All Aboard The California Zephyr

Two weeks ago I traveled from San Francisco to Denver. The trip took thirty-three hours.

It was my first long train ride. A friend had told me about the route and I’d taken to the idea immediately. Relaxing, seeing the sights, traveling for its own sake… What’s not to like?

But when I told my other friends and coworkers about the voyage, my enthusiasm was met with confusion. Is it cheaper than a plane ticket? No, it costs twice as much. Are you stopping anywhere along the way? Nope. Then why?

To be honest I found it romantic. I pictured myself curled up with a book as the scenery outside changed. But their questions did raise a valid point. Who else was buying these impractical, expensive, and even dangerous tickets?

After thirty-three hours aboard the California Zephyr, I have my answer.

The appeal of spending two days on a train is not obvious to everyone, but it was obvious to Ben.

Ben is the most adventurous person I know. We became friends in college while tutoring at the writing center. After graduation Ben taught English in Adana, Turkey, despite knowing zero Turkish beforehand. He avoided making friends with English speakers to force himself to learn the language and the strategy paid off. A year later he moved to Istanbul to work as a translator for a national newspaper. He then spent two relatively normal years consulting in Washington, D.C., before moving on to his current job: opening a tennis park in Denver.

Conveniently, the California Zephyr stops in Denver on its way to Chicago, so our itinerary wrote itself. Ben would fly to San Francisco on Saturday, we’d board the train Sunday morning and arrive in Denver Monday night, and then I’d fly back home on Tuesday.

The weekend finally came. We woke up early and headed to the Emeryville Amtrak station, our point of departure. The station was nothing special: a big rectangle with ticket offices to the right, a snack shop to the left, and a hundred or so chairs in the middle. At the front of the room stood a booth covered in maps and brochures. “Become the next Amtrak volunteer” read the cover of one brochure. Today’s volunteer was a Chinese man in his late sixties. He proudly told us about the train and our route, a “straight shot” through the Sierra Nevadas and the Rockies. I asked him why some people prefer the train over air travel. He told me there was “no comparison.” Air travel is a long, cumbersome process, but with trains “you just walk on.”

The California Zephyr in all her splendor.

Indeed we did. The California Zephyr pulled into the station and we boarded. Ben and I had splurged for a “superliner roomette,” which was located in the sleeper car toward the front. We were underwhelmed. Within, two chairs faced each other about a foot apart. Above them hung a narrow bunk. The folks at Amtrak were right to call it a roomette, for there was nothing roomy about it.

Our roomette’s interior, like that of the rest of the rain, looked as though it hadn’t been updated in fifty years. An LED reading light and a single electrical outlet served as the only modern touches. Other amenities included a yellowed plastic tray table and a thermostat ranging from COLD to HOT. We stowed our bags and looked out the window at the Post Office next door, another sign of times gone by.

Ben sitting in our roomette, eager for our journey to begin.

Soon we were underway. Our voyage was turning out exactly as I’d imagined it: a quiet retreat from the rest of humanity.

But that all changed when we left our roomette. We went to the observation car and found ourselves among all kinds of people. They held carefree conversations and looked out the tall windows. Natural light filled the car. It seemed a far more pleasant and enjoyable place than our dingy sleeper, so we spent the rest of the trip there playing cards and chatting with others. I had several books with me but never opened any of them, for our fellow travelers were far more interesting. I’d wondered who else was buying train tickets, and all I had to do was ask.

First rule of train travel: get comfortable sharing with strangers. When we first got to the observation car there weren’t any empty booths so we joined a man sitting by himself. He greeted us with a smile and introduced himself as Michael*. He wore a light gray sweater and slacks, and appeared to be in his early sixties. A big man, he filled out his chair and sat with his hands in his lap as he stared out the window. Like almost everyone else we met, he was eager to chat.

Michael manages a ski resort in Colorado and has an affinity for slow travel. He and his wife frequently go on cruises, especially when deals can be had. They’ve cruised more than forty times, and as loyal Princess Cruises customers enjoy the fruits of said loyalty. Michael proudly told us about the times they’d eaten at the captain’s table and the other perks of being regulars. They were once invited to an onboard gala attended by a famous baseball player who let Michael wear his World Series ring for a day. Upon hearing this I gave Michael an unbelieving glance. He shrugged. “Where was I gonna go with it?”

