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Rail Trip Across The Top of the United States

The Top of the United States

By Paul Smith

One day Lorraine (my mother) and I are driving around on errands when she says: “You know what I have always wanted to do?  I have always wanted to see the top of the United States.”  She waves a hand in a wide sweep to indicate the scope of what she has in mind as if she is starting in Washington and ending in Maine.   

I ruminate on the idea and decide that it might be possible if we take the train rather than drive and stay in motels.  I google Amtrak and check on their routes.  When it looks like at least part of Lorraine’s dream trip might just be possible, I dig further to see what they have for people with physical limitations. Lorraine uses a wheeled walker and has a difficult keeping her balance.  It seems they have accessible rooms for people with limitations, and provisions for a traveling companion in the same room.  I immediately think of Alice (one of my sisters) and call her to ask.  She is at work, but doesn’t even hesitate. This is something she wants to do.  

When I talk the idea over with Lorraine she is delighted.  She likes train travel and particularly likes the idea that Alice will come along to help.  She is relieved that her room will have its own private bathroom.  

She asks if we can see Boston while we are going.  I said I thought that might be too tiring for her, and I was pretty sure it would be for me if I were to be the mule for the project.  I also tell her that Alice only has two weeks for vacation.  That satisfies her.

Using a road atlas, I show her a route that goes from Sacramento to Seattle, Washington, then through, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and into Illinois to visit with Art (one of my brothers) & June (his wife) in Chicago.  We return from Chicago to Sacramento.  The trip takes nine days and won’t cost an arm and a leg.

Conflicting schedules and availability of the accessible rooms on the trains delay the trip for several months.  Finally, the tickets are purchased and preparations begin.  The trip is to begin on Monday, September 15th, returning to Sacramento on Wednesday, September 24th.  

We will take the Coast Starlight train to Seattle.  We will stay overnight in a motel and try to see Joel (a nephew in the Army) and his new wife Danielle while we are there.  He is stationed at Fort Lewis, about an hour out of Seattle. The next afternoon, we will board the Empire Builder to Chicago.  After a weekend visit with Arty, June and family, we will return on the California Zephyr. Lorraine will have an accessible bedroom on all three trains.  Meals are included in the price and will be brought to Lorraine’s room since the dining rooms are all upstairs and she is unable to climb stairs.

I am the mule for the trip.  I will be in a “roomette” using communal facilities and eating in the dining room.  I will visit Lorraine and Alice often.  Alice and I will stay in contact with our mobile phones when possible.


We are supposed to depart at midnight on Monday the 15th, but the train is late and we don’t leave until about 1:30 AM.  Lorraine knows we were going to be late, but as the time of our scheduled departure passes, she begins to complain loudly.  

When the train arrives, two Amtrak staff give contradictory instructions about where our sleeper car is located.  We retrace our steps a couple of times before we find car 1432.  I look at the step that Lorraine is going to have to make to get from the platform into the car and tell the attendant that she will need assistance.  He looks at me and says “Well, what do you want me to do – pick her up?”  That is pretty much what he and I had to do in order to get her on the train.  Later I learn that they have a ramp in each car to provide the assistance that Lorraine needed.  To be fair, Lorraine said that the attendant, Brian, was very helpful for the remainder of the trip.  With a little prompting he uses the ramp when we detrain in Seattle.  

The Great Central Valley

The moon is bright as we alternately race and creep along.  When the track is straight and level we speed along at about 80, but when crossing a rickety old bridge or bumpy track we slow to 10 or even less.  I know how fast we are going because I have my laptop on with my handheld GPS plugged in for an antenna.  I am following the progress on a topographical map that shows speed and bearing among other things.  Yes, I am a nerd.  I believe in the old saw that data are our friends.  Besides, I like gadgets!

The moon is bright enough to cast shadows.  I can see the silhouettes of orchards, vineyards and cultivated fields for mile after mile.  I am amazed at how many lights are on in the modest homes in these little farming communities at 1:30 and 2:00 in the morning.


Sunrise happens somewhere north of Redding.  The horizon is aglow with pinks and purples.  Even the hardened lava foam (which I know to be a dull brownish grey) is suffused with color.  Alice gets a good view of the giant volcano that is Mount Shasta.  My window is facing toward the high desert landscape to the north.

