Named after the ancient Greek god of the west wind, this journey by rail aptly captures its namesake: a gentle, mild breeze.
Hardly what would be expected from a steel machine chugging for 52 hours across six states that make up a large chunk of the American West. But that’s just how riders of the California Zephyr — an Amtrak Superliner that travels 2,438 miles daily from Chicago to the outskirts of San Francisco — define the experience.
“Relaxing is the best way to describe it. No stress, no pressure,” says business owner Joshua Beal, 35, who was traveling to Denver from Des Moines, Iowa.
Long-distance train rides like this one could disappear if Congress approves budget cuts proposed by President Donald Trump. Exactly how the proposed slash in funding would end up, if approved, remains unclear. But the possibility the Zephyr could cease service raised concern among employees and riders during a recent journey.
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“I always assumed they were self-funding. I didn’t realize it required public funding,” Beal says. “I would hope they don’t do away with the trains. It gives people a chance to see the small communities. It gives you a better view of America, how other people live.”
If they get rid of it, it’d be the end of an era.
James Buhle, Amtrak employee
“If they get rid of it, it’d be the end of an era,” says James Buhle, a longtime dining attendant.
The Americana snapshots come with a history lesson on a route that dates back to the mid 1800s.
On this sunny but nippy Thursday, the laid-back ambiance of the California Zephyr begins even before boarding with a midday wine tasting at Chicago’s Union Station.
Passengers in the lounge area nibble on cheese squares and carrot sticks while sipping Malbec or Pinot Grigio. Some opt for a warm cup of coffee, instead. A man in a baseball cap studies the map for the train route, which will go across Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah and Nevada, ending in Emeryville, California, across the bay from San Francisco.
Nearby, a group of elderly travelers discusses the debate over the Affordable Care Act. Teenagers sit like statues, their ears plugged, eyes focused on cellphones and fingers busy scrolling or tapping. Parents call after toddlers who want to dash here and there, exploring the elegant station.
The boarding call comes about a half-hour before the 2 p.m. departure. Stepping outside feels like walking into a refrigerator, the 44-degree temperature spurring passengers to quicken their pace as they make their way to Track #22.
The train fills up quickly with families, couples, retirees, entrepreneurs and tourists. Riders of various ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds easily settle into cars on the double decker. Among them are a preschool teacher, Vietnam veteran, environmentalist, real estate agent, computer software engineer, a Native American who grew up in Alaska and a group of Amish travelers.
“I hate flying; they pack you in those things,” says frequent rider Brandon Arndt, 21, returning to Denver after visiting his mom in Wisconsin. “Here, even in coach you get a lot of room.”
Arndt advises other passengers to be sure to grab a seat in the sightseer lounge car, a popular spot that offers sky views as well as windows on both sides of the train.
The highway takes the more convenient route and the train takes the most scenic route.
Joshua Beal, passenger
The scenes begin to emerge as soon as the train pulls out of the station, leaving behind Chicago’s downtown skyscrapers, and rolls past warehouses and over a highway. Soon, sprawling suburban homes appear, and at mile 104 comes the town of Princeton, settled in the 1830s. It’s where abolitionist Owen Lovejoy opened his home to freed slaves en route to Canada on the Underground Railroad. Farther up the route, affluent homes grace one side of the rail while decrepit wooden frame houses stand crookedly on the other side. Some lawns are littered with rusted vehicles; others serve as a stage for lavish swing sets.
There is a brief stop at Galesburg where some passengers get off and others board. This town has ties to the railroad long before Amtrak. The train chugs past the City Steel Supply Co., beyond small farms and neighborhoods. Then it crosses the Burlington Rail Bridge and a muddy body of water appears, the Mississippi River.
“The highway takes the more convenient route, and the train takes the most scenic route,” says Beal, the passenger from Des Moines.
The train ride is not only for sightseeing. It also provides a connection to rural towns, where the nearest airport is hours away, and an opportunity to see places so remote they are not accessible by road.
