Planes, trains and automobiles!
Now I can say I have covered all three bases! Last winter, at the close of the winter Beef Board meeting, a fellow CBB member took the train from New Orleans to Alpine, TX. She posted pictures about her trip and raved about how much fun it was.
When the summer CBB meeting in Denver rolled around and it was time to make travel plans, I pulled up the Amtrak website and discovered a route from Elko to Denver; Straight shot with no transfers and a 19-20 hour trip. There were only two tickets left so I sent a quick message to her and asked her opinion on trying the train. She didn’t hesitate. “Do it! You’ll love it.” She messaged me some resources about taking the train and I read through a couple of them and then snagged the tickets before they were gone. I booked a round trip with the sleeper car and started to get a little nervous/excited/anxious about taking my first train trip and taking it alone.
My trip to Denver came around and I was due at the Elko station at 8PM for a 9PM departure. You’ve seen the pictures of some of the train stations and maybe like me you envision the classic building with the ticket window and the platform leading to the tracks. I plugged the Elko Station in to my maps and followed the route to my destination. When I pulled into the parking lot all I saw was a sketchy looking plexi-glass box with some graffiti on it. I got out to read signs and noticed that on the other side of the fence and across two tracks was another plexi glass box and a parking lot to go with it. There weren’t any other vehicles around, which actually made me feel better. I sipped my latte and read a book while I waited. The website told me the train was due about 20 minutes early. With about 8 minutes to spare, a gentleman approached my truck with both hands up and clearly needing to ask a question. He wanted to know which side of the tracks we needed to be on for the East bound train. I had no clue…by then a vehicle had pulled up on the other side, so he hollered across the tracks the same question he’d asked me. The answer we got was that we needed to head across the tracks to the other side. We both hopped in our vehicles and drove out and had to travel about 5 minutes around town to get to the right side. We both pulled in just as the train pulled up to the “station.”
A conductor walked down the line and hollered “Do I have a sleeper car passenger here?” “Yep!” I waved at him and he waved me through the line and we started marching to the front of the train. The California Zephyr has 2 engines, 1 baggage car, 1 crew car, 3 sleeper cars, a dining car, an observation car and 3 coach cars. I was in the 3rd car. My room attendant met me at the door of the train and guided me up the stairs to the second level. She asked if I had ever travelled by train before and I told her I hadn’t. She confirmed my name and then started pointing out the features of the sleeper car. There was a fan, light switch, speakers, attendant call button and outlet to plug in to. She had turned down my bed and asked if I’d like another blanket. “Coffee will be on right down the hall, at 6 and the dining car will be open in the morning. If you need anything just push the call button. I’m supposed to be in bed, but I waited up for you and I’ll be right here if you need me.” I assured her that I would be fine and thanked her for waiting up for me.
My room was a two person roomette. It had a bunk bed above that folded up at an angle so one can stand up comfortably. Two chairs that face forward and back, fold into a lounge chair and then all the way down to a bed. The room is about 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and 6 feet tall with a big picture window across the whole length of it and a sliding door with windows and curtains on the inner wall of the room.
After the attendant left, I pulled the curtains closed and started to arrange my bag and get my pajamas and toothbrush etc. out of the bag. I hadn’t noticed the door and thought it sort of concerning that the only thing separating me from the passengers on the train was a curtain with Velcro strips on it. I shrugged it off, changed my clothes and made my way down to the bathroom which was only two rooms down. It was about the size of an airplane bathroom and set up the same way. Once I was back in my room, I checked the Velcro again and settled down into my bed. The rolling motion of the train and the far off sound of the train whistle had me drifting off to sleep very quickly. About 20 minutes in to my slumber the conductor came over the PA system and announced that the train was going in to quiet time. There would be no more announcements until 7AM. I had to make one last bathroom visit and it was then that I noticed other rooms had doors…doors that were closed…Clearly a rookie, I hadn’t noticed that my room had a door because it was slid back into its cubby when I arrived. I reached behind the curtain, pulled it shut and even figured out the lock. I once again, pulled the curtain shut and snuggled under the blanket laughing at my own ignorance.
