It’s slow going on Amtrak’s Cardinal line from Washington’s Union Station to Chicago’s Union Station- almost a 24-hour trip. Sure, you could drive it in about half the time, or fly in just a couple of hours. With about two-dozen stops along the way, the train takes its own sweet time, but that’s the whole point. Riding the train is like being a kid in the back seat of the family car on a vacation drive- all there is to do is take in the view.
We rumble out of Washington at 12:55, as the train’s conductor shows us to our sleeper car. Most of the sleeping berths are the size of walk-in closets with the exception of a few stateroom suites like the one we have reserved for our Friday night journey. There are two sofas and a tiny bathroom with its own shower stall. A window draped with “Amtrak blue” curtains provides our view to the world moving outside. After being given instructions on how to convert the sofa into a bed and how to contact our conductor if we need anything, he tells us there will be an announcement when lunch is served. (All meals are included in the train fare.)
I unpack the wine, cheese and snacks we’ve brought along and almost immediately settle in and begin to feel quite comfortable. It doesn’t take long before we fall under the spell of the train’s rocking and rolling rhythms. Our plan is to ride the rails for 24 hours, spend a night in Chicago and head back to the East Coast the next night. Yes, traveling nearly 48 hours by rail to spend 24 hours in Chicago is, shall we say, a touch eccentric, but it’s the experience of the journey we’re after.
Somewhere between Manassas and Culpeper, Va., we ignore the announcement for lunch and I pop open the bottle of wine as my traveling companion, Tracy, and I watch the tapestry of glorious red, yellow and orange leaves unfold from the window. In the woods we spy meandering streams, farmland hills and a smattering of small-town baseball diamonds.
I put a Willie Nelson CD in the portable player we brought along for the ride; it’s the perfect soundtrack for watching the rest of the work-a-day world going about its business. We spend a lazy afternoon drinking wine and gazing out of our window. The glimpse of the country that you get through the windows on a train provides a unique behind-the-scenes view of life in rural America. As we make our way through small towns in Virginia and West Virginia- White Sulfur Springs, Hinton, Prince, Thurmond- we are frequently surprised how close some people’s homes are to the tracks and by the little shantytowns and makeshift villages existing in these remote and seldom-seen enclaves. By this time the ride is so relaxing we almost forget where we’re going and our estimated time of arrival is increasingly less significant. Now it’s just about the ride and enjoying each other’s company, the romance of the rails.
While we enjoy the time spent in the privacy of our room, we also wander into the sightseer lounge car with its cushy, comfortable chairs directed at big panoramic windows. As afternoon gives way to dusk, I take a few pictures of the changing leaves and small towns as they flash by our window. The rail yards of Charleston, W.Va., come into view after nightfall, shortly before the announcement that dinner is being served.
There’s a certain sort of person who enjoys traveling by train. Someone a bit old-fashioned; someone patient and social. We meet this society of railroad travelers at meal times in the dining car, where passengers sit down with strangers, four to a table. The dining car is about half full with a diverse mix of couples on vacation and single people traveling on business. Because Amtrak offers tremendous discounts to senior citizens (and military veterans) this type of travel seems to attract an older crowd. We strike up a conversation with a longtime train traveler who fits both the senior citizen and veteran’s bill. “Gregarious” by his own account, Pete says that, for him, the train is the only way to travel. “I like to talk and the train is so much more conducive to conversation than flying. On the plane people mostly keep to themselves. Here you are more likely to meet someone,” he says. Each time we run into Pete throughout the evening he is engaged in some form of social activity.
For dinner we enjoy roasted Cornish game hen with vegetable medley and rice, which is definitely a step above typical airplane fare, served in spacious white tableclothed booths. In the dining car we overhear conversations of our fellow travelers sharing anecdotes of train trips past, wearing their stories like merit badges on their chests.
We linger in the dining car before returning to our room. Rolling along the banks of the Ohio River, we make stops at train stations in the small towns of Ashland and Maysville, Ohio, which come into view as points of light in the distance after long periods of traveling through the black of night. By the time we reach Cincinnati, which seems like a huge ball of light in comparison to the smaller stops along the way, it’s close to midnight.
