Zephyr Train : Part – 1: California

The train ride on the California Zephyr was one of my most memorable journeys. I had always wanted to see the great Wild West of America, but could not work out a road-trip for it, and Amtrak was the perfect alternative. This route is called the California Zephyr and goes between Chicago and San Francisco.

There are two parts to the journey – the eastern half goes through the Prairie grasslands between Chicago and Denver, while the western half covers the mountains, canyons and deserts of the Rockies between Denver and San Francisco.

I decided to optimize for the scenery and see the latter alone. Since I live in California, I decided to take the West-to-East journey by train from San Francisco to Denver and then come back by plane. I kept an extra day in between, to look around Denver, just in case the train was late. Amtrak trains are known to be wildly late, from several hours to even a whole day, and hence, keeping a buffer day in one’s plans is always recommended.

Onboarding at Emeryville

The day began with an early morning Uber ride to Emeryville – a bay-front town to the North-East of San Francisco, between Oakland and Berkeley. My Uber driver, was unfortunately one of the worst ones, going on a lengthy political tirade on how non-white people across the world need to “accept their conquest” by Europeans and adapt to western culture. Why he felt the need to tell this to me, an immigrant, I can only guess.

Now, one of my cardinal rules is never to argue with the person driving the vehicle I’m in. While it was hard not to argue back, I was traveling, this person could make me miss my train. The train tickets were expensive, and a no show meant no refunds. So, I just pretended to be busy and looked at my phone.

After dropping me off, he said, “Sorry, if I went overboard. Don’t think of me as a racist. My wife is Asian and I have some Cherokee blood in me.” I nodded and dashed away from him as fast as possible to the station. The day started off poorly, but it was necessary to keep a cool head while traveling and to make sure I focussed on having my tickets and being on the right platform.

While Amtraks are known for being late, this time, the opposite happened. Because I was an hour early to the station, I had assumed the train that was standing was a different one. However, rather than go back in, I decided be extra cautious, and recheck with the folks at the ticket counter, and guess what? It was indeed my train and set to leave early. Lucky me, for being cautious.

The Roomette

There are various options for traveling in the train – the coach, the roomette and the bedroom. The bedroom is the luxury option – a full-sized room with all amenities, and I thought, more suitable for larger groups. Being solo, my options were between a coach and a roomette.

A seat in the coach is similar to an airplane seat. It is comfortable with plenty of leg-space. However, because I was traveling by myself, there was no guarantee that I would get a window-seat. One cannot pick one’s seat locations like airlines, and the car attendants generally put groups together while tossing single travelers into any empty seat. This meant I could be given a non-window seat for the whole journey, making it pointless.

If one doesn’t get a window seat, there is still an observation car, where anyone can sit for a while for the scenery, there is no telling how crowded it can get, and seats are not guaranteed here as well, and one can run the risk of never sitting by the window.

For two or more people, coaches are fine because , even if only seat is the window one, you can take turns sitting by the window.

Being solo, my only option to get a guaranteed window view was the roomette.

The roomette is a small two-seater accommodation on the sides of the train. There is a food-tray, water-bottles, blankets and at night, the car-attendant closes in and joins the seat to make a bed. There were pillows too. And unlike the coach, on-train meals in the dining car are included with this option.

It is highly recommended that one tips one’s car attendant. One could tip either at the beginning or the end of the ride. I decided to tip him $20 upfront, at the start of the journey, so as to be on his good side. The car attendant, in exchange, made sure to respond quickly to any of my needs and dutifully reminded me of meal times.

Aside from the coach, the roomette, and the bedrooms, other cars of interest were the dining car and the observation car, common to all, and it was here that I spoke to and made friends with other passengers.

Through California

The reel of scenes outside started with the rolling hills of the wine county to the north of San Francisco. Soon, we crossed over the Sacramento River and entered the city of Sacramento. The stop had nice views of the riverfront.

As we continued north-east, the rolling meadows gave way to dense forests. We passed by the Donner Lake as our conductor pointed out via the speakers that this was the site of the Donner Pass Tragedy.

[CONTENT WARNING – CANNIBALISM] The incident happened around 1850s, when a few families journeyed through here from the East on wagon-coaches as time of the westward expansion of America . However, due to heavy snow, they were stuck. Soon their food resources where exhausted, they ate their transport animals. Then, out of desperation, they drank soup made from cowhide. And when that was exhausted, they resorted to cannibalism of already dead members, distributing food to make sure no one ate their own family members. When even this exhausted, all compassion died out, and the remaining survivors turned on each other with murderous intent, until they were rescued by a Native American community who fed them and nursed them back to health.


Today, Donner is a winter-resort where folks from Silicon Valley come up to get away from their computers and relax in the woods. We stopped at the town of Truckee, with its picturesque main street and old cottages converted to hotel-stays. What was once infamous for its remoteness is today prized for it. It made me ponder on how sometimes, nature remains the same, it is our relationship to it, that changes.

I was seeing these places from the comfort of train seats, where old pioneers died. These tracks were built by Chinese railroad workers. I looked up the history of Truckee on my phone, and apparently, the town had a “League of Caucasians”, who had burned down the homes of the very same Chinese workers to intimidate them into leaving.

It made me think as an immigrant, how home is never a fixed place and always on wheels. Even today, when no one is threatening to burn down my house, there is still an Uber driver in the who reminded me that I was only a guest here, and not to get too comfortable.

This is where we crossed the state-line and moved into Nevada.

I will continue with my observations and thoughts in upcoming articles.

2 comments

  1. What a terrible Uber driver! Despite this not-so-great start, your journey seemed beautiful, and the scenery really is stunning! It is really one of my favourtie things about travelling by train: seeing the landscape pass by. I also hadn’t heard of the Donner Pass Tragedy and it is bone-chilling. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    1. Thank you. Yes, it was hard to keep quiet and not argue back to the unsavory person, but I think I did the right thing by keeping my cool and focussing on the journey ahead. It was a good train ride and I met a lot of good people on the way as well.

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