, layered like the Grand Canyon. Harvest-colored grasses. Squared-off mountains. Widening river.
10:44 Grand Junction station, Colorado.
11:15 Spectacular golden river valley, colors of grasses I didn’t know existed.
Late afternoon, a couple hours
west of Denver.
11:26 Taller mountains. Wrapped in mist.
12:29 Brilliant colored scrub: rust, coral, sage, gold. Bare, protruding rock faces.
12:40: Intensely chiseled mountains. A long slope of rust-colored scrub and green pines. Flickering Aspen leaves fronted by a procession of flaming red trees.
One spectacular vista followed another, in rapid progression. There was little hope of grasping the sheer grandeur of the country. I was relieved that the geography made it impossible to travel any faster or all this beauty would be nothing but a blur.
12:50 Glenwood Springs station. Except for the occasional station stop, I saw no signs or markers.
Occasionally the quiet hum and rattle of the train was interrupted with an update from the Lounge Car: "This is Brian — and I just saw Spiderman. Spiderman is on the train. If you would like a breakfast sandwich, cream cheese and bagel, yogurt, Spiderman, chips or coffee, come on down to the Lounge Car."
Newlywed Christine Tani, with
her husband Calvin Bloesch,
prefers the train.
Poor Brian, the scenery must be detaining all his customers.
I glanced at the timetable, figured I had 45 minutes before we arrived at the next not-to-be-missed natural monument, and decided to grab a quick bite of lunch.
Over chipotle beef and veggie burgers, I met Cynthia, a California chiropractor, and Nicolette, a young California farmer with a beatific smile and dreadlocks half way down her back who belonged to a start-up cooperative organic vegetable farm. "We're growing carrots, leeks, broccoli, cabbage, some beans," Nicolette said, "Did I say radishes? Onions. Kale. And yarrow — I'm going to try making the yarrow into soap." Nicolette was traveling to Chicago to see her boyfriend, who was learning to tune pianos. After years of wanting to take a long train trip, Cynthia had finally made it onto the California Zephyr. "I have a busy life and I'm relishing the solitude. The train is a gradual moving from one place to the next. Not so abrupt. Staring out the window is like meditating, very clearing."
I wanted to be more attentive and less abrupt myself but suddenly, brilliant red cliffs were passing by the windows. Had I misread the timetable or were there simply more geologic marvels than anyone could keep track of? I swallowed a few bites of chipotle beef, which deserved better attention, gulped a glass of ice tea, and headed forward to the large windows in the Observation Car.
The California Zephyr heads
west from Denver just after
Half way down the aisle, I spotted Spiderman. Dressed in red from head to toe, standing about two-feet tall, he was refining his ability to scale a swivel chair, his mother keeping close watch.
Over the next quarter hour I scrawled frantically, trying to note every monolithic peak, serpentine canyon, and white water rapid. I finally gave up pen and paper and picked up my camera, hoping to capture a few telling fragments of the California Zephyr's safari through time. The train meanders through landscapes millions of years in the making: sheer canyons carved by melting glaciers and flooding rivers, and cliffs colored more shades of red than I could count (scientifically quantified by the Colorado USGS as reddish-brown, reddish-purple, dark-reddish-brown, orangish-red, purplish-red, etc.).
By 4:00 we had passed the Ruby, Glenwood, Red, Gore and Byers canyons. The Gore was especially dramatic, its near vertical walls falling hundreds of feet to all but unnavigable, Class V white water, and climbing more than 1,000 feet up to the sky. Only the intervention of Teddy Roosevelt had saved it from being flooded by a dam. Laying track along its steep, unstable cliffs in the early 1900s required cutting edge engineering and acrobatics feats by men dangling on ropes.
The California Zephyr follows
the Humboldt, Truckee,
Colorado and Fraser Rivers.
In the fading light of the day, I met two passengers in the aisle outside their cabin, snapping pictures of falling snow. Jane and Alan had been drawn to the California Zephyr's spectacular scenery from Oxfordshire, England.
"How does the train here compare to yours in England?" I asked as we neared the high point in our trip, 9,239 feet. The train stopped and waited for a train ahead of us to clear Moffat Tunnel — a 6.2-mile passageway carved into solid rock. The tunnel was nearly thirty years in deliberation and politicking, and four in actual construction, the first train passing through in 1928.
"One of the best things is the number of places there are to relax," Alan said. "You've got your own private space, the Observation Car, the restaurant car, and the lounge. You don't get that in the U.K. You don't have dining cars anymore. The crew do a good job as well — Tony who's been looking after us here has been really, really nice. And Brian who's announcing the opening of the Lounge Car — the way he hams it up is really good."
"That's brilliant," Jane agreed.
"You wouldn't get that personality coming through in the U.K."
Snow in October!
"No, nothing like."
I asked: "Anything surprising?"
"The use of space," Jane said. "Here you have a brand new home beside a collapsed barn and a rusting washing machine. That could never happen on our small island. The U.S. is enormous."
Robert Doney, our conductor from Grand Junction to Denver, passed through the aisle. "A lot of folks from Europe have ridden with us this year. I get to show them what I see every day. A lot of them are just in awe. I've counted up to 72 bald eagles in this area. Cliffs up to 1,500 feet. February is my favorite time of year — more elk."
Around eight, I retired to my cabin to take Cynthia's advice and stare out the window. The world was completely dark, except when the train turned; then lights from the engines and the six cars ahead illuminated a narrow strip of land along the tracks. The wheels thrummed the rails. The whistle blew — long, low, unmistakable as a foghorn — and stretched out in the air. The train swayed to and fro, weaving a path forward through the invisible, digital signals of the 21st century, the clang and rattle of 19th century gold pans and railroad hammers and the massive stillness of Ice Age glaciers, sliding against stone. I fell asleep thinking about the very first California Zephyr, launched in 1949, named for the Greek and Roman god of the west wind, the most pleasant of winds. [continued...]