Riding the rails across America

JUDITH DOYLE
Last updated 12:15 31/07/2013
USA rail amtrak
PROTECTED: Cheerful Robert, our "minder" on the California Zephyr.

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By train across the United States –  what a tantalising prospect.

My route is an elongated loop from the west coast to the east and back again further south, exploring Denver, Chicago, New York, Washington and New Orleans on the way.

It’s June, the northern hemisphere’s summer. Amtrak, the national railway, was stitched together in 1971 from a number of freight operations. Freight companies still own the lines.

We board the California Zephyr in  San Francisco for the 2400-kilometre leg to Denver. Cheerful Robert, our ‘‘minder’’, tells me he’s been with the railway for 20 years. He makes our beds up in the evening, down in the morning and keeps things ticking over.

I unpack into my ‘‘roomette’’ (read cubicle) which has two seats that form a bed (another bed could be pulled down) and two ledges for an overnight bag – no room for suitcases which stay in the luggage van. Loos and basins are down the corridor.

The Zephyr is a double-decker. From the upstairs Observation Lounge we see Sierra Nevada’s valleys and hills spiked with pines. Then the large flat valley of central California.

We dine at 5pm ‘‘because later there’s a queue and they sometimes run out of certain dishes’’,  says Barbara Bibby, tour manager. Our waitress, Angela, has, like Robert, done a long stint with the railways – 25 years – but less cheerfully, I imagine. She glumly serves our meal.

We’re learning that an Amtrak train is no luxurious Orient Express, or stylish Eurostar. It’s a no-frills commuter train. But I love trains, anyway, even the clackety-clack when you’re tucked up in your bunk. Luckily, I brought earplugs to dull the mournful wail of the train’s whistle. We go to bed in Pacific time, but wake up to mountain time – our watches are set forward an hour.

Next afternoon we’re in the Rockies and the train plunges into many tunnels (one is 9km long), winds beside the Colorado River and skirts canyons with cliffs rearing up like battlements.

We pass Granby – gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park. We explore the park the next day during our Denver stopover. Denver is famous for declining, on environmental grounds, to host an Olympiad after being selected in 1976. And it is an environment worth treasuring we discover, as we spot moose, elk, chipmunks and raccoons driving up to Berthoud Pass (3000 metres), snow banked high on either side of the road.

At Denver Station we watch the Red Caps at work, surely the heroes of Amtrak. They load and unload our suitcases, cheerfully, efficiently and quickly throughout the whole trip.

After Colorado we cross into Nebraska – another time change from mountain to central time.  America’s agricultural heartland slips by and we try to identify the crops we’re passing. Better commentary on these trains would be welcome.

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We cross two of the mightiest rivers in the United States: The Missouri, which is the state line between Nebraska and Iowa, and then the greatest river of them all, the Mississippi, also a state line (Iowa/Illinois).

In Chicago, we stay near the Magnificent Mile. Forget Al Capone and Chicago’s gangster history, this city is beautiful, bestriding the Chicago River and stretching along the shores of Lake Michigan.

The word skyscraper was coined here in 1885. Since then buildings have got ever taller but are designed in many different styles, as we note on a walking tour. Later, we cruise down the river to the lake. Here, mist envelops us, softening the lines of the skyscrapers and making Chicago a city of mystery.

It’s the single-level Lake Shore Limited that takes us, alongside the Hudson River, to New York. On this train, the roomettes have a small basin that flips down over a loo, making the space even tighter. But the spacious Roosevelt Hotel, the ‘‘grand dame’’ of Madison Avenue, makes up for it. We’re here for three nights.

We do the classics: Times Square, Central Park, Harlem and Greenwich Village; two shows on Broadway and a visit to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). We can’t visit the Statue of Liberty island after her run-in with Hurricane Sandy (repairs are nearly finished) but salute her from the water.

I discover that New York taxi drivers are (contrary to reputation) polite and their charges are low, despite the city’s dire traffic jams.

Another discovery is an aerial park, the High Line. It has been transformed from an elevated freight railway line. This 1.6km ribbon park provides a new slant on Manhattan, the city’s skyline and the Hudson River. All from a quiet haven of green.

Washington, our next stop, is a day-only train trip and, having decided I find skyscrapers claustrophobic, I welcome the wide open feel of the city. No building is allowed to rise above the Washington Monument (169.29m).

‘‘Washington has lots of lawyers and monuments,’’ says our taxi driver. We pass on the former but not the latter, visiting Jefferson’s dome-shaped memorial; the magnificent seated Abraham Lincoln statue; an endearing one of F D Roosevelt with his scottie; and the Martin Luther King figure carved out of a rockface. George Washington’s home, Mt Vernon, just within the borders of Virginia, is the most interesting memorial of them all.

What with monuments and the wonderful Smithsonian museums, I look forward to putting my feet up and relaxing on the next train segment.

The Crescent is single level train like the Lake Shore Limited and I unpack into my roomette. But when my loo packs up, I decide I should have booked a bedroom. Amtrak accommodation is bedroom, roomette or coach seating (once called first, second and third class).

But what’s a hiccup or two when we’re heading for New Orleans, Louisiana? Or N’awlins, in the vernacular, city of jazz, Mardi Gras, creole cuisine ... and occasionally tragedy.

Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Floodwalls and levees failed and some 1500 people died. In the French Quarter there is little evidence of the catastrophe but our guide estimates a third of the city is still being repaired.

Nothing affects the spirit of New Orleans for long, though – there’s always a hint of carnival in the air. We listen to bands in Cathedral Square and in the evening watch a couple jiving to guitar music while we eat shrimp creole on a nearby balcony.

We cruise the Mississippi in a paddle-steamer; visit two plantations for a peep into lavish pre-Civil War lifestyles and take a swamp tour to meet the alligators. All too soon we’re back on the last (and longest) leg. The Sunset Limited takes two days to reach Los Angeles, 3200km away.

One of the joys of train travel is meeting people you’d never otherwise encounter – some Amish girls wearing their lace bonnets; the Texan whose family had owned ranches for three generations; the American who, on retirement, had returned to his roots near Yellowstone Park and the Native American who had worked on Texan ranches to earn enough money for college.

From the observation lounge we watch Louisiana’s watery world of bayous, causeways and swamp lands give way to oil country and the desolate beauty of the deserts of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Sometimes we see little twisters of dust, swirling across the desert.

At stops along the way we get out into sizzling heat to stretch our legs – Houston, San Antonio, El Paso near the Mexican border and Tucson. Finally it’s LA and our train safari is over.

FAST FACTS

Group travel: mahertours.co.nz
Independent travel: amtrak.com/take-the-trains-across-america-with-usa-rail-pass
Taxis: Little more than half New Zealand charges.
Meals/drinks: Remember that tax (similar to our GST) is added and a tip is expected. Costs still reasonable.

Air-conditioning on trains is over-enthusiastic. Pack a jacket for the train.
No wi-fi available on the trains except at some larger stations.
Free wi-fi in most hotels.

To explore Chicago architecture: architecture.org/tours/walking-tours.

- The Dominion Post

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