I have relatively few items on my bucket list, but traveling by train across the United States was one of them. When I was 5 or 6, my grandparents took the California Zephyr from Chicago’s Union Station to San Francisco. I remember being fascinated by the letters and postcards they sent along the way, as well as the exotic gifts they brought me from California– including a pair of blue Chinese-style silk pajamas which might have been my first exposure to anything Asian. My dad also loved train travel and his highest compliment for a cup of coffee in a restaurant was that it tasted like “dining car coffee,” a reference to the exquisite meals that used to be served aboard trains in the United States.
Although I had taken the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle once a long time ago, I had never traveled the entire length of the U.S. from New York to California. So, this past week, Marty and I boarded the Cardinal, which runs from New York to Chicago via the Smoky Mountains, and then the Zephyr from Chicago. Altogether, the trip took three nights and four days.
The scenery along both routes is both beautiful and informative—the majesty of the Smoky and Rocky mountains, the grandeur of the Colorado River, the eerie Ruby Canyon which is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, and miles and miles of industrial corn fields and ethanol production facilities on the heartland stretch, as well as orchards and occasional wind farms when you reach California. The train riders included a wide variety of people, from families to international travelers, who, like us, wanted to experience the full length of the United States from the ground.
The conditions of travel, however, are not those of former days. This was no surprise to me as I have often traveled by train since moving to the east coast, and am familiar with both the equipment breakdowns and delays associated with Amtrak (both of which occurred on this trip, as well). Overnight travel poses additional challenges as the sleeper car rooms –even the largest ones–are about the third the size of a cruise ship cabin, and don’t allow for much maneuvering, and parts of the track, especially on the Cardinal, are quite rough (the Zephyr route is much smoother, especially through the western states) leading to disturbed sleep. In addition, because of the extreme heat in the west, there were stretches where the train could only go 15 miles per hour due to the expansion of the tracks and safety concerns. The food is not bad, although certainly far from the service and ambience provided in my parents’ and grandparents’ era. For part of the trip, likely because of the medication I’m on, I was also not feeling that well, which didn’t help. Despite the beautiful scenery, the hot shower and comfortable bed that awaited us in San Francisco were most welcome.