From the California Zephyr to the Lake Shore: Across North America by Train

As slow as a Romanian train on a bad day, rolling over wooden sleepers and rocking rails, by canyons and mesas, fleets of decommissioned warships, ghosts of cannibals and their victims at in the Sierra Nevada, Butch Cassidy territory, Mormons and their harems, masses of divorcees in divorce-friendly Reno and the national cowboy poetry festival in Elko (Nevada) – the California Zephyr took us through some of the most spectacular landscape of the USA. The first and perhaps still most famous of the cross-continental railway lines, completed in 1869 and fostering the Gold Rush, the Zephyr leaves San Francisco and traverses towering ranges, 3000 metre mountain passes, glaciers, wide deserts and lush plains. In order to cross the whole of the USA, you need to change at the magnificent Union Station in Chicago, picking up the popular Lake Shore Limited. It slips by the shores of the great lakes, through the hippie zone of upstate New York and ending the run on the Atlantic shore in Boston.


On a wet a windy San Francisco winter day we boarded the bus from San Francisco to Oakland, for the rail line had opted not to snake its way around an earthquake prone Bay Area with its myriad waterways. Oakland station already gave us an insight into another, more appealing side of a country with so many layers. Here were people waiting to board one of the great Trans-Continental rail journeys. Some were aviophobics, others preferred the slower pace of the train and yet others found it increasing cheaper to take to the train.

An Amtrak train invites you inside its imposing, solid and towering carriages. Compact stairs take you up to a second level, with its commanding views from the sleeper roomettes. If the roomette in the California Zephyr had a distinct emphasis on the diminutive ‘ette’, the Lake Shore, which we took for the last day of our transcontinental journey, seemed like all the room in the world. Here you could sit on both bunk beds when they were down, gain a whole new sense of space with uncurtained windows looking out on fascinating vistas, and even relieve yourself on a toilet within the room(ette), right beside your seat. A new level of intimacy for lovers journeying, looking intently on the grimacing face of your dearest as he squeezes out the morning dump, sharing the earthy smell of his newly released bowel contents with you, if not the whole carriage – after your desperate lunge for the door to release the pent-up fumes. Still, it was a mansion compared to the Zephyr, where bunks were sleeping tubes and a quick turn risked a dislocated shoulder or hip.

For the next four days and three nights the most important person in your life becomes the conductor. Barbara on the Zephyr took the firm opinion that if you needed anything – toilet paper, towel, water, or coffee from the urn at the end of the carriage – you would find her somehow and ask her. Renee on the Lake Shore was a vast contrast. Full of the energy needed to keep a busy sleeper car clean and tidy, hauling down bunks and returning them to their resting places in the morning, vacuuming, advising, knocking on doors for late sleepers. Out on the platform at Syracuse, she bounced her long curls and round behind as she exclaimed: ‘Did you know B.B. King’s daughter was in room number 1? Wow, if only I had known – B.B. King’s daughter!! There she was, in my sleeper car, eating breakfast in the restaurant, and I didn’t know!!!’ Animated, with squarish glasses that were the fashion, somehow making the Amtrak uniform seem like a sensual fashion item, Renee gave the journey a whole new dimension.


Our journey would take us through two massive mountain ranges, central deserts, the wheat-fields of Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois and then the soft trees and lakes of the north-east. But that was a few days away, for we were just leaving Oakland. Within an hour out of the station, we were already in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, climbing ever higher on snaking tracks over plunging gorges. The snow became thicker until the tracks were two lines in white, cut by the iron wheels.

Rocks, stunted conifers, a glacier or two, heavily jacketed locals, animal footprints in the snow, freezing, snow-bound stations. High by Donner Lake were the ghosts of cannibals and their victims: in 1846-7 a party of 87 was stranded in a Sierra Nevada winter; 48 survived, apparently owing that feat to the nutrients provided by their fellow-travellers.

By the time we crossed the border to Nevada, we had already dropped, dropped, dropped to the desert plains below. Here saltbush, huddled settlements and the ever-present trailer-towns (not ‘parks) were all around. Here people would wave at the train’s passing, the symphony of the whistle announcing our passage. The desert would continue long through the day, but I began to notice that at each longer, designated ‘smoke stop’, a dishevelled, bearded and slightly grotty crowd (the men were even worse) awaited the chance for a nicotine hit. But their jolliness, rolling gait and easy laughter obviously came not merely from the Thanksgiving spirit, but also from the ‘special’ Coca-Cola from which they sipped with obvious pleasure.

