The Grand Tour Ten Years On—A Third Continent

Growing up in the U.K. in the eighties, you absorbed a lot of knowledge about the U.S. through TV and film. Some of it eventually got erased in favour of more accurate information. Some of it didn’t. One thing that lasted until just about a decade ago was the idea that the Rocky Mountains were a narrow range running along the U.S. West Coast, part of the great Pacific ring of mountains. Well, that isn’t true. Wasn’t even close.

Leaving Oakland on the California Zephyr, I’d hit mountains quickly enough, but those would be the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, themselves further inland already than the Coast Ranges, into which the San Francisco Bay is tucked. I was setting out to cross the third continent on my trip, once more by train, and Amtrak was my carrier from embarkation at Emeryville to de-training in Boston.

A California Zephyr viewing lounge. Seats are first-come, first-served.

For a nation that was stitched together by rail, from sea to shining sea, the U.S. has largely moved away from rail as a way to move people in favour of road. It was a bit jarring in comparison to Japan, where rail is king, but the U.S. is a lot larger and emptier and is very much its own thing. (If you want to know more about why U.S. rail is the way it is, try this video.) Blame Eisenhower anyway. He’s a Republican who’s gotten away scot-free for too long. (And courtesy of a brief Wikipedia trawl, I now know that scot-free refers to being free of the need to pay royal duties or imposts.)

For purposes of my travelling plans, some longer rail routes still endure, mostly as draws for tourists, the curious, and the romantic. At least two of which applied to me back then. I’d visited the East and West Coasts before, as well as Chicago only a little while before this trip, but I’d never ventured far beyond city limits in each case. This train journey was an expression of why I prefer trains to planes: maintaining a sense of connection to the landscape while travelling, and ensuring that travel remains meaningful.

The landscape of the West. Which has its own more modern resonance for me.

On the California Zephyr, I spent most of the first few days ensconced in the viewing lounge. A specially designed car with curving panoramic windows and seats designed for sitting and watching the world go by. The seats in the lounge aren’t bookable, or weren’t then. Instead, people wander in and out as they please. Since I was just there for the travel, I settled in and over the course of the next few days I made a couple of new friends and had some fun conversations, mostly with Mormons, one of whom professed to be revealing the inner secrets of the church to me. Given that the first stop of my trip was Salt Lake City, this raised an eyebrow or two, but any weirdness was balanced out by perfect politeness in every case.

Cities with names as familiar as Sacramento and Reno fled by, but when the train hits the Great Basin between the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies, the scope and scale of the U.S. becomes apparent. It’s less vacant than the grand forested expanses of Russia but no less impressive. River-cut valleys, low ridges, tiny villages, huts in odd places. The history here is not written, but rather experienced. White settlers are newcomers. Even the native tribes have only two tens of millennia here. No time at all to write oneself into the story of the land.

Joseph Smith getting the Lay On Hands treatment.

The rhythm of night and day received a jolt with my arrival in Salt Lake City. The train crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert in darkness and skirted the shores of the Great Salt Lake itself with only the lights of the distant city as a guide. The California Zephyr leaves once a day and can be caught along its route once a day likewise. I’d chosen Salt Lake City for a stop, but the drawback was that I disembarked at around 4:00AM in the morning, knowing that I had 24 hours to explore, not sleep, and endure before I could take to the rails again.

Cue a very strange day. The larger of my two bags was safely stowed in the station, but all was still in silence and darkness as I wandered into the city. The broad, open streets of the city held almost no one else, and in the distance there was the blindingly white light of the Salt Lake Temple as a guiding star. It felt like I was in a mash-up of 28 Days Later and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Salt Lake City from above. The temple is a little less white in the daytime.

It wasn’t too hard to spend 24 hours in Salt Lake City. The first few hours were the trickiest, but once I’d found a tourist office that offered free Wi-Fi through its closed doors and an early-opening Starbucks, I was in decent shape. I’d climbed to the hill where the State Capitol sat for sunrise, but most of the rest of the day was spent in doing some religious learning in the form of Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints if you prefer) history. There’s more to Salt Lake City and Utah than the Mormons, but it’s hard to avoid the church, and I had no particular reason to do so, being a temporary visitor.

So I kept my scepticism to myself and listened and learned as the day went on, taking suggestions as to where to go and enjoying the odd non-Mormon experience like the Public Library. Those non-Mormon experiences expanded when the sun went down, which I watched from the Capitol Hill again. Sunset over the Great Salt Lake is definitely worth catching, by the way.

Those sunset skies. (Oh to have had the phone camera I have now.)

Because I had to stay awake and active until 4AM again, didn’t I? Sunset being over, I headed for a bar. Despite what you may have heard, it’s perfectly possible to imbibe in Utah. The rest of the evening went approximately pub quiz, planetarium, Led Zeppelin laser light show, and late night movie. All of which brought me to a little after midnight, upon which I headed to the station for a few hours sitting in the dry cold until the Zephyr showed up again and I found my way to my seat to sleep through the remaining morning hours.

It was a weird, half-awake day that followed. Sleeping in a seat following 24 hours of not sleeping at all (and not having been in a bed since San Francisco) does not for a healthy mental state make. The fact that I was poorly shaved and showered probably contributed to the fact that I don’t really remember talking to anyone on the trip from Salt Lake City to Denver. But balancing this out was the view.

Glimpsed from the viewing lounge, up among the mountains.

