After leaving Elko, Nevada, at eleven minutes after 10:00 p.m. Pacific Time, the California Zephyr continues east on its way to Salt Lake City. The route of the Zephyr through eastern Nevada and Utah mainly runs adjacent to Interstate 80, at least to near Wells, Nevada. The tracks are basically in same place as were the original road of the Transcontinental Railroad, with some deviations. Since this portion of the trip is entirely in the dark, with no scheduled stops, there’s nothing much to be seen. In fact, however, this segment covers some of the most interesting and historic terrain in the nation.
We’re in the eastern half of the Great Basin, a huge watershed covering more than 200,000 square miles of the western United States and northern Mexico. Although the Basin includes rivers (e.g., the Colorado River) lakes (e.g., Lake Tahoe), and mountains (e.g., the Sierra Nevada) a large part of it is desert. But before this area became desert, much of eastern Nevada and western Utah was submerged beneath the prehistoric Lake Bonneville. This water body, which existed between 32,000 and 14, 000 years ago, covered about 20,000 square miles (or about 10% of the Great Basin). It was 1,000 feet deep. The lake overflowed about 14,000 years ago, leaving several remnants, such as the Great Salt Lake.
One of the most picturesque areas once under Lake Bonneville is the Bonneville Salt Flats. Familiar to many people from movies and car commercials, the Flats have been the site of land speed trials. In 1935, Briton Malcolm Campbell first broke the 300-mph barrier at Bonneville. By 1964, after several attempts, Craig Breedlove, driving the turbojet-powered Spirit of America, passed 600 mph at Bonneville. The current land speed record over a 1 mile course, a supersonic 763 mph, is held by Andy Green of the UK. He drove the twin turbofan ThrustSSC to the mark in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert on October 15, 1997. [In 2003, an Air Force rocket sled travelled a three-mile railed course at 6,416 mph (Mach 8.3; hypersonic) in the Tularosa Basin in New Mexico. It was unmanned.]
The California Zephyr, as mentioned, generally follows the route of I-80 thr0ugh Nevada and Utah. Before the highway was I-80, it was the now-historic US 40, which originally ran from Atlantic City, New Jersey to San Francisco. Even earlier, however, the same general route was used by the Pony Express during its brief lifetime (1860-61).
The Pony Express ran between St Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento. With riders switching to fresh horses at stations along the route The Express could get a letter from coast to coast in about ten days. The success of the Pony Express was in part its undoing. Its speed and efficiency often was a conversation starter about a transcontinental railroad.
The Salt Flats present an eerie image in the daylight; omnipresent mirages seem to want to tell a story that they know. In the dark of night, as the eastbound California Zephyr passes by, the scene is spectral.
Another sight we miss in the darkness is Promontory Summit, Utah. This is the place where, on May 15, 1869, a golden spike was driven to link the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad, thus completing the western portion of a transcontinental rail system. Actually, we wouldn’t be able to see the site even in daylight, since the rail route was reconstructed in 1904 to bypass Promontory.
The California Zephyr, eastbound, arrives in Salt Lake City at 3:45 a.m. Mountain Time.
July 6, 2010 Tuesday at 3:14 pm