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Savoring America by Rail

By Cathleen Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 28, 1999

   


Certain journeys are best made slowly, such as when leaving one home behind, without another one to go to. And so it was when my husband, Kerby, and I decided to sell our Zion, Pa., farmhouse and return to California in search of the Golden Dream. Our days in Zion had been spent watching our Amish neighbors plow their 300-acre farm with draft horses. The shadowy sketch we had of our new lives consisted simply of camping on a friend's futon in a notoriously bohemian San Francisco neighborhood while we searched for a place to live. We put our belongings in storage and took the train west, feeling it was best to avoid the cultural bends by a slow transition from the cornpatch to the Castro.

While the Pacific Ocean was always our guiding landmark, the path we chose to California was a meandering one, zigzagging across the continent. Amtrak's Explore America deal allowed us to make any three stops in the United States for free. We plotted our course by choosing the sites we most wanted to visit, then played connect-the-dots. After a farewell celebration in Manhattan, we boarded the train at Penn Station, starting our journey on the Crescent bound for New Orleans.

As we settled into our sleeping compartment, I marveled at its ingenious design. While I'd taken several train trips before, this was the first time I'd splurged on a sleeper. We had the economy version, but it had everything we needed efficiently compressed into a cubicle about four feet wide, eight feet long and eight feet tall, and with a detail I grew to love, accessed by a door that could be closed and locked. The compartment contained two seats facing each other, drapery-covered windows, a fold-down table, a pull-down sink, a closet, storage and a bunk bed overhead that could be pushed up when not in use. We discovered that what appeared to be a step to climb up to the bed actually opened to reveal a toilet. We even had our own thermostat, tiny TV with movies, reading lamps and a call button that we would later put to good use.

Even though Amtrak absorbed all the regional lines in this country back in 1971, each train and route retains its own flavor, and the Crescent's was definitely Southern. Bettilee Hall, chief of customer service, came by and introduced herself and explained the workings of our compartment. She presented us with two complimentary toiletry kits. She also handed us our meal passes for the trip, which entitled us to breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining car. I stared at her agape, because even though I'd made the reservations, I had no idea the sleeper fare included meals.

"How can we get some ice?" Kerby asked. He did not explain that the ice was for cocktails that we would shortly dispense from our traveling bar. Our hostess walked over and pressed the call button. "Like this." When a middle-aged woman appeared wearing an Amtrak uniform, Hall said, "Miss Diggs, they'd like some ice please."

This distinctly Southern feeling was reinforced throughout the 29-hour trip to New Orleans, and by the time I arrived, I felt right at home. I decided the trouble with plane travel is that your mind is still in one location, and your body is suddenly in another. Not so on a train.

That evening we dined on Southern fried chicken in the dining car and chatted with a soldier named Brandon who had big, shy eyes behind thick glasses. He'd just returned from a tour of duty in Bosnia. Brandon was traveling in coach, which meant he would be sitting up in his seat all night. He ordered the turkey special--the cheapest thing on the menu.

He told us the story of how he'd grown up in a Baltimore ghetto. During a high school field trip to the Smithsonian he developed a love of history, particularly military history. The Army had saved him, he reasoned, by teaching him discipline and teamwork. He'd also visited the capitals of Europe, seen sights he never dreamed he'd see. But best of all, the Army offered him the opportunity to pursue his obsession with military history, because it provided soldiers the opportunity to tour battle sites. The government will pay for him to finish his college degree, and afterward he plans to return to Maryland and pursue his goal of becoming a high school history teacher.

"When I came home to Baltimore, I went to visit my old buddies in the ghetto," he said. "I told them to quit complaining about their lives. If you want something to be thankful for, go to Bosnia. At least you guys have running water, electricity, food."

"So what'd they say?" I asked.

He laughed. "They said, 'Man, you're crazy for wasting four years of your life with that Army crap!' "

Around 10, Miss Diggs made our beds, and I climbed up to sleep in the top bunk, rocked to sleep by the motion of the train. I woke to the morning sun, bright orange in a clear sky, rising over a body of water somewhere in South Carolina. Outside our door was the Greenville News, which I carried down to the dining car. I had a breakfast of bacon, eggs, grits and the most tender, buttery biscuits I have ever tasted. I wondered if the biscuits were another product of Miss Ida Mae, a cook that the menu said had been serving diners aboard the Crescent since 1975.

