My 3-Day Train Journey To Maryland

Maitreyi Bharath

Every winter, our family travels to Maryland to visit my uncle and his family. Usually, my other cousins from across the U.S. make this trip too, and we have a wonderful family reunion during Christmas and New Year’s Day. 

The best part is the flood of Christmas gifts I get. 

Just kidding. The best part is getting to spend time with my family. However, this year my Christmas time with them was somewhat limited compared to other trips.

Typically, our journey to Maryland is a 6 or 7 hour direct flight — SJC’s Southwest terminal, the skies, BWI Airport, and boom, we’re there.

This year our trip took 3 days. 54 hours, to be precise.

Why, you may ask?

We took the Amtrak California Zephyr. 

When I first heard about my parents’ plan, I didn’t understand why we were quite literally taking the long way around. Why spend three whole days on an Amtrak train when we could take a flight and reach Maryland in a few hours? How did we even know that the view was as scenic and amazing as promised? Why did we need to wind our way across the country when our main purpose was to visit family over Christmas? Would it arrive on time, or live up to its reputation of lateness?

We weren’t even going directly to Maryland; the train ended in Chicago and we’d be flying from there to Baltimore. I’d be meeting my relatives the day after Christmas.

The first day of the train confirmed my doubts. We’d booked two roomettes in our compartment, and each had just enough space for two people—not including all the bulky backpacks we had brought. Another large family had booked two roomettes in our compartment. 

Our family’s rooms were diagonally across from each other. 

The other family’s rooms lay along the other diagonal.

We couldn’t switch until the other family got off at their stop. 

My parents had told me that this trip was going to be an adventure of sorts. On the first day, we passed by a bunch of cities and towns, stopping frequently. The view was mediocre. I settled into my seat, thankful that my dad had brought a network device. This was looking to be a very boring trip. 

We ended up getting delayed by a couple hours on the very first day. The train unfortunately upheld its reputation for tardiness extremely faithfully. Several times, we had to wait for other trains to pass by. We even had to wait for the drivers of the snow-clearing car to finish their lengthy coffee break and begin clearing the snow. Since we had a plane to catch in Chicago, we were constantly examining the train schedule and estimated time of arrival, hoping that the delay wouldn’t increase further. It was stressful. 

By the end of the first day, I truly believed that our journey was not going to go well. The only tasty item on the fixed menu of frozen meals was the cake, our compartment’s attendant grumbled and took forever to deliver our blankets for the night, and we missed the Sierra Nevadas because of the train delay. It had been a subpar experience so far. I went to sleep regretting our travel choices.

The second day dawned. 

Overnight, we’d crossed from Nevada to Utah. I was expecting a mediocre view once more when we stepped inside the train’s observation car after breakfast.

That was when I understood why we were on this train.

The observation car’s huge windows gave us a beautifully clear view of Utah’s deserts. We passed towering monuments sculpted from dusty rose sandstone and followed winding streams of pink water. Small waterfalls flashed by, the same pink as the stone. The sage green and rich browns of the vegetation contrasted wonderfully with the rock walls Nature had carefully carved millions of years ago. 

And we hadn’t even hit the Rockies yet. 

Once we crossed into Denver, our journey turned into a white christmas. When we stopped at Grand Junction Station, I saw the biggest snowflakes I’d ever seen in my life — almost half the size of my palm. The view of colorful shrubs dotting the plains before the Rockies and surrounded by white snow, was breathtaking.

In the afternoon, we entered the mountains. 

The snow was falling rapidly now, partially obscuring our windows with rain and ice. Every nook and cranny of the granite monuments were covered in snow. The world had turned black and white. The mountains looked like staircases for giants climbing up into the sky. We craned our necks in an attempt to see the peaks, and still failed. 

It was awe-inspiring.

The train followed the ice-covered Colorado River through the mountains. A few holes in the ice strangely reminded me of a rhino’s head, a whale’s tail, and several other out-of-place items. The powerful mountains and the river cutting through them formed a beautifully harmonious combination. I found it interesting that only the Rockies are hailed as the symbol of Colorado, even when the Colorado River was so clearly inseparable from the giant monuments. At some points, we passed so close to the mountains that it seemed that if we reached out, we would touch the stone.

We snapped picture after picture that day, trying to capture the majesty of the black granite mountains and the deep blue river lined with pine trees that starkly contrasted with the white snow.

Unfortunately, due to the train’s 2 hour delay, darkness obscured the most scenic part of the mountain range, and overnight, we exited the winter wonderland. It had been a wonderful Christmas Day—aside from the tasteless meals.

The Heartland was a bit anticlimactic after seeing the Rockies. We passed by fields of stubble and withered skeletons of trees, all in varying shades of yellow and brown. A few barns and cylindrical buildings passed by. The scenery was beautiful in its own desolate way, I suppose. I spent the time playing games with my five year old brother and reading. It was a peaceful ending to our journey. 

The long way around was worth it. I would repeat this journey in a heartbeat. 

As long as we bring our own food next time.

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