Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Over the Sierra Nevada

This was going to be the ultimate train trip, even if it only would last for about 17 hours.  That part was because my darling wife would only agree to spending 17 hours--as it turns out, the final segment of what is a 50-hour train journey--on a train, even if that train was the celebrated California Zephyr.  You have to understand what a big deal the Zephyr is, even when operated by Amtrak, which means we are not talking about the grand days of crack or luxury trains as chronicled by the likes of "Luscious Lucius" Beebe.

The Zephyr gets its name from a predecessor long-distance rail special called the Denver Zephyr, which ran "Through the Rockies--Not Around Them" (the train's motto, provided by its railroad, the Denver, Rio Grande & Western, to emphasize its superiority to the competing Union Pacific, which headed due north from Denver and then west across the Wyoming plains, skirting the mighty Rockies) from Denver each morning to Salt Lake City by supper time.  

I once rode the Denver Zephyr back when the DRG&W still ran it as the last privately-operated, long-haul passenger train in the U.S. It was a wonderful experience riding through the red-rocked canyons of the upper Colorado River for about 200 miles after switchbacking up into the Rockies from Denver and finally racing across the comparatively flat  and often desert-like terrain west of Grand Junction and up through Utah. It had a dome car and a good dining car, which would offer pan-fried local trout for lunch.

Having had that experience of the second-most scenic part of the Chicago-to-Emeryville, CA run, I offered little resistance when it seemed that my wife would agree to meet me in Salt Lake City and catch the Zephyr at 11:00 P.M. that night when it pulled into Salt Lake City's all-too-standard, non-descript cinder-block station. 

This was going to be my first experience spending a night on a U.S. train and in a sleeping car, no less.  Before the station opened--more or lesson time at 10:00 P.M. when we, and it turned out, quite a few others, picked up our previously-reserved-and-paid-for tickets, we chatted with a fellow passenger--this was not a tough call to make because the Zephyr, running in both directions, is the only train Amtrak sends through Salt Lake City--bound for Winnemucca, Nevada.  This was not a place with which I am familiar, and now having seen it in person--albeit from the window of our room in the sleeping car--I still don't have too much of a feel as to what goes on in Winnemucca.

But the agents behind the glass window at the station were pleasant in that way that you get used to when west of the Mississippi.  We boarded the train, having hiked down the platform to the train's last car--I know, it was only about an eight-car train.  When I was a kid, we dropped someone off at Harmon, up the Hudson where all the New York Central crack trains stopped to change engines, who boarded the Ohio State Limited, and that probably had about 20 cars--at least.

Our "bedroom" was tight, when we managed to figure out where to stow the rollerboard suitcases and other paraphernalia.  I was ceded the lower bed which was also wider and we had paid to get this "larger" room which contained a separate toilet, in which area you could also take a shower--a set-up I had last encountered in a hotel room in Volgograd, Russia.  This time we didn't even fool around trying out the "shower"--hey, 17 hours isn't all that long and we'd arrive at Emeryville by 4:30 P.M. the next day anyway.

We both managed to sleep despite the last night of what had been that rare "super moon" outside--making the early dawn scene totally reminiscent, with the Nevada mountains in the background, of Ansel Adams's fantastic photo, Moonrise: Hernandez, New Mexico.  Nevada was largely flat and either desert country or other badland--still fascinating to this East Coaster after my many flights over the arid West.  By breakfast-time in the diner, we were following the Truckee River, which runs, I believe, into Lake Tahoe, about 10 miles off our route. I would have loved to have seen the more fascinating Humboldt River, which after flowing in a mighty stream disappears into Carson Sink.

We had the benefit of both a guidebook and Park Service commentary on board between Reno and Sacramento, the heart of the run.  You climb up into the Sierras after Reno, following mostly the track first laid by the Central Pacific as the western leg of America's first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.  The mountain scenery is spectacular--flowing streams, endless conifers, rock formations, snow-capped peaks and snow on the ground in May--and then there are the snow sheds built to cover the tracks when huge storms or avalanches threatened to cut off the right-of-way.

The train slows and after a while, you look out over Donner Lake, where that ill-fated party spent the winter of 1846-47 with many bad outcomes, including death and cannibalism, having been stopped in its covered-wagon ascent of the Sierras by early winter snows.  We passed Boca, where they once had ice farms because it got as cold as 45 degrees below zero in the winter of 1937.  Finally, we passed the top of the ascent and began riding down toward Auburn and finally Sacramento.

The train had been ahead of schedule--it arrived about a half hour early in Salt Lake City and even though it left there late, it still maintained its on-time performance until it came back into civilization and found itself behind other trains coming into Sacramento, a station with insufficient tracks and platforms to accommodate the still-significant numbers of both Amtrak and local trains.  We sped across the Sacramento River delta to Martinez, where we also were delayed and finally were put solidly behind schedule--oh, only 15 minutes or so--before Richmond and thence terminated at Emeryville, which is between Berkeley and Oakland.  Unlike New York, where the Pennsylvania Railroad built the first tunnels under the Hudson to get direct access to Manhattan in 1910, no railroad ever has tunnelled under San Francisco Bay until the BART turned that trick about 30+ years ago or so.

Buses were supposed to be waiting to ferry us over the Bay Bridge to, yes, the Ferry Terminal, where there are no ferries anymore. Just like there's no rich in the Richmond district or sun in the Sunset of S.F.  We trekked all the way up the platform--reminiscent of Washington, D.C.'s Union Station--only to find that no buses could be found, despite our having given them that extra 15 minutes top get their act together. Despite that, I still left with a good attitude toward Amtrak--even if when they informed me that they were out of the Manhattan clam chowder I had ordered for lunch because "it's the last day"--partly because the train staff unanimously displayed great attitude and made the trip that much more pleasant.

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