The Corps of Discovery made rapid progress as soon as they set their boats on the Missouri heading downstream – 80 miles a day was well within their reach. My chosen method of transportation back east was the California Zephyr. This Amtrak train works its way right across the country from Emeryville, CA to Chicago. At 4 o’clock in the morning it reaches Salt Lake City, where I clambered aboard having been greeted by name by Tom, the excellent coach attendant on my sleeper coach.
Tom had nicely made my compartment (called a “roomette”) into a bunk-bed sleeper but with dawn just a couple of hours away I wasn’t planning on sleeping, so he had to unmake it as quietly as possible – the rooms are all very close together with a narrow corridor between them.
I sat and watched the incredible Utah scenery pass by as we trundled along at a snail’s pace. I may not have been enamoured of Salt Lake City, but the state of Utah is breathtaking and unlike anything we have in Europe. We chugged through the high desert, rocky outcrops and scrubby hills. I finally got the knack of taking some passable photos from the train, but apologies in advance that these are not the best quality.
From Salt Lake to Denver is like a 14-hour Imax movie and there’s barely a stretch that’s not dramatic. The day of gazing out of the window was punctuated only by mealtimes in the dining car, where you sit communally and get to chat to fellow passengers.
I met Mike and Sandy from Dallas who’d been to Reno for a bowling tournament; I met a retired chef from San Francisco who was en-route to Minneapolis for a conference, a retired chemist who now lives near Cannes but was visiting his sister in Nebraska, an older Pennsylvania Dutch couple speaking their peculiar low-German – she was feisty, he very timid and with virtually no English. And various other characters along the way. Train people are either tourists (there were quite a few Brits and other Europeans aboard) or people who aren’t in a hurry. This is no high-speed service – the train averages just over 40 mph for the whole journey.
We stopped long enough at Grand Junction, Colorado to stretch our legs. The driver had done a great sales pitch for the mom & pop store at the station and we all dutifully piled in. The old station building was for sale and perfect for a hotel… if anyone wanted to stay in Grand Junction.
We stopped again at the resort town of Glenwood Springs. Every person who got off (including Tom and Sandy pictured here) said “I wish we were staying here more than 5 minutes”. We were following the Colorado River, replete with rafters and kayakers.
In Ruby Canyon, irridescent red rocks caught the early evening sun. The views of the whitewater in Gore Canyon are available only to brave kayakers and Amtrak passengers as there are no roads or paths in this short precipitous gorge.
Finally, there is a gap in the hills through which all you can see is a vast expanse of flat land, broken only by wind turbines and, off in the distance, the gleaming skyscrapers of Denver. The transition from the Rockies to the plains is immediate. The mountains were all too quickly a thing of the past.
Monday was a holiday for most people and thus no freight trains had slowed us down thus far. Amtrak leases lines from the freight train companies, which out west invariably means Union Pacific or the BNSF (Burlington Northern & Santa Fe), and therefore takes second priority to any of the mile-long workhorses that wend their way all over the US. Without them, we had made good time and reached Denver some 25 minutes ahead of schedule, with a long stop planned anyway.
The driver told us in enormous detail exactly what was happening – how we had to back up, then add an extra carriage, then test the connection of the carriage just to make sure it was good, then eventually we’d be on our way. I took advantage of the long layover and hopped off to find a pub.
Ten minutes out of Denver and we slammed on the brakes drawing to a stop right by a liquor store. I assumed we’d either hit something like a deer, or there was something on the tracks ahead. “That’s not good,” said a passing coach attendant. The otherwise informative driver was notably silent.
An hour passed.
I chatted to a woman who was writing something for Amtrak about disabled travel.
We backed up.
There were some loud jolts – like a carriage was being connected. Surely not.
After all the talk about testing the connection, we had in fact lost the end carriage. While the main train had slammed on the brakes, the end carriage had merely drifted to a halt some way back down the track. Apparently, someone went to the end of the car to walk through to see what was happening only to find that there was nowhere to walk to.
Reconnected, and apparently also now towing a dead engine, we began our long journey through the flatlands of eastern Colorado and Nebraska. I went to sleep.
I woke up at what I assumed was Omaha. Not even close. It was Lincoln. During the night we’d had another hour stoppage – no wonder I’d slept well. The dead engine had a weak axle apparently. Things weren’t going well for the Zephyr.
It was around Omaha that I crossed the Lewis & Clark trail again. Omaha is a big city but with a train station that looks derelict “like something from a Stephen King novel”, said Tom.
We were now having to wait for other trains, and at one point stopped in the middle of nowhere because apparently conductors work eight hours to the minute, so a relief crew had to be sent out to meet the train. “I wish our union was like that”, said a by now very tired Tom. The customer-facing train crew work five days solid from Chicago to California and back without a proper break and with people like me boarding in the wee small hours it’s hard for them to get a decent night’s sleep. If anyone deserved a generous tip on my whole travels it was these guys who were friendly and cheerful throughout.
Across the plains we saw quite a lot of flooding as the Missouri and Platte rivers were very high. We then crossed the mighty Mississippi at Burlington and with that, I left the west behind.
We were running four hours late. Some people had connections in Chicago – we’d already said farewell to a group at Galesburg, IL who were jumping on an Amtrak bus to meet Train 50 in Indianapolis and continue their journey. “How long will it take them to get there?” I asked. “Oh, about five hours, but the bus is pretty comfy… although that one looks like a prison bus. Maybe ‘Train 50’ is a Kurt Vonnegut novel,” replied Tom, who clearly has a predilection for certain types of literature!
We made up a bit of time and finally reached Chicago just over 3.5 hours late. Not bad really for such an enormous journey. It had taken 36 hours from Salt Lake City.
I had made it back to my starting point. I had been through 11 states, covered some 7,000 miles since setting out back in early June, seen some beautiful scenery, met some fantastic people and gained a new understanding and appreciation for the American west.
Lewis & Clark had been excellent guides for the bulk of the trip, and my respect and admiration for them and the rest of the Corps of Discovery had only grown. They had opened up a continent and although they had failed to find an easy water route from the east to the Pacific, they had irreversibly kickstarted the westward expansion of the United States. But what of the men themselves.