through the Rockies, not around them – pt. 2

As the train pulled out of Glenwood Springs, I noticed a reddish haze in the air. At first, it was barely perceptible, seen only when it turned the disk of the midday sun blood red. Soon, we left Glenwood Canyon and continued west, the haze thickening the partly cloudy sky into a roiling mixture of reddish-black and grey. The source of the haze had not been apparent, but as we rounded a bend in the track, it was suddenly clear: the miles-long plume of thick, black smoke before us left little doubt. We were headed straight for a Colorado wildfire.


Before long, Forest Service and fire trucks were frequent sights at grade crossings.

By the time we entered De Beque Canyon, through which both the rail line and Interstate 70 run, the fire was burning on the tops of the ridges next to us and down the canyon walls. The sky became completely obscured, save for a crimson sun, by a thick smoke that appeared to glow red at times from the reflected flame. I ran to the lower level vestibule of my car and began taking photographs and video out of the window – which, when I pressed my hand to it, was almost scorching hot to the touch. A few tense minutes later, we were clear of the canyon, and the dispatchers at Union Pacific (who currently own the line) shut it down – we were the last to pass. The adjoining Interstate was shut down as well, and the nearby communities of De Beque and Palisade were put on evacuation notice. The fire consumed more than 12,000 acres by the time it was extinguished – but fortunately, no lives were lost.

The Zephyr passes through the Pine Ridge Fire as myself and a fellow passenger look on. Click here for the BBC version.

After a few tense minutes, we cleared De Beque Canyon unscathed and headed into Grand Junction, a city at the far reaches of the Colorado Rockies. From here, we would set out across the desert for Salt Lake City, arriving there early in the morning. The sun had begun to set, still hazy red from the fire to the east. I disembarked, along with the train’s passengers stretching their legs as a fresh locomotive crew did their checks before setting off for the night. The city’s former depot, a grand turn-of-the-century building, sits dilapidated next to the current station. It was built in the early 1900s by the Rio Grande, and was meant to be the centerpiece of the town; a place that the citizens of Grand Junction (which essentially exists because of the railroads) could take pride in as a representation of their community. Inside were 22 foot high ceilings and arched stained glass windows. Now, Amtrak uses an unremarkable 70s-era building next door that originally served as a restaurant for the depot. In February of 2012, a Texas-based realtor purchased the dilapidated structure for just over $188,000, though with admittedly no real plans to start with. Time will tell what happens to this historic structure, one which has no doubt seen some interesting, if better, times.

Onward now, as the locomotives sounded their horns, and with fresh crews aboard, we headed out for the evening. As the sun began to set, I headed to the diner car for dinner and a smuggled pint. The car was surprisingly lively, with groups of passengers scooting closer to the window to see what the eastern reaches of Colorado held in store. The Mennonites had returned, settling in en masse to the swiveling chairs on a whole side of the car to watch the sun come down behind the flat-topped mesas that stood guard to either side of our route.


Passengers in the Zephyr’s lounge car socialize as the sun begins to set on the Colorado Plateau. Just ahead lay the Utah border – and about 260 miles of desert.


In motion – the Zephyr’s lounge car as we cross into Utah

Spray painted on the side of one of these weathered red sentinels were the words ‘UTAHCOLORADO’ – denoting the literal line in the sand where the border lay. Eastern Utah is where sci-fi directors go when they’re looking for an alien planet to film on. Before the sun set, it cast the bizarre landforms of the immense desert in an unearthly glow. The Zephyr was picking up the pace now, the track straightening out as we exited the heart of the Rockies. We wouldn’t stop until we hit the tiny oasis of Green River, seventy miles ahead.


This siding, at a place called Brendel, held a number of flat cars carrying half-length metal casks marked ‘RADIOACTIVE’ – as well as a similar number of unmarked black pick-ups. Turns out this location is used to hold lightly radioactive mine waste from a uranium mine near Moab before its burial nearby.