Kerby and I spent a few days in N'awlins, and then after a breakfast at Brennan's, which began with brandy milk punch and ended with Bananas Foster, we boarded the City of New Orleans for the 19-hour ride to Chicago. We had already picked up highly affected Southern accents, causing our fellow dining passengers to look at us in some alarm and question where we were from. That was a difficult question to answer given our current circumstances; as we launched into a lengthy cornpatch-to-the-Castro explanation, people's eyes widened and the ladies clutched their purses.

After dinner, when Kerby and I managed to escape from the pair of multilevel marketers from Michigan who tried to engage us in a "business opportunity," we slid our door shut with joy and locked it. Our attention shifted from dining car intrigues to the ever-changing landscape along the tracks: lush green woods choked with ivy, an alligator in a cage, share-cropper shacks grown over with honeysuckle, worn cotton gins, dying sun glinting off junkyard chrome and old farm towns that have become ghost towns. The train blasted a warning whistle as we approached the lone crossroads, but there was nary a car, tractor, wagon, mule nor boy on a bicycle in sight.

We changed trains in Chicago and took the State House to St. Louis. At 9 p.m. we arrived in St. Louis after a six-hour ride, and I was very glad to see my brother-in-law waiting to meet us. St. Louis spent $137 million to restore its landmark Union Station, and today it features a showplace hotel, restaurants and shops. In the process, it was decided there was no room for an actual train station, and so passengers were exiled to a shack underneath the freeway.

After spending the week in St. Louis, we boarded a connecting train to Kansas City, Mo., where we would catch the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles. The journey started innocuously enough, until we stopped in Jefferson City, Mo., and 200 junior high schoolers got on the train. We hadn't even left the station before they were screaming for the location of the snack bar. Their chaperon slumped into her seat and hollered for them to "give it a rest." This brought about a split-second reprieve before the chaos picked up full steam, and for the next three hours they ran up and down the aisles, shouted, slammed doors, sprayed water from the bathroom faucet, boomed their CDs through portable speakers, blocked the aisles to play cards, filmed videos and cleaned out the snack bar like a swarm of locusts gleaning a Missouri cornfield.

By 1 a.m., we were locked in our compartment, as the Southwest Chief bounced through a sleeping Kansas City. Wuh-ahhh! I stared out from the top bunk as the whistle blew farewell to the last of the juke joints and warehouses before we headed out to the open prairie.

In the morning I awoke in Dodge City, Kan. I began scanning the horizon for Miss Kitty's Saloon, but instead found Ace Critters, Pizza Hut Carry Out and a Wendy's on Wyatt Earp Boulevard. A billboard proffered an invitation: "Visit the Kansas Teachers' Hall of Fame & Wax Museum." The hydraulic brakes squealed to a stop in front of a dilapidated Richardson Romanesque station with the windows boarded shut.

As the train pulled out of town, I realized that during the night we had crossed an invisible border and that after years of longing, I was in the West again. Lying on the top bunk, I gazed at an unflinching blue sky soaring above a limitless plain where cattle ran toward a rainbow. Why does the same sky that spans the country seems so much more enormous in the West than it does in the East? The intensity of color, the cloudless blue, assaults the eye, reverberating in waves, a bold statement that supplicates the viewer.

When the train stopped 2 1/2 hours later in La Junta, Colo., we all got off to stretch our legs. And outside the artificial environment of the sealed car, the land felt Western. I relished this air--light, dry, weightless--and suppressed the urge to jump and click my heels. Who would think Manhattan and La Junta could coexist under the same sun, let alone under the same government?

In New Mexico, en route to Los Angeles, I spotted a llama atop a hill staring at the train. A herd of white-rumped antelope fled our approaching roar. The searing red of the burnt soil was splotched with the cool green of sagebrush, and the adobe buildings blended seamlessly into the dirt from which they were made. Behind the adobes I saw clay beehive ovens. I also noticed the same anachronistic beehive ovens behind trailers.