For those who live in those remote areas, like Galen Lambeth, 70, of Wood River, Nebraska, the train is an invaluable mode of transportation. He has taken it a dozen times over the past four years to see his wife in Lafayette, Indiana, where she had to move to get a job after being laid off.
The closest train station to Lambeth is 22 miles vs. 150 miles for the closest airport. “It would be a shame if they cut this,” he says.
Along the water’s edge, at mile 205 of the trip, is Burlington, where Zebulon Pike led an expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase. Before train service began here in 1868, travelers relied on a ferry to cross the Mississippi or, in the winter, walked across the frozen river. As the California Zephyr continues west, the rolling snapshots shift with the sound of the train whistle. Vast farmlands, a grain silo, rows of tombstones from a cemetery, the embrace of family members greeting arriving relatives at the Mount Pleasant station.
At mile 359 is Osceola, named after Florida’s Seminole War leader, who was captured and imprisoned in the 1830s after agreeing to meet with U.S. government representatives for alleged peace talks. He ultimately died in prison.
Passenger Lynn Taylor, 73, knows all about war. The Marine veteran was returning home to Montana after attending the funeral for an Army buddy he met during the Vietnam War.
The train provided a reprieve from an emotional burial and the opportunity to recount his own harrowing tales from the battlefield, which left physical wounds that still make his body ache and emotional scars that deprive him of sleep. Without the train, he would not have made it to the funeral.
“I couldn’t drive that far,” he says.
The scenes outside the window fade out as nightfall envelopes the Zephyr. But there are several historic landmarks in this state.
The first body of water along the rail is the Missouri River. This is where Lewis and Clark, in 1804, set out to explore the river, hoping that it would serve as the “Northwest Passage” to the Pacific. It didn’t.
By the time the train pulls into the station at Omaha, it’s too dark to see beyond the evening lights. At mile 507, the train crosses Platte River, which served as a major emigrant trail for those headed west in the mid-1800s. Farther west, in Hastings, comes a fun fact highlighted in the route brochure: it’s where Edwin Perkins, in 1927, invented the powder that turns water into the colorful Kool-Aid drink.
That’s the kind of information that could come in handy for preschool teacher Jodi Becker, who planned to share some details of the trip with her students in San Francisco.
“I was sad to hear they they might discontinue,” says Becker, 38, a first-time rider. “We don’t often get an opportunity to just slow down and see what’s around you. To sit and chat and go deep about anything, even with strangers. Being able to connect to somebody that you probably, at first glance, wouldn’t think you’d connect to.”
We don’t often get an opportunity to just slow down and see what’s around you.
Jodi Becker, first-time rider
The California Zephyr service began in 1983. At full capacity, the train can carry some 300 passengers and travel as fast as 79 mph.
The Trump administration has said the proposed funding cuts to Amtrak’s long-distance routes would provide resources to better manage the more popular and profitable Northeast Corridor, which provides commuter service between Washington, D.C., and Boston.
According to Amtrak, some 11.9 million riders traveled aboard the NEC in the 2016 fiscal year compared to 4.6 million riders aboard Amtrak’s long-distance routes. The California Zephyr accommodated 417,322 riders in fiscal year 2016.
While the long-distance ridership is lower than on commuter routes, its disappearance could affect 500 communities, according to Amtrak CEO and President Wick Moorman, the Business Insider reported.
“Amtrak operates 15 long-distance trains across the nation, and these routes offer the only Amtrak service in 23 of the 46 states we serve,” Moorman said in a statement, the Business Insider reported. “These trains connect our major regions, provide vital transportation to residents in rural communities and generate connecting passengers and revenue for our Northeast Corridor and State-Supported services.”
As the adults aboard the California Zephyr take in the sights, children pass the time playing cards, drawing, building puzzles and snacking on jellybeans and other treats.