We hit Green River just as the sun set, our train stopping for no more than a breather before pushing off again into the night. Ahead, we would cross the rest of the desert under the stars, climbing the last, faraway range of the Rocky Mountains in the moonlight before descending into Salt Lake City around one in the morning.


Night owls in the Zephyr’s lounge car around midnight.

After sundown, I returned briefly to the vestibule of the car where I had witnessed the fire before. The magic window once again opened, and in the warm night air of the desert, I could see the distant lights of a power plant. They winked at me again and again as they passed behind ridge after mountain after canyon wall. Soon, the lights appeared just up the track, and swiftly flew past us into the night again.

I headed back to my seat, only to remember it had been given to part of a family before – sleeping bodies now occupied my whole row. I elected to become a nomad, and found myself a quiet corner of the car next door with a conveniently unoccupied row of seats. Across the aisle was a fellow traveler named Sam. I asked Sam if the seats were free, and in a Cockney accent, he replied “I dunno, I just sat down in this one!” Brilliant plan! I checked one more time above my seats for reservation slips, and, finding none, I settled off to sleep.

Julia tracked me down and roused me a few hours later, just short of 1.30AM. A few minutes later, I stepped off the Zephyr at my final destination, the promised land: Salt Lake City. The train squeaked to a stop and I disembarked under a star-filled sky.


Julia bids me farewell with one more dose of sass.

through the Rockies, not around them – pt. 1

Travel in today’s United States is mostly about two things: the automobile, which is a fixture in every part of America, and the airplane, which made the vast expanses of the U.S. easy to cross in mere hours. However, one form of transport that was so crucial to the history of the United States is often overlooked in favor of these two: the train. Even though train travel in the U.S. (at least outside of the Northeast) is often seen as the domain of families and retirees it can still be a perfectly viable means of travel for those seeking no more than transport in style.

One of the most well known of America’s modern passenger train routes is the California Zephyr, a named train that has its roots in the postwar 1940s. The route of the original Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco was a cooperative hand-off effort of three American railroads, all now defunct. This relay race of sorts led passengers through some of the most beautiful parts of North America, including the headwaters of the Colorado River in the high Rockies, the strange desolation of the Utah desert, and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. The most difficult portion for the Zephyr to traverse, from Denver through the Rockies to Salt Lake City, was the job of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad – and this was no small task.

The gold and silver rushes of the mid to late 1800s caused a huge amount of railroad expansion into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in search of riches, and dozens of narrow and standard gauge railroad lines stretched between the unforgiving peaks. The engineering challenges were gargantuan; narrow, treacherous passages like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison proved almost impossible to build through, steep grades and treeless high mountain passes had to be negotiated, sometimes by blasting paths out of solid rock, and deadly winter blizzards forced shutdowns and stoppages again and again.


A map of the Denver and Rio Grande Western circa 1930, showing Colorado crisscrossed with rail lines originally built by at least a dozen companies. By 1930, the D&RGW had absorbed almost all of them into their dual gauge system – the lines in black are 3′ (90 cm) gauge while the red ones are standard 4′ 8½” (1.4 m).

The Rio Grande’s mountain routes have been famous since their inception for the staggering scenery along the way. Originally, mainline trains had to travel from Denver to Pueblo before turning west into the Rockies, then into the Royal Gorge of the Gunnison River and through the impossibly deep Black Canyon before climbing north over Tennessee Pass – the highest point on the entire US rail system. From the top of the pass, trains then descended the Eagle River valley (passing through Belden) and met the banks of the Colorado River, following it west again through Glenwood and De Beque Canyons before clearing the Rockies. This way of doing things was an ethos for ‘the Grande’; their motto was ‘Through the Rockies, Not Around Them’ – a bit of a jab at their competitors (and, ironically, their eventual owners) to the north, the Union Pacific Railroad. The UP used a much easier route through the gradual, easy grades of South Pass in Wyoming, whereas the Rio Grande went west the hard way – straight through the heart of the mountains.

