Amtrak from C to Shining Sea: On the Rails from Chicago to Los Angeles

From tourist hotspots to quirky small towns, there’s plenty to see on an Amtrak train trip across America, writes Julia Hammond Johnson.

Sitting in the crowded waiting room at Union Station in Chicago, I remember an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson. He was a fan of train travel, writing:

“The train disturbs the scenes through which it takes us so little, that our hearts fill with the placidity and immobility of the country.”

Stevenson’s words still ring true over 140 years later. As we crawl through urban Illinois at a snail’s pace, three nervous deer spring from an abandoned industrial complex into a grove of trees, a sight so fleeting and incongruous that I wonder if my eyes are playing at me. rounds.

In America, traveling by train is the prerogative of people who have the luxury of time. Those who rush through its airports will remind you that Amtrak passengers play second fiddle to the freight companies that own the tracks and believe they should have the right of way. Long-distance trains are often hours late. But enjoy those delays as a bonus, more time to appreciate the ever-changing landscape beyond the tracks.

Amtrak's Denver Union Station in Colarado.  Photo/Amtrak, Chase Gunnoe.
Amtrak’s Denver Union Station in Colarado. Photo/Amtrak, Chase Gunnoe.

Driving the Southwest Chief non-stop to Los Angeles would take 43 hours, but I plan to break my trip midway. I board the Texas Eagle and make a detour to St. Louis, on the Missouri River. Believe me when I say it’s worth the trip just to try Gooey Butter Cake, a deliciously sticky confection that was invented here by mistake.

The Missouri River Runner serves 10 stations along its Midwestern route.  Photo/Amtrak, Chuck Gomez
The Missouri River Runner serves 10 stations along its Midwestern route. Photo/Amtrak, Chuck Gomez

However, the city’s main attraction is Gateway Arch, built to commemorate the country’s westward expansion in the 19th century. Today, it’s the gleaming stainless steel centerpiece of America’s smallest national park. I squeeze into a tiny tram, designed to spin so that each funky capsule stays straight as it moves around the curve of the arch. At the top, almost 200m above the ground, the views over the city are extraordinary.

The next day, two trains take me nearly 1000km west to Dodge City, Kansas. The Boot Hill Museum tells its fascinating story. By the time the railroad arrived here in 1872, buffalo hides were already piled up, waiting to be shipped to distant tanneries. By 1883 the huge herds had been wiped out and attention had turned to cattle. When Texas ranchers took their longhorns to Kansas to take advantage of cheaper transportation costs, Dodge became the “queen of cowtowns.”

With the rise of commerce came saloons, gambling dens and brothels. The combination of free booze and bullets made it a dangerous place, but often the lines were blurred. The infamous Wyatt Earp, for example, skipped bail in Arkansas after being arrested for horse theft. Yet when he arrived in Dodge, he took a law enforcement job, married a prostitute, and gained notoriety as a gunman.

From cityscapes to rural valleys, Amtrak trains are a fascinating way to see the United States.  Photo/Amtrak, Chuck Gomez
From cityscapes to rural valleys, Amtrak trains are a fascinating way to see the United States. Photo/Amtrak, Chuck Gomez

Back at the station at too early an hour, the train is late. Stevenson’s famous quote, “It’s better to travel with hope than to arrive,” echoes in my head as I follow his progress online. Finally, we stop in Lamy, New Mexico, where an Amtrak-approved shuttle awaits to take us to the state capital, Santa Fe.

I admire the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe and am learning to make tamales at the local cooking school. Taking advantage of the spring sunshine, I rented a car for a few days, driving along the Rio Grande en route to historic Taos with a quick stop to check out the vintage gas pumps at Embudo’s Classic Gas Museum. The next day, at Bandelier National Monument, I climb wooden ladders to reach the rock-cut alcoves once inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans. Thinking I’ve saved time at the spa, I soak my sore muscles in Ojo Santa Fe’s outdoor hot tubs as the sun sets.

The temperature drops 20 degrees overnight and I find myself in a snowstorm as I hop on the RailRunner commuter train to Albuquerque. The sun is back as I walk through the old town. Cloudless ultramarine skies accentuate the soft terracotta tones of San Felipe de Neri Church, built in 1793, and the century-old adobe buildings that now house shops, galleries and cafes. I decide I like Albuquerque.

It’s time to end my trip, and I’m excited to be on my way to California, spending the next 16 hours in an Amtrak room for the final leg to Los Angeles. More closet than compartment, this jewel room is nevertheless large enough for me and my bag to travel comfortably. As I doze fitfully through Arizona, it occurs to me that the Grand Canyon is somewhere out there in pitch blackness. My goal, however, is much more modest: I plan to dip my toes in the Pacific Ocean as soon as I’m done with lunch.

Checklist: Amtrak Rail Travel

Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Connections to Chicago are available with its Star Alliance partner, United Airlines. Its direct Auckland-Chicago service is scheduled to resume in October.

The Amtrak website contains a route map and trip descriptions to help you plan your trip. Online booking with print-at-home tickets is possible.

Clyde P. Johnson