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Mr. Toy's Train Travel Tales

The California Zephyr, August 2000

Page 2

Wednesday, August 9 continued....

After they boarded Liz told the tale of why their train was so late. It was two hours late when it picked them up in Salem. Evidently it had struck some debris on the tracks somewhere north of Salem. Unfortunately it caused some hidden damage which Amtrak didn’t know about until later. Somewhere in the night the entire train lost electrical power. Liz said it got so stuffy that she spent much of the night in the vestibule with the windows open. The problem was isolated in the baggage car. At Dunsmuir they took the baggage car from the front of the train to the rear and power was restored. Unfortunately, when the baggage car was reattached to the rear it was done too hard, and a woman standing in a vestibule in the last car was thrown off her feet and had to be hospitalized.


I then went to the lounge and got a number for our lunch table. We were seated in the diner at 1:00 as we started ascending into the mountains. When our server brought us our drinks he poured two sodas at the same time while we were moving. That was surely a skill he had taken time to develop!

I had great expectations for the food, but my first impression was a little disappointing. I had a cheeseburger. The meat was juicy and nicely seasoned, but it had sort of an institutional taste to it. The bun was cold and a little dry. It might have tasted better if I was really hungry, but I wasn't. But they didn't skimp on the potato chips. The plate had a pile of 'em!

After lunch we went into the lounge car. This was about 2:15pm. The car was maybe three fourths full, so finding a seat was not difficult. The on-board tour guide announced that we were passing above the American River Canyon. It was heavily forested, and not particularly rugged, but it was still impressive to see the river 2,000 feet below us! But due to the trees you had to look fast because it would soon disappear.

While in the lounge car I could look back on the curves and counted 7 freight cars. We watched the views for awhile then I had a sudden feeling that I hadn’t gotten enough sleep recently so I decided it was best to go back to our car.

In the Sierra

Near Donner Pass

At 2:55 we passed the westbound Zephyr. A half hour later we entered the tunnel across Donner Summit, our highest point in the Sierra at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet. The tunnel is 2 miles long took four minutes to get through. During that time we smelled a slight odor of diesel from the locomotives, but nothing serious.

Donner Lake

Donner lake

At 3:36 we were passing Donner Lake. As I looked ahead I saw we had four coach cars. I later realized one was the crew dorm car, called a "transition sleeper" because one end of the car has the door at a high level while the other is at a lower level to meet the one on the baggage car. It makes the "transition" between bi-level Superliner equipment and older single-level cars.

3:53we stopped in Truckee. I saw a store across the street called "Truckee Train & Toy." How appropriate! Then as we left Truckee I saw a couple across the river was waving at our train from the deck of their house.

Soon after I discovered the complimentary sodas at the top of the stairs. First Class has its advantages!



We hit Reno at 4:57. We stopped well past the station like in Emeryville. I asked P.J. why we had to do that and she said it was because the "Amtrak Express" cars (the first time I had heard the term) had to clear a street intersection. Our car was stopped right in the middle of an intersection. It had crossing gates, and I was amused to find a smaller version across the sidewalk. Shortly after Reno we made a service stop in Sparks. We were allowed to get off here and stretch our legs. It was very hot, and not very pleasant. But I thought I should get used to hot weather so I stayed outside while I could. there wasn't much to do. The building was off-limits. The only thing there was a phone booth and several passengers lined up to use it.

Later I explored the car behind us. It was much newer than ours, and much cooler, I noticed. The color scheme was blues and greens. From the back door I could look over the tops of the express cars behind us. On the way back I tried out the upstairs rest room in our car. It was a little roomier than the ones downstairs. It occupied the same amount of space but the toilet faced the end of the car instead of the door, offering an extra square foot of floor space. I liked this one better, so did my sister.


Around 6:30 we went to dinner. The four of us got split between two tables. That was nice so we could meet new people. Liz & I sat with a man and his twenty-something son. They were from Maine. They had been visiting friends in San Jose. His wife didn’t like to take the train and the guys didn’t like to fly, so they split their travel. We later realized they were in compartment #12, right behind us.

I ordered the Barbequed half-chicken. I had a choice of baked potato, mashed potato, or rice. I chose mashed potatoes. The chicken was fantastic. Juicy and tender. The potatoes, however, were seasoned with something I didn’t like. It may have been horseradish. For veggies they served pea pods, which tasted a little buttery. Not bad. There was also some creamed cauliflower, which was kind of bland. I'm usually very active. On the train I didn't do anything to work up an appetite, so I didn't eat as much as usual. But I tore through the chicken because it was soooo tasty. I had some apple pie for dessert. That was great, too.

During dinner we passed through a big wide flat valley of sand and golden scrub brush. Off on the left side of the train (my right, as I was seated backwards) we saw a shallow gorge which later widened to a small lake. Too bad I didn't have my camera at the table.

After dinner there was some talk about how warm our sleeping car was. My wife mentioned that the air conditioning was not working properly. I hadn’t really noticed, but I was told that some people were complaining.

At 8:05 we were in Winnemucca. I stepped to the door of our car and saw a black and white kitty watching me and P.J. That was the only sign of life.


Around 9:30 we got the beds set up. P.J. helped Mom & Liz make their beds, but we waited awhile to do ours. As Liz and Mom were ready to get into bed, we ran into a problem. I sort of expected something like this would happen. I mentioned to Liz earlier that my wife and and I, being of relatively small stature, might have to take the top bunks because I had trouble picturing Liz crawling up there. She was a little insulted by my remark and she was determined to prove me wrong. But she’s not too limber, and getting in is a little counter-intuitive. You have to step on the top step, then aim your head at the pillow and roll in on your shoulder. Once she finally got in she had some trouble with the fear of heights.

My wife was ready to settle in, so she took the top bunk above Mom. We got Liz set up in our lower bunk, and later I would take the top. But I'm a night owl, so I wasn't ready. I set the toiletry kit under Liz's bed, so I could reach it easily later.

At 10:08 we stopped in Elko. I then went up to the lounge. Star Wars, The Phantom Menace was on the TV. It was about half-way through. I sat down and watched. I wasn’t paying much attention, but I didn’t have to, because I knew the story and could catch up any time.

There were a lot of distractions that made watching difficult. It was difficult to hear the dialogue with all of the train noises. We were moving pretty fast and the car was rocking quite a bit. I watched the doors between the cars and tried to figure out how much we were swaying. Sometimes I could see through the door windows that the door of the diner was offset several inches from the door of the lounge car. Maybe as much as six to eight inches near the top. I figured that if the diner swayed three to four inches one way, and our car swayed three to four inches the opposite way, that would account for the six to eight inches.

After the movie all but two or three people cleared out of the lounge car. I found pieces of a New York Times on the ledge which I proceeded to read. Eventually I went to bed. As I passed through the diner a conductor was typing away on a laptop at the last table. As I passed he asked somewhat gruffly "Are you a sleeping car passenger?" When I said yes, he said "OK."

Before I went to bed I set my watch to Mountain Time. I crawled up into the bunk and then got under the covers. I discovered that I could peek through the crack at the edge of the bunk through the window below me and see a bit of the ground moving beneath us. It was pretty warm up there, and I had trouble getting to sleep. I checked my watch every now and then, and the last time I remember looking it was around 2:00am Mountain, 1:00 Pacific.

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