Parts Known : #3 Cross Country Trains

At my philosophical best, I sometimes find myself asserting that the best way to experience a country is through rains and trains.

Back in the Winter of 2014, which was my first proper break after moving to the United States, I was looking up things to do and places to see. I learnt about the California-Zephyr Express which connects Emeryville, a tiny city across the bridge to the east of San Francisco, with Chicago. I thought to myself I should certainly take that train. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible right then as I was a broke student in Arizona who really didn’t have a reason to go to Chicago.

 The route taken by the California-Zephyr.

The route taken by the California-Zephyr.

After two years, in 2016, I figured this would be a great graduation present to myself so I decided to take the train from Chicago to Emeryville. By that time, a good friend had moved to Chicago as a result which I had ample reason to visit Chicago. It is one of the best decisions I made this year.

 Just a short while after pulling out of the Union Station in Chicago -- Leland, Illinois.

Just a short while after pulling out of the Union Station in Chicago -- Leland, Illinois.

There’s no assigned seating hence I was pretty anxious about finding a good window seat since I’d been looking forward to this journey for close to two years. Fortunately, not a lot of people got on at the Union Station in Chicago and I was able to find myself a good seat. Everything about this was just perfect. It was only going to get better. And it did.

For the first couple of hours there wasn’t much to do besides reading or listening to music. All that was visible through the windows was the steep gradient between the cities of the country and the rest of it. Houses no longer looked all the same, most had backyards and a driveway. Space was taken for granted which is a luxury elsewhere, especially in cities like Chicago and where I was headed towards, San Francisco.

 And that’s how we crossed into Iowa from Illinois.

And that’s how we crossed into Iowa from Illinois.

The first noticeable thing to catch my eye was when the train crossed into Iowa from Illinois across the Mississippi river. That was my very first sighting of this magnificent body of water. It was the first time I was crossing a state via a water border. It was a day for a lot of firsts, just like what this paragraph has turned into. I think it’s best if I let the photos do the talking.

 The mighty Mississippi between Gulf Port - Illinois, and Burlington - Iowa

The mighty Mississippi between Gulf Port - Illinois, and Burlington - Iowa

 A town by name of Mt. Pleasant in Iowa. I think the name does complete justice.

A town by name of Mt. Pleasant in Iowa. I think the name does complete justice.

After Iowa, Nebraska was a whisk. The train reached Lincoln, NE in the middle of the night and all I saw of Nebraska was the stadium of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Then we move to Colorado in the morning. Oh, Colorado, the place that breaks my heart. I can’t speak enough for and about Colorado. Although there’s a personal reason behind me falling in love with Colorado, every bit of it is justified. It makes me sad and happy at the same time whenever I think of the fact that I haven’t seen enough of Colorado, yet. Every time I see pictures of Colorado, read about it, or hear people talk about it, I have a lump in my throat. It is one of melancholy, that which you feel only when you miss someone. Colorado is as good a part of me as my arm or leg is. It made me appreciate beauty, miss places, miss people. Whenever I think of Colorado I am flooded with emotions — I’ve laughed till there were tears, I’ve cried my heart out, I’ve said goodbyes, far too many. It is almost as if I’d spent lifetimes there. Oh, Colorado.

 What summer? That’s what I love about Colorado. It is always Fall in Colorado. At least in my heart, it always is Fall in Colorado.

What summer? That’s what I love about Colorado. It is always Fall in Colorado. At least in my heart, it always is Fall in Colorado.

 Even the train stations are so pretty I could cry.

Even the train stations are so pretty I could cry.

 Tracing the route of the Colorado River. Am I allowed to have a favorite river?

Tracing the route of the Colorado River. Am I allowed to have a favorite river?

 What did I say about trains and rains? — Kremmling, Colorado.

What did I say about trains and rains? — Kremmling, Colorado.

A tiny stretch of the Colorado River near Bond, CO called the Moon River. It was fun to learn the story behind the name. As any naive tourist would, I assumed that this had something to do with the celestial body. Funnily, the name was given to this portion of the river because rafters along the river address the California-Zephyr with what’s appropriately called the Moon Salute. It is exactly what you think it is — pants are lowered and 5 second anatomy lessons are taught. By the time the guide aboard the train finished explaining the reason behind the name, those aboard did not need any further explanations as the rafters were visible at that point.

 Rafters on the Moon River. I was so enthralled when it actually happened that I couldn’t really catch anyone ‘in the act’.

Rafters on the Moon River. I was so enthralled when it actually happened that I couldn’t really catch anyone ‘in the act’.

The train was leaving Colorado for Utah. We weren’t losing sight of the Colorado River (we won’t for a very long time). Colors to canyon lands, I was saying goodbye to Colorado yet again.

 Did I mention this place has the most beautiful everything? — Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Did I mention this place has the most beautiful everything? — Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

 It was as if the clouds were trying so hard not to break into tears till I left — somewhere along the Colorado-Utah border.

It was as if the clouds were trying so hard not to break into tears till I left — somewhere along the Colorado-Utah border.

 Nevada was a vast stretch of barren lands.

Nevada was a vast stretch of barren lands.

And of course, the Colorado River was twisting and turning, but relentlessly following us (Or were we the ones following it?).

It started to get sunny was the train was moving into California. Before the train moved into civilization though, was Donner Pass which had water, greens, mountains, and snow all at once place. The train goes around the mountains, and there you see a reservoir. It is a pretty sight. But the stories about the place aren’t as pretty as the place seems. The place is named after a group (Donner Party) which en route to California on a train was stuck due to a snowstorm around these parts. The story is that they had to resort to Cannibalism to survive.

 Donner Pass, California.

Donner Pass, California.

Thus came my 52-hour solo journey to an end. I made a friend in my co-passenger who was a Swedish exchange student to Canada visiting the United States as a tourist. I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the train with a different set of people every day. It has been the most unique experience of my life till date. I had wonderful conversations with a ski instructor (who was the quickest to eat her lunch as she was scared of her luggage being stolen!), a professional poker player (he totally reminded me of New Zealand cricketer Ross Taylor), and a delightful couple from England who had retired and were traveling full time.

There are several more trains in America that I plan to take over the course of my life here, but the California-Zephyr will always remain close to my heart. Life has been so different and full of surprises ever since, but nothing quite as vivid and rich as the train journey. I moved to Seattle two days later. What did I say about rains? :)