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Riding the California Zephyr

  • Written by  John Gilbey
  • Published in Places
A long stretch of book cliffs glows in the afternoon sunshine in Utah A long stretch of book cliffs glows in the afternoon sunshine in Utah John Gilbey
04 Jun
Writer and photographer John Gilbey needed a cheap way of getting from Denver to San Francisco and he wasn’t in a hurry. A train journey across the American West aboard the California Zephyr beckoned

The card game in the Observation Car had, according to the tired-looking guy across the aisle from me, been running since the train left Chicago the previous day – and was now getting animated. Fuelled by regular trays of Bloody Marys served up by Jack in the bar downstairs, the four elderly players – brightly tinted ladies with a huge sense of fun – hooted with excitement as the train to San Francisco edged its way in wide switchbacks across the foothills of the Rocky Mountains west of Denver.

I’d joined the California Zephyr at Denver’s Union Station, a wonderfully retro, newly restored tribute to the glory days of trans-continental rail travel. The Zephyr, due to depart at 8.10am, was fashionably late, so I sat on the slatted wooden benches of the station, waiting for the worryingly named Terminal Bar to open.

Boarding was an oddly airport-like experience, with those holding room bookings being processed first, leaving those of us clutching coach tickets sizzling quietly in the June sunshine. After a quick scan of my PDF ticket by an amiable crew member, I was directed to Car 512 – a shiny, air-conditioned, double-decker Superliner coach right next to the Observation Car.

After years of UK train travel, wedged in a narrow seat with my knees somewhere around my ears, the seat was a revelation – like a surprise business-class upgrade. Wide enough to accommodate even my ample girth, it featured a swing-up leg rest that promised to make the 33-hour trip to San Francisco Bay much more comfortable than I’d imagined. It was, and when I was decanted onto the platform at Emeryville – Amtrak’s port of entry into San Francisco – I was still able to walk unaided.

Map image

Chicago to Emeryville (San Francisco): 3,923 kilometres (2,438 miles), 51.5 hours. Denver to Emeryville (San Francisco): 2,253 kilometres (1,400 miles), 33 hours.
People: In 2019, 406,228 people rode the California Zephyr – of which 325,681 were coach and 80,547 sleeper passengers.
Coaches: Typically made up of ten Superliner coaches, including three sleeping cars, a dining car, a sightseer lounge, coach-class accommodation and a baggage car – all hauled by two General Electric P42DC diesel-electric locomotives.
Cost: A Denver to Emeryville coach ticket for June 2021 booked in March starts at US$118.

The train trundled gently out through the suburbs, climbing low, green slopes dotted with small groups of expensive-looking residences. In not much more than half an hour, we were well above the plains, looping across the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in a landscape transitioning from rolling grassland to steeply wooded bluffs. As we climbed, the views became wilder and more rugged. Pines clung to rocky cliffs alongside narrow, youthful rivers rushing to the plain below. Raptors wheeled overhead as the train pressed forward into a distinctly alpine environment with patches of June snow still visible on the mountaintops. We paused at the entrance to the Moffat Tunnel while a long coal train came eastwards past us, then waited longer while the tunnel cleared of fumes. With a length of ten kilometres, this is the second-longest passenger rail tunnel in the USA – and marks the highest point of the Zephyr’s journey at 2,816 metres.

Emerging from the tunnel, we had crossed – or burrowed under – the Continental Divide. On the western side of this mountainous line, which dissects the entire continent from north to south, every stream and river that reaches the sea drains to the Pacific Ocean, rather than the Gulf of Mexico. The snow had almost gone from the resort of Winter Park, leaving the broad, graded ski runs cut through the steep pine woods exposed and barren. Woven among the trees, low-rise wood-clad buildings stood mostly empty, waiting for the return of the seasonal trade.

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Image 1The weathered hills of Colorado loom over a few rural houses. Image: John Gilbey

Beyond the town of Granby we ran alongside the Colorado River, which we would follow as far as Grand Junction, for the first time. In the broadening valley, buggies rolled across manicured golf courses, while new fairways were in the process of being carved into the slopes beyond. A lone motorbike rider curved out of the gravel parking lot by the Parshall Inn, pulling away west along US-40 in a quintessential fragment of American imagery.

The Colorado River moved languidly in sweeping meanders across the floodplain below Kremmling then, abruptly, was squeezed into a narrow cleft between steep, bleak cliffs and changed to a torrent of serious whitewater. Within a few miles, gaggles of rafts laden with tanned young folk appeared – launched from camp grounds alongside the river. Some waved up at the train, others turned away and collectively lowered their shorts in unison. The reaction from the conductor was instant and regretful. ‘Sorry folks’, he intoned over the PA, ‘I guess you now know why we call this stretch Moon River.’

Image 3Beyond the Continental Divide, the train follows the line of the Colorado River. Image: John Gilbey

As we settled into the journey, I began to take stock of my fellow passengers. While the majority had opted for roomette accommodation, here in coach we were a varied bunch: students on their way home for the summer; a washed-up gambler heading for the casinos of Reno; earnest, bearded young men in straw hats with wives and children in simple cotton clothes – Mennonite families heading for northern California; and older folk just taking a ride to the next town to see relatives.

