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WEEKEND ESCAPE

Backtracking in the Sierra

Passengers ride into the past with a narrated train trip out of Sacramento.

April 01, 2001|KARL FLEMING | Karl Fleming, a former Newsweek and CBS journalist, is a freelance writer and communications consultant in Los Angeles

A friend loaned me Stephen E. Ambrose's new book about the building of the first transcontinental railroad, "Nothing Like It in the World," and suggested that my wife and I do what he had done: Take Amtrak from Sacramento to Reno, the most romantic leg of the railroad and, for those who built it in the 1860s, the most daring.

Docents from the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento make the trip once a day, chronicling the route's history along the way.

This sounded like a good family outing. So we signed on our son, Mark; his wife, Allison; and their son, Nathan, 3, who all live in the capital.

The plan was for us to meet in Sacramento, depart on the California Zephyr bound for Reno on a Saturday and return on Sunday. That it was winter, with the promise of spectacular snow scenes in the Sierra viewed from the comfort of a train, made the trip seem all the more appealing, despite the possibility of a storm. (Amtrak says service between Sacramento and Reno has been unaffected by the March 18 California Zephyr derailment in Iowa.)

For my wife, Anne, and me, the journey began one Friday in February, when we flew from Burbank to Sacramento. To get in the mood for the next day's trip, we went straight to the Railroad Museum in Old Town. An amiable docent, Len Kennedy, led us to a handsomely preserved wood-burning locomotive called the Governor Stanford. The first engine bought by the Central Pacific Railroad, in 1863, it hauled materials as tracks progressed eastward from Sacramento.

Kennedy showed us a replica of a wooden snow shed, like those built along a 37-mile stretch to keep tracks open and protect trains from avalanches. He also explained how Chinese laborers using hand chisels and blasting powder dug 15 tunnels through solid granite, sometimes progressing just 6 inches a day.

From there we went to the California State Museum near the Capitol. Among other artifacts of state history, we saw photos, maps and documents about the building of the railroad.

The Hyatt ($99 plus tax) was convenient because of its proximity to points of interest downtown. After checking in, we went to dinner at Il Fornaio because of that chain's reliably good Italian food and its location next to a Wells Fargo Bank with Gold Rush artifacts on display. The lobby, open in the evening, contains an old stagecoach, gold-panning tools, vintage weapons and authentic reward posters for Black Bart.

Saturday morning, armed with rich history, we arrived at the handsome Sacramento train depot. It was cold, with a light rain falling, and our train was running an hour late. When we boarded at 12:30 p.m., the four passenger cars, two sleepers, lounge and scenic car were jammed. Revelers bound for Reno on an Amtrak bus had been diverted from snow-blocked Interstate 80 and into one of our train's cars. As we scrambled to find places, an apologetic voice on the public address system announced the train had been oversold.

We finally found seats, though separated, in time for the second announcement: "If you intend to have lunch, please come to the lounge car and take a number."

We wedged our way back through the car of boozy bus revelers to the dining car, where we got our number: 13, a bad omen. White tablecloths signaled a change of ambience, but the burgers ($6.25), pesto pasta (also $6.25) and other choices seemed like frozen-then-microwaved fare.

We turned our attention away from the food and to the voice of a Railroad Museum docent. As we went forward at a stately pace past orchards, little wooden churches, country stores and horse pastures, he described places of interest: Auburn, a mining town with a domed county courthouse completed in 1898; the first tunnel, built by a Chinese labor force that eventually totaled 12,000 and the American River gorge, 2,000 feet below. At Emigrant Gap, the docent pointed out where a half-dozen gold seekers struggled over a trail so perilous that they were forced to unhitch horses and lower their wagons by rope to Bear Valley below.

We climbed through giant pines with limbs bending under increasing snowfall. At 1:45 p.m., the train stopped in a whiteout. With apprehension rising, we were told we were at 7,000 feet and passengers should not open windows or leave the train.

The docent said a snow plow was clearing the tracks ahead. Forty-nine years ago, not far away at Emigrant Gap, he added nonchalantly, an avalanche had buried a train under 23 feet of snow. Four days passed before passengers were rescued. Oh, and when this day's snow stopped, we would be able to see where the Donner Party had been stranded.

At 4:40 p.m., the trip resumed. We staggered off the train at Reno 61/2 hours after leaving Sacramento.

We stayed at Harrah's, which was only a five-minute walk from the train station. Dinner was at Cafe Napa, Harrah's casual restaurant, where the soups, salads and sandwiches are nothing special but moderately priced.

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