We didn’t set out to seek Paradise, but we found it nonetheless.
We discovered much more besides: evidence of distress in American society, a glimpse of the disaster ravaging the West, astonishing natural beauty and discouraging human suffering.
This, and more, were encountered as my wife and I took a two-week cross-country trip recently aboard a series of Amtrak trains. This journey, nearly a year in the planning, was a celebration for our 40th wedding anniversary, but also to mimic a similar trip that Donna’s parents took years ago when they celebrated their 50th anniversary.
Such a trip had been a natural for them. My father-in-law — whose father and grandfather each worked for the old Illinois Central Railroad — was a lifelong rail fan, and his enthusiasm rubbed off on us.
In all, our endeavor covered 16 days, took us through 15 states, entailed 5,669 miles aboard trains and another 1,000 miles or so by car, bus, taxi, Lyft or on foot.
But first we had to answer the conductor’s call: “All aboard!”
Saturday, Aug. 29:
Train 390, the Saluki route to Chicago, arrived right on time at the station in Carbondale, Illinois. Masked as required by COVID-19 precautions, we showed a conductor the digital tickets on our smartphones and boarded a coach car. We pulled out of the station with a coffee-sloshing lurch at 7:30 a.m. sharp.
Our seats faced the rear of the train, so we barreled backwards at 80 mph through a string of prairie villages: Du Quoin, Sunfield, Tamaroa, Du Bois, Radom, each with its trackside grain elevator, farm supply store and town water tower.
We were traveling on what once was the main route of the Illinois Central Railroad — “the Main Line of Mid-America” — that is home to one of America’s most famous trains: the City of New Orleans. The Saluki navigates only a third of that route, from Southern Illinois to Chicago.
On we raced northward, past the marvelously named Kankakee, through the Chicago suburbs and into Union Station at 1 p.m., as scheduled. It was a promising start to our trip.
We paused to admire the station’s famous Great Hall — newly restored just last year — and made our way by foot to our hotel a few blocks away in the heart of The Loop.
Donna booked a room in a hotel in the former Majestic Building on Monroe which, at 232 feet, was the tallest in Chicago when it opened in 1905. It’s also home to the CIBC Theatre, where she originally meant for us to see the musical “Come from Away.” But of course the coronavirus pandemic had long since darkened theaters across the country.
Instead we booked an early-evening cruise aboard a Chicago River architectural tour boat, where we would learn the history of landmark high-rises like the Wrigley Building and the former Tribune Tower, the neo-Gothic skyscraper that once housed The Chicago Tribune and WGN radio. But we also viewed structures like the sprawling Montgomery Ward complex, which had been the headquarters and catalog center for what was once the nation’s oldest mail-order firm. The two-million-square-foot mail-order warehouse was so vast that fulfillment workers were issued roller skates so they could cover ground more quickly.
We made our first visit to the Chicago Riverwalk, which was crowded with masked walkers, kayakers and folks just people-watching. But otherwise on this splendid late-summer weekend, downtown Chicago was oddly quiet.
Naturally, the pandemic was a factor. The city had shut down many attractions, such as the big Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park, to discourage folks from gathering. As a result, the fountain’s big plaza was nearly empty and the normally busy hot dog, ice cream and popcorn kiosks were shuttered.
But there was another factor at work. Chicago was among the cities where Black Lives Matter protests had at times turned violent. A corner café near our hotel where we had dined on a previous trip was closed; plywood covered what we assumed were broken windows. One loop restaurant had a “We’re open” sign posted, but the front door was chained and padlocked.
On that Saturday night, police massed outside the Wrigley Building, where both a Walgreens and a Ghirardelli chocolate shop were closed in anticipation of another protest. Nearby were parked several city dump trucks fitted with snow plows that, we surmised, were intended as possible crowd control. But as of 7 p.m., no demonstrators had gathered and the city was calm.
Happily, the Italian Village — a nearly century-old restaurant decorated to make you feel like you’re dining in the plaza of a Tuscan town — was open, though not as busy as we had remembered before.
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Sunday, Aug. 30
We slept late, took another walk through the sleepy city, packed and returned to Union Station for the first big leg of our trip aboard Train 7 — the famous Empire Builder, which travels 2,205 miles to Seattle.
