The Denver Zephyr had huge wheels and high entrances that you needed special portable steps to reach, even if you were a grownup. The trainman put down the steps and held out his hand to help you. The Denver Zephyr went every day in each direction, traveling at night westbound and in the daytime eastbound. Maybe it was two trains.
It pulled out of Union Station in Chicago in the evening. In the summer it was still light, the light lasted a long time. Then the twilight began to lengthen the shadows and slant the sun into the windows.
The train traveled with magnificent speed and smoothness despite the clackety-clack and the wobbling and teetering of people maneuvering in the aisles. Not us, we were children, it was a ride in an amusement park, where I had never been. We didn’t go to places like amusement parks or bowling alleys. We packed our clothes into worn leather valises plastered with emblems of European travel which the porter loaded into the luggage compartment, except for the overnight case my mother carried, a train case she called it, and a small suitcase for my father, which had our pajamas and slippers and a change of clothing for the next day when my grandparents would meet us in Denver.
Inside the seats were plush but everything else was shiny and hard. At bedtime they folded up the seats, pulled the beds down from the wall, and drew the green curtains closed. In the middle of the night I waked from the stopping at Omaha, Nebraska, to see darkness outside, a lone streetlight, and a single baggage truck being wheeled along the platform. In the morning we had breakfast in the dining car, with flowers in a thin vase, wet silvery pitchers sweating onto white cloth, and the waiter pouring my milk.
Denver is the mile-high city, exactly 5280 feet, but it towers over nothing, it’s the western edge of a slowly elevating plain. It looks as flat as it can be. What do you cross but space, with grasses and corn and wheat and the occasional road and farmhouse and crossroads that fly by faster than you can see them.
The Denver Zephyr traveled on tracks laid in the eighteen-seventies and -eighties with the sweat of indentured workers from China and Hungary and Italy, who put down the wooden ties and steel tracks of the transcontinental railroad. They laid it as straight as they could. It isn’t hard to follow a straight line from Chicago to Denver.
Denver is marked on the map with a star, it’s the state capital. You can see the capitol there, gray and sturdy, though I’ve never been inside. We went to Springfield to see the Illinois state capital with my father, later, driving through cornfields. Springfield is a small town, but the capitol is grand. Denver is much bigger than Springfield and smaller than Chicago. It also has streets that go on and on, straight and plain. The mountains rise in the west, along the horizon, but they look small. You have to get close to see how enormous they are. They’re a blister on the globe, a sudden brown along the lefthand side of the map.