He leaned forward on the table, speaking intently:
“That bird that laughed in Crocodile Dundee was a fake wasn’t it?”
With a smile, we informed our new American friend that the Kookaburra really does exist in Australia and sounds exactly as he’d heard it on the screen.
‘Ok, have you met Crocodile Dundee: what’s he like?”
“Er, Australia’s a pretty big place, but if we do meet him, then we’ll say g’day for you.”
That was one of the many fascinating cultural exchanges that highlighted one of our most memorable adventures – crossing America from the west to the east coast entirely by train.
Four trains across 11 states
The incredible journey involved four trains; crossed 11 US States; covered more than three-thousand miles; and passed through four time zones.
It was something we’d wanted to do since we heard about the California Zephyr – regarded as one of the great scenic trains of the world – that links America’s Pacific Coast with the Great Lakes.
From there, we decided to catch the Lake Shore Limited to Buffalo in New York State; the Maple Leaf service to Niagara Falls; and the Empire Service to New York City and the US east coast.
And on the way, we met a real life cowboy; members of an Amish community; businessmen and women; a radio announcer; a man who swore that vinyl records would make a comeback; and a blues music freak from New Orleans – to name but a few of our fellow travellers.
Day one: San Francisco to Salt Lake City
The engaging encounters that punctuated our journey through the American West actually started as we waited to board the California Zephyr at Emeryville Station in San Francisco.
A New Zealand couple – we’ll call them Bill and June – had been in California to watch their country challenge for the holy grail of yachting, the America’s Cup. Bill wasn’t backward in coming forward – and claimed loudly that the US yacht had been cheating.
Oops! Nodding sympathetically, we glanced at the many disapproving stares and ventured that it was probably not the wisest subject in the current circumstances.
Rather fortuitously, the California Zephyr chose exactly that moment to roar into life: a gleaming silver and blue double-decker, with large windows designed to allow the best possible view.
Emeryville; photo courtesy Michael Patrick
Train crew from AMTRAK, America’s long distance train provider, were quickly on hand to lift luggage, explain the location of various facilities on the train and the arrangements for meals.
The porter in charge of our carriage was a man called Jesus, but the pronunciation puzzled Sue completely.
“Hey Souz” she repeated politely.
“Nice to meet you, but how do you spell your name?
To which he promptly replied: “Gee Sus to you …. Hey Souz to us”.
After allowing us to settle in our sleeper cabin, the train quietly slipped away just after 9am following the twisting shoreline of San Francisco Bay – at times only metres from the water.
Views of the sweeping waterway and its many bays were exceptional.
Soon after, we headed for lunch in the dining car, where many fascinating conversations would occur over the next few days.
Politics! Now there’s a subject certain to put you off any meal. But, as luck would have it, our first dining companions, a nice couple from Wisconsin, wanted to talk about Australia’s Medicare health insurance system. So we did.
Outside at least, the journey was becoming exciting as the California Zephyr followed some of the paths taken by wagon trains that brought early settlers to America’s Wild West.
After lunch, we passed through Sacramento and some of west’s famous forests, before climbing into the alpine scenery of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where the California gold rush occurred from 1848 to 1855.
Settling into the scenic lounge, with its wrap-around glass windows, we were enthralled by the ever-changing landscape as the mountains soon gave way to desert with dry lake beds and rugged cliffs.
It was clear we were in Nevada and late in the afternoon, we slipped through the sunset into Reno, just as the lights flicked on in the city’s eye-catching casino.
Once again, it was a game of social roulette in the dining car – and our companions for dinner were a lovely family from California who, we quickly discovered, shared our passion for football. Their son had played in the MSL league, so we quickly began discussing the upcoming World Cup and the prospects of both Australia and the US.
After raising a glass of wine with our guests, we retired to our sleeper and moved our clocks ahead an hour for a new time zone as the Zephyr headed across Nevada and into Utah.
Our sleeper bed was extremely comfortable, although we both awoke briefly in the middle of the night when the train came to a halt at Salt Lake City, Utah – its first major stop.
The run from San Francisco had taken about 17 hours.
Day two: Onward to Denver
Our fine and sunny weather continued as the Zephyr ran through the typical western scenery of Utah and into Colorado.
At the breakfast table, the waiter told us the 15-hour journey to Denver, Colorado passed through some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable.
Our breakfast companions had arrived and Sue and I quickly exchanged glances that said: “Seriously?”
But, Jack from Oklahoma turned out to be the real deal: a true-life cowboy who was riding the iron horse on a holiday with his wife Mary-Sue.
