With the current Amtrak timetable, getting from Denver to Yosemite National Park requires a mandatory overnight stop in either Sacramento or Emeryville California, after arriving there using the California Zephyr. This is due to the lack of connecting trains and buses which leave in the area to get to Yosemite and the relatively late arrival time of the train into Sacramento. From Sacramento however, it’s a bus, then a train, then another bus to get to the national park.
The California Zephyr westbound from Denver takes you through the Colorado Rocky Mountains, inspiration for the John Denver song and one of the official songs of Colorado, Rocky Mountain High.
Once through the mountains, it continues through the states of Utah and Nevada before finally crossing into California. Along the way, there are stops every couple of hours to let passengers on and off, many of them heading to Vail or Aspen for some snow sports, and a single passenger who needed a trip to the hospital after a suspected heart attack!
I would have to say that the section of the United States between Colorado and California was some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country which I had seen so far. From snow filled forests, mountains, clear lakes, plains with deer and other wildlife, this area had it all. However, with the hazy old polycarbonate windows on the train, it was hard to take clear photos of the land, especially after going through the many tunnels, where soot from the diesel prime movers remained stuck on the windows, obscuring the view. Therefore I’ll have to promise myself that I would return here one day with my own vehicle and with my own timetable to do it justice.
Speaking of soot from the burning diesel engines, because the gap between the carriages aren’t fully sealed, moving between the carriages when inside a tunnel would invite these fumes inside to much of the delight of the passengers and crew of the train. Astonishingly, repeated warnings from the conductor to not move between the carriages inside tunnels were ignored! So when we were approaching the longest tunnel along the route, the Moffat Tunnel, (a 10km tunnel bored through the granite mountains which took 48 months to be cut out) the conductor made a last ditch attempt to prevent the suffering of his passengers:
“Ladies and gentlemen and all you children out there… Please, please, please! Don’t walk between the carriages when we go through the tunnels. I mean, the smoke that comes into the carriages is, is just yuck. Like, it’s probably not going to kill you but I don’t like breathing it and I’m sure you don’t as well. The tunnel which is coming up is over 6 miles long, it will take us nearly 10 minutes to go through. Do you want to be breathing smoke for 10 minutes? I sure don’t and if you don’t want to, please, please, please! Don’t go between the carriages when we’re going through it! This is your conductor… Thank you…”
The same conductor also made various announcements whenever he saw any wildlife or points of interest along the way. My favourite announcement was when he broadcasted:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, some of you may notice that the beautiful surroundings and track they we’re currently on was featured in the critically acclaimed movie, Under Siege 2 starring Steven Seagal… Well maybe not critically acclaimed but yes, that movie was filmed in this area.”
Now this leg of the journey on the California Zephyr was 30 hours long, so for some passengers who had no interested in their surroundings I could imagine that they would feel like they were under siege. There were three passengers of note who were sitting across the aisle from me. There was a girl, who as soon as I boarded, asked for a micro USB charger and then slept… for 24hrs straight. Sitting behind her was an older man from California, on his way back home from a funeral and sitting behind him, another girl who had what I assumed was everything she owned, spread across her two seats.
Now after sleeping beauty had awoken, she was non-stop on the phone, swearing, ringing people and complaining about how long the train journey was, how hungry she was (in fact, both girls had no money to buy anything to eat) and how the person she was talking to should come and pick her up from the station when she arrived… Assuming she was turned down several times, she would then repeat the same phonecall to next person. I think after the 6th go, she finally found someone to pick her up… When she did wake up, she made a really dramatic and almost frantic action, patting down her pockets, proclaiming “I’ve lost my $80.00!!!“. After prancing about the carriage, repeating her message and getting everyone on board to search in vain for her wad of cash, she slumped back in her seat still hysterical. “I’m sure it was $80.00… my mum gave it to me. It’s all the money I had. It was two $20’s, three $10’s, a $5… and .. well, it was $80.00 I’m sure of it!”…..
I couldn’t help but think this was a bit of a ploy… Especially as she had not moved during the entire journey thus far and the likelihood of being pick-pocketed on this train was pretty slim. To cap things off, the man sitting behind her later gave her $100 (which she accepted without hesitation), saying that “I’ve got a daughter around your age and I would hate to see her stuck in a situation like this… ”
In my opinion, this is probably America at it’s best and worst. This token of support was one of the many selfless acts I had observed on the my trip so far, yet at the same time, I was questioning in my mind the authenticity of the plight.
Unfortunately after this incident, the man lost his grandfather’s graduation ring, which slipped off his finger when he was sleeping. Even though the whole cabin was searched again, it was never found. I would hate to think that someone picked it up and failed to return it.
