Jim Loomis

4 POSTS

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During the Golden Age of train travel, Chicago’s Union Station was America’s most important rail hub, with passengers from almost everywhere connecting with trains going to just about anywhere.
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The glory days of the Broadway Limited and the Super Chief and the Dixie Flyer may be long gone, but some 50,000 rail passengers still pass through this venerable station every day. Some are commuters heading home to one of Chicago’s outlying bedroom communities; others are hurrying to board one of Amtrak’s long-distance trains – the Empire Builder to Seattle, perhaps, or the California Zephyr, which will be departing in just a few minutes on its two-night journey to the San Francisco Bay area.

My destination today is much less exotic – in 90 minutes I’ll be aboard the Pere Marquette and headed to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for a business meeting – but at the moment I find myself absorbed with the constant flow of foot traffic passing my seat in the Great Hall of this magnificent old station. After a while, I begin jotting down some observations: Regardless of age, men all pretty much look alike; only the shapes vary as well as the haircuts. An airline pilot hurries past. It’s not the uniform that makes him look so dashing, it’s the cap. Some women, no matter how slim and stylish, simply cannot manage to not look his way.
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Veteran travelers walk briskly, pulling their small wheeled bags; first-timers appear tentative and struggle awkwardly with impossibly oversized luggage. Western boots look absolutely fabulous on some women; ridiculous on others.

And, on the subject of boots, several Amish families pass by dressed in their modest dark blue and black garments – straw hats on the men, demure bonnets on the women. The men wear practical leather boots, but the women are all sporting the latest athletic footwear from Adidas or
Reebok.

How does a Jewish man prevent his yarmulke from slipping off?

What prompts an overweight woman in her 60s to get a tattoo of Tweety Bird on her upper arm?

Once in the station, 90 percent of the women push sunglasses up onto
their foreheads; only a few of the men do (none of the bald guys).

With time to kill, older travelers tend to read or watch the passing
parade; the younger ones are texting – some even as they hurry to their
trains.

But the time has passed, and my train to Grand Rapids will soon be
boarding. I stand up, gather my things, and step out into the teeming flow
of white and black, yellow and brown, young and old – all of us focused on
our own coming or going. And for a few minutes, I’m part of a uniquely
American scene, passing through the Great Hall of Chicago’s Union Station.

Let’s see now . which way is Track 21?

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Back in the mid-90s, I was working on a book about train travel and had spent time interviewing Amtrak’s on board crews during my many cross-country train trips – conductors and train attendants and dining car staffs.

But the one crew member I hadn’t been able to learn much about was an engineer. I submitted a request to ride in an Amtrak locomotive, but that is such a rarely-approved privilege I had little hope it would ever actually happen. Imagine my delight when I was told arrangements had been made for me to ride in the “head end” of Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder during a Chicago-to-Seattle trip I had scheduled months earlier.

My instructions were to hop off the train when we reached Milwaukee and head up to the locomotive where an Amtrak employee would be expecting me.

We left Chicago on time and rolled into Milwaukee just before 4:00 p.m., right on schedule. As I left my sleeper, I told the car attendant that I would be riding in the head end for a while. “Wow,” he said, “they never let people go up there!”

When I reached the lead locomotive (there were two pulling the Builder), I found Craig Willett, an Amtrak road foreman, who was going to be my escort and guide. He gestured to the metal ladder running up the side of the locomotive and said, “OK, let’s go.” I shoved my note pad into a back pocket and clambered up the metal rungs and stepped into the cab. The engineer, Bob Kolkman, swiveled around in his chair, grinned, and said, “This must be the writer.” Then he eased the throttle forward, the noise level increased to a near-deafening roar, and we started moving.
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Amtrak’s Empire Builder crosses the Medicine Creek Bridge as it skirts the southern boundary of Glacier National Park in Montana.

I was standing in the cab of an F-40 diesel-electric locomotive, since replaced with newer, more powerful engines. Nevertheless, the F-40 was a brutish workhorse capable of producing 4,000 horsepower, but with few of the creature comforts. Air conditioning in the F-40 cab, for example, was accomplished by opening the windows.

