Rand-friendly rail adventure: New York to San Francisco by train

Richard Holmes travels all the way across the United States on Amtrak trains

25 June 2017 - 00:00 By Richard Holmes

It became something of a badge of honour.
“California?” people would ask with a mixture of admiration and disbelief. “You’re going all the way to California?”
Platform 8 West at New York City’s Penn Station may not be the most stirring setting for the start of a great journey, but with my final destination a continent and 5,481km away, the wide-eyed wonder of fellow travellers quickly became commonplace.On the grimy platform, crowds surged past as I wheeled my American Tourister suitcase — apt choice for this journey — to my carriage.
Smartly dressed Amtrak conductors shuttled us to the right doors: third left for Albany, down the end for Illinois. As the clock struck 3.40pm, the Lake Shore Limited eased itself away while the cheery conductor checked tickets: “You’re all set for Chicago!”
But Chicago was just my first stop in a week of riding the rails. My Amtrak ticket would take me clear across the United States, delivering me to the shores of San Francisco Bay in six days' time.
Up the length of Manhattan we rumbled, tracking the brown swathe of the Hudson River. On through Irving and Croton-Harmon, past the charming boatyards and waterfront of Peekskill, and into the thick woodland around Poughkeepsie.
Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, made his home here for 25 years, the route guide told me.
Darkness wrapped around us as we rolled westwards towards Pennsylvania.
The Erie Canal passed by in the night and as dawn rose we were crossing the Maumee River into Toledo, Ohio.
Holy Toledo, I needed a morning coffee.
The city soon melts into the wide-open farmlands of the Midwest. Cornfields and country landscapes offer a high-speed glimpse of vintage Americana: of Little League baseball fields and canary-yellow school buses; vaulted red barns alongside clapboard farmhouses. The rural America of a thousand movies made real.
As we approached Chicago, the steelworks and refineries blotted the views of Lake Michigan, until the skyscrapers of the Windy City pierced leaden skies.
"Two hours late. Not bad, not bad," said my ever-cheery conductor as the doors wheezed open.Well-heeled passengers headed for the private sleeper compartments, while those watching their greenbacks took their seats in coach. The seats are wide, with great legroom and good recline.
I headed straight for the Sightseer Lounge car. With picture windows and outwards-facing chairs, it's where I spent most of my waking hours, hypnotised by the scenery and trading travel tales with fellow passengers.
As we rumbled on, I traced our journey through the forgotten towns. Galesburg, Illinois: birthplace of George Ferris, inventor of the Ferris wheel. Monmouth: birthplace of famed sheriff Wyatt Earp. Then across the Mississippi at Burlington and on into Iowa.
Both Illinois and Iowa revel in their breadbasket status, with mile after mile of cornfields and pastures. In the valleys though, woodlands hide shy deer that run from the train and red-tailed hawks burst from the treetops in wheeling flight.
If the landscape was predictable, my fellow passengers were anything but. Some were riding for the joy of it; others as it was the cheapest way home. There were regular commuters and travelling salesmen, even a pair of South African au pairs on an adventure.
"I love the train, I ride it four or five times a year," said JC, headed to Sacramento from Omaha. "It could do with a bit of an upgrade, but it sure beats taking a plane."
JC might soon be out of luck. Trump's people plan to gut funding for Amtrak's long-distance rail services; 220 cities across 23 states face losing their passenger train services.After a night at the stylish Crawford Hotel, right above the platforms at the revamped Union Station, I lined up early for my last leg, the 2,200km run to San Francisco.
It's easily the most scenic stretch of the Zephyr's 3,938km journey: up and over the Rocky Mountains, across the plains of Utah and Nevada, before cresting the Sierra Nevada and a final downhill run to San Francisco Bay.
Not long out of Denver, the first peaks broke free of Colorado's grassy plains and the track twisted through the foothills of the Rockies. Out the window, there was snow on the ground and fir, spruce and aspen trees skewered the slopes.
The 10km Moffat Tunnel soon swallowed the scenery and in the darkness we crossed the famed continental divide.
From here on, rivers flow west to the Pacific and the scenery becomes ever more lovely. In Fraser Canyon, white-tailed deer splashed in the river shallows and kayakers and rafters tackled the rapids of the Colorado River, laughing as they bent to the long-held tradition of paddlers mooning the passing train.
At Dotsero, the Zephyr passed the halfway mark and entered the spectacular Glenwood Canyon. On past De Beque, where wild horses still roam the hillsides, and into Ruby Canyon, which in the light of sunset more than lives up to its moniker.
I'd love to tell you what Utah looked like but its cities passed by like thieves in the night, and I woke to the emptiness of Nevada, the mist hanging low on the grasslands.
This is the land of the Pony Express, and the town of Winnemucca still celebrates its heritage with rodeo weekends each February. We criss-cross the Humboldt River on rattling iron bridges, then trade it for the Truckee River.
On through Reno - "The Biggest Little City in the World" - we shadowed the river into the majestic Sierra Nevada. Even in early summer, there was thick snow along the tracks, a white blanket between the evergreens.
Beyond the mountain town of Truckee, we skirted above Donner Lake, named for a party of explorers who, stuck here in the winter of 1846-47, resorted to cannibalism to survive.A bus would take me the last few kilometers across the bay to San Francisco, but I ended my journey much as I'd begun. Standing on a platform at one end of a damn long railway track, glad I'd made the trip before Trump tears up the tracks.
Trains: For now, Amtrak's routes span the continental United States giving travelers myriad options to make up their own itinerary. Book tickets at Amtrak.com. "Coach" tickets from New York to San Francisco start at $198 (R2,850).
The writer traveled on the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago (1,540km) and then onward to Emeryville, Calfornia (4,00km) aboard the California Zephyr, making overnight stops in Chicago and Denver. The last leg to San Francisco was by bus.
Getting there: British Airways flies daily from South Africa to London, with easy connections to both San Francisco and New York. See ba.com.
If you want to fly direct, Delta is your airline. It operates several flights per week between Joburg and Atlanta, with a wide choice of connections to New York and San Francisco. See delta.com.
Visas: South Africans need a visa to visit the United States. Information here.

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