Klamath Falls, Oregon

There isn’t much to see in Klamath Falls, but Klamath Lake is alive with birds.  The margins of the lake are covered in reeds with twisting channels which I can follow easily from my vantage point on the second story of the sleeper car.  Ducks, geese, cormorants, blue herons and snowy egrets take flight in small flocks as the noisy locomotive approaches.  Flocks of ducks run across the water flapping urgently and rise in unison as if they are a single organism.

Over the Cascades

We turn west at Chemult, Oregon and cross the Cascades on our way to Eugene.  Or maybe it more accurate to say we penetrate the Cascades.  There are several tunnels as we slowly wind our way over and through the mountains.   I think the conductor said there were 23 tunnels.

The forest in this part of the Cascades is surprisingly diverse, with cedar, fir, spruce, pine, birch and another broadleaf deciduous tree I can’t identify.  There are acres of wild blackberry vines and smatterings of other berries.  


We stop just after leaving Eugene.  It seems that an inspection crew has detected a crack in one of the rails.  A repair crew is reportedly having difficulty fixing the damage.  We wait for two hours, which gave us a little time to catch up on the sleep we lost in our excitement on the previous night.

The Willamette Valley

We head north through the verdant Willamette Valley. Agriculture is obviously the dominant economic engine here.   The parts of the valley that aren’t some shade of healthy green are the dark grey of good earth that has been recently tilled.

Columbia River

What a treat!  We are now three hours late and have four more hours to go … but that means we get to see the sunset on the water.  As we cross the Willamette River, the sky is the same pink and purple we saw at dawn  It is reflected on the almost still waters of the river.  When we reach the bridge over Smith Lake Slough, the trees on the shoreline are silhouettes, but their shadows fall on the water leaving patterns in the reflected colors of the sunset.  

A few minutes later, we stop on the old riveted steel bridge crossing the Columbia to wait for a boat to pass under the drawbridge.  The deepening colors glitter among the ripples along the south shoreline, while the lights of the large facility loading the holds of cargo ships create yellow and white striping out into the middle of the river from the opposite shore.

Tacoma & Seattle

Unfortunately, being this late means that all of the bays are concealed in darkness.  Too bad!

Seattle overnight

We arrive at the King Street Station in Seattle a little before midnight and are greeted at the platform by Aram who helps us get our bags into his limo. Aram is very solicitous and professional and I am glad I called ahead.  The line for taxis is at least 50 people long.

The Holiday Inn is clean, quiet and well appointed.  After several years of trial and error with hotel chains during my career, I settled on the Holiday Inn chain for their uniformly clean, predictable and comfortable places to get a good night’s rest.  We are not disappointed tonight.  Clean linens, hot water and comfortable beds are just the start of a restful night.

We sleep late and go to the hotel dining room for brunch. Our server is an unusual and delightful young lady with tattoos, piercings and a great sense of humor, which is good, since we are acting a little goofy.  The breakfast dishes are tasty and well presented. Lorraine likes hers so much that she declares it the best breakfast she ever had and insists on sending a thank you note to the cooks.


Joel is stationed at Fort Lewis, about an hour south of Seattle.  He recently remarried, and we are looking forward to meeting his new wife Danielle. I call Joel and find that he is having a surprise inspection today and can’t get away.  It was a long shot anyway.

Empire Builder

Our driver Aram is waiting at our hotel at the appointed hour and we have another pleasant ride to the King Street Station.  The attendants put a ramp up for Lorraine when I ask for one and she wheels right on the train under her own steam.  When the attendants realize that I am the family mule but on another car, they got their schedules together and move me to the car with Lorraine.  Isaac, the attendant in our car, is particularly helpful.

Skyhomish River

The short trip from Seattle north to Everett is interesting.  The homes we see have large windows and verandas for sitting and watching the ocean.  And berries – my goodness -- there are blackberry vines in every unpaved or uncared for patch of ground.  Most of them are loaded with fruit in clumps like grapes.  Alice and I want to stop the train and pick a few bushels.

As we turn east into hilly terrain I begin to see cinder cones and stumps of volcanic cores.  Winding through these forested volcanic remnants is the Skyhomish River.  It looks like an angler’s paradise.  The water is clear and the cobbled bottom inviting.  We follow it for several miles.  I wish that I could get out and play in it for a while.  I also wish that my fishing skills were well enough developed to justify the exertion required for hiking into the gorge that the river winds through.

