Travel

Search engines: Crossing the country in an Amtrak train

A Southwest Chief sleeping car attendant, Anthony Buck Jr., checks a ticket in Albuquerque.
Peter Mandel for The Boston Globe
ASouthwest Chief sleeping car attendant, Anthony Buck Jr., checks a ticket in Albuquerque.

When it comes to travel, we New Englanders keep dreams. Of chasing history even older than our own. Of charting courses that will lead us out of fog and catch the sun.

We dream of these. And, almost without fail, we dream of our opposite coast. California. Map out a road trip, we think. Or check out the cost of flights.

What we tend not to think about is the train. Amtrak, I mean. The same familiar system that chugs us down to New York and D.C. has its continental side. Double-decker cars with domes, and dinners complete with forks and knives. Tracks that curl along the lakes to Chicago. Superliners shooting west to Seattle and LA.

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It all sounded good to me. With brochure in hand, I booked my tickets for an Amtrak Boston-to-Los Angeles adventure this spring. I booked them even though I’d once done the route on Greyhound, when a sleepy driver had sped out of a rural rest stop and left my companion behind.

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I booked them despite being a veteran of clean and sleek European trains. And despite not expecting sleekness in the days ahead.

Here’s what I found.

Boston to Albany

It’s a warm early spring morning in Boston when I get aboard the first of my three long-distance trains. Called the Lake Shore Limited, this two-car-plus-snacks-and-baggage contraption will get me as far as Albany. My ticket isn’t particularly clear about this, but the conductor informs me that I’ll have to change trains there for the overnight to Chicago.

The guy looks familiar. After a second, I realize he’s a dead ringer for former Sox pitcher, Luis Tiant — complete with goatee. Conductor Tiant is alternately whistling and humming “A Hard Day’s Night” as he continues checking tickets down the aisle.

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“Boy, you’re in a good mood,” I hear a passenger say.

I am, too, as a matter of fact. That is, until the engineer comes over the intercom to “apologize in advance for a delay.” What sort of delay? We grind to a halt in the middle of the woods somewhere outside of Pittsfield, and for a while, no one is sure.

Then we hear this: “Ladies and gentlemen, authorities tell us there’s a brush fire going on just ahead of the train. We’ll get going again as soon as we have clearance.” Two-and-a-half hours later, Train Number 449 is still stuck in the forest. One that’s looking increasingly hazy because of drifting smoke.

When we finally lurch forward again, everyone’s straining to take pictures of flames, and while we do pass a few patches of burning grasses and two tired-looking firemen, none of it seems a delay-worthy drama for a large metal object like us.

Albany to Chicago

I’m booked for a sleeper during the nighttime ride to Chicago. Amtrak calls this combination of convertible bunks, fold-down sink, and in-room toilet (yes, toilet) a “Viewliner Roomette.”

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What’s much more impressive, though, is the Lake Shore Limited’s dining car. Being used to Amtrak’s plasticky snack bars, I’m a little stunned to walk in on white tablecloths, faux-wood paneling, and decorative, muted lighting.

If it weren’t for baskets overflowing with single-serving packets of Heinz Yellow Mustard and Newman’s Own Lite Italian Dressing, I might be decades back in time on the New York Central railroad.

I order The Amtrak Signature Steak “with a three peppercorn sauce” for $25.75 and order it rare, just to see if they can pull it off. When I get a half-bottle of Cabernet to go with it, the crisply uniformed waiter presents it as if it were a prized 1958 Chateau Lafite. Shortly, the steak shows up and it’s perfectly cooked, though the three peppercorn sauce is nowhere to be found.

Perhaps as a sort of apology, the waiter offers me some A-1 Sauce. When I say no, he thanks me for rejecting it with a dry grin.

As soon as it’s light, I pull back the Velcro-ed curtains in my Viewliner Roomette to see what’s out there. Judging by the time, it’s Ohio, or maybe Indiana. The tinder-dry forests of New England seem like a distant memory since the farms and fields I’m passing now are half underwater from spring rains.

