Day Away

November 27, 2011

Westward ho


My room was on the right, but I managed fleeting glimpses of the Barge Canal and Mohawk River opposite. As the sun began setting ahead of us, we passed through remnants of industrial landscape. Boarded brick factories, tall square towers and long warehouses occasionally revealed their identities (Bowlers Brewery, Amsterdam Bedding) in faded paint.

Bright blue silos marked still-operating farms. An array of small 19th century downtowns such as Fonda made their appearance. I spotted a turreted Queen Anne home here, a flat-roofed Italianate house there.

Let me lay to rest fears of meals on a train resembling airline food. Every meal turned out to be quite good, from the New York strip steak I enjoyed en route to Chicago, to the final breakfast as we arrived in California. There are no tables for singles or even pairs in the dining car. Every meal meant meeting new people and hearing new stories. On the first night, I dined with a food manufacturer on his way to a major convention in Chicago.

By the time dinner ended, darkness had set in, so sightseeing was limited to armchair experience. I read a history of Chicago for a while, pored over a map of the train route, then settled in for a good night's sleep.

Tom woke me at 7 with coffee and a copy of USA Today. I glanced out the window at cows grazing on pastures stretching to Lake Erie, then caught a quick shower (no line!). At breakfast, I met a couple from England who had flown to New York specifically to ride the train across America. By the time I finished eating (a satisfying vegetarian omelet), farmland had given way to the industrial Midwest.

Elkhart, Ind., announced itself with acres of motor homes, trailers and campers. I knew it was the home of Winnebago; I learned it's also the birthplace of Conn musical instruments and Alka-Seltzer. We passed South Bend (though without spotting Notre Dame), then traversed a gauntlet of huge grain elevators and electrical grid towers (infrastructure on parade). Rail yards at Hammond offered a staggering complexity that I had no hope of understanding.

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Day Away