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OVER THE HILL:
Nevada and California on Amtrak Number 5

By Bill Hakkarinen

Sleep had come easily the night of June 12, 1997. I was aboard Amtrak #5, The California Zephyr, and hoped to photograph the morning sunrise behind the rails from the rear of my sleeper, line number 533. Superliner II North Dakota may have been more at home on a route through Minot, but my slumber had been sound. The few times I did stir, we'd seemed to be moving slowly and quietly. Gray light filtered into the room, and I quickly dressed to see the sunrise.

Only gloom greeted me. Ridges of clouds, gray, white, themselves cloaking the tops of the ridges were all that greeted me. Nothingness stretched in all directions. Henry Kisor described waking up in Nevada as "heartbreakingly lonely" in his book Zephyr. I had to agree. Barren, desolate, and now gloomy with crushing sky, the scenery gave no hint to me of our location.

I headed to the diner, and joined a couple my age, and the woman had grown up in Elko. I had to ask: "What do people do in Elko?" She laughed. "Dance, sing, go to church, same as everywhere else." She thought we might be nearing Winemucca. Perhaps that was the Humbodlt River winding alongside.

Breakfast is my favorite meal on the train, and today was no exception. The coffee was good and gave a warmth to the car, in contrast to the bleakness without. Soon we were seeing signs of civilization. First, scattered trailers, junked autos, then a tree or two made their appearance. Over on the distant ridge I saw the "E." why, THIS is Elko," she exclaimed. "There's where I used to live!" We were three hours late. I heard later that my "peaceful, easy sleeping" had been due to many slow orders, and five different meets to give way to the Union Pacific freights highballing East.

Now we were along the Humbolt, and perhaps that first river had been the Mary. My table companion described the Humbolt as "the world's crookedest river." So it was, snaking back and forth, looping on itself time and again, as if it was trying to hide from the desolate desert surrounding it. The desert would eventually win, though, as the Humbolt just disappears into the ground in the "Humbolt sink."

We rocked along at track speed, and I did enjoy the numerous cloud formations, watching as they covered Sonoma Peak to the south, and the Hot Springs Mountains to the north. Winemucca came and went, and I thought our next stop would be Sparks. Lovelock is no longer a stop, so I assumed the crew change had been moved to Sparks.

Sparks was also where I hoped to meet Jim Bryant himself. I'd enjoyed trading photos and conversation with Jim over the past two years, and here was a brief chance to get acquainted on the platform. I wondered if he'd be able to arrange his day to accommodate our lateness.

It was good that he was flexible. About 30 miles east of Sparks, we came to a stop in Fernley. From what I could see, this was a nondescript small Western town, although my Southern Pacific guide from the 50's described it as "a trading center for a fertile valley used for the winter feeding of livestock." Soon, the Chief and one of the dining car attendants walked off into town. "Uh, oh....bet the crew is "on the law." Sure enough, the conductor announced that the train had stopped because the crew had run out of operating time under Federal regulations. We'd sit, hopefully briefly, waiting for a new crew.

After about half an hour, the "scouts" returned, and I opened the door of our rear sleeper to help them aboard. They carried bread, milk, stables for the diner of various sorts. Looks like there's to be an extra dinner tonight for sure. Moments later, over the P.A..."Conductor dear, we're back from the store." I think the whole train was laughing. What else could we do? Here we were, a modern day wagon train, halted in the desert, sending scouts out for provisions.

It was an hour and a half before we rolled again, and I despaired of meeting Jim, but, there at Sparks was the "typical" rail enthusiast. Big smile, camera around his neck, traces of foam at the lips. Like the pioneers before me, I presented the Nevada native with treasure trinkets, a railfan mug and cap. (In the East, mugs and caps are the currency medium of exchange among rail enthusiasts.) We had time to walk the consist, briefly check out the rotaries, and have the obligatory "tourist" photos at the head end. Others on the train used the service stop to "clean their windows." One of the benefits of a lower level room!

Jim briefly checked out my room, and waved as we pulled out the few miles to Reno. What a contrast! About the only blinking neon I'd seen East of Sparks was on the Mustang Ranch, but now garish lights and signs almost touched the train. No wonder the gambling interests and townsfolk want the U.P. to depress the rails through town. The Reno paper described the conflict. The railroad was offering $35 million, the town wanted $100 million. I was glad they were only talking small amounts of money.

We were now alongside the Truckee River, following it upward into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and I could feel the temperature change as we climbed and twisted back and forth. We passed a U.P. freight at Colfax, with clouds still skirting the mountaintops. The scene was dark and foreboding, very different from the brilliant sunlit shots I'd seen of the area in Jim's photos.

Still, it was beautiful, and I was glued to the windows as we passed Donner Lake. Snowsheds made their appearance, and we started the corkscrew twisting so characteristic of Donner Pass railroading. Emigrant Gap appeared as a way car used as an office, and our downward winding path was suddenly lighter as the clouds became more broken. From the rear of the train, I'd watch as a green signal indicated an Eastbound, and I'd hear the diesel roar fore and aft and the helper pushed upward. U.P. 8122 by itself took the place of an SP cab-forward!

Using the SP employee timetable Jim had given me the year before, I tracked our speed and mileage as we descended. Pizza became lunch as I decided not to leave this post at the rear as we dropped in altitude. We had been at 6891 feet altitude at Norden, and by Roseville, merely seventy-one miles west we were down to 168 feet. I felt a strange "pull" in the "force" East of Roseville. Must have been ancient genetic attractions to the large Finnish population of Rocklin.

Our pace quickened, and Sacramento and the growing areas west of it made for interesting and new vistas. The day lengthened, though, and on the spur of the moment I remembered the Capitols, just in time to shoot one of the new California consists as it passed us in push-mode. It was apparent that I'd see a sunset, and palms made shadows against the glowing sky. It was dark when I stepped off at Richmond, for my easy connection to BART.

I had brought books, thinking I'd find Nevada boring at times, but instead was mesmerized by the beauty, even cloud-enshrouded, of the high desert. Every curve in the Sierras brought a new wonder, of valley vista, snowshed, lake view, or trackside deer at forests' edge. All I read was the SP time table, and the passenger's guide to the Overland Route, circa 1957.

It had been a thoroughly satisfying rail day. Interesting operations, beautiful scenery, and good new friends. What a way to travel! 

(William Hakkarinen, M.D., is a member of the Baltimore Chapter of the NRHS (20th Century, too!) and a regular contributor to its newsletter, Interchange, where this story first appeared. He also volunteers as an engineer and conductor at the B&O Railroad Museum.)

Copyright 1998 - William Hakkarinen, RailroadInfo.Com


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