Here aboard Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited, it’s hard to tell what’s a lake and what’s a shore.

Chicago to Kansas City,

to Albuquerque, to Los Angeles

Aside from its soaring Great Hall, Chicago’s Union Station is a confusing Wi-Fi-less warren of ticket lines and bad-smelling fast food. I’m glad that my Superliner train to LA, the Southwest Chief, is on time.

A brochure and route guide are laid out in my “Superliner Roomette” to welcome me aboard and prepare me for the days and two overnights ahead. “The Southwest Chief is an unsurpassed route,” I read, “tracing most of the original route of the former Super Chief between America’s heartland and the West Coast.”

That’s sounding promising, though I’m scratching my head over the discovery that, unlike my Viewliner Roomette, this one with the word “super” in it has neither the sink nor toilet. I do a little exploring and pull open a door marked “Shower and Dressing Room.” What I find is roughly closet-size and contains a plastic bag stuffed with towels, some miniature bars of soap (no shampoo), and a shower curtain that has to be snapped down to prevent water from escaping during bumps on the ride.

As we roll through Illinois, it’s spitting rain with patches of blue speckled in with the gray. My Superliner’s observation car, which Amtrak calls a “Sightseer Lounge,” is just exactly what I’d hoped for. Walls and edges of the ceiling are glassed-in, and when a thunderstorm turns briefly to hail we watch it burst from below.

In here, I end up listening to passengers while I look out. Pretty soon, I learn this: People in the same observation car (sorry, “Sightseer Lounge”) see different things. Upstate New Yorkers see patches of snow. Nebraskans see corn.

As we rattle across the Mississippi into Iowa, the sky begins to clear and an enormous rainbow bridges east and west. My tablemates for dinner in the dining car are Jay and Sandy Harris from Potsdam, N.Y. This is their first time on a train of any kind. “Jay doesn’t fly,” says Sandy. “He just won’t do it.”

We ease into talking about their impressions of the trip so far. I once heard someone say that riding Amtrak is like traveling with employees of the US Postal Service. You never know who might be having a bad day, and are a little bit afraid to find out. When I tell Jay Harris about this, he laughs. On their Albany-to-Chicago leg, he reports, he discovered their steward snoring. When Harris got up the nerve to wake her up, “she wouldn’t tell me how long it would be until we got into Chicago.”

Harris: “Can you at least give me an estimate?”

Steward: “We really don’t like to do that.”

On the positive side, the Harrises and I agree that, among other staffers, our young Southwest Chief sleeping car attendant, Anthony Buck Jr., is as good as it gets. Eager to help in dozens of different ways, and a genuinely kind guy.

I’m back in my usual spot in the observation car the next day, watching sagebrush scroll past. One of the most graphic sides to traveling by train instead of by highway, is that your views are full of trees and underbrush and soil. Except when tracks are close to traffic, there’s hardly any asphalt to be found. Iowa dirt, I now understand, is black. By Colorado and New Mexico, it has gone red.

It is late afternoon with the light just beginning to flatten out. When the Southwest Chief slinks around curves, we get split-second looks at the rear of the train — flashing, disappearing, snapping back — like the tail of a metallic snake.

“Look at that!” says someone in the front of the car. The tops of some of the mesas and a ridge of more sharpened peaks still have snow. According to what I can glean from my Southwest Chief Route Guide, we are winding through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near the Colorado-New Mexico border.

Between Albuquerque and Gallup, we get glimpses of US Route 66. And as we cross into Arizona, our official Amtrak sunset is perfectly timed. Scrubland and rock formations are tinted. Now, they are deeply painted — now saturated with color.

The train whistle sounds. A desert coyote howls.

Amtrak’s Train Number 3, the Southwest Chief, has arrived at the hour of dusk. I pocket my ticket, fold my route guide, pull the curtains in my room.

Deep within railroad dreams, I’m seeing landscapes that might or might not be real.

One of those possibly-real things is not so distant.

It is LA.

Peter Mandel can be reached at pbmandel@cox.net.