Trains evoke every imaginable emotion for me. I’ve teared up at the departure of friends leaving on a train. I’ve yelled in excitement as a child when a train blasted its horn as we drove alongside it. I’ve sat at a train crossing irritated at the incredible length of a freight train and I’ve wondered at all of the objects and substances and commodities that must be housed in a long line of containers. I’ve toured retired Pullman cars at railroad museums and I even once looked inside a privately-owned train car which was used by a family for elegant travel. I’ve had a fascination with cabooses for as long as I can recall, and I would still install one in my backyard as an office if one was offered to me. I like trains. I like their sounds and all the thoughts that they bring to a mind.
But I’ve never been on a train trip.
Sure, I’ve taken the odd subway ride. But, I’ve never boarded a train bound for a distant locale. And, I always kind of regretted that and had it tucked away on a “someday” list.
Enter my friend, Sean, who is a dear friend of my husband’s and has over the years become one of my closest friends, as well. He, as my family does, often travels to the area around San Francisco. A few years ago he said, “You should take the Zephyr from Denver to San Francisco one of these times.” And that echoed in my head for several summers, bouncing around romantically, but not really sticking.
This, however, was a year for adventures and a year for doing things differently. Suddenly, as though I hadn’t paid any attention for a decade, my daughter emerged into sight old enough and mature enough to travel by airplane solo, and requested to precede me to California by a few days, to have some special time with her aunts. My husband planned a motorcycle trip with colleagues that took him from Dallas, through many a national park, and onward to meet us in California. That left my son, Ford, and me with several days to make it to California in whatever mode and by whatever path we chose. We chose a train.
We hopped a Southwest flight from Dallas to Denver and easily caught a commuter train from the airport to Union Station. It was so easy, in fact, that I can state confidently that if you make someone pick you up all the way out at DIA, you are mean. The commuter train is such an easy little ride that plunks you down at the end of the line at Union Station in downtown Denver. No cabs, no waiting, no friends being forced to sit in some remote cell lot. Union Station in Denver has been completely renovated and it is wonderful. There are restaurants and shops, and a great little bookstore called the Tattered Cover. Sean met us for lunch and we sat and caught up in the middle of Union Station, whiling away an hour or two before Ford and I retired upstairs in that very building in the Crawford Hotel. I am usually cheap where hotels are concerned but this is a delightful hotel, with high ceilings and great amenities, and the train tracks are just outside the window. I sat in the window seat and watched the people go by and relaxed and lolled in the nice room.
In the morning, all we had to do was pack a simple overnight bag out of our main luggage and check our unneeded bags right at the foot of the hotel elevator for the trip to San Francisco. The train was on time and we walked out the back door of the hotel, directly into our sleeper car where we were shown to our little room. The train pulled away from Denver within moments. It could not have been any easier or more pleasant.
The Amtrak California Zephyr runs from Chicago all the way to San Francisco, stopping briefly in Denver and a handful of other spots along the way. Actually, Emeryville is the last stop and if you want to go into the city, you hop on a bus. We were heading north to Fairfax and points beyond. Stop names read like a western novel or a gold rush tale: Glenwood Springs, Provo, Elko, Winnemucca, Truckee. The route follows the Colorado River for a long stretch and goes to places to which cars do not have access. It is a thirty-three hour window on western America and the route is a national treasure. I unequivocally recommend taking this trip. If you have children, I doubly recommend it. And if you’ve just never been on a train before, as I had not, it is nothing short of a gift to yourself.
Now, that’s not to say that this is a luxury trip. You should not travel by train if you are impatient, snobbish, unfriendly or lacking a sense of humor. I’m told that some train routes have very new and shiny train cars but I would guess that I am not much older than the sleeper car in which we booked passage. Again, if you can’t handle that for a day and a half, book a flight. The facilities were roughly as nice as your standard aging airplane in style and décor. However, and this is a big however, trains are very comfortable. For those looking for a less expensive way to travel, coach on a train is a relative bargain. And from my short look, the seats are very nice and recline impressively. This is not the sardine can experience of airplanes.
