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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.