After spending a week laying over in Hollywood, we boarded the train that I had most anticipated: the Coast Starlight, which follows the shore of the Pacific north to San Francisco. We arrived at Los Angeles's Union Station early, and enjoyed the magnificent architecture of the stunningly restored, Mission-style building--a masterpiece of decorative ceramic tiles, gleaming brass and Arts & Crafts furniture.

On board the train, a friendly attendant showed us to our car for the 12-hour trip. We would arrive in San Francisco that evening, so we were seated in coach; we carefully selected seats on the ocean side of the train to appreciate the view. I picked up a card displayed by the entrance promising the Coast Starlight's service guarantee: "If our personal service doesn't satisfy your expectations, we'll rectify the situation on the spot, guaranteed."

Shortly after the train left the station, the attendant came into our car and said there'd been a change of plans, and we needed to all move forward to another car. I was about to take my first bite of the lox and bagel I'd purchased at the station, but I wrapped it back up and put it in the sack. We gathered our belongings and trudged to the next car.

I had just unwrapped my bagel again when the conductor came through and told us this car was not going to San Francisco, and we would all need to move back where we started from. This time the mutterings of a mutiny rippled through the crowd. Two guys in front of us complained that this car shuffle was getting ridiculous; each time they had to move their backpacks with all their camping gear. The conductor chuckled, unfazed, and continued down the aisle, taking tickets.

A young blond man in his early twenties chimed in with his complaints. "Hi, my name's Tim," he said as he got up to shake Kerby's hand.

From the downtown station, the Coast Starlight's route veers west; by the time we reached Oxnard the tracks were running straight along the beach. Inside the car, talk with our new friend swirled around Los Angeles, music, books, travel. Outside, all manner of life swirled around the Pacific: flocks of pelicans, shiny seals, yellow and orange nasturtiums, mountains of sage and Queen Anne's lace.

During our conversation, we discovered that at the end of this trip, we would all be staying in San Francisco, as Tim was heading there to move in with friends as well.

As the clock approached noon, Kerby decided it was time for a trip to the bar car.

"Tim, can I get you anything from the bar?" Kerby offered.

"Uh, yeah, man, I'd love a beer, but I'm afraid I don't have any money," Tim grimaced. I laughed. Now I understood why he was so friendly. I thought back to when I was his age, riding the train with a couple of dollars in my pocket. I was incredibly friendly to the sailors I met on shore leave, who bought me beers all the way to Chicago; we played poker in the bar car while their buddy played harmonica.

Kerby came back with six Sierra Nevadas, and we noted that the Starlight's beer selection was an improvement over the other trains we'd taken, where Bud was the brew of choice. He said the bartender had been very nervous. "Just promise me if I sell you all these beers you're not going to get drunk and wreck the train like two guys did last week."

We stopped in Santa Barbara for a few minutes, and just as we were pulling out of the station, the campers in front of us yelled, "Hey, those are our bikes!" I followed their pointing fingers to see an Amtrak attendant unloading two expensive mountain bikes onto the station platform. "What? We're going to San Luis Obispo!"

When the train finally stopped in San Luis Obispo, the campers argued vehemently with the conductor about their missing bikes. Meanwhile, a six-foot redhead with a broken leg boarded and hobbled down the aisle. She was dressed in black from the tip of her plastic cast to her flat-brimmed ranchero hat, which was jauntily secured under her chin by a leather thong.

"Just let me sit down before I kill somebody," she said to no one in particular.

We later learned that the redhead's name was Sunday. For years she'd wanted to take the Coast Starlight, and when she recently broke up with her boyfriend and decided to leave Phoenix behind, she decided this was the time. But a train wreck had forced Amtrak to bus passengers from Phoenix to San Luis Obispo, and she had missed the best portion of coastal scenery.

"This is not the trip I paid for!" she cried. Kerby asked her if she'd like anything to drink. She said she would, but she was a little short of cash right now. Sunday was heading north to live with a friend and start a new life. My husband returned with another round of Sierras.

Tim joined in that he was a little down on his luck, too. Seems he'd been a personal assistant to a big Hollywood star until that star was no longer able to earn a living. Suddenly Tim found himself broke and really wanting to get out of L.A.

