My mission is to visit all fifty states in the USA. I have ten to go, so I’ve booked four Amtrak rail journeys. That’s rather over covering my bets, but each of the blurbs said that their journey was the most scenic in the states.
My trips starts at Emeryville, Oakland, where I've arrived from American Samoa. I’m already beginning to think I might have been a little rash. The California Zephyr train to Chicago is positively antique. There is one locomotive, pulling maybe a dozen silver double decker carriages, four of which are sleepers. There’s a formal dining car and an observation car with a café and snacks beneath. It’s freezing on board - the air vents are duct-taped over, as there’s a problem with the system, and it won’t stop blowing cold air. There’s no Wi-Fi and the electric socket says razors only. I think the carriage was built before mobile phones were invented. It’s two and a half days to Chicago. And I can feel the Gang of Three’s virus brewing –their parting gift, which is most unfair, as there definitely weren’t any hugs and kisses.
There’s the usual smog over the whole Bay Area, but the sun comes out as we head west towards Sacramento, though I’m still waiting for the scenery. There are a plethora of iron bridges, cargo boats, gas tanks and the odd refinery. Then some yellow rolling hills and drooping sunflowers.
Now we’re chugging uphill towards the Sierra Nevada. The whistle blows constantly and my ears are popping; there are lakes and pine forests and little towns straight out of westerns. When I say chugging I mean really crawling. We’ve already had one half hour total stop while Union Pacific ‘fix the track’ and a twenty minute wait for a freight train. (Freight trains get priority over Amtrak in the U.S.A., which often results in expensive delays, as they have to compensate to accommodate passengers). If it’s this slow in the foothills what’s it going to be like in the mountains proper? I’m wondering if we ever get to any decent views. I’m seeing a lot of trees.
The journey is accompanied by a barrage of barked tannoy instructions. ‘Wait here’. ‘Do not embark yet’. ‘Do not go to the dining car until the conductor gives the all clear.’ ‘First come, first served. You have been warned.’
I eat lunch with Randy and his adult son and ‘friend’ (they didn’t tell me their names). Randy and Friend have just retired from teaching in San Francisco and are off adventuring. The food is included, as is soda (maximum of three per person per meal) and the menu is a foretaste of things to come. I can choose between a variety of burgers, sliders or cheese quesadillas. Dessert is cheesecake or chocolate cake. They thoughtfully list the calorie count for each item, though that makes it even more stressful, as there aren’t any low calorie options, except for the side salad.
The Angus Burger is a whopping 1088 calories, without the additional cheese slice. Son turns constructing his into an art form, layering various garnishes and drizzling different sauces until it’s a huge tower, which he consumes with alacrity, alongside guacamole and kettle chips. I take my cheesecake ‘to go’ – afternoon snack. At three o’clock the tannoy informs us that the lounge bar café is open and serving again. A lady at Emeryville Station has already given me a pink iced doughnut for my breakfast.
Finally, mountains. Lots more trees, larches this time, but definitely mountains, and more lakes - the Tahoe National Forest. We’re already running two and a half hours late by the time we reach Truckee, the nearest stop to Lake Tahoe which straddles the border with Nevada. Thank goodness I'm breaking the journey to New York with a night in Chicago. At this rate I’m going to be lucky to make the connection a day later.
On the eastern flank of the mountains and on to Reno (the Silver City), the scenery is suddenly very different. The peaks are arid, with rocky crests and tussocks of bluish grass, the edges of the Nevada Desert. The tussocks take on a yellowish tinge and start to sputter out, leaving desert and the stark saw edge mountain ranges that give the name sierra.
Dinner with three delightful Japanese women visiting family and sightseeing. This is a very chatty train. Really good steak and baked potato with sour cream. I think the calorie count has been more than excessive today.
Overnight we’ve trundled through Nevada and into Utah. We’re running even later because they’ve had to change the locomotive and borrow one from Union Pacific. I’ve set my alarm for six, despite the loss of yet another hour as we enter Mountain Time, as I don’t want to miss the promised spectacular views of The Rockies. We’re just leaving Salt Lake City as I go to breakfast, another selection of large cooked meals again. This is going to do long term damage. There’s no possibility of exercise. There’s a pink sunrise over the cordillera and ongoing desert interspersed by a series of very wide mesas. But it’s overcast and my camera is sitting idle, so I may go back to my couch. (It wasn’t a great night, the bed in my little cubicle is very hard.) Tannoy permitting, that is. We’ve already had the hi-de-hi wake-up call at seven.
We pick up the Colorado River just before entering Colorado State and spend the remainder of the day winding through a series of spectacular tiered canyons of yellow, green and red hues. It’s a close up view of river life and I’m waving at white-water rafters drifting down below in their red inflatables and matching helmets. Scarlet complements the green of the canyons and also has the advantage of not showing the blood.