I wanted to wake at daylight because I hate missing new scenery, so I cracked my curtain to be sure the sunlight came in. I slept like a baby in a rocker only waking in Salt Lake because the station lights were very bright. I slid the curtain closed and my internal clock woke me at 6:30. We were in Price, UT. We were moving slowly through town and I caught a glimpse of an American Flag blowing in the breeze with the sun rising behind it. I headed down the hall to the promise of coffee and found a full pot waiting. I sipped coffee and enjoyed the view outside my room. “Good winter country” is how we would describe it. Sand dune style hills, rim-rocks and cliffs that flow down to low shrub and short grass flats. I got dressed and decided to check out the observation car. Breakfast was announced but I’m not an early eater so I didn’t partake. Coffee though was excellent!
The observation car had seating for about 60 people and different styles of chairs and tables lined both sides of the car. Windows covered the outer walls and curved overhead to make the ceiling. I sat and watched the scenery as we passed from Green River into Ruby Canyon and on into Colorado. We caught up with the Colorado River and paralleled it for most of the trip.
There was a “fresh air break” announced for Grand Junction, CO. This was also where the crews would switch out and we would be given a chance to check out the little station store. I took advantage to stretch my legs while passengers and crew members switched out. Once back on board I settled in for a nap and woke to the announcement that lunch was available. The dining car is a first come, first served community seating arrangement. Meals are complimentary with sleeper cars. When I arrived one of the dining staff pointed me to a seat where three other ladies had already been situated. I met and visited with a geo physicist from Cal Poly who was familiar with the Elko area as she had done her studies there. She worked for the mines and gas companies. There was also a math professor from Berkley and a teacher from San Francisco. I definitely lean toward the introvert side, so travelling alone and then being seated with total strangers is 100% out of my comfort zone. But, I am glad I did it because we had a fun conversation and the food was good! We had stopped again in Glenwood Springs (Fun fact: that’s where Doc Holliday was infirmed and ended up passing away. The popular hot springs hotel can be seen from the tracks.) .
The train travels the canyons at about 35-40MPH making it pretty easy to eat and such without food flying all over the place. As we ate, we traveled out of Glenwood Springs toward Winter Park/Fraser. At this point we had been following the Colorado River for 500 miles. I had made it back to my room by then and was greeted by an announcement that we had 15 minutes before we would arrive at the Moffat Tunnel. He warned us that the tunnel is 6.2 miles long and while we traveled through the tunnel we would not be allowed to move between cars. The tunnel cuts through the Great Divide and takes about 15 minutes to pass through. At the midpoint of the tunnel we were at 9,200 feet and there are still 3,000 feet of granite rock above us. It was completed in 1929. There is an interesting story that goes along with the history of it. Google it if you have a minute. We popped out on the east side of the Rockies and headed downhill through vacation spots, canyons and trees. We passed the “Gross Damn” which supports the reservoir that supplies Denver with water. It is currently at 99% capacity and they have plans to raise the walls 139 feet making it the tallest dam in Colorado.
We wound down into Denver via the Tunnel District, passing through 32 tunnels on our descent. It took us about 30 minutes to move the last ¼ mile into the train station. The Amtrak train takes second place to the freight trains that use the same tracks so Amtrak will be slowed down or stopped to allow for the more important trains to pass through or carry on.
For this reason, my return trip was delayed. We were due to leave at 8AM, but the final departure time ended up being 10:30. I waited at the Union Station in Denver. Such a beautiful station! Union Station was what I envisioned all stations should look like. There were stores and cafes along the outer walls. Many of them didn’t open until 10AM so window shopping and a coffee is how I kept myself amused. There were couches, wooden benches, tables, and lounge chairs, a shuffleboard table and trunks used as decoration situated in the middle of the room. Clearly late trains are a common thing so they do their best to keep passengers comfortable and amused. People watching is my favorite thing about travelling so I entertained myself that way. The commuters in and out of Union Station did not disappoint! There is also a hotel there now and for close to $1000 a night you can get a room there and enjoy Downtown Denver at your leisure. The coffee shop and café that were opened had lines out the door and stayed busy the entire two hours I watched and waited. I can attest to the quality of the coffee and only wish I had snagged some of their baked goods too!
