Riding Amtrak's California Zephyr.
Riding the California Zephyr is like cruising through a gigantic film set; the scenery is like an intoxicatingly surreal CGI effect. As you tick off terrains from Rockies to the fir-lined Donner Pass to crumbly old deserts dotted with cattle and bones. The Zephyr Transports you through seven of America’s great states, and landscapes smear past, changing by the minute. From arid desserts to colossal lakes, mountains, valleys and ridges that look cut-and-paste from an epic wild west movie. This astonishing journey between Chicago and San Francisco, which takes around 52 hours, will have you feeling like a kid again, a pretty tired kid (unless you’re lucky enough to be able to afford a sleeper).
Prep for the Journey:
Before boarding, make sure you have all you need to make this journey as comfortable as possible. Especially if you’re a budget traveller like us and opt for the cheaper option of basic recliner seats instead of a bed in one of the roomettes. A single fair without a cabin is $167 - not too shabby, when you consider you’d be forking out on a hostel or hotel for two nights if you flew. And America is not cheap when it comes to accommodation. The roomettes, on the other hand, are pretty pricey at $700 - $900! But I guess if you can afford it, then definitely go for it. We got very little sleep - sitting upright in a fridge-freezer all night, but we’re hardcore travellers. Sort of. If you’re going to rough it like we did, then don’t forget to buy a cheap throw-away pillow, a blanket or sheet (read Spencer’s post: Bring a Pillow on the Amtrak). We bought a cheap pillow and sheet, but in hind sight a sheet wasn’t nearly enough to keep us warm. The air-con is pumped up to minus degrees on this thing - any warmth or moisture is sucked out like a swimming pool pump. So come prepared for the arctic - goose down jackets and all.
One of the best things about being stuck in a moving cylinder for 52 hours, is that you just never know who you’re going to meet. And in America, human interaction is much more common than we Brits are used to. We met a really awesome couple the first day, and we hit it off straight away. We went to the restaurant for our booked meal (which is quite an odd process in itself, a staff member comes through the carriage to ask if you want a place, then you’re put on a waiting list and you listen on tenterhooks for the call on the tannoy. If you’re not called by 9pm, I think you then have to face up to going dinnerless). It was the one and only time we ate in the restaurant. Now, I can’t speak for meat-eaters, but as vegetarians, our options were poor. That’s the one thing I can really fault Amtrak on, we weren’t expecting a fine dinning experience, but we did think there’d be more choice than a radioactive woodchip vegan burger. It was like chewing on a microwaved shoe. But it was literally the only thing you could buy on board that was vegetarian (besides other nutrition-free stuffs like pot noodles, crisps or chocolate). After a while, you feel like your colon is compacting recycled cardboard.
I woke to find myself covered in wet red stuff. Before you think the worst, no, no no no, it was not blood - as I initially thought. I frantically checked here, there and everywhere. No cuts. It was a bit shocking to wake up to. After much investigation, even thinking perhaps the air-con was leaking, it turned out the people behind us had a cool box that had been seeping some kind of red liquid for hours. I don’t know if they had raw meat, a dead body or just some grape juice, but it ended up soaking our floor, socks, sheet and even my pillow were drenched in the ‘liquid’. Not what you need at 4am when you’ve got a banging head, a mouth like the bottom of a birdcage and bruises from being knocked around all night in your seat. Needless to say, besides the clothes on our backs, I had to throw away our only hope of warmth. No apology or compensation was given to us by the perpetrators, in fact I don’t even recall them acknowledging that we were in distress, very bizarre.
After all the drama, we made our way to the glass viewing carriage, at 5am. No one else was awake, so we had it all to ourselves. We lay there watching the dark sky turn from pitch black to burning red, slowly lightening up enough to expose the silhouetted outlines of sharp mountains in the distance. Eventually, the sun’s warmth penetrates the air-con’s blizzard and warms your skin through the window warming you through amid golden desert sands flashing by, smothered in glowing sunrise.
Once the sun has fully risen, the hordes start to enter the carriage in search of a seat, so we were grateful for getting in there early to witness the beauty of the sunrise.
After sunset, and struggling through our 3rd or 4th veggie burger, we decided to make our way back to our seats for some much needed shut eye. But to our horror, the floor was still soaking wet. Yup that was my last pair of socks: soaked. We informed one of the staff members who kindly let us sleep in the downstairs seating area that was totally empty. We had the whole room to ourselves, but it was even colder than the upstairs and with no sheet and no socks, I was at my wits end. Of course, Spence offered me his socks, but they too were wet. I went on the search for another train attendant to find out if there was any way we could have a blanket or something, at first they wanted us to pay $20 for a thin piece of paper they called a blanket.
You really do miss some good wholesome fruit and veg in those 52 hours. So if you are vegan or vegetarian, or just health conscious, I would highly recommend buying a cheap cooler box and packing it full of food for the journey. Even if you only pack it full of fruit and nuts, at least you’ll be getting some vitamins down your gullet.
After burger-gate, we indulged some serious wine drinking. This involved giggling at everything like a bunch of school girls. Especially at the sweet old guy who slept all night at a table in the viewing deck, sat up-right, under one of those foil blankets that marathon runners use. It was like a scene from the series ‘Better call Saul’. His head bobbed up and down, making the blanket rustle noisily…it was too much to handle. Why is it when you’re not supposed to laugh, you laugh the most? In hindsight we all felt a bit bad for laughing at him cause he really was a cute old guy, but luckily he was none the wiser, and of course we were a little trolleyed. Thank goodness for the wine though, it provided us with the only decent few hours of sleep we had in 52 hours.
It was a pretty awesome day onboard, with little time for boredom as the local park rangers were on board - explaining exactly where we were and what we were seeing. It’s amazing how time flies when the scenery is so spectacular, despite a desperately numb buttocks. (Click and drag, or tilt your iPad or phone in any direction to view the 360 video).
I just couldn’t let it go and eventually they let us have one thin blanket free of charge between us. Wahoo. Guess who got the blanket? Sorry, husband.Then more silly bad luck: I was happily photographing the beautiful scenery when my memory card suddenly stopped working. Just a flashing ‘ERROR’ message of doom. It was the icing on the cake, the last straw, it was devastating - all the images I’d taken of one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world…were gone. The card corrupted and would cost £800 or so to retrieve, if it was even possible at all. So all the images you see on this blog or else where of this journey, are either iPhone pics or screen shots from Spencer's footage. If you’ve ever had this happen to you then you’ll feel my pain! But luckily, we do still have loads of video…check out the video we put together…(Amtrak's California Zephyr in 3 minutes)
The end was in sight…our last few hours on the Amtrak were coming to an end. And we were ready for it. As spectacular as this journey was, lack of sleep, dislocated arse fat and lack of food with anything worth digesting in it had caught up on us. We were ready to kiss the California earth and set off on our next adventure!
- Get into the viewing car before sunrise to get a seat. Preferably, don’t leave. Guard it as if your life depends on it. Although, it might not be fair to hog it. Then again, YOLO.
- Sit on the right side of the train, the views are supposedly a little more spectacular.
- Bring a pillow and a blanket. BRING A PILLOW AND BLANKET!!!
- Bring healthy snacks and plenty of them, if you can, take a cooler box full of food…especially if you’re a vegetarian/vegan.
- Every Tuesday, Amtrak update its list of special offers, with savings of up to 90%. Go Amtrak!