Serendipity on the California Zephyr, Part II
The big stop on the California Zephyr between the Rockies and Salt Lake City is Grand Junction, where I spent a year and a half working as a reporter a decade ago. The Grand Valley is a dusty place sprawling between the Book Cliffs to the north and the Uncompahgre Plateau and Colorado National Monument to the south.
Flanked by the redrock canyon country of the Colorado Plateau, Grand Junction forms the heart of a region that feels like a second home to me. I’ve explored it extensively, but I’ve never visited Ruby Canyon.
The Colorado River cuts through the sandstone near the Uncompahgre Plateau’s northern tip to form Ruby Canyon. As the river meanders beneath redrock cliffs and pinnacles and grottoes perched high above the sagebrush, it carries the Union Pacific Railroad tracks to Utah.
It’s a gorge famous among rafters for its spectacular reach of the Colorado River. It’s a special place to me because Ruby Canyon hosts the mouth of Mee Canyon — home to the largest canyon alcove on the Colorado Plateau, truly one of the most extraordinary places in the Four Corners.
You wouldn’t know that from the vantage of the California’s Zephyr’s observation car. But experiencing this extraordinary country from the vantage of a train trundling me toward the parched flatness of central California made the 35 hour journey worth the time and the inevitable sleepless night that lay ahead.
After the California Zephyr meandered through Ruby Canyon, it sped through the desert north of Moab and Arches National Park, and by the time we arrived in Green River, it was time for dinner.
The crew called my dinner reservation, and I sat next to a family of three — father, daughter and granddaughter — from New Castle, England, which is near the Scotland border.
I’d just been chatting with an Aussie from the Blue Mountains west of Sydney — a landscape architect who was on his first visit to the United States. Having recently returned from Sydney, I understood everything he said with his thick New South Wales accent.
But the English family spoke with some hybrid English-Scottish accent, and I could barely understand what they said. Through their thick brogue, they spoke of their extensive travels: Bali, Paris, Jamaica, Rio.
And then the father choked on steak.
I readied for the Heimlich maneuver, and his daughter raced over and slapped him on the back. He coughed up the meat, pushed his dinner aside and sat quietly the rest of the meal.
Soon we were in Salt Lake, and as midnight approached, the train was racing across the Bonneville Salt Flats and on into Nevada.
I attempted to sleep in the fetal position across two seats in coach. It took me several days to recover.
Morning came just east of Reno — Winnemucca, actually — and after breakfast the train began its 35 mph climb up and over the Sierra, a trip narrated by a volunteer rail historian who gave the entire train a lesson on the mining and railroad history of Donner Pass and the Lake Tahoe region.
California rarely fails to awe me, but after crossing the Rockies, ablaze in fall color, the Sierra seemed monotone and anticlimactic. Donner Pass is covered in conifers — Doug fir, spruce, pine, etc. — and not a single deciduous tree or hint of fall foliage could be seen from the train.
Drought has wracked much of California for five years now, and as the train descends from Colfax toward Sacramento, the pine forests begin to take on the copper hue of mortality.
And then, ahead of schedule, the Zephyr deposited me in downtown Sacramento, a glassy place — modern as a Dallas skyscraper, scorching as a Phoenix summer afternoon.
Soon, I was at my conference in the suburbs, and, in just a few days, I was on a JetBlue flight back to New York that in just a few hours retraced the Amtrak route from San Francisco to Colorado.
A lesson in contrasts, to be sure.
Slow travel on the California Zephyr really is an antidote to the accumulated stress and strain of numerous recent trips and work deadlines. You’re forced to socialize with your fellow travelers, and see the country in ways you can’t see it if you’re flying over it or driving 80 mph on a freeway across it.
But with my brain wired to the fast pace of the city, for me, slow travel across the continent on Amtrak is only good in one direction.