The route of the California Zephyr. Starting in Emeryville, it passes through Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Omaha on its way to Chicago.

Colorado and the Midwest

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Wednesday, March 27. Our second day on the California Zephyr was alleged to be the most beautiful; indeed, the most beautiful on any passenger train in the United States. It lived up to its billing.

From the snow-covered Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River winds in the shape of the letter Z from the foot of a cliff in the middle distance to the forground.
The Rocky Mountains and the Colorado River

First, though, we passed overnight through Utah and into the high desert. There’s a reason they call it that — it’s DRY up there! In my research on altitude sickness, I discovered that far more people in the highest passes of Colorado get nosebleeds from the dryness than get headaches or any other symptoms from the altitude!!

A brown cliff, surmounted by a butte just left of center, occupies the top half of the picture, with grey desert shrubbery in the foreground.
Brown sandstone cliffse rise on either side of the picture, with a foreground of desert with stones and a few shrubs in the foreground.
Thompson Springs

Spoiler, dear readers: I did not get either. I sailed through the high passes in perfect comfort and felt more than a little bit of an idiot for having made such a fuss and worry about it the couple of days before. But that’s what I do — I think everything through in advance because otherwise I don’t know which day will have a problem in it that I haven’t thought through. It usually goes fine after that, and it did this time. If it doesn’t, then I know what to do about it.

Snow-covered mountains in the distant background, a ridge covered with dark vegetation somewhat closer, and sagebrush desert in the foreground. A river, mostly concealed by the vegetation along its banks, can barely be seen a little left of center.

In this case, all I had to do was go to the observation car and watch the gorgeous high desert go past. Oddly, while we did see plenty of high desert, we didn’t see a lot of actual mountains… at least not close to. They were always in the distance, framing the flat central plain through which we were passing. I can’t even call it a valley, since it rarely dipped. It was all just flat, with the mountains surrounding us in the distance. It was also cold, both inside the train (I slept with both blankets the room contained) and outside, where everything was dusted with snow the entire day. It reminded me a lot of the Mongolian high desert I’ve seen pictures of… I kept expecting to see a small herd of Bactrian camels wander by. Alas, no luck.

A steep snow-covered hillside with tall conifer trees, some with snow on their branches.

M and I split up for most of this day — M spending most of their time in the observation car, where I joined them occasionally but mostly watched out the window of my own room. That way, I could close the door and keep my mask off. M, however, wanted to sketch the scenery from the observation car, and had made a few friends there. When I went with them once, I made one too — a very nice lady who works in special education. Sadly, we only met her shortly before she was going to get out in Denver, so the conversation wasn’t as long as we’d hoped.

A blue sky mostly covered by fluffy white clouds, over a series of low, snow-covered hills.

We also got out in Denver, which my previous experience told me was an excellent place to get snacks. M wanted some, having not brought as much from Seattle as I did. Sadly, my previous experience was out of date thanks to some construction going on… the only thing in the station anymore which was open past 6pm was the bar, and we arrived at 6:30. We had a brief wander round, and then got back on our train.

Tracks run diagonally across the bottom of the picture, with the platform visible as a yellow triangle on the left. Curved roofs cover the platform on the left, with a multi-story building on the right.
View across the platform at Denver’s Union Station.

By morning, we were not only back down on the flatlands of the Midwest, but we’d knocked off the whole of Nebraska overnight, and were already into Iowa. This looked very much like the Midwest that I knew from several years of living in Chicago, but sometime I hope to get through Nebraska in the daytime, just to see if it’s any different! This time, I woke a couple of times in the night and looked out my window, but it looked much like the rest of the Midwest — flat and farmed. The Midwest has two basic categories: corn country and coal country, and everything we’ve passed through has been corn country. We will see a little of the coal side of the Midwest on the next train as we pass through West Virginia.

Iowa cornfields
And this is Iowa, in the midwest. Corn country.

Just now, as I write this, we’re approaching Chicago. We’re going to spend the night here and have dinner with an old friend, and then tomorrow afternoon we catch the Cardinal — our last train that will take us to New York.

By the way, I finished my train songs playlist a little earlier than I expected! So here it is. In parentheses are the performers of the specific version I used, not the songwriters… nearly all of them have had multiple versions released by different artists, and many we don’t know the author for at all.

  • On the Railroad (Longest Johns – not the same as I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, which is later)
  • Chattanooga Choo Choo (Glenn Miller Orchestra)
  • Rock Island Line (the Weavers – not the same as Rock Island, which is later)
  • The Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe (Judy Garland)
  • I’ve Been Working on the Railroad (John Denver)
  • Hey Conductor (Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer)
  • M.T.A. (Kingston Trio)
  • City of New Orleans (Judy Collins)
  • The Gambler (Kenny Rogers)
  • Take the A Train (Duke Ellington)
  • Paddy on the Railway (Wolfe Tones)
  • Homeward Bound (Simon and Garfunkel)
  • This Train (Peter, Paul and Mary)
  • Get On Board, Little Children (Paul Robeson)
  • The Last Train (Janis Ian)
  • To Morrow (Kingston Trio)
  • Rock Island (original cast album of The Music Man)
  • Midnight Train to Georgia (Gladys Knight and the Pips)
  • Wreck of the Old 97 (Johnny Cash)
  • Peace Train (Cat Stevens)
  • 500 Miles (Peter, Paul and Mary)
  • Railroad Song (Jim Croce)
  • Sentimental Journey (Ella Fitzgerald)
  • Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat (original cast album of Cats)
  • Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill (Cisco Houston)
  • Buddy, Better Get On Down the Line (Kingston Trio — I have more of them than any other single group or artist on this playlist)
  • Train 45 (The New Lost City Ramblers)
  • Midnight Special (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
  • John Henry (Pete Seeger)

If you have any more great train songs, please let me know about them! I’ll be glad to add them to the list.

4 responses to “Colorado and the Midwest”

  1. Azure Jane Lunatic Avatar

    I like “Driver 8”, R.E.M.

  2. Alan Thiesen Avatar
    Alan Thiesen

    Thanks for the list of train songs! I’ll listen to the ones I haven’t heard.

    When I was in high school, the chess team took the train from Chicago to New York to play in the U.S. High School Chess Championship. (We finished fourth.) The train ride helped me to better understand and appreciate my favorite train song, Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” I didn’t know Judy Collins recorded it.

    Bon Voyage!

  3. FreyjaRN Avatar

    This song may not fit your parameters. It mentions the train, so…

    Everything But The Girl – Missing

  4. Jacqueline Avatar

    At least peripherally mentioning trains: “2:10 Train” recorded by the young Linda Ronstadt when she was part of the Stone Poneys folk-rock group. There’s “Train Kept a-Rolling” recorded by Johnny Burnette and then later a more rock-oriented take on it by the Yardbirds. There’s “Last Train to Clarksville” by the Monkees. And of course the classic “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” by the late Gordon Lightfoot.

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