Riding the Rails

'All Aboard' for an Adventure of Seeing America in Three Days

By Nancy Luse | Posted on 08.29.14 – Destinations, Travel

GEORGE BAILEY, THE HERO OF IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, SAYS THE THREE MOST EXCITING SOUNDS IN THE WORLD ARE ANCHOR CHAINS, PLANE ENGINES AND TRAIN WHISTLES. I COULDN’T AGREE MORE, ESPECIALLY WITH THAT LAST ONE. IF YOU HAVE THE LUXURY OF A LITTLE EXTRA TIME, want to ogle the country’s breath-taking scenery, share stories with strangers and finally crack open that book you’ve been putting off reading, a train whistle is a travel call worth heeding, especially when you compare it to the hassle of an airport or the mishaps that have befallen the cruise industry lately.

With family living on the West Coast, I’ve made the cross-country trip many times, either by plane or train. This spring when my parents, both well into their 80s, wanted to lay eyes on some great grandchildren they hadn’t yet met, we discussed flying, but the appeal of Amtrak won, even if it meant three days of travel rather than a mere six hours.

We boarded the Capitol Limited in Pittsburgh at midnight—the train runs day and night, so someone’s always getting on at ungodly hours. Since we would be in Chicago the next morning, we didn’t bother with a sleeping car. Instead, we stretched out as best we could in coach, covered by blankets that previous trips taught us to pack along. A nearby woman traveling with three children all under the age of five arranged the kids on two unfolded seats then curled up on the floor at their feet. Traveling coach makes you creative and also teaches you to love your neighbors, even if their snoring is enough to derail the train.

Arriving in Chicago right on time, we had a five-hour wait for our next train, the Empire Builder, which would carry us to Portland, Ore. This time we opted for a sleeping car, providing us with a waiting area at the station comprised of a comfortable lounge, complimentary drinks and snacks, and several TV screens. On other trips we’ve left the station to take a cruise on the Chicago River and, as it happened one Memorial Day, enjoyed a parade.

A friendly redcap whisked us on a motorized cart right to our train where we were met by Charles, the sleeping car attendant, who for the next two days would keep us supplied with fresh-brewed coffee and snacks, including juicy strawberries. He would also turn down our beds and point out the major attractions along the route. “Bed time is anytime; all day if you want it,” he said right off the bat, but then you’d miss the wonder of staring out the window of your compartment or from the glassdomed observation car.

Admittedly, the train shows some of the nation’s backside, especially in cities where you can see into trashstrewn backyards or rumble past smoke-spewing factories and junkyards of rusted cars and trucks. But the majority of the scenery shows just how diverse and beautiful this country is, from the red-rocked Wisconsin Dells, across the Mississippi River and through the prairies to the Columbia River Gorge and the peak of Mount Hood in the Pacific Northwest.

The train gives a snapshot glimpse of America, whether it’s the skyline of the Twin Cities, miles of fields without a barn or house in sight, or a small town like Shelby, Mont., where a banner proclaims them home to the state basketball champs. Traveling through Wisconsin, a passenger lamented that “it’s so beautiful here, but there’s just no work,” while miles and miles later in North Dakota we saw flames snaking from the tops of oil rigs. Countless RVs and travel trailers of the “man camps” were filled with workers cashing in on the energy boom.

Equally as interesting as the scenery are your fellow travelers. Sitting in the glass-enclosed observation car, it’s easy to strike up a conversation with someone in the next chair. The brutal winter was a popular topic as it still held a grip on some of the places we rolled through. Right after we returned to the East Coast, for instance, the west had a foot of heavy, wet snow. A young woman from Montana grimaced as she recalled spending the winter with her husband in an RV with wind chills dropping the temperature to 40 below zero. “We huddled a lot,” she said.

An adventurous man in his early 20s was seeing the country with a bicycle in tow. He was from Amsterdam and initially intended to just visit Canada, but met some Americans and decided to drop on by. He talked about the weeks of traveling and the kindness of strangers who invited him into their homes for a meal, a shower and shut-eye that didn’t involve a sleeping bag. He was headed to Glacier National Park in Montana to camp for a few days. When he disembarked at dusk, snow gently falling, Charles, the sleeping car attendant, suggested, “We need to say a little prayer for our brother.”


Another passenger was on his way to Oregon for his dad’s 90th birthday. A lifelong fan of rail travel, he recalled being put on a train alone at 5-years old to go see his grandmother. A federal prosecutor who saw herself in a future career writing musicals, something she does when the bar association hosts its banquets, provided two days of entertainment. With perfect comic timing she related how at lunch she heard a woman order the veggie burger and the attendant ask if she wanted bacon on it.

Socializing also takes place on the platform when the train stops for longer than it takes for people to get on and off. This is when the smokers have a chance to light up. “Smoke ‘em up, Skippy,” Charles called out as the train slowed for one such stop. There is also the warning not to wander too far from the train because who wants to be left behind in the middle of nowhere?

It was through a stretch of Montana that my cell phone stopped working, meaning no texts or email. Where was the pony express when you needed it? But do you really need a cell phone when the whole point of vacation is to get away from it all? If you really had to know what was going on in the world, a newspaper appeared each morning outside your room.

When bedtime rolls around, the roomette’s seats are folded into a berth that measures a little more than 2 feet wide and 6-feet-6 inches long. The upper berth, a bit smaller, flips down and you climb into it using a set of steps at one end of the room. Straps from the ceiling attached to the outside of the bed assure that if the train makes a quick lurch you’re not going to hit the floor. Roomettes sleep two, and although it’s a bit too cozy, it’s immensely better than curling up in a coach seat. There are other room configurations, including a suite that has space for four to six with two bathrooms.

When George Bailey asked his Uncle Billy about the three most exciting sounds in the world, the old man replied that for him it was “breakfast is served, lunch is served and dinner is served.” That’s also a large part of the itinerary aboard a cross-country train. Meals are included with a sleeping car ticket and since it breaks up the day with something to do other than looking out the window, we didn’t miss a meal.

Daniel Malzhan, Amtrak’s executive chef, said the dining car menu
changes twice a year and takes into consideration the tastes of passengers as well as how well preparation can be executed in the onboard kitchen. There are six selections for each meal, with standards such as a steak at dinner or the popular her bed baked chicken. A fish and vegetarian dish are also included as well as a “healthy choice,” which is lower in calories and sodium. He said about 8,000 meals a day are served on the trains.

Breakfasts are the best. On the return trip, our sleeper was right next to the diner and the smell of baking biscuits had us awake before dawn. The scrambled eggs were perfectly cooked each morning and the bacon was the right amount of crispy. The iced tea at lunch and dinner was particularly memorable; the attendant said the secret is to brew the tea until it’s the color of bourbon.

Tables in the dining car seat four, so our trio always had someone new to talk with, whether it was a man from Baltimore who had moved west, or the Toronto native who had just been to a wedding in San Francisco.

Sometimes Amtrak invites docents aboard to give talks in the observation car about the history of the scenery you’re passing through. On the California Zephyr, our return train, we heard about the 1952 snow storm that buried a train in 16-feet of snow and ice, stranding passengers and crew for four days until they were rescued. This route has some of the most awesome scenery, and traveling during daylight hours through the Rockies and Sierra Nevada provide views you’d never get from a plane.

Getting off the train after three days I still felt like I was moving from side to side. It was good to get back to having a proper shower and a bed I could really stretch out in, and as tasty as the dining car food was, I was ready for a change in the menu. Still, the experience of traveling the breadth of the country, seeing new sights, returning the waves of people watching the train rumbling by or of making friends out of strangers, railroading is indeed a wonderful life.