Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Train 5: the Rockies

The California Zephyr is proudly described by Amtrak as one of the most scenic routes on their network. And not without reason. Within thirty minutes of leaving Denver, our train is begining it's long climb up and into the Rocky Mountains. The very light snow that we had in Denver yesterday night has fallen more heavily here, with a few inches of fresh, pure snow on the mountainside. The train rises through fields and then into forest, climbing amogst threes that have had the perfect volume of fresh snow to lightly weigh down their branches. We turn into a tight S curve to gain height, the train's two locomotives hauling eight carraiges and two box cars up gradients that vary from 2% to 4% during the day.

The view from the Sightseer car is spectacular. As we climb alongside the steep hillside, it's suddenly possible to look up through the roof lights at the mountainside above us. On a clear day, which we unfortunately do not have, it would be possible to look back onto Denver on the plateau below us. However, I'm more than happy to have reached the mountains after fresh snowfall, which has given just enough bright contrast with the still apparent deen green of the non deciduous trees, and the damp grey of the boulders and rocks on the mountainside. I'm trying very hard indeed to resist the urge to photograph everything I see. Amtrak could make a tidy profit by selling digital camera memory cards in the lounge car - forgot disposable cameras, everyone here has a digital camera and they'd probably be prepared to pay $50 for a $30 card if they got half way on this trip and ran out of camera space.

We pass above the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons factory and then the Gross Reservoir (a pretty appropriate name for something so damn huge...). We have to hold for about twenty minutes in a siding to allow a descending freight train to pass. It eventually rumbles by, with three locomotives at the front of the coal train, two in the middle and at least one at the end. If carrying thousands of tonnes of coal up and mountain is daunting, consider taking it down the other side safely.

The train climbs even further, winding in and out along the mountain side to follow the steadiest gradient. Soon, we turn into the mountain range itself, no longer running with the plateau behind us or to the right. Fast running streams appear below us, and the trees become more dense. Suddenly we are in a stunning beautiful winter landscape, with just the right volume of snow to reveal the beauty of this rugged landscape.

We continue to climb, and I continue to gawp out of the window, trying not to waste this experience by photographing everything...


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