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Trip Report

California Zephyr Galesburg IL-Grand Junction CO

July 9-22, 2008


On July 9th, 2008, my wife Jody and I boarded Amtrak No. 5, the California Zephyr, at Galesburg, IL, after a visit with Jody's brother and his wife at Highland, IL. We were headed to Grand Junction, CO, to see another of Jody's brothers and his family. From there we planned a drive to the Grand Canyon via Durango, CO, and a ride on the Durango and Silverton. At Galesburg we left our car parked in a long-term lot in front of the Amtrak station. The parking area is not protected, but I was told that it was safe and frequently used by locals traveling to Chicago and elsewhere on state subsidized trains.

While waiting we saw a museum next to the station. It was closed, but we admired an outside display of Burlington steam locomotive 3006, a Baldwin S-4 Hudson 4-6-4 built in 1930. It was coupled to an RPO car built in 1924 and heavyweight Pullman "Meath" built in 1921. Nearby was a caboose and boxcar. A plaque indicated the 3006 had traveled 2,348,590 miles in passenger and freight service. Late in the diesel era 3006 hauled fast mail and express trains on Burlington mainlines.

No. 5 arrived a half hour down at 5:10PM led by 2 Genesis locomotives followed by a baggage car, and a Superliner consist of 4 sleepers, a sightseer lounge, diner, three coaches and private car Sierra Hotel. As we settled into our coach seats, the Zephyr blew westward on the BNSF main line. A CN locomotive and a Harsco technologies train framed our exit on the right.

After tickets were punched, we occupied two of the remaining seats in the Sightseer lounge car and enjoyed excellent Bloody Mary's purchased from the jovial lounge car attendant. On the PA and in person the man was cordial and entertaining with banter about his beloved Chicago White Sox baseball team.

The conductor said No. 5 was sold out all the way to Emeryville. Accommodations vacated at Omaha would be filled there, while the same thing would occur at Denver, Salt Lake City, etc. In addition to summer tourists, business travelers were using the Zephyr for medium-distance trips. What a gratifying development!

About fifteen miles from the Mississippi river we saw large patches of flooded land. Within ten miles of the bridge, the patches ended and the surrounding landscape was totally underwater. The train then slowed considerably as it maneuvered along newly re-built roadbed. We saw flooded farms with metal silos sticking up. Near the river, we passed a small town with buildings flooded to the second story and a lone blinker light hanging just above the water. Crossing the Mississippi, we could see a cable suspension bridge still under water.

On the Burlington, IA, side, flooding was minimal thanks to higher elevation. Arrival at the attractive 1950s style Burlington station was an hour late. West of Burlington, we saw more patches of low-lying farmland under water.

Between Galesburg and Creston IA, we passed twelve eastbound coal trains and three or four manifest freights. The coal trains were led by three big orange and black BNSF locomotives with two more in the middle and two pushing on the rear. Our train never stopped moving although we often slowed to get past the freight. We also passed numerous westbound trains waiting in sidings.

Jody and I ate boxed dinners from Galesburg and washed them down with Stella Artois beer recommended by our carefree lounge guy. Jody retired about 10PM while I stared out the sightseer lounge windows until we passed Lincoln, NE, at 1:30AM an hour and a half down. A notable sight was Tom Osborne Stadium adorned by a huge red "N".

I awoke from fitful sleep at 6:30AM (Mountain Time). No. 5 was between McCook, NE, and Fort Morgan, CO. Post-Denver passengers were asked to wait until after the train left town for breakfast in the diner due to the crush of Denver-bound passengers who wanted to eat before de-training. However, because No. 5 was late we got into the diner pre-Denver about 7:30. Breakfast is our favorite Amtrak meal, and we weren't disappointed. My scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns, wheat toast and coffee were cooked just right and still hot upon arrival. Jody's Old Railroad French Toast was equally good.

The service was great and we were allowed to linger over refilled cups of coffee until the train reached Union Station. Our Denver-bound table companion was a young man who had relocated there because of "life-style considerations." He seems to have hiked every major national park and skied or snowboarded all the mountainous ones plus European locations. While on a business trip to New York, he decided to return by train instead of flying. He was especially pleased with the Zephyr which he compared to the better European trains he knew. I was equally pleased when he said Amtrak was henceforth his preferred mode whenever time permitted.

The normal fifty-five-minute wait in Denver was cut short and the Zephyr headed out through the tangle of yard tracks at Utah Junction and then stopped dead for forty minutes while freight trains and switching movements flowed by. Finally we were admitted to the old D&RGW (Rio Grande) main line now part of the giant Union Pacific system. Ahead we could see the magnificent front range of the Rocky Mountains through the smog.

