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Originally published Sunday, June 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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No strangers on a train during cross-country trip

Traveling cross-country by train takes time, but less than I expected: four days, from New York to San Francisco Bay at Emeryville, Calif. I gave myself a week for the winter trip, stopping in Chicago, Denver and, for variety, a remote town in Nevada.

The New York Times

Scenic trains worldwide

Across the U.S.

For Amtrak's cross-country trains, including the Empire Builder (from Seattle) and the California Zephyr to Chicago: www.amtrak.com or 800-872-7245.

Canada

The Canadian, VIA Rail's cross-Canada train, traverses the soaring Rockies, prairies and lakeland on a four-night trip from Vancouver to Toronto. www.viarail.ca or 888-842-7245.

New Zealand

The Overlander's 12-hour journey from Auckland to Wellington down the lush spine of the North Island passes' farming hamlets, snow-capped volcanoes and steep river gorges. www.tranzscenic.co.nz.

Switzerland

The breathtaking, 7-½ -hour Glacier Express journey from St. Moritz or Davos to Zermatt roller-coasters across 291 bridges, through 91 tunnels and the 6,670-foot-high Oberal Pass. The postcard views include the Matterhorn. www.glacierexpress.ch (get tickets through a travel agency or www.raileurope.com).

Norway

From Oslo, a scenic seven-hour train ride to Bergen ascends to mountain resorts and across the vast Hardanger plateau. www.nsb.no.

Mexico

The 14-hour Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway, or El Chepe, links the Pacific Coast in Sinaloa with the Chihuahua desert on a spectacularly rugged route though the Copper Canyon. www.chepe.com.mx.

The New York Times

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Somewhere on the west side of Illinois, the Amish men broke out a deck of cards and I joined them as the Amtrak train attendant, using an iPod and a set of portable speakers, broadcast Eckhart Tolle, author of "A New Earth," discoursing on the virtues of stillness.

"Life gets discombobulating," the attendant said, calmly. "This helps."

The six Amish men were in their mid-20s, returning home to Iowa, after a three-week cross-country tour. They had especially liked the Creation Museum, in Petersburg, Ky., and Niagara Falls. As we rolled across plains, they pointed out which plots grew beans and which grew corn. To my eye, the still-dormant land had revealed few clues.

Around the train car lounged Americans traveling for work and others for family, people for whom train travel is a necessity and those for whom it's merely quaint, first-time riders and probably even a few "foamers" — the nickname that train workers privately give the buffs who salivate over the sight of a locomotive.

With every uptick in gas prices, Americans in general are thinking less about driving. With each degree of global warming, trains become even more sensible. And with each new surcharge and each new item of clothing one is required to remove to board an airplane, the rails beckon. Last year, Amtrak set all-time ridership records (and is getting more federal funding this year).

Traveling cross-country by train takes time, but less than I expected: four days, from New York to San Francisco Bay at Emeryville, Calif. I gave myself a week for the winter trip, stopping in Chicago, Denver and, for variety, a remote town in Nevada.

Our consumer society may still rely on trains to transport things, but those things are pitched to drivers in cars, not to passengers on trains.

And so I realized something remarkable: It's still possible to travel 3,585 miles across the United States without being the target of billboards or golden arches. The trains offer a view onto Unbranded America — the land as it was.

The Amtrak Cardinal train on which I started out makes 31 stops in 27 hours on a southerly, U-shaped path from New York City to Chicago.

It's not the most direct of Amtrak's routes, but it charts a course through textbook American history: Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Manassas, Va.; Cincinnati.

At Philadelphia, a woman named Mary Ellen Phillips Belcher and her grown daughter Ladonna settled into the roomette across from mine.

Curiosity satisfied

They were returning home to Kentucky after visiting a relative in Pennsylvania. They usually drive; the train ride was satisfying a long-held curiosity.

Life stories and first names have a way of surfacing between strangers. Mary Ellen lived her girlhood days in Junction City, Ky., with four brothers and a single mom, along the old Louisville and Nashville Railroad tracks.

