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Taking the Train Across America: California Zephyr Line

Roger Holmes 2 comments

Train Across America Part 2: Chicago – Reno, on the California Zephyr

This is the second part of a series of blog posts which chronicle the adventure of riding the train across America. Click here for part 1, which recounts the journey from New York City to Chicago on the Cardinal Line.

I boarded the iconic California Zephyr and found to my dismay that I had a seating partner. When riding coach class on the Amtrak lines out of season, you will probably have a double seat all to yourself. I had enjoyed that luxury on the Cardinal line from New York City to Chicago. But now I had a bulky Mexican in the seat next to me. His first action was to take the window seat, close the curtain, and curl up in search of sleep. A 52 hour westward journey lay ahead of us. I lasted around ten minutes before getting up and seeking a better view or better company. I found both in the lounge car.

The beautiful sightseeing car on Amtrak’s California Zephyr

The lounge on the Zephyr is actually a sight-seeing car. The diverse seating arrangements include booth-style seats, fixed seats facing the passing scenery and swivel seats. The car has larger windows, which are supplemented by further overhead panes which curve around onto the roof of the carriage for increased light and visibility. I went downstairs to the little cafe and ordered my now Amtrak staple lunch of cheeseburger and pepsi. Upon returning upstairs, I found that there were no vacant individual seats, so I found a table with just one occupant, and asked if I could join him. The middle-aged man’s name was John, and he was deep in concentration over a crossword puzzle.

John opened our conversation by asking if I was Irish, and when I confirmed that I was, he told me: “I hate Irish men.” Charming. Thankfully, he then laughed and explained himself. John owned a bed and breakfast right on the Husdon River, around an hour north of New York City in a nice little town called Nayak. He had been dating a girl for a few years and had plans to marry her, only for her to suddenly ditch him and take up with an Irishman! We instantly hit it off despite the humorous inappropriateness of my nationality. I only broke off our conversation to walk through several cars to the back of the Zephyr to make a video as we crossed the Mississippi River, and watched as we rolled in to another new state for me – Iowa.

A postcard advertising John’s Bed and Breakfast at Nayak, New York

Evening turned to night, and Iowa turned to Nebraska, but John and I remained deep in conversation at our table in the sightseeing car long after the passing scenery had been swallowed by the darkness. He was such an interesting man. Holding his hands up in admission, John confessed that the relationship breakdown had led him to question the direction his life was going in. So he hired his nephew to manage the bed and breakfast, and had taken to the road. Hawaii aside, he had since seen every state. His experiences were incredible.

John’s primary residence was now his old van, which he had modified to include what he assured me were very comfortable living quarters. It was waiting for him in Denver; their onward destination as yet unknown. “Id say, wherever the wind takes me” John had stated philosophically, “but the wind would then be a factor. I like to be free from any choice factors. I just decide at the spur of the moment and take off.” We both pondered this for a second before I asked, “So you’re freer than the wind?”, to which John replied “Yeah. I like nothing to guide me but momentary intuition.”

John’s wanderlust had seen him stay on farms, in cities, on riverboats, with naturists in the Arizona deserts, with bikers in California, on his own on a Colorado mountain and partake in more spontaneous outdoor parties than a hundred men would encounter in a lifetime. “I want to know America; my home. Only then can I know myself.” John’s final philosophical offering was profound. “I had to travel tens of thousands of miles, through every state in America, to find what was already with me when I set out. Im happy and Im free.”

While contemplating this, I noticed a group of Amish teenagers playing cards at a nearby table. “They are on their Rumspringa John told me, explaining that many Amish and Mennonite communities send their young adults out into the world for a year. When the year is up, they can either return and be baptized into their church, or decide to remain out in the outside world. The vast majority return for baptism. John then laughed before saying, “I guess my Rumspringa is lasting a little longer than a year!”

During this time, another group of conversationalists had taken up residence at a nearby table in the lounge. Their common denominator was alcohol. When the cafe/bar had stopped serving at 11pm, they had remained for a short time before returning to the now silent coach cars to settle in for the night. Around that time, one of the conductors who John and I had greeted when he had been doing his rounds, now came and sat with us as his shift had finished. Soon the three of us were alone in the lounge. It was incredibly relaxing. We had just been considering going back to our respective seats, when a highly animated man came into the lounge, looked around and then told the conductor “You have to do something! My children have just been verbally abused!”

