Amtrak's California Zephyr snakes its way along a 2,400-mile route from Chicago to San Francisco. (Jon R. Anderson / Staff)
A cross-country train trip sounded great at the time, but not even halfway there, everything was unraveling. Record flooding in the Dakotas meant the Amtrak train I was supposed to get on would be dead in its tracks if the conductor dared go any farther than Minneapolis.
The idea was simple enough: Washington to Washington from D.C. to Seattle by train in what was supposed to be a three-day locomotive odyssey of Wild West-taming, pioneerlike proportions.
Soon after arriving in Chicago, however, I was told that I'd be "rerouted" in an oddly loco detour over the Colorado Rockies and Sierra Nevada into California that would tack on more than 1,000 miles and two additional days if I wanted to make it home by rail.
And I couldn't have been happier. In less than 24 hours, I'd already met a slew of fascinating people, and I was eager for more. That, and I love big mountains almost as much as trains.
A movable feast
Leaving D.C. aboard the Capitol Limited, the weather was dreary and wet. But when I was offered a seat at Bob and Barbara Pintinics' table for dinner, everything was bright and cheery. They were on their way to Chicago to visit one of their three sons. Bob, who wore a USS Lake Champlain baseball cap over thick gray hair, was an aerial photographer in the Navy through the late 1950s.
"We take the train everywhere," said Bob, "at least two or three times a year for the past 20 years." One of their latest trips was to Burlington, Vt., for his squadron reunion, he said while sitting in the dining car, polishing off a plate of fresh tilapia and steamed vegetables.
"We're in no rush," he added with a broad smile as he chose a slice of apple pie for dessert.
Three hearty meals a day are served by a crew of sure-footed wait staff on white tablecloths alongside fresh flowers and baskets of warm rolls. Coach passengers pay as they go, but all meals are included for those who opt for a private roomette.
"It's just so much more relaxing to travel this way," said Barbara, noting with satisfaction that train travel remains free from the many security hassles found at the airport. "You don't have to take off your shoes to get on a train."
Deals on wheels
Twisting through the Allegheny Mountains before its sprint across Midwest farmlands, the Capitol Limited would make 14 whistle-stops before arriving in Chicago 16 hours and 780 miles later.
Someone else doing all that driving sounded like a good deal to Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Rob Warren. With an ailing grandmother in Chicago, he and his wife, Gabby, had been taking their three boys back home to the Windy City for visits as much as possible.
A liaison to the House of Representatives, Rob said he was pleasantly surprised to learn that after factoring in about $500 for gas, plus the extra night there and back in a hotel, the $600 spent on round-trip train tickets from Washington, D.C., would be a bargain. Even with the 10 percent discount that military passengers and their family members get on fares, they decided it wasn't worth the extra $500 it would have cost for a roomette.
"But coach is still better than driving. The seats recline more like what you'd see in the first class on a plane," he said. "Besides, it's faster, cheaper, and we'll get there much more refreshed. And as gas gets more expensive, it keeps becoming a better deal."
Each passenger can bring up to three bags, "and that's with no extra fees or worrying about how many ounces of shampoo you have," Gabby added.
Their three boys, ages 10 to 14, weren't complaining, either.
"Much better than being cooped up in a car," said the oldest, Joshua, as he put the finishing touches on a drawing he'd been working on at another table. Across the aisle, a white-bonneted Amish mom smiled approvingly at Josh's artwork as her daughter threw back a Coke she'd just brought up from the snack bar on the lower deck.
This is a decidedly different experience from traveling by train in Europe. What you see from a German train, for example, is largely the same as what you'll see from the autobahn. But here in the States, trains have room to roam.
Like narrow streams of steel, the nation's ribbons of rail flow through an authentic version of America, warts and all. Train travelers pass through the sketchiest of neighborhoods on the wrong side of the tracks and just as quickly find themselves waving back at friendly backyard barbecuers or catching fleeting glimpses of bush-league baseball games or riverside fishermen.
"This is what I love about train travel," gushed Kay Warren, the wife of a Vietnam veteran on her way home to Oakland, Calif., as she stretched out in her roomette swapping knitting techniques with a new friend as they took in a bright Chicago morning. "You can't do this on a plane."
Retired Navy Master Chief Bob Stewart was a little jealous of their roomette in the California Zephyr, making its 2,438-mile journey to the San Francisco Bay.
"I wouldn't have been able to afford this trip if we flew," he said. Stewart was on his way home to Eureka, Colo., after seeing his son graduate from Navy boot camp. "It would have been more than $1,000 for my wife and I. Taking the train was half that."
With 23 years "and seven days" crammed inside an attack submarine, Stewart knows how to endure a little hardship. But as he kneaded the dolphin tattoo on his right forearm, he said he was still stiff from the ride up and not looking forward to the second half of his 48 hours in coach. "It's a little rough, but you sleep when you can and where you can. It's the ugly way to go, but it works."
"Whoa!" declares what seemed like the entire train in unison as the Zephyr emerged from a long, dark tunnel into the snow-white brilliance of Winter Park, one of Colorado's A-list ski resorts. The train had slowly been snaking its way into the high country for hours after leaving Denver.
An Army civilian based at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., Heather Vimba loves trains as much as I do. So much so that she persuaded her husband Arnie and 12-year-old son Ryan to spend a week of vacation on the rails in a big nationwide loop from Chicago to San Francisco, and then north and back across to New York City's Penn Station. She had collected enough rewards points over 10 years of monthly work commutes to D.C. to pay for a deluxe sleeper room for the whole trip.
"We like to get out and see and do different things with our vacations, and this certainly seemed different," Arnie said. "We had considered a cruise, but you don't really see much on a boat, except all the water going by. This, on the other hand," he said as the snowy vistas passed by, "is amazing, and it's constantly changing into something else."
Army Spc. Clayton McKeough was on his way back from Fort Carson to Glenwood Springs, a Colorado college town where he was going to school, after a weekend drill with his Reserve unit. Taking the train was partly a financial call a round-trip ticket was $76, just under what it would have taken to pay for gas in his 1993 Ford Explorer.
"But even when it's a little more expensive, I prefer this," he said. "It's just so peaceful, and it gives me time to do homework."
Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Randel Smith said he first jumped on a train after returning from 18 months in Iraq in 2006.
"A buddy said it would give me some time to collect myself, to digest things a little, before jumping back into life," he said. "My parents were a little upset that I was taking the long way home, but it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
"It was amazing. I was with three other soldiers who were basically doing the same thing, and people were buying us drinks and thanking us the whole way home. I talked with some people for hours," he added. "I've never been treated that way my entire life. It was like I was royalty."
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