Sat September 22, 2012
Reporter's Notebook

Romance Of The Rails: Love Lost & Found

As my morning grogginess and grumpiness subside, I turn my attention to the Iowa countryside out my window. We pass a wind farm, with hundreds of tall wind turbines.

Coffee, just the thing after my midnight train experience.
Credit Nathan Heffel

Norman says it's great to be passing through the land of Johnny Carson and John Wayne, both born in the hawkeye state. Obviously heavier sleepers than I am, I look over and see Greg and Jake fast asleep.

Heeding the 2nd call for breakfast after the 1st call that woke me, I walk down for a cup of coffee and some grub.

Now, walking on the train is truly an art.

Of course, the people working on the California Zephyr have no problem walking at all. I, on the other hand, look like a drunken sailor swaying with the sea. I did copy the conductor who kept one hand on the baggage rack to balance herself from time to time.

It helped, a little.

...the California Zephyr is her favorite. The hours are long, but meeting travelers from all over the world and a great work environment make it worth it.

Greeting me at the door to the dining car is Dominique Patterson, the train's Lead Service Attendant. She's the perky voice over the train's PA system at seven this morning. Though I now feel guilty about being so grumpy over her voice, I do wish I was so perky.

This is her first year with Amtrak, but she's a natural. Based in Chicago, Dominique's a recent college grad recruited for the position. She says it’s her job to make the trip memorable for every passenger, and she does.

For example, during dinner the previous evening she held a trivia contest in the dining car with Amtrak and regional gifts as prizes; a Chicago White Socks key chain, an Amtrak mug, a bottle of wine.

Turning into a game show host, complete with a cut out paper conductor's hat (for the kids) she made us laugh as we cheered our fellow passengers on answering questions like:

Q: "When did Amtrak begin service?" A: May 1st, 1971.

Q: "What city does the California Zephyr originate?" A: Don’t you remember?

She's worked many different routes for Amtrak, but the California Zephyr is her favorite. The hours are long, but meeting travelers from all over the world and a great work environment make it worth it.

And that's what I've found with all of the staff on the California Zephyr. From the Conductor to the Service Attendants, they're all passionate about Amtrak and keeping everyone on board comfortable.

After breakfast, I head back through the train to my seat. The lounge car is already bustling, with passengers taking in the view of the Iowa countryside. Others are reading or chatting with their fellow passengers. In the corner of the car, a group of kids play a board game while sipping on orange juice.

A few cars down, I find my seat and pull out my copy of On The Road, the classic Kerouac novel. Between that, and listening to Bon Iver on my iPhone, the romance of the rails returns.

As the countryside flies by, passing town after town, it'll be no time before we reach Chicago.

I close my eyes (just for a second I tell myself) and fall asleep.

Editor's Note: Reporter Nathan Heffel is chronicling his ride on the California Zephyr, you can follow this series here. Next up: Sweet Home Chicago.

You can follow Nathan Heffel on Twitter: @Heffeln