Having introduced ourselves, we rumbled on through the afternoon as the landscape became arid and barren. The view turned from hills to mesas and buttes with pronounced strata and heaped talus cones. Through all of this, the Colorado ran like a lifeline, irrigating floodplain crops that ranged from forage to rows of grape vines. Stepping out onto the platform as we paused at Grand Junction, the temperature and humidity were impressive for late afternoon, and I watched as thunderclouds began to gather around the hills.

Utah brought a new level of desolation, with wildly eroded badlands and almost-abandoned settlements clinging to crumbling infrastructure. Shingles dangled uncertainly from a house with curtains but no glass in the windows. A brick-built motel right beside the tracks was boarded up and posted with ‘No Trespassing’ signs, apart from a single window through which an armchair was visible. At Green River, a single passenger alighted and walked uncertainly up the centre of the broad, deserted street towing a large suitcase behind him. I hoped he’d reached the right town of Green River – there is another in Wyoming five hours drive to the north.

‘Good morning, this is your Zephyrette Jean Williams. On behalf of the Western Pacific, Rio Grande and Burlington railroads, I welcome you aboard the California Zephyr.’ It was 20 March 1949 and the Zephyrettes were ready to serve. These female hostesses worked on the line until 1970, making announcements, arranging bridge games and taking dinner reservations. The requirements were stringent: Zephyrettes were to be between 24 and 28 years old, single, with a height of between five feet four and five feet eight inches, and of ‘good character with a pleasing personality’. They were also expected to have a college degree or the equivalent of a registered nurse’s training, although these requirements were later relaxed. ‘She must conduct herself with dignity and poise, and avoid any familiarities and acceptance of invitations from passengers or employees of the railroads,’ read Mileposts, the Western Pacific’s company magazine, in 1951.

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As the setting sun dropped below the cloud, Utah showed its other, spectacular, side. The train passed a series of book cliffs – so called because of their resemblance to a shelf of books. The long, corrugated wall of rock glowed orange and red in the last of the sunshine as lines of cloud angled above it. Long after dark, we rolled into Salt Lake City, whose empty platforms and distant city lights are the last things I recall seeing before falling asleep.

Dawn found us in Nevada and on Pacific not Mountain time. Eating my second breakfast on the train, a highly calorific muffin with some serious coffee, brought home to me just how long this journey was. Misty layers of cloud hung around the mountaintops of the Nevada Desert, which had clearly experienced recent cloudbursts, while thin segments of rainbow appeared above them. Flattened vegetation and pools of water began to show beside the track and shortly afterwards we slowed to a halt – the conductor informing us that the track ahead was flooded. Deserts have weather, too. For hour after hour, little human habitation was visible – just the occasional lonely truck stop and a few rough aggregations of trailer homes and RVs where road and rail intersected. Not for the first time, I congratulated myself on choosing not to drive this route – and thought how onerous the experience of those undertaking the journey in previous centuries must have been.

At Reno station, a grey concrete trough cut below the city centre, the conductor admonished us not to leave the platform during the brief layover. He had, apparently, lost too many passengers to the get-rich-quick appeal of the casinos just a few yards from the station. ‘I know what you’re thinking,’ he intoned in a doom-laden voice. ‘Run up the stairs, stick a quarter in a machine, hit the jackpot… miss the train. Don’t do it.’ I didn’t risk it.

Image 5A lone figure on a motorbike rides along the road near Parshall, Colorado. Image: John Gilbey

Misty rain engulfed us as we began the long, slow climb into the Sierra Nevada range. Pine trees and low shrubs grew among huge granite boulders beside tumbling mountain streams. Cloud all but obscured my view of the land below Donner Pass – infamous for an episode of cannibalism during the severe winter of 1846–47 – but it looked bleak enough to warrant its dark reputation.

Beyond Emigrant Gap, the cloud began to clear as we dropped down towards Sacramento and the broad Central Valley of California. Many of the passengers left at Sacramento to transfer to the Coast Starlight service north to Seattle and the last few hours of the journey through the college town of Davis and past the carefully tended fields felt oddly anticlimactic. But merging across the Benicia-Martinez rail bridge onto the edge of San Francisco Bay was like a new beginning.

After skirting the shore of the bay, the train eased gently into the unassuming Emeryville Station – the final stop for the Zephyr. From here I took the Thruway bus across the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge before being dropped off in the centre of San Francisco’s business district.

As I wandered through the familiar crowds of Market Street in the afternoon sunshine, I reflected on the journey. What had started out as a cheap and convenient travel option had become something much more – a pivotal experience on a classic train, a journey that will stay with me forever.

Since May 1971, much of the passenger rail in the USA, especially long-distance routes, has been managed by Amtrak, a federally chartered corporation with the federal government as majority shareholder. Amtrak operates 44 routes covering 34,400 kilometres and in 2019, carried 32 million passengers. The pandemic has taken its toll, however. The company reported an operating loss of US$801.1 million in preliminary results for the fiscal year 2020, in which it provided just 16.8 million trips, down 47.4 per cent on the previous year.

Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

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