The Simple Romance of Train Travel Across the US and a Song

It was a Friday afternoon and I was wondering if life could get any better than this. My husband, Darren, and I were sipping wine as the coastline sped by outside the train window. Trays of cheese and crackers lay near plastic cups containing several varieties of wine. As I reached for another sample, my eyes were dazzled by the ocean outside the window, glimmering in the late afternoon sun. The wine tasting was an afternoon event for sleeper compartment passengers on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train. We were traveling up the California coast, having left Los Angeles earlier that morning on the first leg of a trip across the United States entirely by train.

As a child, I loved the simplicity, adventure and romance of trains. One of my favorite songs growing up was the Arlo Guthrie recording of City of New Orleans. Describing a Chicago to New Orleans rail journey, it put me right on the train with a chorus that sang:

“Good morning, America, how are you?
Don’t you know me, I’m your native son,
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.”

The song described old fashioned rides on “magic carpets made of steam” and I used to daydream of such trips as a child. Now, as an adult, those dreams had become reality with travels on long distance trains all over the world in Europe, Africa, India, Thailand, Australia and Peru. This time, my husband and I decided to take a vacation closer to home. What better way to see the United States than by train? We considered the logistics and laid out a route. Amtrak has four east–west routes across the country and, when deciding between them, I noticed that the northernmost option, called the Empire Builder, running from Seattle or Portland to Chicago, goes right through Glacier National Park. It was a place I always wanted to visit but it is not easily accessible by car or plane from Southern California. Examining Amtrak’s timetable for that route, I discovered that, during the summer months, the train stops right at the park.

So we decided to make our cross country rail journey slow and meandering. First, we’d head up the coast to Portland, then board the Empire Builder east, with a five-day stopover at Glacier National Park. We would rejoin the train to its terminus in Chicago, staying over four nights, and then take the Lake Shore Limited to New York City. The entire trip would be 17 days in all.

The Coast Starlight left Los Angeles at 10:15 on a Friday morning in August for the 29 hour trip to Portland. The sleeper (what Amtrak calls “roomette”) Internet description gave the impression that it would be small. The roomette was rather cozy (about 3’6″ x 6’6″), especially when trying to navigate between two adults and two medium-sized pieces of luggage in such a limited space. But the cost of this compared to a seat in coach class made it the right choice, since we would be spending four nights total on the train. On one side of the compartment, partially windowed doors could be left open or closed and covered with curtains for privacy. Directly across the roomette were large picture windows facing outside. Two chairs, facing each other, and separated with a fold down table in the middle provided ample room for reading, listening to music or just simple conversation as we watched the world go by. Bathrooms, including showers, were located just down the hall of the sleeper car.

All our meals (minus alcohol) were included in the price of the sleeper. A dining car announcement was made when serving breakfast and lunch and dinner was by reservation. Tables seated four so we shared all our meals with two others and met a wide variety of people on our journey. They included a Napa, CA city councilman, professors, scientists, teachers, military, a native Indian nurse / lawyer and Japanese and Chinese tourists. When we returned from our dinner of lamb and halibut that first night our two chair sitting area had been turned into the lower berth of our bunk bed and the upper bed had been pulled down from its daytime location against the wall. The train arrived in Oakland, California just as we began to nod off to sleep.

On Saturday we woke to views of Mt Shasta in Northern California. It was difficult to move around the roomette with the beds in place so we put pulled them back before the car attendant even reached us. After a pancake breakfast we were treated to beautiful Southern Oregon coastline with birds nestling around marshes a little further inland. As we were falling behind schedule because of numerous stops to let freight trains pass ahead of us (who had right of way), we were told we would need to be bused from Eugene to Portland to make our train connection east.

The train arrived at Eugene at about 3:15pm, 2 1/2 hours behind schedule. We boarded a waiting bus and then set off. Already too late to make the train in Portland, the bus drove instead east along the south side of the Columbia River gorge. At one point we could see our Empire Builder train across from us on the north side of the river as we moved ever closer to it. Our bus and the train finally connected in Pasco, Washington at about 9pm, and once on board, we went to the Lounge Car and had bratwurst and pretzels for dinner. Our car attendant, Joel, had our room already converted into bunk beds for the night. As I fell asleep while we crossed from the Eastern Washington plains into Idaho, I thought of the song as the train moved along:

“And all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream,
And the steel rails still ain’t heard the news.”

Fortunately my dreams were peaceful after the previous day’s train chase and we woke up the next morning as the train crossed into Montana. We arrived at East Glacier Park at about 10:15am, only 20 minutes behind schedule. Here we left the train, ready to board it again five days later after exploring Glacier National Park by rental car. Glacier National Park is one of the grand old parks of the United States, being set aside as the country’s 10th preserved area in 1910. We split our time in Glacier with two days on the west side and three days on the east side. To economize, we opted for simple lodgings at a motel on the south end of Lake McDonald. It had a porch with a view of the water and a kitchenette which allowed us to cook some of our meals. Alternatively, we spent the last three nights in the historic Many Glacier Lodge.

