"Welcome to Moooooon River," the conductor announced as our train curved into a canyon running parallel to the Colorado River. I quickly realized what he meant; as we rode alongside the Colorado River, our train was mooned by countless whitewater rafters -- athletic young men, families of four and retired couples.
"Moon River" was just one of the surprises aboard the California Zephyr, an Amtrak train that runs from Chicago to Emeryville, Calif., a more than 2,000-mile journey that takes passengers through the Rockies and the Sierra as well as the lonely Utah desert. During our September trip -- the Denver-Salt Lake City leg -- we enjoyed long, sunny days aboard the Zephyr. If you were to go now, you might be treated to views of the Rockies dusted in an early snow.
Earlier that day, my friend Erica and I boarded the California Zephyr in Denver, eager to spend our three-day Labor Day weekend experiencing our first "train-cation," as one passenger called the ride. As two restless 20-somethings anxious about being cooped up on a train for 15 hours, we budgeted in an overnight stop in Glenwood Springs, Colo., to break up the trip.
Upon boarding, passengers, predictably, made a mad dash to the observation car, where windows stretched nearly from the carpet to the ceiling. Although we initially were disappointed we didn't score one of the observation-car seats, we needn't have been concerned. As the train began ascending into the Rocky Mountains, we found two seats next to a young couple from Iowa, who had been riding the Zephyr since Chicago. After they finished their cribbage game, they left, along with several other passengers, leaving the car to us and a few other people.
Our patience was rewarded with breathtaking views of the Rockies, some of which you can see only by train.
After settling into the observation car, we treated ourselves to Bloody Marys. Our expectations were set relatively low, but oh, how wrong we were. Drinking a tangy Bloody Mary while gasping at the cliffs and crags of the Rocky Mountains was full sensory overload.
Getting the chance to talk with Darrell Bennett, a bartender aboard the Zephyr for 15 years, was another benefit of ordering drinks. He shared some insider tips, including where passengers can see an eagle's nest filled with chicks, all the while extolling the virtues of rail travel. "It's the most civilized way to travel, that's for sure," Bennett said.
I came to understand what he meant; on other modes of transportation, movement and contact with passengers is kept at a minimum, but Zephyr passengers have the freedom to walk around and talk to one another.
I started keeping a list of our fellow passengers. Marlene and Barbara, a mother and daughter on vacation, were headed for Sacramento, Calif., from Chicago. David and his dog, Millie, a pint-sized mutt, boarded with us in Denver on their way to visit friends in Aspen, Colo., a 41-mile drive from the Amtrak station in Glenwood Springs.
And then there was Bart, an 84-year-old who has ridden the Zephyr from Glenwood Springs to Emeryville 95 times. Looking for tips, I asked Bart about his favorite part of the journey. "The whole damn thing," he replied.