Amtrak: California Zephyr: Day 3: Colorado to Chicago, Illinois

21 04 2018

Day 3: Sometime overnight we passed into Nebraska from Colorado, then around 6:30 am we passed into Iowa (IA), so I missed Nebraska entirely. Some may say that was a good thing. Fortunately, I’ve driven across Nebraska before, so I know what it looks like (from the Interstate, anyway) and how pretty it can be. (Bonus: I just added another US state to the list of those I’ve visited — Iowa! I think I’ve now visited some 40 of the 50 US states.)

This is the third and last day on the train. We’re scheduled to arrive at Chicago’s union Station at 2:50 pm, but as we were an hour late leaving Denver last night, I don’t expect us to get there on time, unless they made up a lot of time overnight. This is possible, because we’re no longer in the mountains and so the train can go faster.

Observations from today:

  • I slept reasonably well last night. I took an Advil (?) PM tablet before I went to bed, AND I put in my much better ear plugs (not the little foam ones given out on the plane). Then there was the wine, and the fact I had hardly slept the previous night. All in all, my sleep was much longer and stronger, though I did wake several times during the night.
  • For breakfast, I had the omelette and asked for it with guacamole, which came in a squeeze packet!!! I’ve never seen that before. Tasted fine, but there was a LONG list of unreadable ingredients, so who knows what was in it to stop it discolouring.
  • 8:15 am: We’re currently stopped at Creston, IA. There’s no cell service that I can connect to here, so I’ll have to wait a bit before I can post.
  • It’s very cloudy today — that overall grey nothingness that casts a dull pall over everything and just absorbs any light. As expected, the landscape is gently undulating farmland, with silos (grain?, corn? soy?), barns, farmhouses, and little towns. The trees appear to be bare — no leaf and flower buds are discernible yet from a passing train, though you can see birds’ nests. There are some patches of green grass, but mostly the fields are bare soil, waiting for the spring burst of life for the crops. Some fields have cattle in them. The predominant colours? Grey, brown, and yellow, with small patches of green.
  • Haha! Announcement from the conductor that marijuana is a federal class 1 drug, and that while it is legal in Colorado, it’s only legal there and not on this train, which is run by the federal government. She said that the DEA would be happy to invite anyone carrying marijuana to the DEA’s ‘hotel’, and she suggested if you did have marijuana that you get off at the next stop or dispose of it. I think the implication is that the DEA may get on the train at a stop in the future, or that the Amtrak Police officer I spoke to the other day has the authority to act on the DEA’s behalf. While the announcement was quite funny in its delivery and the words she used, there’s a bit of an issue here — passengers in rooms and roomettes CANNOT lock their room from the outside, which means that while you’re at meals or out of your room for any other reason (in the viewing car, perhaps), anyone could come into your room and plant drugs there.
  • After 2 days of travel, rain, and snow the windows aren’t looking as spotless as on Day 1.
  • I sat with the Amish couple at breakfast — they have 8 children, 33 grandchildren, and 7 great great grandchildren. She had her last child only a few weeks before her firstborn had their child. One of their daughters also has 8 children. They sold their farm (Elkhart [?], Indiana) to one of their daughters.
  • 8:40 am: 10 mins out from Osceola, IA, and still no cell service…. now I have cell service, but my laptop isn’t connecting to my mobile hotspot. Reboot everything… 1 bar, but no connection. 2 bars, no connection, but at least Google Maps on my phone has updated itself with Iowa locations. Got connected very briefly, then lost it again.
  • 8:55 am Next stop is in 75 mins, so hopefully I can connect properly by then. This time my SIM is from AT&T (previously T-Mobile) and up until now, I’ve been impressed with the coverage I’ve had in places where I didn’t expect to have it. But so far it’s not so great out here in the flyover states.
  • 9:20 am: Cariton, IA. No cell service…
  • 9:50 am: And today is brought to you by the colours grey and yellow! Fortunately, I’ve lived in this sort of country [Ontario, Canada] and I know how pretty it can be in full spring, summer, fall, and the depths of winter. It’s only during this nothingness between winter and full-blown spring that the colours are so dull. Add to that a very dull cloudy sky, and everything just sucks the light.
  • 10:20 am: 10 mins outside Ottumwa, IA, I got a little bit of cell service, the first all day that allowed me to do anything.
  • Early lunch today, which they started announcing at 10:30 am!! They’ve run out of a few items, so I had the Black Angus burger again. It’s still grey and yellow outside…
  • 12:00 noon: Crossed the mighty Mississippi from Iowa into Illinois, at Burlington, IA. Final stretch to Chicago now underway. We’re currently about 90 mins behind schedule, so if they don’t make up that time (unlikely with the freight traffic on this line), then we’ll be into Chicago after 4:30 pm. That’s OK for me — online reviews had indicated you could be an hour early or up to 8 hours late on this train, so I booked a hotel room for tonight so that I wasn’t under pressure to collect my rental car at a particular time. In hindsight, that was a wise move!
  • After the Mississippi, the undulating land turned into FLAT land. Still greys and yellow, but now flat. Flat as a pancake, except even pancakes have rounded edges. Did I mention it was flat?
  • We were late into Naperville, and are now 20 mins behind the time we were due into Chicago, which is about an hour away. No surprises there, with the accumulated delays we’ve had along the way. So instead of the scheduled 52 hours, the eventual trip will be about 53.5 hours. Actually, it took 53 hours — we got in just one hour late.

