I've always liked trains.
You meet a lot of different people on a train journey and have plenty of time to get to know them, but I found they tend to fall into three general categories. There's retirees, enjoying the leisurely pace, scenery, and comfort you don't get in other forms of transportation; there's tourists who are curious to experience the train and wanted to try it this one time, to take in a large swath of scenery on the journey across a continent; and there's people who really, really like trains.
There was the young man with the train magazine wearing an Amtrak baseball cap. A British man taking his first American transcontinental journey and looking forward to crossing the Rocky Mountains. Several collectors of model trains who chatted endlessly about their favorite hobby. The tireless and friendly staff whose expertise and enthusiasm made the collectors wish they had a job operating big trains. And a woman who claimed the bullet trains in other countries weren't as fun because, "You go so fast you don't get to see as much of the scenery." I don't think that's true, but it's good conversation.
This started out like most things, with someone hearing about it and asking and several of us saying yes that sounds like a good idea. The California Zephyr was a hundred bucks from Emeryville to Denver, cheaper than the plane ride back, on Memorial Day weekend. And friends who learned we were taking this 32 hour ride would ask, "Are you just going to sit there and stare out the window?" Yes. Yes guess I am.
There was no wi-fi. I have my books, rather my kindle which I like to imagine is my private library complete with lounge chair and rolling bookshelf ladder, and I have my laptop, programming tasks to concentrate on. Algorithms. They don't require Internet connectivity. The bar is open, everyone is relaxed, and I'm just finishing my book as the sun goes down. I looked across the landscape of the American west and said yes, I think I will stare out the window. I have nothing better to do.
At night it got dark and quiet except for the rhythm of the rails and gentle swaying of the cars. The seats were not the most comfortable and did not recline completely, but the steady motion and sound lulled me to a gentle slumber.
We had a breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the dining car.
About the pictures. Before any journey I do some research, usually starting with a google search in the form of "photography in ________ ." I see if any photography blogs have written about where I'm going, what tips and tricks are out there, and what advice people have asked for and gotten for my desired location and/or mode of transportation.
The general consensus on trains is this. Rolling through the scenery is quite impressive and you'll be tempted to snap photos of all the beautiful mountains, trees, and animals you pass along the way. However, you're looking through a dirty window and the camera will accentuate every smudge, reflection, and glare on that pane of glass, hiding what you swear was the most picturesque scene you ever saw. Instead, you'll see something like this:
Here's a picture of an eagle I took.
This is about as good as I could do going around a bend.
So resist the temptation to shoot out the window. Try interior shots, people interacting, or the train itself. If you want a landscape picture, go outside, take a hike, put yourself in the landscape. If you want that classic train coming 'round the bend photo, wait by the side of the tracks as a train goes by.
So sit back, open your favorite book, and watch the world go by.