Accolades - Gourmet Magazine

Gourmet Magazine - May 1995

"All Aboard! Crossing the Rockies in Style"

Written by Paul Theroux

I was sitting in the sunshine in the rear car of the train heading west, feeling utterly baffled and thinking: I have never been here before. It was not just the place (early morning in the middle of Colorado); it was also my state of mind (blissful). I was grateful for my good fortune. To think that riding a train, something I had done for pleasure all my traveling life, had been improved upon. In the past, what had mattered most in any long train journey through an interesting landscape was the motion, the privacy, the solitude, the grandeur. Food and comfort, I had discovered, are seldom available on the best trips; There is something about the most beautiful places having the most awful trains. But this was something else.

My chair was on the rear observation platform of a private railway car called 'Los Angeles', formerly belonging to Southern Pacific Railway and today operated by Christopher Kyte's California based company, Uncommon Journeys. My feet were braced against the brass rail, the morning sunshine was full upon my face. I had awoken in Fort Morgan and, after a stroll in Denver, had reboarded to have breakfast with family and friends in the dining room of this car: home baked blueberry coffeecake and muffins, scrambled eggs and fresh orange juice and coffee. Then the morning paper in the lounge, and finally settling myself in the open air on this little brass porch as we started our climb through the foothills of the Rockies. An hour out of Denver it was epic grandeur, past frozen creeks and pines and rubbly hills, destination San Francisco. I was very happy.

From this position on a train, eye contact is possible, and as we passed through Pinecliffe, in Gilpin County, a woman waiting at the level crossing stuck her head out her car window and waved at me, making my day.

"Anything I can get you?" That was George, the steward, holding the rear door open. "Coffee? Cookies? More juice? Hot chocolate?"

There were four armchairs and a big sofa in the parlor just inside; and off the corridor, four bed- rooms, two with double beds, and hot showers. Farther along, the dining room, the kitchen, and beyond that a big long Amtrak train, the California Zephyr, pulling us on its usual route from Chicago to San Francisco via Denver and Salt Lake City.

As for the rest, I was ignorant. Happiness has no questions; bliss is not a state of inquiry. Whatever squirrelly anxieties I possessed had vanished a long way back, probably soon after we boarded in Chicago, or else at Galesburg. Bliss had definitely taken hold as we crossed the Mississippi, be- cause I remember standing right here on the rear platform and gawking at it: the chunks of ice gleaming in the lights of Burlington, Iowa, on the wheels on the bridge; the night air; hearing and seeing the water--and smelling it too, a marshy muddiness this damp winter night--of the great river.

We had arrived in Chicago the previous afternoon in fog so thick that airline passengers had turned O'Hare into a gigantic dormitory, and departing flights were so thoroughly canceled that there was a slumber party at each gate. The fog was news, and so there was a certain sense of excite- excitement in slipping out of it. I glanced from time to time at the Amtrak route guide, which gave helpful information. We passed Princeton, Illinois ("Pig Capital of the World") and Galesburg (associated with Carl Sandburg and the Lincoln Douglas debates, and where popcorn was invented by Olmstead Ferris), then through Monmouth (birthplace of Wyatt Earp). But all I saw were dark houses and dim lights and the vast Midwestern sky, and here and there a small nameless town, not noticed by the guide, and a filling station on a side road, of a bowling alley, or the local diner filled with eaters.

It is easy to understand the envy of the traveler for the settled people he or she sees, snug in their houses, at home. But I could not have been snugger here in the private railway car. Thinking of the days that stretched ahead, all of them on the rails, I was put in mind of Russia, of long journeys through forests and prairies, past little wooden houses half buried in the snow, with smoking chimneys. It was like that, the size of the landscape, and the snow, and the darkness, and the starry night over Iowa.

After hot showers, we assembled for pre-dinner drinks in the parlor and toasted our trip and talked about the train.

This was the car that Robert Kennedy used for his campaign in 1968--he made his visit to Los Angeles on it," Christopher Kyte said.

