End of the Line

California Zephyr

The 2:00 to Emeryville

Daytime panorama, west of Denver 

Daytime panorama, west of Denver 

   The scenery west of Denver is breathtaking in the figurative sense. The track conditions west of Denver are also breathtaking, but more in the literal sense of having it knocked out of you by a sudden lurch of the carriage, during which you'd swear the wheels had left the rails.

Donner Lake, CA

Donner Lake, CA

   We'd arrive outside Oakland only thirty minutes late after a forty-eight hour trek, but the same, lumbering stop and go of bowing to the majesty of freight traffic gave the same feel of a big city commuter resigned to his and her fate of listening to an entire broadcast of Fresh Air virtually parked on Interstate You Name It.

   This will be my last ride on Amtrak for awhile. There are other reasons than the main one of American passenger rail in desperate need of a pacemaker. My lunch companion on our last day aboard (riding solo guarantees you will be dining with interesting strangers) told of the overpowering smells of sewer gas and disinfectant in his sleeper car for the entire trip.

   Admittedly, a breakdown like this can happen on any public conveyance. The problem I have with Amtrak is one of confidence. My first thought when I heard the sewer gas tale was that seems about par for the course.  That thought was immediately followed by what's next?

   I'd simply be cynical, though, if I didn't mention two of Amtrak’s true positives: its food and its passengers. The steaks were tender and flavorful, and the breakfast and lunch menus were filling and tasty. Although the once fine china has long since been replaced, Amtrak has subbed chinette and real silverware for its dinner service, disposing of the paper plates and plastics that had once been one of its most misguided economizing moves. But the food tops anything I've had on a plane, including that in Business Class.

Molly and TJ, fellow rail riders

Molly and TJ, fellow rail riders

Dinner aboard the California Zephyr

Dinner aboard the California Zephyr

   Your dinner reservation (breakfast and lunch are first come, first served) will seat you with strangers if you're traveling solo. Even my staunch non-social graces dissolved before meal mates, all of whom were finding ways to still enjoy the romance of the rails. Molly and T.J. were truly romancing the rails, enjoying an engagement gift from Molly’s parents. I offered it was a pre-nuptial stress test, and Molly did not disagree.

The Daughters of the King: Penny, Pamela and Sharyn

The Daughters of the King: Penny, Pamela and Sharyn

   Then there were the Daughters of the King, a multi-denominational trio of religious congregants returning from an international convention in Austin. “All women?” I asked, painfully desperate to make conversation.

   “Yes,” came the droll reply. “Hence the word Daughters in our name.”

   Typical of the reasons for riding Amtrak was this remark I heard in passing: “You can't see this kind of scenery from a plane.” Yes, you can if the plane is crashing. But I keep that to myself, having exhausted my socializing quotient for the day.

   Since detraining outside Oakland, I've gone back and forth over riding Amtrak again. There's still some great country to see, especially via the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles. And there's my loopy idea to ride The City of New Orleans to see how much if any of the route is still worth singing about.

   My new traveling companion has so far signed on for an Amtrak trip with the same intrepid tentativeness that has characterized her earlier commitments to become my traveling companion: “You're not going to pull that travel lite eVest stunt with me along, are you?”