There I was, in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, looking down at the Colorado River. Animal tracks in the snow made a dotted line beside the water. But where, I wondered, were the bighorn sheep? The black bears?
I was in my 40th hour aboard Amtrak, nearly 2,000 miles into a 3,218-mile cross-country adventure. I had packed five books, my laptop, several movies and hours of music, figuring that I would have plenty of time to kill. But I hadn't unpacked any of it. Instead, I was so enthralled by the landscape that I'd forgotten I was supposed to be bored.
On a Saturday afternoon at Union Station, sleeping-car passengers were ushered to the track, and I found my room in the double-decker Superliner. The freedom to explore the train was intoxicating. I walked through the sleeping cars and the dining car, downstairs to the cafe car.
I made a dinner reservation, and when the time came, the maitre d' announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, please make your way to the dining car. Keep in mind it's community seating. You will make a friend."
I was seated with a Colorado-bound mustached musician wearing a bowler hat and an orange bandanna around his neck. I found that buying a train ticket bought far more than a ride; it bought time to talk, listen, look and think -- and time to ask questions you'd never ask otherwise.
"So what makes your mustache curl up?" I asked the musician.
"Hair glue," he said, explaining that without it, the mustache would curl down, giving him a completely different look. "Then it's less evil villain and more gold prospector."
Back in my room, sleep came easily -- the train is surprisingly smooth and quiet. I woke up only when we stopped to refuel around midnight, in Pittsburgh. As we left the station, I sat up in bed, looking out my window at the glittering city lights. I felt as if I were seeing the world from backstage, a view reserved for those who dare to get out of their cars.
Early the next morning, Art, my sleeping car attendant, slid the New York Times under my door. After breakfast, he told me that he'd been with Amtrak for 17 years. I asked whether he'd been on the California Zephyr.
"Pictures and postcards don't do it no justice," he replied. "You gotta see it for yourself."
The more I heard about the California Zephyr route, the more I was prepared to be blown away. I boarded train No. 5 at Chicago's Union Station. That afternoon, we passed through Illinois and Iowa. "Good time to read," the conductor noted.
We crossed the Mississippi and Missouri rivers before stopping in Omaha, where a new conductor and engineer boarded. In the morning, we pulled into Denver well before our scheduled arrival, which gave us plenty of time for fresh air and leg-stretching on the platform.
Within minutes of leaving Denver, we were winding our way into the Rocky Mountains, passing through a couple of dozen small tunnels. As we exited the 6.2-mile-long Moffat Tunnel, we hit Winter Park, whose ski slopes -- and skiers -- came right up alongside the track. We had climbed nearly 4,000 feet in just over 50 miles.
For the next couple of hours, heading toward Gore and Glenwood canyons, I lost track of time. There was such excitement in the car: gasping at the panorama, trying to absorb the view on both sides. At times, the tracks hugged the edge of a cliff. The views were exquisite -- like nothing I'd ever seen in these mountains on foot, in a kayak or by car.
From Reno, Nev., to Sacramento, one of the most historic stretches, volunteers from the California State Railroad Museum hopped on board and talked about the first train robbery, epic fires and snowstorms, and the building of the transcontinental railroad.
We climbed into the Sierra Nevada and followed the Truckee River. I saw snow-capped mountains reflected in Donner Lake and small communities where townsfolk shot pictures of the train. We reached an elevation of 6,939 feet before the scenery started changing.
The train arrived nearly an hour early in Emeryville, near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The track ends here, but an Amtrak bus takes passengers into the city -- a rather anticlimactic ending to the Zephyr's journey of 2,438 miles.