Amtrak's Southern Crescent #20 pulls out of New Orleans at 7:05 AM. This Viewliner train is single-level with high ceilings and windows. It hurries along the shore of Lake Ponchartrain. Across Mississippi it swings through swamps and thickets which wear the last traces of fall colors. Wooden barns in picturesque decay come into view. "So much of this area is covered with water!" Sylvia says. "Homes in some Arizona desert locations, where they don't have the option of wells, need to have water delivered by truck."
Ted sighs, "Like so many other situations, it's a distribution problem".
As we de-train in Greenville, SC to visit our son and his family, spring-like weather greets us.
By the time we re-board the Southern Crescent #20 to continue to Washington DC, it's pouring rain and all passengers are soaked. But the car attendant gives us a warm greeting and carries our bags up the steps and into our cozy Viewliner Roomette. This contains an upper and lower bunk and a toilet and sink. The beds are comfortable and the upper bunk has its own window.
Amtrak consistently supplies route guides and timetables for each train which explain on-board services, function of each crew member, etc. Under "Scenic Highlights" for this train, Vibrant Northeast Cityscapes included Atlanta, Washington, DC, and New York City. Also included in this Scenic Highlights list are the Blue Ridge foothills, which we passed at night.
De-training at Union Station in Washington, DC, we repair to the first class Acela Lounge which features comfortable chairs and handy work spaces, plus free coffee and soft drinks. The station has a large mall area in which everything imaginable is sold, along with a number of things one never knew one needed.
It is possible to walk to some of our nation's icons, including the Capitol Building Dome, between trains.
After a few hours we board the Amtrak Superliner Capitol Limited. Our sleeping car attendant, Nathan, is talking to another employee, saying, "...all I could see was flames, the floor melted, and then it went up in smoke".
"Did this happen on our train?" we wonder.
"Oh, no," he reassures us. "I was talking about my house, which caught on fire this morning."
How anyone can be calm and efficient after that experience we cannot imagine, but calm he is!
De-training at Pittsburgh, on time at twelve minutes to midnight, we find Ted's brother George waiting for us. Ted's home town, Ambridge, is a 25-minute drive away. We spend Thanksgiving there and visit with many relatives.
Leaving Pittsburgh by night we're surrounded by an entrancing festival of light. Luminescense from buildings and bridges reflects in the Ohio River. The Gulf Building is capped with an illuminated pyramid; one building features glowing blue stripes. Some high-rises are decorated with Christmas lights of many colors on the roofs or walls.
We set our watches back an hour and look forward to the 25-hour days ahead, as we will gain an hour with each westbound time-zone change.
This train's dining car is newly remolded; it provides some larger booths that seat more than four people. Large families with children are seated there.
We arrive in Chicago, Amtrak's largest hub. In fact, one cannot travel from Pacific to Atlantic without changing trains here.
The old station's grand concourse is available to sit in, and is festooned with extravagant Christmas decorations; it provides a cooler, less crowded option than the added-on Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge for first class sleeping car passengers. The newer section of the building contains the ticket counter and has a food court upstairs; we choose the Metro Deli located near the entrance to the concourse. There are several hotels with fine restaurants within walking distance, and the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) is close, too.
Some chit-chat overheard in the lounge: "Surely we'll see snow in Montana tomorrow?"
Amish families wait here; the men sport distinctive flat hats and beards. They are speaking an unfamiliar language.
Several long-distance trains depart in the afternoon; our Superliner Empire Builder #27 is one of them. Redcaps come into the lounge to take us and our luggage to the sleeping car we've reserved. Two toiletry kits are provided in our room.
The landscape between Chicago and Portland reveals rolling farm country with winter-fallow fields. A few brown leaves cling to skeletons of trees; gray ponds reflect a gray sky. This wintry landscape is restful; it does not seize the eye and demand to be watched.
After dark the train pauses at Red Wing, Minnesota. It has triple-globe street lights, a traditional treat compared to the garish sodium-vapor lights overused in so many places. Freight trains growl past us in the night.
We awake about 4 AM, and see a dusting of snow illuminated by a full moon. Towns are few and small here in the North Dakota prairie.
At breakfast the ember-colored sun begins struggling up over the flat landscape; the train is kicking snow plumes into the air which dim its light to a silver glow.
Fine snow crystals fill the air as we pause at Minot, a service stop for a crew change. The temperature in our sleeper is 73 degrees, but outside the weather is below freezing and people are dressed in heavy layers of warm clothing. The newspaper reports a low of 6F and a high of 18F. Passengers are invited to a wine and cheese tasting in the dining car.
Mountains on the horizon, the Bear Paw Range, are so remote that no roads go into the area.
The sun flames out. The Empire Builder climbs through the Rocky Mountains in the dark. We relax with good books.
After midnight, the Empire Builder splits into two segments at Spokane. Our half will continue into Portland, while the other portion heads for Seattle.
We awake with the Columbia River flowing past as a sunbeam guilds the train. Across the river on the Oregon side, the snow-covered volcanic peak, Mt Hood, looms. At breakfast, we hear someone say that school kids in Portland are supposed to carry protective masks in case Mt Hood, like its neighbor, Mt St Helens, should erupt.
The deep Columbia River Gorge is a stark, rocky desert until we reach Bingen-White Salmon; suddenly pines begin to appear on the hills. It's December 4th, yet scantily-clad trees still wear yellow and red foliage. Clad in green, the mighty river gorge becomes the most scenic part of this train's route.
Travelers in the Lounge Cafe reminisce about past trips, detail future trips, and try to one-up each other.
"I've been to all 50 states except Hawaii," a woman claims, "and I'd like to go there to see the palm trees." We try to tune them out and enjoy the present moment.
At Portland, on December 5th, we de-train and wait in the first-class Metropolitan Lounge for the last segment of our trip home. Portland provides many diversions; some of our fellow passengers visit the legendary Powell's Book Store. The Chinese Gardens are only a short walk away from the station.
At 2 PM we board Coast Starlight #11, which will complete the grand circle of our route.
After crossing the Willamette River, where seagoing ships are loading, the Superliner threads its way out of the city. Sunshine and verdant fields appear in the Willamette Valley. While it looks like spring outside, the temperature is just above freezing. Our car attendant presents us with chilled champagne.
Of all Amtrak's trains, only the Coast Starlight carries a Pacific Parlour Car, a first-class lounge complete with books and board games. Overstuffed chairs and sofas are arranged in conversational groups. It is possible to have meals in the lounge at booths for two, which gives one the feeling of being in a private club.
As the sun sets, the train climbs into the Cascade Mountains.
We arrive a half-hour early into Klamath Falls, back where we started. We've been gone for five weeks, connected with friends and relatives, and traveled about 7,400 miles.