Michael rides the train whenever he has time. On this particular trip, he and his wife were splitting a “bedroom” — the deluxe version of a roomette — which came with a toilet and shower. “We could have taken a fourteen-day cruise to Europe for this money,” he said, and, having spent $300 for our meager roomette, I believed him.

He likes traveling by train for the history and adventure of it. Once, he’d been riding the Zephyr when its second engine, the one responsible for heating the train, got struck by a tree. They’d just begun their ascent into the Rockies and it was too cold outside to proceed without heat, so they waited until the engine could be swapped out. All told they suffered a delay of nine hours. “Trains don’t always run on time,” he said. “It’s adventure travel.”

Michael wasn’t the only one looking for an adventure. At lunch on the first day we split a booth with Chris and Gabby who were taking the train all the way to Chicago. “It’s our Valentine’s Day dinner,” Chris explained. They had the giddy enthusiasm of a high-school couple despite being in their fifties. Chris had taken the Amtrak to Chicago nearly thirty years earlier and he wanted to relive the experience with Gabby.

Chris is a carpenter, though he hasn’t worked since he hurt his back. Before that he drove a limo. He has a wide build and a deep, loud voice. Gabby is his opposite: quiet and petite. They’re both divorced and they both have kids. Chris has a twenty-five-year-old daughter who bartends in San Francisco. Gabby is a grandmother.

Gabby has worked as a 911 dispatcher for the past eighteen years. I told her that she must have some stories. “Oh yes,” she said. “I want to write a book.” She’s been taking notes on the interesting calls since she began working. Occasionally she’ll replay a call and record it with her smartphone. She smiled when she told us this detail, as if pleased with her own mischievousness.

Chris is the same way. He regretted not bringing alcohol onboard and asked us if we had any “booze.” He continually breached the topic, and every time the train made a stop he’d look around for a liquor store. He informed us that drinking is allowed onboard as long as it’s not in the common areas. We later found him in the observation car sharing a booth with a two-year-old girl, her coloring with crayons, him pouring red wine into a plastic cup.

The dining car was casual and efficient. With about twenty booths and a tiny food preparation area, it gave off the vibe of a diner. The waiters walked up and down the aisle taking orders on individual order sheets and distributing trays of food. Condiments and fixings were arranged in baskets on the tables: syrup and jam at breakfast, ketchup and mustard at lunch, butter and salad dressing at dinner. The menu consisted of three panes, one for each meal of the day and about five options for each — enough variety so that you never need to eat the same dish twice. On its cover is an illustration of the train, the words “California Zephyr” prominently displayed.

Booths were scarce so Ben and I never ate alone. In fact, we were seated with a different pair of people for each meal. Dinner on the first day was spent with Waqas and Gary, a gay couple from Dallas.

For dinner I had a skirt steak that was surprisingly good.

Waqas wore a thick turtleneck and, frequently, a wide smile. He was in his late forties and was the more animated of the two. Gary had a good twenty years on his partner and seemed tired. They’d spent the weekend partying at some gay bars in San Francisco and were taking the long way home.

They were curious about Ben and me — Were we partners? Where did we live? What was it like to move from small towns to big cities? — and we were curious about them. Conversation flowed. We learned that Gary had taught middle-school math for thirty years before retiring. “That was a long time ago,” he told us. “I’m a lot older than I look.”

Waqas had immigrated from Pakistan some twenty years ago. With a little he coaxing told us his coming-to-America story. When he was twenty-seven and living in Pakistan a friend of his urged him to enter the lottery for a United States Diversity Visa. Waqas had entered and lost the previous year so he shrugged him off. His friend countered by offering to fill out Waqas’s application and drop it off with his own; all Waqas would have to do was sign his name. Waqas caved, signed, and won.

The timing was poor. Waqas’s father had just passed away and his brother was nine years old. “I was the man of the house,” Waqas recalled. If he were to go he’d be leaving his family behind with no one to take care of them. Still, his mother encouraged him to accept the visa and move to America, and within a few weeks he was packing his bags.

Waqas had known other Pakistanis who’d moved to America, but he’d lost the contact information for all of them — all except one. It had been important for Waqas to prove to immigration officers that he had work or family in the U.S., so he called his lone contact ahead of time and asked for help. The man ran his own business in Milwaukee and generously sent a Waqas a letter of employment on his company’s letterhead.

Waqas entered the country without incident and spent his first month in Milwaukee, living in the man’s basement. He had come to America with only $200 and it was quickly running out. The man offered Waqas work but he declined, unwilling to take the first job he found. When a friend told him about an opportunity to work at a liquor store in Dallas, Waqas got on a bus and headed south.

