Arriving too early in Omaha, I cross the bridge from the train station to downtown. It’s only a couple blocks, but it’s still so dark that I can barely read the closed signs in all the windows. I wander around in the twilight, looking for anything that’s open and possibly selling coffee.
I find nothing, so I perch on a brick wall, tucking my bag under a bush and lighting a cigarette.
Besides the flow of early morning delivery trucks, the streets are empty. I try to write in the dim street light, but the strain hurts my eyes. I give up and watch the black sky slowly become gray. The transition is slow and surreal. An old woman nears with her small dog (the elderly never sleep), and I bid her an overly cheerful “Good Morning!” She looks up, wide-eyed that the homeless gargoyle should speak to her, so I follow it up with a hurried–“I didn’t want to startle you. I just got off the train….” As if the train has the authority to make me a trustworthy stranger in the dark. She laughs nervously, hurries away.
Is this what it’s like to be the crazy person on the train? The bag lady?
I look around my seat. I’m surrounded by piles of newspapers and half-finished crossword puzzles. For the last two hours I’ve been scribbling like a madwoman, drawing lines and half-thoughts on scraps of paper.
The lounge car is blowing through the Sierras, full of enthusiastic observers. I am one of them. Another one is seated across the aisle, at another table, reading and occasionally looking out the window. He makes a remark and we both smile. At this moment, the entire world is my friend.
I offer to share my snack, prefacing it with an explanation. He frowns and says, “It’s only 10 am.”
I shake my head as he leaves. Damn it. I shouldn’t have done that. Who offers weed cookies to perfect strangers at 10 in the morning? Who?! Now he knows I’m flying high on the observation deck, having the visual treat of my life looking out this train window. Shit.
I take another bite of cookie and turn back to the window.
For the love of Americana, take the train for once in your life.
Seeing the country and its landscape is a special kind of rite of passage. Its an exploration into the geographical imagination, a sorting of time and place. The road trip is the quintessential way to embark on this personal and public path; however, Amtrak, the estranged transportation child of the US, sure as hell can be that too.
The route of Amtrak’s California Zephyr is one of the most scenic in the country. It’s also one of the longest, spanning 2,438 miles, crossing California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois, where you get kicked off in Chicago, free to stay or catch a connecting line on out.
So, one crisp March morning in 2012, I boarded the eastbound California Zephyr train in Davis, CA, with the end objective Washington D.C. I planned stopovers to see friends in Denver and Omaha, and changed lines in Chicago onto the blessed Capitol Limited Line. This I took nonstop to DC, where I stayed for a week before flying back to California.
But I digress. Back to the train.
On the train I found that people love to talk about the train. They exclaim at the scenery and affirm each other in their collective decision to travel by rail. There’s a lot of “If this isn’t nice, what is?” and “Aren’t we lucky?” I must confess that I got swept up in all the excitement. I too, exclaimed at the scenery; I too, patted myself on the back for really taking it all in; and now, I too, love to talk about the train.
Hence, this very article.
However, in my talking about the train, I aim to aid those who are considering taking the long-train-home, inform those who are simply curious, and empower my fellow cheap-asses in the world (there WILL be tips for for the frugal!).
The full California Zephyr route goes from Great Lake to Shining Sea: Chicago, Illinois to San Francisco, California (and vice versa). As a semi-permanent resident of the West Coast, I took the vice versa route. This particular passage allowed me to see the glories of Donner Pass, Truckee River, the Sierra Nevadas, Byers and Glenwood Canyons, the Moffat Tunnel, the Rocky Mountains, and the upper Colorado River Valley during the daytime.
From start to finish, San Francisco to Chicago, the trip takes approximately 51 hours. The stops and timetable are as follows:
The eastbound Zephyr passes through Utah during the dark of the first night, so I can’t comment on the sights of the Salt Lake State. Morning finds you in Green River, Colorado, and shortly after, the train passes through Ruby Canyon, where the Colorado River becomes your traveling companion for the next 235 miles.
I didn’t get off the train much, just a few times to stretch my legs and occasionally smoke a cigarette. They would usually announce if they were going to stop for an extended period of time.
Ticket Options and Cost:
The ticket cost varies depending on the season, so keep in the mind the prices given below are estimates and also based on the cost for 1 person. If you were getting a Roomette, Bedroom, or Suite for 2-4 people, the cost would be higher; ideally, you would split the cost between all parties. There are discounts for AAA members, senior citizens, and students.
The last three ticket choices are private sleeper cars whose seats convert into beds. The roomette has shared bathroom/shower access; the bedroom and suites contain their own. Meals are included with all sleeper car purchases.
I was training on a budget, so I did not stay in a sleeper car nor eat in the dining car (see: cheap ass). I was quite happy with my coach seat, though if I were traveling with someone else I may opt for the roomette.
Sleeping and Eating on the Train for the Cheap
There are sleeper cars, a restaurant, and a cafe, so almost everything you need for an easy, comfortable trip can be purchased. However, if you are on a budget, here are some tips to help make your journey both enjoyable and inexpensive.
Sleeping in Coach
The chairs on an Amtrak train are large and comfortable, especially with an adjustable footrest and thick window curtains. It is much more relaxed than trying to sleep on an airplane or bus–I found it roomier and quieter, and it is easy to squeeze past your chair mate if you need to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Bring a blanket. I was never unbearably cold on the Amtrak, but the A/C is strong and a blanket always helps to feel cozy. I had a large shawl and used a balled-up sweatshirt as a pillow. The train rocked pleasantly and sleep found me easily in the dark cabin.