John, the conductor and I looked at each other in disbelief. The train had seemed so peaceful! I felt very sorry for the conductor. Of course, he simply had to take some sort of action given the brevity of the allegations, so he straightened his cap, stood up, and followed the man back to the coach cars. It transpired that one of the drinkers who had been in the lounge – a scruffy looking guitarist (he had bizzarely kept his acoustic guitar draped over his shoulder all the way from Chicago) – had gone back to his seat and obviously taken some more liquor or drugs. He had then allegedly proceeded to walk through the train, stopping at each seat, and randomly asking for sexual favors. As impossible as this was to imagine, it appeared following some hastily arranged investigations that the man was indeed guilty as charged.

Ten minutes later the train had rolled to a stop in a tiny  Nebraska town, and the man was ejected. There wasn’t even a platform. The train had stopped right on a railroad crossing, so he was literally dropped off, complete with his acoustic guitar, on the street. I watched from the window as he staggered around by the side of train, still remonstrating with the conductors, before the street behind him lit up with the flashing lights of a police car. He was immediately taken away by the police, and the train was free to continue. John and I were left to wonder how his fate would pan out, and how the evidence would be relayed to the judge.

It was now time for sleep. Before saying goodbye, John told me “Set your alarm. We get into Denver at around 7am. You will get moving again around 8. Trust me, you will want to be in the sight-seeing car for the first three or four hours out of Denver.”

I returned to my seat, where my Mexican comrade was now completely passed out, and made myself comfortable. Surprisingly, despite being in a car with around two dozen other passengers, all of whom seemed to be emiting one odor or another and in the midst of sounds ranging from talking/snoring while in mid sleep, to coughs and gas, I managed to get a solid five hours sleep.

The traditionally styled, but newly refurbished Union Station in Denver, Colorado

I awoke at six thirty, and had freshened up and sipped some coffee in time to witness the Zephyr arriving into Denver. We were told that Denver’s Union station was a ‘one way in – one way out’ station, so it would be over 30 minutes before the train would finally settle by the platform. I used this time to find a quiet corner of the train, and started my morning meditation. At that point I had been practicing Transcendental Meditation for around a month, having been given the training in midtown Manhattan. It has been one of the best decisions of my life to date. I have felt clarity of decision making, increased ambition, a greater sense of creativity, more patience and an all-round better enjoyment of life since I started using TM twice a day.

Arriving into Denver at dawn

I had finished meditating just as the announcer informed all passengers that we were now permitted to leave the train for up to forty five minutes. I spent the time stretching my legs on the platform, enjoying the fresh morning air coming off the still snow-capped Rocky Mountains, and taking some pictures of the beautifully refurbished Union Station in the mile-high city.

The newly refurbished Union Station in Denver, Colorado

For some, the forty five minute layover was just enough time to walk the few blocks to the nearest herbal  supply store, AKA weed dispensary. Colorado has of course legalized marijuana, and several passengers on the Zephyr were keen to avail of this opportunity. Weed tourism is quite the contributor to Colorado’s coffers, but it is a case of ‘caveat emptor’, as there is definitely some information asymmetry.

Under Colorado law, the herbal store is perfectly entitled to sell a certain quantity of marijuana products to anyone who meets the qualifying criteria. However, it is illegal to take the product out of state. Road-trippers and Zephyr riders often sidestep this little misdemeanor by purchasing and consuming edible marijuana products while still within the state.

A beautiful little house sits all alone, near the top of the Rocky Mountains at Winter Park Ski Resort

After stepping back onto the Zephyr, I heeded John’s advice regarding the sightseeing car, and while many other passengers were still stepping around on the platform, I snagged a great swivel chair by a large window. For several miles out of Denver the morning views were pleasant, but then we gradually started climbing into the ‘Front Range’ of the Rocky Mountains, and I found myself with a front row seat for one of the greatest displays I have ever seen.

The California Zephyr slowly climbing into the frontal range of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado

Slowly the Zephyr climbed into the forested mountains, weaving one way then the other, sometimes revealing a magnificent view of one or more of the ‘Fourteeners’, sometimes clinging tightly to the rails, right on the edge of a vertical drop into a river valley. Sometimes sheer rock walls passed by, and sometimes complete darkness descended as we passed right through a mountain. The longest tunnel on the Zephyr route is Moffat Tunnel, which is 24 feet tall, 18 feet wide and 6.2 miles in length. It cuts right through the upper peaks of the Frontal Range, so when we re-emerged, we were well and truly in the middle of the Rocky’s.

