Kids These Days:

Trains make trips more enjoyable

August 24, 2007|By Steve Smith

Our family has had its share of car trips and plane rides. We have been many places together but often find ourselves gravitating back to two or three locations that we particularly enjoy.

We are a family of four skiers and are often driving up and down Highway 395 to either Mammoth or Lake Tahoe. Having flown to Lake Tahoe via Reno, we prefer the drive.

My wife and I are fortunate to have two kids who travel well.

They adapt well to changes in our journey and don’t need their parents to help them stay entertained. Usually, that means just opening a book.


Of all the good things in my life, these family vacations are at or near the top of the list.

But no one was prepared for dad’s latest trip. This one was the fulfillment of a desire I have had for years and which got rave reviews from the kids. My wife, Cay was not as thrilled.

We just returned, you see, from a drive to the San Francisco Bay area where we spent two nights with family friends Russell Zink and Sean Callaway.

After two nights, I woke the family at 5 a.m. so we could meet a 7 a.m. train, the California Zephyr, leaving from Emeryville and traveling through the Sierra to Chicago.

Other than a short ride to San Diego a few years ago, this was the kids’ first train trip. Not wanting to overload them, I planned the train trip only through to Reno, where we spent a few nights in a hotel.

The trip is supposed to be seven hours each way. Since Emeryville is the origin of this line, the chances of it leaving on time were good.

As soon as we were able to board, we sent Roy ahead to secure four good seats in the coach section. Once we settled in, we explored the rest of the train.

At 8:30, Cay and I ate breakfast in the dining car, with Pam, who was traveling back to Chicago. Because the dining car tables are limited, meals with strangers are common.

On the way through the Sierra, a stunning ride, there was occasional narration by a couple of Amtrak volunteers.

The train arrived in Reno only four minutes late.

The train trip home was another story.

Coming from Chicago, the train pulled into Reno almost two hours late.

About an hour into the trip, we were stuck on the tracks for 45 minutes. In train travel, that’s called an “unscheduled stop.”

Two more times, we were stopped for another 30 minutes each. Our train, scheduled to return to Emeryville at 8 p.m., arrived at 11 p.m.

But the kids didn’t care. Roy asked whether he could take the train through to Chicago next time and Kaitlyn liked looking out the window and watching the world go by.

Both ways through the mountains, we played board games, cards, ate, slept and read. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

The slow pace of the trip coupled with the confinement of a train forced us to be together, not that that has been an issue in the past.

We are fortunate to enjoy each other’s company very much.

It’s probably too late for any readers to plan a train vacation this summer.

But I highly recommend it next time around. It costs a little more than flying, but trains make an adventure out of what would otherwise be the nightmare of airplane travel.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident and a freelance writer. Readers may leave a message for him on the Daily Pilot hotline at (714) 966-4664 or send story ideas to

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