However, as airplanes and automobiles took over for long-distance trains, the preferred way of crossing the Rockies changed – gone were the days of teams of locomotives shoving passengers over high passes and through smoky tunnels. In 1971, during the height of the Oil Crisis, all of America’s mainline railroads ceased passenger operations, handing them in bulk over to a hastily organized state corporation – Amtrak was born. However, the D&RGW, long known for its independent streak, shunned Amtrak and continued to operate its portion of the Zephyr route as the Rio Grande Zephyr until 24 April 1983, when further declines in passengers finally forced the Grande to hand the Zephyr route over to Amtrak.


The Rio Grande Zephyr waits for its final departure from Denver’s Union Station on 24 April 1983. Photo by Slideshow Bruce via Wikimedia.

Jump ahead now, if you will, to the present day. In the middle of summer, I decided that a friend in Salt Lake City was long overdue for a visit. I booked myself a train ticket, and on the appointed day, my California Zephyr showed up at Denver’s temporary Amtrak station backwards – and nearly two hours late. The backwards part is perfectly normal, with Denver’s Union Station resting on a long stub of track that requires the reverse move for access. Today, it was track maintenance and a few passing freight trains east of Denver that held Train #5 up, but no matter; soon we would head out of Denver for the high country and begin making that time back.


Passengers wait to board the Zephyr at Denver’s temporary Amtrak station. Union Station, the Zephyr’s stop since the 1930s, is being turned into a regional commuter rail terminal, and will reopen in 2014.

With a smooth push, the Zephyr pulled out and we were on our way. My car was overseen by conductor Julia Thompson-Johnson of Chicago, a capable professional traveler. Amtrak’s conductors do far more than simply taking tickets; they are the masters of the rails, seeing to everything from extra blankets for toddlers in transit to midnight wake-up calls. I found myself a seat and watched out the window of the café car as the train pulled out of Denver’s freight yards and headed for the Rockies.

As we ascended up the Front Range, I noticed a group of people who looked as if they were from another century. They sported bonnets, dresses, and long beards for the men – members of the Mennonite religious order, as it turns out. Mennonites are similar in dress to their more well-known Amish cousins, and like them eschew most modern technology. However, their order permits them to travel long distances using trains, allowing this group to leave their native Ohio for sunny California. To these people, Amtrak is their primary link to the rest of the country – an essential service indeed.

As the train pushes into the Rockies, the terrain gets much more dramatic.

As we approached the Continental Divide, the mountains seemed to swell around us, as if they were trying to outsmart us, trying to trap the train in some nameless alpine crevice. Originally, trains on this route had to make a tortuous ascent up a 4% grade to the summit of Rollins Pass, well above timberline at 11,660 ft (3,554 m). Winter was not a kind season to the railroad, with blizzards stranding passengers in tens of feet of snow, even after a series of tall sheds were built over the tracks to protect them. By the early 1900s, the need for an alternative was apparent; the railroad was spending more than forty percent of its money on fighting the snow. Denver entrepreneur David Moffat had entertained the idea of a tunnel here as early as 1902, but it would take twenty more years of political and financial wrangling to make it a reality. The resulting masterpiece of civil engineering that would bear Moffat’s name was a 6.2 mile (10.0 km) long tunnel – straight through the Continental Divide.

The Zephyr approaches the Moffat Tunnel. It takes the train about six minutes to pass through James Peak.


Train #5 calls at Winter Park station, former terminal of the Rio Grande’s Ski Train – the last of the Grande’s passenger trains. The idea was simple: a train leaves Denver full of skiers in the morning, takes them straight to the slopes, and returns them to the city the same evening. The route survived under various owners until 2009.


The Colorado River begins in this high mountain valley, and the route of the Zephyr follows it from here to the edge of the Utah desert.


This stretch of the Colorado River is popular among whitewater rafters and kayakers like these. It is a tradition in these parts for rafters to salute passing trains with their rear ends – this group chose to refrain!

