The great American rail trip

Forget the automobile: the train is the truly great – and great value – way to cross the USA

7 mins

I knew Colonel Grant was going to be an engaging dinner companion when he joined our table, tipped his cap to the young girl seated next to her Mom, and asked earnestly: “Say, honey, d’ya reckon this train has ears?”

The girl looked at the tall, white-haired black man, and shook her puzzled head.

“Sure it has. Engineers!”

The ice was broken, as intended, and conversation flowed freely while the great plains of the American Midwest unfurled on both sides of the train. I had already discovered that condensed life stories are as much a staple of mealtimes on US trains as the succulent steaks (freshly grilled on board) and cheesecake.

Colonel (his first name, not military rank) remembered Pearl Harbour, had heard Martin Luther King preach in Atlanta and witnessed the launch of Apollo 17 into the Cape Canaveral night. At one point he also mentioned: “I was raised in Mississippi by my gran-mammy and gran-pappy, who were born slaves.”

This comment shocked me. But, as my new friend pointed out, slavery finally ended only in 1865, and he would be 85 next birthday. Perfectly possible, then, I thought, and something to mull as we chugged past endless flat expanses of corn, trekked by westward-heading pioneers back in gran-pappy’s day.

I, too, was heading west – by rail, from New York to San Francisco; Brooklyn Bridge to Golden Gate. Soon after dawn on a misty Manhattan morning the sleek, silvery Amtrak train stretched along the platform at Pennsylvania station, hissing as if raring to get going. Ahead of me lay four time zones, 17 states and 67 station stops. You could make the whole trip in four days and three nights if you wanted, changing trains just once: the Cardinal runs three times a week from New York to Chicago, from where the California Zephyr departs daily for the west coast.

However, I’d opted to hop off – briefly – four times. I would overnight in Chicago, then head for the little mountain town of Granby in the Rockies – for no reason other than that it was a station in a location I’d almost certainly never get to by air and car: train trips are about discovering such places. After snaking through the Rockies I’d detour to the Wild West mining town of Virginia City, then finally stop at Sacramento, the small state capital of California, to pump iron with Governor Schwarzenegger – or, more likely, nip into the historic California State Railroad Museum.

As is happens, my itinerary turned out a little differently. Best laid plans and all that, of which more later.


Where’s the fun in flying?


The Cardinal takes 26 hours to make its U-shaped swing south along the eastern seaboard, west through Virginia and Kentucky, then north to the tip of Lake Michigan. My small compartment in the first-class ‘Viewliner’ carriage had two large, velvety facing seats, which a steward would convert into a bed while I dined. There were crisp pillows, a swing-up table doubling as a chessboard, and a foldaway basin and tap.

Early in the morning, the sociability that characterises life aboard an Amtrak train had not yet got going. And because my carriage was at the rear of the train, I found myself periodically standing at the back window watching the rivers and harbours of Delaware and Maryland vanishing along the fringes of the narrowing rails.

Washington DC’s Union Station reminded me of a baroque cathedral, with domes and an extravagant splattering of gilt dating from the early years of the 20th century when the USA was emerging as an economic juggernaut. It was an era when railroads radiated out from the federal capital, their development determining the distribution of so many of today’s towns and cities. That was before America fell in love with the automobile, and rail began its steady decline towards what my onboard lunch companion Molly Wendell termed “the bottom mask on the totem pole”.


Eating alone is not an option on Amtrak

Tables in the dining car are set for four, with a steward filling up tables with waiting passengers. Molly and her husband Ted were visiting their daughter in Cincinnati and frequently travelled by train. “Why not? We are retired and have time to spare. Gas prices are going crazy, and where’s the fun in flying anyways? Packed in like fish in a can, shoes off like you are a felon… and since that underwear bomber, who knows what we’ll have to take off next for all to view?”

Instead, we clickety-clacked our (fully clothed) way through smallholdings and farmsteads in the rippled green hills of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Amtrak, the government-owned corporation that operates all of America’s long-distance passenger trains, had long been a bit of a joke, with run-down rolling stock and a reputation for lateness. Old notions die hard, and right across America there are people only barely aware that they live near a railway line.

But now things are changing. Citing the climate-change-countering advantages of rail, the Obama administration has been talking up Amtrak, and is promising investment in high-speed rail. Passenger numbers are up, albeit from a low base. Trains may not yet be fast but they are clean, comfortable, spacious and – in my experience at least – punctual. However, as Molly said: “It remains to be seen whether Barack really puts his stimulus package where his mouth is.”

