As I sit down to write down the jaw-dropping and fascinating experiences of the train travel from New York to San Francisco, I am reminded of J.K. Rowling.

Rowling had a passion for train rides as her parents met on a train, she wrote. Her mother was once traveling by train and was feeling terribly cold. A stranger offered her a blanket. Later she married the guy. She always wrote about her fondness for train journeys.

Why did I take this long and stunning train trip from the east coast to the west?

My penchant for train rides had a different reason. I grew up in a suburb near Kolkata, India where our house was very close to the railway tracks. As a child, I was thrilled as trains passed by our house in the dead of night. During my childhood, I could hear the sounds of trains piercing the silence of the night and it took me to a world which words can’t explain!

Old-world style train travel becomes even more romantic when combined with breathtaking and stunning scenery. Before coming to the US this time, I decided to take the train to see the bewildering variety of the American landscape—the Rockies, deserts, canyons, rivers, streams, valleys and gorges.

So, I embarked on Amtrak’s ‘Lake Shore Limited’ from New York Penn station.

My first destination: Chicago, the Windy City and the largest city of the American Midwest.

The Lake Shore travels for 18 hours through Boston, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Waterloo, South Bend before reaching Chicago and it travels through some of the breathtaking shorelines from New York to Chicago.

We’d travel along the south shore of Lake Michigan, the Mohawk River, and the Erie Canal, following a famous Native American Highway. In New York State, we’d pass through the Finger Lakes region to Albany, capital of the Empire State.

This would be followed by an unforgettable ride on the California Zephyr. My final destination was San Francisco.  

Savoring the beauty of NY shorelines…

The first leg of our journey across America begins.

The Lake Shore Limited is a train service which was operated by the New York Central Railroad between New York City and Chicago, Illinois, from 1897 to 1956. Separate sections linked to Boston and St. Louis. The Lake Shore Limited was the New York Central’s first luxury passenger train, and paved the way for its more famous cousin the 20th Century Limited. The 1897 name is now used by Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited, which follows much the same route.

Amtrak customer service was incredible. As soon as we walked into the waiting lounge at the station, an Amtrak employee with red cap came up to us. “Will you take the Lake Shore?” he asked. I was amazed by the way the guy came with a trolley and took our luggage. We followed him and he took us two levels down to the platform where we’d board the Lake Shore. I got on board and stretched out in my reclining and cushy seat.

As the window seat beside mine was vacant, I pulled the curtain and peered out of the window. Wow! The train was running along the Hudson River—at times the rail tracks were just a few yards from the river. It was a jaw-dropping experience!

As the train left New York, I could see a number of metal bridges over the river. I was stunned when the train crossed over the magnificent Mississippi.

I could also see hundreds of marshmallow clouds over the river as the train sped along the tracks, heading north into upstate New York. Meanwhile, the last tendrils of daylight were letting go their grip. I ambled down the aisle and saw the sightseers’ lounge which enables passengers to take a 360-degree look at the breathtaking view of the passing landscape.The Wi-Fi worked only in the dining car.

Chugging into Chicago…

The romance of train travel from the Lake Shore’s sightseers’ lounge continued. The rhythm of the train’s wheels as they clatter on the tracks reminds me of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous poem (1885):

“Faster than fairies, faster than witches,

Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;

And charging along like troops in a battle,

All through the meadows the horses and cattle…”

However, for William Wordsworth, poetry and railways have an uneasy coexistence. Wordsworth, who was passionate about protecting the rural beauty of Lake District, was outraged when he heard of plans to extend the railway from Kendal to Windermere. In addition to various letters to the Morning Post, he penned his sonnet, On the projected Kendal and Windermere Railway, using poetry to put his protest across.

We chugged into Pittsfield (MA), famous for Herman Melville. The author penned his famous novel Moby Dick (1851).

After a day’s stopover in Chicago (Illinois), I was ready to get on the California Zephyr for a 52-hour journey to San Francisco. This is Amtrak’s second longest route in the US after the Texas Eagle. Train travel has always fascinated me and I’ve ridden high-speed trains in China (Beijing-Shanghai) and Europe (Brussels-Paris) and Australia (Sydney-Brisbane). The train that I took in Australia wasn’t high-speed.

