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Train trek offers unique look at U.S. (Ventura County Star) August 2, 1998

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays.

For those of us out West, this spring was anticipated like no other, as the winter of El Nino faded into history. But for me, the best spring yet came last year, when my 8-year-old son and I finally realized a long-held dream and took the road less traveled by crossing the United States on a five-week journey by train.

The looks on people’s faces when told of our plans said it all. A few stared back in bewilderment, wondering why a grown man would voluntarily spend several weeks in small train compartments with an energetic young boy. But most gave an enthusiastic nod and a warm smile, acknowledging that they, too, had imagined riding the rails and sharing with their child a look at an America we never see by plane or interstate highway.

Like many in my generation, I learned to love trains not here in the United States, but on a Eurail pass as a college student.

There, we chose the train because it was a cheap and efficient way to travel the relatively short distances between European capitals. And, along the way, we discovered new cultural experiences: meeting strangers on board; reaching out to converse in foreign tongues; sharing a meal, a hand of cards; and even a few winks of sleep with seat and compartment mates.

Back in the United States, the experience did not quite translate. Distances between distances were longer, prices were higher and time seemed shorter. But still, whenever I would see a lonely engine pulling a few passenger cars up a steep mountain grade, I would wonder what it would be like to be on board, just riding and looking out the window, rather than driving in and out of busy lanes of traffic. And whenever I heard a train whistle at night, I remember with fondness the rhythm and sounds of sleeping on a train.

A sentimental journey
Finally the time came to try what would be a kind of sentimental journey, and a trip that my son welcomed as high adventure. With five weeks to use as we wished, part of an academic sabbatical for me and a gracious train school agreement from Scott’s teacher, we set out on Dad and Scott’s Excellent Adventure. Like so many things in life, we each got something a little different than we bargained for, but nonetheless enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime experience we would never bargain away.

Actually the fun began when we sat dow to plan the trip. As we looked over a map of the United States, I asked where he would like to go. He was clear about his top choices: Las Vegas, New York and Minneapolis. If you are not a parent, you may not know that Las Vegas markets its family activities very effectively. And what child has not watched “Home Alone” and thought of all the fun waiting in New York? But Minneapolis? “Dad, Mall of America has the biggest indoor theme park in the world,” Scott intoned. That settled it.

While Scott was intrigued by the thrills available in the big cities, I wanted to find some of those out-of-the way spots that are part of the America I knew growing up in Kansas. So we would see Las Vegas and New York, but also Sheboygan, Wis., and Essex, Mont. There would be a stop at Niagara Falls and in Glacier Park to impress him with our country’s natural beauty, but also visits to Williamsburg and Monticello for a sense of history. While I was initially disappointed that we could not buy a pass from Amtrak that would allow us to come and go as we pleased, just as Europeans cannot purchase a Eurail pass, we would have needed reserved spaces anyway for the cross-country sleeping trains, and we found sufficient spontaneity in day-trips along the heavily scheduled routes on the East Coast.

Even with five weeks, there are limits to how many rails one can ride in this vast country. So we decided to cut across the heartland from the Pacific to the Atlantic fairly quickly, then work our way slowly and spontaneously up the less familiar East Coast, returning across the wilds of the North, and down the beautiful California coast for the finale.

On a cool April morning, Mom drove us to historic Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, and took our picture as we each lifted one duffel bag and one backpack on board “The Desert Wind.” Though Scott took it all in stride, the adults wondered what unexpected challenges awaited, both for the rail riders and for those who remained at home.

Although plans call for high speed trains to travel between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, we were among the last to ride the regular Amtrak route. With nothing but Mojave Desert for several house, this was a good test of life in a 4 by 6-foot train compartment.

As it turned out, we needed one good run to work out a new rhythm for life aboard the train. After a little homework and reading, some Mad Libs and game playing, and a lot of looking out the window and talking, our new daily regimen began to emerge.

Trains, roller coasters, rapids
After a couple of days enjoying the roller coasters and circuses of Las Vegas, the real adventure began with our first overnight train. For this we had reserved a sleeper, whose chairs folded into surprisingly comfortable beds by night. Ah, nothing like a slumber party to bond with a youngster! After enjoying a delicious dinner on what tablecloths in the dining car, we retired for the night. We both agreed that it took one night for our bodies to adjust to sleeping with the lights and sounds and rhythms of a train clicking across the countryside. But after that, we were hooked. We always looked forward to checking out of our hotel and climbing back onto a cross-country train.

It’s two days from Las Vegas to Chicago, across some of the most beautiful landscapes in America. Sitting in your own compartment and watching the rich variety of the West pass by was both relaxing and thrilling; beyond my expectations. After taking on newspapers in the wee hours in Salt Lake City, the train was rolling across the rugged beauty of Utah when we awakened.

What a thrill to spend virtually an entire day paralleling the Colorado River as we watched the whitewater rapids and then the green forests in the distance. Dinner found us chugging up the snow-covered Rocky Mountains, imagining how early pioneers and settlers might have traversed this ground. When we awakened, a surprising spring snow had covered Nebraska and Iowa, just dusting the little towns and farms. I would think anyone would enjoy this scenery from Salt Lake City to Chicago, but for us it was enhanced by a guidebook we had brought along that shared little secrets along the way. Otherwise we might not have noticed that a water tower in Iowa was shaped like a coffeepot in honor of hometown gal Mrs. Olson, of coffee commercial fame; or that we were passing the world’s smallest high school.

