To San Francisco and Back On The California Zephyr

This is a huge post.

No joke. For this post you'll want to take some time, as going from Chicago to San Francisco and back by train takes some time: about 110 hours, actually.

The Prairie
I love living in Chicago. The culture and people and architecture do a lot to make me forget the city is surrounded by a hundred miles of suburbs, which are themselves surrounded by hundreds of miles of severely flat farmland. While that sounds oppressive, and at times it can feel that way, there is a beauty in the lushness of the Midwest. It’s the prairie, and the infinite-feeling sprawl of it has a beauty that I can’t deny.

Sure, it’s not as dynamic as the mountains. The mountains feel far more remote, as the bits of wild prairie that are left are surrounded by huge farms growing (mostly) soy and raising cows. But I’ve come to appreciate that you can’t have mountains without prairie, and the two are in communion with one another. But, if you just look out at this land and feel like yelling “Jesus Christ this is boring” your consolation is only having to spend a small part of the 1000 miles between Chicago and Denver in the daytime. Nebraska, in almost its entirety, is hidden in the night. When you wake up you’re coming into Colorado, and an outline of mountains appears in the distance. The whole eastern half of the state is a gradual slope heading from farmland to mountain, with rolling hills between Denver, where the train stops for a few hours for crew changes, and the first ranges of the Rockies.

The Rockies
I fucking love the Rockies. If I could just sit on a train going back and forth between Grand Junction and Denver I wouldn’t hesitate. I’ve hiked them and I’ve biked them, but the remoteness of the train route is truly a unique way to experience these mountains.

In one day you’ll pass through the entire range, rarely going over 40mph. And maybe that seems slow to you. If it does I really feel for you. If anything, 40mph is the maximum speed I would consider going through these amazing mountains. Above which, you’d never see any of the views long enough to savor them. I only hope the next time I go through the Rockies I’ll be able to move even slower. Hell, maybe I’ll just stop and never start up again.

The Desert
The train from Chicago to Oakland follows the Colorado river through the Rockies, and very quickly the lushness provided by it disappears. You realize then that the river has headed down towards Moab and the train has continued on west. What’s left is an area that has left me curious the past year, and has evaded me in all my travels.

It’s embarrassing to admit I still have yet to spend any time in the desert. I’m always awestruck by how beautiful it is, especially after recently being moved by Edward Abbey’s words on it. Criminally, the train makes no rest stops between Grand Junction and Reno, so there’s not even an opportunity to step out and feel the intense sun or grind your feet through the scorched dirt and sand into cooler layers below.

Despite this, both coming and going to California my face (and camera) remained glued to the window, lusting after the dirt roads connecting the railroad tracks to the mesas.

The Sierras
I did not expect this. Like, I knew the Sierra Nevada existed, but I had never seen them before nor really knew any of their features. Part of me thought they would be like Rocky Mountains II. But, just like every other part of this amazing country, no one area is truly comparable to another. The Sierras contrasted the jagged peaks of the Rockies with immensely dense tree cover.

Like, just look at how beautiful they are. It’s not a harsh beauty. They don’t appear adversarial like the Rockies do, I suppose. Blame it on the trees.

San Francisco
The ride out of the Sierras is a slow snake run, that takes you from isolated wilderness into small country towns that eventually opens up into flat, golden farmland. But even that is brief, because you can see the last mountains in the distance that separate this area from the Pacific. This route gives you an amazing summary of what Northern California has to offer.


That the sun was setting as the train rolled into the Bay Area was almost too much to take. Who knew sunsets could be so dramatic? It’s no wonder so many people live here. As I mentioned in earlier posts about this ride, I took this train to and from California. In arriving, it was a special moment filled with anticipation, and the amazing light hitting me felt like anything was possible. The next several days I would spend in the wilderness. Then two weeks later I was right back here, though the anticipation was gone. In its place, an immense satisfaction renowned for everything that I had experienced. But now I had one last treat, in that everything I had watched pass by me on the ride out I would now see come rushing towards.