Amtrak: California Zephyr: Day 2: Utah to Colorado

20 04 2018

We stopped at Salt Lake City, UT around 2 am, then continued on through Utah throughout the night and into Day 2.

Observations from Day 2 (some photos are here, but there’s a link to all 200+ photos below):

  • I hardly slept. And I know why. It was the constant vibration. It’s the same on planes and is why I don’t sleep on them either. Sitting up you don’t really notice the movement, but once you’re prone, the movement is constant. When we were going through the areas where we were at full speed, I tried to count the number of movements in a minute — there were well over 200. It’s not heavy rocking and rolling, but constant small and uneven movements. When the train slowed down, it was better, but the most I got was a couple of short cat naps. I wore my ear plugs to cut the noise, and they helped, but they don’t stop the moving. Let’s see what tonight brings…
  • The landscape this morning is similar to that of late yesterday in northern Nevada, with lots of dry high desert vegetation, salt pans, dry gulches etc., but this time we have more undulations in the land as well as rocky and craggy mountains and formations in the distance. I’m hoping we get to see some classic Utah canyons — we’re currently headed towards Green River and then Grand Junction (following I-70 now), which are not far north of Moab and Arches National Park. (Note: Green River is most definitely NOT green, and I’m not sure if there’s a river! Update: Yes, there was.)
  • Breakfast this morning was scrambled eggs (a bit dry) and bacon (very dry and crisp), breakfast potatoes, which I didn’t eat, and a square thing they called a croissant — it tasted good with butter and Vegemite!
  • Taking a shower in the tiny cubicle actually works and I didn’t fell too crammed. The water was very hot and the pressure was great. Once I got used to the controls and the auto shut-off every couple of minutes (you just press the button to restart the flow for another minute or two), it was easy to get my hair and body washed. Amtrak supplies towels, but no toiletries or wash cloths, so you need to bring your own and toiletries, wash cloths, and tissues (they’re in the white cupboard above and next to the hand basin, as I found out on the last day! They also supply hand soap and a hand towel at the small wash basin in the main room.
  • Saw a few cattle while I was having breakfast, and some wildlife! Either deer or antelope — I’m not sure, but there was a small herd of them. They didn’t prance, so I suspect not (pronghorn?) antelope, and they had white backsides, so perhaps white-tailed deer? (the elderly Amish man suggested mule deer?)
  • There’s nothing like a decent canyon with mesas and all sorts of rock formations to affirm your insignificant place in the universe!

