For half an hour or so in the late morning of Monday, April 21, 2014, I stood at the Boston harbor front and gazed upon the water. Dark blue and serene beneath a clear blue sky dominated by brilliant sunlight, the seawater beckoned to me, as it always does. In a similar moment in my vagabond youth, I would have stepped across a gangway and boarded a ship about to set sail. Today, however, was to be different. Instead of going to sea I would undertake a long inland voyage, by railroad.
At 11:55am, Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited was scheduled to depart from nearby South Station. This train would convey me away from the waterfront and into the Midwest along the route of the old Boston and Albany and New York Central Railroads to Chicago. There in Union Station I would transfer to the California Zephyr and travel across the Great Plains, through the Rocky Mountains, and across the desert on the route of the old Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy and Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroads to Provo, Utah. My purpose in making this journey was to attend Miss Karen Elizabeth’s graduation ceremonies at Brigham Young University. With mixed feelings of reluctance and anticipation, I pried myself away from the salt water in front of me and walked to South Station, ready to board the train.
The Lake Shore Limited departed on time. Ensconced in a coach seat next to a window on the right side, I enjoyed the view as the train ran the length of Massachusetts and into upstate New York. The train passed through the crowded Boston suburbs and made its first stop in Framingham as the Boston Marathon was wending its way through town, supervised by an army of police with a fleet of ambulances at the ready. Following further stops at the magnificently restored station in Worcester and the disappointingly dilapidated station in Springfield, the train entered the Berkshires. Small farms filled the valleys and gentler slopes amid these mountains and formed a rural landscape vastly different from the eastern end of the Commonwealth. After Pittsfield, the train descended toward sea level again, and at last emerged from the peaceful wooded hills as it approached the junction in Rensselaer, New York.
Rensselaer was an important stop. There the Boston section of the Lake Shore Limited would be merged into the larger New York section that was coming up the Hudson from Manhattan. Operating on a padded schedule, the Boston section arrived first and needed to wait. Disembarking for the duration along with many other passengers, I looked around the new station, watched trains come and go, and remembered when I had visited the companion cities of Albany and Rensselaer as a teenager. I had come up here several times aboard the tug Charger as she hauled the gasoline barge Interstate 35 in the summer of 1978. I had visited the Amtrak station and the state capital, in addition to the petroleum docks and related waterfront landmarks. So long ago! It felt good to be back and feel the gentle breeze from the river, even if only briefly. Presently the New York section of the train arrived. Its locomotives were removed; the Boston section was backed into place; the two sections were coupled together; and the now enlarged Lake Shore Limited departed on time at 7:05pm.
From Rensselaer the train crossed the Hudson and skirted the north side of Albany. Within view of the magnificent campus of the state capital buildings, the train passed slowly through a ramshackle neighborhood of abandoned industrial buildings with shattered windows and crumbling masonry. Soon enough, the train entered the famous main line that crosses the sprawling farmland of upstate New York and accelerated. Station stops in Schenectady, Utica, Syracuse, and Rochester followed as darkness gradually enveloped the landscape. The stop for Buffalo was made in suburban Depew close to midnight. A few minutes later, the grand old Buffalo Central Terminal came into view. An icon of the old New York Central Railroad, it has since become a victim of deferred maintenance and fallen into disuse. Happily, though, plans for its rehabilitation are in the offing.
Through the dark night the Lake Shore Limited crossed the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania and the northern tier of Ohio. I slept quite soundly through Erie, Cleveland, and Elyria. A bit after 5:00am, I awoke in Sandusky, Ohio, and gazed seaward as the train crossed a bridge spanning a narrow section of Sandusky Bay. Lake Erie lay faintly visible just beyond. Shore lights penetrating the predawn darkness reflected on the water’s calm surface. Dozing again, I reawoke in the Toledo station, another large and once-impressive facility that had fallen on hard times.
While sleeping through the night in a coach seat probably sounds uncomfortable, it actually was not. Unlike airplane seats, the Amtrak seats were wide and spacious with leg rests and ample room to stretch out. The lighting was subdued, and the other passengers were quiet. Those who detrained and those who came aboard during the night did so with minimal disturbance. Overall, it was very peaceful. The train did carry sleeping cars and a dining car, but for this one night I opted for coach and supplied my own food, and it worked out quite well. Soon after the night receded, the train crossed into Indiana. An early-morning stop was made in the farming community of Waterloo, followed by stops in Elkhart and South Bend.
