The rail thing

Ample legroom, nonstop scenery, chilled martinis instead of traffic jams: Welcome to the new era of private train travel in the West.

Chris Colin

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.

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