“We travel a lot, by plane, bus, car, “ says passenger Kristin Patterson, who was accompanied by her husband, mother and 1 1/2-year-old son Maxwell. “This is our first time on a train because it was on my mom’s bucket list. Had I been in coach would I do this? No. But having a sleeper makes all the difference. Definitely easier for children.”
By the time the sun rises on the second day of the trip, the Denver skyline makes its appearance. The station here has a modern feel and is popular among those making their way up to the ski slopes.
Mechanical engineer Bill Squier, 52, and real estate agent, Julie Blethen, hop aboard for a snow-boarding excursion in Utah. The 15-hour train ride cost $85.
As the Zephyr pulls out of Denver, it chugs past several homeless encampments and an industrial complex. Soon, the city gives way to snow-covered landscapes and evergreen trees dusted with snowflakes. The mountains wear thick snow caps. So do the skiers at Winter Park.
“Oh, man. I feel like got my money’s worth already,” says Squier, looking out the window. “This is awesome.”
The postcard views get richer past the Moffat Tunnel, among 31 tunnels the train runs through in this area, where the snow thickens and the Rockies share some of its secrets — rugged mountains, canyons, rivers, a herd of elks and a view of the Gore Canyon at mile 1,115 on the upper Colorado River that has no roads, making it accessible only by rail or kayak.
The train goes past a silo, bright yellow storage containers, ranches with grazing cattle, a construction crew, pastures. The rocks and soil change color here with hues of red. At Grand Junction, the Zephyr rolls past a car wash sign, through towns, across railroad crossings, beyond farm fields.
Here, the state line sign is painted on a canyon wall, the work of railroaders. Five miles in comes the final glimpse of the Colorado River. A train carrying coal rumbles alongside, momentarily blocking the view.
Then massive rock formations that take the form of sculptures emerge. Holes carved into the sandstone cliffs are known as “Moki Steps,” used by Ancient Pueblo Peoples to access difficult to reach areas. The region is said to be a treasure of Native American artifacts and dinosaur fossils. The gigantic cliffs were once all underwater, passengers are told by the tour guide. The cliffs take on layers of colors, green, yellow, red and brown. This is high desert, parts of which served as sets for movies like “Thelma and Louise.”
At Green River, a popular rafting destination, train passengers are treated to a series of full moons — not from the sky but from rafters who pull down their skivvies in a perfectly choreographed performance, causing a roar of “Oh, my God!” and laughter aboard the train.
Serenity is soon restored by the captivating rock formations. At mile 1,542, a ghost town appears. Thistle was abandoned following a mudslide in 1983 “that moved part of a mountain, blocked two creeks and formed an earthen dam,” according to a trip brochure. Remnants of a typical Old West railroad can be seen in Cisco, another ghost town, which served as inspiration for Johnny Cash’s song, “Cisco Clifton’s Fillin Station.”
Sand dunes that resemble elephant skin soon take over the landscape, some looking like pyramids. Holes in the ground serve as homes for prairie dogs that poke out and stand upright as if waving.
The topography begins to get greener here. Grass covers some mountain tops and more shrubs are scattered across the land. But the terrain remains rugged.
Lovelock, at mile 2,086, is said to have been the most difficult part of the journey for Pony Express riders and those who traveled west by wagons. The Humboldt River would disappear into sand, leaving water that was barely drinkable. Today’s scenery offers views of agricultural fields before giving way to suburbs, hotels and casinos.
City life takes shape once the train enters Reno. Graffiti covers stretches of walls along the rail. Homes sit on a ridge. The train trudges past a metal salvage yard as it makes its way to the station and later passes a Union Pacific train with an American flag painted on its side. Farther out, it rolls past a billboard, trucks bearing Bacardí’s iconic bat logo and an industrial complex.
From Fernley, at mile 2,154, the train begins to follow the Truckee River, its strength evident by the sandbags along the perimeter of homes along the banks. Further along the rail route, pine trees poke out of snow-capped mountains.
