Thanksgiving is good to train travel. When we arrived at the Amtrak station in Martinez last Sunday morning to begin a 24-hour ride train ride to Colorado, more than 40 people were inside. Most waited on the long wooden benches. Some bought muffins at the snack bar. A few lined up at the ticket counter a half hour before the California Zephyr chugged along the Carquinez Strait shoreline and made the long winding turn to Martinez.
My wife and I were ready for the scenic, slower paced way to travel through the snow-covered Sierra foothills and mountains without the hassle of driving.
Taking the train was also the simplest way for us to get to our stop in Grand Junction, Colorado – an hour’s car ride from our destination in Hotchkiss – while the nearest major airports in Salt Lake City and Denver would have left us several hours car ride away.
Taking the train also provided a simple departure. Our daughter dropped us off at the Amtrak station curb about 30 yards from the ticket counter, where we checked our bags and then waited on benches for the train.
No metal detectors like the airports. No checks to see if our water bottles had too much liquid. (We could drink EBMUD water all the water to Colorado.) We didn’t even have to take our shoes at a security checkpoint.
Once the train was rolling, we watched the mosaic of marshes, grasslands, sloughs and creeks in the Suisun Marsh. One shack there seemed like it was barely standing. Two more modern buildings surrounded by small boat docks and a parking lot for sports utility vehicles must have been duck hunting clubs where hunters spend the night and set out before dawn to hunt.
Above Roseville in the foothills, splotches of snow start showing up along the tracks and in the many fenced enclosures for horses.
More ground was covered with snow as we chugged uphill. Animal tracks went here and there along the railway. One set of animal tracks looked so big we thought it must have come from a bear.
In 1952 near the Yuba Gap, our train history docent told us, heavy snow trapped a passenger train for four days before rescuers were able to dig their way to the train.
Once freed, the train passengers got a car ride home, the history docent told us over the loudspeaker system on board.
In another spot, our docent said our train tracks are on canyon walls some 2,000 feet above the American River below. “If not for the clouds, you would be able to see it below.”
The passengers gave some oohh’s and aahh’s . My wife was relieved we cannot see the 2,000-foot drop below, as are some others in the lounge car where we went for better viewing through bigger windows.
The train went dark temporarily when we passed through a series of some 15 tunnels leading to and near Donner Pass, the famous immigrant party that took to cannibalism when trapped during the winter.
I shudder when I think of the harsh conditions those pioneers faced when horse and wagons were the way to cross the Sierra.
It’s way easier these days riding the Amtrak train, where we can order food and drinks in the snack bar. The dining car serves steak and seafood dinners for those who make reservations.
Both the dining car and lounge car are a good way to find conservation with other train passengers. Several told us they prefer train travel to auto or planes because it’s a more relaxed way to go as long as they have time for the slower pace.