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From the West to the Heartland on the Zephyr

Aboard the Zephyr, the view of eastern Utah from a sleeper car feels wide and dreamlike. Aboard the Zephyr, the view of eastern Utah from a sleeper car feels wide and dreamlike. (PHOTO BY STEVE MACONE FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
Email|Print| Text size + By Steve Macone
Globe Correspondent / March 9, 2008

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. - An Amish man spots elk on the ridge. The train is stopped just outside town and for 15 minutes passengers in the observation car point and guide one another's eyes: "See those trees there, now follow the ridge up . . ." and "I still don't . . . oh!" "My husband has eyes like an eagle," the wife, in a blue dress and bonnet, says.

The train crawls forward. Technically that was a delay, though no one complains. These are not people with meetings to make.

My girlfriend, Kate, is in our sleeper car watching an episode of "The Office" on a portable DVD player. And that's just fine. During her last four months in China, India, and Argentina, she has been checking things out nonstop. At the end of her study abroad program we met in San Francisco to take the California Zephyr - considered by some the most beautiful rail line in the country - the entire 2,438 miles to Chicago, with a connecting train to her hometown, Toledo, Ohio. The ride is a chance for Kate to catch her breath.

So early one Monday morning we caught our 8:35 train in Emeryville, Calif. We boarded and checked out our room with its sink and shower/bathroom, a fold-down table, electrical sockets, reading lights, a long bench seat, and window. As we passed through Roseville, Calif., a volunteer from the railroad museum announced on the intercom that it was originally called Junction and was renamed after the most popular girl in town.

Train travel is different: not quite the decadence of a cruise, but a huge step up from a plane. Wake-up calls are available. Stewards bring the newspaper and fresh towels and fold down your bed. It's travel without the motion sickness and the high-pitched droning of jet engines. You trade a longer trip for a sense of having actually traveled through an area. While I tend to keep to myself on planes, on trains I find myself in wonderful conversations. On our trip there's an Associated Press reporter just back from Iraq and a Vermont woman on a cross-country trip after selling her yarn business.

By the time we're called to the dining car for lunch the first day, we are crossing the Sierra Nevadas where improbable amounts of snow cling to the evergreens. The Zephyr winds along the Colorado River and chugs over the Continental Divide.

Over the course of the trip we pass through Sacramento; Reno; Ruby Canyon on the Colorado-Utah border; Omaha; and Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and we see cows, horses, bald eagles, deer, and marshes full of ducks.

We spend 56 hours on the Zephyr, from early Monday to late Wednesday. The stops are short and spread out. In Grand Junction, Colo., despite a conductor's warning, a man dons headphones and goes jogging on a 15-minute break. The longest stop, in Denver, lasts about 35 minutes, and we hustle to the Common Grounds coffee shop where 20 minutes of Internet use costs $2 and slam poetry is free.

Amtrak is undergoing menu changes on our trip. Early on, Kate's steak and my game hen (included in the price of a sleeper car or roomette) exceed expectations, but we're still in Utah when our options become burger or veggie burger. No cheeseburger. They are out of cheese.

The heat breaks, but our car attendant, P.J., brings blankets. When they run out of dessert, Ruthie, who is on her way to visit family in Chicago, hands out homemade cookies.

And on the last night, as we pass through the 6.2-mile Moffat Tunnel in Colorado, we get comically overdressed for our dinner of burgers. Because we want to. And because there is nothing else to do.

Except go home.

Steve Macone, a writer in Medford, can be reached at stevemacone@gmail.com.

If You Go

California Zephyr

amtrak.com; 800-USA-RAIL

All rooms require purchase of a coach seat as well, at about $150 one way. A roomette costs $262-$634, a full bedroom is $554-$1,377, a family bedroom for two adults and two small children is $452-$1,117, a handicap-accessible bedroom is $223-$539. (This is only available to people with disabilities, but if no one reserves it, it goes on sale to the general public 14 days before the trip.) Rooms include meals.

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