Rattling across West Virginia and Kentucky, the train rocked me to sleep. I awoke in a suburb of Connersville, Indiana to an unlikely glimpse into a family’s breakfast time, their clapboard bungalow bang next to the rail line. Showering, I discovered, is tricky in a swaying cubicle with a meagre water supply. Shaving, on the other hand, was rather fun; I lathered my chin while gliding past sleepy little towns such as Crawfordsville where, according to the Amtrak route guide, ‘one of the country’s first Rotary Jails opened in 1882 and is now a museum’. Well I never.

In Chicago the latest buzz in sightseeing is the city’s South Side, piggy-backing the elevation of a certain former community organiser in this deprived area. “Black people used to be suspicious of white people coming here, but now it is more acceptable. Tourism brings in money,” a guide told me.

In fact, many on the bus tour I joined were young African Americans revelling in points of interest such as the slummy building where Obama slept on the floor when he first arrived in Chicago (“Oooh…”); the apartment where he and Michelle raised the kids (“Aaah…”); and the smart detached house where the family moved in more prosperous times (applause amid snapping of pictures).


A historic detour


The California Zephyr, I discovered the next day, is similar to the Cardinal but is double-deckered and has an observation lounge car with curved glass walls and outward-facing seats for viewing the Rocky Mountain canyons between Denver and Salt Lake City. Before that, however, came the featureless expanses of Iowa. As Larry Orantes, a philosophy student from Des Moines, commented: “Iowa is the state that everybody looks down on – literally, because the smart thing to do is to fly over it.”

Next morning we approached Denver under a pink-streaked sky, with snowy saw-blade peaks on the horizon announcing the Rockies. Then came the tannoyed bombshell: an overnight landslide near Winter Park had damaged a bridge, so the line over the mountains to Utah – perhaps the most spectacular stretch of rail anywhere in North America – was out for a few days. Instead, passengers on the California Zephyr would “get to see Wyoming instead” on a detour through the state to Salt Lake City.

Customer service for all...

The Amtrak employee whose job it was to help inconvenienced customers to their destinations came over. “We don’t get many Granbys,” he admitted. In fact, I was the only Granby that morning, which meant a free private taxi to the little ranching town 2,400m up in the high mountain desert. I’d booked an inn within walking distance of the forlorn little station amid the majesty of the mountains; by the time I got there I was like a spaniel straining on its leash, desperate to stretch my legs along the trails. Wild sage scented the rarefied air while horses grazed the pastures and flights of American white pelicans splashed down on milky blue lakes of snow melt.

It was a shame to have to return to Denver by road, rather than plunge onwards from Granby into canyons only reachable by rail or raft. But I was beginning to feel a thrill of anticipation at the sound of Wyoming. The poetry of the name seemed to mirror the vast Rocky-fringed prairies sprinkled with bison and wind-sculpted mesas that were to unfold.

Amtrak passengers only experience Wyoming when the Colorado line is blocked, since the Union Pacific line through the state is normally reserved for freight. Still, this was a history-packed detour along the final link completed in the 1860s to fulfil Abraham Lincoln’s dream of a transcontinental railroad. Gazing out from the observation car, I tried to imagine how this unknown immensity must have appeared to the frontiersmen of the westward expansion: the cowboys, prospectors, outlaws and railroaders.

There were no scheduled stations but the train creaked to a halt every few hours at a slab of concrete next to some tiny town so that smokers could have a quick puff.

“Oh my gaaad… that’s too baaad… you missed the most unbelievable scenery in the wooorld!” lamented garrulous Gaylene, a Reno casino croupier who joined the train at Salt Lake City. Going overboard (which is where the rest of us at the table felt like throwing her) about the splendours of Red and Glenwood canyons, she might as well have taken half the salt from the lake, especially to rub in.


Ever the Twain


The train streamed on through the night, bisecting Nevada’s Great Basin Desert. I awoke to a flinty blue sky over Reno, gambling town and gateway to Virginia City, which featured in my Western-watching childhood as the nearest town to Ponderosa ranch in Bonanza. A taxi took me there via Nevada’s drowsy state capital, Carson City. Mark Twain once quipped that, come the end of the world, he hoped to be in Cincinnati because it was always 20 years behind everywhere else. I reckoned he could have bought himself a few more years by being in Carson.

Mark Twain had come to mind because it was in Virginia City that the young Samuel Langhorne Clemens found work first as a miner, then as a reporter on the Territorial Enterprise newspaper where, in 1863, he first used his immortal pen name. Like thousands he came to seek his fortune following the discovery of gold and silver in the bountiful Comstock Lode. Virginia City became, briefly, one of the richest and most technically advanced places on earth.