For some time we follow the interstate highway. The engineering is incredible, with three tiers at times, a double carriageway going in each direction and a pedestrian/cycle way down below at river level. Then the train diverts from the roadway. This is a good opportunity to plug the rail trip. ‘You’re getting to see things you can’t see from the car, folks.’ The valley widens and there’s a swath of grassy farmland with round Hockney hay bales as we enter The Rockies proper. It is as stunning as I remember, with plummeting gorges, pine trees, craggy peaks and glacial lakes.
However, it’s getting dusky, as the train is late, the cloud is low and there are thunderstorms rolling around the long valley into Denver (the Mile High City). There’s only the odd glimpse of splendour. The conductor tries to convince us that Denver looks even better when it’s dark. I’m going to have to retrieve those spectacular views from my memory and sing a verse or two of Rocky Mountain High instead.
I abstain from lunch. I don’t think I can fit any more food into my body. Dinner is another round of steak, with a Texan and her two granddaughters. Donald Trump has featured in every dining car conversation so far and I haven’t found anyone in the USA who likes him yet. The cabaret tonight is the ejection of a passenger found smoking marijuana in the toilet. (I think it might have been Son.) A long lecture over the tannoy ensues, labouring the penalties imposed by law for smoking tobacco or drugs on the train (even if it is legal in Colorado). Rocky Mountain High indeed.
Because the train is running so late I get to see Nebraska in daylight. I’ve only driven across a corner of it before (I think). It’s very flat prairie, lots of corn and silos. And it’s still raining, so I’m dozing. Jet lag and my cold are taking their toll.
Into Iowa, where the terrain is much the same, though there is some gentle undulation at times, to add a little interest. The train is now running so late - nearly five hours - that we have had to stop to get renewed permission to cross some native reservation lands, as the original authority has lapsed. I would definitely have missed my connection if I had scheduled the New York train for today. Thank goodness I didn’t plan to board at any intermediate stations on my travels, it would have been worse than waiting at an airport (except maybe Honiara).
I’ve hardly been off the train for three days, the halts have been so short, so a night on solid ground and in a decent bed will be nice. (I ran for anti-cold tablets at Denver and I noticed that the shop floor was swaying.) The bossy conductors are having a mega stressed tannoy time trying to track down passengers who are having connection problems and manage the stops. ‘Do not get off the train at Mount Pleasant unless it is your final stop, or you wish it to be your final stop’.
Sadly, I can’t see much of the towns and villages. There is little around the stations when we do halt. They are mostly very remote, except for odd moments when there’s a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of a brick high street with crenelated store fronts and saloon bars. As we travel east there’s more burgundy, grey and white clapboard nestling in the fields and churches with tall wizard hat steeples.
Finally, Illinois, and there are blue skies celebrating our tardy arrival.
'I have struck a city — a real city — and they call it Chicago… Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.'
Rudyard Kipling, From Sea to Sea - Letters of Travel
'I came to discover that Chicago is that most American of American cities, but one where citizens from more than 130 nations inhabit a rich tapestry of distinctive neighborhoods. Each one of those neighborhoods -- from Greektown to the Ukrainian Village; from Devon to Pilsen to Washington Park -- has its own unique character, its own unique history, its songs, its language. But each is also part of our city -- one city -- a city where I finally found a home.'
Barack Obama, The Huffington Post
Back in Chicago I’m staying in the Congress Plaza Hotel, which was once iconic but is now in need of some TLC. The lobby still smacks of the grand old days, but there is peeling paper in the beige corridors and my room, whilst spacious, isn’t quite sure what it is. The seventies style wavy pattern nets are hung inside the shiny grey curtains and the furniture is white melamine. More interestingly, Al Capone had a permanent suite on the floor below me and ran much of his ‘business’ from here. It’s also supposed to be one of the most haunted buildings in Chicago, though most of the action, thankfully, seems to take place in the other tower.
My train doesn’t leave until the afternoon so I’ve retraced my steps of four years ago, down by the lakeshore, round the edge of the museums, though the parks and all round The Loop. The last, shopping area, is my favourite. The 1930s architecture doesn’t fail to fascinate and this time I can take my time and look for detail, corner clocks, sculptures, the sweeping lines of the subway entrances, the clunky, but oh so atmospheric, iron gantries of the overhead railways and, of course, the scrapers. The trains clatter madly overhead. I had forgotten what crazy names the streets have: Wabash Avenue, East Wacker Drive. And I’ve realised that when the weather forecast says there’s a 10% chance of rain they’ve missed a 0 out.
I’ve noticed that men in the USA are much more likely to hold doors open and offer to help me with my bags than in other parts of the world, which I welcome. I have a bad back. But service behaviour and shop signs seem to get even more aggressive and controlling as I move east. ‘Wait here.' 'Move those bags out of the way' (for no apparent reason – the unfortunate guest is just about to pick them up), 'Straight down there', 'No substitutions or changes for any reason'. Not a please or thank you in evidence.
On the Cardinal train this evening (the bird not the high ranking priest), to The Big Apple. The compartment is an improvement on the Zephyr - I was afraid to touch anything on the last sleeper, as none of it looked too savoury. I went through a whole packet of hygienic wipes cleaning it up. Here, I have a little toilet and tiny fold up sink in my room, though there is absolutely no floor space left at all to deposit my possessions when I’m in bed mode. There’s a boy in the room opposite who the spitting image of the child who Chandler told he was adopted in Friends. Same hair, same clothes. And even louder. I’ve shut the door.
