Book Review: Zephyr

Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America
by Henry Kisor
Times Books (Random House), 1994. ISBN 0-8129-1984-X

This is the first of three reviews of Amtrak travelogue books. The other two books reviewed are Making Tracks and Booked on the Morning Train.

Zephyr concentrates on one train in the Amtrak system — the California Zephyr, which makes a 51-hour run between Chicago and Emeryville, California (just across the Bay from San Francisco).  Kisor is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and writes as a journalist would.  He describes the passengers, the route, the sights, and the history of the areas that the train passes through.  He participates in some whimsy himself, spending a couple of hours concocting a murder mystery set aboard a train after meeting a fellow writer.  He tells of passenger antics, of the forced camaraderie of the assigned-seating in the diner, of the reactions to the views from the lounge car.

He hops off the train for a short stay in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, but he always comes back to the train.  He is given access to the crew of the train, so he can follow their routines.  He boards in the Chicago yard with the train’s chief of on-board services, watches the chef prepare culinary delights on a tight schedule in the dining car kitchen, and even gets to spend time up front with the engineers as they take the train through miles of memorized track.  The crew, in turns, tell him passenger stories as he tags along on their ticket-punching or other duties.

Indeed, Zephyr touches on many aspects of train operations from an employee's viewpoint.  Kisor tells us of the Amtrak requirement that sleeper attendants shine shoes.  This is quite a political issue, as it’s seen by many as a throwback to the Pullman days, when porters were all black, paid low wages, relied on tips to make for a living wage, and were each called "George" by the well-heeled white passengers.  We see the dining car steward battles the Amtrak supplies computer to get what the dining car really needs, and discover how freight engineers felt when they were bumped off their long-held passenger runs after Amtrak began to staff its trains with its own operating personnel.  It's almost like hanging out at a crew base or a union meeting as they talk shop.

Kisor is clearly a railroad enthusiast, and even provides an overview of the railroad hobby.  There are the foamers, who can tell you which locomotive was introduced in which year.  There are the model railroaders and the collectors of railroadiana.  And then there’s the group to which he and I both belong:

"the largest subspecies of American railroad buff — those who probably do not think of themselves as railfans, those who do not give two hoots for arcane technology ... Perhaps we ride for ... sheer tourist joy ... nostalgic reasons, recapturing warm memories of childhood train trips with our parents or grandparents ... for other emotional reasons ... opening new frontiers in our deeper selves."

An interesting angle is the fact that Kisor is deaf.  He begins the book with this fact, which causes the reader to wonder at some of the later sections, "How did he know that? He's deaf."  But he doesn’t leave us in suspense, for he explains his methods in an author's note at the end of the book.  He has ridden this train many times, no doubt storing up questions for the next trip, and observing patterns common to all trips.  Then he organizes the anecdotes, history, and observations into one coherent whole.

Overall, this book is an enjoyable account that contains much behind-the-scenes information.  It might be a good book to read after taking the California Zephyr, to get some questions answered.  It's also a good railroad book to start with, as its’ filled with interesting details without overwhelming with arcana.  And, in true journalistic fashion, it comes with an index.