Ahead lay one of the most isolated parts of Colorado: Gore Canyon, a roadless chasm that nearly ran the railroad out of business trying to build through it. This canyon is inaccessable by any other means; only the Zephyr, a few hiking trails, and the Colorado River below allow people passage. This stretch of track was (and still is) an engineering marvel, with sheer drops, tunnels, and miles upon miles of rockfall sensors and fences. Rockslides in particular are a hazard here; in 1942, a huge steam locomotive hit a large slide while entering a tunnel here and derailed – straight into the wall of the tunnel, causing it to collapse and bury the engine until crews could dig it free. Our locomotives, however, remained firmly attached to the rails as we continued our climb through the heart of the Rocky Mountains.


D&RGW steam locomotive #1800 pulls an express passenger train through Gore Canyon in the late 1940s.

From here, our train follows the Colorado River along a rail line known as the Dotsero Cutoff. This shortcut allowed more than 200 miles to be shaved off the trip from Denver to Salt Lake City by connecting the Rio Grande’s main line through the desert of eastern Utah to David Moffat’s direct, tunnel-equipped line from Denver. This combination of routes proved its worth through longevity – it still carries thousands of tons of freight and passengers through the Rockies every month. The terrain changes here, too, as the jagged peaks of the central Rockies change to the weathered reddish sandstone and limestone of eastern Colorado.


The Zephyr takes a long curve along the Colorado River.

There are few places I’ve been to so far that even come close to the natural beauty of Glenwood Canyon. This rugged chasm in the Earth was carved out of the surrounding rocks by the Colorado River over eons, leaving some of the most spectacular land forms I’ve ever encountered. Since its first run in the late 40s, the California Zephyr has been specifically timed to pass through the canyon during the day regardless of direction, always giving its passengers an eyeful of western Colorado. Our train was no exception to this rule, and as we approached the canyon’s mouth, I gave up my seat on the upper deck of the car and found myself a spot next to a window in the lower vestibule – a window that conveniently opened, allowing me to indulge my habit of sticking my head (and camera) out of moving vehicles.

The sedimentary rocks that make up Glenwood Canyon also make this route particularly susceptible to rockslides. To prevent the inevitable accidents and derailments, the railroad devised a system of rockslide fences meant to warn oncoming trains. An electric current is passed through the wires guarding the track, and when a rock slide breaks the wires, the broken circuit trips a signal warning of the danger.


Julia Thompson-Johnson and the rest of the conductors sound the ‘All Aboard!’ at the Zephyr’s stop in Glenwood Springs, a city of nearly 10,000 people nestled in the heart of the canyon.

Ahead: the strange Utah desert – and a hot surprise! To Be Continued in Part 2…

amsterdammed

After a few months of ‘study’ in London, myself and a few friends decided to leave the UK behind and see what else Europe had in store. Due to time constraints, we had to keep our destination close, and we settled upon a city all of us had on our lists – the largest city in the Netherlands, Amsterdam. We booked a cheap flight out of London’s well-located City Airport, and after boarding our small plane on the tarmac with an old-school airstair, off we went on the hour-long flight to the Netherlands.

Later that night, the rain lashed the window in our hostel, smearing the lights of the city‘s Centrum district into an unrecognizable blur. Our night out had ended early, with a torrent of icy spray that intensified as the wind started to gust. So far the city had proven that, while arguably more sociable than London, it had lost none of the appalling February weather. Despite this, the four of us in the room decided to crack the window a smidge, rolled up a legally obtained joint, and ruminated on our first impressions of the city we had just met.

Amsterdam is a city built on canals, much like a drier version of Venice. The innermost and oldest of these canals, the Singel, served the city’s moat in the Middle Ages. As time went on, the city outgrew the moat, and the former siege defense began to serve a more commercial role. Over time, one canal became 11, providing the growing city with ready access to water transportation for everything from the bustling warehouses of the Dutch East India Company to the rows of picturesque houseboats that have made the city so famous. Today, the canals continue to serve not only as transport, but as an attraction in their own right, with tourists from all over the world stopping on the bridges to photograph the annoyingly photogenic waterways.

