This Train Is Your Train

There's a romance to railroad travel, especially when the destination is a special, spirited mountain town called Truckee.

I'm not exactly sure what it is I love about traveling by train except that I'm just the sort of crackpot who prefers the Sunday paper to CNN online, mint juleps to tequila shooters, three-course sit-downs to In-N-Out Burgers, and all-night poker games to a dose of Mortal Kombat. There's a rhythmic quietude about train travel that encourages schmoozing and sipping and tranquil contemplation, and there's the romance of it, too: the stranger in the dining car, the evening cocktail against an ever-changing backdrop, the feeling of motion, of going somewhere, of lighting out for the territory. Rail travel isn't as swell as it once was, of course -- chefs have been supplanted by microwave ovens and martinis are served in disambient plastic tumblers -- but if you're romantic about trains, there's a shiver of anticipation when the flatted wail of the California Zephyr approaches the Emeryville depot, and the station agent calls off the litany: "Bound for Chicago with stops at Martinez, Davis, Sacramento, Roseville, Colfax, Truckee ...."

Truckee was my destination: a spirited little town in the mountains that was made by this very train 130 years ago, back when the brand new transcontinental railroad cut the travel time between New York and San Francisco from six months to 10 days. (The Zephyr was discontinued in 1970 and revived a decade later by Amtrak, an always beleaguered government agency that's a favorite target of presidents and senators perfectly content with as many cars and as little mass transit as possible.) Since Emeryville was the first stop on the voyage, there were plenty of seats to choose from, big comfy recliners with lots of leg room and spacious windows to frame the transient panoramas. I grabbed a seat on the left (northwest) side of the train to ensure a better view of the upcoming scenery.

The Zephyr follows a beautiful route cross-country, wending its way around Utah's prehistoric rock formations, climbing up the Rockies, and hugging the rushing violence of the Colorado River before barreling into gorgeous old Union Station. But arguably the most dazzling stretch is when the train starts climbing out of Colfax to 7,040 feet, and the observation car is enveloped in pines, firs, and the occasional snowscape. A historian from Sacramento's Railroad Museum served up local lore about desperados and forest fires and Stanford's Curve and the Donner Party, and although mention was made of the latter "surviving a great hardship," the "c" word was never uttered.

Upon arrival in Truckee -- which, properly speaking, scatters 13,864 inhabitants across 34 square miles of timberland, but for our purposes is centered on two or three blocks of century-old restaurants, hotels, and saloons paralleling the train tracks and the Truckee River -- I emerged from the station and saw an E Clampus Vitus plaque that's as good an introduction to the town as anything I've read: "Truckee, Jewel of the Eastern Sierra. First known as Gray's Toll Station, then Coburn's Station, Truckee was established in 1863. Renowned for its lumber industry, transcontinental railroad, ice houses, saloons and red light district, Truckee has never been known for its laid-back demeanor. It has always been a town where people came to entertain themselves on Friday and Saturday nights, just as it is today."

I had made reservations for two nights at the Truckee Hotel, which like most of the downtown area is located half a block from the train station. (The railroad is still a major motif in the ambience of Truckee; a freight train barrels along the main drag, whistle blowing, every few hours.) Built in 1873, the hotel looks like the sort of place Adam Cartwright might've holed up when he'd had it with the Ponderosa: ornate bordello-esque parlor, crystal chandeliers, velvet accents, mahogany staircases. My fourth-floor walkup was a small, charming hangout with a sink, a comfortable bed with a handsome quilt, and a bathroom across the hall with a claw foot tub; not bad for $50 a night. (After snooping around, I realized that every room in the hotel is different; some have armoires, or rocking chairs, or three beds of different sizes.) On the second floor was a public room with sofas and armchairs and a big cable TV, and down in the parlor a continental buffet breakfast was offered every morning. Tea, coffee, and (packaged) cookies were served weekend afternoons by the helpful staff.

Truckee's a great place to hang out, and that's how I spent my thoroughly pleasant two-day visit, eating in restaurants and drinking in saloons, meeting the forthright locals, walking along the rushing river, and exploring the old town itself. A self-guided walking tour introduced me to several offbeat local landmarks: the River Street Inn, where Charlie Chaplin and his crew stayed while filming The Gold Rush nearby; a very dilapidated Chinese herb shop built in 1878, the only remnant of what was the second-largest Chinatown on the Pacific Coast; and a gazebo sheltering one of only 25 boulders in the world so perfectly balanced, it once would rock back and forth at the touch of a fingertip. (It doesn't rock anymore, for unexplained reasons, but the gazebo's nice.) After all that walking -- the weather was wonderfully warm two weeks before the solstice -- it was good to relax at Bud's Sporting Goods ("ammo, worms, ice cream") over an honest-to-God malted milk.

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