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My eyes opened exactly as the train trundled across a bridge above the Missouri River. The sun rose over corn fields, light falling on acres of husks and stubble, turning them varying shades of tender, Iowa yellow, a tone totally different from yesterday's vibrant, flaming, sun-god golden cottonwoods.
A little early snow adds to
brilliant fall colors.
Unlike Colorado's variations on vertical, Iowa was all about the horizon. Sunlight spread over patterns cut into the prairie — fields plowed in straight stripes, catawampus ribbons, narrow rows, stripes verging on plaid. That morning, Iowa owned the sky as well, rays of sunlight streaming through the clouds, halos splitting into thick, palpable beams that stretched for a million miles from the sun toward the corn fields.
Somehow I missed breakfast, again. Lost in ruminations on the landscape, everything I'd seen yesterday and everything I'd just barely glimpsed. Finally I lost track of where I was, gave up trying, and began identifying favorite places with Zephyr-like names: the golden trees by the river: Apollo’s Grove, and the stream surrounded by white birch: Daphne's Wood. Birds rose en masse from a cornfield and flew just over the tops of the ears, low and fast, in rapidly shifting formations. I thought of Van Gogh, made a mental note to stop by the new wing of the Chicago Art Institute. By the time we reached Burlington, I was starved.
Ali Liebegott, who's writing a
book about American poets,
heads home after a visit to
Emily Dickinson's home.
Over lunch, John, the Dining Car Attendant, mentioned his 23 year tenure on the train. "What's held your interest?" I asked as he set my apple walnut salad on the table. He glanced out the window and then around the Dining Car. "You never know who's going to sit down next. A police chief, an engineer, a tightrope walker." He pointed to a couple at the far end of the car. "Newlyweds."
After tea and lemon sorbet, I stopped to congratulate them and ask why they'd chosen the California Zephyr. The bride, Christine Tani, replied immediately, "On a plane, the best thing that you can say is that the trip was uneventful."
For a moment, the truth of her words stopped our conversation.
The granite boulders and
forested mountains of the
Sierra Nevada near Donner
"It's never fun," she added. "People have been riding the train for 150 years. It makes me feel so connected to history."
I was still mulling over Christina's words as the train approached Chicago's Union Station a few hours later. Outside, above the city's train yards and graffiti-clad freight cars, mirrored skyscrapers reflected the autumn sky. I recalled images from earlier in the trip: Just south of Sacramento, fields on the west side of the train filled with hundreds of yellow butternut squash and bright orange pumpkins and on the east side, Sacramento's skyscrapers stretched out in single file, as if trying to project the appearances of serious-business from the middle of a pumpkin patch. In Colorado, a parade of blazing red trees, and in Nevada, thousands of tiny flowers blooming a few inches from the tracks. Early one morning, somewhere, a field packed with rusting cars and nearby, another filled with flaming cottonwood trees. Maybe that's what made a classic rail journey: it delivered the soul of a place, in all its complexities — not a fabricated version, spun for billboards or talk shows, but the unprocessed, wild essence of the world.