  • From the train I can see just the red tips of the rocks at Arches National Park across the plain, about 2+ miles away according to Google Maps. But from the train, the colours of the rock formations are muddy browns, yellows, and greys. Totally different from Arches. How can something so close be so different?
  • The train is so much more relaxing than driving, even as a passenger. As a driver you don’t see much except what’s in front of you and immediately to the side, and as a passenger, you’re either concentrating on navigating or are a pseudo-driver, looking out for danger on the road or beside it. On the train, your time is your own and you can relax and just enjoy the vistas around you.
  • We’ve just gone under I-70 and are heading towards the Colorado River. I don’t think we’ll see it for quite a while, if at all. Update: We followed the Colorado for much of the day.
  • Finally, some green grass and bushes (somewhere near Cisco, UT) — there must have been some rain here in the past week or so.
  • McInnes Canyon National Park – spectacular! I don’t think you can get to it easily from the road. As we went through the canyon, we skirted the Colorado River (on the train’s right; I’m sitting on the left). I didn’t see any ‘mooners’ though, but I did see one campsite with 2 tents and 4 rafts on the bank. It was probably too cold for the mooners!
  • Once we came out of the McInnes Canyon, we crossed under I-70 and were back into undulating (dry desert) ranchland, near a dot on the map called ‘Mack’. We’ve now left Utah and are in Colorado. And I just saw my first cattle feedlots 😦
  • About 10 mins late into Grand Junction, CO — not bad for 24 hours straight travel time. First time I’ve stepped of the train. Cool temperature, but then its elevation is 4578 feet.
  • Coming out of Grand Junction I saw a freight train heading west — it had three locos on the front and two on the back. That must be some climb it’s done! A later one had 6 locos, all at the front.
  • Fruit trees are starting to blossom near Grand Junction.
  • It snowed while we were having lunch (between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs). I’ve been told that we’ll lose cell reception totally for at least 3 hours between Glenwood Springs and then we get it back again as we go through the Colorado mountains and tunnels. We’re following the Colorado River now and it’s raining quite heavily, so I don’t think I’ll be taking many photos for this leg.
  • For lunch I had the Black Angus beef burger. It was pretty darned decent for a burger produced on a train. Burger, cheese, bacon, dill, onion, lettuce, and maybe tomato too? with potato crisps on the side. No mayo etc. in the burger so it didn’t turn into mush.
  • Between the narrow gaps of the canyon walls and the train track, the overhead wires change from a ‘t’ formation to an ‘i’, with all the connectors running down the pole instead of across the top of it on the t-bar. Update — not the case — see another note further below.
  • Many of the boulders that have come down from the tops of the mesas and canyon walls are as big as cars, some even as big as houses.
  • Ain’t modern communication wonderful! I’m on a train going through the mountains in Colorado, following the Colorado River, and I have cell phone signal. A fellow Aussie (from Queensland) is with her family at the Menin Gate in Belgium waiting for the end of day bugle call. I know this because she’s posted on Facebook where she is. I let her know that my great uncle is memorialised in the Canadian section. She asks which division etc. I just happen to have my family tree software and database on my laptop so I tell her Canadian Infantry, 58th battalion. Within a minute she sends me a photo of the plaque he’s memorialised on, and a close-up of his name. My mind is officially blown!
  • Mountains. Great big towering and close-to-the road mountains. And a fast-flowing Colorado River, with a double-decker I-70 on one side and the train track on the other side of the canyon. Unfortunately the rain precludes taking any photos so you’ll just have to believe me when I say how AWESOME these mountains are and this trip is. And tunnels. There are tunnels too! (no snow on these mountains — yet…)
  • Stopped at Dotsero (sounds like Dot Zero!) while we wait for the westbound California Zephyr to pass us. Conductor now telling us no more phone service very soon as we’ll go north of I-70 and leave the towers behind.
  • I saw two beaver dams and lodges in a side stream of the Colorado — I think the beavers had made the side stream, by the way! Saw quite a few more beaver dams and lodges on the Colorado later in the day – those little guys can certainly change an ecosystem in a short period of time.
  • I wish I knew more about geology than I do. This is a geologist’s paradise!!
  • The Roundup River Ranch looks like a BIG operation on the banks of the Colorado River.
  • Sometimes the colours of the rocks changes dramatically — from muddy browns, greys, and yellows to vibrant orange reds and terracotta. Then there are the blacks in the red rocks (indicating iron?) and greens in some of the lighter-coloured earths (indicating copper, perhaps?). And the layers go from horizontal strata to clines and anticlines (I think I have the right words), sometimes in a few feet. The power of the forces that did this boggles my mind.
  • You know, I bought along ebooks and magazines and other stuff to read and halfway through the trip I haven’t touched any of it. The ever-changing landscape has completely captured my attention.
  • Some of the people I’ve met at meals:
    • A truck driver who had an accident near Los Angeles, fortunately after dropping his load off. He and the other driver are OK, but his truck has about $50K damage done to it (other driver’s fault) and it has to stay in California for repair, so he’s catching the train back to the Chicago area (he won’t fly any higher than 500 ft in the air). He doesn’t have income protection insurance so in addition to the repair (covered by insurance), he’s also out of work for several weeks, then has to get back to California to pick up his truck once it’s done. Yes, he owns the truck and drives it on behalf on another company.
    • A couple whose children bought them tickets to various places in the US for their 50th wedding anniversary.
    • A retired sports broadcaster (sound guy) who figures he’s flown enough for several lifetimes. He started in Minneapolis and trained to Portland, OR, then down to Sacramento. This train takes him to Denver where he’s catching up with a friend, then flying home to Minneapolis. The train legs will take 5 days to do that loop from Minneapolis to Denver.
    • A father, his adult son, and his son-in-law, all living in Indianapolis, who are just doing this as a bonding exercise and because they can. They were surprisingly well-versed in the Australian political system!
  • The Rockies are aptly named — there’s a helluva lot of rock. And much of it is precipitous and completely impassable, which makes you wonder how on earth the early settlers traversed this inhospitable country with their wagons. Horses and people on foot might have been able to make it, but not wagons — at least not in many of the places I’ve seen in Colorado today. The river valleys can’t be guaranteed to have pasture lining the banks — in many cases it’s sheer walled canyons, or massive strewn boulders. And the rivers themselves are dangerous — fast flowing, deep in places, with impassable rapids.
  • Rock slide alarm system — who knew? They are like phone lines that alert the engineer that rocks may be on the railway line (see the first photo below). They don’t stop a slide. We’ve now stopped in the Lower Gore Canyon as the alert system is showing red, which means there may be rocks on the line and the staff have to shift them. The drop-off is STEEP. REALLY STEEP. Not good for me, so I’ve come back into my room to sit down on the left (mountain) side. This track is one way only, not two tracks. And it’s freakishly high and close to the edge of the canyon (I took the canyon photos below just after we entered Gore Canyon, and before it got really scary — I didn’t take any while we were stopped and EVERYONE was on the river side of the train!). And now they’ve just said there’s a rock on the track and the staff just have to go up and hopefully move it/them off the track. Far out, brussel sprout. I’m definitely NOT in my comfort zone… 5 mins later and we’re moving again, very very slowly. I really don’t want to look out the right side down the very steep drop to the Colorado River – there be my mental ‘don’t go there’ dragons!!! We’re now through to an area where it’s much less precipitous. I can breathe… And it’s now 3:45 pm, so I think it’s time for a wine! Engineer/conductor just told us the rocks were a decent size — about 200 lb each, and it took a couple of guys to get them off the track. We’re now through the Upper Gore Canyon and into flat pastureland, and I’m feeling a little more comfortable. A freight train was waiting for us to pass on the other side, ready to tackle that line heading west. That was certainly a scary 30 mins! I’m still trying not to think about the thousands of tonnes of train balanced precariously on a narrow ledge high above a fast-flowing and freezing cold river and the STEEP drop to that river…