Running about an hour late, the Lake Shore Limited reached South Bend around 10:00am. This was one of the highlights of the journey. As the train slowed on its approach to the station, the Golden Dome and the chapel spire of the University of Notre Dame came momentarily into view. The gold of the dome shone brilliantly in the bright sunlight and contrasted beautifully with the blue sky behind it. For a second an industrial structure along the tracks blocked the view, but then the Golden Dome reappeared briefly for an encore performance before the train passed through a changing landscape and came into the station.
Seeing Notre Dame again was a family history moment. My older brother—the smart one of the two of us—attended the University of Notre Dame from 1967 to 1971 and graduated with a degree in computer science. My parents and I made one journey by automobile to Notre Dame in each of those school years. The first year we delivered him; in the second and third years we attended football games; and finally we watched him graduate. So long ago, but many happy memories!
West of South Bend the Lake Shore Limited became delayed by heavy freight traffic and track repair work. As had been the case all along, freight train after freight train went by in both directions, bisecting the seemingly endless cornfields of northern Indiana. Presently the train entered the cornfields of Illinois. As the landscape became industrial again the freight traffic increased exponentially. The train waited for a while at a point a few miles south of Chicago and a few hundred feet west of Lake Michigan. The bright blue and calm water of the lake looked both inviting and refreshing. A short distance offshore, a cargo ship was sailing north. Finally, at 11:10am Central Time, the Lake Shore Limited arrived at Chicago Union Station.
This was another family history moment. My grandfather, Robert Burns, had made many business journeys to Chicago by rail in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Arriving via the old New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads, he had passed through Union Station and nearby La Salle Street Station frequently. I had been there once before myself, in 1979, and Miss Patty and the three older children had all passed through Chicago several times in recent years. Today I felt that I was catching up with the rest of the family! With nearly three hours between trains, I went outside and walked through the busy city streets. Tour boats laden with sightseers glided along the narrow Chicago River, dwarfed by skyscrapers on both sides and partially canopied by bridges spaced a block apart. A cold east wind blew through town from Lake Michigan. A bright and sunny but chilly spring day in the aptly named Windy City.
Shortly before 2:00pm, it was time to board the California Zephyr. This train consisted of double-decker coaches and sleepers, as well as a dining car and sightseer-lounge car. On this leg of the journey, I had a roomette in one of sleeping cars. My private little space was located on the right side of the lower level of the last car on the train, one of five such roomettes in a cluster. Restrooms, showers, luggage storage racks, and a self-service beverage bar were located a few steps away in the vestibule in the center of the car. It all formed a convenient, comfortable, and quiet neighborhood. The dining car was two cars ahead, and the lounge car was the next one ahead of the diner. All together, these facilities were a bit more spacious than my coach seat on the previous train!
Right on time at 2:00 o’clock, the California Zephyr eased southward out of Union Station. Turning to the southwest, she rolled through the suburbs of Chicago and before very long came into the great American heartland. All through Illinois and Iowa the train sailed across a sea of farmland. Occasionally it stopped at small settlements like Princeton and Galesburg and Ottumwa where grain elevators crowded around the stations. Between stops, it was like being at sea. Mile after mile after mile of flat farmland extended uninterrupted to the horizon in all directions on both sides of the tracks with the train constantly at the center of the circle. Numerous freight trains hurried past in the opposite direction on the adjacent track. The gentle motion of the train resembled that of a ship in a mild sea; it could easily lull one to sleep. I spent the afternoon reposing in the quiet solitude of my roomette watching a continent go by outside my window with no responsibility except to enjoy the ride and show up on time for dinner. It was a very pleasant feeling; I could get used to it! Yet I was not completely alone. I remained in contact with the rest of the family via text messaging. James in particular sent me many memos concerning the details of train travel that I would need to know. At dinner time I walked forward to the dining car where I enjoyed a gourmet meal of strip loin steak and mashed potatoes with cheesecake and strawberries for dessert. While I was dining the train crossed the Mississippi River. Back in my own space at bedtime, I was lulled into a sound sleep in my cozy little bed after watching the sun set over a sea of farmland in western Iowa.
Daylight the next morning found me in Colorado. I had slept all the way across Nebraska. On awakening, I needed to orient myself to the day of the week. Traveling by train resembles traveling by ship this way. When several days are spent en route, the time can become a blur. It was now Wednesday morning, two days and two nights after I had begun my journey in now far-off New England. This evening, Wednesday night, I would arrive in Provo. With this minor matter straightened out, I tended to my morning ablutions and then sat down to an early breakfast of French toast, sausage, and orange juice in the dining car. Following breakfast, I found a seat in the already crowded sightseer-lounge car and gazed upon gradually sloping farmland and the distant Rocky Mountains as the train approached Denver.