Waqas began work at the liquor store but found the salary insufficient to support both him and his family back home. He took a second job at a nearby call center. “I’d work nine to six at the call center and then work until midnight or later at the store,” he said. I thought it sounded like a grind but Waqas made it sound like a blessing. “I loved it. I was sending money home.”

Waqas’s fortune continued. Shortly after moving to Dallas he joined a gym. It was there that he met Gary. At this point in the story Gary perked up and chimed in. “I was impressed,” he said. He remembered telling Waqas, “‘You’ve only been here a few months and you’re already part of a gym!’” They soon started dating, and last June — nearly twenty years later — they got married.

After dinner we were back on the observation car. It was getting dark outside but there was plenty to observe inside. Ben and I played cribbage and watched our fellow passengers settle in for the evening. Our stop in Reno had brought some new faces onto the train. Among them was a pair of teenage boys who sat at a booth by themselves. On their table was a large, clear Tupperware container. It was filled with Rubik’s cubes.

When our card game ended I introduced myself. One kid, scrawny with glasses, said he was a college freshman. His friend, with red hair and a round face, was a senior in high school. They told me that that they’d just competed at a Rubik’s cube competition in Reno. I asked how it went.

“I PR’d,” said the college freshman. He had solved a standard cube in two minutes and forty seconds — blindfolded. “But this,” he said, holding up a strange-looking cube, “is my puzzle.” On closer inspection it turned out to be an irregular geometric shape. It wasn’t a cube at all.

“How do you solve that?” I asked. The key to solving a Rubik’s cube lies in getting all the colored squares on any given side to match the colored square in the center of that side. The center squares don’t change position so you always know which side will be, say, the blue one. But with this puzzle, there weren’t any center pieces.

“The trick is to make sure you have an up side and a down side,” he told me. I left it at that and switched topics. I learned that he was taking programming classes in college and was about to apply to the computer science major. He gave his friend a look that seemed to say, “Next year it’ll be you.”

When I asked his friend how he did in the competition, he hung his head. “I didn’t do so well,” he said. “Although I did solve a cube in 8.5 seconds.” I marveled at this and asked them how long they’d been solving cubes. The freshman played with the puzzle in his hands, rapidly messing it up and then putting it back together. “For more than ten years,” he replied.

The hours passed and the observation car cleared. An Amish family with young children had retired to the sleeper car, lugging plastic bags of art supplies and boardgames. Their journey back to Ohio was only beginning.

We returned to our sleeper to find the beds made. Ben, who had slept only a few hours the night before, fell fast asleep. I eventually dozed off but found good sleep hard to come by for the jostling of the train.

We awoke and headed up to breakfast in our PJs. By now we were known and liked by the waiters, James and Bryan, for we had tipped well. The day before, James yelled at us for sitting down to lunch three minutes early. Today he greeted us with a smile: “Have a seat anywhere you like.”

James was in his early sixties. He wore reading glasses and his thinning hair in a mullet. Bryan, his counterpart, looked to be in his early thirties. He had dark brown skin and a well-trimmed beard and was the more charismatic of the two. It was always his voice that came over the PA to announce the start of a meal.

After breakfast we found an empty booth in the observation car and continued our cribbage tournament. The scenery outside had transformed into the layered red-orange rocks of Utah, and it would soon transform again into the jagged terrain of the snow-capped Rockies.

Ben admiring the Utah landscape.

The booth beside us had been taken over by a young family of four. The mom, tall and attractive, wore her dyed-red hair above her head in a bandana, evoking Rosie the Riveter and Princess Leia. She was reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and having read it a year earlier I struck up a conversation.

We got to talking about one of the characters, an older man who restores vintage furniture. Catherine, as she introduced herself, told me about a craft that she had recently taken up: rug-making. She’d purchased wool from a supplier in North Carolina and knitted it at home, working from end to end. By the time she’d finished the rug was nine feet by twelve feet and too heavy to pick up, so she left it where it was.

When she told me that she had an MFA and did graphic design for a living, she did so almost apologetically, as if she were ashamed to be using her skills for something so dreadfully boring as money. The sentiment is a common one among San Franciscans, especially those of us who work in tech. The aversion to work-talk is strong. “Yes, I am a cog in the capitalistic machine,” we seem to say, “but won’t you ask me about the book I’m reading, the essay I’m writing, the rug I’m knitting?”

