california zephyr dreaming
Between San Francisco and Chicago you find 3924 kilometers of tracks. Tracks that meander along rivers, cross deserts, conquer mountains and touch the sky. To follow these tracks you have to ride a silver bullet; a legendary train called the California Zephyr.
The start of our trip does not promise much good. Thanks to a broken thermostat and a grumpy airco, our room at the Hilton Homewood Suites has turned into a noisy greenhouse. Meanwhile the clock ticks and tocks. 23.55, 01.37, 02.03. We’re sleepless in Salt Lake and decide to turn in our key card and head for the Amtrak Station.
The change in temperature from about 84 to 10 Fahrenheit works like an alarm clock. Salt Lake City is vast asleep, we are not. A bit jealous we walk the 500 meters between hotel and station, watched over by dark windows with the curtains drawn.
At 02.30 we say good morning to the station chef and ask him where we should drop our luggage. ‘Uhm, with them’. With a face that says ‘I’m sorry’ he points at a small electric car that approaches fast. ‘You’re too late!’ is what the two men on the playmobile vehicle shout at us while racing us by. We look at the clock. 02.31 it says which in theory means we still have 14 minutes left. But reality bites and shows us a red light that fades rapidly into the dark night. Next to us we hear a deep sigh. It is the station chef, digging into the pockets of his winter coat and handing us a small business card. Amtrak Customer Service, it reads, call 1-800-USA-RAIL.
We toss the card into our bag and look passed the station chef whose silence challenged by the hissing and groaning of the silver lady who arrives after leaving San Francisco about 15 hours ago. Here she is, our companion for the next two days. The legend who will lead us over the iron Route 66 to Chicago. With a smile we board the California Zephyr, looking for our ‘roomette’. About fifteen minutes after leaving the station and getting into our already made beds we fall asleep listening to the soothing sounds of the trains wheels caressing the tracks…..only to wake up by the terrifying sound of screeching brakes.
The American railways are (in)famous. It were the railway companies who tamed the Wild West, added speed to the Gold Rush and guided the country through the Industrial Revolution. But the steel web the tycoons started spinning about 200 years ago, has rapidly unraveled over the last decades. The first blow was a financial crisis. The second punch was thrown by cars and interstates. The knock-out was to be delivered by the airplane. But against all odds and expectation, the trains and tracks refused to throw in the towel and started to fight back. And like Rocky the railways changed their faith: Amtrak for example carried a record number of 31 million passengers in 2012; 3.5% more than in 2011 and even 49% more than in 2000.
Amtrak’s revival is not the first things that comes to our mind when the train’s protesting brakes wake us up. With much protest the jewel in the crown if the American railway system comes to a full stop. Pushing the curtains aside, we see a spectacular, moonlit panorama out of our ‘bedroom’ window. Silhouettes of mountains, painted with winter’s brush. For about 5 minutes all is as quite as the night. Then somewhere in our carriage a speaker squeaks and a voice that seems to come from the fifties announces we have run into a broken track and will have plenty of time to enjoy the view of Utah covered in snow.
‘Aye’ we think. ‘Here we go.’ On Amtrak’s website we had already seen the statistics of the California Zephyr. It turns out the train isn’t only a legend for the beauty of its route, it’s also legendary for the length of its delay which not rarely amount to half a day or more. And crossing 7 states and the Rockies in the middle of the winter, well that is truly asking for trouble. All that is left know is just closing the curtains and continue sleeping. Five minutes or so later we sleep once again, only this time not accompanied by the soothing sound of a traveling train but by our neighbor sawing wood on the other side of the paper thin wall.
Dining Car Ladies
Many sawn down trunks later we are wakened by the smell of bacon ’n eggs and a warm voice over the intercom announcing that the ‘Dining Car open is for breakfast’. It turns out to be the start of a ritual. Since, not entirely a surprise since this is the US, the rhythm of the day aboard the train is determined by food. At 06.30, 12.00 and 18.00 sharp, passengers are invited to ‘Please come join in the Dining Car y’all!’
The breakfast, lunch, dinner schedule is a tight one, managed by three firm ladies who combine efficiency and friendliness serving both passengers and Amtrak well, 4000 kilometers long.
The ladies take us under their wings too during our day and a half on the Zephyr. ‘Good morning sleepers!’ is our start of the day, followed by some old fashioned black coffee, eggs, pancakes and a smile. At 6.45 in the morning you have the dining car mostly to yourself, a situation that is quite different from lunch and dinner time when the Dining Car is so crowded the ladies start managing table seating and you’ll have a big chance you end up sitting next to fellow passengers with whom lunch slowly turns into dinner.
