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The California Zephyr – Traveling First Class in the Windy City

On the second day of our Cross-Country Rail trip, we boarded the California Zephyr in Chicago and set out for one of the most scenic rail experiences in America.  But before we arrived in the Windy City, we awoke to the Indiana landscape, with three remaining hours on the Capitol Limited which would end its journey into Chicago.

These scenic ride trains are amazing. I couldn’t get enough of that lounge car. Given a choice of sitting in your coach seat with one small window to look out – or moving to a car full of light with panoramic views through a wall of windows, I’m going to take the room with the views every time. Extra benefits of the sightseeing lounge are being able to sit at a table with benches and visit with other passengers.


Our last hours on the Capital Limited were spent with a passenger named Joseph whom we met in the Lounge car. He was an Amish man traveling with his wife back to his home in Wisconsin. He and a young man were discussing the current state of the American economy. Joseph had long grayish hair but was bald on top. You could see where his wide-brimmed hat normally rested on his head, as his hair was perfectly mashed where his hat had been. My kids call this “hat head.” Joseph’s beard was chest length and he wore traditional Amish clothes – black, no buttons or zippers.

Joseph asked the young man if he had a pen. The young man only had his iPhone. So Joseph turned to us (me sitting in front of my computer with iPhone beside it) and asked if either of us had a pen. We didn’t, but I went back to my seat to get him one. When I returned with the pen, Dan said, “Hey – what YOU need is a personal electronic device.” I was mortified. How do you say that to an Amish man?

We discovered that lots of Amish ride American trains. They travel for the same reasons all American’s travel – for vacation, to visit family members, to work. They believe traveling by train maintains their simple way of life. According to Joseph, the Amish also travel to Mexico on the trains for medical treatments. Since most of them have no insurance and must pay for all medical expenses out of pocket, Mexico is a viable option because it’s often one third or one forth the cost of the same treatment in America. – and Mexico works with our rail system.

We found out that Joseph was a farmer and a wood craftsman providing parts to a manufacturing company that makes guitar stands. He made over 20,000 these parts last year from the shop outside his house. That’s manufacturing with simple tools and no electricity, no phone, no car, no truck. Joseph had a great sense of humor and one of the best conversationalists I ever met. He was humble, warm, and interesting. He asked for our address because he wanted to remember us. He gave us his address and offered his home if we ever wanted to visit Wisconsin. I assured him, “If we’re ever in Wisconsin, we’ll call you.” He replied, “Well … if you want to call me, you have to call real loud.”


The train pulled into Union Station in Chicago and that was the final destination of the Capitol Limited. We had 4 hours to kill. We trekked over to the Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower) and took a ride up to the Sky Deck on the 103rd floor. This is an excellent tourist attraction. It’s so well laid out. There were almost no lines today when we went, but when there are lines, people have interpretive signage to look at as well as interactive displays to take in while standing in line. Everything moves quickly and there’s adequate staff to handle the crowds.

The elevator in the Willis Tower travels 24 feet per second, and the building is the highest in the Western Hemisphere. The top floor has floor to ceiling windows running the full circumference of the building allowing the visitor to see the Windy City from every angle. Today (as shown in the photo above) the air was clear, the sky a brilliant blue and Lake Michigan gleamed, dotted by sailboats and other recreational watercraft. There was even one section of the viewing deck that actually had a plexiglass floor jutting out past the edge of the building. it was fully enclosed, like a little glass cube you could walk in and see the mega-drop to the earth below your feet. Admission is $17 per person and worth every penny. After the tower, we had pizza from Giordano’s. It was better than what we expected. A great place to try traditional style Chicago pizza.


At 1:15 we boarded the California Zephyr and left Chicago, beginning our route out west. Our first stop is Grand Lake, Colorado, where we’ll spend two days visiting the Rocky Mountain National Park, then get back on the Zephyr and continue to Grand Junction. I booked us in first class for this leg, so we could try that experience and compare it to coach. Sleeping in coach seats was hard for me last night, but tolerable. I prefer to lay down when I sleep.

Amtrak First class gets you a roomette, which is a private little – and I mean little – room with two wide seats (facing each other) and a window. At night the two seats collapse into a bed and a bunk drops down from the ceiling, and a glass door encloses the two (now collapsed seats) with inches to spare. This enclosed space is called “a roomette.”


This whole roomette is no more than two narrow bunk beds in a closet. Really fat people, could not fit in here. As I looked up at the top bunk (pull down) from the bottom bunk, I surmised that the whole bed was about as wide as one and a half ironing boards.  I decided I should probably sleep up there.  When I stepped up to look at the top bunk, I saw that it has this harness that you latch over yourself to keep from falling out as the train jostles in the night.   Dan and I laughed out loud imagining how we were going to get our fat bodies into these bunks.

Zephyr Top Bunk
Top bunk of the Zephyr – harness and all


THE ATTENDANT AND MEALS (and the attendant will bring you your meals)

First class also gets you all your meals for free in the dining car, or if you prefer, the attendant will bring your meals to your roomette.  This attendant’s job is to help you with anything you might need, answering questions, coordinating connections, helping with converting the roomette from two chairs to two bunks.

Our excellent attendant’s name was Bob Fudge.

Again, we laughed out loud, making remarks about the Keebler brothers and “Fudge Bob” who might provide us with a Crabby Pattie later. (Sorry, Bob, if you’re reading this).  Bob was perfect in every way and funny to boot.  When I climbed up on the top bunk for the night, Bob walked by and said, “What are you doing?”  I replied, “Getting into bed.”

Bob looked at Dan and said, “Look, I’ve been doing this for 25 years and YOU are going to end up in the top bunk.  You can either get up there now while everyone is still friendly and talking to each other … or you can wait for the fight and get up there then … but believe me, buddy.. you will end up there.”

I’m typing this post from the cozy smallness of my Lower bunk. Dan is snoring above me. I’ve got the window view, and Nebraska – dimly lit by the waning moon – is rushing past my window as the train rocks us to sleep. Sometimes it’s a little too rocky. Thank goodness, Dan is wearing his seatbelt. 🙂



  1. I really enjoyed meeting you and Dan. I can’t wait to hear about the rest of your rail journey.

  2. Now we know where all the manufacturing is in the US- Amish farms. Thanks for this interesting article.

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