1:09pm

Fri September 21, 2012
Reporter's Notebook

Romance Of The Rails: A Ride On The California Zephyr

A reporter, a Harley riding gas station owner, and a university student from England meet in a train car...

It sounds like the start of a joke, but this was my introduction to Amtrak's California Zephyr, which originates in Emeryville, CA, and terminates in the windy city, Chicago IL.

Why subject myself to an 18 hour train journey? Honestly, to see if train travel is still as romantic a notion as I have made it out to be.

I can tell you, it's nothing like flying... and not for the obvious reasons.

This is a unique transcontinental journey traveling the same rails that the original California Zephyr rode during the golden age of railroading.

Postcard photo of the California Zephyr prior to her first 1949 run.
Credit Lyman Cox / Western Pacific Railroad (public domain)

Some take the train because it's cheap, like my seat mate, an older gentleman with a unique career. Norman just turned 80 back in April and he drives brand new buses, RV's, and semi's from the factory to dealerships. Then he rides Amtrak back to his home in Iowa, and does it all again 48 hours later.

Greg, from Glenwood Springs. He's losing his gas station in an eminent domain fight.
Credit Nathan Heffel

Some ride the train seeking an escape, like Greg Beightel. Greg is heading out east to pick up his Harley Davidson motorcycle, and plans to ride east hitting as many famous blues/jazz bars as he can.

Greg's gas station in Glenwood Springs is right in the path of a new highway bridge project, and he's dealing with the prospect of eminent domain and the loss of the business he's built for over 30 years.

And some do it, because they simply can. Like Jake, from North London. Right out of University, Jake was invited to 10 Downing Street to meet the Prime Minister (he showed me a picture).

At the last minute, Jake scrapped his plane ticket back to England for an Amtrak Railpass, and is slowly traveling to New York on the rails before flying home to London, because..."why not?"

There are hundreds of others on this train with just as many unique stories. And since we're all racing across the plains on this silver bullet, we're kind of being forced to get to know each other.

Editor's Note: Reporter Nathan Heffel is chronicling his ride on the California Zephyr, you can follow this series here. Next up: dinner with the Aussies and covertly drinking Stranahan's whiskey in the Lounge car during the night.

You can follow Nathan Heffel on Twitter: @Heffeln