We're straight into Indiana tonight. Its name means, literally Indian lands. First some industry around Lake Michigan, then time to more farmsteads. Flat topped seas of cultivation, enlivened by the setting sun.
Dinner tonight with a friendly couple, Charlie and Anne-Marie, from Pennsylvania, returning home via Philadelphia. No steak on the menu this time, it’s all pre-packaged and microwaved, like plane food, so I’ve had to settle for veggie noodles. Very disappointing, especially as the special, vanilla pudding, is sold out. Already. We’ve only just left. We have already been delayed by an hour – a freight train (going so fast, not). So, if you can’t beat them, join them. I’ve been chatting to the boy opposite. He’s called Hayden, he’s ten, travel mad and had visited all fifty states by the time he was eight. Very impressive. He’s going to look at my Oceania pictures tomorrow, with a view to encouraging his father to take him there.
I’ve woken up to Cincinnati, so we’re now running over two hours late. I’ve found out that the city was named, after Cincinnatus, a Roman called to serve as a dictator, who resigned to go farming, immediately he had solved the problem. The civic buildings are all lit up, very pretty. The sun rises, well sort of, it’s still cloudy, over the sweeping Ohio (Big Sandy) as we cross over into Kentucky and hug the banks of the river for the length of that state, with glimpses back over to Ohio State and the tree laden hills. It’s going to be a busy day. There are lots more states to visit.
We follow the Big Sandy all morning, into West Virginia, (apart from the odd bend that gets lopped off) where it becomes the Kanawha and then the New River. The hills are higher, still tree covered and would be astonishingly pretty if it wasn’t raining. The streams of cloud hanging over the forest valleys are quite atmospheric. I can just make out the ornate gold dome of the capitol building at Charleston.
The New River is a series of weirs, rocks and rapids with attendant inflatable rafts, as it descends into a gorge which is tantalisingly difficult to view because of all the trees lining the riverbank. The New River Gorge Bridge spans it just before Thurmond. It’s used for parachute and bungee jumping. (This area is all recreation and national park.) I've read that that this is the highest bridge in the Americas, but apparently, at 876 feet that's not true. It's third highest.
I’m hopping about from one side of the train to the other, trying to catch any view of West Virginia (Mountain Momma) at all. But the atmosphere on board is miserable - I don’t think it’s just the weather. It's dark and untidy, most of the passengers are snoozing in the business class seats and the conductor hasn’t said a word. It’s very different to the Zephyr. I’m tracking the route on Google so I can try and work out what to see, as sure as hell no one is going to tell me.
Still climbing, the river becomes a trickle and we pass the ‘most famous resort in America’ - Greenbrier - at White Sulphur Springs. The Allegheny Range to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah National Park. (Cue more song, on two counts). Last time I was here I was driving north-south on the Skyline Drive. There’s slightly more habitation around and the clapboard is peeling green. There are little railway museums and artfully restored stations.
Next, Charlottesville in Virginia, which hit the news big time this week, with protests over a white supremacy rally. Before all this kicked off Charlottesville had been given the accolade of best place to live in the USA, based on cost of living, climate and quality of life. Hayden and his father live here and have given me the low down on everything there is to see-and where to take my photos from. It’s very quiet today and hard to imagine the scenes of last week.
Two Kiwis have taken over the opposite room from Hayden and father and they won’t stop talking to me. I’m trying to take pictures of Washington DC and I’m missing the Pentagon and the White House as they keep distracting me while we’re crossing the Potomac. Charlie and Anne- Marie are handing out handfuls of M & Ms. The calorie count is going up, but the microwaved food is so horrible (the offerings that aren’t already sold out) that anything is a bonus. Tonight’s offering was a kind of mangled jambalaya. I'm trying not to think about it or I get nauseous.
It’s dark and the train is now, finally, hurtling along. Perhaps we will make up some of the time we are behind. Friend, Hugh is waiting for me in Brooklyn. There was slight panic when they threatened to cancel his plane because of bad weather, but he’s made it.
1.30 a.m – finally arrive, at Hugh’s apartment. The view across Manhattan to the new World Trade Centre building and the bay is absolutely stunning. I have to take photographs even though it’s so late.
Retracing my steps, this time in Hugh’s car to the little town of Luray, adjacent to one of the entrances to the Skyline Drive, which runs along the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The whole trip down to Tennessee, where we intend to view the solar eclipse on Monday, is 750 miles and Google says it will take 12 hours altogether. Today has taken us considerably more than six and we’re about half way. There have been road works and a few traffic bulges. Hugh tells me that these distances are nothing to an American.