Bottom line: Was taking the train halfway across the US worth it? Absolutely! A great way to see parts of the country you may never have seen before, a great way to relax and let someone else take care of the driving and navigating and the meals, and for some I’m sure it’s a great way to meet people (I only went to the viewing car once, so only met new people at meals).

But to do it properly and without feeling claustrophobic, and if you have the funds to do so, consider a ‘bedroom’ in preference to a ‘roomette’, or a ‘roomette’ in preference to ‘coach’. With the bedrooms and roomettes, all your meals are included in your fare AND you get a bed to sleep in (though it may be the top bunk!). With the bedrooms, you get your own (tiny) toilet and shower, and power outlets; with roomettes, you have shared toilet/shower facilities (and possibly power outlets). I’m not sure if coach passengers get the option of a shower, and they have to pay for their meals, and sit up the entire way.

There was no wifi on the train I was on (California Zephyr), but with cell service (patchy and non-existent in places), I was able to hotspot my phone and get connected. For some, no connection at all for 3 days would be part of the charm.

Despite not having much contact with people (my choice), I wasn’t bored. The landscape changed so frequently that you didn’t have a chance to be bored. I just wish I knew more about geology so that I could’ve appreciated the Utah and Colorado landforms better.

Other hints: Take ear plugs for sleeping, and possibly a sleep-inducing drug if you have trouble sleeping on things in motion, such as planes. You can bring your own snacks and drinks, but be discreet and consume them in your own room, not in the public areas (there’s a snack bar that sells food, drinks, and alcohol, but they may not have the brands you want). Don’t bring in marijuana from Colorado! 🙂 Bring your own toiletries. The car attendant just showed me the storage area in my room near the hand basin where there were toiletries, wash cloths, tissues, and spare toilet paper!

Would I do it again? With enough time, a route that suited my plans, and sufficient funds — YES.

 One final thing: They have accessible bedrooms in the lower level of the sleeping carriages. I’m not sure how they deal with meals for those in these rooms — perhaps the staff bring them down? The stairs to the upper level are very narrow, though they do have handrails on both sides. Very large people or those with mobility issues may have trouble negotiating the stairs, as well as the toilet/shower facilities in the bedrooms (I believe the shared toilet/shower facilities downstairs for the roomette people are bigger.)

See also: