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The rail thing

Carlos Chavarría The Virginia & Truckee Railroad once hauled ore from the Comstock mines. Now it poses for photos.
Ample legroom, nonstop scenery, chilled martinis instead of traffic jams: Welcome to the new era of private train travel in the West.

Most people waiting on the platform at the train station in Emeryville, California, hold an Amtrak ticket. Most, but not all. For me and 70 or so others on this nippy Saturday morning—a group hip to an odd parallel universe quietly chugging throughout the country—something better awaits. Or so I’ve been told. I’m new here. A cheerful bear of a man is standing next to me, overnight bag in hand and gaze fixed firmly down the tracks. I ask him to explain why we’re here.

“No offense to Amtrak, they’re doing their best. But once you experience the—” He stops abruptly, eyes widening. “It’s here! It’s here!”

Squealing toward us is the familiar red, white, and blue of the nation’s well-meaning but joyless government-run passenger train system. And attached to the end is something else entirely: three beautiful, fluted stainless steel tubes, time-warped in from a more elegant era and draped in that unmistakable post-deco, retro-futuristic aesthetic of the late 1940s. The crowd oohs briefly at the curves and the somehow evocative font—california zephyr—then scrambles aboard. You’ve heard of private jets. As of today, I ride private trains.

Whatever you think about contemporary rail travel in the United States—bland, uncomfortable, inexplicably inferior to that ride you took in Spain—goes out the window upon being handed a martini on a train. After some jockeying for seats in the upper-deck solariums, we sink into staggering levels of comfort. I choose not to reflect on how many cellophane-wrapped Amtrak hot dogs I’ve put away over the years. I reflect instead on the table in front of me, set with crisp linens and cut flowers. In a few minutes a perfect, warm quiche will materialize before me, then a gourmet lunch later in the day, announced by a man with actual dinner chimes. Bach drifts out of unseen speakers.

Then a clickety-clack arises from below and I remember that all the vintage chimes and lights and flatware and grandness have a purpose. Reno, here we come.

There was, of course, a time when these machines were the gorgeous, gleaming norm. With their swanky observation lounges and cocktail bars, they crisscrossed the nation, hitting every other Podunk town and, in the process, delivering the West itself. Then came automobiles and interstate highways, and the rest was history. Once this country christened its glorious new trains with Champagne bottles. Now we whimper about legroom and security lines.

Or at least that’s how the story goes. For the next three days, my derriere would be planted in a little-known counter-narrative. Here and there, a scattering of rail fanatics has been snatching up moldering old train cars from history’s dustbin, refurbishing them, and setting them in motion once again. For those willing to do a little research, a world vastly unlike Amtrak’s awaits.

It awaits largely because of people like Chris Skow, a mop-haired former conductor from Portola, California, with a mischievous grin. He worked 26 years for Western Pacific and then another 11 for Union Pacific. On certain winter runs, the northern lights would pull down all around him in swirls of bluish green. In the 1980s, Skow began leading trips, here and abroad, centered on the great old railroads. This weekend he’s partnered with train owners Burt Hermey and Al Bishop to showcase three former Zephyr cars from the golden age of rail travel: the Silver Lariat, Silver Solarium, and Silver Rapids. For the next seven hours, we’ll catch a ride with Amtrak, stopping when it stops, arriving in Reno when it arrives. Once in Nevada, we’ll burrow even deeper into the odd cosmos of resuscitated trains.

Private train travel is an uncentralized and therefore haphazard affair. Often it’s arranged by charter—you gather a group and essentially rent one of these old cars for the duration of your trip. It takes some Googling to find them, but Skow guesses that 75 private rail excursions of one kind or another originate each year in the West alone.

Outside my window, the damp Bay Area is giving way to the parched Sacramento Valley—but I’m consumed by the internal scenery. My fellow travelers are a diverse group: Some are older white men with short white beards; others are older white men with slightly longer white beards. There are cowboy boots and hearing aids, a lone bolo tie. Radio scanners are the accessory of choice for the stalwart: Why focus on one train when you can listen to the chatter of many? One man wears a stopwatch around his neck, backstopping the conductor’s timetable; his wife backstops him with a GPS unit. Most everyone I meet is delighted to help a newbie get his bearings.

The original Zephyr was officially retired in 1970, I learn. Amtrak used some of the cars until the arrival of Superliners in 1980. When Hermey and Bishop—just a couple of ordinary citizens—bought the trains from Amtrak, one of them had mushrooms and trees growing inside. A million dollars or more can go into restoring one of these cars.

Well worth it, the consensus seems to be. At one point a fellow traveler takes me aside and pulls something from his pocket. The tickets we were all mailed? He went to the copy shop and printed his out in full color, a souvenir. “I couldn’t resist,” he says with a shrug.

Possible foamer, I note, having just learned the term. A rail fan is just your garden-variety train obsessive. Foamers—as in “foam at the mouth”—take it to the next level.

Sample foamer dialogue:

“The 4449 was under Southern Pacific control in ’92.”

“Yep.”

Behind the geekery is a compelling and contagious passion. These are guardians of a bygone age, and not just because the trains were prettier then. At the core of their devotion is an attention to the elegance of a line, the specific mournfulness of a faraway whistle. It’s the ineffable heart tug of certain bends in the tracks, the rareness of a conversation with strangers in the lounge, a more civilized way of getting to and fro. Instead of worrying about traffic or directions or connecting flights, one just looks out the window for long, uninterrupted stretches. In our era of scanning and swiping, the act feels radical.

I’m spotting things I’ve never seen in my 15 years as a West Coast motorist. The tracks often carve a route distinct from that of the highways. North of Gold Run, we pass remarkable clear-cutting operations, then an equally remarkable density of pines in Tahoe National Forest. We climb nearly 7,000 feet over Donner Pass. At Yuba Gap, a ripple runs through the historians among us. Here in 1952, Southern Pacific’s luxurious City of San Francisco became stranded in a ferocious blizzard for days without power or food. “Some details from that situation are disputed,” a man in wire-frame glasses quietly informs me.

From a well-appointed train, I start to see, life isn’t messy and complicated. It’s a lovely silent film, scrolling by in vignette form. Here are beehives at the edge of an almond grove, there a Saturday afternoon horse-riding lesson. In Auburn, the dry grassland is a pale blur. In Colfax, a man sternly waters his gravel.

Just dipping into this world for a weekend infects you with the possibility of another way of life. In the vestibule between cars, I stick my head into the rush of wind and geography. The air is crisp. The smell of creosote blends with that of a small grassfire in the distance, and the moody afternoon sky is endless. By the time we ease into Reno, I can imagine riding the rails for another week, another month, another year.

It’s a frigid morning on the windswept hills of western Nevada, a choking plume of tar black smoke rising overhead. We make a beeline toward it, my chartered bus full of train folk, and shuffle aboard. Having concluded the first leg of the Zephyr segment of our train adventure the previous night, we’ve turned our sights to its grittier cousin: the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, Nevada’s most famous short line, formed in 1868 to haul ore from the great Comstock mines to reduction mills in Silver City and along the Carson River. This was hardscrabble mining country. Nobody was pouring martinis.

Great fortunes launched on these rails, but eventually it all slipped away with the Mother Lode. Nearly three-quarters of a century after the V&T line was shuttered, several miles of track have been painstakingly restored by local aficionados. A pair of freelance Wild West reenactors in dusty cowboy hats has come to put on a show outside as we take our seats, and then we’re off, snaking along the ridge of the Carson River Canyon. Relics of mills lie below, overrun with sagebrush and bright cottonwood. Near a lonesome old gypsum mine, wild mustangs lope about.

Everyone around me seems impatient for something, and at last it comes: our first “photo run-by.” I’d heard the term batted around but hadn’t requested a definition. The train sighs to a halt a hundred yards above a dried-out gully. We climb off and line up neatly along the siding. The train inches back behind a distant canyon wall as dozens of expensive-looking cameras are readied. Then it happens, just a sound in the distance at first. Chug. It’s a woof stored deep in the American unconscious, near our feelings about bison and Twain and baseball. Chug. Slowly it emerges from behind the wall—chug, chug—this impossible behemoth nearly swallowed by billows of steam and smoke. Chug, chug, chug. It’s massive and deafening and every millimeter of its solemn grandeur is recorded by the photographers.

And then it happens all over again.

Really. They bring the thing back, hide it behind the canyon wall, fire it up, chug it past, click click click. Rinse, repeat. Having isolated a particularly photogenic segment of history, we spend the morning playing it on a recurring loop and snapping thousands of photos. It is profound and absurd in equal measure, and I can’t help but appreciate the bald nuttiness of it.

Same goes for the rest of the day. After our time on the V&T, the bus takes us to Virginia City, where I watch tourists wander into the Old West saloons and casinos. Us, we tour a workshop of rusty old train parts that Skow knows about. Then it’s on to the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City, where we ride another train and poke at still others. I marvel at the extent to which the great railroads helped invent the identity of the Western states, and then I walk around mumbling my favorite locomotive terms: Johnson bar, petticoat pipe, parabolic reflector.

Finally it’s back to the V&T line for another ride because ... well, it’s there. By the time we return to the hotel, I’m convinced we’ve wrung every drop of train-ness from the great state of Nevada. I’m also convinced that, if some new rail relic were suddenly unearthed somewhere, we would have staggered out into the night to find it.

It’s day three and we’re back on the Zephyr. A ruminative air settles over us for our long ride home. I find myself wondering what the true appeal of these machines is. I like trains as much as the next guy—but not these next guys. Is it nostalgia? A lust for history? Pangs for slower living? Or maybe a kid’s simple fascination with big, loud toys?

There are no answers, just a fond casting back over years of addiction. Don Winslow, a passenger from San Mateo, California, is standing in the vestibule. He’s a trim fellow with hair that stays in place despite the wind. I press him about his train love. Like many I meet this weekend, he describes a hook set in childhood: His dad got him a model train as a boy and that was that. His wife, Mary, smiles. “She thought it was an innocent hobby when she met me,” he says with a chuckle.

“Now we have an extra bedroom just for a model train layout,” she says.

“Plus the family room,” he clarifies.

We press on. Along the nail-biting rim of the American River Canyon, the water below is a distant ribbon of silver. Already there’s talk of future excursions. Somewhere in the Bay Area, it’s mentioned, someone’s got a car with a working fireplace in it.

Between Reno and Emeryville I don’t see a single phone taken out. There’s too much to look at, too much to discuss. Who knew about these sprawling hobo encampments? A fly-fisherman on the Truckee River tugs at a snag, then glances up at us. During his years as a conductor, Skow tells me, skinny-dippers would rise from ponds to wave. Rare is the human who won’t stop what they’re doing to watch a train go by.

Nearing Oakland, we cross Suisun Bay and its so-called Mothball Fleet, a collection of rusting old Navy ships. I’ve passed these vessels a hundred times, but the sight is weirdly poignant this time—me aboard a relic that’s been rescued from history, these ships facing a bleaker fate. As for the people doing the rescuing, I think of what Skow told me that first day, near Donner Pass.

“There’s something about these big trains rolling down the tracks,” he said. “It’s a magnet that pulls you and you can’t release.”

Chris Colin is the author of What to Talk About. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Wired, and Smithsonian. He lives in San Francisco.