Taking note: Enjoying the ride
The night sky is a velvety black, but reflections of the sleeper car’s lit-up interior dance upon the glass of the little window as the train travels westward. The light casts faint, shiny images of the pull-down table and bunk, a couch that converts to a bed, and the small door that exits to the main train compartment.
As I look at the window more closely, my own faint reflection appears in the window.
I can see the shadowy, yet shiny outlines of my face, but little else of myself, as I’m only a few years old and a few feet tall when this train trip takes place.
But the reflections in the window are hardly the most fascinating thing about this train trip.
I’m enthralled by the little room in the train car and overjoyed at a chance to sleep in the fold-down top bunk, which feels like an exciting and daring feat at that age and height.
Beyond the little room, the chance to traverse the many train cars is a neverending source of fascination and entertainment.
The passenger cars, the window-filled observation cars, and the dining cars feel massive and novel, as does the sensation of walking on a moving train.
And even when I’m back in the little sleeper car, I have books that can be read to me, coloring pages to color, and a little Lisa Frank notebook to pass the time.
And there was a lot of time to pass.
The train traveled thousands of miles over the course of a few days, taking us to Arizona, where my grandparents awaited our visit to their home.
And Arizona held just as much as excitement as the train ride did, as I found myself cherishing the time with my grandparents and the fascinating desert world they inhabited.
I marveled over the citrus grove at my grandparents’ house and how the strange, beautiful cacti that towered over me.
I fell in love with their little hot tub and patio area, their kitchen island with barstool seating, and the wonderful suede fringed vest and ball and cup game they gave me as souvenirs.
As soon as we departed, I couldn’t wait to come back to Arizona on the train.
And it wouldn’t be too many years before I returned for another visit with my grandparents in Arizona, but it would be around two decades before I took a train across the country again.
And as Arizona left its mark on me, the fond memories of this early childhood train trip would stick with me over the years. I found myself always hoping to take a train across the country again.
I dreamt of what it would be like, how I could soak in the panoramic view afforded by the glassed-in viewing car and see canyons, mountains, fields, and whole landscapes in a new light.
And then the opportunity finally arrived, four Junes ago.
It would be part of a larger trip that spanned thousands of miles, one that took me from Chicago to Phoenix and Tucson, to San Diego and Los Angeles, then to Sequoia and Yosemite national parks, and finally, to the train station in Sacramento and back to Chicago.
Many of these places I had been before — except for the breathtaking Sequoia and Yosemite national parks — but they all held a fresh appeal and excitement, a new magic.
And while I was reluctant for the trip to end, I anxiously awaited the journey aboard the California Zephyr that would take me back to Chicago.
Then, at last, it was time to board that train, which was bound for the Sierra Nevadas, and countless other wonders.
And just as I had thought, there’s nothing quite like staring out over the gorges and peaks of those mountains, knowing much of what you’re seeing can’t easily be seen any other way.
The mountain ranges, canyons, and gorges echoed with history, inviting me to consider the many who labored to build these rails and those who had crossed these paths by foot, horse, and wagon over the centuries.
And while I had never taken this route before, the trip seemed to also echo with my own history, transporting me back to my first railroad journey so many years ago.
Those days and thousands of miles on the California Zephyr allowed me to revisit one of the first great adventures of my life, and all of the feelings that came with it.
And just as my first train trip did, the many miles I traveled on the Zephyr showed me the limitless wonder, beauty, and possibility that the world can contain when you look closely and settle in to enjoy the ride.