A 5,000 mile, ten state, 4 day journey from Salt Lake City to Washington DC.
An unexpected visit to Salt Lake City results in an interesting challenge: how to travel to Washington DC without taking to the air and with the opportunity for gentle exercise. The conclusion was to take the train. The first leg will be 37 hours, from for Salt Lake City to Chicago, via the California Zephyr. Then an overnight stay in Chicago, leaving the next evening for the 17 hour journey from Chicago to Washington DC, via the Capitol Line. We book tickets and superliner sleeper cabins, viewing the trip not as a reluctant alternative to air travel, but as a great opportunity to see the country from (almost) coast to coast.
The journey (day 1)
Wednesday 3 November
Leaving Salt Lake City, Utah
The hotel bill is settled, bags are packed and reliable and kindly Jimmy the taxi driver arrives at 3.30am and we are good to go. The train eases majestically out of Salt Lake City at 04.10 am andwe travel up into the mountains, temperature dropping and ears popping. Wake at one halt to see snow around us, but can't see, only feel, the Gilluly loops, a series of switchbacks on the line which in early days of the railroad required helper trains to push the locomotives. Not a very comfortable start, and it is strange getting into bed right away on a train with all the clanking and creaking. But Bob the cabin steward is proving a star, bringing us breakfast to the cabin, then putting up the bunks and stowing our kit.
The scenery is quite extraordinary. As we move further from Salt Lake City, the incredibly barren rocks and strange rectangular peaks with extraordinary profiles in ochre, brown and pink soften and become greener. See a desert hare bounding across the boulders and a large bird (eagle I think) soaring over a small water pool, then a deer. What guts and determination to cut a railroad through this wilderness.
As the train gets closer to Grand Junction, Colorado, there are more and more signs of civilisation. Firstly a road, then pick-up trucks and mining depots of some sort, then a car, then a shack. The scrubby bush clinging to the serrated rocks gives way to lusher growth and trees glowing brilliant golden yellow in the morning sun.
Grand Junction, Colorado
Our first significant town. And the train sounds its hooter just like in the films and the tumbleweed is lying like rolls of barbed wire along the trackside."You folks take vantage of our half hour stop and get some fresh air," says the intercom. We go down the stairs from the second level and step out into the sunshine. An elderly Amish Gentleman with long snowy beard and black hat walks past us down the platform, with his neat little wife in a white bonnet. Followed by Biker Guy in denim and leather, triple earrings, nose studs and chains, with a Mildly Goth girlfriend.
"There's a great little store just along the platform," says Bob and sure 'nuff there is, so I pick up a couple of fun things for the grandchildren and a piece of petrified wood and take some photographs. "When we get to Denver, I'll get y'all pizza," says Bob to some of us from coach 32, enjoying a last stretch before climbing aboard and starting the next leg. Discovery of the morning is that we can 'tether' our laptop computers to the 3G signal on our iphone in order to send and receive emails.
Leaving Grand Junction
The scenery changes. Still the towering peaks, some capped with snow, and in the distance, the soft blue bulk of the Grand Mesa, one of the world's largest flat top mountains. Closer to hand, lines of vines glowing purple and vigorous peach trees in neat serried rows. Horses graze in paddocks, (and mustangs on the plains apparently), cattle are in the meadows and houses have white picket fences. On our right, flows the Grand River.
Further out of town, various mining and excavation sites appear, pick-up trucks bustle busily and large, beautiful, shiny American trucks cruise the highways - didn't see Dennis Weaver yet nor his scary invisible counterpart from Duel. We pass through New Castle, named after Newcastle UK, with its mines yielding high levels of soft coal and methane. Worryingly, explosions over the years have resulted in a fire that still burns - allegedly not harmful to the community but contributing significantly to world carbon dioxide emissions.
Here the wealth generated by recreation rather than agriculture or industry is apparent. Six world class ski resorts, white water rafting, cycling - and the station is smart red brick picture postcard, signs to attractive hotels, the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers looking as if it has been designer landscaped - and no sign of tumbleweed. But the most significant thing about Glenwood Springs is that it is where Doc Holliday spent the last few months of his life, after sorting out the Gunfight at the OK Corral. After a two minute stop to pick up a couple more passengers, the California Zephyr sets off again, with the conductor announcing that lunch is being served.