Christopher bought the Los Angeles some eight years ago and restored it at great expense to its former glory. It had been built and fitted out at the height of the boom in the 1920s, and was finished just in time for the market crash in 1929.

That Robert Kennedy had used it, and made whistle-stop speeches from the rear observation platform, was a solemn thought, but it had been used by many other people--actresses, tycoons, foreign royalty. It had seen drunks and lovers and millionaires; it was not a mere conveyance, any more than a ship is--people had lived a part of their lives on it.

A humorous self-mocking fellow whose innocence and innate goodwill make his humor all the more appealing, Christopher Kyte reminded me of Bertie Wooster, and he was all the more Woosterish when he was in his double-breasted dark suit, recalling a scandalous episode, with George the steward at his elbow, helping with a name or date. George was Jeeves to his fingertips--efficient, helpful, silent. It is a wonder, given their generous dispositions, that Uncommon Journeys makes any money at all, although, at about $800 per person per day for a small group, the company has more than prospered.

Nostalgia is not the point, nor is it the glamour of the antique railway car. The idea is comfort, and privacy, and forward motion. It is a grand hotel suite on wheels, with fine food, views of the Great Plains, and any stopovers you like.

"I'd like to spend a day skiing," I had told Christopher, a few weeks before we left on the trip. I knew we were passing through Colorado and Utah and snowy parts of California. "What if we stopped for a night somewhere in Utah?"

We decided on Provo, just about sixteen miles from the narrow canyon in the Wasatch Range, where Sundance is located. That would be our second night.

"We'll drop you off in Provo," Christopher had said. "A car will pick you up at the station. Then you can meet us the next day at the station in Salt Lake City and plan to have dinner on board. The chef will have something special."

Meanwhile the Iowa plains were passing, and we filed into the dining room for our first night's dinner, six of us around the table, feasting on pot roast. The conversation was enlivened by a mealtime quiz show of guessing celebrities' real names (significant answers: Reg Dwight, Gordon Sumner, Malcolm Little, Bill Blythe, Newton McPherson).

That night the Zephyr pulled the Los Angeles through Nebraska, from Omaha to Benkelman, near the Colorado border. But I was still asleep as we entered Colorado. I roused myself around Fort Morgan, in the high plains, and a little later watched people gathering for the Annual Stock Show and Rodeo outside Denver, next to the tracks. I got off to buy a newspaper in Denver, and later, in the clear bright day, was sitting on the rear observation platform.

Snow and cold drove me inside around lunchtime, and soon we came to the small town of Winter Park, not far from Fraser (which proudly calls itself "the icebox of America"). That afternoon we had a long snowy ride under the steep shale pinnacles of Glenwood Canyon to Glenwood Springs. Where the rock was uncovered, it was the color of honey in the fading daylight. Skiers got off the train to make their way to Aspen and Vail. We followed the course of Spanish Creek, which flows toward the Colorado River.

"Who has been your oddest passenger?" I asked Christopher over dinner, as we chatted down the canyon.

"Most of our people are wonderful," he said. But he was smiling, remembering.

There was, for example, the man who showed up in the dining room one morning , stark naked.

"You have no clothes on," Christopher had said to him.

"But I always eat breakfast like this," the man replied.

Ever the diplomat, Christopher suggested that he might be more comfortable having breakfast in the privacy of his room.

Oh, yes--Christopher was still smiling gently--and there was the follow who was rather sedate during the day, and at night put on a wig and a dress, drank far too much Drambuie, and turned cartwheels on the rear platform.

We were by now on dessert, and also near the top of the Wasatch Range, at Soldier Summit, almost 7,500 feet height, snow every- where. From here we traveled in loops and through tunnels to Provo, where the prearranged van was waiting. It was round about midnight.

"Dinner will be served at eight tomorrow," George said. "We'll be waiting for you."