Off the beaten track
When we sat down at a restaurant for some Chicago pizza, after 48 straight hours on board, I asked Scott whether the chairs were moving. It took awhile to regain our land legs. A long weekend in Chicago gave us a chance to explore museums, the aquarium and Navy Pier. One interesting feature about trains is that they always drop you right in the downtown area of any destination city. This was anew to a suburban boy who flies from hub to hub when he travels. Scott always watched carefully as we rode into a city, wondering aloud where the people live and how they play and work. We rarely rented a car; content to explore what downtown U.S.A. had to offer.

Our next route cut across some of the most beautiful areas many Americans never see. We left Chicago last night, sleeping through Illinois and Indiana, and woke up in Kentucky. Here the train followed no interstate highway, so we saw the small towns and back country of Kentucky and West Virginia. While Scott caught up on homework, I sat in the observation car, where the huge windows yielded breathtaking vistas of forest, rivers and bridges. West Virginia was the only state where local guides came on board to provide periodic announcements, which were of interest at first, but how much detail do you really need?

We climbed off in Charlottesville, Va., where the depot is a little brick building that seemed truly colonial in both the architecture and in condition. The train stations and depots of America would make an interesting study. Although nearly always in the center of town, they are often unfamiliar to folks. I recall hopping a taxi at our Las Vegas hotel and learning that the cab driver did not know where the train station was. Some of the stations in major cities have been refurbished, like L.A. and Chicago, and in Washington, D.C., Union Station is an entertainment hub. But often they are just old one-room buildings, reflecting the limited role train travel plays in America today.

Train kept a rollin’
Once we reached the East Coast, however, trains seemed to be more about transportation than adventure. Routes were more frequent and passenger cars much fuller. With huge distances between destinations out West, spontaneous train trips do not make a lot of sense. In fact, even stopping was challenging because the next cross-country train generally did not come back for two or three days. Although we enjoyed the ability to hop on an doff trains for quicker trips in the East, we missed the bigger, more comfortable trains out West. Trading the western dining car for the East Coast snack car exemplified the difference. And the interesting and unusual fellow travelers out for adventure gave way to business people and students riding to work or school in the East. Nevertheless, we thought the train beat cars and planes as a way to traverse the crowded cities and suburbs of the Eastern seaboard.

History was our objective in the East and we fulfilled it nicely. Stops at Monticello and Williamsburg were followed by a few days in Washington, D.C., and a tour of the battlefield at Gettysburg. OK, we had to rent a car for that, but it was an educational treat for both of us. We found lots of interesting geography and math lessons for Scott, as he became our navigator and map man. And I’d like to think that visiting historic sites with Dad was even more enriching than school trips. As an educator, I never saw this more clearly than at Monticello where we stopped to see a film on Thomas Jefferson where a school bus of school kids joined us.

Though Scott indicated he had enjoyed the film, the boys in the bathroom afterward went on at great length about how hopelessly boring it had been. It reminded me that it is not cool to learn among a lot of school kids and I was doubly grateful to have this one-on-one mentoring opportunity. We did Washington, D.C., and New York in 8-year-old kid style — he made all the choices. In Washington, watching them print money at the Bureau of Printing and Engraving was tops (and yes, they do sell souvenirs in the gift shop), though the White House, Congress and the Smithsonian at least made the list. We found a Broadway plan we both liked, and each had our first visit to the Statue of Liberty. Museums and even subway maps provided excellent learning opportunities along the way.

The train carried us into the beauty of the New England spring and then, at Niagara Falls, we turned toward home. The trip across the North took us into a country many Americans never explore. As an academic, I wanted my first look at Notre Dame. And then we agreed that a stop at Dad’s birthplace, Sheboygan, Wis., would be in order.

Next stop — Mall of America of course, where we spent a 10-hour day. With the occasional diversion around flooded areas of North Dakota, we reached Essex, Mont., a favorite stop for both of us. We were let off the train seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and stayed in a trackside inn that used to house railway workers in an earlier time. Snowshoeing in May was a treat, as was hiking the incredibly beautiful Glacier Park. The train ride through the northern Rockies and on into the dells and valleys of Oregon seemed like virgin territory to us city folk.

Rolling to a stop
After a delightful weekend in San Francisco, we boarded our last and favorite train for the ride home: the Coast Starlight. Our ringside seats on the ocean side were the perfect finale to our long journey. This train has been updated for tourists. Magic shows and a nice reception augmented the normal movie. I was struck by hom much more enjoyable the California coast can be when you are not driving. Once again, those who established the tracks got the choice land. We were consistently closer to the ocean than when traveling beautiful California Highway 1.

For one final math assignment, Scott tallied up the statistics of our journey: five weeks, more than 10,000 miles and travel through 30 states (plus the District of Columbia and a brief stop in Canada at Niagara Falls).

We both agreed that, if you can make the time, travel by train is far superior to car, bus or plane. And we found that the two of us had bonded on board in a way that will change our relationship forever. Our advice? All abroad, please!

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