By Marilyn Noble
A few months ago, Amtrak announced a traveling writer’s residency program. They pay your way and you get to ride on one of their long-haul routes and write, tweet, post, and Instagram your experience. It sounds like romantic good fun, but the reality, at least for me, was a little different. Last Thanksgiving, I did my own writing retreat aboard the California Zephyr, one of Amtrak’s historic lines from Chicago to San Francisco. I rode from Denver to Sacramento, a trip of about thirty hours.
I travel a lot and I enjoy flying, but I thought it might be a relaxing change of pace to take the train to our family Thanksgiving celebration. I envisioned it as a chance to work without interruption, catch up on my reading, snooze a little, and of course, take in the wondrous scenery of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada. I elected not to do a sleeper cabin, partly because of the expense, but also because I hoped for some social interaction with my fellow travelers. And just in case it turned out to be not fun, I booked my return trip on Southwest Airlines.
I dragged my bags from the light rail stop through mostly deserted downtown Denver streets under a brilliant pink early morning sky. Union Station was in the midst of a major renovation project, so Amtrak was housed in a temporary station a few blocks away. A diverse mix of travelers crowded the place — lots of older people, but also many families heading for the mountains for a long holiday weekend of early season snow sports.
I felt relieved I wasn’t the only train virgin. Several people approached the ticket window with a tentative, “I’ve never done this before. How do I…?” The unfailingly friendly woman behind the glass answered the same questions over and over, always with a smile. Chaos ensued when the conductor made the boarding announcement, but eventually everybody moved out to the train. I found my assigned car, stepped in and stowed my large bag in the rack, then climbed the narrow stairs to the upstairs seating compartment.
Silence reigned in the mostly empty car. The few travelers who had come from points east slept with the curtains closed. All of us were California-bound. I found a seat and settled in, pleased to notice the electrical outlets right next to me. I could keep my phone and laptop charged while I worked.
Promptly at 8:05, the engineer let out a blast of the horn, and we rolled slowly through parts of Denver I’d never seen before. That’s one of the fun parts of train travel – you get a different view of the familiar. We climbed into the foothills west of town via a series of switchbacks and tunnels. The Eastern Plains and Boulder spread out below, but the blazing early morning sun turned the grime on the window into an acid-induced, day-glow collage, which precluded any photography.
The tracks pass through twenty seven tunnels on this part of the trip; the longest of which, the Moffat Tunnel, is a little more than six miles. It takes ten minutes to traverse the tunnel, at an elevation of more than 9,000 feet at the apex, the highest Amtrak route in the U.S. The tunnel’s massive exhaust fans can’t vent all the fumes, so the conductor warned us to stay in our own cars until we came out the other side, since opening the doors between the cars will suck in the train’s exhaust.
We reached our first stop in Winter Park/Fraser two hours after we started, a trip of 70 miles, both beautiful and slow. I lost cell service somewhere around the sixth tunnel, which meant no Internet, and I felt free, if a little unnerved, to be untethered from the grid.
I spent the rest of the day watching the mountains, rivers and wildlife glide by – elk, bald eagles, the gorges and canyons of the Colorado River – along with plenty of coal trains heading the other direction. Mineral extraction is alive and well in Colorado. I did lots of noodling and a little work, although cell service remained spotty. We pulled into Grand Junction a little before four (about four hours longer than it would have taken to drive) and made a twenty-minute stop. It was the first time I got out of the train all day, and it felt refreshing to breathe clean air and stretch a bit. We rolled out again, this time into the wide open desert of eastern Utah and the pink and gold sunset.
(Above: The first day of travel from Denver on the California Zephyr takes you through the mountains of Colorado along the Colorado River and through the vineyards of the Western Slope. A highlight is Glenwood Springs, a small hot springs resort and a popular destination for travelers from the Front Range.)
On the advice of friends who had done the same trip a few months prior, I took plenty of food with me, but I decided to eat a proper dinner in the dining car. I showed up at my appointed time and the host seated me at a table with three fellow passengers. One, a woman who travels frequently from Grand Junction to Salt Lake City, said the train was easier than driving through hundreds of miles of nothingness. Another was a man who makes riding the train frequently a hobby. He had started in Milwaukee and was on his way to Seattle to visit friends. My third dinner-mate was a woman heading from Grand Junction to Reno. As we got acquainted, I told them I had enjoyed the trip through the mountains, but I was a little antsy at the lack of speed. The three of them exchanged looks.