  • Back into rangeland, and snowy fields. Much more undulating hills now than precipitous mountains.
  • And now into Byer’s Canyon, also with lots of rock slide alarm system wires — earlier, I thought these were phone/electric lines and that they were an alternative to ‘t’ bar ones. But they’re not — they’re the alarm system.
  • And now back to flatland, still following the Colorado River.
  • If anyone suggests whitewater rafting the Colorado River, be aware that many parts are treacherous, unable to be reached by anything if there’s an accident, and have HUGE boulders either sticking out of the water or silently waiting for prey underneath the surface. Not for this little black duck!
  • Estimated time into Denver will be about 30 mins late, likely because of the stop we did in Gore Canyon to get the rocks off the track. Plus the 15 mins we were late into Grand Junction.
  • I find it amusing that when we come to a designated stop, the announcer mentions a fresh air break followed immediately by info regarding smokers! So much for fresh air…
  • We went through a 3-tunnel thing where the front of the train was coming out of the third tunnel, while the back was going into the first. The announcer told us that the Steven Seagal movie — Under Siege 2? — was filmed there. Something about the hijacking of a train…
  • And now an announcement about dinner and getting in quickly because they have to do something with power (at Fraser/Winter Park?) which means no power to cook food! Seems we’ve been operating with one loco since Green River, so they have to cut normal power for a few minutes to go up the grade to the tunnel as they need one loco to go up and one for power. Cutting the power (air con etc.) gives them full power in the one loco for going ‘over the hump’. Likely to be only a few minutes. Tunnel built 1923-1927, 3rd longest railroad tunnel in the US, and 4th longest in North America.
  • Fraser is about 8500 ft, higher than anywhere in Australia. After Winter Park, we go through the Moffat Tunnel (about 9000 ft, and 6.2 miles long). This tunnel crosses the continental divide. We can’t go between cars while we’re in the tunnel — residual coal dust, diesel fumes etc.
  • And into the tunnel… Pitch black outside, as you’d expect, but they didn’t need to cut power because the first loco had enough grunt to get us through. It should all be downhill from here…
  • After we come out of the tunnel, we’ll be following a different river — the Colorado only flows on the western side of the divide.
  • And we’re out… into the light, though with low cloud/snow skies. Lots of recent snow on the trees and on the coal in the rail trucks in the siding. There was heavy snow on a solar panel for the railway line too — I hope they have another option!
  • Dinner for me tonight was the steak, and it was cooked to my liking and tasted great. I’ve been impressed with the meals. It’s a limited menu, for sure, but more than enough to choose from for two days and nights.
  • The only downside of the meal was the gentleman who sat with me and two other ladies. He was very charming, but was a preacher and certainly wanted to preach! I’m not a fan of proselytising of any sort, religious or otherwise, but especially religious. Fortunately, we were able to steer the conversation away to more general things.
  • The views coming out of the mountains into Denver were AMAZING! Unfortunately, they were on the wrong side of the train and I was having dinner at the time and was squashed in next to ‘Charming Gentleman’ and couldn’t get out to take photos. Also, BIG dark grey clouds over Denver and the plains, so I’m not sure they’d have come out well anyway. But those views were to die for! We’re only 20-30 mins late into Denver, after nearly 36 hours on the train, and the delay while we went slow, stopped, and they cleared the rocks from the track.
  • 25-minute stop in Denver to change some of the crew. Then 8 hours to Omaha. Still another nearly 20 hours to go… But I’m hoping the worst of today’s excitement is over. The wine is helping 🙂

See also:

Amtrak: California Zephyr: Day 1: San Francisco to Elko, NV

20 04 2018

I’m on the train! I’m taking the California Zephyr from San Francisco (Emeryville, actually) to Chicago. It’s a 52-hour trip — 3 days and 2 nights. I was never going to go coach for that distance, and the roomettes are pretty small, with shared toilet and shower facilities downstairs. So I sprung for a ‘Bedroom’ and it’s more spacious than I thought it would be.

