Skip to content

The California Zephyr


Part of the inspiration for this trip came from Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days, much of whose final land route I’ll be following for the next two weeks. Certainly, it’s the only place I’d ever heard of my next destination, although it proves an inspired one – Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

To get there, I’ve to take the California Zephyr for 26 hours through the Sierra Nevada mountains, across the Nevada desert and Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats before climbing up into the Rockies. The first trip of the morning, though, is on a shuttle bus from San Francisco to Emeryville station, a straightforward ten-mile trip which becomes a bit more complicated when the bus driver stands up, explains that it’s his first day and asks does anyone knows the way. When one man, not spotting the joke, starts to give detailed directions, the driver asks if he wouldn’t mind driving while the driver watches and learns.

We do get to Emeryville in time, fortunately, and another epic train journey gets underway. One of the earliest places we pass by is the reason why UCD had to get that horrible new crest –


It’s the outskirts of the other, allegedly better-known, UCD campus, University College Davis.

Most of America lives on the coast, so a couple of hours inland is into small town America –


Colfax, California was formed during the gold rush, although life was so quiet out here that when the Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax, came out to visit and see how the new train tracks were getting on, the townsfolk changed the name of the town in Colfax’s honour. One of the first to travel along Colfax’s brand new train tracks – the same I’m travelling along – was Phileas Fogg, whom Jules Verne sent along this very route in 1873. Michael Palin followed in 1988 (technically on the now discontinued Desert Wind from LA to Salt Lake City, connecting with the California Zephyr from there), which is why I’m here now. Had Verne sent Fogg a different route – through Canada, for example – I’d possibly be on the train from Vancouver to Halifax instead.

Beyond Colfax, the land turns dramatically mountainous, empty save for trees almost covering the land, leaving just a few bald brown patches on the landscape –


As the train rolls on into the Sierra Nevadas, the passengers start to wander about, mainly to the viewing car or the lunch car. There’s a family of Amish, presumably marvelling at this new-fangled technology they find themselves on. In front of me is a man in his 70s who’s worked as a cowboy his entire life (and very much as the hat to go with it), while a gentle-looking giant of a man – who must be pushing 7ft and who’s clad in dungarees – lumbers through the carriage, just missing a stalk of corn hanging from his mouth to tick off another middle-America stereotype on my list.

I do encounter another American stereotype over lunch. There’s four of us at the table again – a woman, her elderly mother and a middle-aged man (I forget the names at this remove!). After the usual initial reticence is overcome by a discussion about my trip, talk turns to travel in general while we eat our burgers. The middle-aged man reminisces of travelling on the Orient Express in the 70s, and then shelling out another $5 to take a train on to Teheran; even then, this was a ridiculously cheap trip. The woman previously lived in Morocco and Mexico. “I’ve travelled a lot”, adds her mother. “But always in the US. I’ve never been outside the US, and I don’t intend to go.”

“You’ve never been outside the US? You’ve never been to, say, Europe? Why not?”, I ask.

“Europe? I’d be scared.”

“What? Why?”

“Well, they have train bombings in Europe.”

And America’s not a dangerous country at all, of course. Though it has to be said, I don’t really help the cause for global tourism when mentioning later on, during a talk about politics back home, how the Dublin to Belfast train stopped in Newry the last time I was on it due to a suspect package being left on the line. However, the elderly woman has another ace up her sleeve, distrusting how trains in Europe are controlled remotely by computer. The fact that this is significantly safer than the hungover, bored minimum-wage worker who used to flag trains through before technology was invented is of no interest, and as a result, she has closed her mind to the wonders of the outside world.

By the time I head back to my seat after lunch, we’re passing into Nevada, and the scenery changes regularly. For a while, we pass alongside the Truckee River –


– before the landscape turns steadily into desert –


The Zephyr is helping uncover a spectacular side of America that would be completely unknown to me had I just flown across the country.

Night falls shortly after Winnemucca, and I rediscover what I learnt from Australia – that I can’t sleep sitting up on a train. The irregular bustle caused by a night-time stops doesn’t help, and any chance of sleep is gone once dawn creeps through the windows. I look out, slightly groggy, and fortunately a sign lets me know where I am –


It’s more helpful than it appears, in fairness – Green River is the last stop in Utah before we enter Colorado. Beyond the town, the scenery changes yet again –


We meet up with the Colorado River, and spend a couple of hours winding along by its banks –


– before arriving into Glenwood Springs pretty much bang on time, much to everyone’s surprise. Although Glenwood Springs is only a small town – population under 10,000 – in proper American tradition, I’m given a lift to my hostel by Charlie, the Taiwanese woman I’d been sitting next to and talking to since Emeryville and whose husband had arrived to meet her off the train. Completely unnecessary, but yet a nice touch!

After an afternoon spent catching up on sleep missed on the train, I head down in the evening to the town’s main attraction, the hot springs –


The largest natural hot springs swimming pool in the world, the springs supply two pools – one at 104 degrees Fahrenheit and a main pool adjacent which is a mere 98 degrees. The last hour – from 9pm to 10pm – is a discounted US$11 (E8.50), so there’s a queue ready to head in and bask in the warmth under the stars.