Once out of New Jersey the scenery is pretty rolling hills most of the way. We eat lunch in a wonderful local diner in Pennsylvania Dutch country surrounded by round topped barns and corn fields. Dinner is at Uncle Buck’s in Luray which is the Saturday night go-to-place. It’s wooden booths and too loud music, the bass turned right up, southern fried chicken fillets with creamy white sauce and margarita mix.
A drive along the Skyline itself (I've been here before) to admire the hills and valleys from above before we take the Interstate to the Great Smoky Mountains. The road is very long and there’s a lot more traffic. I’m not surprised - there is an eclipse tomorrow - but Hugh is not convinced that the two things are connected. Small town America and many more rolling hills unfurl.
Hugh introduces me to the delights of the Fast Food Nation. Most intersections are lined with outlets and at Roanoke there are several miles of assorted fried or otherwise unhealthy delights. Chick-Fil-A is advocated as tasty, even though they are morally reprehensible, taking an orthodox Christian stance on LGBT issues. But they are closed, as it’s Sunday, so we don’t have to engage in ethical debate over purchasing one. Wendy’s suffices for drinks and later, Dairy Queen for a Royal Ice Cream Blizzard. Hugh has a fried chicken sandwich too. Everything is still calorie listed, but I don’t think anyone takes any notice.
The traffic jams persist and Google keeps adding more minutes to the expected time of arrival until we are almost going backwards. Hugh is protesting now - ‘It’s been a long day’. It has, but I remind him that he is American and these distances are nothing.
We arrive at our cabin overlooking the eponymous Smoky Mountains, forest spreading below us (and Beware of Bears signs), as dusk sets in. The cabin is huge and very middle America - the ultimate in bad taste (IMHO), with jagged stone sinks, log bedframes and pine everywhere. There are three floors, two king-size en suite bedrooms, a games room with a pool table, a home movie theatre, a Jacuzzi and a hot tub on the decking. It’s called Take My Breath Away and the view, at least, reflects the name in the right sense.
Into Gatlinburg for dinner. This is where ski resort meets tacky seaside entertainment. Flashing neon signs, side shows and tawdry gift shops. At our Mexican restaurant we are asked for ID before we can be served alcohol. Bureaucracy gone mad. Back at the cabin, there are a myriad of forest noises outside. When I have to go to the car I run there and back in, watching out for moving shadows.
After much angst, studying maps to establish exactly which areas are best to experience full totality (its all far more complicated than I had realised) and getting up ridiculously early to beat the rush, we select a spot by a stream in the Smoky Mountains Park and settle down to wait for four hours until first contact begins. We take the last available parking space in this area. We have hurriedly bought provisions at the local super market and Hugh has accidentally shop-lifted a soft panama hat. He’s already dressed in a khaki shirt, so now folk keep think he’s a ranger. It could come in useful. He’s already told one woman to move her car.
I was hankering for a full-fledged mountain view, but the stream proves to be a bonus, as it’s very hot. The weather has delivered, despite the unpromising long range forecasts and the sky is absolutely clear. The cool water of the creek is blissful and it all adds to the ethereal experience, watching the moon slide over the sun whilst up to the calves in water, tiny fish (and tube riders shooting the small rapids) wiggling past. As the light disappears and there’s an early dusk, a mottled snake uncoils between a pair of rocks in the water. That’s the only reason to keep glancing backwards as the scene unfolds and we are all so busy fixating on the sun, in our eclipse spectacles, that peaks would have been superfluous in any case. A great experience, and oh so lucky with the weather and conditions.
Hugh and the dollar pound exchange rate between them are going to bankrupt me. Even the supermarket bills are hefty. They do take my breath away. I buy enough margarita ingredients to last us the whole week, in my opinion. We’ve had steak cooked on the barbecue overlooking the mountains tonight. And all the margarita supplies are exhausted.
Today, an exploration of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The traffic we didn’t encounter yesterday all seems to appear on our journey to Clingmans Dome. As the name suggests this is a round topped peak in the centre of the park. In the end we abandon the car and scramble up the steep slope, gasping (it’s 2,100 metres high), to the extraordinary 360 degree view at the top of the lookout, misty blue mountains, like a Chinese painting, stretching, in every direction.
Back at the ranch it’s fried chicken and potato salad (well this is the Deep South) and then a dip in the hot tub, watching the stars.
North Carolina is a very broad state. It takes all day to drive through it to the coast and Duck Island. The traffic is kind, but the scenery is not the best I’ve encountered. We have the mountains at the west end, dramatic in the rain, but they relatively soon peter out. The outer banks (known in American style as OBX) and inlets at journey’s end are also easy on the eye, salt air, sand dunes, weathered clapboard and seafood joints, as we motor along the narrow spits, Currituck Sound on one side, sea on the other. A thunderstorm here adds to the ocean atmosphere. In-between is flatter, monotonous tree lined highways, and well-tended villages enliven these, when we venture off for food or gas. The highlight is the Chick-Fil-A sandwich lunch.
