The Vista Dome is the famous windowed observation car on the California Zephyr, and it’s as beautiful as everyone says it is. My brochure outlines the three levels of the former, mid-century Vista Dome: the lower level was the cocktail bar, the next level was a sitting room with plush armchairs, and the upper level was the observation level. The vintage ads consistently highlight the Vista Dome as the central feature of the California Zephyr. This first advertisement (at right) depicts the observation level of the Dome as the train travels through the Rockies. The ad seems to borrow from the iconography of science fiction: the Vista Dome resembles nothing so much as a shiny silver flying saucer. The illustration positions the potential customer outside of the train, looking in at the passengers, who are riveted by what they see. There were five Vista Domes on the mid-century California Zephyr, and you can see several of them in the ad as the train snakes through the mountains.
The second advertisement (at left) positions the would-be customer on the inside of one of the Domes, looking up and over the train to a snow-covered peak. This advertisement underscores sightseeing as a crucial aspect of traveling on the Zephyr. It promises “Scenery you See…” which is a hilariously redundant phrase. The ad also notes that the train is “designed and scheduled for sightseeing…you enjoy a panoramic, penthouse view of all this magnificent scenery.” It seems to me that these mixed metaphors draw on both an urban understanding of unobstructed sight (a “penthouse,” or a structure that is annexed to another structure) and a more capacious, bucolic one (“panoramic,” which suggests that the traveler may undertake a complete and comprehensive survey of the landscape). The observer’s unbroken view is also “panoramic” insofar as it is always already translated into photographic form. Sure, you want to see the landscape, but in the grand tradition of the American traveler, you really want to take pictures of it.
I certainly translated my landscape into photographic form. I sat at my table in the Vista Dome and looked out the windows for several hours. The car really is very lovely, and I can only imagine how incredible the last leg of the trip would be through the Rockies and the Sierras. (See the vintage postcard below of cowboys on horseback watching the train pass.)
For me, the trip over the Mississippi River was particularly beautiful. Like the Hudson the day before, the river was covered in ice; it looked foreboding and cold. You really do feel popped out of time as you sit in the Vista Dome and gaze out at Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. The plains of America, poetic in their unchanging flatness. The design of the Vista Dome today is markedly different from the older three-level car. There is a lower level, but there’s not much down there – just a few tables and the snack bar. The main level is airy and roomy and designed to accommodate four-top tables and individuals in armchairs (see two pictures below).