Cary Grant is not in evidence in the dining car, sadly, and we are shown to a table occupied by the Mildly Goth young woman seen on the platform at Grand Junction. Her place of origin, Brooklyn, is proudly tattooed on her left shoulder. Around her neck on a tight chain is a bronze spanner. Her black hair shimmers with purple and maroon highlights and around her hips is a belt composed of bottletops. Within a few minutes we are engaged in good conversation. She is a metal sculptor and jewellery maker - the second I have met this year. As petite as Elsa highly regarded sculptor I met in Cape Town in February, and as passionate. "I just love the smell of hot metal," said Evelyn. She boarded the train in San Francisco with her boyfriend, also a sculptor who hates flying (and who I now rename to Heavy Metal), and is on her way to New York to visit her father and friends.
Lunch is a tasty meal of spicy beef stew, white and wild rice and a small salad on the side, served by smiling uniformed staff with proper cutlery and glassware. "See you later for dinner, "said Jasmine the pretty waitress as we move forward to the observation car with the glass roof to watch the wonderful views rolling past, the sheer crags of the canyon on our left and on our right the green waters of the Colorado River edged with the glowing red stems of dogwood trees, golden rushes and deep dusty green of pine trees and the occasional settlement of houses.
Great excitement as we see three eagles fishing in the river. Shortly after, human fishermen in twin hulled inflatables come into view. The conductor announces that there will be three real good canyons coming up before we get to Granby. When I first heard this announcement, I thought the conductor said 'Brandy' – must have been the effect of spending ten days in the dry State of Utah.
The train emerges from the sheer Gore canyon, where we see intrepid kayakers braving rapids that are supposed to be some of the fiercest in the US - and soberingly an empty canoe wedged between boulders in a raging torrent. Then the green river stops hurling itself into white fury over banded granite rocks and slows its pace, meandering through sunlit meadows and rolling open plains. Golden ziggurats of hay bales (no blue plastic here), black cattle grazing contentedly on a beneficent head per acre ratio. Ducks pootle around in weedy backwaters, shacks and trailers appear, huge Dutch barns, fresh timber farmhouses, Wichita linesman power poles. And still in the distance snow covered peaks of majestic mountains. The train sounds its Chattanooga Choo Choo horn.
Granby is a small town, very neat with municipal playground and several little lakes. A two minute stop here, with one person boarding and nobody getting off. The train starts climbing, and snow is no longer a distant frosting on mountains but is clustered thick alongside the tracks and in shady parts of the meadows. The river has changed from agate green to almost black. The dusty sage green brush and skeletal trees have now become a mix of dark green pine and lighter aspen. Above us, the sun occasionally illuminates the granite rocks into warm gold blushed with rose. Then the canyon closes in, rocky cliff just feet from the window on one side, the river and tree sprinkled scrub on the other. More snow, with occasional shafts of sun softening the gloomy rock to velvet.
Stop for a five minute break in Fraser, known as the Icebox of America where temperatures can drop to minus 50, and the home of the Winter Park ski resort. Then back on board to make the most of cellphone reception before going into the Moffat Tunnel, one of the longest railway tunnels in the world. It is 6.2 miles long, and rises to 9,250 ft.
The Moffatt Tunnel was built in 1928, cutting the distance between Denver and the Pacific coast by 176 miles and reducing the train time by six hours, cutting out the switchback tracks over the Rollins Pass - treacherous in the winter. The conductor tells us all not to move between the cars of the train whilst we pass through the tunnel (10 - 12 minutes) to avoid allowing diesel fumes inside. Decided to focus on writing this and manage not to succumb to claustrophobia.
Into the woods
The pines grow tall and dense, cloaking the steep valleys in deep green. The rock here has changed, it is pinkish granite, jagged and fissured. We switch back and forth over the Fraser River, Then the river swirls away from us forming oxbow bends around glowing buttresses of rock, all softened with trees. We spot a dam creating the Gross reservoir that provides Denver with its water. Not a very big one, but nevertheless reminiscent of vivid scenes from Chinatown and The Fugitive.
