Trans-Continental Rail Odyssey

The Lakeshore express from New York to Chicago left from Penn Station at 3:45pm, Thursday the 21st of April. Entering our sleeper cabin, we were pleasantly surprised to find it spacious, well designed and well appointed. A step up from our berth aboard the Trans Manchurian Railway.

Settling into the journey out of the New York City, we had our first dinner. Again we noticed the difference in what was on offer compared with the Russian train. The dining car was well attended and served satisfying American fare.

After our first night on the rails we disembarked the Lakeshore express at 9:45am at Union Station, Chicago. Taking the opportunity to explore, we wandered around downtown until settling into lunch at Giordanos, home of authentic Chicago style deep-dish pizza for over 40 years. Our ‘pie’ was the smallest one on the menu, but we could barely finish it between the two of us.

We boarded the California Zephyr at 2:00pm, Friday the 22nd, for the next stage of our journey. The Zephyr was larger than the Lakeshore, featuring double-decked carriages and an impressive viewing lounge with large windows offering 90 degree views of the passing countryside.

That day the Zephyr took us east through Illinois and Iowa, affording assorted views of rolling farmland, hamlets, towns and trailer parks. The following morning we woke to find that Nebraska had passed us by in the night and that we were arriving in Denver, Colorado.

Just outside of Denver, the Rockies began. Half the way up the first of many hills, the train slowed to a stop and we eventually were informed that there was a malfunction in the carriage containing the crew’s sleeping quarters. It was decided that the carriage would have to be removed, which ended up taking almost 2 hours. After we got under way again, almost as if to compensate us for having to wait, we were treated to our first mountain experience.

The train wound through the large rocky foothills and cliffs, following the rapidly flowing Colorado river. Down in the river we saw a number of adventure boaters in various craft, taking on the rapids. The foothills, and mountains behind, had patches of snow on their peaks and sometimes below.

That day we had lunch with Bob and Betsy from Newport Oregon. The proud parents of 4 adult children, Betsy had been the head of education programs at Yosemite national park, while Bob had been a senior accountant who had worked in the private sector and for water agencies in Southern California. We learnt from them that the Sierra is properly used in the singular, as it is in fact a massive single block of granite. We also heard that, despite being old school liberals, they were angry with Obama for campaigning as a idealist and governing as a pragmatist. The also remarked on his perceived neglect of the Anglosphere, including Australia, in foreign affairs.

The rockies continued to roll by throughout the day, providing a constant supply of diverting, and often beautiful, scenery. That evening we had dinner with a endearing young couple from Sacramento, Dan and Maggie. Maggie is a veterinarian at an animal hospital and Dan a builder. We learnt that the economy is improving, particularly in the building sector. Dan had not taken a single day off in over a year.

On the fourth, and last, day on the rails we spent the morning reading, thinking and continuing to enjoy the open vistas from the viewing lounge. In the late morning we entered the Sierra, which is blanketed in snow. We took lunch with Pete and Diane, another couple from Sacramento, he also being a builder and she working at a non-profit health lobby organization.

We pulled into Emeryville, slightly late due to the delay in the Rockies, at 6:45pm on Sunday. California greeted us with sunny skies. We headed straight to the car rental office and onto the road to Carmel Mission Inn, our stop for the night being two hours drive distant. Arriving late, we had a hearty dinner at Flannigans, the local pub behind the Inn.

Rising on Monday, we took breakfast in the Inn, taking in our surrounds properly for the first time. Recently refurbished, the Inn was “typically Californian”. Bold colors, striking in parts and garish in others, with a consciously cool vibe.

Starting on the Pacific Coast Highway at 8:30am we soon reached the sea, where the road wound along steep hillsides above a dramatic rocky shoreline. The first stretch of coastline was the fabled Big Sur, where deep [forest for forrest]valleys meet the sea and luxury compounds abut beatnik pilgrim sites. It was, indeed, very beautiful.

We stopped briefly at Bixby bridge where we found the Vienna Chapter of the Harley Davidson Motorcycle Club taking photos. Back on the road, we played Ride of The Valkyries while following close behind.

The hills slowly receded from the coast, leaving the the road on a rolling grassy plain falling away to a rocky shoreline. It wasn't long before we saw in the distance the famed Hearst Mansion. Its size is impressive even at a distance of a few kilometers.

We cruised into LA as the sun was coming down, depositing our car and settling into an airport hotel for our final night. Our whistle-stop tour of the US continent went by quickly, but more than lived up to its billing. Up next: the Orient Express?