Sometimes there’s nothing better than losing oneself in total randomness. Going off obliquely at a complete tangent and seeing where you end up, and when I say randomness, I mean randomness!
It was like that on Friday evening after the culmination of a busy week at work. I’d gone into the office for four days, which is something of a record since the lock-down started, and whilst I took a break midweek, in order to get my car serviced and its MOT renewed, I was feeling quite tired come the evening.
Mrs PBT’s treated us to a rather nice Indian meal, delivered to our door by a local curry house, so feeling rather stuffed after my lamb biryani I nearly dozed off, sitting in front of my computer screen. I clicked onto YouTube and selected a random mix that began with Queen of Dreams by the Strawbs – how many people remember that one?
A little later Glen Campbell’s country classic Wichita Lineman was emanating from the speakers, and it’s here that the randomness starts. “Wichita” the very name conjures up visions of vast sweeping plains, way out west, heading off into the distance, so with curiosity getting the better of me, I resorted to Wikipedia.
Disappointment set in when I read that Wichita is the largest city in the state of Kansas – whatever happened to Kansas City? So, with my illusions of an outpost on the windswept Great Plains shattered, I turned instead to a railroad map of the USA, just to see where Wichita is, and if the city is reachable by train.
It isn’t, as whilst several important freight lines run through Wichita, passenger services ceased in 1979. No problem, as there are plenty of other places, with romantic sounding names nearby, which really set my imagination rolling. This map fixation also brought back into my mind a long cherished, bucket-list desire to travel, by rail, across the whole of the United States, from east coast to west.
Some of you might recall that back in the summer of 2018, I took the overnight train from Washington to Chicago, riding on one of Amtrak’s famous, named, long-distance passenger trains - the Capitol Limited.
Arriving in the "Windy City" left me convinced that I’d now completed half of my planned trans-continental trip, but a glance at that railroad map indicated that Chicago was only one third of the distance between America’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and there was still over 2,000 miles worth of travelling before arrival in San Francisco.
Being in the midst of an unprecedented and unexpected lock-down means long-distance travel is off the cards for some time to come, but a boy can dream, but whether long-distance train services survive in the US, is open to question.
Several years ago, when I mentioned my planned coast to coast rail trip, a friend who has travelled extensively by rail in the United States, warned me to book it sooner, rather than later, because if Trump was elected President, he would shut the whole network down. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet, but there’s still a danger that a coalition of fanatical GOP supporters, and God-fearing, redneck US voters will give the “Orange One” a second term as POTUS.
Amtrak isn’t reprieved yet, and two years ago the organisation was being forced into making a series of cutbacks, just to stay afloat. One example was the switch from proper table service in the dining car, to airline style, pre-prepared food. So instead of a properly cooked, and nicely served meal, passengers were presented with something vaguely edible that was just shoved in a microwave, and handed over, still in its plastic packaging!
Upon learning that I was from England, one fellow diner told me I should write and complain to the head of Amtrak about this drop in standards. She had a point, but as I was just a visitor, and the fact that the sub-standard meal never really impacted on my whole North American train experience, meant that I never put pen to paper. So how was that short (by American standards), train journey from the capital to Chicago?
It was enjoyable, although I won’t go into too much detail as I wrote about my trip at the time, and if you want to look back on that, you can do so here. What the trip did allow was an opportunity to see a little of rural America with views and vistas you wouldn’t see from hurtling along the highway, or from 30,000 feet up in the air.
So, after boarding the train at Washington’s Union station, the stretch out of DC along the valley of the Potomac river, was the most scenic section of the whole journey. The line follows the route of the historic Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, up towards West Virginia and gets itself into civil war territory.
I was particularly interested to see the settlement of Harper's Ferry, where the raid on the federal armoury, by insurrectionist John Brown, was one of the contributory factors leading to the secession of the Southern States from the Union, at the start of the American Civil War. I nearly missed this sight, as I was busy talking to a fellow passenger, and it wasn't until we crossed the River Potomac, at a point just upstream from where it is joined by Shenandoah River, that I realised we had reached Harpers Ferry.
The line continues along the Potomac valley, climbing steadily with the hills slowly becoming steeper and more prominent, as it reaches the Allegheny Mountains. I was tucked up in bed long before then and slept right through as we travelled through Pennsylvania.
I slept right through even missing our stop in Pittsburgh where the train changed crews. By sunrise the following morning, we were passing through the comparatively un-interesting flatland's of northern Ohio and Indiana.
As the train neared Chicago, we passed through what can only be described as the mid-west "rust-belt." With blast furnaces standing empty and silent, and massive gantries quietly rusting away, this was an eerie landscape, but it wasn't long before I could make out the "Windy City's" towering skyscrapers in the distance, glistening away on the horizon.
So, what next? If I am intent of completing my coast to coast journey, I need to do so within the next five years, before I reach the grand old age of 70. Travel insurance for a visit to the United States is already expensive, given the astronomical costs of access to the nation’s healthcare system. As an example, two years ago a single trip policy, covering my two week stay, cost the same amount as the multi-trip, annual policy which covers the whole family for travel anywhere in Europe.
My train of choice would be the legendary Californian Zephyr, which operates daily between Chicago and San Francisco. The 2,438-mile journey takes three days/two nights and a journey time of around 66 hours. It follows a route via Denver and Salt Lake City, along one of most scenic and historic of all Amtrak’s routes across the United States.
Passengers are certainly treated to some superb scenery as the train journeys through the Rockies, across the arid country of Utah and Nevada, followed by the snow-capped Sierra Nevada in California, and on into the Bay Area of San Francisco.
For my Washington-Chicago journey, I booked a "roomette," where daytime seating converts to beds at night. Electrical outlets, climate controls, reading lights, a small closet and fold-down table are all within easy reach. "Compact and bijou," as the saying goes, but if I’m honest there wasn’t really room to swing the proverbial cat! Toilet and shower facilities are also shared with other passengers travelling in the same coach.
This doesn’t bother me, but is a definite no, no for the "lady of the house." A better option would be one of the "bedrooms," which are furnished with a large sofa and an easy chair next to a large window. At night, the sofa converts to a lower bed, and an upper bed folds down from above. They also feature a sink and a private, enclosed restroom with toilet and shower.
I’ll see if I can talk her into it, but in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, it's all very much “pie in the sky” at the moment. Still, as I said earlier, a boy can dream, can’t he?