The Great American Railroad Trip

Recently I became obsessed with America’s most underrated industrial achievement, the Transcontinental Railroad. With its completion in 1869 in Promontory Point, Utah, the dream became a reality and the entire continent was was conquered by rails. For the first time, one could cross the country from coast to coast quickly and safely, without need of a horse covered wagon and one year’s provisions. This feat opened up the western frontier to all manner of European dominion, including trade, immigration, and tourism, for the first time. In fact, in 1910 when my grandparents arrived fresh off the boat from Sweden, they blew right through Ellis Island, and took the train all the way to that glorious land of milk and honey, California.

Today, the train has been relegated to a secondary place in our society. With the advent of jet and automobile travel, he train has been carelessly forgotten, cast aside and accused of being old fashioned, slow, and expensive. This barbaric desertion breaks my heart, and I feel a need to champion the glories of transcontinental train travel for a new generation of travelers. Are you a traveler that shuns the ordinary, that savors the beautiful, and embraces the unknown? Then read on, friend.

As a native Sacramentan, my journey across the nation by rail would bring me east, back in time, to the heart of the original colonies of America. I only knew that the train was calling me toward the rising sun, but my father had business in Washington D.C., and his proposal to accompany me to the capital was well received, and accepted. We would travel from the capital of California, the Western terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad, to the D.C., 3,000 miles away.

The trip from Sacramento would pass through Gold Country and the Sierra Nevada mountains, Salt Lake City, the Rockies and Denver, The Great Plains and the Mississippi River, Chicago, Cleveland, and Philadelphia, finally ending in D.C. some 76 hours later. For the journey, one can choose tickets in the very affordable coach seats, the petite Roomette, or the more spacious Bedroom with private bath. My father, while quite adventurous like myself, tends to travel a bit classier than I do, and so opted for the most commodious of accommodations, the price of which also includes all meals in the Dining Car as well as 24 hour service from a gracious porter. We would make this journey in the style of kings.

To prepare for the three days to be passed entertaining ourselves idly on the train, we packed our various reading materials, card games, electronic devices, and about six liters of wine and port. Just the essentials. Thus outfitted, we boarded the train at high noon in Sacramento.

Life on a train, crossing the country at the human and enjoyable pace of about 60 miles per hour, is not unlike life in a very pleasant retirement community set on top of flanged iron wheels. Each morning one rises to see the sun coming up over some new and foreign landscape, hundreds of miles having been traversed while sleeping. Breakfast is served in the Dining Car at your leisure by cheerful staff that know every passenger’s name by dinner the first day. After a few hours of diverting yourself in whatever manner you choose, generally gazing happily out of the huge windows in the Lounge Car, one can take one’s lunch. After lunch, one is free again to mingle with other passengers, write memoirs, enjoy the scenery, read, celebrate happy hour as the sun sets, or perhaps have a nap, until one is called again for dinner, at whatever time you have reserved your place. Subsequently, perhaps you would like to watch a film, or play games, or continue sipping some delicious beverage as the country slips by in darkness, until you see fit to retire to your room and fall asleep to the soothing sounds and sensations of the train rumbling ever forward towards its destination. And the next morning, begin again.

Yes, it is that nice.

Some of the highlights of this trip, and the things that really set train travel apart from other modern forms of transit, are the service, the scenery, and the opportunities that one gets to meet all manner of folk during the journey. One instantly befriends other passengers, and at every meal you are seated with different groups of people, so it is inevitable to learn about the travels, life stories, and future destinations of those with whom you travel.

Early on in our route, my father and I met a lovely young gentleman of eleven years who was traveling with his grandmother. They were from a town near ours, and traveling east on an educational trip for his studies. He was home schooled by his grandmother and she had planned visits to the Capitol, Mount Vernon, Monticello, and various other places that are brimming with historic significance. We had a fabulous time together throughout the trip, and I even helped them start their own blog to document their experiences to share with their family. I named it The Best Field Trip Ever. We also met someone who we were sure was a Russian spy, a man who claimed to be a genuine cowboy, a couple on holiday from New Zealand, a business man who splits his time between Colombia, Israel, and the States, and an older couple who have been crossing the country by rail together for over thirty years due to their mutual fear of flying, among others.

I could write for days just about the views of the countryside, but I could never do them justice. The train passes not only through highly developed capitals and metropolises, but also through wild natural areas that are relatively undeveloped and frontier-like. In the Sierras the train passed through narrow paths engulfed by pine trees, and along precipices over alpine lakes. We later spent hours following the Colorado River along the bottom of canyons and gorges with no human development in sight. We passed tiny mining towns, quaint farms, and big cities. We saw a herd of elk, a llama ranch, and the cowboy claimed he saw both a bear and a velociraptor, which I find hard to believe.

Do not fear the onset of claustrophobia or cabin fever for extended train travel either, for at various well-spaced intervals the train stops for quite enough time to get out, breathe some fresh air, and even explore a bit. At one stop, I got into a snowball fight with a porter and my young studious friend. At another, we visited a gift shop cleverly disguised as a railroad museum. In Denver, we had a whole hour you wander about the downtown area, and I bought a homeless youth a burrito.

While I do not foresee Amtrak winning any awards for innovative or inspiring culinary practices, the food was by all means passable, and varied enough that we had not sampled the whole menu before our arrival in Washington. And what really makes the dining experience is the Dining Car staff, who are quirky, chatty, and helpful, and the opportunity to share each meal with a new stranger, depending solely on chance or providence, whichever you choose.

And, as an added and unforeseen benefit that we experienced upon our arrival, we completely avoided any of the dreaded jet lag that usually accompanies long distance travel. And the only train lag that I experienced was a strong desire to continue traveling in that pleasing and unhurried manner, never to be subjected to traffic jams or airport security again. For the next time I am forced to leave the continent, I eagerly look forward to the construction of the Transpacific Railroad.

Lisa Markuson can rarely be tied down for more than a fortnight, and is happiest on the road: preferably the railroad.  She studied International Relations in San Francisco, comparative languages in Mexico, Egypt, and Europe, and has worked as a writer, tour guide, concierge, maid, pig farmer and PR representative on three continents. She is currently compiling research for an upcoming guide to traveling by rail throughout North America, and has been documenting her findings on her blog, Provincial Supertramp, as she goes.

Read about more routes and chance encounters here:

Photos by Shelly and Roy, roarofthefour, jurvetson

Filed under: 170, Train Travel