An epic adventure across America – 3,500 miles in 15 days – four days and nights of which are spent on trains. And the starting point is the Big Apple…
When you’re a nervous flyer the prospect of hurtling down the runway at 200 miles an hour as the remnants of a hurricane descend on West London is not something likely to have you sitting back comfortably waiting for the G&T to arrive.
I took the fact our flight made it out of Heathrow when plenty others were severely delayed or cancelled as a good omen – a state of mind propelled by the fact that on arrival at my destination I’d be swapping the stresses that are modern day air travel with a more sedate and sociable life on the tracks.
In this case, 3,500 miles in 15 days – four days and nights of which are spent on trains. And the starting point is New York.
It’s a challenge adding anything to all that’s been written or said about a city that dispenses cliches quicker than it does skinny lattes and which appears to be on a permanent high fuelled by consumerism, speed and, yes, excitement on a level equalled by few.
A couple of days are never going to do this most hypnotic of cities justice but a couple of days is what I had so I opted for the archetypal open-topped bus city tour. A bargain at US$35, it’s valid for two days, covers the whole of Manhattan and was made all the more entertaining by two guides who helped bring this pulsating island of 1.6 million inhabitants to life.
For the authentic New York experience, make – like I did – for one of its landmark delis such as Eisenberg’s or Carnegie, but for me time is short and I need to be up early for Pennsylvania Station and the 30-hour journey to The Big Easy.
American trains aren’t the speedy affair they (largely) are in the UK and Europe and using the sleepers can be an expensive way to travel.
As a result I decided to forgo a sleeper compartment and settled into my seat. Not only was it surprisingly comfortable it also proved to be a wonderfully sociable way to travel, especially when I wandered to the diner or viewing coach – places to strike up conversations and make acquaintances.
As the train ticks off the hours and makes its appointed stops the accents change, that southern drawl at turns warm, laid-back, hypnotic.
My base in New Orleans was the French Quarter – a great spot if you want to be at the centre of the action, although it won’t be long before someone tells you to make for iconic Bourbon Street. The city’s oldest neighbourhood, it seemed a little too geared hard drinking for my taste so I headed instead for Frenchman Street where the pace is more sedate but there are still enough bars hosting great music.
With the temperature in the mid-80s, the climate was perfect for exploring a city that thrives on its party image but which is also home to fine eateries, such as Mothers (which claims to serve the world’s best baked ham) and where a trip on a Mississippi river paddle steamer is a quintessential part of the N’awlins experience.
The following morning I headed north to Memphis. Again I strike up conversations, most notably with a senator from Minnesota who proves to be both good company and insightful guide to the politics of this sometimes volatile part of the Union. As this journey progresses, the more I’m convinced rail travel is a thoroughly sociable way to see a country, even one as vast as the US.
Think of Memphis and there’s only one person that springs to mind and a visit to the Graceland home of Elvis is both a fascinating snapshot of American culture and an often moving experience. This is, of course, a region synonymous with the civil rights movement. It’s also the city where on 4th April, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated.
A further seven hours aboard what was rapidly becoming my home from home blew me into the Windy City.
Noted for its architecture (the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright is suitably celebrated here), for the river bearing the city’s name that flows through the downtown area and for having the second tallest building in the country, Chicago has a great deal to offer the visitor and, for some, it’s a place that gives New York a run for its money.
Again, my time was short but before heading for Buffalo I had opportunities to zoom to the 95th floor of the Willis Tower for drinks at the Signature Lounge, grab a pizza at the noted Giordano’s and sample a little of the city’s fine rock blues.
The journey to Niagara was slow but enlivened by the realisation I’d left my passport in the Chicago hotel safe (thanks to the fantastic staff for arranging its safe despatch to my next destination) and by the convivial on-board company that was fast becoming a trademark of this trip.
Buffalo positions itself as the gateway to the falls which are, of course, spectacular, although it’s worth doing a little homework to ensure you get the best out of a visit to a site that comprises three falls (American, Canadian and Bridal Veil,) that were created 10,000 years ago by glacier activity and where the largest vertical drop is some 165ft.
There’s not much else that need detain you in this city in western New York State so the following day I headed for my final stop – Boston.
The journey is one that showcases this part of the States at its best – the striking autumnal tones set against a bright blue sky and with the occasional glimpse of wildlife. Coupled with the sedate form of transport, it really couldn’t be a more perfect way to bring this journey to a close.
But first there was the quaint charm of the capital of Massachusetts. A few days in Boston is like a crash course in the history of what remains a young nation. It is here Samuel Adams led his men to raid British East India Company ships, resulting in the dumping of vast quantities of tea.
The Boston Tea Party was a key event in the growth of the American Revolution, representing the first act of defiance against the colonisers that would eventually lead to American independence.
Twenty-first century Boston is a cultured city – home to Harvard University, great theatre, polite and welcoming locals, two of the country’s most famous sports teams and is, all-in-all, a charming base for a few days (or longer).
So much of our lives today are stressed, pressurised and lived in a race against the clock. Air travel has really opened up the world but to truly experience it you have to be prepared to invest in savouring it at a more leisurely pace. That is what rail travel offers and, based on this journey, it’s something worth rediscovering.
Words: Stephen Gurney