Good mornin’ America, how are you
Don’t you know me? I’m your native son.
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans.
I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done. – Arlo Guthrie
During our various and sundry travels through Europe, Bill and I have logged a lot of miles on trains. For the most part, train travel in Europe is efficient, relatively inexpensive, ranging from bearable to darnright fun, and handy as can be. Even in Italy — thanks to Mussolini — the trains run on time.
Bill used to take the train from the University of Southern Illinois (go Salukis!) to Chicago, but that was some time ago and he hasn’t traveled by American train since. As for me, until this past Saturday, I never set foot inside an Amtrak train.
This past weekend — to celebrate Bill’s birthday — we rode the California Zephyr from Denver to Glenwood Springs. Mussolini would have been proud. The trains ran on time. Well, mostly. The passenger train system just isn’t what it is in Europe, and probably never will be. But we wouldn’t have had more fun if the Eiffel Tower had been waiting at the end of the line.
The Zephyr goes from Chicago to San Francisco with many stops in between. We took the line between Denver and Glenwood Springs for our very quick trip. We traveled with our friends John and Carol. John is a highly experienced train traveler, having logged lots of miles in the past few years after becoming thoroughly fed up with the complications of air travel. So he was our guide.
It is very quiet. No clickity clack, clickity clack. Apparently those days are gone. But as we made our way to the dining car, I couldn’t help but notice that it was difficult to walk. (The man couldn’t have been nicer about me thumping him in the head with my purse as I nearly fell onto his lap.)
As we took our seats, I pointed out that I had never once seen Hercule Poirot or any other Agatha Christie character being flung around as they walked to the glamorous dining car while solving mysteries on the Orient Express or any other train on which they seemed to always be traveling. John explained to me that European passenger trains have their own rail lines and they are smooth as a baby’s behind while Amtrak shares its comparatively crappy rail lines with the numerous freight trains that rule the American rail roost. Oh, and Hercule Poirot is a fictional character.
By the way, our dining car wasn’t glamorous, but on the plus side, we didn’t have to wear tuxes and evening gowns. And the food was highly acceptable.
Here’s another thing Hercule Poirot never experienced — exposed buttocks. As we entered Glenwood Canyon, John explained that tradition dictates that the folks rafting or fishing the Colorado River moon the passenger trains as they go by. (This would only work in America, of course, because in Europe the passenger trains are so plentiful that there would be danger of getting one’s butt cheeks sunburned.)
Mooning happened — twice, in fact. Once on the way up and once on the way back. Unfortunately, both times it was on the other side of the train from where I was sitting. I saw nary a bare buttock.
What I did see, however, was spectacular scenery from just about the moment we left Denver’s Union Station until we pulled into the station in Glenwood. Autumn colors, wildlife, roaring creeks, and beautiful Colorado mountain wild flowers. And the good news was we all could enjoy the view since someone else was driving the train. (I don’t suppose you call it driving a train, but whatevah.)
Here are a few other things I learned on this trip:
A) When the train is getting ready to leave a station, it blows its horn like this — long, long, short, long. That is Morse code (dash, dash, dot, dash) for “q”, and that means “Here comes the Queen.” A long-time tradition, probably dating back to Queen Victoria.
B) When you pay for a sleeper car (which we splurged on for the trip back), meals are included in the price. With careful planning and a total disregard for whether or not we were actually hungry, we managed to fit two meals into our five-and-a-half hour trip, thereby making the upgrade pay for itself. By the way, the family sleeper provided us privacy and free meals, but we did no actual sleeping. I’m very happy to report this fact.
And C) when the flight attendants on airplanes tell you to put your head between your legs in the event of a crash landing, it’s to save your teeth so your body can be identified.
I can’t make this stuff up.
We had a wonderful weekend, and I’m determined to take a lengthier train trip sometimes soon.
In the meantime, here are some of the sights we saw….