Jody and I grabbed the last two side-by-side seats in the lounge car for our Rocky Mountain passage. Two volunteer guides sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and Amtrak narrated the highlights. They introduced themselves as experts in rail and local history, geology, flora and fauna. One or the other kept up running commentary on those aspects of the mountainous environment through which we passed until Grand Junction. I especially enjoyed their commentary on the history and construction of the Rio Grande and other Colorado railroads. According to the Zephyr's timetable, the California State Railroad Museum provides narrators between Reno and Sacramento; there was no mention of our Rocky Mountain guides.

Upon leaving Denver, we began the winding ascent into the mountains via S curves, switchbacks and twenty-two tunnels, the culmination being the 6.2 mile Moffat Tunnel near the continental divide at 9,239 feet above sea level. The Moffat Tunnel was completed in 1927 after four years of construction and costs that soared from an original estimate of $6 million to $15.6 million. The first train passed through in February 1928.

Conceived in 1902 by David Moffat, the tunnel was delayed because of obstructionist tactics by rival railroads and the city of Pueblo, CO, until 1922 when bond money was raised by the city of Denver. The Moffat tunnel enabled the Rio Grande to avoid a circuitous route over the 10,424-feet high Tennessee Pass and shortened the mileage to Salt Lake City by 176 miles.

Our passage, first through snow-capped mountains and then canyons dug by the Colorado River and erosion, was "awesome." We clung to our lounge seats until the conductor kindly asked us and others to yield them to passengers standing in the aisle. Most amusing were rafters on the Colorado River who mooned the train. This is a summer tradition, our guide said, and Amtrak folks now call this stretch "Moon River." A similar tradition along an Amtrak line in California was nixed by the cops this summer.

We overheard a Swiss family compare what they were seeing to the Alps and reckoned it was different but just as beautiful. They recommended that Americans touring Switzerland "take our excellent trains" rather than rent a car and miss the scenery. A young French couple next to us were struck by the area's geology. The young woman had a sketch book and drew the outdoor scene, as well as one of the Zephyr passing through the canyons. I told her to send that one to Trains magazine.

Grand Junction came at 5:15 only an hour late thanks to the UP hold on all but one of the many freights we passed after Denver. We regretfully got off and joined my brother-in-law as No. 5 moved off towards Utah.

After two days of hard (for me) mountain hiking in the Gunnison National Forest, we obtained our rental car and headed south to Durango on Highway 50/550 aka the "million dollar highway" since it cost a million dollars a mile to build in the 1920s. The trip down, through the high passes of the San Juan Mountains, was scary/spectacular, what with jagged snow-covered mountains and very steep drop-offs.

The next day, we rode the 9:45AM Durango and Silverton narrow-gauge tourist train to Silverton after a very aggravating mix up in our reservations and losing a planned departure on the 8:15 train. As the chunky 2-8-2 lugged our seven-car train into the mountains, I cooled down and got into the scenery, the steam whistle, the inimitable sounds of a moving steam locomotive, and the old-time narrow gauge consist. The forty- mile trip takes over three hours but is worth every minute. Especially great was our run on ledges high above the Animas River raging through rapids. The train commissary car features a full bar with tasty local microbrews. At Silverton I found a store selling train memorabilia and bought a number of good-looking vintage posters for the Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum in Calera, Alabama.

Going back to Durango we were serenaded by frequent blasts of the whistle and I took photos of the Mikado's hard working main rods and valve gear. Disappointingly, I missed seeing a black bear watching the train about fifty feet from the tracks.

In the evening we drove south from Durango on a beautiful, grassy plateau where packs of horses frolicked in the cool dusk. The next day we lunched at a restored Fred Harvey/Santa Fe railroad hotel in Winslow, AZ, called La Posada. It was built in 1929 by the Fred Harvey Co. and designed by famous architect Mary Jane Colter to host Santa Fe excursionists headed for the Navajo nation. In 1957 it became a Santa Fe office complex; the present owners restored it in the 1990s. Today it is a National Historic Landmark and a beautiful example of the Southwestern/Spanish mission building style favored by the Santa Fe.

We enjoyed an excellent meal in the old-style dining room overlooking the BNSF main line 50 yards from the back of the hotel. Because La Posada is favored by rail buffs, the management placed a monitor with a map of the BNSF's Winslow subdivision in the lobby. On it you can see train movements into and out of the subdivision in real time. In addition to train watching, you can still do the Navajo nation and kitschy Route 66-style stuff in Winslow.

We spent four days at the Grand Canyon, bunking in Williams, AZ, 60 miles from the National Park. At Williams, Grand Canyon visitors arriving on the Southwest Chief de-train and may then ride the Grand Canyon Railway tourist train into the Park.

