(Classic Zephyr – Don’t be fooled, your car will NOT look like this, we were just lucky enough to have a VIP party travelling with us, who had hired out the re-fitted classic Zephyr car)
Taking a long train journey has always been rather close to the top of my bucket list. There’s just something about the concept that seems romantic to me. When I began to researching for ways to make this dream a reality, it didn’t take long until I came across the legendary California Zephyr, which runs daily between Chicago and Emeryville (San Francisco). Described as the most scenic and stunning train trip the United States has to offer, the Zephyr seemed like the perfect fit for my needs and, at 52 hours in duration, certainly filled the ‘long’ requirement in long train journey. After completing all kinds of google searches on the route and the accommodations, I finally took the plunge and booked my ticket, travelling in reverse, from Emeryville to Chicago, at the end of June, 2015. It was a decision that was thrilling and nerve-racking all in one.
Prior to departure, I had read bits and pieces online about the ongoing delays and frequent interruptions which Amtrak have been experiencing due to a number of issues, but at the time I felt pretty relaxed about it. Surely a few hours of delays couldn’t detract from the ‘most scenic train ride in America’…
(Mountains and Deserts and Tiny Towns – the Scenery is Spectacular)
As it turned out, I was about to experience some of the longest delays this year – in fact I didn’t even make it to Chicago by train, in the end we had to be rescued by bus, from Osceola, a small town just outside of De Moines, Iowa.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
To begin, I feel it’s important to say how impressed I was with the train itself. I’d read a number of reviews which described the sleeper cars as everything from filthy and out-dated to luxurious and serene, so I was unsure of what to expect when I first stepped on board. As a solo female traveller, I had booked a roomette, which also included free meals for the entire journey. I was really impressed with the space and layout of the sleeper. For a single person, it feels really big. If I had been travelling with a companion though I might not have felt the same (I can’t think of anyone I like enough to spend 50 hours in a confined space with them). The picture windows gave an exceptional view of the scenery and the sliding door to the sleeper room allowed for peace and quiet for the duration of the journey. It was relatively easy to fall under the impression that I was in my own little world.
For those travellers that are more social, there is a viewing car on the train, which has tables and much larger windows. I didn’t spend too much time there, until one night when we stranded and I felt that if I didn’t see other human beings I might go insane, but during my brief visit I did notice that there was a real camaraderie among the other passengers and it was a genuinely pleasant place to be.
(Sunset, Day One)
The scenery is amazing. The first day and evening I was pretty much in awe, I didn’t even want to leave my car to go to dinner in case I missed something on the walk between carriages. Even the next morning, after the lead engine of the train had blown up and left oil streaked all over the cars and the viewing windows, the scenery was still amazing. Getting to view so many small communities too, was something that gave an added dimension to the trip and the tour guides, who got on and off at different stops, to discuss elements of local history, were exceptional.
(Donner Lake – named for the infamous Donner Party, who became stranded during a harsh winter, while trying to cross the Sierra’s and had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive).
Disappointment arrived on the evening of day two, when we had become so delayed that we missed viewing the Rocky Mountains. I’ve made attempts to see the Rockies during several of my trips to America and, due to bad luck and poor planning, have never made it yet, so this was a real let down for me. Still, I tried to remain positive. Even running 5+ hours late, I would still be in Chicago by dinner the following evening.
(This was as close to the Rockies as we got before sundown)
By midnight that night, it became apparent that getting to Chicago for dinner was not going to happen. We experienced further delays while changing out the broken engine, which were further added to due to staff rotation issues, experienced at 2 different points in the journey. Added to this, was the need for Amtrak to share the rails with BNSF and Union Pacific Freight Trains. As delay upon delay occurred, my focus was taken away from the view and redirected to annoyance.
On the third evening, long after we were meant to be in Chicago and after the dining car had run out of meal options, we came to a stop in a corn field. I’m not sure where it was, but we were subsequently stuck there for 8 hours. In an effort to sound pragmatic I will say that this experience afforded me my first opportunity to see fire-flies, which are not native to Australia and which I have never seen in wild. Still, after a couple of hours, even they lost their magic.
I awoke the following morning to the feel of the train moving and was convinced as I opened the curtains, that we had finally made progress and might be in Chicago by lunch. At this stage, I had already made two tearful calls to my hotel (who were excellent in dealing with my distress) to assure them that I was in transit and to pleading with them not to give my room away. I’d also made peace with missing the House of Blues Gospel Brunch, but was still holding out the feeble hope of making it to the Art Institute before sundown. A look out of the window revealed only more corn and as we rolled to another stop my worst fears were confirmed. We had moved less than an hour away from the corn field in which we had spent a torturous 8 hours the previous evening. We rolled through Osceloa station, only to be stopped a few minutes further down the track and turned back. Due to some flooding, there were issues with the tracks and with weighting freight trains between Iowa and Chicago. Amtrak were unsure of how to proceed from here and so, we were stranded.
(Picture Perfect – Morning, Day Two)
I must take the time here to pay tribute to the wonderful Amtrak staff who were aboard that ill-fated train, particularly the ladies in the dining car, who had no doubt suffered a tirade of abuse while trying to make powdered eggs look appetising at breakfast and Darryl, the 6 Train sleeper car attendant, who was so patient and kind, not only to me but to all of the passengers in the car – even those who had adopted a more furious attitude to the situation (I had moved on to despair). At no point did the manner of these employees waver, at no point did they refuse to assist their passengers, regardless of our requests. They are truly a credit to the Amtrak name.
Four hours and a pack of cigarettes later (I quite smoking 5 years ago), we were finally advised that all hope of making it to Chicago by train was lost. Not mentioned was the fact that making it before dinner time was also lost. Ultimately, the remaining 200 passengers were loaded onto 3 buses and taken the final 8 hours. We finally arrived at around 6pm – 32 hours behind schedule.
In retrospect, I wouldn’t call this adventure a bad one. Certainly, there were a multitude of areas in which Amtrak could improve their communication with their passengers and at the end of the day, we made it to our final destination safely. For the most part, the views were amazing, breath taking and simply stunning. I wish we had been able to see the Rocky Mountains, but there was still so much I did see that made me fall in love with the landscape that little bit more.
(Hidden America, getting to see the secrets is a benefit of travelling by train)
I am not entirely sure that I will take a long train ride again. Delays aside, the communal showers and bathrooms unfailingly revealed the lowest ebbs of human hygiene standards, despite the best efforts of the crew to keep them clean – but that could always be remedied by booking a larger compartment. Maybe next time I will allow more time in my itinerary to anticipate large delays. Maybe I will pick a less environmentally turbulent time of year. I do love the Pacific Northwest, so perhaps I will tempt fate with a trip on the Empire Builder.
All things considered, I would still recommend this trip to anyone interested in the romantic idea of long distance train travel. Flying may get you between destinations far more quickly but you do sacrifice some amazing scenery and the fleeting views of towns such as Truckee and Helper give an insight into how idyllic rural American life can be.
(Chicago – Better Late than Never)