Then the train passes through 28 tunnels as it begins the descent towards Denver. Down and down, the snow disappears and suddenly we are looking over a vast plain, stretching flat and smooth as far as the eye can see. We are still so high that we are looking down on Denver, the mile high city. Wind turbines slowly turn, cattle graze, large areas of placid water reflect the sky, the landscape is covered in tussocky grass dried to creamy caramel by the summer sun. Pretty grey deer with white markings and absurdly long eyelashes stare calmly as we pass.
Down, down, down and then we are trundling past housing estates, commercial areas, industrial depots, trailer parks, highway intersections. The conductor announces that the train will be backing into a siding and re-orientating before getting into Denver Station and all passengers should stay in their seats until this operation is concluded. Eventually the California Zephyr sidles into its allotted platform. This is an hour long stop, for taking on water, ice, fresh food and a fair number of new passengers. Someone works down the train washing the windows.
We decide to stretch our legs and walk down the platform to the station hall, which is a typical American marble, echoing, high ceilinged art deco hymn to the iron horse. The high backed maple seats fill the space like pews in a church. More cinematic resonance, but no sign of Kelly McGinnis in Amish bonnet sitting demurely with her son (Witness) - let alone dodgy gunmen, thank goodness.
Dinner in the dining car, where we are greeted by Evelyn the Mild Goth and her Heavy Metal boyfriend and the woman from San Francisco with friends in Beverley in Yorkshire to whom I chatted on the platform at Grand Junction. A couple who boarded in Denver also engage us in conversation. He is a geology professor who has been attending a conference in Denver - the second geology professor I have met this week. The first was a fellow guest of Frank Joklik, Honorary British Consul in Salt Lake City and his wife Pam, who felt that an evening listening to the Utah Symphony play Beethoven and Shostakovic was just what I would enjoy - they were right.
We return to the cabin for a game of Scrabble. Bob knocks on the cabin door to find out when we would like him to set up our bunks and tuck us in - reminding us that there is a time change when we cross another state line in the small hours.
The journey (day 2)
Thursday 4 November
Just before we turn in, we hear that the detour we were told about by telephone just before leaving Salt Lake City is not going to make a quicker journey after all, but might delay us by four hours! Vindicates our early decision to stay a night in Chicago rather than risk a stressful missed connection for the Washington leg of the journey. The silver lining however is that it might be a smoother ride, as we will be avoiding much of particularly poor Iowa track. So we will be heading up north and then going east once we leave Omaha, the next major stopping point.
Wake in the small hours conscious of silence. The train is at rest somewhere, but no indication of where. No station signs, no sign of life. Then a moving light appears and a chap with a miner's light helmet carrying a long hose fills the train with something - presumably water. I think we must be in Omaha and reset my telephone to Nebraska time. After an hour, the train eases forward and then picks up speed.
Then at 5.00 we really do get to Omaha (discover later that the earlier stop was Lincoln) where we wait in the darkness for an hour whilst people embark and disembark - including those poor souls who will have to take a bus to the destinations they should have reached if the train had not been re-routed. Wonder if Warren Buffet is awake too, figuring out his next clever move. Probably not.
Decide to get up at 7.30 (or 6.30 in Utah time) to get my recently broken right wrist and arm moving and to find out what's going on. Find that our cabin door is stuck. We had had a problem earlier when the privacy curtain rail - a heavy chunk of steel - inexplicably crashed down narrowly missing me on the first morning. Declined a move to the next car then, on the basis that we had invested in Bob, who was doing a great job looking after us and didn't want to start a relationship with another cabin steward. So he had McGivered a folded sheet with duck tape to create a privacy curtain on the corridor window. But a stuck door (which we all agree is related to the earlier mechanical failure) is a more difficult issue. Retreat to the dining car for breakfast, leaving Bob to find ways of resolving it.
The sky turns a rosy glow as the sun rises and I am joined at the breakfast table by Dale, a retired air force chap who is travelling with his wife (still asleep, lucky woman) to visit their daughter near Chicago. He has fond memories of being stationed at Edinburgh in the 60s, returning with his wife and daughters 20 years later to watch the Tattoo. Five minutes later learn that Bob has admitted defeat with the door and is moving all our belongings for us into a cabin two along - which is far more spacious. Another silver lining!