The mist at the station gave way to sleet outside town, and before we had reached Sundance it was snow, drifting down the canyon. We could see the slopes and the lifts and the stands of snow-clad pines gleaming in the lights of the resort. All night the snow fell, and it was still falling the next morning. Two of us set off to the downhill slopes, and two to the wooded cross-country trails. We rented skis, poles, and boots; we had all the rest of our gear. After the eating and drinking on the train, this was perfect--kicking and gliding cross-country through the meadows and woods of Sundance. A break for lunch in The Tree Room, and then a whole afternoon of skiing. The snow still fell, the air was mild--hardly freezing. Except for a flock of crows and one invisible wood- pecker, the woods were silent.

At dark we handed back our ski gear and were taken to the Salt Lake City train station, about an hour away. And there, solitary, detached, at a platform in the middle of the train yard, its lights blazing, was the Los Angeles.

A movable feast, I was thinking, as a woman in a white smock greeted us. This was the Los Angeles's Executive chef, Regina Charboneau, joining the train as she occasionally does from San Francisco, where she owns Regina's Chichi Beignet restaurant and also the Biscuits and Blues bar.

The Southern cuisine was Regina's inspiration, but it was Southern cooking with a difference: traditional dishes--crab cakes and buttermilk biscuits--served with a flourish. Tonight we were being served pheasant and okra gumbo, salmon with potato crust over creamed hominy grits, and warm chocolate bread pudding. The gumbo, hearty and flavorful, was to fortify us after our day of skiing. The grits had come from Regina's childhood. She had gotten to San Francisco, by way of Natchez (where she was one of nine children, her father a chef and restauranteur); Missoula, Montana (where she gained a sense of reality); Chignik Lake, Alaska (where at the age of twenty-three she was camp cook); Paris (La Varenne cooking school), and Anchorage (several successful restaurants). Her stories could not top Christopher's, but they were very good and included a plane crash and strange times at the work camp in Alaska, with at least one marriage proposal from a young Aleut.

Later, in my room, full of food and warmth and a pleasant fatigue, I thought, I don't want this trip to end, and I began to understand the meaning of "gravy train"--not the sinister implication of excessive self-indulgence, but as a friendly journey, where everything is rosey.

Sometime during the night the Zephyr snatched our car up and whisked us westward across the Great Salt Lake Desert at ninety-five miles an hour. We were still in the high desert in the morning, a landscape like Tibet's: arid, stony ground with the peaks and ridges of snowy mountains showing in the distance on almost every side.

"Those are the Ruby Mountains," Christopher said, indicating a great white wall to the east. And a bit later, about eighteen miles out of Reno, "That's Mustang Ranch." It was, pinkish and sprawling, three or four one story buildings by the side of the tracks; not very glamorous, it had the look of a boys' camp, which in a sense it was. Reno itself, part circus, part residential, seemed a complete blight on the landscape, "kitsch in sync," in the words of one wag.

Some friends of ours from Colfax, farther down the line, joined us here. They got on board, and we continued on our way, following the route of the Donner party. One of them brought me a copy of the Ordeal by Hunger, the story of those ill-fated pioneers by George Stewart, and there I sat, completely absorbed, as we clunked past Truckee--deep in snow--and Donner Peak and Donner Lake, where the tragic events of death and cannibalism unfolded.

It was downhill after that in every sense, through the foggy forests of ponderosa pines to Colfax and farewells; to Sacramento at dusk; and the moonrise at Martinez, where Howard Hughes's top-secret spy vessel, the Glomar Explorer, was riding at anchor.

"Joe DiMaggio was born here," Christopher said. "And so was the Martini. Maybe."

Then we were rolling through the Bay Area's backyard. "May I suggest we put the lights out?" Christopher said. The darkness inside the Los Angeles revealed everything outside--the lights of the bay, the bridge we had just crossed, the muddy little docks in the foreground, Oakland just by the tracks, the skyline of San Francisco, Emeryville up ahead, where we glided to a stop.

I hated separating myself from the snug comfort of the Los Angeles. Taking nothing for granted, I travel hopefully; but I am not surprised when everything goes wrong. I am very grateful when things turn out well. If bliss can be described as an exalted state of not wishing to be anywhere else, then this had been bliss.

Paul Theroux - Gourmet Magazine, May 1995