The Reno woman launched into a diatribe about how awful it is to fly these days. From her comments, it seemed she hadn’t been in an airport in years. I said I fly all the time and actually enjoy it, and the man said, a trace of derision dripping in his voice, “Oh, I could tell you were one of THOSE people.” I asked what he meant, and he replied, “You know. Flyers. I knew it when you said the train was slow.” I felt like the nerdy kid who accidentally ended up sitting with the cool kids in the cafeteria. I waited for the hazing to begin, or for the conductor to show up and hustle me off at the next stop. But we finished dinner without incident and I returned to my seat after a stop in the lounge car for some wine.
During the long refueling stop in Salt Lake, swaddled in my blanket, feet up, and comfortably dozing, I stayed in my seat. I slept well until daylight pierced the cabin about 6:30 as we crossed the gray-brown wasteland of Nevada. After nearly twenty four hours of silence in the car, people started to chat, mostly about God and the Cubs. I stayed quiet, but I learned a lot about my fellow travelers – the gravelly-voiced preacher traveling from a funeral in New York to his home in Southern California, the ninety-year old woman going to visit her great-niece near Sacramento, the young dad headed to spend time with his fourteen-year-old son for the holiday.
In Reno, the train filled up with more holiday travelers and then started the climb into the Sierra foothills along the Truckee River. Back in the mountains, we slowed to a painful crawl over Donner Pass. I contemplated the late autumn landscape, feeling fortunate that I didn’t have to make this trip by wagon train like the early pioneers who suffered untold hardships on their way to a better life. The ancient miners’ shacks hanging off the hillsides reminded me of the challenges of making a living in the hardscrabble gold camps of the high Sierra.
Perspective is a valuable thing, because by that point, pretty much over the journey and ready for the destination, I was starting to get fidgety, counting the minutes to Sacramento.
For another three hours we snaked down the west side of the mountains along the I-80 corridor, through a scrub oak/pinon ecosystem dotted with an occasional shack or sometimes a small vineyard. Eventually the haze of Sacramento appeared. I was thrilled, because the gravelly-voiced preacher had hit his stride and was talking non-stop about the glories of the Lord. I respect other people’s beliefs, but the proselytizing was getting to me. I silently prayed for the trip to end.
We made a quick stop in Roseville, then twenty minutes later we rumbled across the bridge over the American River and into downtown Sacramento. I packed up my things, grabbed my bag, and emerged from the thin metal tube that had started to feel like a prison. My kids met me at the curb, and when we got home, my daughter handed me a glass of wine and a towel, then pointed at the shower. “Go!” she said. It felt so good to wash the stale air of the train out of my hair and off of my skin. And I felt grateful I had a plane ticket for the trip home.
This trip helped me discover something about myself that I hadn’t realized before. I’m a big believer in the concept of slow – Slow Food, Slow Money – but the slowness of train travel just isn’t for me. If I’m going to be cooped up for hours on end in a conveyance, I would rather it be a car so I can stop when the spirit moves me and watch the eagles fly and smell the cool air on the river bank, or grab a piece of pie in a little out-of-the-way spot where the waitress calls you “Hon” and keeps your coffee cup full. That, to me, is slow travel. But mostly I appreciate getting on a plane, relaxing for a couple of hours, and then arriving at my destination clean, refreshed, and ready to get on with things. So yes, I guess I am one of THOSE people. But even THOSE people need an adventure now and again, just to remind ourselves about the things we appreciate in life.
Marilyn Noble is a freelance writer and the Rio Nuevo cookbook editor. Her latest projects include Southwest Comfort Food, Slow and Savory; The Essential Southwest Cookbook; and Modern Southwest Cooking. She was born and raised in Arizona, but now lives in Colorado where she is the Rocky Mountain Regional Governor for Slow Food USA as well as the co-chair of the Slow Food Southwest/Mountain Ark of Taste committee. She appreciates a good adventure.
All photos by Marilyn Noble using an iPhone 5S, unless otherwise noted.