After coffee and freshly scrambled eggs, we move forward to the observation car. The scenery is a great contrast to yesterday's grandeur. This is the flat, rolling Nebraska bread basket land of wheat and corn fields stretching for miles. Pretty little homes sparkling in the crisp sunshine, field after field of stubble, corn stalks and mown hay. A wind farm hoves into view, an array of a dozen turbines turning slowly against a clear pale blue sky. Then a little further down the track, an even bigger array, then a cement works followed by the first of many huge grain silos. These are the highest visual markers in the landscape, quite a change from the looming majestic mountains of the day before.
Boone, not Burlington, Iowa
After an encouragingly spanking pace through this tranquil countryside, the train slows to a stop. Eventually it starts again but never exceeds walking pace. Stuck behind a slow moving freight train we crawl towards a town called Boone. Realise our part of the observation car has become a magnet for trainspotters and retired railroad engineers, drawn by a railroad worker who has been displaying his knowledge of the re-route, loudly, to all and sundry. Decide that the collective noun for train enthusiasts is a junction.
Much discussion about which bridge replacement is causing the detour, the bloodymindedness of the Iowa train crews, the unreasonable stranglehold of freight companies and the distinguishing features of various locomotives. The reason for the re-routing becomes clearer. The rail bridge at Burlington (which is being re-built) has been closed because of damage to one of its spans, so we are being re-routed via the new rail bridge over the Des Moines River at Boone.
I then overhear mention of the Kate Shelley bridge, which is the original rail bridge at Boone and one of the highest double track rail bridges in the USA. Completed in 1901, it is named in honour of Kate Shelley, who as a 15 year-old in 1881 alerted Chicago and North Western Railroad officials to a bridge collapse in time to stop a passenger train from crossing the damaged structure.
Then one of the train enthusiasts decides to plot the route as if travelling by car, switching on his Tom Tom and regaling us all with instructions to turn left at the crossroads and the news that if we were driving we'd be in Chicago real soon. Decide to retreat back to the cabin.
We continue our genteel pace and eventually make our way over the water. Apparently some time soon, two trains at a time will be able to hurtle across these bridges at 70 miles an hour, but until then, only one train can cross, at 25 miles per hour.
Big skies, far horizons
I adjust to the tranquil landscape, rolling for miles, which begins to change as the clear skies are filled with vast, billowing clouds of white and dove grey that hover over the close cropped cornfields like duvets fallen on to a bedroom carpet. Reminds me of summers in Brittany or East Anglia. Trundle through a pretty little town, full of the archetypal wooden houses, each with its stoop, the tall pointy grain barns and a pretty church of decorative red brick with crisp white detailing. The town is called Norway, prettier both in name and style than the next one - Mechanicsville.
Latest update on arrival in Chicago looks a little cheerier. The pilot (needed to get us over the bridge over the Mississipi) seems to think once we are across, it will take two hours to reach the Windy City. Which means that we are only one and a half hours behind schedule. But yet again, the train is crawling through a vast industrial site, surrounded by freight trains, then emerging into a suburban area where we stop for a long time. It seems that when it comes to railways, freight is king and nobody cares a toss about fare paying passengers. Or alternatively, Amtrack won't pay the fee to get precedence over the river. A revised arrival time gives a four hour delay. No wonder so many American friends thought we were mad to choose this form of transport. Decide against lunch in the dining car - conscious of little real exercise over the past two weeks.
Then at last, and for no apparent reason, the train moves forward to cross the muddy, sluggish waters of the mighty Mississippi and a series of its tributaries. The bridge is a single track rail bridge made of ageing Meccano. There is a new one currently under construction just a few yards away. May it progress rapidly. The train picks up speed and we head for Chicago, the clouds getting fatter and already dropping rain to the west. Last lap - looking forward to a shower bigger than a sports locker and a stationary bed.
