CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- My first morning on the westbound California Zephyr, I awoke to a brilliant white outside my window.
One of the great things about train travel is the disorientation upon awakening after a night's sleep and finding oneself several hundred miles down the line. I'd fallen asleep the night before just after Omaha, Neb., still on the plains and still in warm late-April weather.
Without my glasses, I assumed it was extremely foggy out. I soon realized it was not fog but a heavy snowstorm; no longer were we on the plains, but in the foothills of the Rockies, about a half-hour outside of Denver.
Between a breakfast of scrambled eggs and grits and the meatloaf lunch special, we'd go through points in the high Rockies accessible only by train (on the curves, you could see the engines blast through snowdrifts as if they were nothing), though the Moffat Tunnel and across the Continental Divide.
By the end of the day, the states and topography again would change, and by night, I watched Provo and Salt Lake City roll by, seemingly one continuous megalopolis. (I was impressed by the Utah Capitol all lit up, but disappointed that I did not see any Home Plus stores in the metro area.)
Romance and nostalgia
I can trace my fascination with trains back to age 5, when Mom took me and my newborn brother to visit our grandparents in Clarksburg. I don't have a memory of the trip from Petersburg, Va., to Washington, D.C., but vividly remember Union Station (it was by far the biggest enclosed space I had ever been in), and most important, the giant blue and gray Baltimore and Ohio engine, with its gold capitol-dome logo.
In 1973, I managed to win a junior high science competition, earning a trip to Florida for the Skylab launch, making my first trip on Amtrak, and first long trip without parental supervision, on a "rainbow" consisting of cars Amtrak had inherited from other railroads.
Over the years, I've taken the train numerous times, most memorably on a trip to New Orleans (via Atlanta and Chicago) with my friend Brenda -- in which I came to the realization that there are train people, and people who just can't abide train travel. (Her reaction upon first seeing our roomette: "What the hell is this, the closet?")
Then, for about a decade, I simply had not had occasion to take the train. During the 2012 presidential campaign, with Mitt Romney running on cutting federal spending, including Amtrak, I decided I had better ride again while I could, in case Romney won.
I took an out-and-back trip to Clifton Forge, Va., and realized how much I enjoy and had missed traveling by train.
Time flies by
There's no better way to appreciate how vast and spectacular the country is than a cross-country train trip.
By plane, the trip cross-country is reduced to a few hours of humiliation, aggravation and discomfort. By car, most people break the trip into segments, with overnight stops.
However, three nights and three days of basically continuous train travel, from Charleston to Chicago, and then on to California, provides a very clear perspective.
While spending 48-plus hours on a train might seem long, it is amazing how quickly it goes by. (I talked to many passengers who, like myself, had packed lots of reading material -- but never found the time or need to crack open a book (or e-book).
Each morning, the sleeping-car attendant delivers papers to each room, and keeps an urn of coffee going from early morning to evening. Complimentary juice and bottled water is also available.
Between breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining car, sightseeing in the observation car (with floor-to-ceiling dome windows), to a nightcap in the lounge (while the SCA converts one's room from daytime seating to sleeping accommodations), the day goes quickly.
I've also always found the gentle rocking motion of the train very conducive to sleeping -- a sensation that persisted for about 36 hours after I completed this extended trip.
(Unlike conductors and engineers, who change out every eight to 10 hours, the train's service personnel stay on board, and on duty, for the duration of the trip, so you get to know them well. Ron, the SCA on my sleeper, has been with Amtrak since its inception and plans to retire this summer; he did a great job, as did the crew in the dining car.)
While meals are not the grand cuisine of the golden era of rail travel, the food is good (about the caliber of Applebee's or Chili's) and plentiful, and is included in the price of the sleeping-car accommodations.