IF you would see America, not from 35,000 feet, nor from behind the wheel, then cross the country by train. Preferably in the glory of spring or fall, though any season will do. Settle in for three leisurely days on the Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago, then transfer to the Lake Shore Limited for an additional day and night to Boston or New York. It's an adventure guaranteed to start you humming ``America the Beautiful.''
From ``purple mountain majesties'' of the Sierra Nevada, through ``amber waves of grain'' and ``fruited plains'' of the Midwest to the dazzling foliage of Massachusetts's Mohawk Trail, the trip shows the tremendous variety of scenery in the United States.
One first-timer said, ``Flying is transportation; this train is a vacation in itself. Sleeping compartments are reminiscent of the golden era of train travel; reclining coach seats are comfortable; meals, though hardly golden era, are tasty and inexpensive; service is friendly, and scenery spectacular.''
This all-reserved coach and sleeper train departs Amtrak's Oakland Station every morning at 11:05. San Francisco's Golden Gate and Bay Bridges frame the famous skyline beyond a broad expanse of choppy water as the Zephyr treats us to an hour's sightseeing along the bay.
A solitary angler fishes beside the tracks, a cormorant dives. The intimate look at America has begun. Hypnotic clackety-clack across a railway bridge. Freighters, tows, and scattered sailboats below, trucks and cars speed above on a higher span.
The sleeping-car porter knocks to explain the switches for lights, temperature control, and point out the hanging locker with its little door for nighttime shoe shines.
Rolling jade green farmland. We look ahead to a curve on a narrow ledge high above the American River. Giant spruce, soldier-straight Douglas fir, and mountain holly glisten in the afternoon sun. A thousand feet below, the highway cuts through a wooded canyon. Then the rails circle 7,000-foot-high Donner Lake where commuters detrain for Lake Tahoe.
By the second day we're riding across Utah's sun-baked desert. The scene is punctuated by startling red buttes and monumental mesas, that segue into Technicolor cliffs reflected in the Colorado River, which the track will follow for the next 238 miles. This is what most people come for - a thrilling eight-hour run through the heart of the Rockies, Salt Lake City to Denver.
Late afternoon, snowy clouds gather closer together. The azure sky darkens. We see motorists coming out of the east, rain-spattered. A storm on the train is decidedly more fun than on a highway or in the air. Safer, cozier, more sociable.
As the storm clears, every passenger with a camera snaps the sunset on the rim of the world - the Continental Divide.
Out of the Moffatt Tunnel at 9,239 feet, the piped commentary: ``From this peak you have a bird's-eye view of one-fourth of the state of Colorado before we start the long zigzag down to Denver.''
Student Jan Shawn stands in the lower-level passageway, window open, recording on her video camera the locomotive's whistle, the gorges and ranches, and the freights racketing by.
``I may turn this into a marketable travelog,'' she says with a chuckle.
On day three, the Zephyr takes on passengers at Burlington, Iowa, where we snap pictures of huge grain elevators on river piers, strings of flat cars, gondolas, and tank cars on sidings. Then we rumble across the mighty Mississippi. Midstream on the 2,000-foot-long bridge, we leave Iowa and enter Illinois.
Someone is playing the piano in the club car as we leave Chicago's Union Station at 5:50 p.m. on the Lake Shore Limited. Autumn's exuberant colors stand out on a Midwest canvas. How can we see small-town America except from a train? Cars and buses using interstate highways bypass all towns. Only train passengers can wave back at a school bus waiting at a grade crossing, or see pajamas and sheets blowing on backyard lines. We notice lights flicking on for a church choir rehearsal, a postman, and a factory at closing whistle. Along Lake Michigan, past South Bend, Ind., and into Toledo, Ohio, small-town life unwinds like frames in a movie.
For pure magic, snuggle into your berth, lights out. Listen to the plaintive far-away whistle and watch the stars shift position in your picture window, as the rails wind along Lake Ontario to Rochester, N.Y. Try to stay awake to view the nighttime activity in cities - Cleveland at midnight, Buffalo, N.Y., at 4:30, Syracuse, N.Y., at dawn.
In late morning west of Boston the Lake Shore Limited rolls through miles of deep woods. Scarlet maples cast shimmery images in secluded ponds. A blue heron stands knee deep among the tall reeds.
If there is a unifying thread from the train window in early autumn it is bright yellow. From the Pacific to the Atlantic, blossoming goldenrod pushes into cultivated fields, decorates junkyards, invades the small town's planted square, and lights up the Illinois woods and the banks of the Erie Canal.
Our goldenrod trail is only out-splendored in New England by the brilliant maples, birches, sumacs, and elms of the Berkshires. Too soon our ``sea to shining sea'' trip is over and we are collecting our luggage at the Boston station. Next time we'll try to see the country in the burgeoning freshness of springtime or summertime green. If you go
To chart your course, see your travel agent or phone Amtrak, 800-872-7245. Ask about stopovers with discounted hotel and sightseeing, special fares for senior citizens, auto-shipping, and new Fly/Rail packages. A real bargain is Amtrak's ``All Aboard America'' fare.