Travelling from New York to Los Angeles by rail is a soulful encounter with the country’s diverse landscape — and dining car companions.
It is a relief to leave New York. My sojourn there has been like an eight-day drug trip — a kaleidoscope of light and sound, touch and taste. After this exhilarating intensity, my departure — from scruffy Penn Station deep below the city — could scarcely be more anticlimactic.
I yank my bag along a grimy platform to the 49 Lake Shore Limited, a gleaming double-storey train. One of two on either side of the aisle, my seat is as spacious as a grandpa’s armchair, with legroom to match — a good thing considering it’ll be home for 34 hours.
The train judders into movement and my heart lifts: the journey to California has begun. There are cheaper and faster ways to get there from the East Coast, I know, but I want to stretch the space between things; I want time to think. And I want to witness the gradations as state yields to state, to get a better sense of the scale and textures of this vast nation that a few hours in an aircraft would be unable to provide.
After several more minutes in darkness, we surge out of the ground. The fat Hudson is alongside the tracks, flashing silver between bare trees, fading to sulky grey as clouds darken the April sky.
At Albany, the capital of New York State, we wait several hours while track repairs are completed further down the line. I eat chowder in the station canteen, stunned by the cashier’s friendliness, a novel thing after the brusque service of New York.
The clouds have peeled away into radiant dusk as we clatter over the river, curling around the city’s stubby towers and into clapboard suburbia and industrial sprawl.
A sleeping pill yanks me jaggedly to sleep. I stir when we reach Boston: a dreamy blaze of office towers.
Dawn’s tentative blues arrive over Ohio: smooth brown unfolding for kilometres, occasionally interrupted by silos, a barn. When I go to find some breakfast I discover the cafeteria is closed until 9am — I am told the server is on break. “Why is she on break when people want breakfast?” I ask grumpily.
“She announced it,” her colleague says defensively.
When service resumes, I wolf down a cream cheese bagel and a chocolate bar. An American man, also travelling alone, has overheard my non-American accent, and takes it as an invitation to monologue endlessly — topics segueing from Linux tablets to rugby injuries.
The country outside is still pancake-flat, but green now; there are copses of trees, homesteads, a brook. In Indiana, this bucolic landscape is interspersed with small towns — a predictable mix of prefabricated homes, warehouses, truck lots.
One town has a bulbous water tower; the American flag flaps in front of porches.
And then Chicago — the gritty periphery of it first: ramshackle sheds, a steelworks, factories belching smoke, then marinas, shielding small boats, edged by low redbrick warehouses. The city centre towers creep up on us, and suddenly we slide into Union Station.
I wander from the long concourse outside into the icy morning. The Willis Tower, the country’s tallest building, looms at a neck-craning height. A security guard at its entrance eyes my big bag suspiciously. I ignore him, and head to the Starbucks inside.
I discover back at the station there is an Amtrak departure lounge with clusters of armchairs and cable news blaring from flat-screens — utilitarian in an almost pleasant, almost mid-century kind of way. Boarding soon begins for my train, the 3 Southwest Chief.
This time, I’ve booked a roomette: a small compartment with facing seats. Chicago’s spiky centre melts into suburbia, which peters into forest. I watch House of Cards. Occasionally, we pass nearly identical strips of banks, takeaway outlets, fuel stations, neat wooden houses.
As the glinting stubble of wheatlands flashes by, I put my laptop away, feeling dizzily overcaffeinated but content, closing my eyes to soak up the train’s soothing movement.
Illinois’s hills tumble into the wide Mississippi as we cross into Iowa. The rail edges along the shimmering water, passing a paddle steamer and a couple in a bright red car having sex.
“Drink it, yum, yum,” announces the smoky-voiced cafeteria server over the intercom as she markets her happy-hour specials. I choose a $4 beer instead of the Tequila Buzzball “cocktail”. She checks my ID, grumbling when she can’t find my date of birth on the South African driver’s licence.
When I learn she has been an Amtrak employee for a decade, I ask if she enjoys it. “Sometimes,” she replies, poker-faced.
I clamber back up to the observation deck. Cow-speckled hills as plump as England’s are framed by the wide windows; the falling sun feathers through new leaves.
Dinner in the dining car is communal-style — whether you like it or not. Conversations strike up with table companions: the North Carolina grandma who refuses to fly but wants to visit her son in Los Angeles; the lecturer from a Kansas university who finds trains easier; the retired attorney going home to Kansas City who finds it more flexible and pleasant. I have a delicious “Amtrak steak” — a hunk of meat cooked perfectly, with roast veg, followed by chocolate bunting cake.
After Kansas City, we hurtle into blackness, pricked here and there by jewels of light. I find the purser who transforms the uprights seats into a fully flat bed, replete with (less than sparkling) bedding and a pillow.
Dawn unfurls like a dirty sheet over hulking ships on the Arkansas River. We peel away, into grassland studded with seesawing oil pumps and rusty farm implements and grain silos taller than apartment blocks.
Breakfast is surprisingly tasty: French toast with crispy bacon and syrup. I sit reading afterwards in the observation car. We have crossed into Colorado, where flat beige gives way to scrubby mounds.
I catch a glimpse of distant snow-capped mountains: the Spanish Peaks. Foothills envelop us; we continue rising.
We are following the path of the old Santa Fe Trail — the first toll road in the country. A uniformed guide points out the desiccated remnants of Morley, an abandoned copper mining town. After rattling through the Raton Tunnel, the highest point of the journey, we begin our descent into New Mexico.
A mother, barely 20, is drinking wine, words slurring as she fends off her iPad-wielding toddler’s requests for Wi-Fi. Outside, the scrubby humps and endless golden plains remind me of our platteland. Later, the earth becomes even arider: tiny bushes dot the earth.
In drizzly Albuquerque, stony-faced Native Americans sell carpets and woven bowls on the platform. The shock of concrete fades into desert majesty once more; copper cliffs brighten as the sun flickers between soaring cumulonimbus. The next morning, I wake up in the Sunshine State. It is unexpectedly desolate: a palm tree-pocked tangle of highways and housing estates under a leaden sky. The track twists, revealing the skyscrapers of the Los Angeles city centre.
The journey, which had felt so peacefully interminable for much of its duration, is suddenly at an end. I feel disappointed to have arrived.
This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 edition of Business Day.