We took the California Zephyr from San Francisco to Denver, arriving last night at Union Station, which is in the midst of a complete overhaul. It will be beautiful when completed.
The trip took about 33 hours of our time. But you can’t travel this route and not think of the years and lives it took to make our journey possible. For much of the trip, our train was on the original path of the Transcontinental Railroad, that miracle of engineering and sheer will that united the country, spelled the beginnings of a new world order, and definitely signaled the end to the Indians’ hope to return to the old world order.
The Sierra Nevada range was our first real introduction to the perils the pioneers faced, most notably those of the Donner party. On a beautiful spring day, what is now Donner Lake and the area of the Donner Pass near Truckee are just lovely moments of passing scenery.
We also saw our share of desert, which must have been a weird kind of relief from the mountains if you were in a wagon.
Sitting in our little bedroom, watching the vistas pass from the observation car, gazing out of the windows of the dining car while enjoying a glass of wine with our meal – everything was there to make it comfortable and visually exciting. But any small inconveniences paled beside the miracle of the trip itself.
Once we entered the Rockies, the views became extraordinary. Traveling along the Colorado River was a thrill, particularly when we were going through areas that are only accessible by train. For us, sheer drama and amazing vistas. For those earlier travelers trying to reach California before winter, it must have been sheer hell, wondering when the last mountain would be conquered.
There are still terrors there. The river is often calm, and then suddenly it’s not. We saw a group of kayakers at a point after what they call Washing Machine Falls. Our conductor said that meant they must have been among the best in the world, as there is a considerable mortality rate among those less expert. (I had enough trouble just trying to catch them on film. The last guy couldn’t escape me.)
Sit back, enjoy the ride, and think of what it took to get us there. If you were on the side of progress in the 1860’s, you saw the railroad cross the Rockies and would have needed no more proof that you were also on the side of the angels.