November 14, 2008

Vol. 6 – The California Zephyr @ the Rocky Mountains, CO

It would figure that my camera battery would die just as we enter the picturesque passes and switchbacks that lead us into the heart of the mountains. I guess I took too many pictures of all the nowhere we’ve been going through. There’s a dam up in the hills here (Carver? Harper? some Denver kids are shouting something like that) that spans a small gap between two hills, rising sheer from a narrow valley floor that appears to have a few (hopefully uninhabited) structures standing in it’s shadow.

This really is gorgeous country — my kind of country, anyway — evergreens and brown grass and snow, hills that surround wide open, gently rolling plateaus, or long curving lakes, soft peaks broken occasionally by promontories of bare rock that hint at the mountains to come. In a little valley, surprisingly anachronistic, even up here, stands an old fashioned one room school house, peeling bright yellow paint beneath a white bell tower. Gusting wind raises up plumes of snow from the little hills and sends it curling through a stand of 4 or 5 foot tall pale reed-like bushes that terminate in a profusion of reds, oranges and rich browns.

In places here the tracks run along a sheer drop only inches away, and 150 feet below a starved and lazy stream trickles along its stony course. There are dozens of tunnels as well (42, the conductor will later tell us) to deal with places a train couldn’t climb or go around. The girls in the lounge car, middle schoolers I guess, attempt to hold their breath each time we enter one, while also trying to make each other laugh, and thereby lose the game. Like all good childhood diversions, they end with everyone laughing and no single winner.

Shortly we enter the longest tunnel of the line, 6.2 miles, passing beneath the Continental Divide, and are admonished not to change cars during the 10 minutes within in order to minimize introduction of the coal dust and diesel fume that permeates the tunnel all the time now despite efforts to clear it. It’s impossible to avoid some fume though, and I find my diesel headache coming on almost immediately…

Thankfully, the ventilation system cleared the air quickly once we were out, and my sick feeling receded as rapidly as it came on.