I’m no princess, but I do like privacy. I’m a bit of a princess, actually, in my own weird way. I wasn’t really interested in 33 hours in coach. I read stories of delays and stoppages and imagined 33 hours stretching into 48 and up and riots breaking out over granola bars and water bottles in the deserts of Nevada. That’s stupid, I know. Though we did pass Donner Lake. Perhaps that is what caused my anxious thoughts. But, I’m often the person with a bottle of ibuprofin, a pocket knife, tweezers, a battery, bandages, and yes, the odd granola bar hidden in my purse. You can call it neurotic, I’ll call it survival of the fittest. These tendencies caused me to research booking our trip for a sleeper car. It was a great plan. Even the smallest sleeper car rooms are quite private with full curtains and an incredible view. Each sleeper car has extra storage, toilets and showers, and a coffee station. They also each have an attendant who helps with dining car reservations and other little needs.
The Amtrak site gives you 3D views of the rooms which are comically optimistic in their artistry but do give you the facts. The very most basic room in a sleeper car is called a Roomette. They have other rooms ranging in sizes to suit all family sizes and some even have their own john, which to me would be the height of luxury. But we did just fine with the shared facilities. And believe me, I stuck my head in each and every room I could as passengers disembarked and I really didn’t see a big one that I liked any better than our tiny Roomette. The Roomette consists of two seats facing one another with just enough leg room. The seats are flush to the window with about 8 inches between the other side of the seat and the door. There is a slender little closet, perhaps as wide as a shoe box. And that is it. There are ample plugs for electronic gadgetry, pillows and blankets.
However, perhaps one of the things that makes springing for the Roomette a relative bargain is that all meals are included, which for us meant eight included meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner and breakfast again, times 2). Each meal, individually, would have ranged from twenty to fifty dollars otherwise. And had I paid cash for this food I may have been irritated with the quality and the turn and burn nature of the seatings. Knowing that it was included, however, made it seem like a quick treat. And, because they seat you with as many others as they can cram into the limited seating in the dining car, you end up meeting all kinds of interesting people.
However, if I have it to do again, I will thoughtfully put together traveling food. The food in the dining car is totally acceptable for sustenance. But a properly sized bag of favorites (or even a bottle of wine for those interested) would have been a charming alternative to the included fare for a meal or two. I packed an insulated coffee mug and a few favorite instant coffee packs to deal with my caffeine needs and I was happy as could be.
I thought we would need things to do. I thought it would get monotonous. But the route was simply gorgeous and the terrain was mind boggling. Gorgeous water, craggy mountains, tunnels, forest, desert, lakes, farm land, train depots, sunsets and sunrises captivated me entirely. My two rented movies on my computer went unwatched. My book went unread. Ford played with his handheld game but didn’t miss a thing out of our picture window. I took photographs incessantly. The photos were a funny thing though. It took no time for me to find that a traditional camera was little fun because I had to take photos out of an increasingly dusty and fingerprint covered window. I took iPhone photos nonstop (because you can lay the lens flush to the window in a small clean-ish spot) and played with filters and my slow shutter app and editing apps and had a wonderful time just sitting still. Most of these photos were taken with a slow shutter because, why not? The scenery moves so fast. One might as well play to the weaknesses of the situation. It was fun.
We talked and talked. Ford went up and down into the bunk and down into his seat and up into the bunk and down into the seat. And finally, at the day’s end, he settled up in his bunk and I converted the seats into a fairly comfortable bed, and we pulled the blinds and settled into the rocking rhythm of a fast moving train rolling through the flats of Nevada.
I awakened to a blazing orange sunrise and we eventually rumbled into California. We had breakfast and wandered in the train a bit and before we knew it, we were heading into Sacramento and stayed in urban areas until we pulled into Emeryville, outside of San Francisco. We were delayed once or twice along the way for passing trains and at the last minute for a drawbridge as we approached Richmond, Ca. But we actually pulled into our destination a little bit early.
