California Zephyr

December 7-8, 2006

On our list of “1000 Things to Do/Places to Visit” is to ride the California Zephyr train from Roseville, CA to Reno, NV in the wintertime with snow on the Sierra.

In December 2006 we finally had the opportunity to board this historic train that travels from Chicago, IL to Emeryville, CA.

The California Zephyr was the premier transportation from the west coast to the Midwest during the 1940’s with the scenic dome cars, sleepers and a well-appointed dining room with classic and distinctive china place settings.

We see snow-covered rocks when we reached Emigrant Gap at an elevation of 5243 ft. With the sun highlighting the snow on the boughs of the green pines, firs and cedars, the scenery is quite lovely. After traveling through some of the renovated snow sheds, we began the descent into the Reno Valley area. Although we had traveled Highway 80 many times, seeing the Sierra Nevadas from the train provided a new and interesting vantage point.

For those yearning for the allure of transportation that is sometimes overlooked during these modern times, we recommend a ride on the comfortable California Zephyr. Be prepared for the train schedule to vary, however, as our train to Reno arrived 40 minutes late and our train leaving Reno arrived 9 hours late—but don't blame AMTRAK (the Union Pacific RR only lets passenger trains on their tracks when there are no freight trains on that section)!

As you can see, Mike is not too well versed in remembering the details of trips that we take. Linda, however, is a master at writing brief trip notes and then being able to convert them into a detailed account of the trips that we take.

The paragraphs below give you a much more clear idea of the fun that we had on this great trip.

Thursday, 12/7 - We boarded Car #6 of the California Zephyr after a 40-minute delay waiting in the Roseville Depot. We left Roseville at 12:30 with warm temps and bright sun. We headed upstairs to the Dome Car and found a table for more comfortable traveling. Lots of sun and beautiful fall colors from our second-story window as we climbed the grade adjacent to Sierra College Blvd, through Penryn and Newcastle. We crossed Hwy 80, had a nice view of Old Town Auburn and the Historic Courthouse, crossed Hwy 49 and caught site of Leeds Drive from the Princeton Club over crossing. We paralleled Bell Road, crossed 80 again and began the ascent up toward Applegate, Meadow Vista and Colfax.

Lunch in the dining car sounded like a good idea. At first, the dining steward tried to seat us with another couple but Mike would have to face the wrong way so we requested another seat. We sat down to a table for four with Mike facing front and me across from him. A minute or so later, the steward seated an 82-year old farmer traveling from Fresno back home to Wisconsin with us. Lunch was very long with this elderly gent who was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease or at least, dementia. The wait staff was friendly and helpful when the farmer took my chicken sandwich lunch and gave me his veggie burger and cheese. The staff brought another chicken sandwich for me and left him to eat mine.

Finally, we see snow-covered rocks when we reached Emigrant Gap. With the sun hitting the green pines, firs and cedars, the scenery is quite lovely. After traveling through some of the renovated snow sheds, we began a descent out of the Sierras and into the Reno Valley area.

We arrived at the Reno train depot at around 5:30 and the cold air took our breath away as we exited the building. It was only a block to Fitzgerald’s Casino but 5 blocks to the Sands Regency, so the bell captain at Fitzgerald’s called us a cab.

As cold as it is, the cab was a great idea dropping us off at the hotel entrance. We checked into our $19 room on the fifth floor and found it to be quite adequate.

The timing was perfect to go upstairs to the Sands Buffet for a New York steak dinner. The steak was only passable, but the salad, minestrone soup and baked potato were very good. Our room coupon got us a discount and our dinners were only $11 each.

Next door was the Funny Bones Comedy Theater and when I explained Mike’s hearing impairment, we were seated front row center (in the $16 each seats that we paid only $14 total with our 2 for 1 coupon!). We were pleasantly surprised to find the drinks fairly reasonable: $4.50/glass of wine with a 2 drink minimum. However, Thursday is ladies night so the wine was all you could drink for $10. OK, I had to have 3 glasses of Chardonnay in order to take advantage of the value! Mike’s 2 fruity rum drinks were served in tacky styro while my wine was served in a wineglass.

The emcee, a tall, thin Hawaiian fellow was excellent and very likeable. The second comedian, Brandon “Whatever”, was a contestant on Last Comic Standing and no doubt was ejected from the show early. He had funny moments but too many annoying ones.

The headlining comic, Tom Rhodes, was somewhat jumpy (‘self-medicated‘, we think) but kept us roaring with laughter. Tom and I had a couple of quips back and forth about his love for Amsterdam and my experiences there. It was a fun evening with plenty of laughing without having to travel from our hotel. We were in bed and trying to get warm at 10:30.

Vickie Elmgren called to let us know Bea wouldn’t come out of the doggy door but barked and played ‘ferocious watch dog’.

Friday, 12/8 - Mel’s in the Sands Regency served a good hot breakfast. A call to “Julie” (the automated 1-800 USA TRAIN system) advised that our 9:15 train was delayed until 2:45. We decided we had plenty of time to go to the National Auto Museum. We checked out of the Sands Regency and caught a taxi and got to the museum by noon.

A lot of unique vehicles, including a white Cadillac owned by Elvis, a customized Italian car for Sinatra, the Batmobile, a Tucker with 3 headlights, and many other beautifully-restored cars.

A call to “Julie” and we find out the train is delayed and should arrive in Reno at 5:30. Another cab ride to Fitzgerald’s where we had a late lunch at Mandy’s Garden cafe and ordered turkey wraps to-go for dinner on the train.

We hung out in the Fitzgerald’s Keno area where the seats were comfy and it was warm. We traded train complaints with the 6 folks who traveled to Reno on train No. 6 with us.

Mike played a $2 game of Keno with only one matching number out of 20. I found a Frog Prince slot machine and spent 20 minutes playing for $3. Yesterday, the Frog Prince at the Sands Regency netted $12 after 20 minutes of play. Clearly we are not meant to be gamblers!

We headed to the train station at 5 and heard the 5:30 ETA had become 5:50. At 5:50, there was no train so all of us who walked onto the very cold boarding area, came back inside to the warmth. At 6:15, Train #5 finally pulled into the station and we all climbed aboard. Unfortunately, this train doesn’t have the nice table and seats, so we settled into individual seats facing windows for the ride home in the dark.

Knowing it was going to be a long ride back in the dark with nothing to see but the brief stops at the various train depots in Truckee and Colfax, we started to eat our turkey wraps. Due to the long delay, the cooks had made a huge pot of beef stew and invited all of the travelers into the dining car to enjoy a hot meal on the house. We put away half of our turkey wraps and joined the rest of the passengers for stew and mashed potatoes. Not quite on my Weight Watchers diet, but pleasant anyway.

At almost midnight we pulled into Roseville, and made a mad dash for the Jeep as it was pouring rain. Home by 12:30 and quite happy to greet Bea and jump into bed to get warm.

It seemed to be a crazy, short trip during a very busy time of the year as we are celebrating Christmas with everyone in N. California (Eric and Amy, Rob and Kim, CVR, Heather, etc.) before packing up and leaving for S. California on December 20. However, it was a life-long wish for Mike to ride the California Zephyr to Reno in the snow and a trip we had wanted to take for 2 years. It seemed to be a good omen when I got on the internet to book the trip that with Mike’s senior citizen status and using AAA for my ticket, our trip was only half the normal price ($168 for us both, round trip). So with the $19 room, coupons for meals an the comedy show, it was a very reasonable trip and well worth the effort.

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