California Zypher

All aboard the California Zypher

Awkward or Amazing?


Why train travel is the best

If I had to rank modes of transport, trains would without a doubt be right at the top of the list. Which would look like this:

  1. Trains
  2. Horseback riding (walking)
  3. Motorcycles
  4. Walking
  5. Segway
  6. Cars (with myself as the driver)
  7. Horseback riding (any other gait)
  8. Cars (passenger)
  9. Horse-drawn cart/carriage
  10. Bus
  11. Plane
  12. Boat
  13. Raft in shark-infested sea
  14. Bicycle

I haven’t been in a spaceship or helicopter yet, so I don’t know where to rank those.

Physical comfort and my susceptibility to motion sickness are big contributors to the ranking order.

The top 3 reasons why I prefer trains are these:

  1. I don’t get motion sickness
  2. No harassing security checks or bagging of liquids before boarding
  3. Being able to see epic scenery without having to concentrate on the road

But on the California Zypher, the Amtrak train from Emeryville (San Francisco), California to Chicago, Illinois, there was a fourth reason, that I haven’t considered before: The opportunity to meet and talk to amazing people.

Meeting people on the California Zypher

Authentic “interaction with locals” is like the holy grail for travellers who are always urged to go “off the beaten track” and “immerse themselves in the local culture”. Midway through my journey on the  California Zypher, I realised that here in the USA, this excessively beaten track from California to Illinois is in fact the perfect place to meet and interact with some very real Americans. Between Amtrak’s policy to make passengers share tables in the dining cart and Americans’ love of conversation, every meal turns into an opportunity to talk to someone else on the train. I have shared meals with many fascinating people from all walks of life over 2438 miles of railway tracks. Besides being one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys, it was also one of the most culturally rich experiences of my life.

California Zypher Scenes and Conversations

East-bound from California

California Zypher
Scenic California

I met my first group during lunch as we were rolling through the California countryside. They were a  three-generational trio of train enthusiasts: father, son and grandson. They were on their way to the East Coast where they would meet up with a family friend who’s having a big birthday celebration aboard a vintage train.

The Observation Deck

The California Zypher has an observation deck with large windows where passengers can enjoy the scenery. In fact, from Sacramento to Reno, the staff from the California State Railway Museum joins the journey to provide all sorts of interesting information about that part of the journey.

I wanted to take a picture of the observation car when this young Amish man happened to turn around the precise second that I pressed the shutter button. I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to speak to any of the Amish passengers.

Passengers enjoying the view on the California Zypher
In the observation deck


California Zypher scenery
Playing with filters in Nevada

While passing through Nevada over dinner, I met a second Californian family, parents travelling with their daughter towards Denver where she will start her studies in Liberal Arts. The family were very passionate about politics and the daughter was delighted to be voting in a swing state where her vote might actually impact the outcome – unlike predictably Democrat California.


Workers by the Colorado River
Workers in Ruby Canyon, Colorado

The next morning we woke up in Colorado, ready for a day of epic scenery.

Lunchtime in Colorado was one of my favourites. I shared a meal with a young man on his way to take care of his elderly mother in Denver and a 82-year old lady traveling back to her farm in West Virginia. The young man entertained us with stories of his days riding bucking horses and how his dogs found a rattle snake on his porch just a day before, while the lady shared her wisdom regarding the secrets to happiness.

After lunch I moved to the observation deck to settle in for an afternoon of scenic photography. I shared a space with a young girl from The Bronx, NY who couldn’t get enough of the wide open spaces.  She has lived in the borough all her life and spoke with great longing about moving to Costa Rica. I hope that she will.

Dinner time was just before Denver, the final stop for my dinner companions. These two yummy mummies had escaped to Glenwood Springs for a girls weekend. The one lady was unbelievably a grandmother of 2 in her early 40s and spoke with pride of her son in med school and her artistic daughter dreaming of owning an upmarket tattoo franchise. We had a really heart-felt discussion on the importance of getting a good education and the value of growing up in a home that sets a good example.


Nebraska Scenery from California Zypher
Nebraska Cornfields

We had breakfast as we passed into Omaha, Nebraska. I was joined by a young sociology professor from Portland and her writer girlfriend. The couple were on their way to a conference in Chicago. Breakfast conversation was light-hearted and we discussed tattoo choices, faking sport-enthusiasm for social purposes and the use of the term “non-traditionally-aged” to refer to older students.


Missouri River from the California Zypher
Crossing the Missouri River into Iowa

We crossed the Missouri River into Iowa, where I had the honour of dining with two retired gentlemen. The one was a chemical engineer and the other a physician. As we grazed on our burgers we discussed everything from the gasification of coal to create fuel, interesting rail journeys on vintage trains and the best places to see Dixie Jazz in New Orleans.


Illinois from the California Zypher
Wind turbines in Illinois

Crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois signalled the final State for the journey. So let me introduce you to Janell, my cabin attendant from Chicago. Janell has worked for Amtrak for 17 years, most of which she spent rolling along this epic cross country track. I told her that I thought she had an amazing job and she admitted that, besides the scenery, she loved the atmosphere of happiness that prevailed aboard the California Zypher. I hope that if I ever board this train again, that it will be Janell that greets me at the door.

Life List Entry: Rode the East-bound California Zypher

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