There I was, in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, looking down at the Colorado River. Animal tracks in the snow made a dotted line beside the water. But where, I wondered, were the bighorn sheep? The black bears? I pressed my nose to the glass and followed the tracks carefully, expecting — any second now — to see wildlife.
I was in my 40th hour aboard Amtrak, nearly 2,000 miles into a 3,218-mile cross-country adventure. I’d packed five books, my laptop, several movies and hours of music, figuring that I’d have plenty of time to kill. But I hadn’t unpacked any of it. Instead, I was so enthralled by the landscape that I’d forgotten I was supposed to be bored. And at this moment, I was convinced that if I focused with all my might, I would spot an animal.
Just then, the cafe car attendant yelled up from down below: “Other side!” As he sprinted up the stairs, a couple of us hurled ourselves to the right side of the car. “Did you see the elk?” he asked breathlessly.
By that point, the elk were far behind us. I returned to my seat and resolved to enjoy the view, with or without giant creature sightings. But before long, the animal prints had lured my gaze back to the snow deep in the canyon, on the bank of the river.
This wasn’t my first time in the middle of the Rockies. In the previous five years, I’d crossed the country four times by car with my beagle, Darwin. But as I approached the one-year anniversary of her death, I sought a new mode of transportation and adventure.
From my house on Capitol Hill, I heard the early-morning whistles of trains approaching Union Station. My retired neighbor had told me about Amtrak’s long-distance routes. There are 15 of them, covering 18,500 miles, and most existed in some form before Amtrak was established in 1971. For generations, these long-haul trains have played an important role in transportation between rural communities.
My neighbor regularly travels all the way to Seattle on the Empire Builder. And the more I heard from her, the more I felt drawn to a journey by rail. So I booked a small room on the Capitol Limited from Washington to Chicago, and then on the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco.
Before the trip, I had moments of doubt; I worried about boredom, stiffness and insomnia. But those worries were trumped by my faith in the Amtrak brochure, which suggests that there’s still some romance to train travel: “From orderly farms in the heartland to spectacular views of the mountains — the scenes are unforgettable.” Americana aside, who can forget the train scene in “North by Northwest,” in which Cary Grant’s dining car companion says seductively, “It’s going to be a long night. And I don’t particularly like the book I’ve started. You know what I mean?”
On a Saturday afternoon at Union Station, sleeping-car passengers were ushered to the track, and I found my room in the double-decker Superliner. The freedom to explore the train was intoxicating. I walked through the sleeping cars and the dining car, downstairs to the cafe car. As we rolled through the Maryland suburbs, I sat at a table near the snack bar and was soon joined by a man with a sun-weathered face who introduced himself as Rocky.
“Where are you going?” he asked, working on his second bloody mary.
“San Francisco,” I said, nearly bouncing in my seat with excitement.
Rocky raised his eyebrows. “Goll-ee,” he said.
I made a dinner reservation, and when the time came, the maitre d’ announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, please make your way to the dining car. Keep in mind it’s community seating. You will make a friend.”
I was seated with a Colorado-bound mustached musician wearing a bowler hat and an orange bandanna around his neck. Train etiquette seemed to involve asking strangers where they were headed and why they’d chosen the train. Some people were fed up with flying, others loved the slower pace, and some were trying it for the first time — and were surprised by how many hours they could spend looking out the window. I found that buying a train ticket bought far more than a ride; it bought time to talk, listen, look and think — and time to ask questions you’d never ask otherwise.
“So what makes your mustache curl up?” I asked the musician.
“Hair glue,” he said, explaining that without it, the mustache would curl down, giving him a completely different look. “Then it’s less evil villain and more gold prospector.”
From the dining car, I peered through the window into a cozy-looking second-floor room in a house near the tracks, where a boy was jumping on the bed. “I feel like we’re watching a movie,” I said.
The musician said that his favorite part of train travel was passing through towns. “If you take away all the cars, it’s like you’ve gone back in time. Some of these places haven’t changed much.”