As bedroom customers, we were entitled to wait at Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge at the station, where we could stow our luggage and, we had read, help ourselves to free soft drinks and snacks, except not in the time of COVID.
Shortly before 2 p.m., we boarded Car 731, stowed our big bags on a luggage rack on the lower level, then climbed upstairs to Room E, which is designated by Amtrak as a deluxe bedroom.
Which means, it has a padded bench that converts into a pair of beds, a single seat opposite, a pop-up table in between, a tiny sink, a private bathroom/shower and a locking door with a privacy curtain. In a time of COVID, it provided not only sleeping quarters but a space away from others where you could pull off your mask and watch the countryside race by.
Our tickets included three meals a day, and our attendant said we had the choice of having our meals delivered to our bedroom (as many fellow travelers requested). But we were eager to get out, so for each meal we donned masks and negotiated rocking train cars to the dining car.
Once, Amtrak — like generations of passenger trains before it — prided itself on its dining cars, where passengers ate on china and tables were covered in white linen. You could get a fresh-cooked steak or burger, or eat eggs cooked to order in the galley.
All that ended in 2019 when Amtrak’s CEO — who had come from the airline industry and therefore was experienced in lowering travelers’ expectations — closed the galleys, did away with the china and linens, and implemented what was called “flexible dining.” That meant our red wine braised beef came microwaved and served on a plastic tray. “They saved money, but they didn’t lower the fare,” one train veteran observed.
It also meant that the eight available entrees were the same for lunch as for dinner, and the same on each of the three long-distance trains we would ride. We became very familiar with the inflexible menu. On the other hand, the first cocktail of each leg of our trip was complimentary. And the scenery is the same.
That night, our friendly attendant prepared our beds, with one located above the other and accessible by a small ladder. We slept like babies, dozing across most of Minnesota as the train swayed and the engineer sounded his horn at lonesome gravel crossroads.
Monday, Aug. 31
Good morning, North Dakota.
This is a place of undulating countryside marked by vast wheat fields, countless ponds with countless ducks and oil-fracking operations run by roughnecks who stay in trailer camps. The tough and gnarled trees and shrubs here looked made for brutal winters as, I imagine, are the people who live and work there.
Time had come to get clean. Showering on a moving train in a space about the size of a phone booth (for anyone who remembers those) requires the balance of an Olympic gymnast and the contortionist skills of a carnival sideshow freak. Instructions on the wall advised that one might want to shower while sitting upon the toilet that shares the place. It provides new meaning to the term “water closet.” I suspect there are people of certain dimensions and infirmity who could not carry out the exercise. But it needed to be done and was well worth the effort.
If North Dakota landscape can appear challenging, eastern Montana can be simply daunting. The countryside, at least in late summer, is parched. Sagebrush covers hills and column-like stone hoodoos emerge from the base of mesas. It is beautiful in a desolate sort of way. We could tell by the wire fence and wooden corrals that this is cattle country, but we rode for hours without seeing a cow. All in all, this looks like country that promises hard work but few other guarantees.
We left the train at tiny Essex, Montana, to spend the night at the historic Izaak Walton Inn, a rustic trackside hotel just outside Glacier National Park that Donna’s dad had wanted to visit.
Back in 1939, word circulated that the government intended to open a third, southern entrance to Glacier National Park at Essex to provide relief to the busy eastern and western entrances. Expecting a crush of new rail customers, the Great Northern Railway constructed a three-story, 29-room Tudor Revival hotel at Essex. Alas, the southern entrance never materialized and the inn struggled, changing hands repeatedly. These days, it is selected primarily by hikers, railfans and cross-country skiers who explore nearby trails in winter.
We took a room at the inn, though there are the options to stay instead at one of several converted cabooses or even inside a former F45 diesel locomotive that is now an upscale apartment, complete with the engineer’s seat and train controls.
Tuesday, Sept. 1
After a hearty breakfast that included pancakes with house-made huckleberry syrup, we hiked through a forest to view what was described as “a small but beautiful waterfall” (they were certainly correct about the “small” part). Afterward, before dinner on the porch of the inn, we lounged on the lawn, finding shade beneath some birch trees and watching BNSF (Burlington Northern-Santa Fe) freight trains rumble past.
