Although Chicago was the origin of, rather than a destination on, my journey, it would have been a mistake to dash straight from the airport to the station. Pursuing my shopping list of architectural highlights revealed particularly American urban scenes, with elevated train tracks running through canyons of skyscrapers. New Year in Chicago is not quite Christmas in New York, but the atmosphere was similar – festive decorations were still up and everything was regularly re-covered in snow.
As with my first visit to that city, I’d found a way to stay at the Intercontinental without breaking the bank; a double upgrade on my half-price stay was an excellent start to my trip.
I also managed to fit in a couple more conventional tourist attractions, visiting Cloud Gate – better known as ‘the bean’ – and battling through a deep-dish pizza from Pizzeria Uno, supposedly the originators of this dense local interpretation.
Iowa: Mount Pleasant
Although the California Zephyr makes five stops in Iowa, none of them were in places I had heard of – notably, neither Des Moines nor Iowa City have Amtrak service. Part of my motivation for this trip was to sample American life beyond the megacities I usually see. Mount Pleasant – a decidedly rural settlement of less than 10,000 people – easily fit the bill, especially in contrast to Chicago.
To enhance the effect, I decided to stay at a motel for the first time in my life. Whilst not in the classic drive-up, exterior-corridor style that word conjures up for me, the “Super 8” was definitely a change of pace from the Intercontinental! Although only a mile or so from the station, this was a fair slog through snow-laden residential streets, not so much sleepy as entirely deserted at just 8pm.
The next day I made my way to the city’s historic heart, Central Park. After Chicago’s soaring skyscrapers, the modest buildings arranged around the square didn’t seem real: feeling more like a film set or theme-park rather than an actual place.
I think it’s safe to say they don’t get many international tourists here, except perhaps for the cultural highlight of the year: the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, a five day celebration of… traction engines. However, I’m nine months early for that; although there is a permanent museum most of the (unheated) barns are closed during winter. This is perhaps for the best – the one I am able to tour offers up a few interesting exhibits on social history, but far more farming equipment than I can muster enthusiasm for.
In truth, it is hard to fill 24 hours sight-seeing in Mount Pleasant, especially in sub-zero temperatures and with a hefty pack on your back. But I found plenty of charm during my short stay, from a family-run café and an independent pizza place that kept me warm and fed, to some attractive buildings around a small university campus. Unfortunately I encountered my first pro-Trump banner and confederate flag, but also spotted a pride rainbow filling a window. I don’t agree with the idea that there is a ‘real’ America only to be found away from the coasts or the biggest cities, but there is certainly a different one, and I’m glad I got to sample it briefly.
In order to say I have visited a place, I like to have a story to tell, ideally of something unique to that location. Setting foot on the ground isn’t enough; nor – as with this trip – is travelling through, even at length.
So I didn’t just want to stop in each state along the way – I wanted to experience something of them. Well, what I mostly experienced in Nebraska was cold. Utterly unforgiving cold, the kind that makes your teeth sing and your lungs burn and your beard freeze solid. Chicago had already offered up forecasts like “-4°C, feels like -11”, and Mount Pleasant, whilst milder, required navigating knee-deep snow. But Omaha was something else: temperatures of -15, with wind chill dragging that right down to -26.
This, naturally, put the brakes on most of my tourist plans. Fortunately I’d picked the closest possible hotel to the station – an Embassy Suites. Between the two stood the Durham Museum: once the Union station, and still an art deco marvel. That therefore provided the bulk of my sightseeing activity, with a couple of dashes out into the Old Market district for meals.
Colorado: Glenwood Springs
If you only have time for one section of the California Zephyr, it should be Colorado; and if you want to split the full journey into two, it should be at Glenwood Springs. Geographically, it sits at pretty much the midpoint of the route; and unlike many stops, arrival/departure is conveniently timed for early afternoon. This lead me to book two nights here rather than my usual 24 hour hop from one train to the next, allowing some extra time to recharge.
That was made easy at the lodge: home to the world’s largest mineral hot springs pool, a million gallons of 32°C water. A smaller therapeutic pool goes all the way up to 40; both are open air and operate year round from 9am to 9pm, whatever the weather.
My first visit coincided with merely freezing conditions – a welcome improvement on Omaha’s – and I could float contentedly looking up at a brilliant blue sky, snow-covered mountains filling the periphery. Such is the size of the pool, I was hardly aware of other guests – helped by steam that lazily curls off the surface, scattering rays of sunlight. Bliss.
A second dip – on a Saturday morning – was much busier: a lot more families, and at least one influencer couple. Makeup, earrings and cute bobble hat carefully kept out of the water, she perfects a fifteen second routine of wade-and-turn-with-playful-splash as he films, equally careful to avoid drowning an expensive phone. I hope they remembered to enjoy the experience afterwards – and that they didn’t get a grave-pale, questionably-bearded train geek photobombing their work. The weather had also taken a turn for the worse, but this just allowed me to appreciate the contrast between the warmth of the therapeutic pool and the chill of snow settling on my shoulders.