The following day, I go on a search for one of Glenwood Springs’ most famous former residents, whom I eventually find in the original town graveyard –


Doc Holliday was one of the gunslingers at the OK Corral who moved to Glenwood Springs in 1887, hoping the hot springs would help with his TB. Instead, it’s thought the sulfurous waters did him more harm than good, and he was dead before the year was out, aged 36. As one who thoroughly embraced the lawless notions of the Wild West, no-one ever figured on him dying in bed with his boots off, which may explain his reported last words – “Damn, this is funny”.

Records that far back are sparse though – it’s not known entirely who he killed (he was only arrested for murder once, but wasn’t charged), definitively what he looked like (many of the few photos are of unknown provenance) or even where he’s buried. The burial plan for the graveyard was lost years ago, so he’s presumed to be in one of the unidentified plots; the monument above was erected by the town to help cash in on any tourist dollars going (the shop on Grand Street which was the hotel where he died has the exact spot of his death marked on the floor). However, Doc Holliday’s Saloon posits the theory that the day of his burial was so wet that the hearse wasn’t able to make it up the hill to the graveyard for the mud, and so he was just buried unceremoniously at the bottom of the hill, possibly in what is now somebody’s back garden. For the pub, even being named after Doc Holliday isn’t enough – the blurb on the back of the menu points out that although the building was a general shop when Holliday was in town, the bar itself does date from the 1870s – it was bought in from a nearby town – and “Quite possibly […] he might have had a drink in the building in which this bar was located.” How exciting!

I popped into the pub initially to watch the Colorado Rockies’ game against Cincinnati, but slightly surprisingly, the baseball has been overlooked in favour of the opening ceremony of the Olympics. I order a Guinness, get my ID checked for the first time in years and kick back to listen to the Olympics commentary. At the bar, I see my drink being poured straight and without the glass being tilted. I don’t drink Guinness enough to know if this actually makes any difference, but I decide that if I’m going to have to tip (and you have to tip for everything in America), I’m going to make it my mission for the evening to teach the barstaff how to pour a proper pint.

For now, though, it’s the American view on the outside that’s of most interest. The commentators seem to view the opening ceremony – a celebration of all things British – a little bit like an exotic animal at the zoo. They note that most of Britain will be watching at home on TV, “or the telly, as it’s known here”. The time difference is noted – “It’s nine-thirty here in London, or 21:30 in the 24-hour clock favoured by the locals.” It seems that even when they’re trying to be curious about other cultures, the average American still can’t work out what’s actually going on!

As the parade of athletes drags on (handy for working out how many countries I’ve been to now; I make it 41 by the end), I decide to head up for another drink. I explain the problem with the last one, and this time, the glass gets tilted, but the bar-tender is taken by surprise by me telling her to stop before the glass is finished and goes all the way to the top before, with a flick of the wrist, tipping the head down the drain. 45 minutes later, I try again – this time, everything works perfectly, but when the glass is left to settle, the other bar-tender picks it up within seconds, not knowing what it’s doing there, and tops it up. Only by the fourth drink do things finally work out.

In the morning, I’ve a choice of a bus trip to see Aspen, or a walk out to the Hanging Lake, one of the most scenic areas in a very scenic region. I decide I could do with the walk and so, although no-one can agree on quite how far the Hanging Lake is, I head out along the I-70. It fairly soon becomes evident that it’s quite a bit farther than I’d been advised, and my two bottles of water aren’t going to be enough in the 30-degree heat. Still, after an initial mile walking along the side of the Interstate, the hiking trail turns off and runs along the stunning Glenwood Canyon –


It’s a Saturday afternoon, and many people are happily drifting down the river in inflatable tubes drinking beer – a civilised Vang Vieng, in a way. Others are out cycling, walking or white-water rafting –


On the near side of the river, the trail sometimes passes by the I-70, built with the westbound road six foot higher than the eastbound in order to squeeze it up against the walls of the Canyon. Along the far side of the river is the route of the California Zephyr –


– which means I’ll be revisiting the Canyon tomorrow when I re-board the train. Slow, two-mile long freight trains are far more common than the daily Amtrak passenger trains. Fortunately, water-less idiots are catered for along the way, and the sun even goes in behind the clouds for a while, so the hike becomes quite enjoyable, even as it becomes clear that the trailhead for the Hanging Lake is a good ten miles out of town, with the lake another mile and a half up a steep, rocky climb. Everyone coming down assures me the hike is worth it – after four and a half hours walking, it had better be! Fortunately, it is –


The water is crystal clear and provides perfect reflections; a perfect place to sit back and relax ahead of the trek back into town. As I get out a sandwich, I’m joined by another creature on lunch-break –


After half an hour, it’s time to head back to beat the sunset. The view away from the lake hints at the path I’ve to head back down –


At Grizzly Creek, about three miles from the end of the return hike, there’s the sound of a train horn; a not uncommon sound given there’s been maybe a train an hour passing by all day. When this train comes around the bend, however, it causes movement on the far bank. Looking across, I can see it’s a black bear, which had been scavenging for food before being startled by the train; it’s now running along against the direction of the train. My first thought is to get my camera out of my bag; this lasts for a good couple of seconds before I realise that there’s no way off the path I’m on – the road is a good ten foot above me – there’s a startled bear about 50 yards away and I’ve got an open pack of ham in my bag. This could be a situation. I soon lose sight of the bear, but spend the hour or so until Glenwood Springs willing the sun to stay above the horizon while trying to remember all I know about avoiding bears, which results in me squeezing my water bottle and singing the Lumberjack Song to warn any bears ahead that I’m around. It works ultimately, but it’s still a nervy end to the walk, and the vultures circling in the sky above really don’t help. And when I get back on to the Interstate, thinking that all the dangers are finally over, I startle a snake in the undergrowth, which scurries off with a hiss.