The rhythm of the train’s wheels as they clatter on the tracks at night reminds me of W.H. Auden’s Night Mail:

This is the night mail crossing the Border,

Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,

The shop at the corner, the girl next door…

Coursing through Colorado’s canyons…

Even though the entire trip in California Zephyr takes two days and two nights, if you want, you can hop off for 24-hour whistle-stop in three places.

I met a guy who’d strike out across the prairies of Iowa and Nebraska before overnighting at the little town of Granby in Colorado’s Middle Park Area. After snaking through the Rockies, he would stop at Reno, Nevada, for the nearby Wild West mining town of Virginia City. Finally, he would overnight in Sacramento, California’s little state capital.

We met an American lady named Judy in the sightseers’ lounge. “I visited India several times. It’s incredible. I won’t forget my trip on Palace-on-wheels,” said Judy, a corporate strategist. “My daughter too visited India and was fascinated by Rishikesh.”   

The next station was Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska and famous for Sheldon Museum of Art.

The Gore canyon, a three-mile isolated canyon along the Upper Colorado river, is known for whitewater rapids. I saw a number of brave souls rafting through the rapids. The rafters mooned the train as it passed by them.

I met an American Math professor named Brigitte (she teaches at UCLA) in the lounge. She was traveling to Glenwood Springs (Colorado) to attend a wedding. She was keen on traveling to India. “I’d like to travel to India. There are so many fascinating places to see,” Brigitte said. I offered her Darjeeling tea. She was delighted. She gave me some Twinings tea bags before leaving. I was deeply touched by her warmth of feeling and humility. The train arrived at Glenwood Springs around 5:30pm. Paul Newman Foundation for Special Children is located close to this town. It was time for Brigitte to get off the train. The brief meeting with her will be memorable.

Experiencing the ‘Wild West’…

The final leg of my journey across America from New York to San Francisco begins. I spent almost the entire day sitting in the sightseers’ lounge (well, that’s the heart of the California Zephyr), beholding the red-rock canyons and mountain passes on one of the world’s most spectacular stretches of railway. Meanwhile, the landscape was changing from a narrow, whitewater river to a much wider stream.

In the morning light I could see the changing landscape. The train arrived at Elco (5060ft) at 9.30am. I now realize why this is truly called the “Great American West”, a land of adventure. The moderate climate makes it an ideal year-round vacation spot for a variety of recreations and outdoor sports. As the train left Elco, I saw many fat and black cows grazing on the lush pastures.

The next stop was Winnemucca (NV), famous (or infamous) for the 1900 Bank Robbery. It was in this town Butch Cassidy and his outlaw gang called “The Wild Bunch” looted the First National Bank of Winnemucca on 19 September, 1900.  As I recalled the history, I traveled back to one of the Wild West’s most cherished legends—the story of Cassidy’s daring bank heist. The American Film Institute ranked Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the 49th greatest American film among 100 movies list.

Journey’s over, memories remain…

The spirit of the ‘Wild West’ was even more in the air when the train chugged into the gambling town of Reno (NV). I met a guy who got off at this station. He said he’d take a taxi ride into the hills and follow the routes taken by the prospectors who hunted for silver after the Comstock Lode discovery in the 1850s. It was the first major discovery of silver ore in the US.

The 1260-mile journey was over. Now, I’d pity the guy who says: “Oh! You spent two days on a train trip. It’s insane!” I saw stunning landscapes with up-close views of mesas, mountains, cliffs and canyons; witnessed granite peaks and endless grasslands. I got a glimpse of America’s pioneering spirit. I’m enriched.

Amtrak made it possible to experience what I could hardly see on a five-hour flight to LA from New York. I am convinced that if you want to see the mind-blowing vistas of America’s heartland—it’s pulsating prairies and plains, magnificent mountain peaks, captivating canyons and dreary desert, take a train ride.

The journey’s over, but the memories remain. Memories of beautiful minds. Memories of marvelous moments. Memories of soul-stirring sights. They remind me of Wordsworth’s famous lines from The Solitary Reaper:

The music in my heart I bore,

Long after it was heard no more.

Article and photos by Pankaj Adhikari