Our reaction to the canyon view from the South Rim trail was, at first, "haven't we seen this incredible sight a thousand times?" -- as in photos and paintings. Then we realized this miles-wide, deep gash in the earth, full of sculptured plateaus, mesas and side canyons, was real and beyond understanding. No wonder nearly five million people a year come to gape (thirty percent hike down into the canyon, with ten percent reaching the bottom ).

English seemed to be the fifteenth language. I was glad to see all the slim, trim foreigners because they were reducing our trade deficit. We overheard French and English couples say it was cheaper to come here than vacation in Greece. I expected very hot weather, but along the rim the temperature never exceeded 82F, and night temps were in the low 60s. However, a mile below at the Colorado River the highs passed 100F. I want to return ASAP on the Southwest Chief, my favorite Amtrak train.

The return to Grand Junction was via Monument Valley, Hollywood's favorite site for Western movies, and Lake Powell where the Grand Junction in-laws met us with their boat for a cruise on that 145-mile-long artificial wonder.

On July 21 we boarded No.6, the eastbound California Zephyr, on time at 11:30AM. We had reserved an economy room in one of the three high-level sleeping cars. Our room was on the lower level flanked by the Family Room at one end and the Handicapped Room at the other which was occupied by a physically challenged young man and his Amish family. The consist was the mirror image of our westbound train, and, no surprise, No.6 was sold out to Chicago.

Lunch in the diner was a mediocre tuna salad sandwich, but we enjoyed the company of two young men from the San Francisco Bay area traveling east to join the Coast Guard. Jody asked their opinion of Gov. Schwarzenegger. They hemmed and hawed but finally said he was doing OK. Superior to our meals was the good natured performance of the diner's two servers and one server/steward. Those three did an absolutely great job of pacifying hungry passengers who kept the dining car busy until late afternoon.

After lunch we watched canyon scenery slip by in the sightseer lounge. This car was configured differently with tables occupying half the car and swivel chairs the other. No volunteer guides were aboard and the lounge attendant was all business--no humor or banter. Sleepiness drove us to our room for a nap and afterwards we felt so comfortable that we viewed the Rockies from the comfort and privacy of our cozy room.

Small solar panels facing the sun lined the route. I think they generate electricity for power switches. The multitude of UP coal trains, inter-modals and manifest freights gave No.6 the right of way and the lights of Denver appeared in the distance and down on the plains at 6:45, an hour before our scheduled arrival.

We had thirty-five minutes to roam the wonderful old Union Station. Except for train indicators for the Zephyr, six Thruway buses, and a light rail connection, the station must have looked the same in 1950. Old signs are still up for Pullman ticket holders, Western Union, and Information. Out the front door are restored nineteenth-century buildings given over to restaurants and bars for the young and affluent. Coors Field is just down the street.

The waiting room was packed with waiting passengers and tickets were taken there by three Amtrak employees, coach passengers lined up on the left side of a table and sleeping car passengers on the right. A fourth sleeping car was coupled to the back of No. 6 to accommodate the overflow crowd. What a happy sight! When re-boarding I noticed our train was flanked by private car Colorado Pine on one side and the winter ski train, in Rio Grande colors, on the other.

Demand for dinner in the diner was such that our 8:30 reservation was pushed back to 9:30 when we had the pleasure of schmoozing with a young woman massage therapist from San Francisco heading to a family reunion in Minnesota via a Greyhound connection in Omaha, and an elderly widower en route to Omaha. My flat iron steak was scrumptious and the side veggies were hot yet not overcooked. The service was exemplary despite the constant crush. The only negative was the unfortunate exhaustion of red wine and most beer labels. Too bad Amtrak can't re-stock the lounge and diner in Denver.

We turned in early and I watched the darkened flatlands of eastern Colorado fly by in a narrow but comfortable bed. Sleep came without great difficulty. When I came fully awake around 6:30 the friendly car attendant had made coffee and was busy attending to the Amish family. No 6 was an hour late and we ate another great breakfast with Omaha in view accompanied by a mother and her teen age daughter from California going to a family reunion in Mississippi. They would connect with the City of New Orleans in Chicago.

The Zephyr's passage across Southern Iowa was swift and uneventful. We relaxed in the privacy of our room, napping and gazing at the pretty green hills of Iowa in mid-summer. There was time for lunch because the train was then an hour and a half late. We sat across from a talkative young woman lawyer and her father from Palo Alto, CA, heading to Dad's old hometown in Wisconsin. They were happy to be on the train and, to Jody's delight, shared her political opinions. Lunch was a better-than-average cheeseburger that kept me fueled on our auto trek back to Birmingham. The Mississippi River still extended deep into Illinois. If the area were urbanized we might have experienced a Katrina-like disaster.

Galesburg popped up at 3:15PM. Our car was still parked unscathed in front of the depot. Overall, we were privileged to have had two exceptional train rides. I hope this is what Amtrak passengers are now enjoying across the country.

David Coombs
Birmingham, AL.

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