Keli Gwyn
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Research on the Rails

Over spring break, my family and I boarded am Amtrak train bound for Reno.

While the trip was a lot of fun, the primary purpose for me was research, since many of my characters reached California by train. I love research, and when I can couple it with a vacation, that makes it even better.

Amtrack Trip 1

The eastbound train pulling into the station.

We boarded the train in Roseville, California, about twenty miles east of downtown Sacramento, leaving at 11:30 a.m. I was smiling so broadly that morning it was a wonder my cheeks weren’t sore.

Amtrack Trip 2

The adventure begins.

While we were assigned seats in a coach car, I spent the entire eastbound trip in the sightseer car.

Amtrack Trip 3

I was trying to capture the plentiful Manzanita bushes and red clay that are prevalent on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas.

When I wasn’t snapping pictures, I was taking notes on the narration given by docents from the Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento. They ride the train and enlighten passengers about the history of the Central Pacific Railroad.

Amtrak Trip 4

Highway 80 heading over Donner Summit.

Normally this road would be full of skiers bound for the snow, but with the pitiful amount of snow we’ve had this year, they’ve found other activities.

Amtrak Trip 5

North Fork of the American River

The views from the train are spectacular. As we climbed, pine trees outnumbered the oaks that are more plentiful at lower elevations.

Amtrak Trip 6

The eastbound train going around a bend as we reach the snowline.

Due to maintenance taking place the day we made the trip, the eastbound train was actually using the westbound track. We were assured we were safe, but we did have to stop a number of times and travel very slowly at others. Even at regular speed, the train was only going about 30-35 mph. There are plenty of curves to navigate and steep hills to climb.

Amtrak Trip 7

The eastbound train approaching a show shed.

The early snow sheds were built of wood. Sparks from the locomotives could set them on fire, so lookouts were posted on a far away mountaintop to keep watch. Crews would be dispatched to deal with any fires. Concrete sheds eventually replace the wooden ones.

Even though this is near the summit, there is little snow. Normally there would be ten to twelve feet at this time of year, but we just experienced our third driest February and March on record.

Amtrak Trip 8

Donner Lake

Donner Lake is named after the ill-fated party of pioneers who reached the area after the winter storms had set in and were unable to complete their crossing. They split into two groups and camped near the lake.

Amtrak Trip 9

The eastern slope of the Sierras near the Nevada border.

The terrain changed greatly once we began our descent on the eastern side of the Sierras where there is little rainfall.

Amtrak Trip 10

An irrigation canal on the eastern slope of the Sierras.

The early settlers built many irrigation canals, or ditches as they are more commonly called, to take water from the Sierras to the communities at lower elevations. Many of these engineering marvels are still in use today.

Amtrak Trip 11

Our daughter, Adriana, poses beneath Reno’s famous archway.

Due to the delays, we reached Reno around 4:30 p.m. The train station is right downtown, so we were able to walk to the casino where Gwynly had booked our room. We enjoyed a nice dinner, played a few games in the carnival portion of Circus Circus, and lost a whopping $4.00 at the penny slots. Nope. We’re not big gamblers.

Amtrak Trip 12

An irrigation canal on the California side of the Sierras.

We boarded the train the following morning at 8:30 a.m. On the return trip, I discovered where the docents hang out and paid them a visit. They gave me some great info for the story I’m writing.

Thanks to my research trip, I will be better able to describe the train trip many of my characters made when they came to California. I’m grateful I didn’t have to make it in the days when women wore Victorian dresses with layers of petticoats and dealt with the soot and ash from the steam locomotives raining on the cars. I did, however, experience the drunk-like stagger needed to keep my balance as I walked between the cars. Too bad I didn’t take a video camera.


Questions for You

Have you ever ridden a train?
If so, what did you like best about the experience?


My apologies for getting this post up late. We learned last week that our daughter, Adriana, a German-French major graduating this June, got a job in France. Come October, she’ll be a teaching assistant in English classes in French middle and/or high schools around the city of Lille in northern France. Needless to say, I’m quite excited, so much so that I forgot to write my post.

Keli Gwyn


  • Great pictures, Keli! Reno looks so inviting. I didn’t know all that beautiful natural scenery was enroute to the city. You must have had a great time riding the train.

