The California Zephyr: Chicago to Emeryville, California

Did I mention that train travel requires having “sea-legs” and being unafraid to meet people at a shared dining room table, or, after falling into their lap?  Well, we know Leslie, Rudy, Sam and Tina, Nan, Jordan...all “lap” buddies and good sports.

We arrived in Chicago about two hours late with sore shoulders, necks and cramped legs...not too different than a 15-hour flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong or Sydney, Australia. That’s just how coach rolls. Happy to stretch and walk around, but we had limited time before we change over to the famous California Zephyr train route. The “Zephyr” takes you from Chicago, across America’s heartland through Denver, over the Rocky’s, through the Continental Divide, Utah’s desert and the High Sierra’s arriving in Emeryville, California, the end of the line for this route in about 51 hours. We need beds. The concept of double-backs in coach was just too scary.

One lesson about train travel is that you can’t be in a hurry. We left Boston late and arrived in Chicago late. Why would we expect to leave Chicago on time? We had just enough time to find a wine store near Union Station and stock up for our trek across the country. Wine, nuts, cheese, bread, some fresh fruit are all must have’s. We added one celebratory spirit and splurged on a bottle of 12 year-old Glenlivet...we are, after all, celebrating my son’s solo cross-country bicycle trek! It turns out we have another couple of hours to kill in Chicago. Had we known that, I would have hopped in a cab and given Dylan a quick tour of Chicago. This was his first trip to this amazing city.

 We waited in the slightly cramped Metropolitan Lounge for sleeper car travelers. We lunched late on pulled pork sandwiches and boarded the California Zephyr at about 5 PM, nearly 3 hours late. Like I said, one cannot be in a hurry and travel on a non-commuter-type train. We found our sleeper compartment (roomette) at the front of the train and we excited to know we were in an upstairs room. Small still seems inadequate when describing our little train-habitat. But, we were excited, nonetheless. We had seats, a table, windows, a door, curtains and BEDS! It's the little things in life that one tends to appreciate. Cozy, but very cool.

It was far too early for wine so we found ice, cups and cracked open the scotch...a toast was in order-two fingers please! Within a few minutes of departing we met Karen, who introduced herself as our sleeper compartment “steward”. She gave us a quick tour of our room, explained that we have access to showers and the low-down on meal service protocol. All good information.

We were enjoying our little train-habitat...good conversation, replenishing our ice as needed, and missed the first call for dining. So, Karen asked us if we wanted to dine in our room. Sure, why go hang with the “little people” when we can enjoy or private train-space. She handed us the now familiar menu that showcases breakfast, lunch and dinner menu offerings. About 10 minutes later, Karen took our orders and we found more ice.

Dining in this 4X7 roomette was hysterical. Karen delivered what was basically to go order in two large tote bags. We have a shared table the size of a briefcase and now picture this. Two dinner plates, two bread plates, two wine glasses and four salad plates, two desserts. Here we are, two adult diners sitting in a compartment the size of small elevator enjoying dinner on a rocking and rolling train. More Scotch please! It’s all about the environment and it was way too much fun.

Later, we dropped the top bunk, hit the sack and awoke to the sound of the Conductor announcing McCook Nebraska. So, we may as well start our second day on the California Zephyr and explore the dining car during the daylight.

We made a reservation and found our way to another shared both with a mother and daughter from southern Illinois on a bit of an adventure. Nam just retired from teaching at a small liberal arts college, and her daughter was a part-time grad student in Chicago....More to follow

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