The track behind our train Looking back down the track Each time we experiment with public transportation, we seem to enjoy it more. We have logged enough miles by truck during the past decade to qualify as experts in private transportation, and we certainly enjoyed that, but although we have had terrific train trips in Europe we are only beginning to become familiar with train travel here at home. The high peaks of the Sierra Nevada still have snow, even though we are half-way through March. What a great time, we decided, to take a train ride!

We immediately discovered that train travel involves us with real people, with real quirks, unlike airline travel. The Amtrak California Zephyr travels from Emeryville (well, San Francisco, except that one travels by Amtrak bus from San Francisco to the Emeryville station) all the way across the country to Chicago, with connecting service to New The track behind our train Homeless tents near Sacramento York. A trip to Reno, Nevada was small potatoes for this train, even though at least two dozen passengers embarked with us, directed to the special car at the end of the train, which would be dropped after we disembarked.

The conductor, a down-to-earth redheaded woman, shooed us into the car, checked our tickets, hung a tag above our seats, and hollered out instructions familiar to all travelers, involving NO FEET ON SEATS, READ THE EMERGENCY INSTRUCTIONS, THE DINING CAR OPENS AT NOON and so on. Although our tickets were for reserved coach seats, the reservation does not extend to specific seats, nor, often, even to specific cars, a situation which caused a The trackside area of a small town Passing through a town minor kerfuffle when a group boarded a few stops later and wanted SATISFACTION. But the cars are spacious, more comfortable than the coaches we found in Europe, and the train is nearly silent, in stark contrast to the continual high-pitched engine noise of an airplane. The coaches are two levels, but the lower level is generally used for handicapped passengers, luggage, service areas and washrooms; we liked sitting up high to watch the scenery. We met a friendly couple from Watsonville, California, who are experienced train riders, having made this journey several times before, but who prefer the trip to Seattle, and who are already planning their next ride, to Santa Barbara.

Our route took us past the alleys and back yards of Berkeley and Oakland, along the edge of San Pablo Bay, its muddy Skilifts near the summit Ski lifts near Donner Summit flats visible at low tide, near the oil refineries and holding tanks of Martinez and Richmond. We saw homeless encampments near the train tracks. The clean pup tents made us think of families newly foreclosed. Soon we were out of the metropolitan sprawl and beginning our journey through towns and cities first settled during Gold Rush days. After Sacramento, we began the ascent into the mountains.

Our weather going east was cloudy with light rain showers. The rice fields near Sacramento bent over; fruit trees in the orchards were in lavish bloom. Before we had achieved much altitude we began to see patches of snow on the ground, first in canyons and at the base of large trees, then more widely visible, until by the time we reached Donner summit the snow was deep and crisp and uneven. We passed ski lifts with a few end-of-season skiers.

A glimpse of our train Our train Walking through the train was pretty easy, though we had to hold on to the backs of seats for balance. At the center of the train, a lounge/observation car has huge windows curving to the roof and the stairway to the snack bar downstairs. We wanted to try the dining car, so when it opened at noon we were among the first to be seated. One end of the dining car served mostly the passengers from the sleeping cars, and on our half we joined other coach passengers. We were seated in groups of four; our table partners were two law students on a Spring break ski trip. They had their expenses paid by an extreme skiing e-zine; one was the writer, the other the photographer. They hoped for snow and sunshine. We had menus (mostly sandwiches, plus one hot dish, and mac and cheese or hot dogs for children); the steward announced the menu options to everyone seated in the dining car. The food was prepared on the lower level and sent up by The Truckee River near Reno The Truckee River dumbwaiter. With at least two dozen tables and only two stewards, lunch proceded at a rather stately pace, giving us plenty of time to chat with our seatmates and enjoy the ever deeper snow. Our meal (Bob's chicken stew, pastrami sandwiches for the rest of our table, soft drinks and ice cream) allowed us to stay in the dining car for about one and a half hours. We recommend getting to the dining car in time for the first seating!

Arrival in Reno found us only a couple of blocks from our hotel. Unlike Las Vegas, which is an extension of Southern California, Reno is filled with cowboys and other westerners, and makes us feel as though we had found ourselves in the Old West a century ago.

Our coach Inside our Amtrak coach Two days later, we retraced our steps to the station and boarded the train for our return trip. This time, instead of beginning its journey, Train #5 was two days out of Chicago, and some of the passengers had embarked on Amtrak in New York, traveling by coach the entire trip. They seemed relaxed and contented with the service they had received.

The mountainous part of the trip was at the beginning this time. We followed the course of the quickly flowing Truckee River climbing out of Reno back into the Sierra. On both trips, a volunteer from the California State Railroad Museum was aboard, giving us brief descriptions of places of historical interest. We thought we knew the area, but several of the towns on the railroad line were new to us. The general outline should be familiar to all: the Big Four -- Leland Stanford, Collis A tunnel A tunnel Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker -- set up a partnership to fund the creation of the Central Pacific Railroad, the western part of our first transcontinental railroad. Our train rode on the Central Pacific Railroad roadbed for much of the way through the mountains. We saw tracks of large and small animals in the snow, and, since our return trip was in bright sunshine, we admired the shadows of the trees on snowy trackside slopes. Every now and then we passed a canyon, its sides smoothed and rounded by snow.

Alongside of the river are flumes carrying water down to hydroelectric plants. These look like ladders tipped sideways. Some were built as long as a hundred years ago; the basic construction hasn't changed much. Other notable structures along the way are tunnels through the mountains and sheds where the tracks hug the hillsides. The shed A snowfilled canyon A snowy canyon protects the train and track by diverting heavy snow across the roof, over the track, and down into the valleys below.

The stretch from Reno to Sacramento is rightly regarded as one of the most beautiful in the world. Laying the track and digging the tunnels was and remains an engineering marvel; many lives were lost. It's hard to imagine a bullet train here; the only way to do it would be to tunnel the whole distance, and then passengers would lose out on the magnificent scenery. Our trip each way took about seven hours, all in daylight. We found it quite relaxing because we didn't have to face traffic problems, and we got up to stretch our legs whenever we felt like it. With our senior fares, the trip was a bargain and easy to arrange online. With train travel slowly growing and improving in North America, we're hoping for more trips in the future.