The next morning, we were nearly mowed down by three or four cyclists on our way to the hostel’s cafe for breakfast. Amsterdam has a well-earned reputation as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world. The bicycles are everywhere, stuffing the three-deck bike parking garage outside Centraal Station and stealthily cruising down seemingly every street and alley in the city. The Dutch have a love affair with the bicycle, even going as far as to create their very own kind: part cruiser, part commuter bike, almost always black, and with a very European philosophy of riding. You won’t find any spandex-wearing Lance Armstrong types on carbon fibre speed machines tearing up and down the bike lanes here; the Dutch are much more relaxed about their cycling. Don’t let it catch you off guard however, since most of the time the last thing you’ll hear before getting plowed into by one of these bikes is the ding of a bell, maybe a few curses from the rider as you step out into the street unaware of the approaching metal steed.

One of the things that Amsterdam is most famous for is, of course, its tolerance. The Red Light District is the place in the city where this policy is most apparent. It’s hard to hide from it here; prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, and the ladies of the night are there for any interested parties to size up – at street level, through full-length windows. This is a strange part of town after dark; the towers of the Oude Kerk, the oldest church in the city, are quite literally across a square from several ‘storefronts’ full of red-light windows.

Just down the street, the sweet smell of cannabis floats through the air from one of the city’s famous ‘coffeeshops’. Their specialty is not coffee; for a cup of joe, one would go to a café. Amsterdam has a thriving business built around pot, one that brings in nearly £2 billion a year for the merchants in the city. Technically, marijuana is still illegal in the Netherlands (mostly to comply with international treaties), but since 1976, the Dutch government has had a policy of non-prosecution on the basis that it essentially has bigger fish to fry. Amsterdam once had a big heroin problem, big enough that the government could not fight it within its means. They decided that pot wasn’t nearly as big a problem as the hordes of junkies in the Red Light District, so in looking the other way, they freed up piles of cash for fighting the epidemic of hard drugs. The results have been more than encouraging: since the policy went into effect, there are now only around 600 addicts in Amsterdam, almost all in rehab programs. Not too shabby. Now, the 360 licensed coffeeshops in the city keep locals and tourists smiling while making huge sums of money (via taxes) for the government.

A coffeeshop experience, whether one partakes or not, is one thing that is uniquely Amsterdam. There are few other cities I have been to (Denver and perhaps San Francisco) where the sweet smell of ganja is not uncommon on the street. The Dutch style of toking is to roll fat, cone-shaped spliffs, almost always with tobacco as well as weed. The procedure is simple: first, walk up to the counter. There will be a menu of sorts, but no visible product; (advertising or overtly showing that you sell weed is against the law) simply choose what kind of bud/hash/edibles/etc. you’d like and tell the man behind the counter. He will weigh it out in front of you and hand you your prize. From there, find yourself some kind of smoking apparatus. No self-respecting coffeeshop would be without at least rolling papers for its patrons, some even have fancy water pipes and vaporizers for check-out use. After you’re sorted, find a comfy spot on the couch and smoke ’em if you got ’em.


It’s always 4:20 in the coffeeshops of Amsterdam.

As you walk out the door (possibly in a bit of a haze), make sure you watch for the bikes. They’re everywhere – this is Amsterdam, after all.

setting sail

Allie and I left Amsterdam the next day, taking a local train through Rotterdam to Hoek van Holland. Despite the pull of the great city of Amsterdam, both of us had more pressing engagements; hers in the form of the rest of term at Swansea Uni, and mine in the form of a plane ticket back to the States from Heathrow. The end was near; my long journey home began, really, as soon as I left Prague. From that point on, I would push no farther into Europe, and each step I took westward was another closer to home. The only thing to do, then, would be to make the voyage in style.

We hopped a local train to Rotterdam Centraal station and from there boarded the ‘woo hoo!!!’ express to Hoek van Holland. The huge port complex near the station held container and passenger ships from all over the world. Back in Prague I had booked us passage on Stena Line’s Stena Hollandica, running from the Europoort at the Hook of Holland across the North Sea to Harwich on the coast of England. From Harwich, a late-night train would take me back to Liverpool Street. The tickets were going fast, and all I could manage was a sailing four days in the future, but we were hoping to get out much sooner.

