A Chicago to San Francisco journey gives Pamela Wade time to eat, relax ... and talk.

The shootout was unexpected. "In all the times I've ridden this train, there's never been a lockdown before," said Richard from New York, gazing out of the window at a scene of multi-coloured autumn beauty. There was plenty of time to admire it: we'd been stopped for over an hour.

Whereas all of our previous halts had been explained by the Amtrak conductor as obligatory give ways to freight trains, there was a curious silence about this one. Texts and Google supplied the answer: in the little Californian town of Auburn up ahead, a gunman was on the rampage, and having shot dead two deputies and injuring two other people, he was now holed-up in a house, surrounded by a swat team while helicopters circled overhead.

John, the amiable dining car attendant, shrugged it off. "There's always something making us late. Freight train derailments, breakdowns ... and if someone drives his car in front of the engine and gets killed, well, that's four hours ... The coroner has to come out."

In the circumstances, it seemed churlish to complain. Anyway, for most passengers on the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, a few hours added to a journey totalling just over two days and nights was neither here nor there -- even an advantage.


For Tom, English, crossing the States by train had been on his bucket list for years, and he was in no hurry. James, American, was on his second trip, luxuriating in being disconnected from the world, able to sit back and listen to his audiobooks. Richard hated planes and had plenty of time. Yolanda and her husband wanted to enjoy the scenery without the stress of driving over the mountains. For Dave, it was mental-health therapy.

Over six meals in the dining car, seated each time with different people, and during long leisurely hours in the panorama car with its big windows curving up into the roof, we met many fellow passengers who had in common only their total relaxation. Whether they were travelling coach, spending their nights in reclining seats with the sort of legroom that air travellers would envy, or had treated themselves to one of the two types of sleeper accommodation, they were all in holiday-mode.

Two whole days with nothing more to do than sit, eat and sleep allows for the kind of expansiveness and depth of conversation that normal life rarely does. Topics ranged from green beans as a weight-loss regimen for labradors, to a Doomsday scenario of sunspot-caused universal GPS failure, to candid discussions of US international relations, to stories of escorting children to school after wolf-warnings, of being written off as restaurant wastage, and about the intelligence of mules.

There was an Amish couple in traditional dress; a pair of English nurses trying to instruct grinning Americans in the pronunciation of "garage"; a muttering priest in a black cassock who tucked his serviette into his crucifix chain at meals and may not have been a priest at all. There was the man who claimed to have been a government special investigator and then a designer of nuclear weapons for Lockheed; and the two adult sons with their elderly father who were having a very quiet and protracted family melt-down, enabling epic eavesdropping: "Your mother crucified me." "Oh, so you're starting on her now?"

AMTRAK California Zephyr. Photo / Supplied
AMTRAK California Zephyr. Photo / Supplied

But all this was incidental entertainment: the main show on this route is the scenery, seven states and nearly 4000km of plains and valleys, mountains and rivers, town and country. Out of Chicago are pretty suburbs, followed by expanses of maize fields dotted with red barns and shiny silver silos, where combine harvesters trailed clouds of dust. We traversed the endless flatness of Iowa during the night, waking to the golden dome of the capitol building in Lincoln, Nebraska; but Colorado is where things got spectacular. "The real scenery starts at Denver," we were told.

Once past the Mile-High City, we entered the Rockies, where dramatic uplifts point skywards, cut through by the clear and tumbling Colorado River. This is the Tunnel District, the train diving into the dark 29 times, the longest tunnel nearly 10km in length. Aspens and cottonwoods were a dazzling yellow in the sunshine, fishermen cast flies for trout, log cabins clustered by the track, kayakers took on the white water. The rock becomes iron-red, then blue, high flat-topped mesas dwarfing the train.

We followed the canyons down to the Great Basin, passing Salt Lake City during the night and looking out in the early morning on to the bare brown hills of Nevada, side-lit by the sun, straight out of a Grahame Sydney painting. The commentary told the stories of gold miners and settlers, and the Donner Party disaster, and we reached Reno and Truckee, a friendly little frontier town with a "Happy Fall Y'all" sign.

The last barrier is the Sierra Nevada, pine forests covering the mountains, blue lakes tucked into valleys. Then come salt marshes and finally, as the sun sets again, the sea: San Francisco Bay. The end of the line is Emeryville, just a bus trip over the Bay Bridge from the city. It's the last of 35 official stops and many unofficial ones, and we were over an hour late -- but nobody was bothered. We'd just crossed America.



Getting there: A daily service in each direction, Amtrak's California Zephyr between San Francisco (Emeryville) and central Chicago offers coach or sleeper accommodation (reservations required). The two-seater sleeper is very cramped. There's a full meal service and snack bar, plus showers. Fares start at $210 for coach.

Pamela Wade paid her own way on the California Zephyr.