We hire bikes to cycle the nature trail on the Sound side. The views across the flat grass islands are starkly beautiful, the birds elusive and the butterflies tantalising in their refusal to settle. The biggest challenge is the bike, which turns out not to have brakes. I’ve encountered this problem in the past, with unfortunate results, (it’s illegal in the UK) but now Hugh has taught me how to back pedal and I’m reasonably confident on the hills. Fortunately, it’s a relatively level, if bumpy, off-road trail.
The ocean is wild today, as it’s breezy and the dune backed beach consequently too English east coast for anyone other than the stoics. So, the rest of the day is spent at the pool admiring the orange of the umbrellas against the perfect blue sky.
The sky is azure, the breakers crash on the beach, the sea grass wafts gently, the sanderlings wander happily, pointy beaks alert and the crabs scuttle into their holes, their stalky eyes popping. Lobster wrap for lunch, and on the house, because Hugh’s breakfast never arrived. All is well with the world.
It’s a long drive on a fairly flat road. There are some pretty views of rushes and glistening water from the many bridges, across the Sound and then Chesapeake Bay. The usual vast array of fast food outlets and southern BBQ. (Pulled pork and fried cornmeal balls, known for some reason as hush puppies.) There’s also a lot of traffic.
A flight from La Guardia back to Chicago, to commence the remainder of my 50 state challenge. There’s a booth outside the terminal where I can check my bag in as soon as I remove it from the car. (My first, very positive Uber experience. Hugh has shown me how to use the app.) I make the mistake of exclaiming very loudly what a good idea this is. ‘You can tip us if you want to…’
I’m now an expert on Uber. I manage to summon a very large and jolly black lady who is waiting just outside the terminal door when I arrive in Chicago. And it's cheaper than the bus. Magic.
I'm going to Kalamazoo. Today is allocated for a side trip to Michigan, a state I've never visited, tucked up under the Great Lakes as it is. It took some time to decide where in Michigan to go. Detroit is too far from Chicago and the train timetable is very limiting. Many towns only have once a day services that don't leave till the evening. That rules out all the recommended pretty lakeshore destinations. Kalamazoo really has to be visited even though I don't have a gal there.
Initial impressions aren't auspicious. The weather is dull and almost cold. The lady next to me says it's the knock on effect of Hurricane Harvey which is currently battering Texas. And the scenery round the tip of Lake Michigan is decidedly industrial, some of the biggest refineries I've ever seen. But that's Indiana.
It's greener round the corner (I’m sure I could fit that to the Kalamazoo music) though lake glimpses are still few and far between as we head for Michigan City, which confusingly, is still in Indiana. I went back an hour when I arrived in Chicago but I have to put the watch forward again as soon as I go over the border to Indiana.
Now we're heading inland, so it seems I'm not going to view the idyllic little tourist towns at all. However, the conductors are very friendly and are encouraging me to disembark at stations to take pictures of what they believe to be notable views and buildings. They've also made me move to another compartment on the grounds that I wouldn't have made it to Kalamazoo if I'd stayed where I was. Fair enough I suppose. There's a whole string of towns on the local maps that gave their names to cars: Pontiac. Cadillac.
The passengers’ appearance overall is very much what I have come to expect from America in the summer. Attire is predominately casual. A large proportion are wearing shorts. Nearly all the younger women seem to wear them, regardless of how much weight they are carrying. The lack of concern about what others think is good, though the preponderance of overweight people is more concerning. At least fifty percent of the men wear baseball caps and many of them keep them on indoors. Even at dinner.
There are a surprising number of beards, though I think they’re possibly back in fashion. A few older males seem to be competing for parts in Lord of the Rings with waist length white whiskers. Long pony tails are ubiquitous. In total contrast I’ve also seen groups of Amish folk riding the trains. White pleated bonnets and long plain frocks for the women and wide hats, bibbed trousers, beards and pudding basin haircuts for the men and boys (not the beards in the latter case).
Kalamazoo itself turns out to be a refined and well laid out little town. Nineteenth century brick, Art Deco and mock Art Deco blend seamlessly with modern steel and glass. There is a central mall with quirky shops, some appealing bars and cafes and a proliferation of stately civic buildings and churches. The whole is demarcated by wide boulevards decorated with colourful signs and district banners. It's just a shame that it's Monday and it's overcast and the town is so quiet it's almost dead. Most of the bars and cafes and some of the shops are shut. There are a few folk shuffling around, all of whom seem surprisingly keen to chat to me. I suppose they don't have any other audience today.
I pop into the Valley Museum, which has excellent hands on exhibits for children. One of the best I've seen, though I personally don't feel the need to have my photo taken with a mechanical dinosaur.
Back at the station the sun comes out, but I can't retrace my steps in search of excitement. There's only the one train back to Chicago today and today it's bang on time. The conductors are the same, but much less affable. I have to conclude that they were only being nice because they wanted a tip.
An overly exciting start to today’s journey to Seattle, as I arrive once more at the beaux art Union Station to realise I’ve left all my money and passport in the safe at the hotel. Fortunately, I have plenty of time so I commandeer yet another Uber to take me back to the hotel and then once more to the station. The passengers are already in chatty train mode as I queue to board and I’ve been invited to stay with a lady who works at the University of Wisconsin.
