Just then, the cafe car attendant yelled up from down below: “Other side!” As he sprinted up the stairs, a couple of us hurled ourselves to the right side of the car. “Did you see the elk?” he asked breathlessly.
By that point, the elk were far behind us. I returned to my seat and resolved to enjoy the view, with or without giant creature sightings. But before long, the animal prints had lured my gaze back to the snow deep in the canyon, on the bank of the river.
This wasn’t my first time in the middle of the Rockies. In the previous five years, I’d crossed the country four times by car with my beagle, Darwin. But as I approached the one-year anniversary of her death, I sought a new mode of transportation and adventure.
From my house on Capitol Hill, I heard the early-morning whistles of trains approaching Union Station. My retired neighbor had told me about Amtrak’s long-distance routes. There are 15 of them, covering 18,500 miles, and most existed in some form before Amtrak was established in 1971. For generations, these long-haul trains have played an important role in transportation between rural communities.
My neighbor regularly travels all the way to Seattle on the Empire Builder. And the more I heard from her, the more I felt drawn to a journey by rail. So I booked a small room on the Capitol Limited from Washington to Chicago, and then on the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco.
Before the trip, I had moments of doubt; I worried about boredom, stiffness and insomnia. But those worries were trumped by my faith in the Amtrak brochure, which suggests that there’s still some romance to train travel: “From orderly farms in the heartland to spectacular views of the mountains — the scenes are unforgettable.” Americana aside, who can forget the train scene in “North by Northwest,” in which Cary Grant’s dining car companion says seductively, “It’s going to be a long night. And I don’t particularly like the book I’ve started. You know what I mean?”
On a Saturday afternoon at Union Station, sleeping-car passengers were ushered to the track, and I found my room in the double-decker Superliner. The freedom to explore the train was intoxicating. I walked through the sleeping cars and the dining car, downstairs to the cafe car. As we rolled through the Maryland suburbs, I sat at a table near the snack bar and was soon joined by a man with a sun-weathered face who introduced himself as Rocky.