By Utah the sun had set and I was rocked to a gentle sleep, a sleep like no other for it covers the expanse of a continent. The lights of Salt Lake City were bleary in a cold night, the rush of those heavy American engines, thundering by with lights blaring into the night, would greet me during my early morning piss.

At dawn on the second day, we woke to a red dawn over the Utah desert. Saltbush, rocks, yellowish-red earth were all about. I lay on the bunk, watching the sky slowly light up, the stars fade and the first rays of sunshine on the bare streaked hills. The desert would continue for most of the day, passing through Utah into Colorado. The vital role of the Colorado River, an apparent anomaly in a desert land (but fed by melt-water), soon became apparent. We wound along its shore for hours on end, noticing the townships on its banks that relied on its life-giving properties, although also using it as a means for washing away their (hopefully treated) waste.

From the desert we rose, through one precipitous canyon after another, into the Colorado Rockies. On one such canyon, the rock fall sensor had registered movement, so we crawled along, looking straight down into the gorge from one side and straight into a cliff face on the other. Once again, snow was on our path, and by the time we cleared the canyons, bare peaks were all about, with conifers slinging to impossible slopes in the pale sun.

Later that day, an hour or more outside Denver and after more turkeys found their way onto American dinner plates (for it was that Thursday in November), we heard of a very different animal massacre. The conductor announced that the westward bound train – Amtrak 5 – had hit a ‘gaze’ (for that, he informed us after some research, is the name of such a group) of raccoons on the rails. While I conjured up images of bits and pieces of raccoon exploding into the air and splattering the front of the engine, further details were relayed: some of the recently deceased raccoons, or at least some of their parts, had been sucked up into the engine, destroying pipes and hydraulic systems, wrapping themselves around belts and pulleys, and generally leaving pieces of raccoon liberally scattered over vital engine parts. The engine, it seemed, was out of service. Raccoons 1; engine 0. We ended up with the raccoon-festooned engine attached to our ‘composite’, to be towed back, bits of raccoon falling off on the way, to Chicago for repair.

The third morning saw us on the rolling grain fields of central USA, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois being part of the breadbasket of that sprawling, bulging country. For almost a whole day at a good clip we passed farmhouse after farmhouse, barn after curious American barn. With their odd shape – angularly squat below and slender above – I asked our dining companion about their use. ‘They’re for animals in winter’, she said. Used to thousands of sheep or cattle in a farm, I stared at her in disbelief: ‘What, do you put all the farm animals inside the barn in winter? Isn’t that expensive?’ She replied drily: ‘Not half as expensive as replacing them all in the spring!’

By early afternoon, we steamed into the underground platforms of Chicago’s Union Station. Some stations may be rusted, broken affairs, or perhaps cement monstrosities only American can build, squeezed out by a freeway overpass when the car was king. But others had begun to shine with new glory, especially with the increase in rail passengers. Chicago Union was one such station. A grand columned hall, decked with tiles, stained glass, arched windows, panelled ceilings, grand staircases and solid timber benches that invited one to sit and stretch out. It drew one in with quiet and awed reverence, in a way reminiscent of ancient temples or cathedrals.

On the evening of that same day we boarded the Lake Shore Limited, set to cover the remaining day of our journey across the USA. It hugged the southern shores of the Great Lakes, splitting at Albany, with one half going to Boston and the other to New York. Our last day opened to a landscape of bare trees on a bed of thick, fallen maple leaves bordering creeks, all of which was peopled by alternative life-stylers (with their straw houses, self-sufficient energy, wood stoves and anti-mining activism). Familiar places now were in our path, familiar from a life more than two decades ago – Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, until at last we creaked into Boston station.


The outside of a train is where the wide windows and ever-changing countryside draw one’s eye. But inside a train is as intriguing, if not more so. One of the great and simple secrets of an Amtrak train is the dining car, for here they seat you with anyone who has a spare seat beside them. We met old fogeys, perpetual rail travellers, sensitive liberals, ex-military types, mountain women, gays from the East Coast …

Our train was overflowing with people. Not quite the national festival crowd on a Chinese train, I must admit, but a Thanksgiving crowd in the USA comes a fair second. As oil pushes ever higher in price, as the recession continues to bite, as planes become ever more chaotic and paranoid, people now take to the trains as never before. This Amtrak train was far longer than any I have boarded before; attendants were almost frantic with tasks; the cooks pumped out meals in a forlorn struggle to keep up with rumbling stomachs.

Early on we met Jo, who was from hereabouts. He said he would rather spend his time on a train than sit at home and stare at tasks to be done. His wife didn’t like trains, but he jumped on board whenever possible. The train was his world, his escape. He knew all the menu options, the types of Paul Newman salad dressings, every twist and turn of the track.