The Empire Builder is suitably huge. They’ve bolted two trains together, and with seven sleeping cars in all it’s much longer than the California Zephyr. Otherwise, it’s another antique, similar in design, but this time I have a very narrow closet that I can’t use, as I don’t have anything to hang up except my jacket and I’m wearing that. It’s still dull and rainy. I’m in car number 1, so it’s very close to the dining car, but I won’t be getting any dramatic shots of the carriages ahead circling the bends.
Wisconsin is sunny and therefore the prairies are pretty today, flat farmland, Dutch barns and silos. We’re tootling along in parallel with the western edge of Lake Michigan and the lake edge backdrop to the fields is punctuated with more chimneys belching white smoke, Gandalf style.
Milwaukee next. Jerry Lee Lewis (and then Rod Stewart) asked what made Milwaukee famous. French trappers and German beer I think. It sprawls elegantly along the lakeside and we pass the Miller brewery after the little line of skyscrapers and the intricate bridges across the Menomonee River.
After Milwaukee we head inland. This is called lake country for a different reason. There are countless small lakes peppering the farmland, which is now rolling rather than flat and surprisingly beautiful, with its big skies and flower filled meadows. Past Wisconsin Dells the Wisconsin River carves out canyons and other striated rock formations. There are also a large herds of cattle. Wisconsin is the cheese state. LaCrosse gives its name to the game which was invented by the antic Indians here and from there we cross the Mississippi, which we follow, in its quiet phase, on the Minnesota side, for 140 miles.
It’s predictably gorgeous with bluffs and mountains of various shapes and sizes, but the sun sets all too quickly and I don’t see as much of Minnesota, or the river, as I would like. We reach Minneapolis-St Paul, the Twin Cities, in the dark. Minneapolis is coined from the Indian word Minnie, meaning water and the Greek word for city. The older city, St Paul, was known as Pig’s Eye after its partially blind founder. The two are served by Midway Station which is equidistant from the two cities and also, supposedly, between the North Pole and the Equator. Minneapolis also boasts the largest shopping mall in the USA. Phew.
The toilet in my compartment is out of service. Someone’s blocked it, so that means long nocturnal wanderings.
So far, this train is bang on time. Let’s hope there are no freight trains heading through today. I’ve woken in North Dakota and I’m sad to have missed Fargo, of TV fame, which was reached at three in the morning. Breakfast in Minot, known as the Magic City, because it grew so fast when the railway was built. The menu on this train’s exactly the same as on the Zephyr, but the food isn’t as nicely cooked. At least it is less likely I will eat it. I was going to opt for continental breakfast until I saw it was 794 calories. They’ve pumped out the offending W.C. while we’re stopped, but kept the toilet door locked. So now I have nowhere close to pee and the whole compartment smells of sewage. I’ve also noticed that the best views tend to happen when I go to the bathroom.
Low rounded hills, covered in sand coloured grass, a plethora of small lakes (we are carried over the coulees on trestles and banking) and an increasing number of nodding donkeys. This is oil country – there’s oil storage stations, rows of pick-ups and a small refinery or two. And for the first time a proliferation of mammals to be seen. So far, some deer, horses, wild and tame and a wolf or coyote. (I think wolves are quite rare.) There’s a variety of cattle too and tiny ducklings paddle obediently in line behind their parents. At Williston we encounter the longest river in North America, the Missouri. It’s longer than the Mississippi by twenty miles, even though it’s only a tributary.
Over the border into Montana and now we’re on Mountain Time (though I haven’t seen anything that qualifies as a mountain yet) and the clocks have gone back an hour. We were still forcibly awoken at 7 a.m., so I’m red-eyed again. The bed is still hard and it’s still cold, though no duct tape necessary in this car.
Montana (‘s calling me) is comparatively remote and has no discernible mobile signal to prove it. It’s more arid than North Dakota, greyer with rocky outcrops and very few lakes (mostly dried out), before flattening out into Big Sky Country. Otherwise, it’s still cattle and a few nodding donkeys. The flatter, scrubby area is the Fort Peck reservation where Sitting Bull and the Sioux were banished after Little Big Horn. It’s easy to imagine the Indians massing on the tops of the ridges, western movie style. We’re running along parallel with the Canadian border.
Malta, (the railway official naming it stuck a pen into a world map) and Wagner, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid carried out their last train hold up. (Coincidentally, we’re eating Paul Newman ranch dressing on our lunch salad. At 220 calories a sachet it must be more fattening than the whole of the salad.) At Havre there’s The Border Park, statues of Mounties talking to US policemen. It’s scorching hot when we venture outside the air conditioned train. They definitely don’t position their stations in the most scenic parts of town. We lost half an hour for the inevitable freight train, but impressively they’ve made it up again speeding over the flat plains, though there’s been some consequent jolting. The lines here aren’t as good as those in rich oil country.
