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USA Cross Country by Train

Union Station Courtesy Picture Archive

Washington DC - Union Station


"All aboard! All aboooardd!!"

The conductor's extended cry created a thrill of anticipation as we mounted our train in Washington, DC, for the start of a journey that would take us 3,500 miles across the entire United States.

With its waiting room decked in gold leaf and a marble concourse large enough to hold the Washington monument sideways, the city's Union Station made a suitably imposing place to begin our adventure on the tracks of the legendary Iron Horse.

Amtrak's gleaming Cardinal train crossed the Potomac and was soon heading down the Shenandoah Valley, home to wild bear, bobcat and 200 species of birds. Most of the trees had turned crimson and gold in the early autumn sunshine as our train climbed into the Blue Ridge Mountains on a line built in the 1870s by former slaves from Virginia.

On a mountain above Big Bend tunnel stood the statue of John Henry, who swung twelve-pound hammers in both hands to prove he could tunnel through rock faster than a steam-powered drill. He died from a heart attack soon afterwards but his achievement inspired such railroad songs as "Take This Hammer" and "If I had a Hammer".

We accompanied rugged, boulder-strewn rivers among waterfalls and forested hills until sunset, when it was time to investigate the dining car. Meals on board are usually freshly prepared and on this occasion there was excellent locally-caught trout on the menu. Afterwards, the bar was the place to go to enjoy a drink and the evening movie or a game of cards. Strangers quickly became friends in the laid back atmosphere and a girl from Manchester, England, told us she was out to see the world on $10 a day, intent on making maximum use of her rail pass to visit nearly every state inside a month.

Heading West

Through panoramic windows in the observation lounge we watched the Cardinal's progress across the Ohio River towards the bright lights of Cincinnati. When the train stopped and we went back to our coach we found the attendant handing out free pillows. People began to settle down for the night. Getting a decent night's sleep was no problem since the coach had well-padded, reclining seats and I made sure to choose one which was well away from the noise of the sliding doors. I had also took a coat to wrap around me in case the air-conditioning became over exuberant.

I awoke to find the train trundling into Chicago, where the Great Hall waiting room is as big and almost as grand as many a cathedral. Now sadly underused, its sweeping staircases and wonderful arched ceiling seem to echo with the sounds from another, much busier age. One veteran Red Cap porter told me how not so long ago you could have enjoyed a bath, a shave and a shoeshine in the restrooms below, sometimes bumping into Al Capone as he did the same.

From Chicago I boarded the California Zephyr, which takes a route formerly used by pioneer wagon trains, gold prospectors and the Pony Express.

Since I would be spending two nights on board the Zephyr I opted for the luxury of a private sleeping compartment this time. All long-distance trains have them and the modest extra ticket price includes meals in the dining car as well as fresh coffee and a newspaper delivered each morning. You may even find a chocolate mint waiting for you on your pillow when you retire. The room felt a little cramped at first but was cozy enough, with a fold-down bunk and two seats that could convert into a second berth if required.

The train pulled out through residential suburbs then traveled over wide cornfields and marshes before dramatically crossing the Mississippi River on a 2,000ft high bridge. This gentle, tree-lined countryside is renowned for its covered bridges, which were made even more famous by the book and film of "The Bridges of Madison County". The Zephyr crossed the Missouri River as darkness descended and the sleeping car attendant came to make up our beds. Following a hot shower it was a pleasure to snuggle down and be swayed through the night listening to the comforting rhythm of the wheels on the track.

Across the Rockies

The most spectacular part of the journey began next day as we climbed the Rocky Mountain foothills, where deer and elk scampered among the aspens and pine trees. After going through the Moffatt Tunnel (the highest point on Amtrak's network) we followed the Colorado River through a series of brilliantly colored canyons. On our left was the huge violet and purple mound of the Grand Mesa, the world's largest and perhaps most beautiful flat-top mountain. We looked for golden eagles riding currents of air along the warm red walls of Ruby Canyon then, at Westwater, entered a landscape of dry river beds and eroding sandstone mesas, passing the picturesque Sweet Grills Cafe featured in the film "Thelma and Louise".

After descending snow-dusted mountains to the desolate uranium country of Utah, the Zephyr paused at Salt Lake City during the night then whisked us to Reno by the following morning. From Reno we crossed the Sierra Nevada, keeping our eyes open for atmospheric remains of old gold mines. At Donner Lake we saw the place where in 1846 a party of settlers were trapped for several agonizing weeks after being caught in tremendous blizzards. Half the settlers died or were forced into cannibalism to survive before they could be rescued.

Cameras flashed furiously as the train inched along overgrown cliffs above the North Fork of the American River, easing down the western side of the Sierra Nevada through drifts of lupins and poppies. The Golden Gate Bridge appeared casually to the right as we traveled along the bay towards our final destination, San Francisco.

We might have made the journey across country by air in a fraction of the time but trains are so much more fun. You have time to relax, stay close to the landscape and you move at a pace that is perfect for sightseeing. North American trains possess abundant style and old-world charm but they may not be around for ever, so climb aboard soon while you have the chance.

About the Author...

John Pitt is the author of USA by Rail and writes on travel for newspapers and magazines throughout the world. He has traveler more than 60,000 miles by train in the USA and Canada.

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