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.
In fact, one of Truckee's great attractions is its surprising variety of terrific food. The Squeeze In, an affable, ramshackle joint that's all worn wood, stained glass, exposed brick, and a couple of decades' worth of graffiti has been serving stellar omelettes of infinite variety since 1974. Tucked away off the main drag is Casa Baeza and its exemplary fish tacos, 64 species of tequila, and jukebox rife with mariachi. The Cottonwood is on the site of North America's very first ski lift — the place feels like an old mountain lodge with its rustic stone fireplace, rough timbers, and vintage photos — and when you're out on the deck with its awning of pine trees, enjoying your rabbit cassoulet and beaker of Sierra Nevada at dusk with the river, the train tracks, and the town spread below you … well, contentment is as good a word as any to describe the feeling.
Best of all, though, is Moody's Bar & Bistro, conveniently located off the lobby of the Truckee Hotel. The food's better than most of the stuff you'll find in San Francisco's purple-basil dives: a dreamy tostada of soft-shell crab, avocado puree, and jalapeno oil; smoky, luscious bacon-wrapped guinea fowl with braised artichokes and pomegranate; bucatini pasta with duck confit and pine nut pesto. But the place achieved its greater fame back in February when Paul McCartney dropped by, sat in with the house band, and improvised a ditty called “The Truckee Blues.”
In addition to the bars at Moody's, Casa Baeza, and Cottonwood, Truckee has three great and distinct saloons. The B of A is a big, friendly, unpretentious barn of a place with a magnificently detailed back bar and an entertaining Sunday night open mike. Up the street is the Tourist Club, a moody yet affable dive decorated with animal heads, a pool table, neon antlers, and a perpetual “FREE BEER TOMORROW” sign over the door. And in the middle is the Past Time, a proto-Lower Mission, warped-wood, twentysomething-bartender beer hall with a small stage, a motorcycle over the bar, and a pool table out back. On Saturday night every hipster, night creature, and free spirit from the surrounding basin crowded into the bar's long, narrow confines as a rollicking reggae-fusion band rocked the joint and call-and-response rose to the rafters, bachelorettes danced on the bar, strangers-turned-friends bumped and swayed in the aisles, and the whole place surrendered to the pulse of the music. Truckee lives!
Postscript: I phoned Amtrak Monday morning to find out if the homebound Zephyr was running on time and was delighted to learn that it had lost mileage between Salt Lake and Winnemucca and would be two hours late. I took another stroll along the crystal-clear Truckee River, had a leisurely breakfast at a terrific new bakery on the main drag, and inhaled as much pure mountain oxygen as I could hold. Maybe, I thought to myself, they really meant three or four hours.
The California Zephyr departs Emeryville daily at 9:35 a.m. (a connecting shuttle leaves the Ferry Building at 8:30 a.m.) and arrives in Truckee at 3 p.m. The westbound Zephyr departs Truckee daily at 10:40 a.m. and arrives in Emeryville at 5:30 p.m. (shuttle arrives at the Ferry Building at 6 p.m.). $84 round trip. Call (800) USA-RAIL or visit www.amtrak.com. Room rates at the Truckee Hotel (10007 Bridge St.) range from $45-$135; check-in time is between 3 and 10 p.m., check-out is 11 a.m. Call (800) 659-6921 or visit www.truckeehotel.com. Summertime events in Truckee include Fourth of July parade and fireworks; Lake Tahoe Summer Music Festival (July 9-August 21); Wild West Week (August 6-11); Truckee Championship Rodeo (August 13-15); and Railroad Days (September 11-12). Call (530) 587-2757 or visit www.truckee.com.