Well, we did not drive all the way to Cali for this trip...instead we took the California Zephyr from Chicago, IL to Grand Junction, CO, and then flew from there to Palm Springs.
Pending a declarative statement, allow me a couple of disclaimers: 1) this was our first time overnight on a train, and 2) we were only on the Zephyr for one night...not the full, two night trip all the way to San Francisco, CA.
Keeping that in mind, here's my definitive statement: it should be mandatory for every citizen of the good ol' US of A they take the California Zephyr for at least one day.
Because it is arguably the best way to gain an appreciation for the vast expanse of this amazing country. If all you do is fly over it, or race through it on expressways, you cannot grasp the breadth, the depth, the astounding beauty of this incredible country. We are blessed to be here, and we should truly understand that fundamental truth. The best way to do that is to experience it on the California Zephyr.
If you have functioning gray matter between your ears, you will be astounded at the magnificence of our nation, not to mention the engineering marvels of generations past, blasting through mountains so a train could traverse this great land.
So here's our story...
We arrived at Union Station, Chicago, IL, courtesy of Colemans' Shuttle service - whom I highly recommend, especially the driver we had, Ruth - on Jan 18th, 2014.
Honesty time...Union Station back in the day when train travel was king was probably a fabulous place to visit, but today - well, let's just say times have changed.. In short, it's probably not where you would choose to spend a pleasant afternoon, given your druthers. One disheveled and disoriented soul was accosting people asking them if they knew where he was going. Sorry friend, that's supposed to be your area of expertise, not mine...
Understandably, we hustled downstairs to the trains and found our way to the Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge, a welcome oasis in a desert of humanity...
...and checked in with the front desk.
In the interest of accuracy, the lady there was competent but not that adept at common courtesy. Instead of recommending Red Cap service, she directed us to window #12 to check our bag. We made our way back into the fray only to find the window 12 lady - a loosely applied and very generous term - even less interested in customer service than her metro lounge counterpart. She informed us in no uncertain terms she was not open yet and we would just have to go right back over there and wait in line for 20 minutes.
I suppressed my natural urge to tell her to perform an anatomically impossible act upon herself and went instead back to the Metropolitan Lounge. There a Red Cap finally greeted us and offered to check our bag. I thanked him and tipped him, telling him he was the friendliest face we'd seen in Chicago so far.
We wandered the lounge a bit -
- and checked the schedule:
Our train was on time, so we found our way to a seat and waited.
|...kickin' it Chicago style while waiting for the Zephyr...|
Eventually it was time to board, and we got to do so right from the back doors of the lounge...a very nice feature:
|Karen, ready to board...|
Once on board, we realized we'd made a big mistake...we thought of "carry on baggage" like you do when you're flying...but when you're in a roomette or sleeper (like we were), "carry on" should really be ONLY what you ACTUALLY NEED for the time you're on board. Translation: BRING ONLY WHAT YOU REALLY NEED, as in a change of clothes and some toiletries....NOTHING ELSE. Space is at a premium, and you do NOT need several days worth of clothes and miscellaneous stuff packed in several bags. Big mistake.
Our quarters were adequate but tight, and if we do this again we'll be sure to adhere to the rule above...bring onboard only what you really need! Can't stress that enough...
We were in a sleeper bedroom, which was nice...here are a few shots of our accommodations, including the bathroom and shower:
|...the hallway of our sleeper...our room was the 1st one on the left...|
|...the table folds up and those two seats pull out to form the lower bunk...Karen slept there, I was in the overhead bunk...|
|...relaxing by the windows...|
|...the windows were large enough for sightseeing, and the desk was an adequate work space...|
|...small but serviceable...when you flush the toilet, it sounds like a muffled, distant, explosion...not the usual flushing sound you're used to...|
|I'm 6'2" and was able to shower here...a lot better than trying to just "wash up"...|
...tight quarters, but adequate for what you need. I should note, I also made use of the "public" restrooms on board, and they were fine...and they have a larger shower area as well for first class (roomette and sleeper cabin) patrons...leads me to believe a roomette might have served our purpose as well, and those would have been less expensive...but it was nice having everything we needed available within "our space".
Here's a short video of when we first boarded, and then a few seconds of us underway:
You heard the announcer in that video, and they were big on making sure you listened to their announcements. They especially stressed that when we pulled into a station where you could get off the train for a few moments to stretch, smoke, or just get some fresh air, you better stay close by and listen for the "all aboard" and whistle...b/c if you did not hear it, and did not get on the train, too bad for you...you were left there.
Apparently, like time and tide, the California Zephyr waits for no man...we paid attention to the announcements.
Day 1 was interesting, b/c it was all new to us...we left at 2pm from Chicago, and made our way through the Illinois and Iowa countryside before darkness fell:
...but when dinner time arrived we left off sightseeing and made our way to the diner car:
...and dinner was quite good...you are seated four to a table, which means you're going to meet some new people on your trip. Our dinner mates were a young Chinese couple returning to their homeland...two days cross country to San Francisco, then a long flight home. How ironic these two non-citizens would probably experience more of our country on their way home to China than most Americans ever will...sad. They were interesting and friendly, and we enjoyed their company.
For our entree, we chose braised beef (meals were included in the cost of the sleeper accommodations), and enjoyed a hearty repast:
...dessert was a chocolate creampuff which we saved for later that night.
Our sleeper car attendant was Adrian, and he was very good...should have taken his picture but did not...we tipped him when we got on board and thanked him for all he was going to do for us to make our trip enjoyable...and I tipped him again when we departed in Grand Junction and gave him my business card, telling him if he ever needed a reference for anything to contact me...he was that good. He was very attentive to our needs, answered every question with great patience, and always had fresh coffee brewed for all of us...there was also juice and ice available whenever we wished.
Adrian converted our cabin into sleeping quarters at our request, and sadly neither top nor bottom bunk were large enough to accommodate both of us...so for the first time in our married life we slept in separate beds. Karen did not sleep well...she heard every sound, and there are plenty of them to hear as you ride the rails...and the constant motion - the rhythm of the rails - did not suit her. I, on the other hand, slept just fine in the upper bunk. The ambient sounds and rocking motion suited me and I awoke well rested and ready to face our second day.
And what a day it was...we awoke in Denver, CO, and the next eight hours were filled with amazing mountain views...only a few of which are included here:
The last two are at a stop in Fraser, Colorado...Adrian snapped the picture of us...we stepped into the 10 degree chill for some "fresh air", got a couple of pictures, then quickly retreated to the warmth of the train.
Another short video of some of the scenery we enjoyed:
At 3:30 pm mountain time we arrived at our destination, and it was time to "de-train" as they referred to it. We gathered up our luggage, bid farewell to Adrian and the Zephyr, and said hello to Grand Junction, CO:
I'll blog about our overnight stay there, and our trip to Palm Springs next time.
So...would we ride the rails again?
This one ends in a split decision...I would, Karen would not. She definitely enjoyed the beautiful mountain scenery through Colorado, but did not care for the overnight accommodations..."too much like camping" is her assessment.
For my part, I would take this trip again, with the requisite changes noted (i.e., nothing extra on board, just the necessities). The scenery is fabulous, the food is good, the various Amtrak personnel we met were polite and competent, and you meet some interesting folks if you're open to that concept. It's a relaxed mode of travel that is meant to be more than just getting to your destination. Two thumbs up.
Next: Grand Junction, then on to Palm Springs...