The Cascades Tunnel

The sun is setting and dusk is beginning to dim my field of view when we enter a tunnel.  It is almost eight miles long.  No lighting inside, except for some yellow warning lights at long intervals.  I suppose that provision has been made for ventilation, but I start smelling (or maybe imagining the smell of) diesel fumes about halfway through.  Isaac tells me the name and length of the tunnel and that it was the second longest train tunnel in the world.  Only Canada has a longer one.

The Rock Island Dam

Our conductor reports that the train is packed to capacity.  He asks for volunteers to take later dinners.  I sign up for an 8 PM seating; the last one.  I eat with a nice young man named Jeff who has just graduated from Long Beach State and was also on his way to Chicago.  The Columbia River shows up in the moonlight and becomes our companion during our leisurely meal.  By the time we order our dessert, the Rock Island Dam appears in the glow of its orange lights.  It provides an impressive backdrop to the end of a nice meal and good conversation.


We ease into Spokane at a snail’s pace.  We arrive a few minutes before midnight, and I wonder if they were trying to keep it as quiet as possible. The city looks deserted.  There are very few lights on in apartment windows and even some of the bars look like they are closed.

I know it is a city of about 250,000 so I thought there might be more activity.  I have been here several times during the day and it was bustling.   However, we are going through the older parts of town.  Maybe that is why it seems so quiet.  
Two freight trains move by as we wait for a part of another train to be grafted onto ours.  One clanks, rattles and groans as a single engine pulls empty grain cars eastward.  The second pulls fully loaded (and much quieter) grain cars westward.  There were two locomotives pulling and two pushing the loaded train.

At 1:15 AM we ease out of town as quietly as we entered.  I expected some banging noises and jarring movements as the cars from Pasco were grafted into our train, but there was nothing.  The whole process was virtually impossible to detect.


The train picks up a little speed as it reaches the outskirts of Spokane where the warehouses, trucking firms and light manufacturing firms are.  It reaches its full stride when it hits the Rathdrum Prairie stretching for several miles to the north and east,.

We arrive at Sandpoint at 2:25 and stop long enough for someone to either get on or off the train.  I was on the wrong side of the train to see what was happening.   The good news for me is that the train did stop to accommodate a passenger, which means that I can ride the train on my visits to our family paradise across Lake Pend Orielle from Sandpoint.

Whitefish Montana

I drop off to sleep as we leave Ponderay and do not wake up for three hours.  By then we are in Whitefish, Montana.  The few trees that are dressed in their fall colors are rendered more brilliant by the soft colors of the dawn sky.  The area is nicely kept and seems to cater to hikers and skiers.  As we continue, we see coniferous forests filled with large and imposing trees that surprised Lorraine and left her with a desire to see California’s coastal redwood giants.


I read about Shelby in the Amtrak literature and find that it was the site of a Jack Dempsey boxing match in 1923; the year Lorraine was born.  The good citizens of Shelby offered to host a fight, and the promoter agreed – if the money was right.  The promoter wanted at least $200,000.  The citizens raised the money and also built a 40,000 seat stadium.  The promoter whipsawed the citizen committee by backing out of the deal and then starting it again.  Potential spectators were unsure whether the fight would take place and stayed away in droves.  Only 7,000 people attended.  The promoter skipped town with $300,000, which included the citizens’ stake in the fight as well as the prize money. Three or more Montana banks reportedly went bankrupt.


We have a ten minute stop at Havre, which has all the trimmings of an active farming and ranching community.  There are hundreds of grain cars and many of them seem brand new.  I also see a string of multimodal flatbed cars with UPS trailers on them.  


When we cross from Montana into North Dakota the landscape starts to look less like prairie and more like farm land.  Hay seems to be one of the bigger crops and there are thousands of large circular bales scattered in the fields.  

Wheat seems to be another valuable crop and there are silos everywhere.  In one place I see an abandoned wooden silo slowly decaying.  Next to it is a taller silo sided with corrugated metal.  The windows and doors were broken.  It has also been abandoned.  Nearby are three squat round silos made of corrugated metal.   They have conical roofs.  They must be the new trend in silos because there were hundreds scattered along our route.


It is dark as we pull into Minot and I find myself looking at headlights whizzing back and forth on an elevated highway.  There are several multi-story apartment buildings and/or businesses nearby.  I was talking to Nancy (my wife) on the phone at the time, and she said she remembered Minot as a small, single level farming community. It has certainly outgrown that status.    