Fortunately, Glenwood Springs is one of the best places in the world for a 25-mile round-hike, what with the world’s largest natural hot springs swimming pool waiting at the end offering cheap dips just as I get back.

Having bears roaming the forests a couple of miles from your house is about the only good argument for gun-ownership I’ve come across, but strangely, it’s one that I never heard during three weeks in America. The subject was big news given that I was in Colorado only a week after the cinema shooting in Aurora, when a man dressed as Batman walked into a movie theatre and opened fire on the audience, killing 12 and injuring 58 before, unusually, being arrested (he’s attempted suicide a number of occasions since). The Letters to the Editor page in the local paper, the Post Independent, is filled with the opposing views; this is my favourite –

“I would like to point out that we live in a country where I have the right to carry a firearm into a theatre to defend my wife and kids from tyranny caused by enemies with weapons. Tyranny from the crazies. Tyranny from my government.

“Critics spew lies about guns. Perhaps such critics would like participate in a case study.

“Two doors exist with a small group of citizens behind each. One group is unarmed and unaware that the critic will race through the door with a faux AK-47 screaming murder. Behind door two, legally armed citizens have been told in advance the critic will enter with the intent to kill their child. Said critic would apparently choose door two based on their vast internet research, where self-defence firearms statistically have little effect on a criminal’s decision to bolt in and murder a 6-year-old standing besides a dad with a loaded hand gun.

“The Second Amendment was not written so we can shoot deer and plink bottles, contrary to President Obama’s flippant interpretation of the US Constitution. It was written so you can protect yourself. Use your freedoms that were paid by your ancestors’ blood. Support gun ownership by arming yourself.”

Internet research? Pah! And what does Obama know about what people over two hundred years ago meant? And naturally, the very definition of a crazy is one who’ll make logical decisions. Guns for all – because!

This is fairly typical of the standard of argument backing up gun ownership, as far as I could see. In the hostel, I end up in discussion with a man in his late 50s staying there. He freely admits to owning a gun, but when I ask why, he can only answer “Because I can.”

“But that’s not a reason. Why do you own a gun?” I ask

“Because it’s my constitutional right.”

“But owning a slave was your constitutional right until the constitution was changed. So why not change the constitution?”

“No. I need to defend myself.”

“Against whom?”

“You’re Irish, yeah? How did Ireland become independent? The gun. No-one listens to talking; you need a gun for action.”

“What? So you’re going to declare independence?”

It went on like this for a good hour, but that’s enough to get the picture, I think!

In the morning, it’s time to move on again, with just enough time to put on one of my host’s 1500 or so records, and helps make up for the iPod I lost away back on day 1. The Who’s Tommy turns out to be a mutual favourite, but all too soon, it’s time to heft up the bags again and wander down to the train station for a train which may be on time or may be a couple of hours late. As it turns out, it’s only a few minutes late, and I’m soon back in the Glenwood Canyon on the start of the 25-hour trip to Chicago.

I had expected the scenery to continue for a good while yet, but we pass in minutes what it took me four hours to walk the previous day and, although we continue climbing for a couple of hours until reaching Granby (elevation 7936ft), by 5pm, we’re clearly coming down from the mountains, and Denver just about can be seen at the head of a massive plain –


After Colorado, we pass through Nebraska, Iowa and into Illinois – into corn country. In Denver, a man gets on the train and starts talking to his neighbour. Within five minutes, they’ve found out that one’s from Nebraska and one’s from Iowa, and the question has been popped – “So, how’s the corn?” A detailed discussion of the problems the weather and the recent heatwaves have caused the crop ensues before I manage to block them out.

It’s hard to understate just how much of Iowa and Nebraska is corn. You could say that it’s all, every acre, corn and only be accused of a slight exaggeration. It certainly makes for a less interesting trip than the one to Glenwood Springs –


By nightfall, however, things have livened up as a massive thunderstorm breaks over the plains. For hours, rain lashes the train while lightning – as in Hong Kong, there’s no thunder, strangely – flashes every few seconds, usually with nothing taller than a stalk of corn to block the view to the horizon. On occasion, a lone car will drive along an unlit road between the train and the corn, its headlamps lighting up the incessant rain while another bolt of lightning flashes overhead. It’s a scene straight out of innumerable horror movies.

The storm has abated by morning, leaving little to divert for the past few hours of the trip before we roll into Chicago.


From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: