Morning brought Nevada: parched, scrubby and flat, dotted with salt flats and encircled by bare hills that when the sun rose took shape like a Grahame Sydney painting. As the light strengthened, they lost definition, becoming just a backdrop for trucks and macho utes on the long, straight road beside the railway tracks.
In the lounge car people played cards, read, knitted, listened to music, chatted, or dozed in the sun; a couple of well-behaved children played a tile game. Winnemucca came and went, and Reno, then California brought the Sierras and Truckee, Lake Tahoe, Colfax…
And then it all went horribly wrong. Approaching the little town of Auburn, not a scheduled stop, we slid to a halt and – nothing happened. Nothing kept on happening, for an hour, as the clock ticked on, adding more and more time to the two-hour delay that had already built up after a late start from Chicago. Most people weren’t particularly bothered, but for us, with a flight home from San Francisco that evening, it was somewhat fraught.
Amtrak is, it turns out, not known for its punctuality. “Oh this is nothing!” said cheerful John, a waiter in the dining car. “Freight train derailments – it’s been 1am sometimes. And if someone drives his car in front of the train and gets killed, well, that’s four hours right there. The coroner has to come out.”
As it turned out, there were fatalities: a gunman had shot four people, and two deputies had died. The perp was holed up in a house and the town was in lockdown, helicopters buzzing overhead, while our train was held on the outskirts. It seemed churlish to complain (although we did).
But then the journey continued: citrus orchards, palm trees, vineyards, industry, salt marshes, and finally the sea, and as the sun began to set the California Zephyr finally slid into Emeryville station after 2438 miles and a bit over two days. We found a gallant taxi driver who swore that she’d never had anyone miss a plane in 23 years, and whisked us along unusually empty roads, thanks to the World Series game already in progress. She got us to the airport in just under half an hour – where, despite the heart-stopping 'Closed' sign over the check-in desk, the laid-back clerk took our passports and gave a happy ending to our epic journey.