Cut Bank would be more appropriately known as Cold Cut. It racks up the lowest midwinter temperatures in the country. It’s the gateway to the eastern Rockies and I can just make out what I’m told is the Canadian border, 25 miles away, through the haze. The peaks of Glacier Park are tinged with a pink sunset haze and are beautifully arranged against the darkening sky.
The best mountain scenery yet, as we wind through the elusive pass sought by Lewis and Clark and along the top of an emerald river in a tree lined gorge. Carol, from Wisconsin, has told me at lunch that I have made a big mistake by not arranging to visit the park. She says it’s just like Switzerland. I really wanted to tell her that if that was true then I might as well go to Switzerland, which is more convenient. But I didn’t and I personally think that the Rockies are very different from the Swiss Alps. Maybe I will have to come back. Most of the train’s passengers seem to be leaving here or going on to Seattle for Alaskan cruises.
We crossed a finger of Idaho last night. I’ve visited before on my first trip to the USA in the 1980s. It seems to be mainly famous for potatoes. It’s frustrating to traverse the stunning mountains in the dark, and annoyingly, the train is now running early, just when I would rather it took more time so I could enjoy the dramatic scenery.
It’s still black outside when I go to a seemingly very early breakfast. (I’m now on Pacific Time again) so that the crew can get us out of the way and prepare for the outward passengers. I feel discarded before I’ve finished when they do this on trains and ships, though I’m sure the crew have a very busy schedule. So, I put the world to rights with Ed from Michigan, (brilliant twirly white moustache) over yogurt, grapes and strawberries. I still haven’t met anyone who owns up to approving of Donald Trump.
A sun rise over some more superbly pretty peaks clothed in pine and fir in Washington State. Icicle Canyon speaks for itself, and then through the Cascade Mountains, partly in an eight mile long tunnel (the longest rail tunnel in the country) and along the Skycomish River (great name). I’m clearing up ready for arrival and searching for my headphones. Taking my torch under the seat is dispiriting. The dust and detritus of twenty years (and a pair of socks) is accumulated there.
We emerge at Everitt on Puget Sound and follow the coast past fingers of islands down to Seattle. Every time I’ve visited Vancouver, just to the north, it’s rained and today is maintaining the north-west coast tradition. The train goes directly past my hotel, which is right by the waterfront. Unfortunately, it goes a mile and half past.
Seattle is my new favourite place for the afternoon. The locals have dubbed it The Emerald City (no sign of the Wizard of Oz), with the views across the water and towards the Cascade Mountains. It’s the home of Starbucks, Boeing and Microsoft, to boot. The city is built staggered up a hill, with criss-crossing roadways and a complex network of elevators. Because of the different levels it’s easy to lose your way. It’s good exercise.
It is, unsurprisingly, reminiscent of Vancouver, with brownstones and old style globe street lights, and I keep thinking I’m in Canada. However, Seattle has more vibrancy, especially at Pike’s Place Market. This is packed with crafts and heaps of tempting farm produce, but is most notably a sea food lovers’ paradise. Stacks of fish and orange crustaceans are packed on ice and there’s a polished sales performance as the stall holders, in their striped aprons, propel the fish across the counters like circus jugglers. It’s heaving with tourists. Unsurprisingly, many of them are Japanese.
The weather has improved again, so I hurry to admire the scenery and scrapers from the Skydeck on top of the Columbia Centre, the tallest building in Seattle, which, like most American cities has plenty of scrapers. There is much internet debate over whether to choose this view, or the much more famous Space Needle. This one is twice the height, half the price and doesn’t have a queue. You can also take photos of the Space Needle from here. It wasn’t a difficult decision. Two ladies in the market have told me that they visited both this morning, but they can’t tell me which is best, as it was cloudy and they couldn’t see anything.
The proximity of the train track means more of the rattling and shrill whistling I thought I had left behind for a couple of nights. The hotel wrongly believes it is compensating by providing ear plugs.
Today, the Seattle Center and the Chihuly Garden. I wander along the esplanade past numerous sculptures to get there. One of my favourite artists doesn’t disappoint, though I feel he would do well to adopt the ‘less is more’ perspective at times, there are so many glass sculptures crammed into small flower beds. I’ve got the Earlybird Ticket, but the queue for the adjacent Space Needle is already long and I am happy to abjure it. The remainder of the park is closed today, as the annual Bumbershoot Festival is going on all weekend, so I climb onto the monorail to the downtown shops.
The ride is singularly uninteresting, but it saves me a mile of walking. Here, the big department stores, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Barneys, are arranged along the hill together, more like a quiet Oxford Street than the relentless, more common, indoor malls. It’s a relaxing experience wandering around the streets and back along the waterfront on a gorgeous day. The many piers are lined with seafood restaurants and I’m having my fourth or fifth bowl of clam chowder, which like margaritas, I feel duty bound to test at every opportunity. There’s not a cloud in the sky, but the sun is tempered by the freshness of early autumn and the salt of a gentle sea breeze.