Eating on the Train
Here is the most recent California Zephyr menu to get an idea of what they offer and their pricing. As mentioned above, if you purchase a sleeper car ticket, your meals are included. This seems like a pretty good deal, and was confirmed by Shane the Oil-Rigger, a roomette-purchasing passenger, who I met my first evening on the train.
Here is a list of items and pricing for the Cafe/Lounge Car. They offer items for breakfast, along with typical snack bar items like chicken tenders, hot dogs, sandwiches, and chips. They close periodically through the journey, but always preface it with an announcement so one won’t be caught snack-less unawares.
If you want to save money, pack your own food. Bring items that stores easily such as peanut butter, crackers, trail mix, sandwiches, and protein bars. I had packed a couple sandwiches, granola bars, oranges, peanut butter, and crackers. I also had the foresight to bring a few weed cookies because…why wouldn’t you?
In addition to food, I packed tea bags, instant coffee, and a thermos. The cafe attendant was very kind and allowed me to refill my thermos with hot water repeatedly for free (I thanked her with a tip each time). This little leisure gave me unlimited hot beverages, which made me feel like the goddam king of the train.
They sell booze on-board, and I can’t remember if it’s copacetic to pack your own, though I’ve done it before. It’s more expensive than your local bar, but cheaper than an airport Bloody Mary.
Amtrak allows you to bring a substantial amount of luggage. Take what you need, and if you need a lot, it’s $20 for any additional or oversized bags, and some lines allow bicycles as a carry-on or as checked luggage; unfortunately, the California Zephyr is not one of them (yet).
Your carry-on luggage is accessible in the belly of the train, but they also have ample space above and below your seat, so that you can keep necessities close by. And, unlike an airplane, it doesn’t matter what you pack. Take a whole bottle of shampoo and bathe in the tiny sink for all they care (they probably care).
Bring whatever makes you feel comfortable–many Amtrak routes have WiFi, though it can be spotty in some places. All the better, as those areas usually have the best scenery.
There are charging stations by every coach seat as well as by most of the tables and seating in the observation deck.
The Observation Deck
The observation deck is by far the best part about the train. There are booth-style tables on one end (as above) and outward-facing chairs on the other (as below).
I set up camp at one of the tables and practically passed the entirety of my trip there. And look, I wasn’t a total table hog; during busy times I shared with others or moved, and I recommend you do too. This is how we all get along.
You do not have to be an extrovert to hang out on the observation deck. If you are, have at it; there are plenty of friendly, engaging, talkative folks. If you would rather not, simply put on headphones, go back to your seat, or give some other anti-social signal. Either way, you will always have scenery to observe and people to watch.
The observation deck is where I met Shane the Oil-Rigger, and its also where I wantonly and gleefully spied upon a traveling Mennonite family. The boys had ruddy cheeks, the girls long braids, the father a beard, and the mother a bonnet. They laughed as they played cards at the tables and volleyball at the stops. They were perfect and I loved them.
The first morning on the train, I obtained some hot water from the cafe car, returned to the observation deck with my iPod and newspaper, prepared a cup of coffee, and ate a weed cookie. The sun shone down as the train entered the Colorado River Valley, and I felt lucky.
Stop 1: Denver, Colorado
The train rolled into Denver around 7 pm, where I passed a few days with my friend. When it was time to move on, I returned to the train station at 7 pm to catch the Zephyr. This time, I would only be on the train for 11 hours until I hit my next overnight stop—Omaha, Nebraska.
Stop 2: Omaha, Nebraska
The train was scheduled to arrive to Omaha in the early morning. I sip whiskey, listen to music, watch the darkness. I wake up in Omaha at 5 am. I pass the early morning in the dark and amazingly clean corridors of downtown. Eventually storefronts begin to open, and I eat pancakes and drink coffee.
I spend the day by myself exploring the city. I read by Papio Creek, charge my cellphone at the library, and go for a walk around Glenn Cunningham Lake. When evening arrives, I meet up with an old friend to eat sushi and have a drink. I stay on her couch and wake early to take a taxi to the 5 am train to Chicago.
Stop 3: Chicago and Beyond
The train from Omaha to Chicago is the last leg of the eastbound California Zephyr line; fields and small farming towns dominate the journey’s view, punctuated by the Mississippi River, Burlington Rail Bridge, and Chicago suburbs before rolling into Union Station.
And this is where my journey with the Zephyr ends…but not my love affair.
Rolled through Green River, Colorado with a quickness that Amtrak is not known for.
Stopped a little longer in Grand Junction, which wasn’t so grand after all, though the old man and wife at the station sold me a copy of “Frontier Poetry and Prose” for a dollar, which I suppose, is pretty fucking grand. Also, free coffee. But besides those two things (and the Mennonites playing volleyball), all that the junction seemed to be was boarded-up windows and a sunny place to smoke a spliff.
When I met Shane, I had reached the 12-hour mark on the California Zephyr, and we were probably somewhere in between Winnemucca and Elko, Nevada. It didn’t matter where we were; it was dark outside, leaving everyone in the observation car with nothing to look at save their own reflections.
Shane saunters out of the dining car, burping and commenting on the food, all the while drinking Snakebite and Coca-cola out of a giant plastic cup. I have no idea what Snakebite is, just that he drinks it with fervor and refills his cup many times. I drink my beer and listen to him talk. Shane likes to talk. He likes to talk about the train, he likes to talk about his old lady, and he likes to talk about oil-rigging. Shane likes to say things like this:
“When you’re working with guys whose collective IQs are equivalent to the ambient air temperature in a Wyoming blizzard, then you’ll know what I’m dealing with.”
(When I see Shane the next morning, he’s exchanged his plastic cup for two pints of milk, “to calm the indigestion.”)