Sharing stories and a view aboard the California Zephyr

I woke up around 5am with a low but incessant rumbling sound. Faint reflections of daylight had appeared above the heads of my travelin...

I woke up around 5am with a low but incessant rumbling sound. Faint reflections of daylight had appeared above the heads of my traveling companions, most of whom were still bent over in repose. Some people were yawning; others gazed intently out the window at the valley. I had been on the train for about 40 hours and there was still a long way to go before our scheduled arrival in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Driving west, I walked to the back of the train to see the rising sun reflecting off the tracks. We were crossing Nevada. A few minutes later, we stopped in the town of Winnemucca, Nevada, right in front of the Hotel Martin, which in the late 19th century housed Basque immigrants who had settled there to work as shepherds.

Amtrak’s California Zephyr, considered by many railroad enthusiasts to be one of the most scenic long-distance rail routes in the United States, operates between Chicago and Emeryville, California, near Oakland. The complete route takes approximately 52 hours and includes 33 stops. In 2018, on a trip across the United States as part of a three-month photography project, I made most of the trip, departing from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on a sweltering day in the mid August.

I boarded the train at 5:59 p.m. in the golden light of a perfectly clear day, gazing outward at the first of many fields of soybeans and corn and the backyards of small towns that are so often overlooked.

At 10:55 p.m. the 12 silver cars of the Zephyr slow down and stop at Omaha. Connie, another passenger, got in and sat next to me. At 72, she had short gray hair, a sunny face and kind eyes. It was too late to strike up a conversation, so we both just tried to get some sleep. (None of us were completely successful.)

In the early morning, as the yellow hills of Nebraska and Colorado rolled all around us, Connie told me she had visited her daughter in Omaha and would be going down to Glenwood Springs, Colorado this afternoon. , to meet her husband.

Eventually, I started wandering around in cars, timidly but relentlessly, wanting to meet and talk to everyone. It was like the first day of summer camp. Small groups of people mingled here and there, exchanging a few words. Others preferred to keep to themselves in their bedroomsor sitting alone in their coach seats reading or taking a nap.

The current California Zephyr began service in 1983, although an earlier version of the train – sharing the same name, but privately operated on a slightly different route – ran between 1949 and 1970.

In the 1970s, long-distance passenger trains like the Zephyr were neither reliable nor cost-effective, and could not compete with airplanes or the burgeoning interstate highway system. But in the early 1980s, reality turned: air travel deteriorated (fares soared, carriers abandoned marginal routes, competition intensified) and some Americans once again turned to their train network . Short-distance train travel was often cheaper and more convenient, and routes started and ended conveniently in city centers. In 1979, Amtrak added new Superliners—double-deck intercity passenger cars—to its western routes, and some people rediscovered a long-lost commodity.

As Henry Kisor describes in “Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America”, published in 1994: “The Z├ęphyr represented a new conception of train travel: the train as a tourist cruise ship through a sea of ​​landscapes, not simply as a means of transport from town to town.

And the train schedule, as Mr. Kisor points out, encouraged passengers to sleep while the less exciting landscapes passed by – the Great Plains and the arid landscapes of Utah and Nevada – and enjoy spectacular views of the Alps during the day.

I spent most of my first full day in the Observation Car, also known as the Sightseer Lounge (and formerly known as Vista Dome). The car’s floor-to-ceiling windows offered the best possible views of the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River Valley, the Continental Divide, the Sierra Nevadas, and the verdant forests of Northern California. Soft blue chairs offer passengers some privacy, but tables for four are where most socializing takes place. Sitting across from Connie, I made friends with almost everyone around us.

For the majority of people I met, traveling on the California Zephyr was not obtain somewhere. Instead, the trip was a reward—a few slow, long-awaited days carved out of a busy lifestyle.

I met Joe, 33, and Mo, 38, a newlywed couple from England who had crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary II, got married and then boarded the California Zephyr in Chicago, planning to drive to Emeryville. It was their honeymoon.

Then there were John, 33, and Emma, ​​27, two Amish parents from Pennsylvania who were traveling to Grand Junction, Colorado, for an appointment with a specialist doctor. Emma was crocheting a beautiful centerpiece on what was her very first train ride.

Rose, 18, Jenna, 23, two cousins ​​wearing neck pillows, were driving home to San Francisco.

At the very end of the train, through the back window, I met Robert, 40, and his 2-year-old daughter, Madeline, who was taking a nap in his arms. They were on a birthday trip, with Madeline’s mother and grandmother. They had jumped to Denver and would come down to the end of the line.

Sitting next to Connie and me were Tyler, 10, and his grandfather, Bruce, 66. They had boarded the train in Iowa. Their plan: visit Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon. They both decided to wear flashy T-shirts so as not to lose sight of each other.

Seated behind me was a group of Mennonites dressed in Michigan flowers. They were on their way to Glenwood Springs and were talking animatedly about something they had spotted out the window.

Besides the observation car, the train’s other social hub is the dining car. I missed breakfast the first morning so on my second full day I headed straight there. An attendant was busy setting the tables. The car’s cabins can accommodate four people and all meals are communal, which means that if you’re not in a party of four, you’ll likely be seated with other passengers.

Fifty years ago, dining in the dining car was an elegant affair – think linen tablecloths, fine china, silverware. Waiters wore white jackets and blue bow ties, with long white aprons and towels over their arms. Now they wear light blue shirts, red ties and blue aprons. The china and silverware are still there, but from old photographs I’ve seen they look cheaper. There is no laundry in sight; it was replaced by large sheets of white paper.

Every time I take a long bus trip — I’ve traveled a lot in the United States on the Greyhound network — I feel like the passengers aren’t there because they Choose be but rather because they have be, as the bus is either the only option available or the cheapest. (That has always been true for me, anyway.)

When traveling by train, however, the atmosphere is completely different. There was a sense of community aboard the California Zephyr. After all, there aren’t many places where Mennonites, a Japanese student, smiling newlyweds, parents with their children and grandchildren, and retirees have all gathered together for such a long time, sharing their stories. of life.

And that, as Henry Kisor wrote, is part of the attraction for long-distance train passengers – “the joy of encountering humanity in its infinite variety”.

Marta Giaccone is a photographer based in Tallinn, Estonia. You can follow his work on instagram.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Sharing stories and a view aboard the California Zephyr
Sharing stories and a view aboard the California Zephyr
Newsrust - US Top News
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