To make room for me, the assistant engineer had already gone back to ride in the second locomotive and I was directed into his vacated chair … on the left side of the cab. Railroad engineers sit on the right side because most signs and signals are on that side of the track.

An hour after leaving Milwaukee, we pulled into the little town of Columbus, Wisconsin, and there on the platform stood a father with two little boys, all waving enthusiastically … at me, the guy in the left-hand seat. Kolkman noticed and laughed. “They think you’re driving,” he said. “Better wave back or you’ll give us all a bad name.” I did and, before or since, have never felt so puffed up and so foolish at the same time.

Another hour passed and I found myself settling into the routine and reveling in the wonderful view from the locomotive cab. You’re riding quite high up, of course, and have a panoramic view to the front and both sides.
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The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly and I no longer felt I was intruding. Willett steered the conversation and answered my questions, but Kolkman joined in with an occasional comment. He was clearly focused on his job, however, and I also noticed that Willett always managed to be facing forward with his eyes on the track ahead even when chatting with me.

As a safety feature, there’s a device called an alerter in every locomotive cab. If the engineer fails to adjust the speed or touch the brakes or blow the whistle for a period of 20-25 seconds, a strobe light flashes and a horn sounds. Then, if the engineer doesn’t press a button on the instrument panel within a few seconds, the train will automatically comes to a stop.

Kolkman was constantly tugging at a lever on the dash that blows the whistle and in those open air cabs the noise was deafening. I had been given ear plugs for that reason, but discarded them after 10 or 15 minutes because I had trouble hearing what Kolkman and Willett were saying.

We were traveling through a rural area with a lot of grade crossings, some paved, but mostly dirt roads crossing the tracks. Kolkman blew the whistle at each and every one even though from our elevated vantage point we could all see that there were no cars or trucks anywhere in sight. “You do it every time,” he said. “No exceptions … ever.”

Every engineer worries about hitting someone at one of those crossings. Kolkman said it hadn’t happened to him, but many engineers have had to deal with it. It’s a terrible experience, he said, and worse because there’s almost nothing an engineer can do to prevent it. It simply takes too long to stop and an automobile doesn’t stand a chance in a collision with a moving train. “It’s like running over a metal mailbox with your family car,” he said.

Another hour went by quickly – too quickly for me – and we were now rattling along through farming country, with the pungent odor of manure coming and going as we passed fields that had recently been fertilized. After one particularly fragrant moment, Kolkman grinned and said, “Around here we say that’s the smell of money.”

Leaving Wisconsin Dells, the Empire Builder swung more to the west, heading almost directly into the setting sun. Next came Tomah and then La Crosse. Soon we were in Minnesota, running along the Mississippi River in the gathering darkness.
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Lakes and streams begin to appear as the train nears the Rocky Mountains

A freight train approached and Kolkman switched off the Builder’s powerful headlight until the engines passed, then flipped it on again so he could visually inspect our side of the freight, looking for any sign of dragging equipment or a wheel or bearing problem. The radio in the cab crackled and we heard the voice of the freight train’s engineer: “Looking good this side, Amtrak.” “Thank you, sir,” Kolkman responded, “Good run-by for you, too. Have a safe trip.”

Twenty minutes later, the Empire Builder eased to a stop in Winona, Minnesota, and my cab ride was over. Bob Kolkman would continue to St. Paul where the next engineer would be boarding; Craig Willett was unsure how Amtrak planned to get him back to Milwaukee, but seemed unconcerned.

We all shook hands, I extracted a promise to let me know should either of them get to Hawaii, and climbed down out of the cab. The twin locomotives had stopped well beyond the Winona station’s platform and my shoes crunched on the gravel ballast as I headed back to my sleeping car.
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A magnificent steam locomotive is on display in Havre, Montana.

Later, after dinner and a hot shower, I remember lying in my berth as the black outlines of trees and lights from an occasional farmhouse flashed by outside my darkened compartment. In my mind’s eye, I was now able to visualize quite clearly the new engineer methodically performing his routine up there in the head end of Amtrak locomotive number 343.

And I remembered when I was just a youngster, probably about 10, most kids my age thought being a locomotive engineer when we grew up would be just about the best job in the world, the most glamorous and the most fun. I know I did. You know what? We were right.
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There are dramatic changes in the scenery as the Empire Builder reaches Washington State, with ferry boats criss-crossing Puget Sound.

As early as the mid-1800s, Australian railroads hauled grain and ore to seaports and carried passengers between state capitals. But it wasn’t until 1969 that tracks spanning the continent all conformed to one standard gauge. A year later, the Indian Pacific began running between Sydney on the east coast and Perth on the west and instantly became one of the world’s great transcontinental trains.
A second line, the Ghan, opened in 1929, rolling north from Adelaide on the Southern Ocean. But it stopped mid-continent at Alice Springs. Finally, in 2004, the route went the distance, stretching up to Darwin on the north coast.
Two great train rides and, taken together, they offer a full-credit course in Aussie 101.

From East to West …

My three-night rail journey across Australia won’t begin for another two hours, but I’m on the platform at Sydney’s main train station early to get my first look at the Indian Pacific, an almost endless line of elegant stainless steel rail carriages.
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A full two hours before departure, passengers begin to appear and spend the time savoring the anticipation of the coming rail journey.

This legendary train operates twice weekly between Sydney and the city of Perth, 2700 miles across the continent on the Indian Ocean and, at precisely 2:55 p.m., it glides out of the station, rattling through a series of switches onto the main line.
The lounge car is the social center of the train and it’s here the passengers have assembled 30 minutes later for a welcoming champagne reception. There are people from many different countries here, but all share the common bond of enjoying train travel, and conversation flows easily.
I’ll be having diner at 8:00, the second sitting in the dining car, so there’s time to relax in my compartment and watch the passing scenery as the train climbs up into the Blue Mountains.
If my first experience in the Indian Pacific’s dining car is any indication, we are going to eat very, very well over the next three days. I start by choosing a zucchini, leek and blue cheese soup, then segue neatly to pork escallops on a potato-corn hash with carrots, yams and a prune puree. Dessert is a generous slab of banana cheesecake topped with passion fruit sauce.
The berth has been made up by the time I return to my compartment and, after a steaming hot shower in my private phone-booth-sized lavatory and an hour of reading, the rocking of the train lulls me, and I drift off.
The sun is already up when I awaken. The Blue Mountains are well behind us now and we’re passing through low hills, the reddish soil dotted with gray-green brush and gum trees.
Our first stop of the day is at Broken Hill. Many of my fellow passengers take the hour-long bus tour of this mining town, while I opt for a brisk walk up and down the platform. It’s already quite warm and the temperature will pass 100 degrees well before noon.
Later, with everyone back on board and enjoying lunch, the Indian Pacific is rolling through wheat fields and lush pastures dotted with sheep. By mid-afternoon we reach Adelaide, the capital of South Australia – a comfortable city, with wide streets and spacious well-kept parks.
There’s a crew-change here and the new attendants and chefs and train managers pick up seamlessly; another excellent dinner served in two sittings with berths made up while we dine.
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Passengers chat with the engine drivers as they watch the Indian Pacific’s locomotives being refueled.

Just after breakfast on our second morning, the train eases to a stop at the town of Cook, well out onto the vast, desolate Nullarbor Plain, extending for hundreds of miles in every direction.  This was originally a service stop for steam locomotives when the railroad was constructed in 1917, but since the advent of diesel power in the early 50s, the town’s population has shrunk and, on this particular day, stands at two … both middle-aged ladies busily selling trinkets to passengers packing a little souvenir shop. Their husbands are away, but will be returning next week when, one of the women says with a laugh, the town’s population will double.
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Departing Cook, the India Pacific heads due west across the Nullarbor Plain toward the Indian Ocean, two nights and some 1800 miles away.