Between all the eating and the mingling, the landscape asks for some undivided attention as well. The best way to give this, is to go upstairs and take a seat at a table in the lounge car. Thanks to the huge windows, you feel like gold fish, swimming around in a moving bowl. From here you’ll taken through the Sierra Nevada, over the Rockies and across the Colorado and Mississippi Rivers. It is an amazing experience, one that if your are fortunate turns into awesome when you jump from rock to rock with bighorn sheep, howl with coyotes and fly with the majestic ‘American bald eagle’.
Along part of the route, conductors who have been trained by the National Park Service explain the landscape and wildlife you see. A service that is only interrupted when you drive through someone’s backyard in yet another hamlet along the way.
Taking into account the knowledge that about 40% of the California Zephyrs was delayed in 2012, we know and feel that we are lucky when 51 hours after leaving San Francisco the Silver Lady arrives in Chicago. Despite snow and no less than 4 broken tracks, the Windy City welcomes us just 2 minutes behind schedule.
We tip our friendly carriage assistant for making our bed, collect our suitcases and step off the train. The rhythm of the Zephyr makes us rock back and forth a bit. While we wait till our legs are adjusted to solid ground once again, an electric luggage car passes by. We dig up the business card we collected 36 hours and many new memories ago in Salt Lake City.
Amtrak Customer Service – call 1-800-USA-RAIL. With a big smile it disappears into the first trashcan we see.
Practical California Zephyr Information
Where and how
The California Zephyr connects San Francisco with Chicago, two cities that have great worldwide connections by air. You can train year-round in both directions. The Amtrak station in Chicago is situated downtown. In San Francisco the station is actually on the other side of the Bay in Emeryville. Free shuttle busses take you to the nearest metro (BART) station. Amtrak also operates busses that drive into downtown San Francisco. Hopping onto the California Zephyr somewhere along its 4000 kilometer route is also an option.
Climate and best time to travel
Each season gives the California Zephyr its own color. In case high chances of delay does not bother you, winter is a fairytale. From November till early March you most likely travel through a X-mas card. The rest of the year the route is very green, apart from the deserts you cross. Climate wise San Francisco can be very welcoming 365 days a year while Chicago gives you a hot, sticky hug in summer and a chilly kiss on the cheek in winter.
Between San Francisco and Chicago the Zephyr stops at 33 stations in both (very) small (McCook, Nebraska) as well as fairly large (Salt Lake City, Utah and Denver, Colorado) places. For those who start (fly into) in San Francisco and like to enjoy some vineyards and National Parks like Yosemite, Grand Teton and Yellowstone before hopping aboard, renting a car with a one-way drop off (for example in Salt Lake) is a very good option.
Depending on season and time of your booking, you can reserve a Superliner Roomette on board the Zephyr for an additional $300. These bucks will buy you a 2-persoon sleeping room with (shared) shower and toilet. $625 (on top of your $160 one-way ticket) will get you a 2-person room with private toilet and shower (of 1 square meter combined), the Superliner Bedroom. Whether you book a Superliner Roomette or Bedroom, the supplement you pay includes three meals a day in the Dining Car for 2 persons.
Should you choose to first drive around the US a bit before boarding the train, AirBnB.com offers you an almost unlimited choice of houses, apartments and cottages to eat, drink, sleep and live like a local for anything from 50 to 1000 dollars a night including great places in both San Francisco and Chicago like for example the hip & private Logan Square apartment of Meighan, a perfect designer place to explore the Windy City from.
Facts & figures
– In 2012 Amtrak carried over 31 million passengers over 33.000 km of track
– 376.000 people traveled the longest route: the 3924 kilometers California Zephyr
– This was a 5,9% increase over 2011
– The 1st Zephyr, a.k.a. the Silver Lady, left the station on March 20, 1949
– During the 51 hours between San Francisco and Chicago you cross 7 states
– The Zephyr passes 29 tunnels (including the US longest: the 10 km Moffat)
– The Zephyr’s highest point is at 2825 meters altitude
– In December 2012 61% off the Zephyrs arrived on time
– An eggs, biscuit, potatoes or grits breakfast with coffee and OJ costs $7,50
– $25,75 buys you The Amtrak Signature Steak dinner and a white linens table
– A one-way ticket San Francisco-Chicago runs $160
– Most passengers on board are going to or returning from family visit
– Tickets can be booked online at www.amtrak.com