    I’ve ridden trains from Washington, DC to Virginia. I used to enjoy watching the landscape go from urban metropolitan to whimsical pastures.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Brandi, I’d love to ride between D.C. and Virginia. This West Coast gal hasn’t been to that part of the country. Seeing some of it by train would be fun.

  • What a wonderful experience for you and your family, Keli. Thanks for sharing these great photos! 🙂 When I was in the 7th grade we had a wonderful school trip and rode a train from Atlanta to DC. Such a fun trip—however, my friends and I were so busy socializing that we didn’t look out the windows as much as we should have, LOL. 😉 That was such an exciting time! ~ Congratulations to your precious daughter! I’m sure you and Gwynly are super proud. 🙂

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Patti Jo, I doubt I’d have looked out the window as much if I’d made the trip when I was in 7th grade. Friends are what it’s all about at that age.

      Thanks for sharing in our excitement. Gwynly and I are so proud of our gal. She’s worked very hard for this opportunity.

  • Anne Payne says:

    I’ve never been on a train, unless you count Tweetsie Railroad when I was a kid 😉

    Looks like y’all had fun going to Reno. Not sure I would have done well with the curves and steep hills. I tend to get anxiety when there are drop offs 🙂

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Anne, I’m normally one of the first to worry about things like drop offs and such, but I felt perfectly safe. The tracks weren’t right on the edge, and the train wasn’t going very fast. Plus, I figure this route has been used for over 140 years, so it’s thoroughly tested. Knowing that helped me relax.

  • Carl Gwyn says:

    It was a great trip, Wifely. Learning more about the history of the railroad from the docent’s commentary was quite a plus as we watched beautiful scenery go by. So nice not to drive and be able to walk around or read.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Hey, Gwynly! What fun to see a comment from you. I liked that you didn’t have to drive and got to enjoy the ride as much as I did. Well, I’m not sure anyone enjoyed it quite that much. My excitement meter had pretty much needled, hadn’t it? 🙂

  • Keli, I have a life long love affair with trains and have taken many trips on them … short and long. I have two train trips on my bucket list … to travel the rails across the wide expanse of Canada from Quebec to Victoria and to take the rails across the US and criss-cross the country from Chicago heading Northwest,then down to the Southwest.

    Well, you see what I mean? There is something magical about trains, the long whine of the whistles, the sounds of the wheels against the rails and the anticipation of what is around the next bend of the tracks. Thanks so much for sharing this trip. Research can be such fun 🙂

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Florence, I’m with you. I could totally get into train travel. It feels so much more relaxing than going by car. I’d love to travel the entire route from Chicago to Sacramento that my current heroine takes.

      Seeing Canada by train would be awesome, too. I’ve never been there, and that would be a great way to experience our neighbor to the north.

  • Beth K. Vogt says:

    Thank you for taking us along on your train ride, Keli. It makes me eager to read your next book — which I was already anticipating!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Beth, while my trip was relaxing, my hero and heroine’s experiences won’t be. Thanks to info I got from the docents, I’ve got some surprises in store.

  • What fun!!!
    One of my few train trips was through the Rockies from Calgary to Vancouver. Stunning beyond words.
    I did some research in Flagstaff last summer and found out that the stones at the train depot are pink! That went in the book. 🙂
    Did you go over any bridges?

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Jennifer, I love working in interesting details like you did.

      We crossed the freeway a few times, so I’m guessing we were on bridges then–or over-crossings anyhow.

  • Susan Mason says:

    What a fun way to do research! I’ve been on lots of trains over the years. Enjoy it a lot!

  • Keli, your train trip sounds fabulous! I love all of your photos, too. 🙂 I’ve not ever ridden a train, but that’s on my “things to do list” for sure. One thing though–when I was a little girl, I had a problem with motion sickness. Did you experience any of that?

    Way to go in combining research, writing, and fun!!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Cindy, I didn’t find the motion of the train disturbing, but I don’t have a problem with motion sickness (unless I read on a windy road). Gwynly liked the motion and said it felt like he was being gently rocked to sleep. Since he was battling a head cold, he did nap much of the way. Not me. My eyes were glued to the windows. 🙂