Approaching the highest point of the California Zephyr line through the Rocky Mountains

There were gasps and wows from all and sundry in the sightseeing car as we climbed through one final valley to Frazer – one of the highest towns in Colorado, and home to Winter Park Ski Resort. The snow was a little worn out looking, but the panorama’s were amazing.

A couple relax while admiring the beautiful Rocky Mountain scenery

After departing the mountain town, we continued along a large upland valley where surprisingly, the locals existed by ranching. The tracks followed the Fraser River northwestwards, and after a few miles there were calls to look out the left side of the train. On the far bank of the river was a solitary and very hungry looking moose. I had never before seen one of these great animals.

Rocky Mountain National Park, as seen from the California Zephyr

From the center of the valley, just past the town of Granby, we were surrounded by the large snowy peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. The size and scale of the United States comes into particular focus in places such as this. I had seen it before, while cycling through the great valleys of northern Nevada. Sometimes the valley is of such proportions that despite moving, it looks as if the surrounding mountains are still no closer or further away. The view up there was beautiful, and having the mostly glass-sided sightseeing car of the California Zephyr to enjoy it from was just such a privelage.

A mountain top delta on the Colorado River

In Granby we picked up the trail of the legendary Colorado River; water source to so much of the American south west, and followed it out of the valley and into the most spectacular gorge canyon which we followed for around an hour. The steep walls of the canyon are so close together in places that there is just enough room for the river, the railroad and the i70 freeway (which sometimes has to go double-decker through here). This section of i70 is said to be the most expensive road construction project ever undertaken.

The sightseeing car of the California Zephyr offers plenty of photo opportunities while passing through Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado

As the steep canyon gave way to a more traditional river valley at Glenwood Springs, I suddenly became aware that I was seated right in the center of 6 or 7 people who had struck up a conversation. All had been traveling alone, and all had been sitting in silence for the previous hours admiring the scenery. But now, as we headed for the Colorado/Utah state line, a spark had lit the conversation. This conversation, between a uniquely eclectic mix of people, would last for several hours, and was as surreal as it was stimulating.

To my immediate left was Sarah, a PhD student from Devon, England, who was on vacation from her English Literature studentship position at Northwestern University, Chicago. To my right was Mike; a high-school history teacher who was on his way to Las Vegas. Then there was Peter; an IT worker in the financial district of Lower Manhattan, who was on a cross-country trip to visit his son in San Francisco, and his sister in San Jose.

Stephanie, who was sitting behind me was a self-proclaimed (or self-confessed) clairvoyant, who was a keen proponent of the notion that we are all somehow connected via some sort of energy. Beside Stephanie was without doubt the most intriguing member of the party. Benjamin was a twenty-something year old nuclear physicist, who did not speak too often, but when he did, it was intellectually profound. And lastly, there was Laura, a friendly and attractive young lady whose interest in the conversation quickly subsided, and who retired to her coach seat after around thirty minutes. It was at around this time that the conversation had started to simmer.

Someone had mentioned Trump. There were two immediate responses. Benjamin, the nuclear physicist had declared the president to be “without doubt the biggest fucking asshole in American political history.” James, the high-school history teacher was not amused. While leaving us in no doubt that he had voted for Trump, I think he parked his ideas of pledging further allegiance, having realized that he was in the company of two democrats, and two tourists who had absolutely no intention of becoming embroiled in a heated debate. It was only then that I became aware that yet another passenger was listening in on the conversation, but who at this point had not introduced herself or contributed.

A new kind of trading post in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado

When the train stopped at Grand Junction for an extended break, almost everyone took the chance to wander through the local stores at the small station (some in search of more marijuana). I made sure I was walking next to our observer. There was something about her. She was interested in the conversation, but had no interest in talking. After breaking the ice and introducing myself, I discovered why.

Sarah was the British television network Channel 4’s news correspondent for the US presidential election, and was finally getting some vacation time now that the election and inauguration were old news. She had spent the previous two years following the Donald Trump presidential campaign, the election, and his inauguration. I was fascinated, and asked her as many questions as I could, without being overly pushy. She freely recounted how she had been to all of Trump’s campaign rallies, and relayed some of the funnier and more harrowing stories of journalists jostling to get their questions on the list.

Back on the train, Sarah slipped back into anonymity, and the conversation continued among the others. With seemingly no apparent intro (we had been talking about the election), Benjamin suddenly launched into a verbal account of detailed designs for a perpetual motion magnetic tool for generating electricity. He hoped to patent the design. Im not sure about anyone else, but he was in no danger of me stealing his idea, because he had lost me after about two sentences.