There is no wifi on the train but as you pass through communities it is easy to keep in touch, if you want to, with the outside world. But you will find that you don’t want to, other than to post photos of the wonders you have passed. As far as expectations of service go, I would say that it was akin to traveling with the United States Postal Service. There is something slightly perfunctory about the service. Occasionally, it bordered on irritated. I’m not trying to be insulting when I write that. I mean that it gets the job done, and darned well. And, I’m not sure that the employees sleep. But, it is not opulent and the service is more purposeful than refined. But, by God, the staff got us where we were going on time, through gorgeous scenery, fed, clean, happy and with all of our bags. Our car attendant was a very nice and efficient young man, who works for days at a time away from his family, dealing with all of the ranging needs of the traveling public, changing and cleaning rooms in three minutes flat whenever passengers left the train. So, if you add up the meals, the sleeping car, the experience, the views, the transportation, the amenities, and the personal service, it is something of a wonder…just as it is a wonder that the USPS can get an important envelope all the way to California for forty-four cents. Ford and I traveled from Denver to San Francisco for $578 total. That doesn’t include the flight to Denver or the hotel, of course. But still, it is hard to find two airline tickets for that cost, and airports these days…train stations win. I’m told if you want opulent train travel, it exists. But, you are going to pay for it. This was very national park-God Bless America-awesome road trip-travel.
And here’s my favorite bit. I have always fantasized about being kissed at a train station. By the time we arrived in California, my husband had made it to the West Coast and he picked us up in Emeryville. As we disembarked I saw my daughter running in our direction. She grabbed her little brother and they hugged, happy to be reunited for the moment. And there he was, through the clearing crowd, my love.
I got my passionate kiss at a train station. And, I got a ride out of the deal, too. And my little family was together again. Planes, trains, motorcycles and automobiles. We covered the whole spectrum. It made for quite the summer adventure just getting to California. We rented a beach house on Stinson Beach and stayed with Valerie and Jane on the sandy beach which ranged from cool and foggy to hot and sunny every single day. It was a dream and it took me a week to recover from the intense stillness of mind that I achieved there. Mount Tam seems to block out everything in the world. And being with Valerie and Jane feeds my creative spirit.
I can admit this now, but couldn’t until the plan succeeded. I allowed my 13 year old daughter to ride back with her dad from California on the back of his motorcycle. They went through Death Valley, Vegas, Colorado, and stopped in a million little places to hydrate and play a bit. I didn’t even tell my own mother for fear that she wouldn’t sleep for five days straight. But they rolled into Texas without incident and Lily declared it the most amazing thing she has ever done. She is a tough little bird, my hero, in fact. Her sense of adventure is growing as mine wanes and I’m glad Pitts still has it in him to climb the mountains and log the miles, while I putter about contentedly and daydream. It was an adventure that, had it not gone flawlessly, would have marked me forever as the worst mother alive. Now that I have them back, I feel like an adventurous spirit, too.
I hope you, also, are having a happy summer and finding joy in whatever you are doing, wherever you are. This was our big outing for the summer and my mind is turning back to school. Lily is heading into the eighth grade at her school here in Dallas, and Ford and I are charting a course for another year of homeschooling. For my money, our rumbling and rolling adventure through Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California counts as one heck of a field trip. Onward.
Notes: This is not a sponsored post. I do not solicit free travel services or goods or get paid to do reviews. This is simply a post about a special trip with my family. Also, one caveat, if you have balance issues, this trip might be more challenging. There is swaying and to-ing and fro-ing as you do walk between cars of head to the facilities. So, consider asking for a sleeper car near the dining car if this is an issue for you. If you are traveling with kids, ask for a sleeper car in the very back because there is no joy like the joy of an 11 year old punching door buttons to go through connecting cars.