Mid-Route on the CA Zephyr

I’m mid-route on the CA Zephyr, with the scent of fresh rain behind me. I frequent a particular stretch of this Amtrak line to visit friends and family, and I know the rain is not an ordinary happening for a Fourth of July weekend in this arid town.

For weeks blistering heat has kept the swamp coolers roaring, slapping their moisture on our parched skin before we rush out into the baking air between house and car. The steering wheel so hot we use moisturized hand wipes to cool down a patch of plastic on either side of the wheel to a temperature our flesh can handle.

Regionally isolated, Grand Junction is a strange combination of topography that on a given winters day allows snow-skiing in the morning, golfing in the afternoon, and rock climbing in between. The valley holds a jumble of small towns around the junction of the Colorado and the Gunnison Rivers. Above the valley floor in three directions, high plateaus arise.

To the east is the Grand Mesa, claimed to be one of the largest flat-topped mountains in the world. Powder snow and an Alpine forest support Powderhorn, a ski resort near the summit. Year-round cabins connect their driveways to snow-packed roads, with snowmobile and ATV trails crisscrossing beneath stands of pines, spruce, and aspen.

To the north are the Book Cliffs, the range of wild mustangs from Colorado north into Wyoming. From the valley floor, the cliffs seem impenetrable. Water erosion has carved vertical lines deep into the clay to create a nearly perpendicular edge to a flat prairie plain on top. When viewed from an airplane, the cliffs really do look like the spines of books jammed against each other.

To the west-southwest is the Colorado National Monument, with the Independence Monument and many other famous monoliths. Pinyon pine and junipers somehow find roothold amidst the red rock. In winter, the flaming red rock appears to smolder under a skiff of white snow. In springtime, vegetation shows a stunning contrast of green lining the declivities of the red rock. Then it was a promise of life and moderation. Now in July, it has cured to a golden crisp under the summer sun in day-after-day of dry heat. The rock seems about to burst into flame, painfully hot to the touch.

This evening, the setting sun refracts through a haze of desert dust to the west. For this trip, Amtrak has the heat repelling screens in place on the windows, so it’s impossible to enjoy scenery from the coaches. I could go down to the dome car, but I decide against it. This coach is quiet–mostly empty–and I brought a neck pillow so I can tip the seat way back and relax. There are two adjustable leg rests, one for the feet and one for the upper leg. I snuggle into the large and comfy chair and close my eyes. The rain is spattering on the windows and I enjoy the idea that we may be entering a monsoon season.

But I’m starting in the middle of the story.

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