I really enjoyed meeting the unusual mix of people. One of the marvelous things about traveling across America by train is that you get to meet some really diverse and interesting fellow passengers. People you simply would not get to converse with if you were to fly or drive across America.

Beautiful Ruby Canyon reflecting the evening sunlight as we left Colorado and entered Utah

As afternoon turned to late evening, we resumed our silent appreciation of the passing scenery. We crossed the state line into Utah and had a brief stop at Green River. I needed no reminding about how barren Utah can be, having cycled through there. But if anything, it seemed even more desolate from the train. As the day ended, the rock formations caught the low sunbeams and we got first hand evidence of how Ruby Canyon got its name. It was absolutely beautiful.

One by one the eclectic conversationalists returned to their coach seats, and I sat on my own in the sightseeing car. I practiced my transcendental meditation for twenty minutes, before having supper and settling in to write for a while. Taking the train across America offers so much opportunity for relaxation and reflection, and I found it to be a really great environment. Somewhere on the tracks over the Great Salt Lake, I brushed my teeth and settled in to my seat for the night, feeling as content as I have ever felt. The gentle rolling of the carriage soon rocked me into a peaceful sleep.

Early morning sunshine while passing through the deserts of northern Utah

I awoke to bright sunshine coming through the gap in the curtains beside my seat. We had crossed the remainder of Utah and most of the desert in northern Nevada. We were now in Fernley, which acts as a major distribution center, and were soon following Trukee River. I washed, had breakfast and got my things together. My epic 3000+ mile train ride across America was coming to an end. I would get off at Reno Nevada, just before the Zephyr started its climb into the Sierra Nevada, passing by the town of Truckee and Donner Lake, before descending into California.

The reason for my trans-american train ride, was to visit two ladies who I call the Desert Angels. These ladies had given me so much help and encouragement as I had cycled through Nevada on my charity cycle across America.

I would spend a few very enjoyable weeks in their home, before once again riding the train all the way across America to New York City.

 

 

Taking the Train Across America: Amtrak Cardinal Line

Roger Holmes No Comments

Train Across America Part 1: New York – Philadelphia – Washington DC – Cincinnati – Indianapolis – Chicago

Taking the train across America is a great way to test the theory that a journey can be enjoyed as much as the destination. You get an experience on a train that just cannot be replicated on a stressful flight or road trip on the same route. From the train, you are offered a unique glimpse into America’s soul. It is so much more than just a journey from A to B. Taking the train across America unearths a way of life which is somewhat lost in this convenience driven, fast paced world, but which is still hugely enjoyable.

The snow was piled so high in Queens New York, that I struggled to haul my baggage from the apartment building to the waiting Uber car. New York at five on a winters morning is ridiculously cold, but at least the combination of the snowstorm and the early hour on a Sunday morning meant that the streets were a little quieter. Javier the driver, was amazed that I was taking the train across America. He was even more bewildered when I told him I had cycled all the way across America the previous summer. “I suppose you’ll be walking back?” he asked me through the rear view mirror with a grin. Well, who knows!

A blurry image of a departures sign, seen through blurry eyes, at 6.30AM in Penn Station, New York City.

I arrived at Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan long before the scheduled 6.45am departure. Boarding the Amtrak Cardinal train in darkness, it was really nice not to feel pressurized by the process or the staff. There were no lines. No security checks. No need for shoe removal, except of course by choice, should you want even greater comfort. A few minutes after choosing a seat by the window, the train began to roll, and soon we were snaking our way through the underground tunnels of New York City.

The Amtrak Cardinal would take me through 10 states, on the first leg of my journey by train across America.

We reemerged above ground in New Jersey, just as dawn was breaking. I took a final look back at Freedom Tower, and settled in to enjoy the start of an adventure. Once out of New York, the train eased to it’s upper speed limit of 79mph, and I watched as the passing New Jersey snowscapes reflected the almost horizontal rays from the rising winter sun. As I do every morning, I then closed my eyes and practiced Transcendental Meditation for around twenty minutes. The gentle rocking of the train on its tracks seemed to make it even easier to get to that beautiful quiet place. I took a deep breath and a stretch to finish, and then pondered the theory that no journey is too long if you are in the right company. Well, I was alone, but comfortable with my own company, so I was feeling good! Taking a train across America really does provide an ideal environment in which to meditate and relax.

The slogan on the Amtrak coffee cup suggested we ‘Change How We See the World’. I couldn’t agree more!