As the train waits on the western approaches to Chicago Union Railway Station, the tension amongst passengers anxious to make onward connections rises higher. The train is now nearly three hours late, albeit better than the worse case scenario of four hours delay predicted by the conductor, but scant comfort to those trying to get beyond Chicago on trains that only run three times a week. Like the Amish Gentleman we had seen at the beginning of the trip, travelling with his neat bonneted wife, muscular ginger bearded son and teenage grandson with collarless grey shirt, black waistcoat and pudding basin haircut. Amish Gentleman is near us by the luggage hold when Bob cheerily announces that the train will arrive in time to catch the connection to Cincinnati. He beams from ear to ear, does a little jig with his hands in the air and cries "whoopee, whoopee" before skipping off to spread the news to his family.
The pilot arrives to guide the train into the correct platform - an interesting concept - and we finally arrive in Chicago. The redoubtable Bob organises us a Red Cap driver, who establishes us on her golf cart, ejects the vast luggage put in there by a traditionally built couple who are not on her list, replaces it with ours and then hurtles down the interminable platform, within inches of the edge, hooting at pedestrians all the way. Are we pleased with this service! More than compensates for my momentary disappointment that the Chicago Station is not the palace of a structure with its sweeping marble staircase immortalised by Kevin Costner, the tumbling perambulator and the mafiosi in The Untouchables.
Friends are waiting at the barrier to greet us. They embrace us warmly, seize our luggage, bundle us into two taxis and whisked us through torrential rain to the our hotel. After a good hot shower, we celebrate the two thirds stage of our journey with good food and drink. Then a wonderful night's sleep in large, non-moving beds.
The journey (day 3)
Friday 5 November
Determined to make the most of a day in Chicago, I take my long wished for Architectural Foundation riverboat trip to see the wondrous buildings of the Windy City. I walk two blocks to cross the Chicago River via the impressive Michigan Avenue double decked bascule bridge, restored to its original ornate, balustraded glory in 2009 and renamed the DuSable Bridge just a few weeks earlier to honour Jean Baptiste DuSable, the first non-native settler in Chicago. Stopping to admire the impressive sculptures and memorial plaques, my eye was caught by one honouring the explorers and settlers which was donated by The Illinois Society of the Colonial Dames of America. Constructive Women pop up everywhere!
Then spend three hours at the beautiful Beaux Arts building that houses the Art Institute of Chicago. Redoubtable US ladies are in evidence here too, as I climb the 188 marble steps of the Womens' Board Grand Staircase constructed in 1910 that sweeps impressively up to the French Impressionists. However, I sidestep the Europeans and head for the American wonders of Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keefe, Whistler and Singer Sargeant -and of course the magnificent bronzes of Frederic Remington. Then a quick look at the wonderful ballroom created from elements rescued from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building that was disgracefully demolished thirty years ago – style is Pugin on speed. Verdict? I would rather spend a weekend in Chicago than New York.
Back to pack bags for the final leg to Washington and organise a cab to get through an appalling Friday evening traffic jam to the railway station. Here we find more benefits of booking a sleeper. We do not have to stand in the long line that snakes around the barrier, but are whisked off again by a Red Cap, deposited at the correct coach door where the cabin steward Manny welcomes us and stows our bags. A good meal in the dining car, served by entertaining and efficient staff, and return to our cabin to find beds made up and clean towels laid ready. The train is travelling at a good speed, on what seem to be pretty smooth tracks, so fingers crossed for a good night's sleep and a reasonable schedule.
The journey (day 4)
Saturday: 6 November
Wake in the dark to hear Manny tapping on the next door cabin to say that we are coming into Pittsburgh. I switch on the bright pink bendy book light I bought at Barnes & Noble and check the train schedule. Umm, we have arrived in Pittsburgh at 6.30, instead of 5.05. Let's hope the delay does not get greater. I doze for a little while longer, then decide to get up when they announce breakfast in the dining car. Get dressed and splash my face with water and set off for grapefruit and speciality Railroad French Toast. Then on to the observation car.
The countryside could be English. Steep valleys full of beech, sycamore and maple, their slim bare trunks stretching straight above thick carpets of russet leaves. In the pale grey morning light, the valley looks full of soft smoke, the remaining leaves flickering orange and crimson amongst the branches. The pewter river flows swiftly, breaking into white ruffles around grey granite rocks. Very calm and peaceful. Then a cluster of houses appear and the countryside becomes unmistakeably American. Wooden houses and stoops, mostly painted brown, soft blue or green rather than the crisp white we saw on the plains of Iowa.