This was proper Rocky Mountains stuff as we climbed towards the Continental Divide then descended throughout the rest of the day towards Denver itself. Proper American landscapes of the Old West school, looking half-untouched by human boot or horse hoof. As I had been on the Trans-Siberian, I was transfixed, with the bonus of proper panoramic windows for the view.

We pulled into Union Station in Denver as twilight was falling. Well, I say we pulled in, but we were actually dumped on a platform some distance from the station, which was in the midst of refurbishment. Luckily, I’d learned my lessons from California misadventures and had booked ahead. A short walk took me to a youth hostel, where I showered and changed, then ventured out into the darkness feeling like a new man, in search of pizza and beer.

Denver pizza and beer. So very gratefully received.

Like Salt Lake City, and for much the same reasons, I had exactly 24 hours in Denver. Of course, sleep was going to take up one third of that, but as it turned out a whistle-stop tour of the Mile High City was just enough to fall in love with the place. There was a cold, dry, crisp feel to the air, which left me parched a good deal of the time but was exactly what a wandering traveller needed to encourage exploration.

I found the Mile-High markers at the Capitol building (or rather the three of them, as they took a few shots to get it right), roamed through museums of art and archaeology to get a feel for the culture of the West, and generally enjoyed the vibe of a city that felt like somewhere I might want to live some day. I also came across something that I’d encountered a couple of times on the West Coast: a large “Occupy” protest in front of the Capitol, attended by the odd joker in a V mask and a “Don’t worry ma’am, we’re from the Internet” sign. Ah for more innocent days.

Much of Denver’s fantastic art is Native in origin and all the more worth seeing for it.

But 24 hours was a hard limit, and as the sun sank I was heading for the loose vicinity of Union Station again. It was time for the last leg of the California Zephyr, taking me across the Great Plains to Chicago, where I would be spending another night. Or rather I would have been if hotel prices hadn’t soared through the roof for some reason. I guessed some kind of conference taking place, but regardless, there was no possibility of finding a place to stay on a budget. This being 2011 and long before the world became properly aware of Airbnb.

So I did my best to sleep through the night as we crossed the former Western Interior Seaway, the vast open plains of the Midwest, and towns and cities like Yuma and Omaha. There was plenty of scenery but from the low perspective of a train it didn’t quite strike the eye in the same way as the heights of the Rockies. And despite my best efforts to keep an eye out, I spotted no farm boys racing trains on foot while passing through Kansas.

Corn? In the Midwest? Who knew?

So I landed in Chicago with plans to stay no longer than it took me to jump on a train that took me to my next destination. Missing out on the Windy City wasn’t as big a blow as it might have been, as I’d enjoyed a freezing trip there back towards the start of the year. I enjoyed a late lunch and made my way to the Capitol Limited, headed for the heart of American political power.

It was a shorter trip than the previous legs of my journey, save perhaps the hop from Salt Lake City to Denver, and it returned me to some proper landscapes, no small amount of them soaked in rain. I’d been lucky on the trip to that point in that I’d avoided inclement weather most of the time, and on this rail trip I got to enjoy some of the scenery while enjoying dinner in the dining car with a collection of folks heading for D.C. for reasons that were many and varied.

The train, it has to be said, was not always the fastest, but the view made up for it.

Washington D.C. marked an end of sorts to my third continental crossing. I’d continue to explore the East Coast of the U.S. for a while and eventually make it to the sea, but the Potomac was close enough to the Atlantic to count for me. It was also where I’d be hosted by yet another American friend. In this case Liz, who met me at Union Station (it’s almost always Union Station in the States) and proceeded to take me out for beer and burritos, and from thence to a D.C. United game, Liz being not only a craft beer expert but a leading figure in the cheering section for her local team.

Once again, having a base of operations and a knowledgeable local made Washington D.C. a special experience. While I worried a bit about outstaying my welcome, skipping Chicago had left me with an extra day to explore, and Liz proceeded to take me upriver for some park exploration, and then host me at her place with some home brewing. When I said she was a craft beer expert, I meant it.

One of those photos of yourself that’s way more flattering than you deserve.

As for D.C. itself, there was ample to explore. Unlike Los Angeles, D.C. has decent public transport (funny how it’s always good enough for the ruling classes, hmm) so Liz could just set me loose in the morning when she was off to work. I did a circuit of the museums around the National Mall, including the Newseum, the Air and Space Museum, and the Museum of Natural History. I visited all of the presidential monuments and peeked in at the White House and its pitch black squirrels. (As an aside, I also picked up a book on Thomas Jefferson that thoroughly punctured the admiration I’d held for him previously—being a talented and principled man is only of so much use when you limit on whose behalf you exercise those talents and principles.)

D.C. is also a surprisingly walkable city, and the monuments of the Mall took me to Theodore Roosevelt Island and its population of deer, who seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see them. There were canals to wander along and Arlington National Cemetery to roam through. Not all of which was done on a single day, but there was plenty to keep me busy, and I could have kept roaming for a lot longer had I wanted to.

I did peek into the Library of Congress too, though not solely for the purposes of ego reinforcement.

At length though I needed to keep on wandering, and I had things to see and do before I was homeward bound. I said my farewells to Liz and took one last morning spin around the sights of a cloudy D.C. before heading for that old Union Station. The time had come for the last leg of the journey, into the heart of the oldest part of the U.S.: New England in the Fall.

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