I was long overdue. It had been 20 years since my last cross-country U.S. train trip and about 10 years since I took the train across Canada, from Montreal to Vancouver.

This year I wanted to visit my mother in Washington state for her birthday, but didn’t care to fly, which I find unpleasant these days, between cramped conditions, ”terror in the skies,” extra charges, or the increased security measures. Instead, I turned to the tradition, romance and leisure of the railroad, where I could really see America, rather than the interior of airports.

I left Portland at 8 a.m. Jan. 30, surrounded by happy day trippers to Boston. I knew the trip would be an adventure, especially in winter. Little did I expect that the adventure would begin within the first hour, when the Downeaster got stuck near Kennebunkport, under a graffiti covered bridge, due to a crack in the tracks.

After a bit, I approached the conductor: ”I have to catch the Lakeshore Limited at noon — should I be concerned?” Oh yes, they said, I should be concerned. Phone calls were made, and it appeared that I would be rerouted through New York City, taking the high speed Acela, and then traveling through the Hudson River Valley to Albany and then on to Chicago on the New York Branch of the Lakeshore Limited. That sounded wonderful to me.

But by the time I finally arrived at South Station (via taxi from North Station), I found that instead I would be re-routed through Washington D.C. on the Northeast Regional, and then taking the Capitol Limited to Chicago. That meant I would arrive in Seattle a day late.

Oh well, that was all part of the adventure! My train wasn’t due to leave until 9 p.m., so I was anticipating about six more hours waiting in South Station. Just as I was starting to throw myself a pity party, an Amtrak angel whisked me and my luggage up to the cushy and quiet Acela lounge, overlooking the masses in South Station, where I had access to Internet, snacks, sodas and hot water. I enjoyed a peaceful evening knitting and drinking tea, before the kind ”red cap” put me on the overnight train to Washington D.C.

UNEXPECTED WASHINGTON

Thus it was that I found myself, unexpectedly, in Washington D.C. on a beautiful Sunday morning, walking around the Capitol, taking pictures. The light was spectacular, with fresh snow, and I had the entire grounds almost entirely to myself, except for a few police officers keeping a sharp eye. A silver lining indeed.

That afternoon I hopped on the Capitol Limited to Chicago, where along the way I saw the sun set over Harper’s Ferry, W.V., a place I have always wanted to see.

We arrived in Chicago the next morning, on an overcast day. I checked my bag and mingled with the masses of commuters on the streets of Chicago, walking about 10 blocks down to frozen Lake Michigan, by landmarks such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Calder sculpture and Symphony Hall.

The Empire Builder left that afternoon, heading through Wisconsin and into Minnesota in the dark. The sun rose over North Dakota, and we enjoyed another gorgeous day through the vast snow-covered landscape of North Dakota and Montana, sometimes hilly, sometimes flat, always scenic. At times lovely farms dotted the terrain, other times barely a tree was in sight. We stopped in towns such as Minot, Williston, Havre and Shelby for service to the train and to give the smokers a chance to get outside. I usually took pictures, got a breath of fresh air and called my husband on the pay phone in the station.

The towns were small, with liquor stores, bars and lumber stores lining the railway. We passed through Glacier National Park in the dark, and the next morning brought us into Washington State. The spectacular Cascades were covered in snow on the east side of the Cascade Tunnel under Stevens Pass, but on the other side we passed into spring, with ferns, moss and lush landscape. The entire week I would enjoy sunshine and temperatures in the 50s, trees and spring flowers in bloom. Who needs to go south to find warmer weather?

We arrived at the King Street Station in Seattle in mid-morning, where I caught the final leg of this half of the trip: a bus into Bellingham, about two hours north.

Even if one doesn’t have family in this part of the country, Bellingham is a wonderful cross-country destination. Here we visited the new Lightcatcher modern art museum (part of the Whatcom Museum), went to the Abbey Garden Tea Room, spent the night at the small resort community of Birch Bay, and enjoyed the quaint architecture of Fairhaven, terminus of the Alaskan ferry.

BACK FROM BELLINGHAM

Almost a week later, I was back at the bus/train station in Bellingham, catching the Amtrak Cascades, which is much like the Downeaster, to Seattle. I had a few hours to lay over, so I spent some time with friends who live in the charming Seattle neighborhood of Wedgewood. Their home is historic (for Seattle: 1949), light-filled and ”modern.” After a delicious lunch of quiche and salad, petit fours, teacake and herbal tea, we took Red and Blue, their miniature Australian sheepdogs, to a dog park on Lake Washington. It was truly the peaceable kingdom.

My train out of Seattle left two hours late. Delays were common on my entire trip, whether for repairs or allowing freight trains to pass, but Amtrak always tries to compensate, which you rarely see airlines do. In this case they handed out free sandwiches, chips and water (for my delay in Maine they not only handed out food, but an e-mail contact to get a free trip on the Downeaster). They also seem to make up the time along the way, and usually arrived close to the original time.

GLORIOUS GLACIER

This time the Cascades were in the darkness, but in the morning we arrived in Glacier National Park, which was spectacular, with snow-covered mountains and icy rivers. The Empire Builder has sightseer cars that allow a greater view.

Gradually the land flattened in Montana (including the Blackfeet Indian Nation lands) and North Dakota. When we arrived in Minneapolis, it was 0 degrees at 8 a.m. A large crowd waited to get on, and I shared a seat until Chicago. We rode by bucolic farms and farmhouses, along the frosty Mississippi River, and chugged along lovely Lake Pepin with eagles flying alongside.

We were several hours late into Chicago — my seatmate missed her train south, but Amtrak put her up for the night in a hotel. My train wasn’t until 9 p.m. so that evening I was on the Lakeshore Limited, through Indiana, Ohio and into Pennsylvania. The scenery paled in comparison to that west of Chicago, with more industrial landscapes, but still interspersed with farms.

The Finger Lakes region in New York held more appeal, as we rode along the Mohawk River for miles. This was the toughest day of my adventure, as the train was hot, crowded (mostly with college students heading home for break), and slow. I thought I would lose my mind every time the train was delayed, and we sat in darkness waiting.

We arrived in Boston, only about a half-hour late amazingly, considering the frequent delays. I walked through the cool air to the North End, fragrant with the smells of Italian restaurants and bakeries, to my friends’ third-floor walk-up, where we enjoyed tea and Italian cookies before I collapsed into bed.

On Feb.13, two weeks after I left, I was heading home, back on the Downeaster. The crew remembered me, and were interested in my adventures.

I felt so fortunate to make it across country and back without any inclement weather (sunshine most days), considering that regions south of my travels were overwhelmed with snow and trains were canceled, including the Capitol Limited.

Train travel seems alive and well; the stations were packed with people traveling by rail.

Who were my fellow travelers? All shapes, sizes, economics, race and age. I met people who were visiting family, on business or on vacation.

I was fascinated to see groups of Amish riding the trains on either side of Chicago.

A few of us rode the rails all the way across country but most travelers were doing shorter hops.

Would I do it again? Absolutely! And I hope it won’t take me another 20 years.

 

Nancy Noble is a freelance writer who lives in Long Island, Maine.