We sat mesmerised as they told us about their horse-riding and wedding carriage business back home.
In Oklahoma, Jack said he always carried a gun because “everyone does”. His pick-up truck had a rifle rack behind the driver’s seat, he said.
It was an interesting meal, not the least because Jack convinced us to try a plate of grits, a type of corn ground into a meal. Later, we agreed that grits is obviously an acquired taste.
We then headed for the scenic lounge, anxious not to miss the canyons and swirling streams of the Colorado Rockies.
First, the train ran through scenery that was right out of every western movie we’d ever seen.
This was truly the scenery of the American wild west.
The Zephyr skirted some astonishing rock formation such as the Book Cliffs before entering the towering cliffs of Colorado’s famous mountains.
We snaked alongside the Colorado River and climbed through the country of the bald eagle and deer to reach a peak of 9,000 feet.
Just past Glenwood Springs, with its various ski resorts, the California Zephyr edged into rugged Glen Canyon, a 12.5 mile gorge that had proved a real test for the wagons of early west-bound pioneers.
As we ran alongside the mighty Colorado River, we passed close to hordes of white water rafters who promptly turned their backs and saluted us in the traditional ‘Moon River’ fashion.
This ‘mooning’ caused a great deal of merit in our scenic lounge, although a elderly Amish woman promptly rose to leave the carriage – taking with her a rather reluctant teenage Amish girl.
Volunteer rangers from the National Park service joined us in the scenic car between Grand Junction and Denver and spoke about the history of the Rocky Mountains rail crossings and other historical, modern, geographical and environmental highlights.
Known as the ’Trails and Rails Program’, this innovative feature added immensly to our understanding of the area’s rail heritage cultural development and general transport history.
The speakers were informative, fascinating and a highlight of the trip. Full marks to AMTRAK and the National Park Service for providing such a great value-added service.
We crossed the Rockies through the Moffat Tunnel as the day ended, giving us a panoramic glimpse of the sun setting across the Great Plains.
And then we began a long descent toward the city of Denver.
As we approached Denver, we again sat down in the dining carriage – and this time our companions were businessman, Richard and his wife June, who had also travelled from California.
They were a fascinating couple who had carved out a successful business selling vinyl records in the former hippie Mecca of San Francisco. Richard was a walking encyclopaedia on vinyl recording artists – and impressed us with his knowledge of 60’s and 70’s Australian music.
Day three: Denver to Chicago
By morning, the scenery had changed yet again, as we awoke to find the California Zephyr cruising through Nebraska, with cornfields stretching almost as far as the eye could see.
Breakfast brought our meeting with radio announcer, Tony and his father who questioned us about kookaburras and Crocodile Dundee.
Outside, Lincoln and Omaha passed and, all too soon, Illinois was upon us as the California Zephyr reached its terminus in the grand mid-western city of Chicago.
The Windy City was an impressive sight, with its famous skyscrapers and once again, Amtrak’s staff were particularly helpful in reaching the platform with bags in tow
After three days exploring Chicago, we continued our train journey – this time on the Lake Shore Limited, which skirted the shoreline of the Great Lakes to take us into New York State, where we alighted at Buffalo Depew.
Train two: The Lake Shore Limited
While awaiting departure on this leg of the trip, we were able to take advantage of AMTRAK’s excellent Chicago guest lounge for passengers who had booked a sleeper compartment.
The lounge was particularly appreciated, as our train did not leave until evening and a comfortable seat, free coffee and wifi was an unexpected boon to weary sightseers.
Once aboard the Lake Shore Limited, we were invited to a late supper of wine, cheese and biscuits, where we met Bill, a blues music freak from New Orleans on his way to Canada for a music festival.
From Buffalo-Depew, we caught the Canada-bound Maple Leaf train for a short run to Niagara Falls.
And three days later, we completed our epic journey from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean by catching the Empire Service through New York state to the Big Apple – and arriving with crowds of commuters at Penn Station.
Having crossed America by both plane and train, we can thoroughly recommend the rail option – provided you have the time.
The entire crossing cost us about $AUD1,000, however we opted for a sleeper and a sleepette – complete with their own shower and toilet. If you are prepared to stay in a coach seat (and the scenic lounges) and buy your meals as you go, the crossing can probably be done for not much more than $AUD300.
Except for breaks at Chicago and Niagara Falls, we also opted to remain on the train, rather than spending time at any of the passing centres. However, the California Zephyr runs daily, so this can be done if desired.
Main photo courtesy AMTRAK