Beside him sat a mountain girl, from Colorado Springs, on her way to New York to spend time with friends. Long, slightly greying hair, an outdoor face, no-nonsense jeans, she spoke tough and laughed loud. We talked of cold winters, mountains and that great American sport … hunting. Her husband once used to camp while hunting, being a tough lad who could handle the cold. Then it became a camper trailer, caravan and now it is was a palatial mobile home. Can’t handle the cold any more, she opined.

And then at one of our breakfasts we gained an insight into how much the military pervades everyday life. The older African-American man regaled us with tales of Germany when he was a child. In the 1950s, when he was eight, his father had been a military doctor at the massive US base in Frankfurt. The best time of his life, he said, when they were taken to school in an army truck (covered with canvas in winter), drove through the mountains in a Buick, and were fascinated by Christmas, with St. Nicholas coming around with his switch of sticks and the burning candles on the Christmas trees. Yet his family had been part of the vast spread of the US empire, which sprinkled the globe with its 750 bases, offering undreamed-of travel opportunities to the poor and unemployed who became part of the endeavour. The other man at our table – a somewhat gross type with an ancient camera – had been in Alaska, among other bases, flying helicopters when he was young. Both it brought home how much the American Empire was a project that involved almost everyone at some level or other.

One dinner we sat with a retired couple from Oakland, who had discovered the sheer pleasure of trains. Or at least he had; she preferred ships. His eyes shone, with tales of journeys done and journeys planned. He asked about Russia and China, after hearing we had travelled the Trans-Siberian: ‘China!’ he said, as his voice trailed off, looking longingly out of the window as if to engage his far-seeing eyes. ‘What is China like? What are the people like? How are the trains? And Russia: tell me about Russia!’ I gained the sense that they wished they had discovered trains long ago.

But they also provided two priceless morsels:

‘Happy thanksgiving’, I said. ‘Although I notice you’re not celebrating with family’.

‘Thanksgiving!’ He laughed. ‘Yeah, let’s go and shoot some Injuns to celebrate and take their land’.

‘The annual mass slaughter of turkeys’. I said.

‘It’s the only reason we have turkeys’, he said. ‘If we didn’t have Thanksgiving, we wouldn’t have turkeys’.

And as we talked about place names and their curious variation from language to language, one of us said:

‘That’s just like New Orleans and N’awlins’.

‘That’s the French pronunciation’, she said. ‘N’awlins; they glide their words together over in France’.

Journey’s End

Towards the end of a journey such as this, a mixture of feelings and impressions crowds in on me. Suddenly, I long for the last pull into the station, looking forward to stepping off (or ‘detraining’ as they say in the USA) and leaving the close quarters behind. I pack my bag and sit back to watch the approach into a new city and its station, pondering both what has passed and what it to come.

Spectacular, bare mountains under snow, desert dawns, endless grain fields, soft and familiar New England maples that evoked a life of more than decades ago in Montreal – these all came back to me. But so did the many signs of a fading empire that we had seen. In many ways, from the internal fortresses into which the apprehensive elites retreat from the exploited, through the numerous city homeless rattling their cups, to the boarded-up country towns, much expressed the reality that the twilight of a brief and troubled empire is already here. This was especially clear as we travelled through country USA, over the endless grain fields of the central west. I could not help notice the effects of a prolonged depression in the country towns through which we passed. The cities might be able to hang onto some glitter, but the country towns had lost what little glitter they might have had: boarded-up houses from mortgage defaulters, run down yards, broken footpaths and roads covered in weeds, public buildings crumbling and closed. In some places unemployment runs at 20-25% and in those states where unemployment benefits actually exist (Nebraska for one), the coffers were almost empty. At this everyday level, in the ‘heartland’ of the USA, it was all too apparent that the empire was in decline.

But I also begin to ponder and plan other journeys. As the larger cities of Massachusetts began arriving in our window towards the end of our journey, we sat with two men, one a quiet, slightly effeminate man, originally from Cleveland but now living in Boston, and another with a distinct East Coast sophistication. Our talk was of travel, of ships and trains and how bad flying is. We wound our way to Berlin and East Germany (our final destination for a while) and I regaled them with stories of the ampelmänchen (the East German pedestrian-light figures) and nudity. Against their image of communist Eastern Europe as drab and dreary, they heard of the fostering of nudity, of nude swimming and camping, of a nude airline, of thousands of East Germans spending summers in nothing more than their own skin. And so I mentioned that I planned to ride my bicycle naked and go camping – naked – as well.