Riding the Zephyr: #ThursdayDoors

Dirty back window of the Zephyr

From time to time I have to travel to Reno Nevada for family business, both pleasurable and otherwise. Reno is a four hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area that used to be a fairly pleasant.  You’d pass orchards, cow pastures and rice patties before hitting the always dramatic Sierra Nevadas.  However, over the years the orchards and cow pastures have been replaced with housing developments and industrial tracts leading to massive traffic headaches. So we opt for the train when possible.

The Zephyr departs from Oakland California and travels due east to Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha and finally ends its run in Chicago three days later. It is considered one of the most beautiful routes in the world. Below is Donner Lake as taken from the back of the train.

I’ve taken the Zephyr as far as Helper, a sooty outpost smack dab in the middle of Utah so named because it’s where “helper” engines are often added to give coal carrying trains the extra oomph they need to get through the Wasatch Mountains.

We generally catch the train in Martinez, the last point of departure in the Bay Area.  Martinez is an antique-shop town overlooking the Carquinez Strait.

From there the train crosses an old iron bridge and heads inland, passing low-lying swamps which provide homes for all sorts of species of birds and ducks.  It’s one of my favorite stretches, particularly in the Spring.

Another favorite stretch is just beyond Roseville as the train begins to climb up into the mountains.  The foothills are home to many ranches and on a Spring day, nothing beats the sight of horses romping through green pastures with their tails in the air.

In the mountains, the train passes through dozens of tunnels, many built to provide refuge during heavy snow storms.

For my husband, who is crazy about trains, we had an especially interesting trip through the mountains.  On Amtrak you’re assigned seating based on your destination.  Sometimes passengers for Reno are seated at the front of the train and sometimes they’re seated at the rear.  This trip we were seated in the very last car.

We’d just reached Colfax, a town in the high foothills, when the engineer ran past us on his way to the back door.  Then he opened the door and grabbed a hose.”Set to release?” he asked over the walkie talkie.  The next moment smoke erupted from the hose with a loud hissing sound that startled all the passengers.

It turns out there was a disabled freight train on the tracks ahead.  We would need to back down the track and switch over to the westbound track to get past the disabled train.  The engineer had been testing the brakes to prevent a runaway train.

Check out other exciting door adventures over at Norm’s Place.


44 thoughts on “Riding the Zephyr: #ThursdayDoors

    1. I will also opt for the train if I have the time. The seats are roomier, there’s a dining car and on the first day of a trip the crew is well rested and in a good mood. You don’t want to be on a train on the third day though.

  1. You know I love a train story! These are great doors, and this is a perfect time, as Saturday is National Train Day! Thanks for pushing all my buttons with this one 🙂

  2. I love trains. Sounds like you had quite an adventure. Glad the brakes worked. Your photos are lovely, I especially like the ones out the back of the train and the scenery is incredible.

    1. If the brakes hadn’t worked it would have been a different story! I was really lucky because they opened the back door and I was able to get clear shots.

  3. Train rides down here are a little different. Bandits remove tracks to derail trains and then they rob them of the cargo. La Bestia is the immigrant train that passes through my town. Migrants ride on top. Traffic is down due to Mexican government stopping many more folks on southern border. Majority of those people are fleeing bad deals/times further south. Passenger service in Mexico is now pretty much limited to Cooper Canyon. Too bad. The old Laredo Eagle was my favorite. It took you directly through the history of the 1910 revolution, which to this day marks every Mexican. Nice post and thanks. Duke

    1. That’s sad – the Old Laredo sounds interesting. The Amtrak is starting to have problems with rails being removed in the more remote parts of Nevada which makes taking the Zephyr through the desert at night even more adventurous. One thing you can also see from the train are the huge tent cities outside of Sacto. I can’t imagine how they will ever “clean them up.” I think they’re there to stay.

  4. Oh my! I love the elegant dishes and the idea of a diner car, Jan. The conductor photo and the tunnel were amazing ones. The first one out the back door of the Zephyr was great and realistic with dust included. 🙂 🎉 Great Thursday Doors post!
    Going to add you to my list. . . on this week’s post for my Thursday Doors. I’ll have tons more. . . on Saturday! 🚂

    1. Martinez is also the county seat and so in addition to antique shops there are many pawn shops and bail bondsmen. We generally have lunch in the dining car but we were on our way to a birthday celebration and so did not want to ruin our appetites.

  5. I really enjoyed this train trip to Reno, Jan. Your words took us to many stops, shared the sights and a bit of history, and were a true joy. Loved the photos too, especially the train track ones. Go Zephyr.

    1. In this Trump era the future of passenger trains is really iffy. I certainly hope they survive because it really is an elegant way to travel.

    1. You’re welcome! Yes, there are a lot of things that can go wrong when you have to share the rails with freight trains. Remarkably – they get the right away.

    1. Thank you Glyn for both the comment and the reblog. Driving through the valley (as they call the flat interior of California) has gotten really bad.

    1. They don’t have cabooses on the Amtrak – this was just the last car. I was lucky that they opened the back door at least for about ten minutes of so. Generally those doors are locked pretty solidly and you have to take pictures through a sooty window.

  6. Now this sounds like my kinds of train ride. We’ve stayed a few times at friend’s cabin just outside of Truckee. I remember being in or near Donner State Park and seeing train tracks leading into a tunnel on the side of a mountain. Perhaps it would have been the line this train uses?
    In any case I’d love to do this one day. Fun post Jan 🙂

    1. Thanks Norm. Probably. There’s only one line, the Union Pacific, that’s still active over the Donner Summit route. On the weekends a docent from the Sacramento railroad museum entertains the people in the observation car with stories about the railroad and the history of the area.

  7. A little bit of unexpected drama at the end of your train story! I think I would have been initially alarmed 😳
    You’re so lucky to have captured the photos from the last car. I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of riding in the last car … subway excluded.
    I noticed that the track pattern in the last photo appears quite different from any I’ve seen before.

  8. Thanks Joanne – that last picture was taken as we were backing down the tracks. We weren’t going very fast so it wasn’t at all scary. It’s more frightening when you’re high up in the Sierras on a narrow track!

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