 I went to sleep shortly after Minot and didn’t wake up until we pulled into Minneapolis.  After the morning ablutions and a couple of cups of coffee, I go to the dining room for breakfast.   I sit with a couple from Minneapolis and talk with them about their kids and what it is like to work in the Minneapolis climate where the temperature can vary by 60 degrees in a single day.  We cruise alongside the Mississippi river for an hour or more while we eat and talk.  The couple tells me that the dozens of trash barges on the river take Minneapolis trash somewhere, but they don’t know where.


By the time I get back to my berth, we are on the outskirts of Winona, Wisconsin.  It looks like it might have been the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting.  The houses are all clothed in fresh paint.  The yards are neat and the lawns are all the same color.  The elm-lined streets have sparkling white gutters and sidewalks.  There are no junk vehicles sitting around.  

Wisconsin Dells

As we approach Wisconsin Dells the conductor announces “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls we are nearing Wisconsin Dells, the home of water slides, ferris wheel rides and tacky times.”  He quickly follows with “Oooh!  I didn’t really say that did I?”    I see the water slides, carnival rides and miniature golf as we pass.  Later, June tells me that it was on the list of favorite recreational spots when their kids were growing up.


By the time we hit Pewaukee, Alice and I are ready to stop the train and find some fishing poles.  We have been following a fairly narrow and sluggish river as it wends its way through fields of corn and soybeans.  The water is a dark grey-green, and we can see the signs of fish rising for food. There are also egrets and herons feeding on smaller fish.  The conductor isn’t as receptive to my proposals for a fishing break as I had hoped.  In fact, he calls my bluff and asked if I have actually brought my pole – I haven’t.


Chicago’s Union Station gobbles up the train like a midday snack.  We detrain deep in the bowels of the monster and walk for what seems to be hours before finally making it up to the street. Lorraine is exhausted.  As we near the street, we see redcaps in jitneys that we could have called for.

We make contact with Arty who pulls into a taxi zone as an Amtrak employee said he could.  But loading everything into his sedan takes longer than the patience of one of Chicago’s finest will allow. He threatens Arty with a $100 ticket.  Thankfully, we are almost done.

Visiting with family

We arrive in Chicago early enough to have dinner at a place that can accommodate a large family gathering.  The next day Arty and I go to a Cubs game while Lorraine and Alice visited with June two of her daughters and their husbands.  Sunday, more family members drop by and we go out for dinner with at a nice Mexican restaurant.  We are in the Midwest and amazingly, they serve menudo at this restaurant.   I can’t resist even though my family members are totally grossed out.

Long after Lorraine returned to the Holiday Inn in Bolingbrook each night, Art, June, Alice and I, along with two or more of Art & June’s adult children would talk until well past midnight.  It was nice to catch up with each other without having to have a funereal to get us together.

The Chicago Cubs

It has been 100 years since the Cubs have won a World Series title.  Their fans know how to cry.  They also know how to be fanatics.  I find that out by attending a game.

Arty buys us tickets to a game where the Cubs have an opportunity to clinch the title as this year’s champions of the central division of the National Baseball League.

To add some excitement the Cubs are playing their bitter rivals, the Saint Louis Cardinals.  The stands are filled with blue and white jerseys of the Cubs, including the nice one Art and June bought for me.  There are pockets of Cardinal red, but they are overwhelmed by the approximately 40,000 Cubs fans.   

The Cubs win by one run in a game that wasn’t decided until the 51st out.  The Cubs fans go nuts.  My ears probably won’t stop ringing for a week.  I had a lot of fun, and it is one of those baseball experiences that will always be with me.


On Monday afternoon, we board the California Zephyr in Chicago after making full use of the available Red Cap services.  What a difference. Lorraine is driven right up to her car when boarding started.

The first stop is in Naperville which is a lot closer to Art’s home in Bolingbrook than Union Station.  We probably would have been better off to board the California Zephyr in Naperville.

Naperville is also a town that figures prominently in Art’s historical novels about the Chicago area.


By the time we get to Galesburg, we are beginning to wonder if they raise more corn in Illinois than Iowa.  There were thousands of acres devoted to corn with soybeans interspersed.

I was interested to learn that Galesburg was the site of the fifth Lincoln/Douglas debate in 1858.  Alice and Lorraine are more interested to find that it was the home of poet Carl Sandburg.

