Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Train 5: departing Denver

Waking before six, I lie on the sofa looking out into the grey morning. It's snowing ever so lightly. As I do soften on my travels, I begin the day just thinking about where I am, how I got here, and where I'm going next. I've now traveled over 3300km, and today I will begin the next leg my trip. I'm rejoining train 5 for for almost 2250km more traveling. I haul myself upright, and have a shower. I already have the excitement that precedes another big departure, so I don't spend too long packing and getting ready. Besides, I don't want to overstay my welcome with my kind host. We have a bite to eat, I leave the token gift that all my hosts will receive as a thank-you for the hospitality and kindness, and then I head out into the morning.

There's a very slim layer of snow on the ground, and I crunch across the bridges towards the station for my train. Although I haven't used it much, Denver appears to have a pretty solid public transit system. As I walk towards the station, I have to dodge streetcars, hybrid-electric shuttle buses and commuter buses arriving from the suburbs. Impressive for an American city.

Union Station in Denver has been restored and refurbished, and it's very much a living and working train station. It's a major stop for trains 5 and 6, the daily California Zephyr that goes east to Chicago and west to Emeryville, as well as the seasonal Ski Train into the mountains. There is already quite a number of passengers waiting in the big ticket hall, which is furnished with attractive high backed waiting benches. I check-in for the train, change a few tickets that I won't be needing, and sit down to wait. There is a mix of long distance travelers like me, perhaps doing this as a one off or once-a-year-trip, as well as a number of people who are traveling within Colorado, perhaps no further than Grand Junction, which we should reach this afternoon.

The inbound train is a little late, but soon we are called forward, and without any boarding call people start to let themselves through the underpass and up to track one. The familiar imposing silhouette of our big grey Amtrak train is waiting for us. Our tickets have already been collected and we've been given seat tags for us to carry on board and fix above our seats. Used on most Amtrak trains, these little slips of paper carry a three letter code to tell the conductor which station you are traveling to. As time passes on a trip, they're also useful for finding out where your fellow passengers are going as well.

We're late leaving Denver, and the train doesn't begin to pull forward until about 08:50. I've parked myself in the Sightseer Lounge Car, which is just ahead of my coach carraige. The car begins to fill up in preparation for the most scenic part of the California Zephyr's run. The train is timetabled to give passengers the best daylight hours for viewing the scenery, and I was surprised to see that while in Denver the windows of the Lounge Car were given a quick clean by a man with a squeedgy brush. A nice touch, just a shame he didn't really make them much clearer for us.

As we pick up speed out of Denver, conversations begin amongst passengers in the lounge car. Some are regulars, others are doing this for the first time. Those who have traveled along the line before are pointing out which way to be looking and which side of the car will be the best to view the scenery from. My complaints about the previous Sightseer car (browner than... well, a brown thing) have evidently been noted by Amtrak, and we've been given a train with a refurbished lounge car. It's much lighter in here, and although not all of the swivel chairs swivel, it's a definite improvement. Nice to think that someone with authority at Amtrak is reading my blog (ok, maybe not, but it's a nice idea...).

I'm sitting close to two other passengers: Craig who is a photographer returning to New Mexico and Fleur, a Dutch student traveling coast to coast to visit friends and to see America. Compared with my last run on this train into Denver, the atmosphere on today's Zephyr is much more friendly. And I think in part it's because of the scenery we're about to travel through. I get a coffee and cinnamon roll from the café downstairs, and settle in for a scenic ride.

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