A large pale dog sits grinning outside a smoke shack, the thick white clouds billowing up into the chill air. Small boats lie next to pick up trucks. A little further on, a large cluster of houses tumbles down the hillside. Old mining town, says one of the passengers to his neighbour. Right on cue, an interminable line of freight cars appears, filled to the brim with coal. It takes five minutes to pass them - glad the freight wagons are a) stationary and b)not in front of us, or that 90 minute delay could stretch longer.
The river widens in places, sometimes dividing around tumbled rock and shale, sedge and reeds waving drunkenly above the flow. Every now and then a house or two appears amongst the trees that grow down to the bank, one with a children's swing and slide, another with a swinging garden seat sporting a red and white striped sunshade perched rakishly on one side. We pass through a town, with a number of brick houses amongst the clapboard ones, a pretty white and grey church, playground and train sidings. No indication of its name.
Five states to go....
The lovely waitress (who serves with a smile and even a musical ta, ra, ta ra flourish when she is particularly pleased with the quality of the food) is delighted to produce coffee and french toast with syrup. Over breakfast I muse about the towns we passed during the night. Some three hours after leaving Chicago we crossed the state line from Illinois into Indiana, stopping briefly at South Bend to pick up a cluster of people on the platform. The town began as a fur trading post in 1820, the legendary Studebaker company started there as a wagon shop in 1853 and cabinets for Singer sewing machines were manufactured between 1868 and 1954. It was also the place of the last bank robbery carried out by the Dillinger gang.
Around midnight there was a longer stop at Toledo, picking up a couple of passengers and giving a smokers' break on the chilly platform. At some time in the small hours I recall seeing a family waiting perilously close to the train track (seemed to be no platform to speak of). Perhaps it was Elyria, or maybe Alliance and I had slept through the stop at Cleveland.....
The countryside continues pretty well unchanged, and as the only available comfortable swivel seats in the observation car are on the non-view side, we decide to return to our cabin. As Manny has been invisible for the past three hours, I ask another steward to track him down and let him know that we would like the bunks folded back. It seems that we do not need to plead broken wrist to request this, it is part of the first class sleeper service.
As the train switches between Maryland and West Virginia, my ears prick up at the announcement that we are coming to Harpers Ferry. This historic town, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and where the states of Maryland,Virginia and West Virginia meet, was the scene of the infamous raid by John Brown on the Federal Armoury which was a catalyst for the American Civil War and the scene of many bloody battles during it. Harpers Ferry then became a fashionable resort, with up to 28 trains a day bringing holiday makers and wedding parties, but a combination of the Depression, devastating floods and re-routing of roads caused the town's terminal decline and it now has a population of around 300 people.
It is the last stage of our journey and encouragingly, the delay is not as bad as feared, we are going to be a mere 90 minutes late rather than the two to three hours forecast the previous evening. Amtrak conductors must have a policy of painting a gloomy picture, so that the reality can be cause for celebration. A swift telephone call with the revised arrival information and then we pack away our belongings and await arrival. As the train slows down to trundle sedately through the capital's residential suburbs, Manny calls to collect our cabin bags to put downstairs with our hold luggage. There had been a somewhat heated exchange with him earlier about reserving a specific Red Cap cart service for us, following the successful experience at Chicago. We were not to worry, he said, there are always Red Caps. But we wanted certainty, not vague assurances.
Manny rises to the occasion on arrival into Washington Union Railway Station. Commandeering the first Red Cap cart, he ensures that we are safely installed on it with our suitcases, rucksacks, wicker hamper and 2ft wide firm wedge pillow. We career down the platform, duck down into the basement of the station, cross a set of tracks, wriggle through gaps that look impossibly narrow and then pop up on to the general concourse outside the imposing entrance, just where the car sweeps in to collect us. Fifteen minutes later, we cross the threshold of the apartment with big smiles on our faces - home, safe and sound!
All photographs by Rhys Jones except for:
Kate Shelley Bridge (Wikipedia), Michigan Avenue/ DuSable Bridge Chicago (courtesy Gotheguide.com), Chicago skyline from the river (Chicago Tourist Board)