Here are my first impressions of the journey (only some of my 200+ photos are here):

  • It’s a beautiful, cloudless day to be starting such a journey.
  • Train left Emeryville station exactly on time at 9:10 am.
  • The attendant for my car — Ralph — will be with us the entire way to Chicago.
  • The ride is very smooth and pretty quiet.
  • My room is clean and the windows are SUPER clean.
  • My room (Bedroom, in Superliner parlance for Amtrak) is more spacious than I thought it would be — it comfortably seats 3, but would only sleep 2 and perhaps a small child. For one person, there’s PLENTY of room — a big sofa (that converts to a large single bed) and a small armchair. Above is the fold-out bunk, which I won’t be using, of course. There’s a tiny closet, 3 power outlets (all near the door, unfortunately, which means draping cords across the sofa/floor to the tray table), a combined toilet/shower (TINY, as expected), pull-out table for my laptop (or for playing cards etc. if you were with others), small hand basin and mirror in the main room, plus a full-length mirror, a cupboard for trash (which didn’t close properly, but Ralph sealed it with duct tape at my request), air con controls, reading lights, room lights, night light. The door to the room can be latched from inside, but not outside. It’s a glass door, so you can easily see across the corridor to the view on the other side of the train. There’s a curtain for the door for privacy at night and for when you leave your room. Curtains on the windows too, though I doubt I’ll use them — I like early morning sunshine. (Here’s a tip worth investigating: If there are two of you, it seems to cost as much to have two of you in the one room as it does to make two bookings with a room each — you could choose adjoining rooms and gets heaps more room than two sharing the one space. This is based on how the fare structure seems to work, which is everyone pays for a coach seat and then adds on their accommodation charge. Now don’t quote me on this, but I reckon it’s worthwhile seeing how much it is for two separate room bookings, compared to two people under the one booking and therefore in the one room.)

