With only a short time for a summer vacation in New York's lush Hudson River Valley where I grew up, my head told me to take the plane from my present home in Chicago. A flight of barely two hours to New York City, followed by a two-hour bus ride north, would deposit me at the family farm.

Very tidy, speedy and sensible.

But my heart told me something else: Take the train.

I was astounded at the sudden tug of the tracks. I hadn't had a long train ride in years. And what with memories of surly conductors, tardy engineers and decrepit rolling stock, I hadn't missed the passing of the iron horse one bit.

But perhaps the administration's attempts to cut federal aid to Amtrak had something to do with it. Or perhaps the fact that our teen-age daughter had had an enjoyable rail trip from Chicago to Los Angeles aboard the romantically named Desert Wind earlier this year played a role.

Prosaically enough, what finally decided it was the pocketbook.

A call to Amtrak revealed that a one-way sleeping coach fare from Chicago's Union Station to a whistlestop on the route to New York called Rhinecliff, just six miles from the farm, would cost $98. That matched the cheapest one-way air fare I could find. But the clincher turned out to be the return fare: For just a dollar more, Amtrak made it a round-trip ticket. You can barely get a ride on the Metro from Farragut Square to Dupont Circle for that kind of money.

I knew that a sleeping coach is less than first-class travel: just a reclinable seat, a footrest, a pillow, a blanket and too little legroom for the likes of me to toss and turn in through the night. But the idea of actually paying 100 pennies for an 18-hour rail journey covering some 800-plus miles, across New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, made the train irresistible.

I got my $99 round-trip ticket and one Saturday evening climbed aboard Amtrak's Train No. 48, the Lake Shore Limited. I found a seat in an uncrowded, heavily carpeted coach car, stowed my baggage overhead and settled down to see what would happen.

The first surprise was not long in coming: To a heroic cry of "All aboard!" over the loudspeaker, Train No. 48 pulled out of Union Station -- precisely on time.

And then, with the evening August sun bathing the railcar in stunning pure light, I traveled across an America too seldom seen by many of us. The Lake Shore Limited became a living art gallery drawn from the extraordinary heart of our country, as surely as if Norman Rockwell himself were curator.

The train headed south at a leisurely pace along the Chicago River's west bank, using the gleaming towers of the South Loop financial district as a backdrop for a Windy City goodbye. Then we rolled at roof-top level past tidy Oriental neighborhoods, where most back yards were devoted to very appetizing vegetable gardens.

Farther south, the men of one of Chicago's burgeoning Hispanic districts were washing and polishing their cars, or merely strolling by, looking at their neighbors' vehicles. Young boys tagged along with the grown-ups, or played catch in the quiet streets.

A few moments later, with little warning, Comiskey Park suddenly appeared, a vision of brilliant white and green. The White Sox were about to begin the night's festivities against some (hopefully) hapless visiting team. American flags billowed briskly at the flagpoles around the park, and lines of cars moved slowly into the crazy-quilt of parking lots around the 75-year-old stadium. In the surrounding neighborhoods, men waving flamboyant red flags sought motorists to park in their private driveways for a few dollars, and homegrown Sox vendors peddled pennants, hats and shirts at cut-rate prices.

Well south on Shields Avenue, blocks beyond the park, a game of Chicago's unique 16-inch softball was under way in a dusty playground. This form of the national pastime is played without gloves, using a regular bat, but a giant softball 16 inches in circumference. It is accepted as the only official summer sport of the sandlot kings. Beer coolers stood along the foul lines, and the gathering evening was alive with laughter and movement.

Farther south, the train angled east over the Calumet River, beginning the long run that would carry me home. We passed over an aging trestle bridge, while white-hulled power cruisers roared silently beneath us, homeward themselves after a day's outing. Their wakes churned the muddy river, making waves that glinted blue off the immense, cloudless sky above us.

At 7:03 p.m. we pulled into Hammond, Ind., to pick up some passengers. Here, the journey's curator, in the best tradition of Mr. Rockwell, tugged at my heart.

While sitting at my window, my eye was attracted by a peaceful tableau near the edge of the frame: a grandfather, white hair tucked beneath a straw hat, stood against the parking lot fence, looking at the train. Standing next to him, a few feet away, stood his grandson, a victim of Down's Syndrome. While the old man talked quietly, the boy seemed to move in and out of levels of reality, his brow furrowing to some inner dialogue that few could know.

As the train began to move, the old man's mouth moved: "Bye, bye," his lips said. He tossed us a wave.

"Bye . . . " mouthed the boy, and looked as if to wave, then didn't.

"Goodbye," I said, through the double-thickness glass, the words almost inaudible against the air conditioning. As they slid from view, I waved back; I don't think they saw.

Down the line, beyond the station, I craned around to the west for a last look at Chicago's astonishing skyline, as it faded beneath a horizon of blue, blue Lake Michigan. If you have some time, and have to leave Chicago, this is surely a good way to do it. By train.

Ahead were the great furnaces, ovens and mills of the steel giants: Inland, National, Bethlehem and U.S. Steel, standing along the Indiana tracks. The American Ruhr may be fading fast, but the curator put his ochre and gray brush to their smokestacks as we rolled past, assuring us there is still a huge pulse to be found in the heartland -- if you pass this way.

Later, as the train skirted the southern edge of Lakes Erie and Ontario, arrowing across Ohio, a piece of Pennsylvania and into western New York, there would be dinner with three other travelers who cheerfully feasted on steak, roast chicken or stuffed filet of sole, served piping hot and in cheerful swaying to the rhythm of the trackbed.

Later still, nighttime in Ohio when new arrivals searched for seats in the darkened car -- a tousled 5-year-old suddenly asleep in the seat next to me, his dimpled hand thrown across my arm, his head nestling in my lap, while his mother gave me a tired smile and then fell asleep.

We rolled into Albany, N.Y., on Sunday morning, about the time church services normally start in the world beyond the window. Just then, two black teen-agers who had gotten aboard sometime during the night began playing tapes of their Southwest Michigan Chapter Gospel Choir.

Charley Hurst and Adrian Guidry of Benton Harbor, Mich., members of the Niles, Mich., New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, were on their way to the Gospel Music Workshop of America and they were brushing up on their phrasing.

"Would you like our autographs?" they asked an inquisitive passenger.

"Sure."

"Who should we make it out to?"

"Make it out to a believer."

Two hours later, precisely at 11:36 a.m. EDT, just as the train schedule promised, the believer was delivered at the Rhinecliff station.

His vacation had already begun many hours earlier, when he stepped aboard Train No. 48.