That evening, we boarded that day’s Empire Builder to resume our journey. We slept as we crossed the northern panhandle of Idaho — the first of three new states I would visit on this journey.
Wednesday, Sept. 2
We emerged from the Cascade Mountains in Washington State, traversing the Cascade Tunnel which, at 7.8 miles, is the longest railroad tunnel in the U.S. We arrived at foggy Puget Sound — and our first cell service in 36 hours —then disembarked at Seattle’s King Street Station, rented a car and headed south toward Mount Rainier.
As a flatlander, I felt a bit intimidated by Rainier, which at 14,410 feet is the highest peak in the Cascades. It’s just so big — visible nearly 60 miles away in Seattle on a clear day. And, for good measure, it’s a volcano, albeit a sleeping one. Should Mount Rainier erupt as violently as its cousin Mount St. Helens did 40 years ago, I’ve read, the human devastation would be profoundly more catastrophic because of the volcano’s proximity to Tacoma, Seattle and other cities that could be affected by ash, flying rock, mud flow, even calamitous flooding caused by the sudden melting of Rainier’s 25 glaciers if exposed to blazing-hot magma.
But my apprehension of Rainier (and the curving roads clinging to the edge of the mountain, often without guardrails) quickly gave way to awe. The closer we got, the more I had Donna pull over so I could take photos. (Legendary conservationist and geologist John Muir more than a century ago declared: “Of all the fire-mountains which, like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest.”)
Ultimately, we drove a series of switchbacks up Rainier to arrive, literally, at Paradise — the area on the mountain’s southern slope that is, with good reason, the most-visited destination in Mount Rainier National Park.
Our timing was perfect; the weather was ideal and the sky sparkled. I shot photo after photo. Even as we drove away and the mountain grew smaller in my viewfinder, I kept asking to stop to take more pictures.
Friday, Sept. 4
We drove back up Rainier the next morning, but a wildfire had sprung up in the area and smoke obscured what had been ideal views. Within days, roads we had traveled would be closed and air at Rainier would be declared “unhealthy.”
We took one more hike, this time on the Stevens Creek Trail. Our guide to “easy hikes” of Rainier rated its difficulty as being middling, though it did make note of “a rather steep descent.” They were right; we descended perhaps 400 feet vertically into a wooded canyon. Returning to our car required a climb equivalent to that of a 40-story building. “The returning trail is not long,” our guide noted, “but it is a rather steep ascent; do not be surprised if you are winded by the end.” And soaked with sweat.
We returned to Seattle. Donna had splurged on a nice hotel handily adjacent to the King Street Station, and a very nice restaurant with patio dining was available as well. Plus our 20th-floor room afforded us a commanding view of Seattle’s evening skyscape.
Saturday, Sept. 5
We climbed aboard our second long-haul train of the trip: Train 11, the Coast Starlight. Two diesel locomotives, Engines 197 and 159 with a combined 8,500 horsepower, would pull us down the Pacific Coast, providing extended views of Puget Sound, then the Cowlitz River that flows down from Rainier, and then the Williamette River.
But aboard trains, views aren’t limited to natural splendor. You roll through little towns where the buildings on Main Street proudly face the railroad. You also see the backsides of factories, the loading docks of warehouses, metal scrapyards, lumberyards, fleet parking lots and lots of freight yards.
You see people waving from backyards and migrant workers bent over picking fruits and vegetables. And you see homeless people who have erected tents and other shelters beneath overpasses or are living out of a rusting RV parked beside train tracks.
Sunday, Sept. 6
Stirring at 5 a.m., we realized we weren’t moving; the train was stopped in a grove in the middle of nowhere. An Amtrak alert on my phone informed us that a freight train has struck a truck up ahead. We could never find news of the incident or learn whether anyone had been hurt.
We got off at Sacramento and made our way to a chartered bus that would shuttle us to another train at Stockton as we made our way to Yosemite National Park.