"Yeah? Who were you working for?" I asked.

"Robert Downey Jr." Hoo, boy.

At 8:15 each evening, the Coast Starlight stops at Jack London Square in Oakland before continuing to Seattle. The San Francisco-bound crowd gathers their luggage and boards an Amtrak bus, which chauffeurs them to the Ferry Plaza. Flying across the Bay Bridge that night, we all sat silently, contemplating the single moment of our journey filled with nothing but promise.

I caught my breath, as I always do when approaching San Francisco. The city sits by the bay, skyscraper windows twinkling in the cobalt night, the Transamerica Pyramid pointing toward Heaven. A red light blinks at its top, a beacon to all us prodigal wanderers.

Cathleen Miller last wrote for Travel about Victoria, B.C.


Details: Cross-Country via Amtrak

Planning Your Trip: Contact a travel agent or call 1-800-USA-RAIL and ask for a free copy of the Amtrak National Timetable. This provides full route and schedule information. The Web site (see below) is helpful, but it's not as easy to digest as the print version.

Pricing and Promotions: One excellent value is the Amtrak Explore America fare, which allows three scheduled stops anywhere within the continental United States; all travel must be completed within 45 days. Prices depend on the region or regions you're traveling through; off-peak, cross-country fares start at $359 round trip. Peak rates are in effect June 16-Aug. 20 and Dec. 17-Jan. 2; all other times are considered off-peak. Less expensive regional passes may be obtained for travel within a limited region: Eastern, Central, Western and Florida.

The North America Rail Pass offers unlimited stops between the United States and Canada for 30 days. Costs for these passes include rail fare only; sleeper costs are booked separately from point to point.

As with airlines, the earlier you book, the cheaper the price; trips can be booked up to 11 months in advance. Families traveling with kids will especially want to book early, as family-size sleepers are limited in number. Value shoppers should check out Amtrak's Web site for deals. One day I found a one-way fare from Philadelphia to Chicago for $56.50.

Accommodations: Basic rail fare gives you a very comfortable seat. Any passenger may visit the glass-domed observation cars available on the Superliners, stroll down to the bar car, watch movies in the lounge, sit in the snack bar, and play cards or eat in the dining car.

Sleeping accommodations fall into four categories: Standard Bedrooms (the type I had) sleep one or two people with shared shower facilities in the car--some newer cars have toilets en suite; the older have toilets down the hall. Deluxe Bedrooms sleep two and have a sofa, armchair, vanity and full private bath. The Family Bedroom is a larger version of the Deluxe, sleeping two adults and two small children. The Accessible Bedrooms are wheelchair-accessible; these rooms offer sleeping quarters for two and include a full bath.

Luggage: Amtrak offers checked baggage, but that means not seeing your suitcase until you leave the train and claim it at the station. Although officials recommend patrons bring only two bags each or what they can carry, luggage restrictions appear more relaxed than with airlines. Check on bike facilities for long-distance routes; many require the bike to be broken down and packed in a box.

Where to Eat: Dining cars offer a short list of entrees to cover most dietary needs. Many trains nod to their regional roots: The Crescent offers Southern fried chicken, while the Coast Starlight offers Northwest salmon filet. If you are traveling via sleeper, all meals are included in the fare (alcohol is extra); if you're traveling a long distance, this becomes a considerable value. If you're traveling by coach, you may eat in the dining car and pay additional. Your other option is the snack bar, which offers chips, pre- packaged sandwiches, candy bars, etc.

Train Savvy: If you're traveling on a budget, bringing your own food can save you the high prices of the snack bar, and it's perfectly permissible to eat it at your seat (though they will toss you out of the lounge for such crimes). Even if you are in a sleeper with all meals supplied, it's nice to have a tin of pate and some crackers in case of emergency. You may consume your own wine or spirits in your compartment.

On the bi-level trains, compartments on the top offer a smoother ride, while the bottom level offers easier access for those who have trouble navigating stairs. If you are the slightest bit claustrophobic, forget the Standard Bedroom. Also forget traveling in it overnight with someone other than your most intimate companions. If you're not intimate before the trip, you will be afterward.

Information: 1-800-USA-RAIL, www.amtrak.com.

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