She introduced me to her family. Her husband’s name was Corey. Her sons, 6 and 7, were named after famous astronomers. At one point her boys disappeared briefly and then returned with folded paper Amtrak hats. “Look what the conductor gave us!” they said. One of them had trouble keeping his voice down and would occasionally let out a shriek. At one point Corey grabbed him by the wrist and led him back to their room. Catherine used it as a teaching moment for her other son. “Do you know why that happened?” she asked him. The boy nodded. “Remember our family motto,” she told him. “‘We don’t scream.’”

Corey is tall and athletic with a buzzcut and a toothy smile. He’s a doctor at One Medical Group, a San Francisco-based health startup that’s trying to improve the doctor-patient experience. It hasn’t been easy. Corey expressed frustration with all the things that get in the way of good patient care. Modern medicine is plagued by a series of technological hoops, he explained. You have to set up billing and EHR systems, and if you want to connect with your patients you need a website and a mobile app. The result is higher costs for patients and less face-time with doctors. Corey, who has been with One Medical for ten years, seemed incredulous that healthcare progress has been so slow.

He and Catherine were taking their kids skiing, and the train was the easiest way for them to get to the slopes. Catherine told me she enjoyed the “forced relaxation.” On our train there wasn’t any WiFi, and cell-phone reception was bad to nonexistent, especially through the Rockies. She contrasted free time on the train with free time in San Francisco, which in her experience was never truly free.

Our view of the Rockies.

Catherine and I looked out the window at the snowy scene. She said something about elevation and her younger son came over and sat on her lap. “What’s elevation?” he asked.

“It’s when you’re high up, high above the sea level,” answered Catherine. “When you’re at elevation, you can’t bake a cake.”

Her son made a confused face. “So what happens if it’s your birthday?”

Lunchtime rolled around and we shared a booth with a Chinese mother and daughter. The daughter seemed to be about our age and spoke better English than her mom. Her hair was long and highlighted purple on the ends. She told us that she’d recently moved to the States for art school in San Francisco, and her mom still lived in China with her dad. The Chinese New Year had just begun and they were spending their vacation time on a trip to Chicago.

I asked her how she’d learned about Amtrak, and she told me that she’d found an advertisement online and bought the tickets without much research. It wasn’t until they boarded that they learned their tickets didn’t come with a private place to sleep. “It said ‘Coach,’” she told us. “I didn’t know what it meant.” I smiled and wondered how my own mom would react if I booked us a three-day train ride without beds.

At last, the Zephyr approached Denver and we began to gather our things. It was 5º F outside and I had stupidly brought only a hoodie. When we got off I was immediately reminded why I left Ohio for California. Being cold sucks. We spent the night watching TV and playing cards, and in the morning I left for the airport.

On the plane I wedged into my middle seat and took out my book. My fellow travelers both had earbuds in. There would be no conversations on this trip. The screen in my headrest blinked on and the safety video began, a singing, dancing spectacle that seemed to last forever. When it finally ended a string of advertisements played. One ad, for Marriott, featured a black-and-white montage of strangers doing nice things for each other. “It would be great,” said the voiceover, “if human beings were great at being human and if all of mankind were made up of kind women and kind men.”

We reached cruising altitude and a special welcome was extended to the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members onboard. We were informed of the benefits of the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card. When we landed we were thanked for flying Alaska Airlines, and our pilot told us that he hoped we would fly Alaska Airlines again soon.

Flying is a special kind of magic. But modern air travel has been so extensively monetized and regulated that much of the magic is gone. In exchange for near-teleportation you must subject yourself to baggage fees, security lines, overhead compartments, headrest screens, over-produced safety videos, advertisements, middle seats, status symbols, and seat-belt reminders. And most of the time, it’s worth it.

By comparison, trains are slow, expensive, prone to delays, and occasionally dangerous. They are the original form of mass transportation and few improvements have been made over the years. To board a train is to enter a time capsule and experience travel largely untouched by regulators and financial analysts, for better or for worse.

It is not my intention to romanticize Amtrak or diss airlines. But I’m glad there’s still a form of travel in which people talk to and share with one another and conductors give paper hats to kids. I departed San Francisco with a stack of books and returned with the stories of a dozen strangers. I consider that thirty-three hours well spent.

*Names have been changed to respect the privacy of my fellow travelers.

Engineer @ Plaid. Incoming English MA student @ Columbia.

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