Thirty minutes later, the Indian Pacific is again heading west, rocking along on the longest perfectly strain stretch of railroad track in the world – 302 miles. Outside, the Nullarbor is constantly if subtly changing: quite barren and desolate for a time then, an hour later, rocks and boulders lie scattered beyond the horizon. Later still, trees appear – gnarled and scrawny, but with pompoms of bright green leaves at the tips of the branches.
Over lunch, I ask a garrulous farmer from the wine-growing region north of Sydney what constitutes “The Outback” here in Australia. “Well, mate,” he says, “I’d say the Outback is everything west of the east coast and everything east of the west coast.” And he guffaws loudly.
Framed by a miraculous sunset, the Indian Pacific arrives for a two-hour stop at Kalgoorlie. Gold was discovered here in 1893 and the town’s main attraction is the Super Pit, a monstrous “open cut” mine that’s a mile across and nearly 1000 feet deep. Many of the buildings have a distinct Victorian design, and there are even three legal brothels. As our tour bus slowly passes one called The Red House, two of the girls wave cheerfully from a picture window, prompting our driver to note rather wistfully that there were once more than 40 such establishments here in the town’s heyday.
When I awaken the next morning, the Indian Pacific is in the final stretch run of our trans-continental journey. In the dining car over breakfast, passengers exchange email addresses as we trundle through the outskirts of Perth on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Ten minutes later, the first part of my crisscrossing of Australia comes to an end.

… and from North to South

As my Qantas flight settles through cloud layers on its approach to Darwin, I recall a fellow passenger on the Indian Pacific who had said – quite proudly, I thought – that Australia was “either too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry.”
He was right: Darwin is steamy-hot and it’s pouring rain. Sightseeing is often not an option in the Wet Season here, so I spend a relaxing afternoon reading in the plant-filled lobby of the Novotel Atrium Hotel.
The dining room features smoked crocodile on the menu and a half-dozen servers from various European countries. My dinner is brought by a young woman from Estonia who says she is here to make a little money and to improve her English which, I note, is already liberally spiced with an Aussie twang.
The sleek silver Ghan stands waiting at the station platform the next morning: 23 rail carriages behind two 4000-horsepower locomotives. The train’s name comes from the nickname given to Afghan herders who came to Australia along with the camels that carried men and supplies into the Outback during the late 1800s.
A rail line linking Adelaide on the Southern Ocean with Darwin in the far north was always the plan, but the final link – the 882 miles between Alice Springs and Darwin – wasn’t completed until 2004.
As we rock along heading due south along this newer stretch of track, the landscape is lush and green. Flocks of white egrets follow cattle grazing in knee-deep grass among the red gum trees. Dark brown termite mounds  – many six to seven feet high – rise up from the pastures, silent testimony as to why Australian railroads are built with concrete, not wooden, crossties.
Just after lunch, the Ghan comes to a stop at Katherine, a town of some 7,000 people. One of the first “Flying Doctor” services was located here, with pilot/physicians answering emergency calls from ranches and farms hundreds of miles away in the Outback. Dr. Clyde Fenton was one of the first and his canvas-covered bi-plane, a 1934 deHaviland Gypsy Moth, is on display in a corrugated metal hangar.
Across town is the Katherine School of the Air, with a faculty of 17 teachers conducting classes by satellite and TV monitors for 208 children scattered over half-a-million square miles of Outback.
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The Ghan stops for several hours at Alice Springs, allowing passengers to tour the area. The statue depicts an Afghan camel herder, from whom the train got its name.

The next morning, back in the desert and not quite halfway through its journey, the Ghan reaches Alice Springs. This small city sprang up as a telegraph relay station for the railroad when fresh water was found here, and was originally called Alice’s Spring, after the wife of the telegraph operator.
At first blush Alice Springs seems very familiar. Just over there is the local K-Mart and the anchor store of their air-conditioned indoor mall is a huge Woolworth’s.
But an exotic touch comes from the large number of Aborigines moving through the mall, stopping for an ice cream cone or peering into shop windows, and chatting in one of their tribal languages. One, a “stockman,” – that’s what the Aussies call their cowboys – cuts a very impressive figure: long sleeved plaid shirt with a dark blue bandana at his throat, slim jeans cut just so over western boots, and a traditional wide-brimmed hat.
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Late in the afternoon the Ghan crosses the Finke River, described as “a major and intermittent river.” It’s impressively wide, all right, but bone dry save for a bit of water here and there in low spots.