"We didn't have money to buy cigarettes, so we'd get us a coffee can and collect the butts thrown off the train," she said. "Mother would always leave a skillet of cornbread and brown beans outside the house for the hobos coming through. Evidently, they had passed word on to their friends that Mother was a kind lady. She'd never have enough food for us, but she'd always have something for somebody.

"I said, 'One of these days I'm going to ride a train to remember Mother and those hobos.' I guess I had to be 65 before I took that adventure."

In the old days, nearly all cross-country train journeys passed through Chicago. I spent a night in the city, and the next afternoon boarded the California Zephyr.

New relationships quickly formed in the train's observation car, which on the double-decker, Airstream-like Zephyr was outfitted with curved-glass walls and padded chairs.

Passengers lounged together, sharing snacks or packed beverages, and commenting on the landscape — fields and lonely farmhouses on windswept plots.

Speeding along

We were making good time, not a reputation Amtrak usually enjoys. Seventy percent of Amtrak's service — basically everywhere but in the Northeast U.S. — operates on freight railroad tracks, where inefficiencies cause frequent delays.

For now, the crippled economy has significantly lessened freight traffic across the country. One conductor told me that he trades stocks based on looking out the window; when he sees less freight, he sells.

So owing in part to the recession, we coasted at dawn — ahead of schedule — into Union Station in Denver, where a friend picked me up for a quick drive into the mountains for a day of skiing.

In the morning, I boarded another westbound Zephyr. Leaving Denver, the rails snake through 29 tunnels on their ascent into the Rockies. In a single bend, we turned from the great brown plains, and the dominant impression of America — which 2,000 miles east had been industrial and, later, agricultural — suddenly turned geological.

We passed old mines and mountain ranges, red-rock canyons and ranches blanketed by snow, glistening under the winter sun. For hundreds of miles, the train coursed along icy green stretches of the Colorado River accessible only by raft or rail.

I got off the train in Winnemucca, Nev., a small town dwarfed by big sky and high mountain desert. And for no particular reason, really. But train routes are about connecting — and appreciating — the points in between, those places that urban dwellers might deride as "middle of nowhere."

A century ago, Basque sheepherders jumped off at Winnemucca by the hundreds, and that evening, I had lamb shank with their descendants at the 110-year-old Martin Hotel, a wooden bar and restaurant beside the tracks.

Today, many of the Basque work for gold mines outside town. I slept the night at a cheap motel and caught the next Zephyr rolling through.

Great Basin

In dawn's light, the train streaked across the Great Basin Desert, the observation-car windows framing the white-dusted, mineral-stained mountains.

In Reno, a dozen gamblers boarded, and we climbed the Sierra Nevada to California's Donner Pass, named after the hapless westbound journeyers who ate some of their own when stranded at the pass in the winter of 1846.

Forty years later, the Donner Party would have had a transcontinental train.

The Zephyr's engineer made steady, giant slalom turns along that original route, then wove down through the backcountry on a 7,000-foot descent toward San Francisco Bay.

Docents from the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, who regularly ride the train back and forth to Reno, filled in the passing scenery with history. Chinese laborers, they told us, forged much of this mountain route.

As we rolled toward San Francisco Bay, the train bisected California: craggy mountains and the ghosts of gold mines became fertile cropland until once again we rolled through industrial yards, these lining San Francisco Bay.

Making friends

Almost every veteran conductor I talked with on the trip lamented that something of train travel's former magic had slipped away. Yet I witnessed something very precious that remains — a sense of community.

One of the Amish passengers had remarked in astonishment: "I met a man who said he spent 12 hours on an airplane, sitting right next to someone, and they never said a word to each other!"

On my rail journey, a former New York City cop-turned-massage-therapist from Oregon, traveling with her husband, carried cards printed with their contact information, and the headline: "There Are No Strangers on a Train."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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