Chicago to San Francisco on Amtrak’s California Zephyr

Posted by Mike Merritt in Travelogue on

Had a pretty low-key night in Chicago, what with a train to board the following afternoon. Woke up, got dressed, got some snacks for the trip, and headed for Union Station.

Got a cab to the station, which is in a quite scenic part of the city.  Headed inside, got some lunch, and located the waiting room. One nice thing about being a sleeper car passenger is having access to the station’s Metropolitian Lounge, which comes with nice chairs, better climate control, and it’s own access to the train. I didn’t have long in there by the time I ate. About 10 minutes. Oh well, I’ll have another shot at one in LA.

Finally got on the train, about 20 minutes before departure. I put my big luggage in the rack; poor thing was alone pretty much until Denver. Good for me, though, as I needed to get something Monday morning.

As you can see, my Superliner Roomette was pretty small, but it worked well enough for me. There are two seats, both of which fold down into a bed when needed, or when the car attendant comes around at night. There’s also a bunk above for the second person. There’s a single outlet, two reading lights, two overhead lights, AC control, speaker volume control, and a small closest. That’s about it.

I spent much of my time in the lounge car, which is equipped with large picture windows and a smaller window toward the ceiling for sky views. The entire point of this trip for me was to see the country, and so I spent as much time there as possible.

An attendant came around shortly into our departure to take dinner reservations, which I set for 6:45pm the first night. There were several options; on the first night I chose chicken, mashed potato, veggies, and ice cream for dessert. Amtrak does not skimp on its meals – not the chicken one, anyway, which was a very meaty half – and I left feeling pretty full.

Due to space restrictions, diners are forced to sit together. I enjoyed it, though. I got put with an exuberant older couple, and another older woman also traveling to San Francisco. The couple were traveling to a place in Colorado for fishing and other activities. They seemed to be heavily traveled. I think England, France, Iceland, and Sweden were all in there somewhere. Yes, I’m jealous!

After dinner, I returned to my room for a bit and then made another attempt at the lounge car. Unfortunately, it was dark by the and there was nothing to see, so I returned to my room to wait for bed service.

I can’t really complain about sleeping on a train, which I knew would present challenges. I did wake up every two hours, but I’d been doing that for the previous week when I was hacking up stuff.

After spending the previous day seeing farm after farm after farm, I woke for a final time on the second day to the short grass of Colorado, just outside Denver. As it was a longer stop, I took my chance to get in a shower, then headed down to breakfast just in time for us to begin climbing the Rocky Mountains. Met a nice man a breakfast who originated from Boston before also heading to San Francisco. Breakfast consisted of French toast and applewood bacon, and was very good.

Switchback after switchback, we climbed and climbed, from Denver’s 5,000 feet to just over 9000 feet. The trek through was filled with tunnels, culminating in the 9 mile Moffat Tunnel, which was the longest one of the 43 tunnels traversed during the trip through the Rockies.

After that, we had a short air break just outside a resort. Then back on the train for the next leg of the Rockies trip, bringing us to the Colorado River and three canyons. One of them, Byers Canyon, was the victim of a fire just last week. I could still see the charring from the flames, which went all the way over to the highway alongside the canyon.

After working on this entry a bit, went to the lounge car to see more mountains. Had lunch with a doctor, a woman who used to work in medical ethics, and a woman heading to Burning Man. Lunch was a fried chicken piece with onion sauce and potatoes. If I’d known it was fried, I may have selected differently, but it was still good.

Much of the rest of the day was spent in the lounge car, punctuated with a couple failed attempts to read a book. By lunch, we’d mostly passed through the mountains and were entering the desert, with its own rocky features. Took an opportunity to get off and stretch my legs at Grand Junction, CO.

Took my second dinner at 7:15pm, only to find myself with the doctor from lunch, as well as a nurse and another man. Had a flatiron steak with mashed potatoes and veggies. The previous night, one of my dinner partners sent her’s back because it was too well done, but I had no problem with mine. It was very juicy and an easy eat.

Returned to my room afterward, finally got a little reading done. Got ready for bed, but allowed myself a few minutes off the train at Salt Lake City.

We zoomed through most of Nevada during the night, and I woke up to us about to arrive in Reno. By the time I was all set for the day, we’d passed into California and climbed into the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Lake Tahoe area, with evergreen trees aplenty. I made my way back to the lounge car, where I spent most of my time. Had lunch with two women from Boston who started on the Lake Shore Limited in Massachusetts (this seems to be a somewhat common occurrence, going from coast to coast). Then returned to the lounge car one last time before departing in Emeryville with a bus then taxi to the city and my hotel.

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