This would already be enough to recommend Glenwood Springs, but I was also delighted by a short walking loop to two rivers park, so named for the meeting of the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers. A bridge carries the railway over this point, where I was able to capture an eastbound California Zephyr passing through:
I also had two of my favourite meals of the whole holiday here: an excellent Nepali dinner from Masala & Curry, and a second lunch when I spotted a food truck offering pierogi.
The only downside was that this was easily the most expensive stop of the journey: I paid more per night here than in Chicago…
Utah: Salt Lake City
I am considering a much longer visit to Salt Lake City later this year, but for this stop I did not have any firm plans. I discovered that if you’re only going to spend one day here, a Sunday is not the best choice – most shops and, more crucially, most places to eat are shut.
So I spent much of the morning checking out a variety of buildings affiliated with the Mormon faith – generally just their exteriors, fearing that to step in might lead me to a conversion seminar I’m too socially awkward to escape. Even just wandering the streets I encountered several missionaries, and was unsure what to make of their sing-song friendliness: genuine, or cult indoctrination?
Trusting to the separation of church and state, I fled to the State Capitol. This turned out to be a highly impressive building in the Beaux Arts style so beloved in America for both places of government and transport hubs. Its elevated location also offered some great views: the city occupies an enviable spot surrounded by mountains. I didn’t quite have the time or energy to tackle one of the trails that leads even further up into the hills beyond the Capitol, but am keen to explore these in the summer!
De-training at Reno, it felt like my ride on the Zephyr was drawing to a conclusion: I’d completed my second overnight section, and with it 90% of the mileage. I was in my third and final time zone, and my last new state.
This would be the perfect stop for one of the near-midnight arrivals I’d had in Omaha and Salt Lake City – emerging from the station straight into the casinos’ dazzling displays. Instead, I stepped out at 9am: in the (literal) cold light of day it’s easier to spot the pawn brokers and loan shops that fuel unsustainable gambling habits.
On the plus side, I was also presented with two happy reminders of home: an enormous open-air climbing wall; and a similarly towering street art mural, the Face of Reno.
I encountered a few more murals on the way to the hotel – where, to my amazement, I was already able to check-in, and receive a room on the top floor. It turned out that Reno has got into street art in a big way, so I devoted much of the day to tracking down other examples. Despite extensive wanderings, I suspect I have only scratched the surface; and, of course, this is a medium that encourages constant change.
I could instead have spent almost the entire 24 hours inside – Circus Circus, Silver Legacy and Eldorado link into a three-block sprawl of accommodation, dining, and above all gaming. That evening, I roamed the entire length, not just in search of food but anything resembling atmosphere… COVID seems to have hit hard, with the stage shows cancelled, many restaurants closed, live tables unstaffed, and electronic amusements all but deserted. I did feed about $20 into various machines, but it felt like I was just going through the motions. But at least I have won a more unusual prize – there can’t be many tourists whose first gambling experience in Nevada wasn’t in Las Vegas!
California: Oakland / San Francisco
I scheduled two nights in the bay area, but – as the Zephyr doesn’t quite get there, and hotel rates were hefty – neither in San Francisco proper. Instead, on leaving the train on Tuesday evening I would be staying closer by in Oakland; and to position for an early flight on Thursday I’d be spending the night before at the airport.
That still left Wednesday for potential sightseeing – but somewhere along the line I had convinced myself that between warmer weather, a heavy pack, and the end of my exhausting itinerary, I wouldn’t enjoy it, and should just lazily transfer from one hotel to the other. There was probably also the lingering influence of my first / only visit to San Francisco, which had been marred by a bout of winter flu.
Fortunately my attitude improved on the day. In Oakland I ticked off a few architectural highlights and made a few chance street art discoveries, before heading to Jack London Square. Here I saw a couple of street-running Amtrak California trains – just as fascinating from outside as when I’d experienced it aboard the Coast Starlight – before taking a ferry across the bay.
If you can’t arrive in a city by train, a boat is the next best thing 🙂 Especially when you’re one of a handful of passengers, get to enjoy the crossing on a sunny day from an open-air deck, and don’t get charged for a ticket! We ran alongside huge cargo ships and then under the even more enormous Bay bridge before docking at the Ferry Building. That is now a market full of tasty (but expensive) lunch options; enjoying my selection sat at the harbour, I realised writing the day off for the sake of convenience would be foolish.
Inevitably, my first instinct was to check out some notable buildings – in particular the TransAmerica Pyramid. After that, I embarked on a high speed tourist trail. No special insights or hidden gems here – I rode streetcars, watched a cable car turn, slogged my way up Lombard Street, meandered around Fisherman’s Wharf, and visited the sea lions. In the end, I only set off for the airport when the sun was sinking and my camera battery had been completely drained – with San Francisco thoroughly redeemed in my opinion!