As the train continue its journey west, the earth’s tone becomes a richer green with thicker grass and evergreen trees.
The final leg of the journey begins at mile 2,223 in Floriston, home to rainbow and brook trout and German browns that travel up and down the river. The town itself looks like the set of a Western film with wooden structures reminiscent of old saloons.
At Soda Springs, the train offers snapshots of Lake Van Norden to its left and on the right Castle Peak, a mountain topped with a rock formation that looks like a castle. In the dining car, conversations center on possible funding cuts.
“Oh yeah, if this thing is signed, and it might be, these trips will end,” someone says.
“That’s the worry every year,” says conductor Chris Nelson, 37, who has been working the California Zephyr route for a decade. “It’s kind of scary. Railroading is a difficult way to make money. The airline industry is the same. They’re subsidized just as much as we are.”
Outside, low-hanging clouds give the terrain a misty feel. The snow is so deep in some areas, it reaches the tops of houses. The Zephyr ultimately reaches the treetops on the mountains before it begins to descend at Cape Horn, mile 2,298. The rocky bluff is some 1,500 feet above the American River. This is the steepest point on the route as the train begins its journey downhill on the final stretch of the Sierras.
Snow starts to disappear, giving way to the red soil. The temperature outside is above 50 degrees, with some passersby opting for T-shirts rather than jackets. Soon after, the Zephyr rolls past the heart of “Gold Rush” country at Auburn, mile 2,319, and a voice over the intercom shares details about how the railroad tracks came to be.
“If any undertaking can be said to have relied on the diversity of the nation’s ethnicity, it was the construction of America’s railroad,” the voice says.
If any undertaking can be said to have relied on the diversity of the nation’s ethnicity, it was the construction of America’s railroad.
In Roseville come the first sightings of palm trees. Nearby hills are covered in green. Some homes have boats or campers parked on the lawn. A vendor sells food on the side of the road.
As the Zephyr approaches the capital city of Sacramento, homeless tents emerge alongside the rail. Highways buzz with traffic. Buildings are under construction. Fields are flooded from heavy rainfall. Railway ties are stacked near the station.
The threat of federal funding cuts has been lingering for years. But conductor Evan Gerdes fears there is real momentum this time to make it happen, marking an end to the California Zephyr service.
“This is not a job for me, it’s a passion,” says Gerdes. “I love it.”
At times, the trip seems surreal, like watching a film. The scenes change but the location is the same: USA.
Past the capital city, life takes shape in the form of humble homes and trailer parks. A green alien figure adorns the front door to one of the trailers. The Zephyr goes through the several towns, making a brief stop at Martinez, birthplace of baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. It rolls past storage tanks, an industrial facility and freighters crossing San Pablo Bay, where more homeless encampments are set up near the water.
The train passes under bridges then goes through suburban neighborhoods with sprawling homes and goats in a field. There are small vineyards along the way, agricultural fields and orchards. A bounce house sits on a front lawn, waiting for the party to begin.
End optional trim
On its final stretch, the route ends as it begins, surrounded by city life as varied as the graffiti now visible on concrete. Pet owners walk their dogs. Bedsheets hang on wires in a backyard to dry. Apartment buildings and single-family homes swallow hills. Sailboats cruise on the bay and then, under a haze of fog, emerges the San Francisco skyline.
This is Emeryville. Final stop.
“The rumors of cutbacks are rife; people are upset,” says Jean Bartlett, from South Wales, England, who was with her husband David celebrating his retirement as a truck driver. “This is an icon isn’t it? To be able to see sites that you couldn’t see by plane?”
“What I would say to Congress is leave it alone,” says Jean Bartlett. “Give [Amtrak] more money. They could use it to upgrade.”
Follow Nancy San Martin on Twitter: @nsanmartin
If you go
California Zephyr prices vary, depending on the time of year and type of accommodation.
Current prices range from $170 for a coach seat to $1,100 for a sleeper with a private bath and includes meals.
For more information, visit www.amtrak.com