The train was full of stranded passengers like us, and we had been told that the ferries had been operating at near capacity to move the sudden exodus of airline passengers. Though the queue at the ferry terminal stretched almost back to the doors, we walked calmly up to the desk and managed to exchange our tickets (and cabin) for a ride on the next ferry out. Excellent!

Through customs and up the gangway we went, into the bowels of the ship that would carry us across the sea. The Hollandica can carry more than 900 people, and it seemed today that the ship was filled to capacity. Travelers sprawled out through the seven decks, taking their rest anywhere they could find it. The onboard casino and restaurant looked more like a refugee camp, with luggage and small children strewn about the room. Up on deck, the ship’s horn sounded its departure, and we set sail.

The rumbles deep within the ship translated into movement, and the ship lumbered down the canal and out onto the open ocean. The wind turbines spinning lazily in the distance waved us a goodbye as the waterway lost its boundaries and breakwaters to the expanse of the North Sea.

Being a landlubber from a state surrounded on all sides by other states, I had never been on a ship or a body of water of this size before. The sensation of movement was only discernible when the ship pitched and rolled slightly on the sea. Up on the sun deck, the gulls circled for handouts, and a few brave souls pitched tents in the wind and curled up for a few hours’ nap. Allie and I settled down in a corner of the restaurant-turned-refugee deck and chatted up some of our fellow passengers.

Charlie, 22, was on his way back to the UK after his spring holiday, much like Allie and I were. His mates had caught an earlier ferry, and now Charlie was playing catch-up. The prognosis now looked rosy; he (and we) were on our way, now nearly fifty miles out to sea, headed for jolly ole England. Suddenly, we noticed something odd: smoke rising from a trash can nearby. We investigated, and found what we suspected to be a smoldering fire caused by a discarded cigarette. Charlie and I leapt into action, sacrificing our beers for the sake of saving the Hollandica from a certain, fiery doom. Well, okay, maybe not fiery doom…but at least a shrieking fire alarm.

The sun began to set on the sea, and I took a moment to find a quiet corner of the deck near the lorry drivers’ lounge to get some photos. I can see now why travel by sea has tugged at people since time immemorial; there is a certain serenity that comes with the expanse of water, the quiet, faraway whoosh of the bow of the ship slicing through the waves. Once in a while, a group of gulls would make a pass on the ship, trying to find some handouts from generous travelers. My mind was on the hours ahead, on getting back to England and, all too soon, returning to the States. Commence reflection/contemplation/etc.

Soon enough, the sun was setting as the ship came into Harwich. Back on the sun deck, we watched as the ferry swung itself around and pulled alongside its berth. The sunset that greeted us to the UK was orange-red with the volcanic ash still being spewed by Iceland, but now and again we could see the contrails of the first planes to dip their toes into the cloud. The ban would soon be lifted, but we were still glad to have been able to make it back across Europe during the shutdown. Our plan had been an unqualified success.

Allie and I bid Charlie goodbye and headed through customs to the Harwich International rail station. Our last journey of the night would take us from here to Liverpool Street in London, and from there it was only another tube ride to the hostel. The train pulled away from Harwich, and almost as soon as it had, Allie and I were asleep in our backpacks. The hostel in Borough couldn’t come soon enough.

leaps and bounds, part 2

It seemed like my backpack was getting heavier.

next stop:

This may have had something to do with the fact that it was slightly heavier with provisions for leg 2 of the run to Amsterdam (provisions being bread, cheese, and beer – it was Germany, after all).  It may have been the hundreds of kilometers I’d already covered that day.  Whatever the reason, train #2, IC 142 to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam squeaked to a stop at the platform in Berlin and I hopped aboard.  The tweet of the conductor’s whistle sounded the all clear, and the last of the train crew scurried back aboard.  With a hiss of air from the brakes, we pulled out of Berlin and made haste for the Dutch border.  This ride would be a 6 hour jaunt from Berlin, north to Hanover, across the Dutch frontier at Bad Bentheim, and on to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.  From Schiphol, I’d change to one last local train to Centraal Station, and from there I’d trudge to the hostel and pass out.

