I haven’t always been enamored with trains. In my past travels, I had been on several rails both in the United States on the east coast and also through small parts of Europe. Those times however, I was too young and naive to appreciate the significance and beauty of a well-placed rail. Now, more than three months into my newly nomadic lifestyle and about 10 years since my last rail adventure overseas, trains have become a larger and more significant part of my life than I could have ever predicted.
Having been on several rails on the west coast in the last couple months, I’ve quickly gotten a full dose of the western-US landscape and its ever-shifting and ever-impressive geography. On trains I’ve seen the sun sink below the ocean and woken up to the sun rising in the desert less than 12 hours later. Of all the rails I’ve traveled on so far though, the California Zephyr from Denver, CO to Sacramento, CA is by far my favorite.
Originating in Chicago, IL, the California Zephyr is a tour through the west and its rugged history unlike anything else a person can experience in the United States. From Denver to Sacramento, it takes around 30 hours and affords exclusive views of the Rocky Mountains, desert in Utah and finally the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California.
My first experience with the California Zephyr actually happened by complete chance. I was in Denver with no car or money for a plane ticket out to Los Angeles, CA, my ultimate destination. After some researching, Amtrak’s #5 train won over my wallet and more notably, my curiosity.
I boarded the California Zephyr not knowing what to expect and quickly realized that it would be a train ride that would surpass any other journey I had made previous. Before I knew it, I had my camera out and was snapping photos and shooting video as the train zipped through the snowy Rocky Mountain vistas towards the west.
It wasn’t long before I found myself wondering about the people who first laid the track and how hard they had worked and how life must have been for them. These were people with unique stories and unique motivators for leaving behind the established cities of the east for a crazy venture to reach the Pacific. The railroads from the east coast to the west were an impressive feat of American elbow grease and backbreaking determination. Even now, more than 60 years from the Zephyr’s first service, the track remains an astounding accomplishment that at times, particularly through the Rocky Mountains immediately out of Denver, seems too large to be true.
From tunnels that run straight through the mountains to rail laid carefully between them and the Colorado River, taking the California Zephyr is an unprecedented visual experience. And even better, the other passengers on the train are generally in excellent spirits and eager to talk, swap stories and in the end, unintentionally build relationships.
I spent my night on the California Zephyr from Denver listening to a traveler talk about the trauma that had made him book his Amtrak ticket. Less than two weeks before, he had found his dad dead in bed, moved on from this life to the next. And so he moved on as well, albeit by train. His story of loss and moving on took me back to earlier in the day when I had spent time thinking about the railroad workers and their motivations.
Traveling by train will not only let you lay eye on some of America’s best views but is also the only way to travel where others are actually looking to make conversation and hear about where you’ve been and what you’ve done in your life. Plus, hearing the history provided via intercom on some sections, like through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the region where the infamous Donner Party perished, will deepen your appreciation for the perseverant American spirit that makes our country so unique.