Burlington, Iowa

Before we cross the Mississippi into Burlington, we see miles and miles of destruction caused by the Spring floods of 2008.  Boats are capsized in drowned fields.  Houses and outbuildings are standing in three feet of water, with high water marks another four feet above.   There are piles of cars and trees with heavy coats of mud.  Our hearts go out to those who suffered through this tragedy.

Burlington is where Henry Ames Brotts, one of our family civil war heroes, lived out his last years. I need to come back here and do some research on him.


Visiting with family is a welcome opportunity, and as June said, we can always catch up on sleep, but we can’t catch up with our visiting with family from out-of-town.  We are all exhausted and are fast asleep before we reach Omaha.  

I don’t wake up until we reach Denver. It is much larger than I expected.  We travel slowly through what seems to be miles of refineries, factories and warehouses before we arrive at the station.   

I am among the last into the dining room for breakfast and have a table to myself.  I have a nice breakfast while we move slowly out of Denver and into the Rockies.  The weather is fine, and the views of the valley that holds Denver are panoramic.

The Rockies

This trip through the Rockies is certainly the most scenic I have ever taken.  There are sheer cliffs exposing dozens of layers of twisted and folded rock.  There are towers of red sandstone that put those in Sedona, Arizona to shame.  There are huge areas of volcanic ash and massive outcroppings of basalt and granite.

Sometimes the cobbled bottoms of the rivers we follow show clearly and sometimes rapids obscure them.  Sometimes the rivers are wide and deep.  At other times, they have been narrowed by landslides.

There are several delays along our route through the Rockies, so I get time to study rather than just glimpse.  

Grand Junction

We are now almost three hours behind schedule.  We have been beside the Colorado River for most of the afternoon.  The dramatic mountain scenes are being replaced by rolling foothills.  Without the background of the huge buttes, this would look like the desert southwest I have spent most of my life in.  

Low ranch style buildings are laid out haphazardly.  Fresh paint has been replaced with dingy stucco.  Dusty shrubbery has replaced the neat and orderly Midwest lawns.  But looking beyond the exterior comparisons, I start to wonder if conformity hasn’t also been replaced with individual freedoms in the private lives of the residents.

One of my tablemates for dinner tonight was a woman from Michigan who spent several years taking care of her mother in Heber Springs, Arkansas, about 30 miles from where our family lived in Floral.  She is on her way to live with one of her daughters in Portland, Oregon.

The other two tablemates are a couple from Iowa who live just across the river from Omaha.  They are familiar with North High School in Omaha where Lorraine graduated from high school.  They are going to Salt Lake City to use the genealogy library.  I get to prattle on about family history with people who are actually interested.


My car attendant comes by early to make up my bunk.  In my recumbent viewing position I am starting to doze off by the time we reach Helper, Utah.  I wake just in time to see business signs indicating we are in Winnemuca, Nevada.  I have breakfast with two visitors from Germany.  They are brothers and engineers on a five week vacation and have been getting on and off the train since they left New York.  They seem to have hit many of the popular tourist spots and say they have thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Their impression of our country is that it is “vast” and “very beautiful.”  We spend most of the meal talking about yesterday’s trip through the Rockies, with them trying to find something from their experiences in Germany to compare it to.  They share descriptive words in German with each other so one of them can describe the scenic wonders they have experienced in English.      

Truckee, California

I have looked at the wooden snow sheds sheltering the tracks in the Sierras dozens of times as I traveled back and forth on Interstate 80.  I have often wondered what it would be like to be inside them.  When we enter the snow sheds however, I see that they are made of concrete and not the wooden ones I have been looking at for 30 years.  The conductor announces that the wooden sheds are sheltering tracks that haven’t been used for many years.

The Sierras are familiar territory for me and as we pull into Truckee, I recognize several of the shops I have patronized and one restaurant I have eaten at several times.  It is a quaint and attractive town – with or without snow.    


Alice has second thoughts about going clear into Sacramento to detrain.  Our homes are closer to the Roseville station and she can get her ex and one of her daughters to pick us up.   She makes the arrangements and the train stops at the tiny little passenger terminal at one end of the largest railway switching yard west of the Mississippi.

It takes both cars, but we are home in a trice.  In less than an hour we are reviewing our trip from behind closed eyelids and in the comfort of our own beds.

Post script

I usually try to include photos in my travelogues, but my camera was not up to the task this time.  Alice took lots of photos.  I might try to incorporate them later.   

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