When the monitor finally decided on the train being in at 9:45 to leave at 10:30, I headed outside and got in line. People had already formed two lines to board the train. Coach passengers filled the line on the left and sleeper car passengers were on the right. A little girl, about 10 years old, was with her mother and grandmother in line in front of me. We started to visit and it was clear that the little girl was very excited. It was her first time on a train as well and they were headed all the way to Emmeryville, CA. We watched the train back in to the station and passengers began to disembark. Coach customers were to be loaded first because sleeper cars had to be turned over.
For my return trip, I was on the lower level of the train instead of on the second level like before. I was on the same side of the train, but my view on the trip home was the other side of the tracks so I saw some different scenery along the route. When I got to my room, the bed was put away and instead I had the chairs to sit in. This time I had things figured out and new where the lights and plugs and door (!!) were. I made myself comfortable and settled in to watch the countryside pass by as we rolled out of Denver and climbed into the Rockies through Tunnel District. I enjoyed the commentary from the conductor who repeated much of the history I’d learned before but added some new information. Having already experienced the dining car, I checked out the lower level café and then ordered dinner in my room. I had a flat iron and crab cake with mashed potatoes, green beans and cheesecake. Had to test it all! The meal was very good!!
My train initially was due back in Elko at 3AM, but the delay made it 5:30 instead which I was not upset about. After I had eaten my dinner and my attendant had taken the garbage away, I was ready to settle in for the night. There was a fold up table next to my chairs that had images showing how to turn the beds down. I followed the steps in the pictures and pulled both of my chairs out to make the bed and the pulled the mattress down from the upper bunk and situated the sheets and blankets. At about 8PM our car attendant came back again and peeked her head in my room. “who turned your bed down?” I looked at her sheepishly and confessed that I had done it. I got mildly scolded for doing her job and she explained that passengers weren’t supposed to do those things because they could pinch fingers and toes etc. She laughed at me when I told her I read the directions on the picture that showed how to do it. “Girl! You have to be the 1 person in a million who read the dang directions!” As she finished making her rounds, I promised that I wouldn’t touch anything else and asked if I could have a couple bottles of water when she had a minute. It was about 45minutes later that she returned and she apologized for the delay. I replied “no worries, not everyone is turning down their own beds. I completely understand.” She laughed at me again and went about her business.
The sun set after we travelled through Green River, Utah and at about 10PM the conductor once again announced that it was quiet time on the train. No further announcements would be made until 7AM and breakfast would be announced at 8. I set my alarm to wake me about an hour before we were due in Elko. I slept well, but lightly because I was uncertain about the train’s arrival time and hadn’t asked if I’d be woken up for my stop.
The conductor did in fact arrive with about 20 minutes left in the trip to Elko. By then I was up, dressed and ready to go. I had one more rookie moment and confessed to him that I was parked on the wrong side of the tracks and asked if he could let me out the opposite door. Because of the fence that is up to split the tracks he said he couldn’t, but he would walk me across. The train stopped to allow sleeper car passengers off first (just me in Elko) then the conductor was on the radio explaining that he had to get me across the tracks. He then told me that they had to radio the freight train that was East Bound and tell them that they were walking me across. As the Amtrak pulled forward to offload the coach passengers and pick up the handful that waited to board, the conductor walked me around the back of the train, across both sets of tracks and waved me on my way. I can’t help but wonder if I was the cause of any delays for the freight train that day?
As I’ve shared my story, when asked if I would do it again, my answer is a hands down, yes. I prefer the style of train travel over the airplanes and for the next couple of years, when meetings have me in Denver, I will choose to go by rail. I loved the solitude of the sleeper car, the rocking motion of the train, the scenery and being able to move about as I liked. Next time, I will be sure to bring my snacks and more reading material, but otherwise there was nothing else I longed for. If you’re given the chance to take the train and you never have, give it a try. If you’re impatient about delays, maybe skip it. The delay this time worked in my favor so I was fine with it. I had scheduled my trip so that I had nowhere to be at any particular time and it made for stress free travel on my part. That’s pretty much how I like to roll…