According to the conductor, it was full of water just two weeks earlier.

The harsh desert is left behind during the wee hours and by mid-morning we’re back in the more temperate south, rolling along between pastures and farmland. In less than two hours, we’ll be in Adelaide, final stop of the Ghan’s 1851-mile journey.

In the lounge car, I shake hands with some of my fellow passengers in case we miss each other on the platform, and I return to my compartment, alone with the touch of melancholy I always get during the last few hours of any long distance train trip.

From Adelaide, Qantas takes me back to Sydney where my final night in Australia is spent at the magnificent Opera House and a brilliant performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Still, on the way back to my hotel, I find myself reliving memories of the Indian Pacific and the Ghan, the two magic carpets that carried me twice across this astounding country.

WHEN YOU GO

Getting there

Qantas flies non-stop to Sydney from Los Angeles; Hawaiian Airlines and American Airlines have non-stops from Honolulu.

Schedules

Both trains run twice weekly in each direction; the Indian Pacific between Sydney and Perth, the Ghan between Darwin and Adelaide. Both trains share Adelaide as the one major town common to both routes and the only practical spot to switch from one train to the other.

On Board Accommodations

Platinum Class (Ghan only) offers a full-size double bed in an extra-large compartment. Gold Class compartments are somewhat smaller with upper and lower fold-down berths. Both classes have en suite shower and toilet facilities. Red Class includes large reclining seats with lavatory and shower facilities in each car. Very compact bunks are also available in Red Class.

Platinum and Gold Class passengers have access to a lounge car and dining car meals are included in those rail fares. Alcoholic beverages are additional. Red Class passengers purchase meals and beverages in a café car.

Fares (per person)

Indian Pacific (Sydney-Perth): Gold – $1400, Red (sleeper) $950, Red (coach) $500. Ghan (Adelaide-Darwin): Platinum – $2090, Gold – $1380, Red (sleeper) $915, Red (coach) – $500. Note: Fares shown in US dollars and will fluctuate with rate of exchange. Fares to intermediate stops are proportionately less.

Some considerations

Australia is a long haul from the U.S. mainland. I suggest flying to Honolulu, pausing for a day or two, and continuing to Sydney on Qantas or Hawaiian Airlines.

Stuff happens, so plan to arrive in Australia at least a day before your train departs.

Do take advantage of the optional tours offered at the various stops along either route which last from two to four hours. They vary from simple bus tours to boating adventures, but all will enhance your understanding of each area and add immeasurably to your total experience. Coast range from $20 to $60 per person and reservations may be made on board.

Appropriate dress aboard either train is “smart casual.” Pack light, because space is limited in sleeping compartments.

Electrical current in Australia is 220 volts. Bring a converter for any small appliances or laptop. A surge protector is recommended for laptops while aboard the train.

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The original idea was to take a long-distance train ride. But as my fingers traced the various routes on a map of Amtrak’s nationwide system, I suddenly realized it’s possible to literally travel around the entire country, connecting from one train to another. And so, my train ride became a journey that taught me a lot about America.

For instance, approaching Palm Springs aboard the Sunset Limited, we pass a forest of giant wind turbines, hundreds and hundreds of them. I’ve known about the benefits of wind power, but I realize now that some visual pollution comes with the package, although there are people who think this sight is beautiful.
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In Lordsburg, New Mexico, the faded sign says “Luxury Motel,” but it’s a dump. Still, it’s no doubt better than the internment camp for Japanese-American citizens that was here during World War II. Entering El Paso, we pass within 50 feet of the Mexican border, guarded by an ordinary chain link fence. Four kids are over on the other side tossing a baseball around. They stop briefly to wave.

