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.