Ottumwa to Sacramento and Back - By Train


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Apr 9, 2009
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Hope you'll give us a write up on your experience. The last time I went from Chicago to CA by train I was so young, I don't know if the fragments of memory are real or not. LOL Have thought it would be a great trip to try again.
I live a 2 hour drive from the closest Amtrak station, in Ottumwa, IA.
I left home early so I didn't have to hurry, and so I could eat dinner in Ottumwa before I got on the train. Doh! They don't serve Mexican food on the train.

I boarded in Ottumwa, IA and with the Zephyr on-time we pulled out @ 6:53 PM, a bit after sunset. The train left Chicago Union Station earlier in the day - at 2 PM. I rode in coach and there weren't many coach passengers so I had 2 seats to myself.
So it was dark as we railed across Iowa, Nebraska, and eastern Colorado, and I was asleep most of the time.

Once on boarded I fired up my laptop, stuck my GPS receiver in the window and started my GPS tracking software so I could see where we were, where they tracks ahead would take us, how fast we were going, on what compass heading, and at what altitude.

Next I got out my stainless steel, rubber bottomed, 6 oz wine glass and poured myself about 4 ounces of a highball I make at home (Canadian whisky, a couple dashes of bitters, a cherry and a little cherry syrup) I call a Soho after a neighborhood in the Manhattan area of NYC my youngest daughter lived in for several years.
Amtrak rules don't allow coach passengers to consume private stock alcohol at their seats or any other public area of the train.
So my private stock beverage was in a nondescript, 16 oz stainless steel container with a secure cap. The stiff nightcap helps one sleep in a coach seat.
If you're discrete and don't cause any problems, the on board staff (OBS) don't say anything even though it might be obvious what you're doing. Many coach passengers drink beer out of cans not available on the train, brand and/or size wise, with no problem. Setting a mostly full 5th of Jack Daniels in plain sight on the fold down table at your seat is another matter.
Sleeper berth passengers are allowed to consume private stock alcohol in the privacy of their sleeper berth.
I had a sleeper berth booked from Denver to Davis, CA.
So I also had a 16 oz container of Vodka Gimlet, a nice aperitif before dinner in my sleeper berth, and a bottle of B&B (Brandy & Benedictine) for after dinner. I had a 16 oz, high quality glass brandy snifter safely packed in my carry on for drinking the B&B. A 16 oz brandy snifter is shaped so when it is turned onto it side it forms a 1.5 oz container. The shape and extra size of the snifter hold the bouquet of 1.5 oz of the beverage so the smell can be savored before a sip is taken.

Because there were so few coach passengers the Train Attendant- Coach (TA-C ) had all 3 coach cars to service (some 228 seats). The train attendants have to be sure coach passengers got off when they were supposed to. Letting any passenger ride further than they paid to ride is a big no-no they call a 'carry by'. Train attendants only get to sleep on and off on a 6 day round trip of the California Zephyr.

I woke up before Denver (and sunrise) and walked my primary roller bag through the train from Coach to the car my sleeper berth was in I would be moving into once we got to Denver. Someone else was in the sleeper berth from Chicago to Denver. Which is why I had to ride in coach. By the time I decided to book the trip, all the sleeper berths were booked between Ottumwa and Denver. Though the Zephyr had 3 coach cars, it only had 2 sleeper berth cars and it takes fewer people (some 42 people) to fill a sleeper car compared to filling a coach car (76 people).

We were pulling into Denver about 30 minutes early, at just about sunrise.

Denver is a service stop.
They re-fuel the train in anticipation of the climb up the Front Range of the Rockies, stock up the dining car, take off the trash, wash the windows of the SSL and dining car, and do whatever else it is they do at a service stop.
I had breakfast in the dining car with 3 coach passengers, a young man and his son who were from Omaha riding the Zephyr to Salt Lake City, and a business man from Chicago also going to Salt Lake City.

In the dining car 4 people are seated at a table, so unless 4 people are traveling together you get different meal companions, which makes it easy to have a conversation during the meal. Over the course of 3 days and often seeing the same people in the train it starts to feel like a small community.

Having a sleep berth provided 3 benefits:
1. On night #2 I had a bed.
2. Dining car meals are included in the price of a sleeper berth.
3. On the California Zephyr the sleeper cars are on the end of the 'consist' and the last car has a window in the back (the railfan window) that lets me take photos out the back of the train - even though they don't wash that window at any point on the trip.
The Zephyr was pulling 2 private cars, and private cars always get hooked to the back of the train, so the scene out the rail fan window was a close following train car. It was a old, restored dome observation car, but the dome was in the way. Life's a beach sometimes.

So once settled into my Roomette I got ready to start taking photos.
The first major scenic subject is the Big 10 Curve at the base of the Front Range.
My sleeper berth was on the wrong side of the train to gets shots back towards Denver as we climbed the front range, but so was the rising, in your face, sun. So it wasn't all that big a loss.
The next big deal is the Moffat Tunnel and with the only front facing windows being in the engine at the front of the train, I was SOL.

