Until last month, I had never thought about the train much. Sure, there were tracks to walk over in Truckee, and it was fun to point out to the kids the snake of shipping containers that chugged alongside us as we drove on I-80 to Reno. The cartoon character Thomas the Train had briefly brought the railroad to life, but he had already come and gone from our lives as my son outgrew him, plus Thomas was British so not really applicable to a country obsessed with its cars.

To me, the train was something to be used when traveling in Europe or around the small states of New England, but out here on the wide open West Coast the railroad seemed relegated to museums and history books and John Wayne movies, about as much a viable form of long- distance travel as the horse.

That was, until my husband suggested we take the train to Colorado for our annual family trip to Aspen. My knee-jerk reaction was ‘Hell no, are you crazy?’ I whipped out my smart phone and Googled how long the journey was — 20 hours. Twenty hours on a train with three children? I think I’d rather be forced to watch Cartoon Network for an entire day while someone pulled out my toenails.


But wait. Was flying any better? Putting a family of five through security is a form of torture only slightly more benign than water boarding. Take the sleeping baby out of the stroller, cram the stroller through the X-ray machine, take our shoes off, pull out all the sippy cups and the baby food, open up our computers, empty our pockets, remove our belts, dismantle all our neatly packed bags while corralling three children who would like to run as fast as they could through the terminal, then put everything back together again. We are usually exhausted and stressed by the time we reach our gate and collapse into a plastic seat.

Hmmmm, maybe the train wasn’t such a bad idea after all. There had to be sleeper cars, right? I pulled out my phone again. Yup, we could get a family cabin with four beds, all meals included. The train, called the California Zephyr, had been around since 1949 and was known as one of Amtrak’s most scenic routes, traveling from Emeryville, through the Sierra and Rocky Mountains, to Chicago. Our stop would be Glenwood Springs, about an hour from Aspen. Best of all, we could pick up the train in Truckee. What? Leave from Truckee? I was sold.

The train, it turned out, was everything the plane is not. If the whole process of getting on a plane is stressful and rushed — long lines, cramped quarters, a sense of urgency to take off on time — the train was slow and relaxed. It was an old-fashioned form of travel, heralding from an era before email, smart phones, and jet travel made time speed up.

The train was so relaxed, in fact, that it was late. We arrived at the Truckee depot about an hour before our scheduled departure. We were the only passengers for a while, until another couple showed up who take the train every year to visit their son in Vail. The train was delayed? No big deal. We just went across the street and grabbed a bite to eat. We had no connecting flight to meet, no hotel to drive to before dark, no security line to stand in. We would get there when we got there.

Finally, the Amtrak Superliner arrived. In a matter of minutes, we were aboard and the train was moving again. We stowed our bags and checked out our cabin before heading upstairs to the Observatory Car, where we would spend most of our time. The Observatory Car is like an arced green house, covered in windows from floor to ceiling, with comfy chairs that face the passing scenery. As the train rolled out of Truckee, we watched the town gradually slip behind us as we followed the Truckee River, catching glimpses of the river’s high canyon walls and twists and turns that had never been revealed to me before. I felt like I was sitting in a movie theater staring at a screen, only I was moving 79 miles an hour, observing a familiar landscape from a new perspective.

We soon struck up a conversation with the man next to us, a friendly guy in his fifties originally from India who told us he was on his return trip back to Chicago after spending a few days in San Francisco. He had gotten the consent of his wife and two children to make the journey by himself. ‘Did you have business in San Francisco or were you visiting a friend?’ I asked him. ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘Just rode the train for the heck of it.’

And that’s when I realized what the train was all about. It wasn’t about getting to your destination, it was about travel for the sake of travel, to see new places and meet new people and experience something different. It was about time slowing down and spending time with your family. It was about having nothing to do but watch green fields and churning rivers and brown deserts slide by you as you sat and took it all in, at 79 miles per hour.

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  • Melissa Siig

    Melissa Siig ditched international politics in Washington, D.C. in 2001 to move to Tahoe, where she quickly found her true calling — journalism. She has written for regional and national publications, and enjoys writing about community issues and quirky human interest stories. When not at her keyboard, she is busy wrangling her three children, co-running Tahoe Art Haus & Cinema, or playing outside.

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