Smoke from wildfires was now hovering over much of the West, including our long ride through California’s enormous Central Valley — the breadbasket for much of the nation. We drove through dozens of miles of crops we didn’t quite recognize, though we eventually surmised that some were groves of almond trees.
We paused at dusty Modesto, home of Gallo wines, the inspiration behind George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” and the birthplace of rockabilly music, a precursor to rock-n-roll.
At Merced we boarded a YARTS regional bus that hauled us through into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, rocking precipitously along the serpentine roads and causing us to sincerely hope this wasn’t our driver’s maiden voyage.
We were dropped off early that afternoon in the parking lot of a large but remote motel, where we learned we couldn’t check into our room for two hours, couldn’t stow our bags in the office — and where the restaurant wouldn’t open until 5 p.m. We waited beside the parking lot under an orange sky filled with smoke and dropping occasional bits of ash on us. Our room, once made available to us, was satisfactory, though Wi-Fi cost $10 a day (and there is no cell service).
I would later see photos of menus from the motel’s restaurant that included steaks, ravioli, grilled salmon and chicken marsala. But by the time of our visit, the menu offered only fried tavern food.
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Monday, Sept. 7: Labor Day
With no vehicle of our own, we had signed up for a guided tour of glacier-carved Yosemite in a 10-passenger step-up bus.
It had been a smart move by Donna. Reservations are now required to enter Yosemite, which our tour company took care of for us, and because of the pandemic, the number of vehicles permitted to enter the park had been cut by half this year, to 3,600 per day. (Our splendid tour guide said that move has reduced overcrowding so well that he hears it might become permanent.)
Moreover, we got to see highlights of famed Yosemite Valley — towering granite faces such as El Capitan, Cathedral and the Three Brothers as well as windblown Bridalveil Fall (though iconic Yosemite Falls was dry by late summer).
Our guide drove us up to Glacier Point, which provided us with commanding, if somewhat smoke-obscured views of the valley and landmarks such as Half Dome, which some intrepid visitors climb as part of a 16-mile round trip that includes an elevation gain of nearly a mile. The last 400 feet is so steep that it entails pulling oneself up the sheer rock face with the help of cables; a year ago, a 29-year-old woman lost her grip or footing and fell 500 feet to her death as horrified tourists watched helplessly.
(Nonetheless, we were inspired later to watch “Free Solo,” the Academy Award-winning documentary of legendary rock climber Alex Honnold’s 2017 climb up the 3,000-foot near-vertical granite face of El Capitan alone and without the aid of ropes, harness or other protective equipment. The earliest attempts to climb El Capitan six decades ago took days or even weeks; Honnold did it freestyle in less than four hours.)
Our tour gave us a foundation for how to explore the valley the following day, whether by foot or rented bicycle, and our guide strongly urged us to enjoy lunch and a bottle of wine the next day at the park’s luxury Ahwahnee Hotel, the “crown jewel of the national park hotels.”
But back at the motel and Wi-Fi and TV that evening, we learned that fires in the area had grown worse. The nearby Creek Fire, which created the smoke that marred our views, made the top of the national evening news; 200 people, surrounded by flames, had to be evacuated by courageous National Guardsmen in a helicopter.
Further, our bus company had shut down one route — nearby Highway 41 — that led into Yosemite Valley. We didn’t know whether it would also close our route, Highway 140, leaving us stranded by a wildfire that was 0% contained, and us without a vehicle or cell service.
Most significantly, other people were losing their homes … and their lives.
Things were getting real.
Tuesday, Sept. 8
To our surprise, the air near Yosemite Valley seemed clearer that morning. But so was our resolve; we shouldn’t risk getting stranded in a wildfire.
We took the YARTS bus back to Merced, dropped our bags at a hotel and — trying to salvage the day — took a taxi out to the Castle Air Museum, which we had seen earlier from the train. Located at a former B-52 Strategic Air Command base, the museum featured dozens of military aircraft, from America’s SR-71 spy plane — the fastest manned jet aircraft ever flown — and World War II B-17 and B-29 bombers to a Soviet MiG fighter.