  • The rooms and dining and viewing sections are all upstairs in these double-decker carriages, with the showers, toilets, food kiosk/lounge, and baggage downstairs. This means that you see far more than if you were at ‘ground’ level, like in a car.
  • I can hear the people next door talking, but not what they’re saying. I can also clearly hear when they flush their toilet, and smell it! So the insulation/barrier between rooms isn’t the best.
  • As with any train experience, you see a side of the country that’s normally hidden from view when you’re travelling in a car. There were quite a few homeless camps — far more than I expected to see. And rubbish — lots of rubbish. Graffiti is pretty pervasive too. Abandoned boats and decaying jetties at the water’s edge. Even a dead seal. A surprising number of mattresses have just been dumped near the tracks — it’s like someone said, “Let’s take it to the end of the road and toss it over the fence.”
  • Someone had a sense of humour! They stuck two plastic pink flamingos into some stockpiles of blue metal on the side of the track 🙂
  • I’ll be wearing ear plugs at night — the train toots its horn fairly often, especially in built-up areas where roads directly cross the rail. Plus there’s the general noise of wheels on tracks, more noticeable at higher speeds than lower. That said, it’s a very smooth and quiet ride.
  • Some of the stops/places we went through in the first few hours — Richmond, Martinez, Davis, Sacramento, Roseville, Auburn, Soda Springs, Truckee, Reno…
  • By 2 pm we were well into the snow, going through the Tahoe National Forest. The eucalypts around San Francisco had changed to pine trees, and the flat land had changed to mountain land with steep drops. The blue sky had changed to very cloudy. Essentially we followed I-80 much of the way for the first 5 or so hours. I wonder if those driving on I-80 realised there was a train almost directly above them!
  • I saw cows in a field! It’s not often you see that in the US.
  • Of course, the room/train has no TV, movies, entertainment, though cell phone service is a bit better than I expected, even up in the Tahoe National Forest. But as we’re skirting I-80 (the thin ribbon of road on the left in the photo below), I’d expect we’re picking up signal from the towers along that route.
  • There have been quite a few tunnels. Nothing too long, but I decided to turn on my blue night light so that I wasn’t in pitch darkness when going through the tunnels.
  • I saw some strange aqueducts, for want of a better word. They were on raised wooden platforms, and were like half a 44-gallon drum cut lengthwise, then joined end to end. Those I saw had fast flowing water in them. They almost looked like a sluice.
  • We went through the famous Donner Pass. Long tunnel near there.
  • For lunch on the first day (all meals are included in my room cost), I had the baked chilequile (sp?) which looked awful but tasted good. That was followed by greek yoghurt cheesecake, which wasn’t too sweet.
  • I met the Amtrak police officer on the train! Yes, the train has its own police officer. He’s been working for Amtrak Police for nearly 30 years riding the rails across the USA, and in that time he said he’s had to deal with about 150 deaths and accidents. Deaths are from vehicles trying to outrun the train at a crossing, or trying to outrun another train without realising the passenger train is passing as well at 70 mph, or, more frequently these days, suicides. The engineer/driver gets about 3 days off for counselling after such events, and these accidents/suicides can delay the train for several hours, as you’d expect. He always hopes for an uneventful trip, one where he has to do basically nothing except deal with any minor issues on the train. He said on the open track the train does up to 80 mph, but when in the mountains, it’s more like 30 or 40 mph. Freight trains don’t always have right-of-way, but if the passenger train has been delayed, then the freight timetable takes precedence.
  • In addition to the dining car, you can buy drinks and snacks (I wrote that as ‘snakes’!) on the train, including wine and beer and spirits. Wine is $6.50/glass, so I bought my own bottle, plus my own Diet Coke as they only sell Pepsi on the train.
  • After the Donner Pass area, we rapidly came out of snow country to pretty much no snow around Truckee. It’s an hour to Reno after leaving Truckee.
  • You get a brand new roll of toilet paper for your trip 🙂
  • East of Truckee, someone has come along the rail access road and placed little rock cairns on top of big boulders. Only train passengers who were looking north would ever see them. Thanks!
  • For meals, you sit at a table of 4, so as a solo traveler, you can end up speaking with up to 3 others.
  • There’s more cell service than I had expected through the Sierras. only lost signal for a few minutes at a time. With no wifi on the train, I’m using my cell phone as a wireless hotspot.
  • Crossed into Nevada around 3:20 pm, some 6 hours after departure. We’re now in the high desert — vegetation is totally different, and it’s a more barren landscape. Lots of browns and sage green/greys, rocks and boulders, and not much else. Cloudy.
  • Arrived in Reno, NV at 3:40 pm, right on time, if not a tad early. Scheduled to leave Reno at 4:06 pm, and left right on time.
  • There are a couple of Amish on board — I believe they don’t fly. I’m sure there are others who don’t fly for whatever reason too, then there are those like me who just want a different travel experience.
  • Spots of rain as we were leaving Reno, spoiling the clean windows and the view. But they certainly didn’t last long.
  • Rocks, lots of rocks. There’s some harsh country just east of Reno.
  • Haven’t seen any deer (or sheep?) yet, though I’ve seen their paths through the grass.
  • Broken-down fences, vehicles, barns, houses, factories, and towns. The sad state of much of rural America. Trashed trailer parks with rubbish strewn everywhere.
  • About an hour east of Reno (following SR 95), it’s just sand, salt flats, and tumbleweeds. And flat. Almost nothing grows here, and I expect very little rain falls here. I’ll take back the rain statement. An hour or two on, and there were heavy rain clouds and evidence of quite a bit of rain in the past day — lots of puddles, big and small.
  • Lovelock, NV — there were irrigated fields here! There must be some decent artesian basins, because I doubt they’re getting their water from direct rainfall and dams. The irrigated fields had those BIG rolling sprinkler systems, the sort that makes the green ‘crop circles’ you see from the sky when you’re flying over the US.
  • The sky is endlessly changing — blue sky, solid grey sky, bold clouds, rain clouds, puffy clouds…
  • In northern Nevada, we continued following the I-80, and had more snow-capped peaks in the distance.  Lots of gulches.
  • I lost cell service for about 3 hours, and called it a night not long before we got to Elko, NV (around 9:15 pm). The train continued travelling overnight reaching Salt Lake City around 2 am.
  • Throughout northern Nevada there’s no sign of livestock or large native animals. However, late in the day (the sun went down about 7:15 pm and it was fully dark about 30 mins after) after Winnemucca, NV there were a few cattle (with new calves).
  • For dinner I had the Norwegian Salmon, with a herbed rice and vegetables. It was delicious and everything was perfectly cooked. I was very pleasantly surprised.

See also: