1. Janet Guastavino October 5, 2017 @ 10:29 pm

    Now this leg of your journey is such familiar territory to me, and I do mean familiar in the sense of family-related. (No pun intended.) These are all places I traveled to or through—save for Colorado—with my birth family or married family. Your blog gave me such nostalgia.
    As a child, we took Southern Pacific trains to LA, but drove all over Northern and Central California and Oregon. Years later, I took my children to see Oregon, Northeast California, Tahoe, and Seattle. But we never made it to our dream destination, Vancouver. Maybe some day . . .
    As for Old Town Sacramento, I felt sucked into a time warp in which my parents would take us to have shrimp cocktails on a riverboat while they drank “Martoonis.” Years later I took my children there to a train festival and to visit the fantastic train museum. We traveled there by train, of course. Good times.

  2. Risa Aratyr October 6, 2017 @ 2:52 pm

    Hope you enjoyed the trip down your personal Memory Lane, Jan. During my 40+ years in California, I’ve skirted Sacramento a gazillion times (on the way to the Sierras, or Tahoe, or Rosewood (shopping), or to pick up Hwy 5N/5S), visited Jimenez relations in the Sac suburbs dozens of times (though now they’re in LA), and even been to the city a couple of times (most recently for the Women’s March last January). This was our first play-day there, and now I’m feeling guilty for never having taken the kids to Old Sacramento. Too much fun.

  3. Declan Kenny October 6, 2017 @ 2:05 am

    That travelling sure is hard work. You look a bit run down, sitting next to Roy outside the River City Saloon ;-)

  4. Risa Aratyr October 6, 2017 @ 2:55 pm

    What?!? How unconscionably rude, Dec. Look at that full growth of beard I’ve sprouted! And yes, of course there’s a giant crack running down my face. Roy is always cracking me up. Finally, as an Irishman, I would think you could tell the difference between being run down and being drunk off my ass. Give an old gal a break, can’t you?

  5. Declan Kenny October 7, 2017 @ 5:19 am

    Ha, ha! Well, for the record, your Honour, if it pleases the court, I didn’t mention age at all ;-)

  6. Risa Aratyr October 7, 2017 @ 12:10 pm

    True that. I’m still a bit miffed, though, because you didn’t mention my cunning boots and how well I accessorized my attire with hat and scarf.

  7. Declan Kenny October 7, 2017 @ 1:16 pm

    It is indeed a lovely ensemble!

Riding the Rails – A Chronicle

Write-Minded Comments (7)

FRIDAY 9 JUNE:  This day the travellers journeyed westward in the steel belly of the California Zephyr.

As we climbed aboard, the attendant said something about hurrying to the observation car, there might be a few seats left.

I didn’t pay much attention.  A crowded observation car had no appeal, to me at least.  We were preoccupied with getting on board, lugging our bags up the narrow, twisting stairs to the upper level (the Zephyr is a Superliner), and finding our roomette.  Also, I was a bit distracted by the oddly frenetic energy of the boarding process.  There was an uncharacteristic tension circulating among the passengers waiting in line, showing their tickets, or hot on our heels, eager to find their own compartments.

I put it down to excitement.  In fact, it was urgency, a mild version of the frenzy that possesses a mob set to breach the shopping mall doors on Black Friday – but I hadn’t yet figured that out, and this is a chronicle, a factual account of events in order of occurrence.  No foreshadowing allowed.

We traversed the entire length of the car without finding a door plaque with a number to match the one on our ticket.  Quite a puzzle, until someone kindly informed us our roomette was actually downstairs.

Back we went, against an irritated (at us) flow of traffic.  Sure enough, there it was, a few steps from the luggage rack, a few more from the loos and shower, and next door to the family bedroom.   Here’s a reminder of the Superliner sleeper-car layout, reprised from Riding the Rails – A Comparison.”

A tourist magnet in its own right (ranked #29 out of 418 California “attractions” on Trip Advisor), the Zephyr was sold-out, of course.  Every coach seat, bedroom, and roomette was taken.  The family bedroom was taken by two parents and two very young children.

I cast no blame on Amtrak.  A quick search on the internet prior to booking, and we could have learned all we needed to know about riding the Zephyr from Denver to Sacramento at the start of a weekend in June.  It was our fault and ours alone we were stuck downstairs, but I couldn’t pretend to be happy about it.  In night-mode, our Capitol Limited and Southwest Chief roomettes had felt like cells to me.  On the Zephyr, our cell was in a noisy dungeon.  Ah, well.

We were practiced now at getting our stuff stored away; small case under the armrest, big case sideways on top of the armrest, Roy’s backpack on top of that, and my large purse stuffed into the super-skinny closet.  Our roomette sorted, the north-Denver suburbs behind us, it was time to check out the view.  I looked out the window . . . and my heart sank.

I saw trees.  Lots of coniferous trees.  Trees densely packed on the side of whatever peak we were chugging past, trees dropping down into a valley.  Couldn’t see the peaks or valleys, though.  Our view was boles and branches.  To peer over the treetops and experience the panoramic wonder of it all, you had to be doing your sightseeing upstairs.  This pic, taken at Glenwood Springs later that day, shows the view-disparity clearly.  We had expected to be looking out one of the windows at the top of the train.  Ours was one of those at the bottom.

That’s what the attendant had been on about.  He’d seen our ticket, realized ours was a poor-view roomette, and had tried to steer us to where we wouldn’t miss all the fun.  Again, our fault entirely for assuming that any and every seat on the train included the full-fun package.

Soon as we realized, Roy took off to see if he couldn’t find us some standing room in the observation car.  He’d been gone maybe two minutes when there was announcement:  docents from the Amtrak-National Park Service Trails & Rails program were in the observation car to give a guided talking-tour of the marvels streaming by outside the windows – but the car was full, sorry.

Just in case Roy had somehow made it in, I headed upstairs to find him.  On the upper level, half of the sleeper car is roomettes, the other half bedrooms.  The roomettes line both sides of the car with a narrow aisle between.  Bedrooms take up more floor space, and their corridor runs along the edge of the car.

This pic shows the bedroom-corridor empty.

When I hit the top of the stairs, it was packed with people, all gazing out the windows, all with cameras at the ready.  Suddenly the pre-boarding tension made sense.  Everyone on the Denver platform (except us, apparently) knew that it was festival seating – first come, first serve – for the show ahead.  Realizing the best seats (dining and observation cars) had already been claimed by passengers who had boarded in Chicago, they were hell-bent on staking their own claims on spots that would provide the thrilling views they had paid for.

The windows in bedroom corridors are considerably smaller than those in the observation and dining cars and top out at my eye level.  Some folks were hunching over to see through them.  Most were kneeling.

As I stood there, completely discouraged, I saw Roy making his way toward me through the congested passageway, edging between locked shoulders and carefully stepping over the legs booby-trapping the floor.  As the blocked aisle implied, the observation car was a no-go.  Our options were to stay here on our knees for hours or to throw in the towel.

When I was young, I would have joined the kneelers, no question.  Even a decade ago, I wouldn’t have let a poorly situated compartment cheat me of a scenic journey I’d been looking forward to for months.  But if Roy’s septuagenarian gams could handle it, my 63-year-old bone-on-bone knees could not.  We threw in the towel.

I’m sure the views of the high Rockies are stunning, but I have no proof of it.  Our view was limited.  I caught only these bits of fabulousness as we wound between the Roosevelt and Arapaho National Forests,

and this fine pinnacle somewhere outside Fraser.

For us, the scenic highlights didn’t get going until the snow-covered, forested peaks were behind us and the terrain opened up a bit.  This cool formation lies in a little pocket of land between the White River, Arapaho, and Routte National Forests.

This next is the crappiest picture ever – but I’ve included it because if you look past the curtain at the blurry dead tree, then look to the very top of the blurry dead tree, you can just make out a blurry bald eagle.  (Might try clicking to enlarge.)

The Zephyr’s route through Colorado shadows the Colorado River, picking it up near Granby and sticking with it till it leaves the state.  Along that entire stretch of rail, the astonishing views just kept coming, beauty so rich it rather made up for the mountain majesty we had missed.


Interstate Highway 70 also follows the Colorado River through the state.

I wondered if this remarkable section of road had been a New Deal, Public Works Administration (PWA) project.  I’d tell you that the highway that runs from the Kansas state line to Denver was built under the Federal Highway Act of 1944, and that it took Colorado twelve more years to persuade Utah to connect with them – but this is a chronicle.  No flashbacks allowed.  You can read about it HERE, if you’re so inclined.

A few hours before sunset, we said goodbye to the rocky peaks of Colorado, and hello to the awesome buttes of Utah.


SATURDAY 10 JUNE:  This day Sacramento showed the travellers a good time.

Next morning, we woke early (were wakened by the kids next door) to find we were more than halfway through Nevada.

By 11:00am, we were back in sweet-home California,

and rounding Placer Lake in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

The lie of the land, the trees, the shrubs, the color of the sky, the world beyond the train grew more familiar as the day wore on.  It was all new to one of our lunchtime companions, though, a visitor from Germany.  He had nothing but positive things to say about his trip across the States by rail.  Then again, he was a young lad travelling alone (not sharing his roomette), and he was clearly enjoying the lemon bar dessert that had made Roy gag.  Safe to say, our comfort criteria differed greatly.

We pulled into uniquely-named Sacramento Valley Station less than a half-hour late.

The tracks are quite a hike from the building; the walk gave us time to appreciate that it was a hot day.  The time was about 2:30pm; the Coast Starlight to Seattle was scheduled to leave at 11:59pm.

The Sacramento layover was the weirdest stop on our itinerary.  We had nine-and-a-half hours to kill – but that wasn’t the weird part.  The weird part was spending all that time in a city just 68 mi/110 km from Sonoma.  If we had wheels or cared to rent them, we could be home in just over an hour.

Out of the question.  After 26 days and 8,780 mi/14,130 km, if we went home to relax, where would we ever find the impetus to drive back to Sac to catch a midnight train?  Hanging out in the state capitol was our only sane option, but what to do? With our luggage in the care of the folks behind the ticket counter (a free service for sleeper car passengers), we headed out unencumbered to . . . well, to get me a cup of tea for starters, and we’d figure it out from there.

I was all set to consult the internet for advice on local attractions, but no need.  Though the Starbucks next door to the station was a bust for tea (closed at 2:30pm), the friendly staff proved wonderful tour guides.  Old Sacramento was just the other side of the station, they said.  Go through the parking lot below the freeway ramp and turn left.

So we did.

Located under the freeway and on the river, Old Sacramento State Historic Park is 28-acres of preserved/restored mid-1800s (Gold Rush/Transcontinental Railroad era) downtown.  You can take a ride on a boat or a steam train, see a show, grab a hot dog or get a 5-star meal on the Delta King River Boat.  There’s shopping (apparel, souvenir, and a plethora of candy stores), dining, entertainment, historical sites, museums – and good old-fashioned saloons where a couple of geezers can sit and jaw.

It was truly charming, but I couldn’t find a decent and affordable cup of tea, we were way under-slept, and it was the hottest part of the day.   Change of plans – we’d see a movie now, visit Old Sac later.

Google led us to believe there was a giant multiplex Century Theater not far away, though, oddly, no films or showtimes were listed.  We headed over, thinking we’d see what was playing when we got there and score tix to whatever decent film was up next.  Surprise!  Century Theater was locked, unlit, and obviously under-construction.  We could see concession counters and seats stacked in the huge, dark lobby, waiting to be installed.  Being strangers to town, we didn’t know the soon-to-be venue is part of the Sacramento Kings’ (pro basketball) billion-dollar Golden 1 sports/entertainment project.  When complete, it will include a posh new hotel, classy restaurants, and – yes – a high-definition multiplex cinema, in addition to the up-and-running 17,000-19,000 seat arena.  At the moment, however . . .

We took a roundabout route back to Old Sac. Didn’t find other cinemas, but there was an art-y tower,

the Fruit Building,

and the US Bankruptcy Court to admire,

plus a small Chinatown to peruse.  Back in Old Sacramento, we went up and down the adorable streets,

stopped in a few stores, and mingled with legions of cozy couples and happy families.  Even the good Doctor was there that day.

We ended up at the riverside,

feeling peckish.  Old Sac boasts plenty of eateries, but the park is geared toward daytime family use.  With evening coming on, the streets were quieting down and the more casual places were closing, leaving only upscale hot-spots open for business.

Back to the internet, and this time it came through for us.  A hefty city-stroll from colorful downtown to chic uptown brought us to a terrific Greek restaurant – Petra.  We were so hungry by then, we ordered way too much, and had to take bags of food back to the station with us.  We made the return stroll a leisurely one, keeping close to beautiful Capitol Park for most of it (no pics, sorry – it was dark by then), and taking note of this establishment for future reference.

We arrived at the station about 10:00pm.

It should have been a reasonable wait to board the Coast Starlight, but it was an unreasonably long one.  Five hours.  The midnight train didn’t pull out of the station until 3:00am.


SUNDAY 11 JUNE:  This day it snowed.

We were absolutely knackered by the time we climbed aboard and crawled into our bunks.  Unfortunately, sleeping-in is never an option, as the general bustle and piped-in announcements start at 7:00am.  By now, I was well over Amtrak’s dining car meals.  I breakfasted on Petra leftovers in the roomette – hummus, pita bread, olives, tzadziki, lamb, rice, yummmm.

We had travelled down and up the East Coast on the Silver Star; on the opposite seaboard, we were going up then back down on the Coast Starlight.  These two trains, these two journeys, were my two favorites.  Though the Silver Star wins the prize (because the roomette was so comfortable), the Starlight is a close second, thanks to two unique perks:  the utterly amazing ride through the Cascades and the Parlour Car.

Only Coast Starlights have Parlour Cars.  Mostly they serve as an extra observation car, with comfy chairs at one end, a hot-food table (not usually in-use), a stairway (that connects to a movie theatre! where they used to show family-friendly films to entertain bored kids – but Amtrak lost its license with the distribution company, so now it just sits empty), a section of inward-facing booths with bistro tables, a dining-table section, and a snack counter at the other end.  Also, the cars have WiFi and plenty of outlets.

We learned the hard way (by being kicked out of the dining-table section) that – on request – you can have your meals in the Parlour Car.  Even later we learned Parlour Cars have their own menu; fewer choices, but superior choices, which make for better meals.

A word of warning regarding on-board dining.  Depending on the location of your compartment and how full the train is, you may or may not get to eat when and where you wish.

Roy and I eat late (by American standards).  On this journey, we made our lunch reservation for 2:00pm or thereabouts.  By the time the attendant came by for our dinner reservation, we had discovered the Parlour Car and requested it.  We were told all the Parlour Car slots were taken.  Ok, we said, put us down for the latest time-slot in the dining car, 8:45pm.  Those seats were gone as well.  The only slot still open was 5:00pm.  I had just finished lunch at 3:00pm, I explained.  I couldn’t possibly sit down to dinner just two hours later.  But there was no help for it, nothing she could do.  I had to skip dinner entirely.

I did get a feast for the eyes, though.

The Cascade Range extends from the southern end of British Columbia, through Washington and Oregon, and into Northern California.  There are non-volcanic peaks in the Northern Cascades, but as part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Cascades are composed of volcanoes, like Shasta, Rainier (the highest of the lot), Lassen, and Mount St. Helens.

By Shannon – background and river course data: click HERE for citation link

About 9:30am, as the Starlight rolled through the northern tip of the Klamath National Forest, I looked out the window, and saw this.

The pics don’t do the snow justice.  It wasn’t just on the trees and ground.  It was a blizzard.  A blizzard in June.

As we descended, the snow lessened,

and the ice on the windows melted.

On we rolled, through the Rogue River and Deschutes National Forests, through some of the most beautiful country in the world.

On to Eugene and Portland.  On to Washington state, where Roy captured an exquisite sunset by the Tacoma Bridge,

and at long last to King Street Station, Seattle.

After a short-but-felt-long wait to claim our checked bag, we jumped the queue for the taxis by heading up the street to the next intersection.  We had been going non-stop since the crack-of-dawn on Friday, and it was nearly Monday.  A real bed was waiting for us at Castle Whiteside Airbnb.  We simply could not wait to get to it.

Risa Aratyr @ October 5, 2017

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