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Day One of My New Photography Project: The California Zephyr

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2019 Photography Project

One year is a convenient block of time.  I can’t get anything done in a day.  The same can be said for a week.  Months are all different lengths and I can’t handle that.  But a year…that works.

So 2019 will be all about my new photography project, the California Zephyr, the passenger train running between Chicago and San Francisco.

Truckee train station

The train station in Truckee, California

Why do a photography project on the railroad?

Time for an admission: I was a railroad nerd for some time.  Granted, it was years ago, before I even started high school.  I spent lots of time and lots of my parents’ money building model layouts.  It was an escape and an exercise for the imagination.

I still do feel that way about rail – a romantic, old-fashioned way of exploring faraway lands in an era of high-speed, high-tech travel.

I was brainstorming projects I’d like to do in 2019 and something with the railroad was on my list.  I live not too far from Truckee, home of the historic Donner Pass Tunnels, so access is easy.

Once the broad idea of “rail” was decided on, I finally narrowed it down to a specific project on the California Zephyr.

winnemucca train station

Platform in Winnemucca, Nevada

Description of the California Zephyr

Amtrak’s California Zephyr runs daily between San Francisco and Chicago.  The route is just shy of 2,500 miles and over 51 hours of travel time.

The route passes through some of America’s most scenic landscapes, and the timing is planned so that you’ll pass through these areas during daylight.  Highlights include the Colorado Rockies, along the Colorado River to the eastern Utah desert near Moab, and the Sierra Nevada mountains.  The western half of the route follows the historic 19th-century transcontinental railroad that opened up a mass migration to the west coast.

A typical train consists of two engines, a couple of sleeper cars, a couple of coaches, a dining car, observation car, and baggage car.

amtrak dining car

Dining car in December

reno foothills

Outside of Reno, Nevada

What I’ll be documenting

There are so many aspects of the route worth documenting, but I’ve gotta stay focused in order to…stay focused.  This could quickly spiral out of control if I just took pictures of everything.  So here’s what I think would tell the story of the California Zephyr:

  • The people who ride it
  • Those who keep it running
  • The scenery it passes through

The plan (for now)

I plan on taking the entire route once a season…so, four times throughout 2019.

In between, I’ll be doing shorter segments.  Living close to a station is nice.  But these could be single-day rides or shorter overnight rides.  Most of the time I’ll spend a day or two in these stops to photograph the scenery the train passes through from an outside perspective.

There are some technical considerations to get through, photographing moving people on a bouncing, dimly-lit train 24 hours a day.  I did an eight-hour “research run” this week to make sure I considered everything, and I did learn a few things.

Is there a book at the end of this?  I don’t know.  That’s not what I’m shooting for, but it will be considered as I get close to the end.

Do any of you have any exciting projects planned for 2019?  I’d love to hear them below!

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Saturday 24th of October 2020

I would love to take my two kids 19 and 17. Can you ever get real good deals?

John Peltier

Saturday 24th of October 2020

I get a veteran's deal but that's all I know about. I'm sure they have more information on their website.

Craig D.

Friday 4th of January 2019

Hi John, happy 2019! So look forward to this. We've traveled on the Zephyr several times, between Reno and Grand Junction. Surreal experience having dinner while paused in the Winnemucca station, looking out at the block where we lived for many years. Would often look at the train and think about the people on it, and now I've been the person on the train thinking about the people living in that neighborhood. Can't wait for your vision of both.

I've got radiocarbon dates on those small sand dunes in your bottom photo, along the tracks west of Lovelock, formed between 1500 and 700 years ago. #uselessphototrivia

John Peltier

Sunday 6th of January 2019

Thanks Craig, happy new year to you too! I love your useless trivia. Maybe I'll send you some more photos throughout the year to share your crazy knowledge of the railroad corridor's geography. Yeah I'm really looking forward to learning some more about the people on the train. Cheers!

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