ABOARD THE CALIFORNIA ZEPHYR – The train conductor gave a surprised start as he checked our tickets.
“What possessed you to do that?” he asked, staring at us.
It wasn’t the first time my 9-year-old son and I had gotten double-takes on our coast-to-coast rail trip. But it was the most amusing, coming from an Amtrak employee no less, and a fitting conclusion as we approached our final destination in the San Francisco Bay area, after five days of train travel that began in Orlando, Florida. All told, we’d covered 4,124 miles of railroad track.
“Better you than me,” the conductor said as he headed down the aisle.
Our eTicket told the basic story. We’d boarded Amtrak’s Silver Meteor in Orlando in time for a late lunch; chugged up to Washington, D.C.; enjoyed several hours at a National Building Museum exhibit the next day, spending a long layover in a sea of plastic balls; hopped on the Capitol Limited to Chicago; strolled around the gloriously sunny but not so windy city a day later; then climbed onto the California Zephyr for the part of the journey my train-loving son anticipated most – back-to-back nights on the same train.
I’d read about the Zephyr’s stunning ride through the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas. Frankly, I was drawn to the retro, low-pressure side of the journey as well – nearly a week with nowhere to be, except on a train. So armed with nothing more for entertainment than a few books, sketch pads and chess set, we set off.
Packed with vacationers, the Zephyr pulled out of Chicago, crossed the prairies to Denver, pushed past the Rockies and the alien-looking geologic formations of Utah and Nevada, then rambled through the Sierra Nevadas and past Donner Pass.
The longest stop was in Denver – well under an hour – where workers hustled to wash the double-decker train’s windows using squeegees atop long poles. This was especially important for the observation car with its picture windows. As we left Denver for the mountains, every seat in the observation car was filled.
Reno, Nevada, also afforded a chance to stretch on the platform. Most other stops lasted only long enough to pick up and drop off passengers.
We arrived in Emeryville, California, outside Oakland – end of the line for the Zephyr – on day five of our grand adventure. All that remained was the 1½-hour Capitol Corridor run from Emeryville to San Jose. It was early evening by the time we pulled into San Jose, 104 hours after we’d boarded our first train in Orlando.
Now for the nitty-gritty: We had a two-person sleeping compartment the whole way, which made all the difference. The changing time zones – loudspeakers kept us abreast – made for a little confusion.
Yes, we used the communal on-board showers. (It wasn’t nearly as icky or tricky as I’d imagined; the water was warm and the facility tidy.) Granted, my son washed only once and wore the same red Minions T-shirt four of our five days on the tracks. But we weren’t too grungy as we arrived in San Jose.
And we were hardly starving. Meals are included – breakfast, lunch and dinner – when you book a sleeping compartment, served by waiters in the dining car. The food – especially the French toast – is actually quite good. Seating is communal; no booth seats go empty. But that’s the beauty of train travel: Imagine great meal conversation with travelers from around the world, eager to share not only a table but vacation and life stories.
The not-so-good news: It was the same menu, regardless of the route. So after five days of salmon, steak and cheeseburgers, I hungered for something else. This wasn’t a problem for my son, however, who ordered macaroni-and-cheese at every opportunity.
As for hand luggage, we had a single small carry-on. Large suitcases could be stashed in a common area. Had I known that in advance, I wouldn’t have checked our big bag.
As we celebrated our arrival in San Jose, I turned to my son. Would he do it again? You bet, he answered.
So would I.
Next time, we’ll take the even more popular Empire Builder from Chicago through Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana, winding up in Portland, Oregon, or Seattle.
In case you’re wondering, we flew back: a mere seven hours, including the layover.