The setting sun throws a splash of gold across the eastern cliffs as we cross the Pecos River. It’s official now: I’ve come from “west of the Pecos.”
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A few states farther along, we enter New Orleans over the Huey Long Bridge, four-and-a-half miles long and 280 feet high above the Mississippi River. On my way to the French Quarter, I ask the cab driver, a dignified black gentleman, about Hurricane Katrina. “That bitch took away everything I had,” he says grimly, “and here I am today, 79 years old, driving a taxicab just to get by.”

Leaving Tuscaloosa on the Crescent, we pass the University of Alabama. A man across from me in the dining car mutters, “Home of the world’s most obnoxious football fans.” He’s from Baton Rouge, home of arch-rival LSU.

Traveling across Georgia, we viewed the ubiquitous kudzu vine covering trees and telephone poles and abandoned buildings. The Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia are unparalleled in their beauty. I make note to come back again and spend some therapeutic time here.

It took $70 million to restore and refurbish Union Station in Washington, DC, and it was worth every penny. It is a magnificent building. Amtrak’s high-speed train, the Acela, is sleek and comfortable, and is absolutely the way to go between Washington and New York. Ask for a “quiet car” where cell phones are not allowed.

Leaving New York’s Pennsylvania Station, the train roars through a tunnel under the East River, then emerges to a classic view of the Manhattan skyline. Your heart swells … until you remember that the World Trade Center isn’t there anymore.
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Five minutes from Boston’s South Station, the train passes through the shadow of Fenway Park’s famous left field wall. The Red Sox are playing today, and a boisterous crowd fills every seat as they do for every game, rain or shine.

Heading to Chicago aboard the Lake Shore Limited, we pass tidy Amish dairy farms, kids splashing in backyard swimming pools, and abandoned factories with acres of empty space behind broken windows. Running north out of Milwaukee, a sweet musky smell from the rich Wisconsin farmland drifts in through the Empire Builder’s air conditioning system. The conductor is from these parts. “That’s not manure,” he says cheerfully, “that’s the smell of money.”

The weather changes suddenly on the North Dakota prairie. The train is bathed in moonlight one minute, then lightening flashes, and I’m startled by hail rattling on the metal roof above my bed.
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You can’t possibly understand what “Big Sky Country” means until you travel across Montana on the Empire Builder. Approaching the dusty town of Cut Bank, the Rocky Mountains appear on the horizon, snow-capped even in late June. An hour later, the train is crossing deep gorges and running along narrow ridges – the same roadbed hacked out of the rocky flanks of these mountains 120 years ago by men working with picks and shovels.

Our first glimpse of Puget Sound comes the next morning as we swing south after leaving Everett, Washington. It’s glittering in the morning sun and ferry boats are plowing through the water toward islands low on the horizon. On a brilliantly clear morning, the Coast Starlight leaves Seattle heading South towards Los Angeles. Mount Rainier is off to the left, white and massive, even at a distance.

At three o’clock, there’s wine and cheese tasting in the parlor car as we roll through the very areas that produce these treats.
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Nearing twilight, with Eugene, Oregon, behind us, the train winds through the wilderness of the Cascade Range on a single track – plunging through dense forests, into tunnels, along ridges, skirting lakes and broad valleys blazing with wild flowers. In the lounge car, a history teacher from New Jersey gloats, “People in cars, people in planes, they’re missing all this.”
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On the outskirts of Sacramento, capital city of California, we pass a squalid camp of makeshift tents and tarps – homes for the homeless. No one glances up as we roll by.
My table at lunch is shared with a woman who chatters incessantly about her extensive travels. Paris is her favorite city and she says her visit to the Bastille was particularly memorable. I resist telling her that French revolutionaries tore it down in 1789.
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Vast fields of strawberries and lettuce and artichokes gradually give way to small houses, then bigger houses, and finally, as darkness falls, we’re clattering through a continuous panorama of warehouses, auto repair shops, and fast food joints. At 9:40 p.m., less than an hour behind schedule, the Coast Starlight comes to a stop at Los Angeles Union Station.

I’ve covered 8,200 miles on seven different trains, passed through hundreds of towns and cities and have come away with a treasury of mental snapshots and impressions of this vast, varied, incredible and blessed country.

And I’m ready to go again. In a heartbeat.
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