Monday, 5 August 2013

36 hours on the California Zephyr

Winding our way through the Rockies

When we told people were taking a two day train trip from Denver to San Francisco with our six and eight year old, there were two alternative reactions. The first was “Oh, how amazing!" The second was “Wow, but won’t it drive you crazy?’.

The answer is: yes it was amazing, and no it didn’t drive us crazy. Well, perhaps if the iPad had yet to be invented, 36 hours in the company of two fairly bored boys would have been a living hell, but hey, at times like this I thank God for Steve Jobs. True, our boys spent a good 80% of their time glued to Minecraft and Angry Birds, rather than looking out of the window at the spectacular scenery. But reader, we let them.   After all, when you are eight you don't necessarily realise that travelling on a train through the Rocky Mountains is one of the most exciting journeys you'll probably ever make by rail in your life. Come to think of it, I've seen them more excited taking the train from Greenwich to London Bridge on Network South East....

The only exception was one hour after lunch when we decided to be responsible parents and make them do some summer homework/journal writing, at which point an elderly man came up to them (we were in the observation car) and told them (only half-jokingly) that they had a mean Mommy for making them do homework on holiday. 

Littleboy 2 is unimpressed by Amtrak's menu selection
Taking a long haul train is very different from taking a long haul flight. For a start, you can move around, explore different areas of the train, stretch your legs. Train time is different from real time; it’s defined by eating and sleeping, but one seems to roll into the other; lunchtime somehow morphs into late-afternoon drink time, and then into dinner time. Once it’s dark, there’s nothing really to do but go to bed. We had an Amtrak “family room”, in which there are two big bunks and two smaller bunks at right angles to them, so were all four in the same space. By the end of the journey, this had become extremely stuffy, so than goodness for the moves to the dining car and the observation car for long periods of time during the journey.

Scenery or iPad? iPad wins.

I had come armed with several books ready to read on the Kindle, but in the end I only managed a few chapters. The scenery was incredible. We began the trip with breakfast at 9 in the morning. As you eat your first meal, the train rises straight out of Denver into the Front Range of the Rockies, then through gorges and canyons and tunnels into the heart of the mountains. For a long time it follows the Colorado River (which eventually becomes the Grand Canyon); you pass white water rafters and kayakers who wave at the train. We had read that one stretch of track was notorious for people moony-ing the train, and sure enough, at about this point, the Doctor looked out of the window just in time to see a guy pulling his pants back up, having clambered up a rocky bank from the river just to do so. 

In the late afternoon the train moves towards Utah, passing through incredible red rock landscapes near the Arches National Park. Eventually this Wild West landscape gives way to arid, desert-like hills. We still followed the river, however, and as it got dark we watched deer wander down to drink at it. (The boys were actually interested at this point). 

Red rocks line the Colorado river in Utah

Most of Nevada is bypassed by night – fortunately, because most of it is brown desert, from what I saw. We saw the end of this landscape in the early morning light, before stopping at Reno around breakfast-time.  After that, the train starts to ascend again into the Sierra Nevada, passing pristine lakes, steep-sloped pine forests and the notorious Donner Pass, where a pioneer party came to grief in the days of the Gold Rush (it’s a grisly story involving cannibalism). 

Donner Lake in the Sierra Nevada
By lunchtime we were in California. The train passed through Sacramento and various small towns before making the final approach toward San Francisco Bay. We caught a brief glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge, although it was mainly obscured by San Francisco's infamous summer fog, a cool grey cloud that makes the temperature in the city a good 10 degrees colder than that of just a few miles inland. 

So would I recommend a two day train journey to other families with children? The answer is, yes. But take electronic stimulation, book a sleeping cabin if you can afford it, and you might want to take healthy snacks (the Amtrak food, although good, consists mainly of hot dog and burger options for kids).

Finally, don't worry too much if the children aren't as fascinated as you with the spectacular changing scenery of the American continent. One day, hopefully, they'll remember that they crossed America by rail, and perhaps they will even be inspired by your own love of travel.


Melissa said...

It sounds amazing. It's really hard for kids to appreciate what is going on around them. So many times I've heard myself saying on various trips: 'But look at the view, isn't it amazing?' and the kids glancing up and going, 'Meh' or possibly just to appease me, 'Yeah, awesome mom' and then they return to their killing of pigs in angry birds. Glad you enjoyed it though!

Iota said...

Sounds wonderful. I always wanted to get on the route that came close to us, on its way from Chicago to the Grand Canyon. But it came through at 3.00am, in either direction, which put me off (and it was expensive).

You're having such a great ending to your time in the US. Good for you!

Nota Bene said...

Sounds wonderful...I love travelling by train...somewhat different to our very recent Scottish experience...

Metropolitan Mum said...

Fantastic trip - I love train journeys. I used to take the train from Germany to Vienna, Barcelona or Marseille. All journeys that are more than 14 hours. People that I'd be mad not to fly but I loved the sense of distance you get when travelling by train.

MsCaroline said...

This looks like a fantastic experience, even if the kids were more focused on their games than on the scenery. You'll be surprised later on at what they remember about this trip, though. My boys constantly surprise me with details they remember about trips we took when they were small when I was sure they weren't paying attention.