Freitag, 19. August 2011

The Zephyr Song

"How the hell can you miss a train that's 8 hours late?", i was cursing at myself on Wednesday noon, because for a moment i was worried that i might actually pull it off. Getting up early that morning, my couchsurfer's girlfriend, who works for Wells Fargo in Denver, gave me a ride to the AMTRAK station, where i found out that my train - the westbound California Zephyr, scheduled to leave at 8:05 am - would not even arrive until 2 in the afternoon! Not that i am really on a tight schedule or anything during my half-year sabbatical, but it meant that eventually my train would also arrive later in Sacramento and i had already bought tickets for Calexico's show at the Ace of Spades with some other friends that i didn't wanna leave hangin' in the air.

Of course, the train covers a lot of ground between Chicago and San Francisco (just my segment from Denver to Sacramento is a 30-hour trainride), so some delays should be expected. And i did expect them, but i couldn't have foreseen a flooding of traintracks by the Mississippi River, which caused major delays after several freight trains had to be directed onto the Zephyr's tracks! Anyway, i checked in my luggage and decided to head to the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver again, to wile away the hours in one of their cozy reading nooks.

After that i had a burger (i figured it was actually a good thing to be able to have lunch before, because food on the train is usually not very cheap and not very good either) and then tried to make a shortcut to the improvised AMTRAK Station near Coors Field (the old Union Station is currently under construction), but that backfired on me, i got lost and actually had to backtrack and round the entire Coors Field again to finally get to the station. I arrived at 2 pm, soaked in sweat, only to find out that the train had been delayed some more and wouldn't be there until 3:30 pm... and it was 4 pm when i finally boarded it!

One of the world's great trains, the California Zephyr travels for two days and nights over farmland, prairie, deserts, rivers and mountains. Western pioneers came this way, as did gold prospectors, the Pony Express and the first long-distance telegraph line. The Zephyr follows America's earliest transcontinental rail route for much of the 2438-mile (almost 4.000 km) journey, and many people take this train just to explore the Rocky Mountains. It usually leaves Chicago early in the afternoon to arrive in Omaha late in the evening and Denver by early next morning. You then reach Salt Lake City by midnight on the second evening, Reno the following morning and San Francisco (or rather, its train station in Emeryville) early in the evening. Now this whole schedule was of course jumbled due to the delay, but that meant i could see the beautiful Rocky Mountains at sunset. In the early evening the train rolled into the Ski Resort of Winter Park, where we could shortly hop off the train to take a breath of "fresh Colorado Air" (it was mostly cigarette smell from the smokers who used the break for lighting up).

At 8.30 i walked back to the dining car to have dinner. Of course it was overpriced and not particularly good, but i expected that and dining on a train is something special that i'm willing to pay a few extra bucks for. Also, the Californian Zinfandel wine was tasty, and after a cup of tea i was satisfied, happy and ready to retreat to my coach for the night. The Superliner Coaches on AMTRAK's long-distance trains are actually very comfortable (equal to first-class flying, i guess), especially if you can occupy a pair of them. With the 2 provided electric outlets i can recharge my phone or camera, while working on the computer for hours on end, which makes the connecting train rides of my journey the perfect time for blogging and summing up the experiences of places i just left, before they escape my memory or are faded out by new impressions. If you put up both leg rests, and are of my size, you can actually even nestle quite comfortably on the little "square bed" you've just created. I slept a good 6 hours and awoke at 7 a.m., as the train touched the edges of the Great Salt Lake, just past Salt Lake City, Utah.

After my little morning routine ("men all do about the same things when they wake up", as John Steinbeck put it so nicely in Cannery Row, the entertaining book i'm currently reading), i had a coffee in the Sightseer Lounge Car, probably the nicest part of an AMTRAK train. Those cars give great views through huge windows that extend part way over the roof. Here you can mingle with fellow passengers, read a book or just listen to your iPod (or rather, your girlfriend's iPod - thanks so much, Kati! (")>*) as the landscape floats by. The relaxed atmosphere on board seems to encourage Americans in particular to tell their life stories to a complete stranger - this special kind of friendliness is encouraged by the thought that, unless you make a considerable effort, you are unlikely ever to see them again.

As i am writing this, i am just crossing the deserts of Nevada. The 4-hour run from Salt Lake City to Elko (the Native American word for "white woman") was the longest stretch without a scheduled halt on the entire AMTRAK system. The smokers on board were in agony, but for me it was pure bliss! And as I'm moving back from Mountain to Pacific Time, i'm also gaining an hour back, still hoping to make that Calexico Gig with my friends in Sacramento tonight! The concert starts at 7 pm and includes an opening act that will probably play for an hour or so, meaning that the boys from Tucson will probably enter the stage around 8:30 pm. Right now it is 11:30 am, and from my next stop in Winnemucca, Nevada (an old gold town whose First National Bank was robbed in 1900 by Butch Cassidy's gang) it's still an 8-hour train ride to Sacramento... i think it will be a close call! At least i don't have to worry about dinner anymore - because of the delay AMTRAK is giving out free dinner for everybody on board tonight!

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