Cross Country by Train
- Union Station
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
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.
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
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. You can find out more about the Cardinal, the Zephyr and
all other long-distance Amtrak
and VIA Rail
trains in the guide book USA
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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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