Making tracks and training across America – Part two the great plains to great cities

Ottumwa Station

In the first part of this series I wrote about riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr from San Francisco to Denver.

Now I describe my train trip from Denver to New York City.

Denver is called the “Mile-High City”, and the spot that marks the exact place of one mile above sea level is on one of the steps which lead to the entrance of Denver’s State Capitol building, an imposing structure that has a prominent place in the city opposite a charming park.

Denver is a walkable city, as it is much flatter than I imagined, but it also has a free tram for ease of getting around.

Historic Larimer Street has some very interesting shops and I could have spent hours in the Tattered Cover Bookshop.

I could also have spent a couple of days sampling each of Denver’s 65 pub breweries, but as I was there for just one day limited my exhaustive research to just one.

It was dusk when I left Denver, and by the time the California Zephyr had left the city’s metropolitan area it was dark.

We were also out of the mountains and crossing the great plains of the USA.

There wasn’t much to do, except sleep, and I managed that ok, even sitting up.

I awoke as we pulled into Omaha, Nebraska. We had a 15-minute break here, time for a good walk along the station.

Unfortunately, I didn’t bump into Warren Buffet so have no great investment tips for you.

The Iowan countryside was interesting. Good rural country, with many prosperous-looking farms, and still as flat as a tack.

I decided to have a decent breakfast in the dining car, so tried bacon and grits. I had no idea what grits were, and was imagining some form of fry up, but I was very wrong.

Bacon and Grits

Grits is very much like tapioca, and was served up as a porridge, only topped with bacon and honey.

Americans are seriously weird when it comes to breakfast, for them it seems that the more sugar they can pour into themselves the happier they are. If it wasn’t for the honey, the grits would have been disappointingly bland.

I couldn’t work out why the grits were served with bacon because it certainly didn’t create any sort of taste sensation that I could rave about. I moved the bacon to one side, ate the grits, then attacked the bacon last.

I don’t really drink coffee so ordered tea. The usual question was asked by the server, “Is that iced tea or hot tea?”

I knew this was going to be another disappointing experience. Hot water in a paper cup was delivered to the table, along with a teabag of a brand of tea I’ve never encountered before.

Hot water needs to be poured over the tea, not vice versa. Plus, they kindly provided cream, not milk. At least the water was hot, even if I was drinking a cup of yuck.

Four hours after leaving Omaha we arrived in Ottumwa, Iowa with time for another saunter along the station.

Poor old Ottumwa, the platform roofing had been removed and everything else was rusted.

The main attraction in Ottumwa is the American Gothic House where the famous painting of a farmer holding a pitchfork and his wife was painted.

What a shame that I missed out on the opportunity to visit and to hold that beloved pitchfork.


After Ottumwa we dipped into Indiana for a short while, then back into Iowa, where we entered the city of Burlington, which does have a great railway history.

Burlington is on the western bank of the mighty Mississippi River, and I had ample opportunity to admire the river’s magnificence as we crossed this impressive waterway.

The Mississippi was a lot wider than I imagined and coloured quite a lovely muddy brown.

After crossing the Mississippi railway bridge we were into Illinois, and just four hours from Chicago.

Mississippi River

We passed lush farmland until we reached the outskirts of Chicago. The suburbs appeared to be clean and neat with tree-lined streets and mostly double-storey houses.

West Virginia House that is smaller than our houses

One thing that I had noticed about the houses, virtually everywhere I went, was that they seemed to be a lot smaller than houses here in Perth.

Even the houses that I saw on farms and in rural towns appeared to be quite tiny, which was a surprise.

Despite mostly being two storeys, American houses have, on average, about four fifths the liveable space of an average Australian house, so their imprint is a lot smaller than ours.

I could tell that we were nearing Chicago as we started rumbling past industrial areas, but the city skyline suddenly appeared just before we pulled into Union Station.

There are union stations in most of the cities I visited, and I discovered the name “Union” indicates the station has tracks and facilities which belong to two or more railway companies for the convenience of passengers when making connections.

There seems to be a template for grand US railway stations, and Chicago’s Union Station was indeed grand and, for arriving passengers, quite efficient.

Chicago skyline

Just a few minutes after disembarking I was in a cab and on my way to the hotel.

Chicago is brilliant. Take my word for it.

Unfortunately, that efficiency upon arrival was not as noticeable for departing passengers.

