The California Zephyr is an Amtrak line that runs from Chicago to Emeryville, just outside of San Francisco. If you ride it the entire way, you will spend two nights on the train and see some of the most gorgeous scenery that this country has to offer. The zephyr arrives in Denver on its westward trek around 7am, and departs into the Rocky Mountains for approximately eight hours, winding its way to Grand Junction and onward. Many Coloradans use the train to get from one side of the Rockies to the other, seeking its slow, meandering way as a relaxing ride through stunning scenery, some of which can only be seen by rail or river rafting. The holidays provide an optimum time for this adventure, especially among the snowy peaks of this state, and the train often sells out during these few weeks.
When my hubby surprised me for my birthday with a train ride into the mountains to the famous Glenwood Springs, I was grateful and excited to go, but I was also a little sad to be leaving home again, just two days after our arrival for a holiday break. We unpacked our big suitcases, did laundry and cooked one meal at home, and packed a small bag for our quick overnight stay. We headed to Denver’s Union Station early in the brisk morning air and climbed aboard. Our ride to Glenwood Springs would only be six hours, but he had reserved a roomette (a compartment with two seats facing each other that can also become bunk beds) so that we could enjoy the ride quietly. As soon as we put our bags under our seats and sat down, we took a breath that helped us slow down into a calm, serene mood. If you are riding in the sleeper cars, meals come with your ticket, so we grabbed breakfast in the dining car as the train left the station and began the assent into the mountains. Once back in our compartment, we settled in, kicked off our shoes, and sipped our hot beverages in our spacious seats. The train rolled around bends that hugged rugged peaks. Snow drifted and landed on evergreens as we climbed westward, entering the long Moffat Tunnel to pass Winter Park ski resort. It glided through canyons, following the Colorado River, into spectacular terrain. We sat, occasionally talking, sometimes just sipping our tea quietly or dozing. We allowed the tranquil ride and scenery to bring us into a slower day. Our sleeping car attendant would come by to check on us, playing some holiday music for a little while over the closed circuit sound system. It was quintessentially relaxing and easy.
One of the beautiful parts of train travel is the conversation that can happen with the other travelers. When traveling by plane, managing the airport manic can be exhausting. By the time you sit down, all you want is to put on your headphones or read a book, existing in an isolated state. But on a train, people are calmer and typically have a sense of adventure and curiosity.Travel time is slower, with little sense of urgency. Phones are mainly used for picture taking, as the service is typically spotty on a train. It presents a situation where a conversation can naturally evolve, often with someone that is unlike yourself. Humans begin to connect, strangers discuss perspectives, and life stories are listened to and acknowledged. The man with whom we ate breakfast is a medical marijuana dispensary owner and snowboarder in California, riding home from Chicago to his fiancé, excited for their first Christmas together as an engaged couple. In the observation car, a young college student struck up a discussion with an elderly woman as they learned that they were both from Michigan. The most extensive discussion we had developed with the ladies in the roomette across from ours who were traveling from Denver to San Francisco for Christmas. She discussed her gift practice with her nieces and nephews: she created ‘ticket’ or a ‘coupon’ to events or activities that she had planned during the trip, including one that was a ‘golden ticket’ that entitled them to one activity of their choosing. It sounded like a great way to engage nieces and nephews through providing interesting experiences that they could do together. Our sleeping car attendant would come by and interject stories of his own, his personable nature bringing holiday smiles to many. He added that he left presents for his kids under the tree, just in case he didn’t make it back in time. His home base is in Chicago, and he works the train route all the way to California and back, putting him on the rails for approximately six days at a time. The conversations were charming and heart warming.
We arrived in Glenwood Springs and walked to the Hotel Colorado, checking in to our room with a parlor. It is an older hotel with history that includes Teddy Roosevelt’s travels through the West. The hot springs are pumped into a pool across the street, and our view included the steam rising from the 104 degree water into the cold 20 degree mountain air. As we slipped into the natural hot tub, our skin softened and we were soothed into a quiet lull. We gazed into each other’s eyes and sweetly told stories of past Christmases. Once out, we lazily grabbed dinner and a drink at the hotel, enjoying the kids playing around the fire pits and the holiday lights out front. We eased into the next morning, stopping in the coffee shop downstairs. Slowly we crossed the street to the train station around noon and hopped onto our ride home. Sleeper car travelers are allowed to drink alcohol in your compartment, and we sipped wine as the train slinked us back through the canyons and around snowy peaks to our home in Denver. Arriving at 6pm, it provided the perfect opportunity to grab dinner downtown and take in the holiday decorations.
This getaway was actually what I needed for my birthday: to be disconnected for a minute, to stare aimlessly at the wonders of the world, taking in the majestic quality of nature and the season. We could let go and let an engineer do the driving for a little while. Soaking quietly in the hot springs with my partner, we found our precious unspoken connection, the one that makes us swoon. The trip is simple, easy, and direct, allowing for a low stress experience. It was perfect. A sweet thank you goes to my hubby; may we have many more relaxing, romantic birthdays in the years to come.