The Cardinal service offers great comfort for the long-distance rail passenger. There is ample legroom (much more than on the average aircraft) on chairs which recline to about forty degrees. There is a footrest that can be extended, charging points, wifi, personal lights, air vents, curtains, and so all told, the coach seats are perfectly fine to relax and sleep on. The next carriage back had a cafeteria, serving hot and cold snacks. If you are feeling flush, you could book a sleeper or roomette, but I was interested in more than comfort. I not only wanted to see how I enjoyed the trip, but I wanted to see how others enjoyed it too. For that reason, I had chosen the more sociable coach class.

Amtrak’s Cardinal line operates on a southern arc between New York City and Chicago

The impressive Philadelphia skyline soon came into view. The city is steeped in history, and was actually the first capital of the United States of America. George Washington and John Adams lived as presidents at the mansion on 6th and Market Streets, while the federal capital was being constructed in Washington DC from 1790 until 1800.

The train slipped through the Philadelphia suburbs, while most of her inhabitants were still asleep. I sent my Irish cousins a message to say that I was in Philadelphia. In the few minutes it took for them to reply, I had already crossed over another state line. I was now in Delaware for the first time.

Crossing the Susquehanna River on Chesapeake Bay, between Philadelphia and Washington DC

We followed the northern bank of the Delaware River for a few miles near highly industrialized Wilmington, before cutting across the head of Delmarva Peninsula. This unusual landmass, which is technically an island following the excavation of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, comprises almost all of Delaware state, and the eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia. We quickly traversed the head of the peninsula, going over the Susquehanna River, and onwards along the northern shores of Chesapeake Bay, which we followed through Baltimore and towards Washington DC.

Passengers were encouraged to step out onto the Washington DC platform to stretch their legs and get some fresh air. In just a few hours, I had traveled two hundred and twenty five miles down the eastern seaboard, and in doing so had traveled through four states and entered the District of Columbia at Washington. The land for the administrative and symbolic modern day capital of the United States, had been ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland in 1790. By the start of the nineteenth century the capital and its houses had been constructed, and so, Philadelphia was honorably succeeded as the nations capital.

Having boarded the train in one of the original colonies, crossed the Delaware River, passed through Philadelphia and then onwards to Washington Dc, the journey to that point almost felt like a train ride through a United States history lesson. I couldn’t help but glance at a map of North America, and find my eyes wandering westwards, where I would cut through fur-trapping country, follow covered wagon trails and eventually find the golden treasure of the Pacific coast.

The elongated stop in Washington was welcome, and so I marched back and forth on the DC platform in military fashion, both as a means of stretching my legs and keeping warm. During this time, the train was cleaned and supplies were restocked. Our departure was powered by a diesel engine, as opposed to the electric unit which had taken us from New York City. I wondered if the electric unit was required by law while traveling along the highly populated eastern seaboard.

The passing scenery as we left Washington was just fantastic. The tracks followed yet another river, this time the Potomac, which flows through the heart of DC. By now the sun was well up in the sky, and it was a beautiful clear sky day. Passing by the town of Alexandria, I suddenly noticed that the snow had gone. It had either melted, or had not been so deep here in the first place. It seemed as though spring had suddenly arrived.

The Amtrak Cardinal cuts through beautiful countryside in Virginia and West Virginia.

Once again, the train veered inland; this time permanently away from the Atlantic coast. We had now come as far down the east coast as this route would take us, and were heading for another new state – Virginia. Slowly but surely, the urban sprawl of DC gave way to the forests and agricultural lands of Virginia. At around this time, the man who had been sitting behind me since we had left New York City, began to snore. At first it was not so bad, but the deeper he got into his sleep, the louder his snoring became. After twenty or thirty minutes, he was to be heard by everyone in the carraige.

We approached the foothills of the Appalachian mountains; passing through little villages and farmland. The train made several short stops while crossing the state, picking up passengers and supplies. At Staunton, around a dozen people came aboard, four of whom were notable by their demeanor and attire. Having previously cycled across America, including a leisurely day spent passing through Lancaster County Pennsylvania, which is known as ‘Amish Country‘, I knew that these folks were Mennonites.

A group of Mennonite folks, in their traditional and plain attire.

One of the Mennonite men asked the conductor if he and his traveling party could be seated together, so in an extremely fortunate turn of events, my snoring friend was asked to relocate. The two Mennonite men took his place, and their wives sat just across the aisle. As the agreeable snorer gathered his belongings and shuffled out of his seat, one of the Mennonite men conveyed his gratitude by saying, “Mighty Bliged Sir.”