It would have been quite entertaining were it not for 25 mph Santa Ana wind with 33 mph gusts; we were essentially in a low-grade skin-chaffing sand storm flavored with the smoke of wildfires.
On the other hand, we took our first-ever Lyft ride, and at a fraction of the cost of our cab ride.
Back at our hotel — which had sold out from people fleeing the fires — I showered the grit out of my hair, though I still had sand in my mouth.
The following day, national forests throughout California were closed to visitors because of “extreme fire danger.” Just over a week later, Yosemite was closed because of unhealthy to hazardous air quality; a local TV reporter posted that a park ranger told her that in his 25 years there, he’d never heard of the whole park shutting down at once. (As of this writing, Yosemite remained closed.)
Wednesday, Sept. 9
Traveling west hack to Sacramento, we disembarked and walked a block to the Kimpton Sawyer Hotel, an interesting boutique establishment where rooms come with a bedside Bluetooth speaker that you could pair with your smartphone, wine corkscrew, rechargeable flashlight, umbrella and yoga mat — but, curiously, no in-room coffee maker.
We walked a few blocks to Old Sacramento, where Gold Rush-era buildings today house ice cream parlors, candy and toy shops, restaurants and other tourist catnip. On a late-summer day such as this, the district would be packed with visitors, but that day, we practically had the sidewalks to ourselves. Worse, the nearby California State Railroad Museum — which Donna’s father had enjoyed years earlier — was closed because of the pandemic.
Back at the hotel, we dropped in on the complimentary wine reception. We were one of only two couples present.
Dinner that night was DOCO Al Fresco — eating outside in Sacramento’s Downtown Commons district between our hotel and the Golden 1 Center, where the NBA’s Sacramento Kings play. We called up menus on our smartphones from six adjacent restaurants and taverns, placed our orders online and had dinner delivered to our very-socially-distanced table.
Thursday, Sept. 10
It was time to start back across the country. Leaving Sacramento aboard the California Zephyr, we passed through 11 tunnels and began slowly climbing the Sierra Nevada range. Just east of Reno, Nevada, we spied seven wild mustangs — the first of several small herds. I would take a much greater interest in mustangs a day later.
Donna had planned a final stop at Elko, Nevada, where her parents had spent a day enjoying small-town friendliness. We checked into our casino hotel, but didn’t wager a dime.
Friday, Sept. 11
We wouldn’t be boarding our train until 9:30 p.m., so we had a day to explore. We took off on foot, nosing around a big car show before poking e our heads into the Northeast Nevada Museum.
The museum could hardly have been more eclectic. We first laid eyes on a temporary exhibit of custom shrouds woven by a textile artist to memorialize victims of the Great Basin Murders — unidentified young women who were brutally murdered and their bodies dumped along remote desert highways from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Then we stepped into the Wanamaker Wildlife Wing, with a nearly overwhelming number of taxidermied wild animals — from racoons to a polar bear — that had nearly all been shot by a big-game hunter from California. I am not a hunter and not particularly interested in taxidermy. But the more I studied them, the more fascinated I became. Most were posed in habitat dioramas, often interacting fiercely (or fearfully) with one another.
One of the joys of travel is discovery of the unknown and unexpected, whether it is landscape or creatures or people. At this museum, I discovered Will James.
James was the name taken by a French Canadian who headed west more than a century ago to become a cowboy. He created a fanciful backstory to explain away his French accent, worked as a cowboy, served some time for cattle rustling, worked as a stuntman in Hollywood westerns, then as a rodeo wrangler and in staged broncobusting exhibitions, once getting thrown from a horse and suffering a severe concussion when he landed head-first on a railroad track.
It was about then that James decided to pursue his artwork, then began to write Western stories. He had a knack for both. Working in pencil as well as pen-and-ink and some watercolor, James would be ranked with Frederic Remington and Charles Russell as the nation’s great Western artists. Both his novels and nonfiction books were richly illustrated with his sketches — often of cowboys aboard bucking wild horses — and he won the 1927 Newbery Medal for “Smoky the Cowhorse,” a novel written, improbably, from the perspective of a wild mustang. (I bought a copy and thoroughly enjoyed it on the train ride home.)