The California Zephyr backed into Denver Union Station at 8:00am, an hour behind schedule. This was a service stop of about 45 minutes’ duration. In this interval the passengers could disembark while a service crew fueled, watered, provisioned, and cleaned the train. I stepped ashore and looked around the station. It had been undergoing a major rebuilding and rehabilitation project for about the last two years, and the results were impressive. Everything was clean and bright with new tracks, new platforms, and a beautifully rejuvenated station building of classical architecture. The surrounding neighborhood was likewise seeing major improvements. New office buildings and condominiums were filling downtown, with Union Station serving as the central focal point of the area. Walking about in the cool morning air with the bright sunshine and clear blue sky felt refreshing and invigorating after a restful night aboard the train. And so my first impression of Denver, the Mile High City, was a very good one.
From Denver the California Zephyr continued westward and uphill and before very long entered the Rocky Mountains. Following extensively curvaceous track, the train twisted and turned through valleys and along mountainsides and passed through numerous short tunnels. I considered myself fortunate to have found a seat in the now very crowded sightseer-lounge car, which with its oversized floor-to-ceiling windows offered the best vantage point for taking in the view. This was my first time seeing the Rocky Mountains, and the view of them from the train was simply spectacular. In the late morning, the train reached the summit of the rail line and transited the six-mile-long Moffatt Tunnel through the Continental Divide at an elevation of 9,239 feet above sea level. From this point it was downhill through the mountains and canyons of western Colorado.
Also at this point I had my first experience with a very mild case of altitude sickness. I did not really get sick, but just didn’t feel right—lethargic, uncomfortable, queasy, etc. To alleviate this condition I retired to my roomette and put my feet up, ate some bland crackers to settle my stomach, and skipped lunch. I also stepped outside at the next few station stops to get some fresh air. After a little while, and as the train continued into lower altitudes, I felt fine again. By dinnertime, the train was emerging from the famous Glen Canyon through which it followed the Colorado River, and I sat down to another banquet of steak and potatoes in the dining car. So much for altitude sickness!
After Glen Canyon the landscape changed to hills and orchards, then to high plains, and then to the famous Ruby Canyon. By this time the sun hung low in the western sky. As the California Zephyr passed through the canyon, the now softening sunlight struck its ragged rock walls and illuminated them in magnificent shades of red that defy description. Ruby Canyon was indeed aptly named. At its base, the Colorado River again flowed alongside the track. The river and the railroad parted company after a while, though, and the train entered the desert of southeastern Utah, a sea of empty and uncultivated land that stretched for many miles in all directions to the horizon. I watched the sun set over the desert, and then dozed off for a while.
By this time the California Zephyr was running about two and a half hours late. She would arrive in Provo at nearly midnight. From Provo the train would continue to Salt Lake City and then across Nevada and California to the San Francisco Bay area, but without me. As I approached the end of my long journey I thought of all that I had seen and experienced since leaving Boston. What impressed me the most was the enormous food-growing capacity of this country. With the obvious exceptions of the cities and the mountains, from western Massachusetts to western Colorado were farmlands. In a trek of approximately 2,500 miles, I reckoned that about 1,700 of those miles contained farmland, whether used for orchards, livestock, or wheat and grain. A very impressive and thought-provoking sight of “a land which is choice above all other lands.” Also very impressive was the engineering work of building a railroad with tunnels through the backbone of the Rocky Mountains, truly a monument to American ingenuity and perseverance. And yet, there was decay in some of the cities, which seemed out of place in a choice land.
Anyway, close to midnight, the California Zephyr came to a halt in the Provo station. I stepped ashore from this great train for the last time and was greeted on the platform by my beloved little girl, Miss Karen Elizabeth. She and her friend Magnolia had come to welcome me and drive me to my lodging near the campus of Brigham Young University. I was very happy to see her again, of course, but also a bit sad to see my train leaving the station without me. Later on when people would exclaim in surprise, “You rode the train to Utah?! How long did that take?” I would answer, “Not long enough!” And it was true; I could have very happily kept going!
But tonight Miss Karen wanted to know all about my journey. She had ridden the trains between Boston and Provo several times herself, and we enjoyed comparing notes. We chatted as I got settled in a spare room in the apartment of Taylor Anderson, her home teacher.