Thursday, July 17, 2014

Photo Shoot: Midnight Train to Denver

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Utah occupies a rather prominent role in the history of U.S. rail travel. On May 10, 1869, the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed with the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit in the then-Utah Territory, linking the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads and forming a continues line from east to west.

It's a scene that is depicted on the state's official quarter, along with the phrase "Crossroads Of The West," and yet despite residing in Utah for 91 percent of my life I've never really participated in long-distance rail travel (subways and a quick trip on the Long Island Rail Road excluded).
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But a few months ago I was at a journalism conference where the invited speaker was Tom Zoellner, a former Utah journalist who authored the book "Train," which is about, as it turns out, trains.

At the end of his speech, the mediator asked him what one what piece of advice he would give a roomful of professional journalists. I was suspecting some bit of industry parlance like "work your beat" or "write tight" but instead Zoellner said to get on the California Zephyr and ride to San Francisco.

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Until he said that it hadn't even occurred to me that Amtrak stopped in Salt Lake City. We're westerners after all, we have cars. But then I remember that of course you can get on a train in Utah. We're the Crossroads of the West!

I've been to San Francisco, and most of the points west along the Zephyr's route, but in 27 years of Utah living I had never visited Denver, our intermountain sister-city to the East, so when a 3-day weekend availed itself to me I packed a back and headed for the tracks.

Obviously there's a lot of drawbacks when comparing travel by rail to travel by air. A nonstop flight on Delta from SLC to DEN takes 90 minutes, compared to the 16 hour churn of the Zephyr. And because the Zephyr runs a single route on repeat, ad infinitum, there's not a lot of options for departure times. In Salt Lake, that means boarding at 3 a.m. if everything runs on time (more on that later).

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But it has its advantages as well. The cost is typically lower, the seating is considerably more comfortable, you can stretch your legs with a trip to the lounge car or catch a full-service meal in the diner. And security is scant, with almost no limits on your luggage and the ability, if you choose, to snuggle with your dog. Let's see you do that on Delta.

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Speaking of the lounge. On both my departure and return trains there was a family of – what I presume to be – Amish people. At first I thought "Oh, we're all coming back together" but then it occurred to me that these were not the same people. Turns out the Amish don't ride planes, with the more orthodox seeing them as an unnecessary worldly luxury and thus necessitating the use of trains for long-distance travel. Who knew!

The other way that trains have planes beat is the scenery, which particularly through the Glenwood Canyon was just incredible.

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Our first stop in Colorado was Grand Junction, a rather dilapidated relic of the railway golden years. You can almost imagine old scenes of men in trench coats, puffing on cigars in the moonlight while the steam from an arriving trains billows along the platform, or enlisted men leaning out of windows for one last kiss as their girls wave and dab at tears with frayed handkerchiefs.

Now it's just boarded windows and chain link fences, with a metallic Amtrak Sign lending support to the cracked and faded lettering on the junction's facade.

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We arrived at Denver's Union Station a little before 7 p.m. The building was closed for a private party celebrating the end of a renovation project so we travelers wrapped around the perimeter and headed up the 16th Street pedestrian mall.

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16th Street is a charming feature of the city's downtown, with through-traffic relegated to the cross streets and only public transit and rickshaws allowed down the main drag. The street itself is largely dominated by Starbucks shops and chain restaurants like Cheesecake Factory and Chili's, making it something of a pedestrian mecca for those friends of yours who like to go out but don't have particularly refined taste.

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There are exceptions of course and the ritzy Larimer Square is nearby, where I got some killer sushi and potstickers at Tag. And since this is Colorado, I moseyed into a recreational marijuana store. I didn't take any pictures though, because I didn't want to be that guy who walks in with a Utah ID and a camera starts snapping photos like some puritanical narc.

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Saturday was my main day to explore the city. I watched the Rockies lose to the Twins while eating a footlong bratwurst at Coor's Field and stopped by Tatterred Cover bookstore to pick up my own copy of A Tale of Two Cities (which was fitting, because my king bed at the Grand Hyatt allowed me to end the night with one of the better rests that I have ever known).

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I also headed over to Commons Park, which runs along the South Platte River, and happened upon a skateboarding tournament, which made for a nice distraction. I'm not a skater, I've never been a skater, but it's incredible what they're able to do.

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From there I headed back to my hotel with a quick detour to the Colorado State Capitol and Civic Center Park, where most of the city's government buildings (and the Denver Post) are located. Colorado has a great capitol, with a blue-ish rotunda that makes it stand out from the relatively identical nature of those buildings.

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Nearby are the public library and Denver Art Museam, two great modernist buildings surrounded by sculptures and pop art. I'm a sucker pop art, always have been.

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I was supposed to leave Sunday morning at 8 a.m., but around 6:30 I woke up to a message that my train had been delayed four hours to 11:50. When a 16-hour ride is delayed four hours, it puts a bit of wrinkle in your plans. What puts an even larger wrinkle in your plans is when that train is delayed again until 12:15, and then again until 12:30, and then finally leaves around 1:15.
But on the bright side, I finally got a chance to explore the union station.

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I admit that some of the romance had worn off by my return trip, during which I spent less time gazing out the lounge windows and more time with headphones in my ears binge-watching the first season of The Americans on my laptop.

But even while I tried to resist, the scenery at times was just too much to ignore.



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