Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Train 5: Ruby Canyon, CO

Train 5: Grand Junction, CO

A little after five o'clock, and not much more than one hour late, we arrive in Grand Junction, Colorado. The scenery has finally begun to settle down such that I can look away from the window without feeling that I missing something incredible. The land has flattened out, and now we're spending more time looking into people's back yards as we race through the small villages and towns that do not have station stops. While I'm not a big fan of trains, cars will always disrtract me. A rail trip through the USA is, therefore, a good distraction, because not only do we see a lot of cars shooting past, but we also see a lot rusting ones falling apart at the bottom of yards or pushed to one side of properties next to rail lines. My new Dutch companion on this trip asks a question which she maybe has already answered: "Why do Americans keep all their old cars? In the Netherlands we simply don't have the space..."

Grand Junction is lucky to have an attractive old railway station, but it's not in great shape and it's been fenced off. Amtrak seem to prefer pre-fabricated buildings or concrete boxes as railway stations...

At Grand Junction a couple of enterprising locals have opened a kiosk on the station forecourt, and with the blessing of Amtrak it seems they have turned the Grand Junction stop of the California Zephyr into more than just a cigarette break. Little bags crammed full of grapes or vegetables are sold for passengers tired of the normal on-board food selection. Cold dreaks, souvenirs, over the counter drugs, postcards and other odds and ends are also sold in the little shop. I buy a bag of fresh, juicy grapes and exercise with a walk to the front of our train. Again, it consists of two enormous blue and silver locomotives, a crew sleeper car, two sleepers, a restaurant, a sightseer lounge/cafe car, three coaches and two Amtrak box cars.

As I walk back towards my coach, I pass the two engineers who are driving our train. Childhood dreams of becoming a train driver are relived, and I regret not hanging around near the engine long enough to take their photo in the door of the cab (which seems to be about two metres off the ground). I've been taking black and white photos with my 35mm camera on this trip, trying to take portraits of just a few of the people I'm meeting. It's not easy taking photos of people, because everyone reacts in some way when they see a camera pointed at them, and my lovely old Olympus OM10 (while being a gorgeous manual camera to use) can seem a little intimidating when it's pointed directly at you.

The engine fires it's horn twice, the conductors call 'all aboard' (yes, they really say that over here) and we get back on. After leaving Grand Junction we say farewell to Colorado with one final scenic treat - the Ruby Canyon.


Train 5: in Glenwood Springs

Train 5: Glenwood Springs

The afternoon passes, and we continue our twists and turns through the canyons of Colorado. Highway 70 joins us for a section of the line through Glenwood Canyon, and suddenly it's not just our line that is snaking in and out of the rocky scenery. The highway is a massive construction of concrete that ripples through the canyon, sometimes above us and sometimes below us; sometimes behind us and sometimes across the river. Along it's base a small cycle path has been constructed, and we see bikers from time to time pedalling beneath the massive piers or alongside the highway.

Just after three o'clock, we reach Glenwood Springs. Obligatory station stop mode kicks in: mostly everyone gets off to drink in fresh and unconditioned air, the smokers are ready with their cigarettes before we've even stopped moving, and James attempts to take photographs of the train in the scenery. It's a warm day, and we bask in the sunshine for as long as possible before hopping back on board. It's hard to believe we're still in Colorado...


Train 5: the California Zephyr

Train 5: Colorado

The winter snow show continues for an hour or so, and we pass in and out of the tunnels that were carved into the sides of the mountains when it became too difficult to run the railway track along the side of the mountain. The longest tunnel comes about two hours after we leave Denver. It's the famous Moffat Tunnel, which carved 100km off the distance by train from Denver to Salt Lake City when it opened in 1928. It's also the highest point anywhere on Amtrak's network. We rumble through, catching dust and smoke blown into the carraiges every time someone passes between the cars.

When we emerge at Winter Park, suddenly the snow has begun to recede, and the mountains are revealing more of their green forests and red earth. We pick up speed across a plateau surrounded by mountains, running alongside a river and passing through small communities that have settled here, in some of the harshest parts of the country.

Another hour passes, and there is no trace of snow. It is not just the landscape which changes on this journey - the climate and weather shifts as well, and we're soon rolling along narrow gorges and rugged valleys, high above the crashing waters of the Colorado River and far below shimmering peaks. I am left completely aghast by this scenery. In planning this trip, it was strangely the most scenic route I had the least expectations or excitement for. It's not even the middle of the day, and I am in awe of the scenery we have passed through.
The Byers and Gore Canyons pass, and sitting in the relative luxury of this train I am left astonished at the feats of endurance that explorers, immigrants and settlers would have undergone when discovering this rugged landscape for the first time. In the Sightseer Lounge Car, which has become the social hub of the entire train, we are constantly swapping seats to get better views above us and below us, and to compare details on maps and in guidebooks. I've brought my lunch with me, and I ate with my new acquaintances, our eyes fixed on the amazing landscape that we are rolling past.


Seen from a train: the Rockies

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...


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.

Denver to San Francisco