After a couple of days’ break enjoying Chicago I was back at Union Station to catch an overnight train to Washington DC.

There is a waiting area at the top of each platform, but you can’t use that waiting area until it is open for your train. Until that area is opened, you have to use another waiting area, one which is set further back from the tracks.

This is a large room that is, naturally, filled with passengers. The main problem was that the person doing the announcements was utterly unintelligible, so you never quite knew what train, or to where, was being called.

The announcer was using local slang terms and doing a bit of word rhyming, trying to turn his announcements into some kind of rap song, so I had no idea what he was saying.

Joining me were a number of Amish people waiting to catch the same train. The Amish don’t speak English amongst themselves, preferring a form of Old German.

My fellow passengers who are Amish waiting for the same train

I actually preferred the Old German to whatever rubbishy patois was being uttered by the PA announcer. I respect people of all religions, but I couldn’t help but notice that the Amish do resemble garden gnomes.

Besides, they are almost the same height as your average gnome. I couldn’t help but notice that given their custom of shunning outsiders the Amish gene pool seemed to be exceptionally shallow.

As mentioned earlier, Americans don’t seem to understand the importance of clear, concise signage either. The whole experience of trying to translate gibberish into meaningful information was completely confusing, but I eventually found my way to the correct platform.

Here seniors, in the US that’s people aged over 62, are given boarding priority, but there is no dedicated place for them to wait, and not enough seats for everyone, so the process of boarding the train is rather chaotic too.

This train was much more crowded than those I had already travelled on. The journey was mostly undertaken at night, but it was still pretty comfortable sitting up. I did note that this train, particularly the toilets, weren’t kept as clean as those on the California Zephyr.

I awoke to find us travelling through West Virginia and traversing the Appalachian Mountains. This is home to string band folk music and bluegrass.

The Appalachians

West Virginia is a rural state and noticeable from the train were barns that were painted with giant slogans such a “Make America Great Again” and “Trump For President”.

They got their wish for the latter.

Who knows about the first?

The scenery was very pleasant as we stuck to the valleys following fast flowing rivers. The view was quite soft, especially following the dramatic landscapes of the high sierras and Rocky Mountains, comprising of small towns, many family farms, gorgeous, lush forests and roads which seemed to be very quiet.

Arrival into Washington’s Union Station was anticlimactic, but it is a vast, grand marbled building.

Washington Union Station

I was wandering around when I spotted the President’s Cigar Shop. Amongst the displays of cigars were photos of President Donald Trump boasting their Inaugural cigars, which I found to be odd as he is a non-smoker. Truth in advertising is obviously not a priority in the United States.

Very Important Cigars

When you arrive in Washington DC you can smell the power. The city just reeks of it as those who have, or who believe they have, political influence strut along like suited peacocks.

To save money, because Washington is an expensive city, I decided to stay in Maryland.

Washington has a very efficient commuter rail system so getting around by train was easy. Even in peak hour the trains don’t seem to be too crowded. Of all the places I’d stopped during my journey Washington DC was my least favourite.

There are some fantastic attractions there, but I found it somewhat tourist unfriendly. Possibly, this is because it is a city dedicated to politics and business.

God Bless America

The Capitol building is immense and the various Smithsonian Museums are simply mind boggling, but I wasted a lot of time waiting for buses that never arrived because they’d changed their routes, but had no notices about this at any of the now-unused bus stops.

My last train journey was from Washington DC to New York City. It’s only a few hours, so I was on a commuter train, which was quite crowded but still comfortable.

This is a great trip as you pass through Baltimore, Wilmington, Newark, Philadelphia and Trenton, capital of New Jersey.

The train travels along the shores of the mighty Chesapeake Bay, past massive industrial complexes, large, neat towns and finally you cross the Hudson River where you can see the New York skyline in the distance.

The last part of the journey is underground. When you finally arrive at Penn Station you know that you’ve reached New York.

The crowds, the chaos, the excitement, the sense of purpose is instant. You have arrived in the middle of Manhattan. New York City. There is no other city like it. It is a buzz and that journey to get here was absolutely worth it.

Mr Liberty

I began the first part of the journey by saying that the trip seemed like a good idea at the time. It was a brilliant idea and I loved crossing the United States by train.

Next time I would stop more often. But time didn’t permit that on this trip.

The trains didn’t often run on time, but they were comfortable and I saw lots of America and chatted to so many Americans.

It was a true adventure, well worth doing.