I took photos as I wanted to and the light direction and quality allowed.
The train windows are tinted so metering a good exposure was iffy.
Once through the Moffat Tunnel and we stop to let passengers on and off in Fraser, CO, we then follow the Fraser River to Granby, CO ,the next stop, and then a couple of miles out of Granby we join up with the Colorado River about 30 miles from where it starts up on the upper west side of the Continental Divide.

The Zephyr follows the Colorado River for the next 250 miles or so. Being October the river was low and slow. I last rode the Zephyr the spring of 2015 and the Colorado was high and fast then. I need to next ride the Zephyr in the winter. Like maybe the winter of 2018. I already have part of my next train trip booked for May of 2017 but that trip is on the Southwest Chief to LA, the Sunset Limited LA to Alpine, TX, the Texas Eagle Alpine to Chicago, and the Illinois Zephyr from Chicago back to where I start, Galesburg, IL.

I timed going to the dining car for lunch so I would be done in time to shoot Glenwood Canyon as we rail through it.
We stopped in Glenwood Springs long enough people who do could smoke a cig. I got shots of the private cars. I'll get around to editing them eventually. Stay tuned.

The position of the sun made making good photos the rest of the day a pain, because so much of the time it was in my face and in the windows when there was scenery I wanted to shoot.

After sunset, I enjoyed an aperitif before dinner in my Roomette as I looked out the window at Venus, Saturn, Arcturus, and Mars.
We were between Green River, UT and Helper, UT following US-6 towards Prove and Salt Lake City as I had dinner.
After dinner I had a B&B and watched out the window of my Roomette as the engines and front of the train appeared and disappeared depending on which way the curves in the tracks went as we climbed up towards Soldier pass.

I lowered the upper bunk in my Roomette to sleep in so I could leave the lower part of the Roomette in it's Day configuration of 2 facing seats and a fold-out table. My laptop was on the table with my GPS plugged in so when I woke up in the middle of the night to visit the restroom I could see where we were. When that did happen we were just pulling out of Wendover, NV at the UT/NV border and close to the Bonneville Salt Flats.

I woke at 5:30, tended to my morning routine, got coffee my sleeper car attendant had ready - another sleeper berth perk - waved at O.J. Simpson's abode where he currently resides (a state prison), just before we got Lovelock, NV as we railed by, and hit the dining car when they opened for breakfast at 6:30 AM PDST time.
After breakfast I went and sat in the SSL car from just before Hazen, NV to Sparks, NV. Along this part of the route we join the Truckee River and there were many places fog was hanging above the warm river in the cold morning air. It was quite pretty.

The Zephyr stops in Reno for a bit so we all can get out and stretch our legs a bit, and smoke if necessary. Out of Reno we start climbing the Sierra Nevada mountains, stop briefly in Truckee to let off/take on passengers and then start climbing again toward Donner pass.
We go through a tunnel that curves to the left and when we pop out the other side we are a couple of hundred feet above Donner Lake and can see I-80 across the lake.
Once over Donner Pass we start descending to Sacramento and the few stops between there and the end of the line in Emeryville.

Though I was booked to Davis, the stop after Sacramento, I had a room booked in Sacramento for the night and had decided to just get off there instead of catching a Capitol Corridor commuter train from Davis back to Sacramento. We got to Sacramento about 2 PM on a nice, sunny, 75 degree day.

Another sleeper berth passenger perk is baggage storage (left luggage) at Amtrak stations that offer it, and the Sacramento station does.
So after putting together an overnight kit I checked my other bags and headed to the hotel.

In Sacramento, us old people get to ride the bus system for just $1.35 (exact change only), so my room was not close to the station, and cost about 1/2 as much as a room across the street from the station.
The station is downtown and the bus stop was just a couple of blocks away. Easy-peezy, extra-cheesy. The bus stop for the hotel was a block from the hotel.
In the morning I got ready and down to the office in plenty of time to have a leisurely continental breakfast and coffee before heading to the bus stop to go back to the Amtrak station.
My return train was scheduled to depart at 11:09 AM PDST.
Because I started back the next day I was riding the same train I had been on the day before and the OBS were the same people. Only the engineers and the conductors change every 6 to 8 hours due to the federal Hours Of Service rules that apply to those having primary responsibility for the safe operation of the train. The conductor is the head honcho on the train, not the engineer.

I am a member of Amtrak Guest Rewards and earn points when I pay to ride the train or buy points online. A couple times a year Amtrak has points buying bonus offers (the more points you the bigger the bonus) and a double points promotion (Double Days) for paid train trips in the spring and fall.
Having taken advantage of both in the past I had enough points to book my return trip on points.

The return was as pleasant and enjoyable as the outbound trip, but with the scenery appearing in reverse order.
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Great, thanks for sharing. I do know that my parents made that trip with me in the winter. Your write up brought up a few more memories from the deep. When you talked about seeing the engine on the curves it brought back a memory of that. Only at that time of the year there was snow, and I remember it flowing out from in front like smoke billowing up.
No. But I drove by the 16 stool, Canteen Lunch in the Alley diner that was the model for the Lanford Lunch Box restaurant opened by Roseanne Connor (played by Roseanne Barr) in the sitcom Roseanne.

Ms Barr was married to actor Tom Arnold. Mr. Arnold was born in Ottumwa.

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