As the evening progresses, much of the traveling is through relative darkness; other sensory perceptions become more prominent. The sound and pattern of the train’s whistle blowing, the metal on metal of the wheels on the track, the chugging of the engine and the increased acceleration are noticeably more evident. In the wee hours, the train eventually rocks us to sleep, but I’m periodically awakened by some of the more intense chattering at high speeds or sustained whistle blowing as we approach train stations and highway crossings.
Sunrise comes upon the industrial backside of Indianapolis with its smokestacks, warehouses and hulking plants still quiet in the Saturday morning light. Breakfast is available in the dining car, but we sleep through it as the train heads northwest through Indiana. Instead we make do with provisions brought from home (a bag of granola and a hunk of Gouda cheese) and some coffee in the lounge car. Around noon, Chicago’s Union Station comes into view amidst the city’s soaring skyline, creating a picturesque and elegant arrival in the Windy City.
Upon our arrival we have a little more than 24 hours to spend in the city before boarding the Capitol Limited train back to Washington the next day. After a brief walk through Union Station, we make our way to The Palmer House Hilton, one of the city’s historic landmarks and oldest hotel, dating to 1873. (The 1871 Chicago Fire destroyed the original hotel 13 days after it opened.)
With an awesome display of art and architecture, The Palmer House’s 17,500-square-foot lobby makes for a dramatic introduction. In a breathtaking expanse the two-story vaulted ceiling soars to a height of 45 feet and is decorated with 21 separate but connected oil paintings composed by French artist Louis Pierre Rigal at the turn of the century.
We lunch in the hotel’s Sports Page restaurant, a large gathering place that serves hotel guests as well as many power lunchers and an after-work happy hour crowd. After our first “stationary” meal in a day, we head up to the room for a catnap before some late afternoon strolling.
After dinner at the Palmer House’s Trader Vic’s restaurant- one of only three in the country and the originator of the mai tai cocktail- we meet with some old friends in the hotel’s classy Windsor Bar and cab it over to Buddy Guy’s Legends blues club and catch the midnight set of blues harpist Lazy Lester.
There’s nothing fancy about Buddy Guy’s. The place entertains a pool-shooting, whiskey-drinking crowd. But the music frequently features some of the area’s best axe wielders as well as an occasional surprise appearance from Buddy Guy himself. The walls are covered with large photographs of Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker and others as well as autographed guitars. We hang out almost until closing time before taking the short ride back to the hotel.
In the morning, we visit the Chicago Public Library, a neo-gothic architectural marvel, and enjoy an exhibit on Mary Shelly’s classic, “Frankenstein,” complete with early lithographs of the book and artists’ interpretations of the monster. With just a few afternoon hours left, we hop on the elevated train north to Wrigley Field and its surrounding pubs and taverns where we commiserate with Cubs fans after yet another season of what might-have-been.
It’s been a quick 24 hours in the Windy City, and you can, of course, stay much longer, but we’re surprisingly eager to get back on the train to take in some more fall scenery.
The Capitol Limited’s route out of Chicago crosses the northern part of Indiana and Ohio and is a few hours shorter than the trip in on the Cardinal line. Following the original B&O line, Amtrak’s Superliner has a sightseer lounge with wraparound windows, and is larger and more accommodating than the lounge car on the Cardinal train. In the evening when outdoor views are sparse, train staff convert the car into a movie theater and play feature films on full-size television screens at both ends of the car.
Dinner- Cornish game hen, perfectly prepared with a crisp skin and rich stuffing that tastes like Thanksgiving Day- is served soon after our departure. Afterward, we roam the train’s cars for a while before retiring to our room.
Through the course of the evening we traverse northern Ohio and cross through the southwest corner of Pennsylvania. In the morning the views become more expansive, colorful and dramatic moving through western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Saving the best for last, the Allegheny Mountains and Potomac River Valley coming through historic Harpers Ferry provide the visual highlight of the journey. Both of us agree that for fall scenery, traveling by train beats a trip on an airplane any day.
Charlie Vascellaro writes from Baltimore when he’s not riding the rails.
Catch the Train
One-way ticket prices for Amtrak’s Cardinal and Capitol Limited lines start at $129/coach, $240/sleeper. 800-USA-RAIL, www.amtrak.com.
Weekend rates at The Palmer House Hilton start at $179 per night. 312-726-7500, www.hilton.com.