As we weaved our way through Buffalo Gap in the Appalachians, I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation between the Mennonite men behind me.

“Now’s it any wonder we’re having trouble when it costs one point six cents to mint a penny? So, every time we make a new penny we’re going another point six cents further down the hole. Even Mr Trump can’t be expected to make those kinds of figures work.”

A short time later, after a lengthy silence during which I presumed both men had been contemplating matters of economics, one man’s attention suddenly turned towards his stomach.

“Im hungry” he announced.

“Well, you got your sand witches don’t you?” replied his friend.

“Yes I do, but I don’t care much for the cucumber ones they packed. Specially since I’m on the train – if you catch my drift.”

“Well”, said his friend defiantly, but with more than a hint of humor, “not meaning to cause you any offense nor nothing, but I’ve caught a few of your drifts in my time and I sure don’t want to catch any now that we’re on the train!” Cue deep laughter from both men, and concealed giggles from myself and the Mennonite ladies.

A little further down the line, we slowed in one of the many narrow river valleys of West Virginia, to safely pass an oncomming freighter train. Approximately ten open-topped cars containing very finely crushed coal, passed by before I decided to start counting. By the time the last car had passed, my count had reached fifty two. This, I considered, was becoming a more and more unusual sight, as the major coal mines were now in a state of decline. The many rivers we followed through the West Virginian Appalachians all had the same appearance; sporadic signs of greater mining activity from yester-year, wild white water rapids, lost villages with moonshine-making credentials, and trees. Lots of trees.

As the light faded, I couldn’t help but think that we had just gone through what many American city-slickers would refer to as ‘Hill-Billy Country’. My eyelids began to fall with the setting sun, and for an hour or so, I fell into a deep sleep. I dreamed of dueling banjos, white-water rafting, hard-drinking coal miners and of Mennonite economics.

The conductors announcement of an extended stop at Huntington West Virginia called me back in to the real world. Before I was even fully awake, I found myself yawning and stretching on the busy platform. Fresh air breaks were not to be missed.

Having left New York City just that morning, where temperatures had hovered in the mid twenties , I now felt uncomfortably over-dressed in relatively balmy Kentucky. Some people took the opportunity to smoke. Others hurried to beat the line for the toilets in the station building. The train staff unloaded trash bags and picked up fresh supplies. The Mennonite wives, who were sporting long flowery-patterned dresses and white bonnets, held hands as they skipped and ran around a little patch of grass in the parking lot. Their husbands stood shoulder to shoulder in silence. I tried to figure out which one was secretly letting go of his long-held ‘drifts’.

A welcome stop and a chance to stretch the legs at Huntington, West Virginia.

Once back on the train, I walked back to the next carriage, where I knew the cafe/shop would now be fully stocked (TIP #1: Always coincide your dining and bathroom breaks with the immediate aftermath of major stops, as you will find the train facilities freshly cleaned and restocked). I ordered a cheeseburger and a Pepsi (“a classic American” as the friendly Amtrak server described it), and sat down at a nearby table to dine alone. After I had taken a few bites and then paused for digestion, a voice from behind me asked: “Pardon me sir, but I was wondering what part you’re from?” I turned to see that it was one of the Mennonite men, who also happened to be sitting alone.

Now I must admit, I had been looking for the opportunity to speak to an Amish or Mennonite since I had cycled across America in the summer of 2016. There really is no easy way to instigate conversation with these curiously simple and withdrawn people, without risking the danger of making them feel uncomfortable. So many tourists come out of the cities on the east coast to Lancaster County in particular, and are quite intrusive in how they approach the locals. This has resulted in the Amish becoming even more withdrawn, like spooked deer in hunting season. I took this unexpected opportunity for communication by asking the man if I could join him.”It’d be a pleasure sir.”

(TIP #2: Embrace the social aspect of travel in the coach class. You can meet some really interesting people)

‘Erik’ and I talked about a range of subjects, including a very interesting discussion about how he was of the opinion that agricultural co-operatives are not necessarily acting in small farmers best interests anymore. To my surprise, upon hearing that I was Irish, Erik asked me if Irish dairy farmers were well off financially. I silently noted that he appended the word ‘financially’ to the term ‘well-off’. To me, this gave an insight into the first notable difference (aside from attire) between his world and mine. His people would consider themselves ‘well-off’ in many ways other than financial. I made a mental note to remember that.

