I was woken up around 5am to a low but incessant rumble. Vague hints of daylight had appeared over the heads of my fellow passengers, most of whom were still bent at rest. Some people yawned; others stared intently out the window at the valley. I had been aboard the train for about 40 hours and there was still a long way to go before our scheduled arrival in the San Francisco Bay area.
Driving west, I walked to the back of the train to see the rising sun reflected on the tracks. We drove through Nevada. A few minutes later, we stopped in the town of Winnemucca, Nev., right in front of the Martin Hotel, which in the late 1800s cared for the Basque immigrants who had moved there to work as shepherds.
Amtrak’s California Zephyr, considered by many train enthusiasts to be one of the most beautiful long-distance train routes in the United States, runs between Chicago and Emeryville, California, near Oakland. The entire route takes about 52 hours and includes 33 stops. In 2018, while traveling across the United States for a three-month photography project, I completed most of the journey, departing from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on a blistering day in mid-August.
I boarded the train at 5:59 PM in the golden light of a perfectly clear day, looking at the first of a long line of soy and corn fields and small town backyards that are so often overlooked.
At 10:55 PM, the Zephyr’s 12 silver carriages slowed and stopped in Omaha. Connie, another passenger, got in and sat down next to me. At age 72, she had short gray hair, a sun-kissed face and kind eyes. It was too late to start a conversation, so we both tried to get some sleep. (Neither of us passed completely.)
Early in the morning, as the yellow hills of Nebraska and Colorado rolled around us, Connie told me she had been visiting her daughter in Omaha and would be disembarking that afternoon in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, to meet her husband.
Eventually I started wandering through the cars, shy but restless, wanting to meet and speak to everyone. It felt like the first day of summer camp. Small groups of people mingled here and there and exchanged a few words. Others preferred to keep to themselves in their roomettesor sat alone in their coach seats reading or napping.
The current California Zephyr began service in 1983, although an earlier iteration of the train — of the same name, but privately running on a slightly different route — ran between 1949 and 1970.
In the 1970s, long-distance trains such as the Zephyr were unreliable and unprofitable, unable to compete with airplanes or the burgeoning highway system. But in the early 1980s, the reality reversed: Air traffic deteriorated (fares skyrocketed, airlines abandoned marginal routes, competition increased) and some Americans turned back to their network of trains. Short-distance train journeys were often cheaper and more convenient, and the routes started and ended easily in city centers. In 1979, Amtrak added new Superliners—two-level intercity railcars—on its western routes, and some people rediscovered a long-lost asset.
As Henry Kisor describes in “Zephyr: Following a Dream Across America”, published in 1994: “The Zephyr represented a new conception of train travel: the train as a tourist cruise ship through a sea of landscapes, not just as a means of transport from city to city.”
And the train’s schedule, as Mr. Kisor points out, encouraged passengers to sleep as the less exciting scenery rolled by—the Great Plains and the arid landscapes of Utah and Nevada—and enjoy dramatic alpine views during the day.
I spent most of my first full day in the observation car, otherwise known as the Sightseer Lounge (and previously called the Vista Dome). The car’s floor-to-ceiling windows provided the best possible view of the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River Valley, the Continental Divide, the Sierra Nevada, and the verdant forests of Northern California. The soft blue seats give riders a bit of privacy, but the tables for four are where most of the socializing takes place. I sat opposite Connie and made friends with almost everyone around us.
For most people I met, traveling on the California Zephyr was not about it to get somewhere. Instead, the journey was a reward—a slow and long-awaited few days born of a busy lifestyle.
I met Joe, 33, and Mo, 38, a newlywed couple from England who had crossed the Atlantic with the Queen Mary II, married and then boarded the California Zephyr in Chicago, planning to drive all the way to Emeryville. This was their honeymoon.
Then there were John, 33, and Emma, 27, two Pennsylvania Amish parents who were heading to Grand Junction, Colorado, for a specialist appointment. Emma was crocheting a beautiful centerpiece on her very first train ride.
Rose, 18, Jenna, 23, two cousins with neck pillows, were on their way home to San Francisco.
At the very end of the train, by the back window, I met Robert, 40, and his 2-year-old daughter, Madeline, who were napping in his arms. They were on a birthday trip with Madeline’s mother and grandmother. They had got off in Denver and were going to get off at the end of the line.
Next to Connie and me were Tyler, 10, and his grandfather, Bruce, 66. They had boarded the train in Iowa. Their plan: to explore Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon. They both decided to wear flashy T-shirts so as not to lose sight of each other.
Behind me was a group of flower-clad Michigan Mennonites. They were on their way to Glenwood Springs, talking animatedly about something they’d seen outside the window.
Aside from the observation car, the other social hub of the train is the dining car. I missed breakfast the first morning so on my second full day I went straight there. A servant was busy setting the tables. The car’s cabins seat four people and all meals are communal – meaning, if you’re not part of a group of four, you’ll likely be seated with other passengers.
Fifty years ago, a meal in the dining car was an elegant affair – think linen tablecloths, fine china, silverware. The waiters dressed in white coats and blue bow ties, with long white aprons and towels over their arms. Now they wear light blue shirts, red ties and blue aprons. The china and cutlery are still there, but based on old photos I’ve seen, they look cheaper. There is no linen in sight; it has been replaced by large sheets of white paper.
Whenever I take a long-distance bus trip – I’ve traveled extensively across the United States with the Greyhound network – I get the feeling that passengers are not there because they To elect to be, but rather because they to have as the bus is either the only available or the cheapest option. (At least this was always true for me.)
However, when you travel by train, the atmosphere is very different. There was a sense of community aboard the California Zephyr. After all, there aren’t many places where Mennonites, a Japanese student, smiling newlyweds, parents with their children and grandchildren in tow, and retirees all get together for such a long period of time and share their life stories.
And that, as Henry Kisor wrote, is part of its appeal to long-distance train passengers — “the joy of meeting humanity in its endless variety.”