All Aboard for a Cross-Country Train Ride

Scintillating sights, first-rate meals, and opportunities for friendmaking and rest make train trips a fun family vacation

`SEE the `amber waves of grain'?'' I asked my seven-year-old, somewhere between Topeka and Dodge City, Kan., as our Amtrak sleeper car was accelerating from ``boom-shicka-boom'' to ``shicketa-shicketa-shicketa.'' ``That's what we're talking about when we sing `America the Beautiful,' '' I said.

``If corn is a vegetable, then why is this a `fruited plain'?'' she asked.

Bring either ``Jeopardy'' host Alex Trebek or your Encyclopaedia Britannica when you take your family for a train trip from Los Angeles to Chicago and back. When the Amtrak literature tells you a trip across America by train is an educational experience, they don't tell you who's going to do most of the educating.

Our six-day, four-night, round-trip odyssey began along the cement-banked Los Angeles River and endless Southern California suburbia of back lots and junkyards. Then came harsh desert vistas, the red-rocked canyons of Nevada, the lights of Las Vegas, and a sunset over an eerie moonscape. Waking up beyond Salt Lake City, where our Desert Wind train had joined the California Zephyr from Sacramento, we rolled across harsh-terrained Utah and green-meadowed Colorado into the Rockies, slowing for gradual, then steep, inclines into saw-toothed mountains.

An official from the US Bureau of Land Management gave a two-hour commentary on the history and geology of the mountains over loudspeakers in the observation car.

After a descent to the Denver plain, night eclipsed most of Nebraska. But Ottumwa, Iowa, signaled the beginning of lusher landscapes in the Midwest: wide plains cut by snaking, tree-lined rivers, and rural outposts with abandoned motels and gas stations.

We crossed the wide Mississippi near Galesburg, Ill., and then reached our destination - Chicago.

The most popular car

Beyond the education, of course, the No. 1 attraction is (get out the trumpets): the dining car.

``Where else can you sit, eat, and watch the world go by?'' says my wife, who hasn't yet become a paid spokeswoman for Amtrak, but is well on the way. Beyond meeting the base necessities of sustenance, the dining car provides order and regularity to the day. With waitered service on fine linen tablecloths, ceramic dinnerware, in stainless cutlery - not to mention a moving vista at your shoulder - the dining car turns the whole experience into an event.

Pat Kelly, manager of Amtrak's travel-industry communications, says the firm had moved to paper and plastic tablecloths a few years ago but found through research that patrons longed for a return to linen.

``Real linen in a fine restaurant with scenery that moves is the overwhelming reason people want to take the train,'' says Mr. Kelly.

Since 1990, Amtrak has trained its own chefs and assistants and spent time developing menus. It shows. I had several first-class dinners (my favorites were Chicken Kiev and roast, and my wife is still licking her chops over babyback ribs, New York steak, and filet mignon) all included in the first-class fare.

Our foursome agreed the highlight of the trip was our dinner-time descent from the trip's highest pass (9,000 feet) to mile-high Denver. As we gobbled platefuls of steak, rice, and potatoes, we looked down into steep gorges and high up to snow-covered peaks. We passed tufted, craggy meadows and pristine lakes, and through several tunnels, including the famed Moffat Tunnel in which we had to keep all doors shut for 11 minutes so as not to get train exhaust into the cars.

Homeward bound

The return route via the Southwest Chief was lush Midwestern terrain until the free-range land of New Mexico. Beginning just north of Santa Fe are the most spectacular views of the trip, aside from the Rockies. Pristine air and swirls of silver-etched cumulus clouds punctuate cobalt sky over flat-topped buttes. Isolated wind pockets stir up dust and rainy mist.

Next were America's largest open spaces and colored mesas, baking in scalding sun that fades into a bleeding, sunset-and-cloud light show that dazzles for hours.

An American Indian paid by Amtrak, Zonine Gorman, took over observation car commentary from Albuquerque, N.M., to Flagstaff, Ariz. By telling us about the Navajo Indian reservations and customs, elucidating geology, and even pointing out where recent major films were shot, she made the area breathe with deeper interest.

After Flagstaff, nighttime took us to an 8:15 a.m. arrival in Los Angeles. Total return time: 12 hours shorter than the L.A.-Denver-Chicago leg.

Worth consideration

There are some caveats, but in retrospect all seem minor.

Though our sleeping car is considered first-class and had a full-time attendant, one time we didn't see our attendant for a two-day stretch. Going east we nearly missed breakfast several times because of one-hour time changes that occurred during the night. The return trip allowed smoking in the observation car which, to us, was a deterrent.

Food supplies sometimes ran low. When 200 musicians bound for an international fair in Chicago boarded without notice, several menu-promised items disappeared.

Our kids slept well, but my wife arrived feeling underrested after being jiggled awake at night. The quality of the track allowed for greater speeds in some places but brought disruption in others. In two places, cars were added during the night, causing large jolts.

And I would have liked taller windows in our room, and wished it were on the second level, for better viewing.

But mostly, we had a delightful odyssey that far exceeds bus, plane, or car for comfort, logistical ease, and freedom of movement. If there is a better way to endlessly imbibe scintillating sights, geography lessons, and family bonding time punctuated by food, games, reading, friendmaking, and even rest, I haven't found it yet.

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