Meanwhile, after a passing conversation, I found out that the second hungry girl had some major falling out in her last town, where she was studying to become a social worker with children. As a result, she packed everything up and was moving back home with her mum to complete her studies with her new major of ‘mortuary science’… Yep, from social work to mortuary science. Two ends of the same value chain perhaps? Anyway, instead of receiving money from the man sitting in front of her like the other girl, the guy bought her a sandwich and a coffee… I wonder how often this sort of thing happens on the California Zephyr? Anyway.. whilst all this drama was happening, the sun was setting as we departed Colorado and into Utah.
After passing through Utah, we entered the iconic mesa’s of Nevada. Think of the kind of territory featured in Road Runner or in the game, Half Life 😛 After miles of barren landscape, we climbed into the High Sierra’s, signalling our arrival into California. When travelling through the Sierra Nevada’s, staff from the local historical society boarded to give a running commentary to the people sitting in the cafe car on the history of the region, in particular the development of the railway which would link the east to the west.
Finally, after being delayed by approximately 1.5 hrs, we pulled into Sacramento station at 3:30pm. Stepping onto the platform, I was greeted with the California sunshine, a stunning day of 26’C! First stop, to the “haunted house” hostel, conveniently located 4 blocks from the Amtrak station.
For those who don’t know, Sacramento is the capital of the state of California (or the California Republic, with their logo which looks like a potential flag of the former Soviet Union). This means that it needs to have a Capitol building, just like the one in Washington, the one in Philadelphia, the one in Denver… etc. 😛
When I took the above picture of the Capitol building, this old and restored blue and white Ford Mustang GT convertible pulled up at the intersection with the iconic California number plates. I tried to wave the drive down so I could get a photo of it in front of the Capitol building, but the lights changed and he roared off.
As it was a weekend in the Capitol, the silence around the administrative part of the city was amazing. Nearer to the centre however, was another story, as the Wizard World Sacramento Comic Con was on! (tickets were fully sold out though 😛 and besides, I didn’t have a costume). At first, I thought I was in some sort of red light district, after spotting a guy and girl in dressed in black lycra, spandex and shiny polyester (hence the discreet, out of focus photo). But the after being wave after wave of superheroes, it finally caught on 😛
So apart from Comic Con, what else was there to see in Sacramento? Well the actual CBD or city wasn’t anything special. In fact, it was pretty dead. It reminded me a bit like Townsville’s CBD when the mall was still vehicle-traffic free.
But, walk towards to the river and on the other side of the freeway and you arrive in the preserved ‘Old Town’ area, with period buildings and museums celebrating the rich railway history of the city. I couldn’t help but think I had seen these buildings before… Then I remembered, of course I had: at Disneyland’s Frontier Land back in 1995! 😛
If you’ve been following my posts about the USA, the song “Small Town” by John Cougar Mellencamp has played in every place I’ve been to and Sacramento was no exception. So as I walked past the Soft Crab Shack, can you guess what song I heard? …
What’s with all the preserved railway buildings and tracks you ask? Well, to find out, head on over the the California State Railroad Museum. For a couple of bucks, you get to see a heap of restored locomotives and exhibitions documenting the construction of the transcontinental railways which connected California to the United States and its effect on developing California into what we see today.
As it was the weekend, the whole area started to wind down after 6pm so I headed back downtown to buy some supplies for my trip to Yosemite and grab some dinner. “Supplies” included 8 cans of chunky soup, including some flavours I hadn’t seen in Australia (like hearty cheeseburger and Philly-Cheese steak!), bananas, beef jerky and trail mix. Obviously the meal of champions! 😛
Entering the city after sunset was a totally different scenario compared to during the sun-filled day. Whilst there were a few restaurants and bars trading, it was full of some pretty sketchy characters, including a person who followed me later that evening for around 5 blocks as I walked back to the hostel. It wasn’t until I stopped at an intersection, turned around and stared at him for 10 seconds did he turn around and walk away…
For dinner, I stumbled upon Darna, a Mediterranean restaurant on K Street. Whilst I was tempted in ordering a small family feast, I settled on the the Shish Kawook (Chicken kebabs) with rice and vegetables. It’s funny, but as I was eating my dinner (which was fantastic, and the staff were really friendly), I felt for a moment like I was eating in Sydney…
So it turns out that daylight savings came into effect at 2:00am the following morning! When I woke up before my alarm sounded on my watch (5:50am on my watch), I decided to get up and take it slow to get ready.
It wasn’t until I checked the time on my phone (which automatically updates) that I noticed it was 7am already! At the time, I was thinking… How the hell could my phone and watch be out of sync (growing up in Cairns = no daylight savings, so it’s not something I’m used to accounting for every year!)… Powering on my GPS and it took said it was 7am…
Anyway, deciding it was better to be safe than sorry, I got ready and started walking down to the station. Checking the time on the parking metres, I realised that my watch was indeed an hour slow (by that time, it was 7:30am). Luckily I was only a few blocks from the station so I managed to make my bus. Yosemite here I come!