As a dairy farmer who milked ninety cows, and who did not have access to the internet and newspapers as a means of gauging market trends, Erik based the value of his stock on the prices of similar products in the supermarkets. This, I considered, was a simple yet highly effective strategy. Maybe it was a micro-example how how the Mennonite approach to life may be slightly more insular and simplistic, but enjoyable and comfortable none the less.

The product which Erik was referring to was KerryGold, a very tasty Irish butter which is now widely available in the United States. It is generally stocked in small supplies, and at over ten dollars a pound, is perhaps twice the price of other butters. I saw that this had led to Eriks question, and had perhaps spurred his willingness to engage with me in the first place. Erik’s mystery shopping may have given him an indication of market value, but his more paraochial existence deprived him of a more in-depth understanding of pricing factors other than net payment to the producer. I explained that the cost was so high given the addition of international taxes, the federal requirement to comprehensively test overseas farm produce, the inclusion of additional preservatives and shipping costs. There was also scope in the figures to make room for one or possibly two American importers cut. Although he had little way of knowing this prior to our chat, he immediately understood. Mennonites may not be worldly, but they certainly aren’t slow – especially when it comes to food production.

To my greater surprise, Erik then talked about the emergence of driverless cars and drones. It was a very unexpected and surreal twist to a conversation with a man who had no watch, smartphone, newspapers or any other modern ‘conveniences’. Yet, I immediately understood the practical relevance to his curiosity. Neither of us needed to implicitly reference why this new mode of transport should be familiar to me and not to him, but we did discuss it at length. The concept of driverless cars has been known and explored by me for well over a decade, given my background and interest in technology, but Erik’s musings on the matter were owing to more recent and populous developments. Mennonites and Amish may like to live traditionally, but yet, when something new emerges, they will consider it. So long as it does not pose a threat to their way of life, they are open to using it.

Amish and Monnonites will ride in a car provided someone else drives it, and provided the journey is for business purposes and not pleasure. They do not fly. Given that a horse and carriage can only take them so far, and that they regularly meet and visit other similar groups right across the country, they have been perhaps Amtrak’s most regular customers for decades. For the more forward thinking (not to mention business-minded) Mennonite man, which Erik most certainly was, this new form of transport was of interest. It transpired that he was making what was a regular trip between his dairy farm in Virginia and his crop farm in Kentucky. The train worked well, but there was still the matter of getting to and from his farms and the nearest stations.

I found myself reassuring Erik that self-drive cars might indeed be of interest to him. “The mechanics are the same. The appearance is the same. In fact, standing on the sidewalk, you wouldn’t be able to differentiate between a passing driverless car and a manually operated car. The only difference is, you express your desired destination beforehand, much like you do when you buy a train ticket. After that, you simply sit back and relax – just as you do when taking the train.” Again, without confirming that he was Mennonite and I was not, Erik thanked me, and concluded by saying “Well, it certainly seems like it is worth looking in to – when the time comes.” And therein, I decided, lay the main difference between my cultural upbringing and Erik’s.

Regarding the driverless car, he would look in to it – when the time would come. In my world, people spend so much time and energy speculating, disagreeing, and talking about what the future might or might not bring. So much so that we often miss the present. In Erik’s world, he may soon have to face a difficult decision, but he had an entirely different outlook. Easing the burden of travel between his farms, while running the risk of incurring the wrath of his elders for breaking tradition, would be an ethical dilemma. (Actually, I had already decided that Erik was himself an elder. A decision maker. So his decision carried greater responsibility). But, Erik wasn’t going to waste time worrying about this matter. At least not until ‘the time comes’. Brilliant. My mother always offers a piece of advice which says ‘Don’t meet trouble half way’. I smiled to myself as I wondered if she was secretly a part-time Mennonite!

The drone question was addressed full on by Erik. “I’ve nothing against them, but some folks have been flying them over their neighbors properties and invading their privacies. Do you think thats right?” he asked me. I had to agree with him that it was not ‘right’ and that drone intrusiveness was a problem. I pondered what morale code drone users adhere to, and how they decided (if at all) what was ‘right’ and not right. I also felt empathy towards the Amish and Mennonite people, when I considered what it must feel like to see a strange flying machine with a camera right above their yards. Part of me felt ashamed of the outside world.