Train schedules were now on our mind. One of our dearest friends had texted us, asking us to attend a private graveside service for their late son at 11 a.m. on the upcoming Monday. We were then in eastern Nevada; in about 40 hours, we needed to be in Chicago to catch the final train of our journey to get back to Henderson on time.
Our schedule called for us to arrive at Union Station an hour before our connecting train would depart. The California Zephyr was running a half-hour behind. But we had more than half a continent to make up some time, so we went to bed confident.
Saturday, Sept. 12
The conductor came on the intercom at 7 a.m. Shortly after we fell asleep, a grass fire had been discovered on the tracks. Our train had been forced to stop while firefighters extinguished the blaze; then a railroad crew had to inspect the tracks for safety reasons. As we awoke, we were still in the Utah desert, 6½ hours behind schedule.
Heretofore, we had been able to monitor our progress, and the movement of other trains, through both an Amtrak app and the Amtrak website. But that day, the app told me it wouldn’t function until it was updated; an update required a Wi-Fi connection, which we didn’t have. And the website wasn’t updating our train’s progress; it showed us parked in Nevada, which we had left hours ago.
We were flying blind.
We rolled eastward through the sun-splashed desert of eastern Utah, past red-walled buttes and mesas. Perhaps spring rains bring forth wildflowers and a little green, but in late summer, all was brown; you could look for miles without seeing a tree.
Then just like that, a waterway appeared, snaking beside our tracks and nourishing some cottonwood trees. There were occasional rapids and rocky islands, and then we spied kayakers paddling past red-rock hills. This was the Ruby Canyon of the Colorado River near the Utah-Colorado state line. A few kayakers waved at us, and a couple guys mooned the train, to Donna’s utter bewilderment.
After dinner, we sat for a bit in the observation car while a conductor played guitar and led us in singing some folk songs. Night was falling on the foothills; we would cross the Rocky Mountains in complete darkness.
Sunday, Sept. 13
For all the vast emptiness of the deserts of Nevada and Utah, this Sabbath morning found us in the vastness of Nebraska corn: miles of corn, an unending ocean of corn, corn from horizon to horizon.
At 12:30 p.m., we crossed the Missouri River into Iowa. In just 3½ hours, our last train, the Illini, would be pulling out of Union Station, and we still had two states to cross.
We started looking for alternatives. Could we catch a later train out of Chicago? Could we rent a car and drive to Carbondale, where our car was parked? With each hour, options evaporated.
At mid-afternoon, Donna made the inevitable call to our friend to apologize; we would not make it to Henderson and the cemetery by late Monday morning.
Without telling Donna, I said a silent prayer: “Your will be done.”
Not long afterward, a knock came at our bedroom door. A conductor held in his hands a fax — a fax — that he had received from Amtrak, advising us that we should deboard at Galesburg, Illinois, a favorite train-watching hotspot of my father-in-law. A shuttle would be waiting to race us to Champaign, Illinois, where we would intercept the southbound City of New Orleans, which would take us to Carbondale.
At Galesburg, we waited fretfully for nearly an hour before an unmarked shuttle van appeared. Hours were melting away along with our hopes.
The driver raced down the interstate as night fell. We still had no way of monitoring our chances; the map at the Amtrak website showed no sign of the City of New Orleans.
We arrived at the nearly empty Champaign station and rang a bell at the Amtrak counter. The attendant sorted out our predicament … and advised that our train should be pulling up in 10 minutes.
Monday, Sept. 14
A minute before 11 a.m. at the cemetery, our friend looked at his watch. “Chuck and Donna were supposed to be here,” he noted sadly.
Just then, a family member pointed and said, “There they are, right there.”
We drove up to the gravesite and our friend’s wife gave us tearful hugs.
It turned out that Donna has spoken her own silent prayer the day before: “Put us where we need to be.”
So that was it. We had seen a wide swath of the American West and Midwest, avoided being trapped by wildfire, lost no money at a casino, discovered a new appreciation for wild mustangs … and made it home to be with friends just when they needed us to be here.
And it was good to be home.
This article originally appeared on Henderson Gleaner: Henderson couple takes to rails (and trails) in a year of COVID, protests and wildfires