Taylor Made: CHI-GSC Part II - Steeper Grades
This is the second installment of my two-part blog about taking the train from Chicago to Glenwood Springs. In part I, I focused on the mechanical side of the trip. Part II discusses the experience of the trip itself.
The Zephyr has two engines, three sleeper cars, a dining car, a lounge car with skylight windows, and two coach cars. During heavy travel periods such as spring break, the trains have an extra coach car added. Two locomotives are not necessary for pulling either load but are required for redundancy, similar to why single engine prop planes have two magneto switches and two spark plugs per cylinder. As the trip takes three days from end to end and leaves daily from each end, there are six California Zephyr trains running at any given time.
The train makes regular “fresh air” breaks along the route, stopping at specific stations for five minutes or more. During these stops, riders can step off and walk along the platform while new passengers board. There are also several scheduled layovers, during which the cars can be cleaned out and restocked and passengers can leave the train to get food or walk around.
My train pulled out of Union Station in the early afternoon. I rode in the very last car and had a great view out the rear door of the expansive track we were covering as we left the western suburbs and entered the farmlands. After crossing the Mississippi River, I watched the sun set over fields in Iowa. Instead of quickly sinking into the horizon and falling from view, the sun seemed suspended in the rainbow sky just over the horizon. This was because we were traveling west at upwards of 80 miles per hour—chasing the sunset with an uninhibited view. Longest sunset I ever saw.
At night, all of us coach riders camped out in our seats. The conductor turned off the car’s dim overhead lights at midnight; by then, most people had already been sleeping for a couple hours. When on schedule, the Zephyr reaches Nebraska at nearly 11 pm and pulls into Colorado just after 5 am, meaning that you can fall asleep in Iowa and skip the entire state of Nebraska.
The first layover came the next morning at Denver’s Union Station. On the first trip, I walked a few blocks to the grocery store to get breakfast just as the sun was rising. Many passengers getting on in Denver were only making the jaunt to Glenwood Springs, using a laidback alternative to driving that takes a little over six hours.
Once out of Denver, the train entered fields of shallow grade and slowly climbed above the city. We soon came to a tight 270-degree curve called the Big Ten Curve, named for its sharp 10-degree curvature. By the time we left the snaking turn, we had gained significant ground and were continuing into the mountains. We worked our way along the mountainside, passing through tunnels and getting glimpses of the fading city over the tops of verdant pine trees.
When going through long tunnels, it is common procedure to keep all doors of each train car closed so that exhaust fumes can’t enter. Before reaching the town of Fraser, the train passed through the 6.2-mile-long Moffat Tunnel, crossing the continental divide and driving deep into the Rocky Mountains. After the subsequent stop in Granby, the train followed the Colorado River for a couple hours and 110 miles to Glenwood Springs.
Between Granby and Glenwood Springs were miles and miles of canyons. We went through lower and upper Gore Canyon and passed Dotsero Gorge, the halfway point between Chicago and Emeryville at 1204 track miles from Union Station. Then we went into the towering Glenwood Canyon and on to the GSC station.
Builders try to put train tracks out of reach and even out of sight when possible, allowing the train to reach places that pedestrians rarely frequent. On my trip, I passed behind big buildings and factories and underneath sidewalks. I traveled through remote gulleys and empty ravines and along hillsides overlooking long-abandoned shacks. I wound in and out of steep mountainsides and through canyons untouched by roads, and looked upon ranches in valleys far from the nearest town.
Tucked away, separate from the mainstream routes, you might discover a new perspective unfolding in front of you as you embark on the adventure of traveling by train.
Photo at top: Following the Colorado River. All photos by Taylor Tucker.
If you missed Part I of this series, you can find it here.