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  • Writer's pictureJanette Frawley

'They sing of Darcy Farrow where the Truckee runs through'

There is something special about rail travel; I've always enjoyed travelling by train. My decision to take the California Zephyr from Emeryville, just outside San Francisco, to Chicago had been twofold;

1) to take a slow journey across North America without having to drive; and

2) enjoy the scenery of some of America's most beautiful landscapes.

I do not take into consideration the number of rail enthusiasts that are travelling for similar reasons as me.

This train is not necessarily for people wanting to get from A to B. The people who have invested in the sleeper carriages are travelling for a number of reasons, but mostly to experience America through their window.

The California Zephyr leaves Emeryville at exactly 9:10 AM on Sunday, October 2, sliding from the platform through the back end of Berkeley and Richmond and soon houses make way for oil refineries, warehouses, factories that no longer make things, an Amazon enrichment centre - a huge, huge building sitting inside an equally huge carpark filled with hundreds of mini vans; delivery trucks bringing all sorts of goods from this place to someone's home. Is this the future of retail? Or in time to come, will this be yet another abandoned and decayed memento of over-comercialisation?

Eventually we follow the highway - one that I drove on in 2012 with my friends as we made our way from Chrystal Bay to a concert in the Bay area. Then my panorama changes to the rural view; the channel country of the Sacramento Valley, where flooded fields grow 95% of America's rice requirements. I had no idea that rice was grown here. Large orchards of unknown fruit follows, but I do know that almonds and walnuts are grown in this valley. And so this view of rural farming communities flip past the window until they disappear.

The train climbs through the thick pine forests of the forestry town on Truckee in the Sierra Nevada mountains; the treacherous land that took the lives of many explorers and pioneers, including the unfortunate Donner Party, who resorted to cannibalism as they began to starve during the savage winter of 1846/1847. In fact the pass we chug through is named after these unfortunate people. It's around this time I nod off to sleep. I don't want to, but the flicker of the passing trees together with the clacking of the wheels is hypnotic.

As we pull out of Reno, the change in landscape is stark. From plenty of water and thick dark green verdant pine forests, we plunge headlong into the arid Nevada landscape. In the saltbush a group of mustangs are sheltering; the wild horses of America also face destruction like their fellow soulmates in Australia. I hope they survive. They need to be recognised as important for their environment, despite what the environmentalists say. Mustang, like the brumby are recognised in the local legends as being part of the land.

Saltbush is disappearing as vast tracts of salt glimmers upon the surface of the land. Surely it is far too salty for even the most hardy of plants to survive and before long, I am staring at patches of sand.


Deserted mines are dotted across the landscape, but one large gypsum mine still exists between the railway lines and the main road, providing adequate means to send the pallets of plaster out of this landscape to construction jobs across the country.

As the sun casts a golden glow on the land, we leave the harsh desert behind and head into an area where yellow grass hugs the ground, grass that provides enough feed for a few cows. There are few towns here and fewer houses and farms. This is a land of despair, but viewing it from the windows of a train, there is a beauty that is enhanced by the fine weather and the setting sun, which is now casting a red glow over the treeless hills beside the railway lines.

We are shortly going to leave Nevada and travel across most of Utah in the dark. I am going to miss not being able to see it, but honestly, I need the sleep.

Quote: Darcy Farrow lyrics (Steve Gillette)


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