By Mack Samples|
Ever since the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, Americans have had a fascination with trains. It's hard to imagine what a thrill it must have been to climb aboard a train in Philadelphia in the 1870's and ride all the way to San Francisco. A trip that had taken months before that last spike was driven at Promontory Point could now be completed in days. Most folks think the romance of the rails is over, but a recent ride to the west coast and back on Amtrak convinced me that the thrill is still very much alive.
You can catch the Amtrak Cardinal in Charleston and ride to Chicago. From there you have several choices for going west. I chose the Empire Builder. It makes its way across the northwest, very near the Canadian border. Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington State are gobbled up as the train "laps the miles" across America. The train makes several stops in small towns where you can get off, hear the local accents, and get a feel for that part of the country.
Even though I had crossed North Dakota before, I was still stunned by its flatness, its starkness, and its vastness. I didn't even want to think about being there when the blue northern wind comes charging down out of Canada during the winter months. And, talk about Rural Free Delivery! You pass lonely houses out in Montana that appear to be miles and miles from the next house. It makes those of us who live in the isolated hollers of West Virginia realize what isolation really is.
In Seattle, you can catch the Amtrak Coast Starlight down the west coast. The Starlight goes all the way to Los Angles, but I chose to get off in Sacramento. I have seen all of Los Angles that I want to see. From Sacramento you can catch the famous California Zephyr back to Chicago. The Zephyr provides far and away the best scenery. It crosses the Sierra-Nevada mountain range via the Donner Pass, then traverses the Truckee River to where it flows down to the Carson Valley plains. The scenery is spectacular. After a brief stop in Reno, the train rolls on across the desert until it picks up the Colorado River and follows it to its headwaters at Rocky Mountain National Park. Talk about spectacular scenery!
As the big diesel engines pulled us across Nebraska and Illinois, I was convinced that there will be no shortage of corn this year. Even though some of the Midwest corn was lost to flooding this spring, there are still uncountable miles of cornfields and it looks dark and healthy.
Yes, the railroad still provides the best way to see America. You still get a little rush when you make a stop somewhere, get off to stretch your legs, and hear the conductor yell, "All Aboard." And the best part of all is that when you get tired of looking at the scenery, and you have had enough socializing with your fellow travelers, you can climb into your bunk and let the sound of that big diesel engine and the gentle rocking of the sleeping car lull you to sleep.