Rid­ing the Ze­phyr is a breeze

Make the scene from San Fran­cisco to Wash­ing­ton

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - TRAVEL - Barry D. Wood The ob­ser­va­tion car is a pop­u­lar place aboard Am­trak’s Cal­i­for­nia Ze­phyr as it passes through the Rocky Moun­tains near Kremm­ling, Colo.

Start with this sim­ple truth: Cross­ing the coun­try by train is an ad­ven­ture. Whether you’re out to see the coun­try in a re­laxed man­ner or avoid the has­sles of fly­ing or driv­ing, a train jour­ney will chal­lenge and de­light you.

My Fe­bru­ary jour­ney aboard the Cal­i­for­nia Ze­phyr from San Fran­cisco Bay to Chicago and on to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., was su­perb. But it de­manded the right at­ti­tude.

I be­gan in San Jose in the Sil­i­con Val­ley trav­el­ing three hours through the East Bay to Davis, the univer­sity town near Sacramento. In the morn­ing, I joined the Cal­i­for­nia Ze­phyr on its 2,400 mile run to Chicago. The Ze­phyr is rightly re­garded as Am­trak’s most scenic train across the Sier­ras and Rocky Moun­tains.

Set­tling in, you make your way to the ob­ser­va­tion car and join the slice of life al­ready on dis­play.

There are four-per­son ta­bles and fixed-po­si­tion chairs close to­gether, a con­fig­u­ra­tion pro­mot­ing con­ver­sa­tion. Across from me are Caitlin and Ja­son, an en­gag­ing cou­ple fresh from hik­ing in the north­west. They are headed home to Maine where they hope to start a school. These in­trepid nat­u­ral­ists have spent two years in the Hi­malayas in Kash­mir where they em­braced the life­style of the ru­ral Bud­dhist pop­u­la­tion.

Across from them are two com­puter en­gi­neers from the Sil­i­con Val­ley. Max and Will are es­cap­ing their San Fran­cisco rou­tines for a get­away in Den­ver, a day and a half’s jour­ney ahead.

Trav­el­ing east from Sacramento, the beauty out­side de­mands at­ten­tion. The six-car Ze­phyr climbs into the Sier­ras reach­ing for Ta­hoe and Reno. Vol­un­teer his­to­ri­ans have come aboard to pro­vide his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive as the sights grow more spec­tac­u­lar the higher we climb.

“Here,” says do­cent Bill Schuldt, “is where mem­bers of the Don­ner Party per­ished in an early win­ter bliz­zard that blocked their wag­ons and left them snow­bound in 1846.” Here also, he ex­plains, on this track in 1952, a premier South­ern Pa­cific train with 226 aboard was im­mo­bi­lized by drift­ing snow and stuck for three days.

Ar­riv­ing in Reno in early evening, two dozen trav­el­ers dis­em­bark. Their places are taken by oth­ers, most headed for Den­ver. Trav­el­ers who have splurged for a roomette will sleep ly­ing down in a snug com­part­ment with fa­cil­i­ties, in­clud­ing a shower, close by.

It’s a treat to awake an­tic­i­pat­ing break­fast in the diner. Break­fast is the best meal on the Ze­phyr; on this morn­ing it’s pan­cakes with sausage.

The morn­ing has dawned sunny and this sec­ond day on the Ze­phyr is per­fect for ob­serv­ing the red­dened buttes and mesas out­side. As we climb, the land­scape evolves from arid to green. Rush­ing streams and snow sig­nal our ar­rival in the Rocky Moun­tains.

By mid­day we’re high in the Rock­ies. Ev­ery seat in the ob­ser­va­tion car is filled. By late af­ter­noon the Ze­phyr de­scends from the high­est el­e­va­tions as it ap­proaches Den­ver. At 6 p.m., on time, the Ze­phyr backs into Den­ver’s beau­ti­fully re­stored Union Sta­tion.

There is no Wi-Fi on the Ze­phyr, but its ab­sence prompts few com­plaints as pas­sen­gers ad­just to the slower rhythms of train travel.

The next day, the Ze­phyr ar­rives in Chicago on time at 2:50 p.m. I join the sev­eral dozen pas­sen­gers board­ing an overnight train bound for D.C.

My ad­vice to would-be train trav­el­ers? Do it now, these won­der­ful trains can’t last for­ever. Keep in mind that the jour­ney is not cheap. My roomette fare from Davis, Calif., to D.C. was $1,000, but that in­cluded all meals.

Break­fast aboard Am­trak’s Capi­tol Lim­ited is served on linen table­cloths.

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