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Andy Anderson Amtrak: The California Zephyr
Leg Four - Jan 10th - 12th 2009: The California Zephyr
Sacramento Station by andy anderson

The Sacramento Amtrak station is full of passengers waiting to board their respective trains

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Leg 3 - Sacramento to Chicago
At the Sacramento Station

It's almost 7:00AM, and the California Zephyr doesn't leave until 10:54. If you take into account that they'll probably board first-class passengers about a half hour early, that gives me about a three-and-a-half-hour wait. The Sacramento Amtrak station is nice, but there's not much going on. There's no lounge for the first-class passengers, and the bench seating is rather uncomfortable. Not great; however, the station is old, and has a lot of history.

In addition, the station does not have a restaurant; just vending machines, and I really don't fancy eating a sandwich out of some machine. The security guard tells me that there's a place to eat right across the street, but I'm going to wait until it gets light outside before checking it out. If they have a sit-down breakfast, I could probably kill an hour over there... sounds like a plan.

It's interesting how this trip has evolved. Even with all the delays, and scheduling changes, by the time I reach Newton, I will be back on my original schedule. Life is funny that way. You think everything is falling apart, and your best-laid plans are in tatters. However, if you relax, and let the universe sort it out, things usually work out for the best. I don't mean to be too Zen here, but maybe the California Zephyr is the train I was supposed to be on, and not the Empire Builder. Scary thought, isn't it?

Andy's Advice: The Sacramento station has free wireless, but it's not working correctly... what the heck happened to that Zen thing? Anyway in talking to a few people, I get the feeling that the wireless is down more than it's up.

Traveling America's Backyard

Traveling with Amtrak is a wonderful experience, and I would recommend it to anyone who believes that the journey is the reward. Airlines have their purpose, and I fly them all the time... too much, if you ask me. But trains are a wonderful way to travel.

We've become of society of speed, where sometimes it doesn't even matter if we want get there fast or slow, we choose the fast way anyway. A road trip on Amtrak harkens back to a simpler time in our society, when people talked to each other... when you could spend an hour or more with a perfect stranger, and actually enjoy the conversational experience. When I get on an airplane, people mostly shut down. They put their headsets on, and dare you to speak to them. You spend the journey 8 miles above this wonderful planet, looking at the tops of clouds, and wait for the end of the flight. While I do a lot of flying, it's not my favorite mode of transportation. On the train, you can meet new and interesting people, and actually speak to them. There are times (like this one for me), when you're almost sad that the journey is coming to an end.

I challenge you to try it out for yourself. If you've got a few days open on your busy schedule... check the Amtrak site, and pick a train route that will take you somewhere... anywhere, and just damn go for it. You might finally understand the expression: The Journey is the Reward.

Breakfast - Sacramento

Well, still can't get the wireless to work, so I walk across the street to a little bistro kind of place, and have a couple of eggs, sausage and tea. Since I have plenty of time, I linger over breakfast, and manage to consume a bit over an hour. After breakfast, I spend the rest of the time, reading, and taking some photos of the historic Sacramento station.

The train is supposed to be here on time at 10:54AM, so that leaves me less than an hour to wait. I forgot that Sacramento is not the originating city for the California Zephyr, so when it arrives, we'll all jump on, and it will take off again. Typically, a stop like this only takes a few minutes. As a matter of fact, the train will probably leave the station, before I get to my room. Then it's a little over two fun-filled days to Chicago.

There are two routes that take you through the center of the country, the Southwest Chief, and the California Zephyr. The Chief would get me home in about a day; while the Zephyr will take a bit over two. I'm glad Amtrak put me on the Zephyr... Like I've said before, for me the journey is the reward.

On Board the California Zephyr

The train arrived at the station 15 minutes early... good sign. Pete, our car attendant checks me in at the door and directs me to my room. He gives me the canned speech about the room and it's features, and then offers me some bottled water, juice or ice. I decline all three, and he says that someone from the diner will be around to take reservations for lunch. I thank him, shake hands, and he moves to the next bedroom and I hear him giving the same speech. I begin to unpack, as we slide out of the station. Although the Zephyr was 15 minutes early, there were a lot of people boarding, so we eat up that extra time and wind up departing the station at 10:55AM.

While I'm writing, we pull into Roseville, at 11:19AM... 1 minute ahead of schedule. The Zephyr adds a few more people to its growing list, and heads back out. It's a beautiful day to be traveling; there's not a cloud in that hard blue sky. Since California is a warm-weather State, they have more than their share of homeless people. As we travel eastward, the sides of the track are dotted with makeshift tents, constructed out of blue and green tarps. Old lawn chairs, rusted barbeque grills, and soiled clothes draped across ropes complete this homey picture.

Lunch on the California Zephyr

Lunch was an interesting affair; they didn't have reserved seating, so it was a free for all... I made the mistake of going right away. If I had waited about an hour, I would probably have missed all the crowds. This train is pretty full, so I'm timing my meals to occur at periods when fewer people are in the diner. I'm not against people; however, when every table is packed, and you have about 50 conversations all competing with each other, plus the attendants trying to serve the meals... well, you get the picture. I miss the quiet comfort of the Cost Starlight. Actually, I'm very glad that I have a bedroom that I can retreat to, when things get hectic.

We're currently crossing Nevada, not too far from something my GPS says is Carson Sink. On the digital map, it looks like it might be a lake formed by the sinking of the ground... Hummm, don't want to get too close to that.

We left Reno about an hour ago and, while there, the DEA took three people off the train. Why, we don't know; however, I've been told that drug couriers sometimes use the train to move their wares. HEY... It could have been the bust of the century... or not.

We're currently passing Humbolt Lake... another sinkhole? Actually, the ground all around the train is flat, and looks like dried salt. Well, if you don't hear from me, or the train, maybe we got sucked down a sinkhole. I hate it when that happens.

Well, the diner car attendant just came by and I made a late 7:15PM reservation. Let's see how many people show up, shall we.

Dinner on the California Zephyr

Dinner was less crowded than lunch. It would seem that most people prefer to eat before 7:15PM. I make a mental note to reserve the same time for dinner tomorrow. I sat with another writer who was moving to New York. Like me, he enjoys taking the train, and feels that he's more productive while on Amtrak. I had a pork dish with mash potatoes, which wasn't bad, and finished it off with some vanilla ice cream. I then said good-bye to my dinning/writer companion, and head back to my room. I wanted to relax for one night, so I watch Firefox with Clint Eastwood (on my computer), and then hit the hay. As we move through the night from Nevada into Utah, I go to sleep with the gentle rocking of train. We're currently an hour ahead of schedule.

Breakfast on the California Zephyr

We pass through our first time zone in the middle of the night and gain 1 hour. It's about 4:30AM when I rise. Coffee is waiting for me, and I pour off a steaming cup. Breakfast begins at 6:30AM, and I plan to get there before the throngs... we'll see.

Breakfast was a cheese omelet with sausage... the same thing I had on the Coast Starlight, and the Southwest Chief. I still have to say that the chef on the Coastal Starlight wins out... just slightly, but he wins.

As to the schedule, we hit Provo, Utah on time, so during the night, we lost the hour we had gained yesterday. I do recall that we pulled into Salt Lake City, about an hour ahead of time (3:00AM), but we spent at least an hour at the station. Whatever the case, we're more or less back on schedule.

As we travel through Utah, we pass some awesome sites... We become enclosed in canyons of red and orange rock, so close that you could reach out and touch their colored walls. Overhead I spot a bald eagle, sitting on the wind; however, by the time I grab my camera, he's long gone. I spy several hawks... some in the air, some at rest in the inaccessible rocks. I snap a few photos, and hope they come out.

Eventually, we hit Grand Junction, Colorado. As we speed forward, the Colorado River begins to follow us. The river, although flowing in the opposite direction (west), will follow us all the way into Denver. It's not the huge river it will become as we go west, and her slowly flowing waters contain large chunks of ice. I spot two hunters (weapons at the ready). They're sitting in a boat waiting to bring down some ducks. I hope they don't mistake this train for a mallard.