That’s 120 miles an hour, for those not metrically inclined.

Time passed quickly.  The ride through the north of Germany reminded me (for better or worse) of parts of Wisconsin.  I walked the train, dodging suitcases and bodies flung willy-nilly around the passageways.  It was a completely full train, carrying volcano refugees from all over Europe, people whose stress was palpable in any of the dozens of languages they were speaking.  We were all trying to get somewhere.  Today, I’d rack up around 1000 km (621 miles), crossing parts of three countries.  Based on some of the languages I heard shouted into mobile phones and tossed up and down the corridors, I’d say that some of the passengers beat my mileage handily.  The Dutch border came and went, with only a brief stop just barely on the German side to mark the occasion.  Bad Bentheim was a border control town back in the days before the EU, but with the coming of the Schengen Agreement, it became merely a crew change and a chance to stretch.  I welcomed the respite from the tight corridors of the train.  The sun would be going down soon.  Two hours to go.

The train pulled out for the last stretch to Amsterdam.  The passengers could feel the miles tick off; the chatter in the passageway turned less heated, the bags slowly left their homes in the aisles, and the shrieks of small children caged up in compartments for too long subsided.  Fields of giant wind turbines spun lazily in the distance, turned by the same winds that blew through the sails of the famous Dutch windmills decades ago. Picturesque farms dotted the landscape as we sped through the hills east of Amersfoort, blurring together into a sleepy haze as the sun finally fell below the horizon. No sooner had I begun to doze than the speaker shouted something in Dutch – I caught ‘Schiphol’ somewhere in there.

amsterdam, the netherlands

Schiphol Airport is one of the busiest airports in Europe.  Every year, 46.3 million passengers move through its halls, going anywhere from Moscow to Houston.  At this hour, Schiphol should be receiving late-night transatlantic flights, processing hundreds of passengers through customs, and sending off hundreds more for long-haul flights destined to awake in far-off lands.  Instead, there was nothing.  Not the chatter of the intercom paging in three different languages, not the shrill buzzer of the first bags coming off a late night flight, not even the ceaseless flow of passengers trying to get wherever they’re trying to get.  Iceland’s temper tantrum had not relented, and this night there were only a few holdouts left clustered around the information screens, hoping for some good news after being stranded for so long.

The KLM counter was the center of the universe at that moment. A handful of people, maybe 20 or so, clustered around one obviously exhausted airline agent. She kept repeating the same litany she had been telling desperate fliers all day: no, there were no flights out that night, airspace over Europe was still closed. No, she could not refund your ticket; by now all the ticket agents at the counter had left for the night. Yes, she could help you find a place to stay for the night, but with all the stranded people, space was filling up fast.

A couple from Chicago walked up to her. The woman was pregnant; obviously so, and the man had clearly had too little sleep and too much coffee. They had been stuck in Amsterdam for 27 hours (he had been keeping track), having come here from Frankfurt with the hope of catching a flight back to O’Hare. The gate agent told them the same thing she had told the exasperated passenger before, then paused and added a morsel of hope to the stew of emotions brewing in the terminal. She told the couple that a few hours ago, in the dark of night, KLM had flown a 747 full of passengers out of JFK Airport in New York. The flight landed safely in Amsterdam only twenty minutes before.

“So you mean they might be flying tomorrow? Really?”

“Yes, ma’am, but I cannot guarantee-”

“But they might be flying tomorrow, right?”

“Yes, ma’am, they might.”

The couples’ faces lit up. Both had been running for the door, just like me, and the end to their inadvertently extended holiday was now in sight.

I returned to the train station beneath the airport and hitched a ride on a train to Centraal Station in the heart of Amsterdam. Sleep came quickly, the booming bass from the nightclub beneath my hostel bed notwithstanding. Earplugs, mate. Big must-have for trying to sleep at the fringe of the Red Light District.