Erik had a kindly, calm and open personality, and I treasured the opportunity to talk with him. Too often we recoil from communicating with people who are different in some from ourselves, and this non-communication can alienate us and others. I felt so happy to have broken through a boundary, and for the conversation to have been so amicable and enlightening. All too quickly though, we arrived at Erik’s station. We shook hands, wished each other well, and I watched as he departed with his wife and friends. I looked through the window as they stood by their old-fashioned suitcases on the platform, perhaps waiting for local horses and carriages to come to pick them up. Their clothing looked so different, so primitive, yet so clean, smart and tidy. I sat back in my seat as the train rolled along on the banks of the Ohio River, and tried to comprehend how my way of life and Erik’s coexisted. The term ‘purpose over pleasure’ seemed to stick in my mind. I certainly admired the ability of the Amish and Monnonite communities to sustain their place in the world, using such a modest set of guidelines and ethics.

In the shadows of Cincinnati train station, at one forty five in the morning, I slipped off my shoes, reclined the seat, and snuggled up under Jaime’s Magic Blanket. This black and charcoal, intricately patterned blanket, had been a gift to my wife Yesi, from her father Jaime, when she had left Peru to come and live in New York City. After our wedding, when I had arrived from Ireland to experience my first New York winter, Yesi and I would regularly cozy up under this Andean treasure. The comfort of the Llama wool, combined with the sentimental value, meant that within minutes we would be warm, content and sleepy. Hence I had named it ‘Jaime’s Magic Blanket’. It had the same effect on me right there on the train in Cincinnati, even though Yesi wasn’t there with me. She was however with me in my thoughts. Within a few minutes I was content and had fallen asleep. (TIP #3: When traveling on a train across America, consider bringing a blanket and/or pillow for added comfort).

I woke briefly around an hour later, to the sound of low chattering and the wonderful smell of spices. I leaned sideways in my seat to see that a little further up the carriage, a Chinese family of three generations, were huddled around a series of pots and flasks, and were enjoying a midnight feast in the amber glow of a travel lamp. For a time I studied how happy they looked as they dined as a family. The gorgeous aroma had made me feel quite hungry, so I rectified this by munching on some peanuts. (TIP #4: Always have snacks on hand when on a long train ride, but try not to overdo it, as you could get sick with the motion of the train). My semi-conscious food cravings held at bay, I quickly drifted back to sleep and did not stir again until we were in Illinois, around an hour out of Chicago.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well I had managed to sleep. The view now out through y window was dramatically different than it had been when it was last daylight in West Virgina. The landscape was no longer mountainous and wooded, but perfectly flat, and as it was early spring, it looked a little barren. After having a coffee and a cinnamon roll for breakfast in the dining car, I made my way to the downstairs bathroom, and took a wet-wipes shower. (TIP #5: Wet wipes are an absolute must when traveling overnight in the coach class of a train across America). I then changed my clothes and generally freshened up. I got my things together and a short time afterwards we began to weave a pathway through the suburbs of Chicago.

The beautiful architecture of the Great Hall at Union Station, in central Chicago.

When the Amtrak Cardinal finally drew to a stop in the bowels of Union Station, the first leg of my marathon journey by train across America had come to an end. I thanked the friendly Amtrak staff, picked up my bags, and stepped off the train. Before setting out, I had designs on a little walkabout tour of downtown Chicago. I had a four-hour layover before heading further west on a connecting train. However those plans were dashed upon hearing that the lockers in which passengers could store their luggage before boarding their connecting trains, were no longer available (presumably due to terrorism fears). Had I been more clued in to this situation, I could have switched around my bags so that I could have checked most of my luggage onto the next train in advance of its departure, and possibly kept one backpack which could have contained everything I needed on the onward journey. This would have enabled me to leave Union Station and go for a walk. (TIP #6: Organize your luggage by separating the items you might need while on the train ride, from the items intended for use at your destination).

It was not an especially good day for a walkabout in downtown Chicago anyway. The skies were overcast, and a wave of drizzle was creeping in from the shores of Lake Michigan. Whistle-stop sightseeing in Chicago would have to wait for another time. Instead, I made my way to the Great Hall of Union Station, and after having some lunch (Chinese food!), I sat in peace, relaxing and people watching. There is nothing like a train ride to help you work on your levels of patience and on the acceptance of each moment of the journey, whatever it is that each moment may bring.

I could think of a lot worse places to be left guarding my belongings. Union Station in Chicago, and it’s Great Hall in particular, are of great architectural beauty. It is a classic old-style railway station, and so the surroundings really accentuated the authenticity of traveling by train across America. I was happy with my experience so far. But a much longer ride lay ahead, on board the iconic California Zephyr, which would bring me over the Rocky Mountains, and out into the American wild west.

Click here for Part Two: The California Zephyr, from Chicago to Reno Nevada

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