I’m off down the west coast to Los Angeles on my last Amtrak experience. I’m so familiar with the roomettes on the Amtrak trains now that I have everything in place super fast. This room is almost identical to the last. There’s possibly less fluff under the seat, but the windows are absolutely filthy. Hand wipes remove the worst of it. It’s a very busy train. There’s a loud party of eight in the same compartment. They’ve moved off to monopolize the observatory car (which is quaintly known as the parlour car on this train). I suppose it’s the better of two evils.
And I’m being stalked by a Californian named Kurt. He marched up and introduced himself to me in the waiting room at Seattle, which I thought a little odd. He’s just gone past my cabin and is saying to the attendant, ‘The babe in room 5 is very pleasant’. Spooky. I hope the call bell works. My room is at least, on the coast side, so I’m hoping for good views.
We even start twenty minutes late today, first passing Boeing Field, where the planes are tested, and are then treated to ongoing excellent glimpses of towering Mount Rainier (the Americans pronounce it Ran-eer), which has been looming elusively to the south of Seattle. A little later, Mount Saint Helens, half the top blasted off but still snow laden. As always the most significant views are almost entirely obliterated by overhead cables. And when there is a gap then a goods train goes by, or, as has commonly been the case, trees. The wheels in this compartment sound as if they need a good dose of WD40. I’m trying to shut it out or it’s going to drive me crazy.
I ask the attendant where I should watch out for the best mountain views. She replies that she doesn’t know as she is always too busy working to notice. She has spent the entire journey so far in her compartment, gossiping to one of the other (male) stewards.
Same menu, same calories and a real snippy martinet in charge this time. The waiter is making 'talk too much signs' behind her back with his hands and I’m trying not to laugh. A really interesting lunch, with a lady from Vancouver whose brother is the curator for the Guggenheim museums and Josh, a young man embarking on a huge adventure, leaving Washington for the first time ever, to go and live with his cousins at Delano in California.
And now- big fanfare-we are entering Oregon, pulling over the river into Portland. So this is my fiftieth state! The Willamette River, south of here is exceptionally pretty and busy with weekend power boat trippers. Now it’s the turn of Mount Hood, the tallest peak in Oregon, to tantalise from behind the freight trains. While I’m balancing on the stair rail, rushing my life trying to take pictures I notice that the curtain is now pulled on the attendant’s car. It’s definitely still occupied and by more than one person.
At dinner the car supervisor is complaining loudly about the waiter from lunchtime. Team spirit on board is obviously excellent. They are still having a good time issuing instructions to the poor browbeaten passengers. ‘Do not come to the dining car until your name is called. Do not sit down. Wait in line. Do not sit down. We will assist you to your seat. Do not go downstairs. Do not step off the train’ .And so on and on…
It’s been another beautiful day but there are forest fires raging throughout the west, and as the train ascends over the Southern Cascades, potentially beautiful river and mountain views are enveloped in a pall of smoke, presided over by a crimson sun. It’s both frustrating and ethereal at the same time.
I awake to Emeryville, California, where my rail journeys began, and now I’m heading south running alongside The Bay in this huge state, which takes up 900 miles of Pacific coastline. The news warns me that California is in the middle of an unprecedented heatwave. We’re following the old Spanish mission road, El Camino Real and it’s 37 degrees outside, suitably matching the dried grass of the dark green bobbled hills of Silicon Valley. Salinas is known as the Salad Bowl of the World. and the guide says they grow garlic, mushrooms and artichokes here. All I can see are fields of cabbages. Maybe it’s a second crop.
There are some stupendous mountain views over the Cuesta Ridge as the train descends round hairpin bends and across an 85 foot trestle. As I’m drinking it all in I’m entertained by a lawyer who, on learning I’m from London, informs me, bitterly, that he should be there now, on his bachelor party. His ex-fiancé (of ten years) called off the wedding a few days ago and has gone to London instead, on his tickets, with his best friend. The latter had got him to confide all his secrets and then spilled the lot to the fiancé. The lawyer is on the train with a female companion. I am totally confused as to which gender fiancé and best friend are and whether they have run off together or are just making reprisals, but it sounds like a jolly good plot for a Jennifer Aniston movie to me.
The train finally emerges on the coast for the much lauded hundred miles of coast: surf, surfers, sand dunes and cliffs. It’s another atmospheric viewing. The sky is darkly cloudy; whether it’s smoke or rain I’m unsure, but I suspect it’s a mixture of both. I’ve received an emergency warning text telling me that I am about to be evacuated from the fire’s path and now the train has been halted for over four hours because there are trees down on the line north of Santa Barbara and they are waiting for them to be removed. It’s Sunday and it’s Labor Day weekend. So now I don’t get to see Santa Barbara, which was an anticipated highlight. I am very late into Los Angeles.
I’m back at the start of this American Odyssey. My head is scrambled with all the different time zones I’ve crossed. It feels as if the earth is moving. Below me, from the plane window, I can see what appears to be a very large canyon – a huge crack in the earth’s surface… yes it is- the Grand Canyon. An unexpected treat. My wallet is frazzled well beyond my expectation. I have Brexit and tips galore to thank for this. But I have completed the USA - all fifty states!
Last stop Bermuda.
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