To fully round off the experience, there are the conversations with an incredible medley of people. The girl with the rainbow-coloured hair turned out to be a highly intelligent individual who had turned her back on a Mormon upbringing to become a musician, and with her boyfriend is part of a band that’s committed to world peace. The hair was meant to distract from her beauty so that the focus would be on her message! Then, there was an African American working for the Amtrak train company whose compelling joie de vivre made every moment we shared with him a delight. And to offset him, a Vietnam war veteran who felt he had been used and abused by the state, and a highly-placed woman engineer who was uncharacteristically and deeply into spirituality. There were also the attendants with their irreverent declarations (so different from the prosaic announcements one normally hears), urging us not to stray too far from the train at a stop because, if you cannot make it back in time: “I won’t feel bad as we steam off, leaving you behind, I won’t feel bad,” as one of them explained generously, “because I did warn you!” This warning did not stop us, or many other passengers, from disembarking to buy messily juicy Palisade peaches.
Online reviews are mixed on the quality of food and service aboard the California Zephyr, but we were well pleased with both. Actually, what’s most interesting about this journey was that we got to see a slice of American life that we would never have otherwise, both by way of scenery (many places we went by had no roads) and in interactions with ordinary Americans. With the US elections not too far away, passionately held views were aired. Independent US Senator Bernie Sanders had the most vocal support amongst those we spoke to, while Hillary Clinton had the least, followed closely by the inimitable Donald Trump. Though it’s highly likely that the elections will show our train companions were way off the mark, it was such a privilege to hear views that we would probably never have heard elsewhere.
On your next trip to the United States, take a ride on the California Zephyr. The entire journey from Chicago to Emeryville is a formidable 51 hours and 20 minutes, with two nights on board the train, but as the scenery becomes interesting only after Denver, you can cut the journey to a far more comfortable 33 hours with one night and almost two days on the train that’s named for a gentle wind from the west. Whatever distance you choose to travel on it though, you will have the time of your life.
There are several hopping flights from India to Denver. Round-trip economy class tickets ex-Delhi cost about Ã¢?¹55,000.
Rates for the journey on California Zephyr are higher in summer. However, if you have flexible travel dates, you may land a very good deal. The Amtrak website (amtrak.com/ california-zephyr-train) is very user friendly and gives precise and detailed information on the costs and facilities available with every class of travel.
Sleeper accommodation includes bedrooms and roomettes, both with complimentary meals, linen and toiletries for the duration of the journey. They also offer lounge facilities at selected stations. Bedrooms have attached bathrooms, with a very small toilet and shower. There are three toilets and one fairly reasonably-sized shower to service a very small number of roomettes. We never had to wait to use either and both were always spotlessly clean, so I would recommend the roomette (from $350 for the summer of 2016). However, do book early as roomettes and bedrooms are sold out very fast. Some people actually book a year in advance.
Apply online via ustraveldocs.com/in.The process can take up to three weeks and costs $160 (about Ã¢?¹10,800).
1 USD = Ã¢?¹66 (approx)
Where to stay
Denver has a range of hotels across budgets. If you’re taking a sightseeing tour, pick a hotel with a pick-up and drop facility. If you wish to take the California Zephyr, then proximity to the Union Station is helpful, as the train leaves Denver at 8am. We stayed at the Denver Marriott City Center(from $180; marriott.com) because it met both criteria. Another option is the Hotel Monaco Denver (from $150; monaco-denver. com), less than a kilometre from the station.
Check in your baggage at the station; even a large overnight bag may be placed in the luggage hold. Carry no more than a backpack on you as there’s very little space on the train.