Twain painted a vivid picture. He wrote tales of lust, avarice and excitement in the rollicking, rough town: thirsty miners swigging liquor; hurdy-gurdy girls dancing at Piper’s Opera House; organ grinders torturing their consumptive monkeys; and bawdy singing in bacchanalian dens.

Today, I found the man revered in the small Mark Twain Museum of Memories, sandwiched between the saloons and tourist shops. After shots of firewater at the Bucket of Blood saloon, I dined on mahi-mahi enchiladas at Café del Rio. Here, I sat at the table next to Shawn T Griffin, who was proudly introduced to me as ‘the Poet Laureate of Nevada’.

Back on the California Zephyr, the lounge car was alive with excited chatter as we climbed to the Sierra Nevada’s Donner Pass along a series of switchbacks and slow slalom turns. Now was the time to lay to rest the spectres of natural splendours missed in the Rockies. Every scene of soaring peaks and plunging canyons, every cascade plummeting through pine forest, triggered a train-wide gasp and crackle of camera shutters.

Meanwhile, a fruity voice from the tannoy recounted horrifying tales of Chinese labourers being lowered in baskets to dynamite out the ledges we were travelling on; frequently they had blasted themselves to smithereens.

“Truth is, there was enough willpower to risk everything and anything in pursuit of a unified nation,” the voice concluded dreamily as the switchbacks smoothed to the pitch and roll of California’s fecund farmland.

Soon the dome of the Sacramento capitol came into view. Arnie was not in town that day, but the Railroad Museum was more reliable. This historic attraction has perhaps the world’s most extensive collection of restored locomotives, and intriguing exhibitions explaining how the iron horse really did unite the nation. Sacramento’s Sutter’s Fort was also worth a mosey: I learned how this area was settled and defended as farmland before the workers all scarpered in 1849 – to try their luck as gold-rush 49ers.

However, the surprise the small city sprung on me was the seductive fizz along the Sacramento River waterfront. Jazz bands were playing on the street; there was beer swilling and impromptu dancing, while whiffs of barbecuing shrimps filled the air. The scene reminded me powerfully of New Orleans, especially as I stayed the night aboard the Delta King, an old Mississippi paddle steamer moored to the quay and converted into a hotel.


How the west was won

Sacramento is another place I would probably have bypassed had I been travelling by car or plane. Not so San Francisco, end of my Atlantic-to-Pacific crossing. The rail terminus is actually at Emeryville, across the bay, from where a bus takes passengers over the San Fran-Oakland Bridge. I watched the massive red supports of the Golden Gate emerge from the sparkling bay as the Transamerica Pyramid gleamed from downtown.

An hour later I was on Fisherman’s Wharf, glass of chilled pinot grigio in hand, watching designer-clad joggers padding along the shoreline. All was cool, cosmopolitan and sophisticated. The idea that there was any connection between this scene and the gun-slinging, gold-panning, Indian-slaughtering, railroad-building frontiersmen whose journeys to win the west I had followed here, seemed ridiculous.

Which of course it is. Spanish sailors colonised the California coast centuries before the Americans reached here at the conclusion of their overland expansion. Such notions I chatted about with my waitress Dara, a PhD student from Massachusetts. She asked if I’d come far myself, so I told her about my journey from New York.

“I have never travelled by train in America,” Dara mused. “I haven’t time.”

“Well, could you be tempted to swap airports and freeways for a journey that re-captures the romance of travel with landscapes and history, characters and conversation?” I asked.

“If so, make time.”

Coach or First?

Coach Class seats are large and comfortable. They recline and have foot rests, fold-down tables and reading lights – think airline business class seats (though not the flat-bed variety). Passengers can either stay in their seats, where privacy is generally respected, or sit in the lounge car, which is more sociable. It’s perfectly acceptable to bring food and drink aboard, although snacks of the pizza/burger variety are available in the café, as are soft and alcoholic drinks. Coach passengers can also make reservations in the dining car, where main courses are, typically, in the $10-15 (£6.50-10) bracket. There are basins for washing, but not showers.

First Class means that you have a sleeper compartment. Most of these are ‘roomettes’, which have two facing seats, which convert into bunks at night. At higher costs there are also more spacious ‘Bedrooms’ and four-berth ‘Family Rooms’. Bedding, towels and soap are all provided and there are shared showers. Complimentary coffee, juice, bottled water and newspapers are provided. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included for First passengers, who can order anything from the menu. Drinks are extra; half-bottles of Californian wine are $13 (£8), a bottle of beer $4.75 (£3).

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