As we approach Glenwood Springs, the train yard is full of coal cars, waiting to move east or west with their cargos of fuel. It seems that they stretch on for miles. This is the last time before we reach Denver that passengers will be able to get off the train for some fresh air or to smoke (about 5 hours).

Lunch on the California Zephyr

Lunch is a first come, first serve basis. I learned my lesson from yesterday, and waited for about an hour. When I got to the diner car, there was plenty of room. I had the Angus burger... if you like burgers, this one is great, and I shared conversation with someone going to Chicago. It seems that we both grew up in Chicago, and we both went to Bogan High School. I graduated about 3 years before him; however, it was close enough that we had a great time talking about old memories and old haunts (I won't bore you with the details). Then it's a short walk back to my room.

Well, it's a bit after 5:00PM, we just left Winter Park, and picked up a bunch of skiers, headed back into Denver. In fifteen minutes, we're supposed to enter the Moffat tunnel. It's the longest tunnel on this run (six-and-a-half miles), and it takes about twelve to fourteen minutes to go though. Once we enter the tunnel, you must stay in the car that you are in. The reason is that when you open the pneumatic double doors to go into another car, you let in the outside air, and since we're in a tunnel, it will be full of diesel fumes and coal dust. No moving between cars... or no soup for you.

The trip through the tunnel proved anti-climatic. There were no lights in the tunnel, so you basically had to sit down and stare at your blank window, for about 12 minutes. Gee, that sure was fun.

Dinner on the California Zephyr

I spent the afternoon locked in my room, working on writing projects, and I managed to squeeze off a few good photos. Dinner came just before we got to the Denver station. I ate with my friend from Chicago (flatiron steak), and then grabbed my camera and headed into the station. I snapped some photos of the building's historic interior, and then got a couple of cool shots of the moon and an old water tower. Then I went back to my room, wrote some in this journal, and went to bed, sometime about 11:00PM.

Breakfast on the California Zephyr

Got up about 5:00AM, and found myself back in the Central Time Zone. We just pulled out of the Omaha station, headed for Iowa. Yesterday, I had breakfast right at 6:30AM and there were no crowds... I seems everyone likes to sleep in late. I plan to do the same thing today. We have more people on board; however, they are mostly in the coach cars. So, let's go check out breakfast, shall we?

I ate breakfast with Mike (the dude from Chicago), and we watched the sunrise over Iowa while eating a cheese omelet with sausage (I got stuck on that particular menu item). After breakfast, I head back to my room for some work on the old computer. We make a quick stop at Creston, Iowa (our first Iowa stop), to drop off one passenger, and pick up about ten. The weather outside is clear and, from the looks of it, very cold.
This is my last day on the California Zephyr, and it's almost the end of the trip. We get into Chicago about 4:00PM, and then I'll leave tomorrow about 2:00PM for the short hop back to Newton. Assuming that my car will start (finger's crossed) I should be home about 4:30AM on Tuesday morning.

We're about to stop at Ottumwa, Iowa... for you TV geeks out there, this is the fictional home of Radar from the long-running M*A*S*H* television series. It's also a fresh-air stop; however, unless I see something worth photographing, I think I will just stay on board. The day started with blue skies and cold... it's been replaced by cloudy skies, and still cold. However, inside our protective bubble, everything is warm and cozy. It really is nice to be able to work on my computer, and look out at the passing world. No one bothers me... except Pete, our car attendant. He stops by occasionally, and if my door is open, he'll ask if I need anything. A perfect little world for a perfect little geek, like me.

Lunch on the California Zephyr

Finished lunch (angus burger), and I'm back in my room. I'll do a bit more work, and then start packing. We'll arrive on time (3:50PM) into Chicago. I'll probably get a taxi, and head over to the Marriott. Then I'll come back to the station tomorrow for the trip home to Wichita.


The rest of the trip is a bit anti-climatic. My car attendant notified me about a half hour before arriving, and I finished packing. We arrived into Chicago about five minutes early, and I taxied over to the Marriott. I was tired, so I managed to download all of my blog stuff, and then I went to bed early. Tomorrow, it's one more trip back to Newton.

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Andy Anderson