Day hiking dominated our time as we trekked four to seven miles each day. The best hike was Logan Pass, along the continental divide. The pass is located on the famous Going to the Sun Road. This route is a National Historic Landmark and is considered one of the most scenic roads in North America, taking 11 years to build during the 1920 – 1930s. After stopping at the Visitors Center, we hiked to Hidden Lake, a seven-mile round trip. It was cold and windy at first, but then the sun came out and illuminated colorful wildflowers, meadows and streams. The lake was nestled below us with glacier peaks arising around it. As we hiked, we saw several mountain goats, including a baby. No matter where we were in the park, we did not miss the informative ranger presentations each evening, either at the Lake McDonald Lodge, up the road from our first hotel, or at the Many Glacier Lodge itself. The topics varied from the Going to the Sun road history to winter in the park to the Lewis and Clark expedition’s exploration in the area 200 years ago.

Our Glacier Park hiking routine deviated one day, when we drove about 50 miles to Waterton National Park, in Alberta, Canada. Waterton already existed as a Canadian National Park in 1932, when the United States and Canadian governments designated Glacier and Waterton as Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, the world’s first international park. Both are also Biosphere Reserves, and were named as a World Heritage Site in 1995. Our hike took us down Upper Waterton Lake, first to Bertha Falls and then to Bertha Lake above it. We gained about 1,500 feet in elevation during about one hour of hiking switchbacks. The lake was uninhabited and we enjoyed a solitary picnic lunch there. Next, we drove a short distance to the Prince of Wales Hotel, at one end of Upper Waterton Lake. It was another beautiful old lodge, built in 1927. We had traditional British tea, served in the hotel lobby, as we observed the entire lake below the lodge as an angry afternoon rainstorm moved in. Along with our tea, we had three trays of food: one with finger sandwiches (egg salad, cucumber and salmon), one with lemon tarts, éclairs, cheesecake and scones, and one with chocolate covered strawberries, syrup cookies and white chocolate fudge.

We woke early on Friday morning to cold, but clear weather. A light snowfall reminded us that, even in late August, the summer is short in this northern part of the country. After checking out of Many Glacier Lodge, we drove the rental car about one hour to East Glacier. The train from Portland arrived about 10 minutes late, a little after 10am, and we spent most of the day re-orienting ourselves to train life after so much outdoor activity. There were endless open plains now that we were east of the Rocky Mountains and the continental divide. The train stopped at many small towns in Montana and North Dakota throughout the day with names like Shelby, Havre, Malta, Glasgow, Wolf Point, and Devils Lake. All of these towns comprised the original Great Northern Railway, which was built in the late 1880’s from Chicago to Seattle. We learned from our new car attendant, Jose, that the train here is relied upon by the locals as their main transportation system, being so far away from major cities and airports. Although the City of New Orleans song refers to the route between Chicago and New Orleans, the following lyrics could have applied to this part of the country as well, as the train:

“Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin’ towns that have no name,s
Freight yards full of old black men,
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.”

We ate breakfast the next day in the dining car as the train sat in Minneapolis / St Paul, Minnesota. After crossing the Mississippi River, the population became denser and we passed through much larger towns and cities. The train reached Chicago at about 3:45pm, only about 15 minutes behind schedule. The four days in Chicago were a mixture of museums, long walks along Navy Pier and Michigan Avenue and a wide variety of downtown restaurants. A Monday afternoon outing to a Cubs game, followed by skyline sunset viewing from the Signature Lounge on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Building were highlights of the visit.

Our last train to New York City left on-time, at 7:20pm on Tuesday night. The roomette on this train was similar to the others, except there was a toilet in the compartment which promptly stopped working soon after we left Chicago. Instead we stored luggage on top of the lid. We woke up on Wednesday morning to find that we were making very slow progress east. The train had stopped several times leaving Chicago the night before, as we made way for freight train traffic. Now, in western New York, we were about 30 minutes behind schedule. After breakfast the lunch announcement came only two hours later as the kitchen needed to close as we approached New York City. The train was stopped the entire time we ate lunch, waiting for more freight trains to pass. By the time we reached Albany, New York, we were 1 hour 40 minutes behind schedule. It was raining when we finally pulled into Penn Station in New York City at about 5:45pm, almost two hours late. We quickly made our way on the subway to our west side hotel at 96th Street.

Our last three days were spent in New York City, visiting many familiar sights, but somehow we felt more refreshed and relaxed than if we had just arrived on a plane, with a cross country time change to contend with. On the last day of our visit, we took in a matinee Broadway show, and then walked around Central Park in the early evening watching the weekend crowd of families and couples enjoying the warm sunshine. We rode the subway to Chinatown and then walked around aimlessly, enjoying the sights and smells of a pungent fish market and watching the merchants close up their shops for the evening. We ended up in Little Italy at an outdoor restaurant with great portions of cheese ravoli and linguini with clam sauce.

Aboard the plane back to Los Angeles the next morning, I could not help but look out the window more than once at the ground 35,000 feet below. Yes, it was a relatively short five-hour flight home compared to the journey we had taken, but there was so much we were missing by being up in the air as life went on down below. Somewhere, trains were carrying people across the country, couples were eating in the dining cars, and others were napping in their seats. Car attendants, like Jose and Joel, were busy riding the rails while making a living. As I was reminded once more from the City of New Orleans:

“Mothers with their babes asleep,
Are rockin’ to the gentle beat,
And the rhythm of the rails is all they dream.”

We had spent about 90 hours on the train making our way across the country. Observing life on the ground provided me with a perspective of our country I would soon not forget:

Don’t you know me, I’m your native son.
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.”

One thought on “The Simple Romance of Train Travel Across the US and a Song

  • 22 April 2010 at 16:00

    I read your blog often and I just thought I’d say keep up the good work!

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