September 16, 2017

The ‘California Zephyr’ from Chicago to Denver

Getting into the Panorama Lounge in Union Station gives me a subtle premonition that the journey ahead might not be as straightforward as it should be. The lady on reception isn’t too keen on passengers actually coming in to her lounge, and my paperwork isn’t in order until she has scribbled on it with a pink lumi pen in a special high security way. After a short wait, she issues instructions over the PA for finding the platform the Zephyr is departing from this afternoon. Rather confusingly there is both a platform number and a compass bearing – platform 22, East. I queue for a couple of minutes in the wrong line then get told I should still be in the lounge. I wish they would talk to each other. At the gate to the platform a guard calls for “Bob” rather excitedly on his walkie-talkie – something isn’t quite right.

As it’s my second night on an Amtrak sleeper I know the drill. Bob turns out to be the conductor of my carriage, no 532, and he greets me at the door. It will be the last I see of him. On board I’m in roomette number 3 on the top deck. But so is someone else, and it turns out the whole carriage is double booked. A new schedule means the carriage numbers have changed and the booking system has collapsed. There is an American tour group on board, and their tour leader, a lady called Patti, is keen to get me and a few others turfed out of what she believes is her carriage. The ticket inspector is a middle aged Polish lady who doesn’t know what to do other than throw her arms in the air and say that there is a big problem. After an hour or so she calls a conference in the observation car and a plan is put into effect. I’m exchanged like a refugee from one carriage to another, and welcomed in my new car, no 531, by a lady called Jenelle. She is the only one of the crew who seems calm and helpful, the rest just seem to hide and leave it to someone else to sort it out. 531 has been refurbished and is slightly nicer than 532. It is also the carriage next to the restaurant, so I’m closer to the bar – this move is a win/win.

Jenelle comes to see me with her manifest and a worried look. I fear I’m on the move again, so I set a firm tone that I have moved once and I’m not going to play a further game of musical roomettes (chairs). There is clearly still a problem. Tired of hearing people talk about whre I should be moved to next, I decide to leave 531 all together and head for the observation car. This one is a bit different, the bar is downstairs. Here a man called Martin serves drinks, snacks and offers his brand of madcap humour. He wears a badge with a “needle” gauge indicating how mad he is feeling – it is already in the orange zone and its only five o’clock. From time to time he passes through the car doing a dance whilst blowing his train whistle. Its rather zany for Amtrak – more like Butlin’s on soft drugs. I sip a can of Bud and eat pretzels whilst chatting to other passengers – I’m reaching a view that American trains are some of the most social that I have ever been on. In fact try stopping them talking! I’m in that rail zen place – drinking my beer and staring out at the vast corn fields and the setting sun.

At 17.40 we cross the Mississippi river and the train stops briefly at Burlington. I bump into a couple of friends who are sleeping at the other end of the train. An American gentleman explains that there is a “transition car” down there – it’s a new word for me and I have to get a translation – this is the car where the crew sleep. The train really is full and they are having to use every available berth tonight.

The conductor points out interesting places and features. As we pass though Ottumwa, Iowa, we are reminded that this was the factitious home of Radar O’Reilly from the hit TV series of the 1970’s “MASH”. Who knows, one day that could be a vital pub quiz fact.

My dinner reservation is for 19.45, a very late time for the average American. I opt for the chicken with baked potato and what turns out to be a rather good Californian chardonnay. Service is both friendly and relaxed. Dan, our attendant, answers questions about life on the rails as well as American television programmes between courses.

Back in 531 Jenelle makes up my bed and all I have to do is to put my watch back an hour to “mountain time” before retiring. The night is quite bumpy, and I’m woken at 01.27 by a collosal sway which throws the contents of my washbag all over the roomette. Other than that I sleep soundly in the comfy lower berth.

Dawn breaks over a dull grey plain at about 06.30 the next morning. Although it looks flat we have been climbing all night and are now close to a mile high. I can verify tis as my water bottle creaks every now and then with the reduced air pressure.

I have given up on getting any breakfast this morning as nearly everyone is getting off at Denver and there is no way the restaurant will cope with all its customers between its opening at 6.00am and our scheduled arrival at 7.15am. But about 30 minutes before we arrive Jenelle spots what I have done and offers to go and fetch me breakfast and serve it in my roomette. I steer clear of the grits and have an omelette with bacon and potatoes (every American breakfast seems to have potatoes).

We are about 25 minutes late into Denver, and the final approach is a dead slow reverse into the station through a busy freight yard. Out on the platform I thank the crew, say goodbye to Patti, and find a jumper in my bag. Its much colder than Chicago, maybe 15 C. For the next few days I will be travelling by tour bus to connect up some tourist train journeys, but today is just R&R in Denver to recover and get used to the thinner air. The news back at the hotel isn’t good though, the Rockies National Park have closed one of the main access roads today due to snow – my plans may well be changing over the next few hours..

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