Mail on Sunday
It could only happen in America. After a rail odyssey of 3,397 miles from New York to San Francisco, our journey was ending at a bus stop.
As we stepped off the coach on California Street in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district and lugged our cases a couple of blocks to our hotel, my wife and I probably looked like overstocked shoppers coming back from the supermarket.
Yet the journey’s end was appropriate. America treats its trains like a widowed aunt: not frail enough for an old people’s home but liable to be a little embarrassing in public.
The attitude was there from the start – in New York our Sikh taxi driver did not even know where the entrance was to Penn Station and dropped us half a block away.
You can also tell a lot about the regard in which rail travel is held from where they build their stations.
The writer Jonathan Raban described New Yorkers as ‘air people’ who like living in high- rise buildings as if in communion with the sky. Yet they hide their rail stations away underground.
In most places around the world, catching a train means waiting on a platform at ground level and starting your journey in the full glare of the day.
But at Penn Station we boarded our train in a gloomy, subterranean passage and only saw the sky after the train had travelled some distance.
Not that the initial view from our train – a service intriguingly named the Lake Shore Limited – was all that riveting. But, luckily, we had plenty to occupy us exploring our ‘roomette’.
The self-contained compartment had plush armchair seats which converted into comfortable beds with the upper bunk having a large window allowing you to lie and watch the world go by.
Add a neat foldaway washbasin and a table with an integral chess board and this was better than anything you might find on an old-world train.
But then there was the ensuite lavatory. The seat was right next to the armrest of the chair my wife chose to use.
By lowering the seat cover I could rest my feet on it but actually using it meant being either too intimate or the other passenger having to take a walk down the corridor.
Carmen, our car attendant, had warned us the train lights would be turned off for an hour at Albany.
At this stop, the capital of New York State, the branch line from the Big Apple connects to the main line from Boston for the onward trip to Chicago, and here we would change from an electric to a diesel engine. Carmen advised us to have dinner before the power supply was cut.
But at Poughkeepsie, long before Albany, the electric engine conked out anyway. The Albany engine had to be brought to us and we ended up dining a lot later than planned.
The compensation was watching the sun setting on the Hudson River with a view of the Catskill mountains, New York’s ski resort, on the far shore.
The rest of the trip to Chicago reminded us of America’s British heritage as we jouneyed past rows of neat two-storey colonial houses. Breakfast the next morning was also decidedly European: delicious French toast, grapefruit and croissants.
Unlike New York, which displays the heavy marks of recession, Chicago’s mood was more upbeat. The city’s setting on the shore of Lake Michigan helps, but Chicago has also taken care to ensure that high rises do not imprison the sky – local planning laws restrict the size of the upper storeys.
Gangsters will always be part of Chicago’s history but Barack Obama’s city does much to promote itself as a centre of art. Apart from visiting the must-see Art Institute of Chicago, we stroked the bean, Anish Kapoor’s tactile sculpture – one of the city’s most popular attractions.
Chicago’s Union Station does not qualify as high art – the waiting room was decidedly dingy – but at least we escaped from it in some style, taken on a buggy driven by a man in a red uniform right up to our carriage on the California Zephyr, which would convey us to San Francisco.
As we left Chicago in mid-afternoon we glimpsed suburban America: neatly tiled, pastel-coloured, low-rise houses, many with swimming pools. The stories told to us by our fellow passengers reminded us that America’s railroads still unite its people.
We had met Elizabeth in the viewing car of the California Zephyr, a plump woman whose background gave an idea of the complicated racial mix of this nation. She was part native American, part Irish (she had kissed the Blarney Stone), part oriental – and a distant relative of Queen Elizabeth II, or so she claimed.
Elizabeth was a choreographer and dancer and had recently met again her childhood sweetheart after a quarter of a century, during which they had both married and divorced other partners.
Now she was on her way to marry him in their home state of Nebraska. The only thing left undecided was whether to honeymoon in San Francisco or Hawaii.
Our Amtrak sleeper tickets included meals (the only extra was alcohol). We decided to book dinner that night, hoping to continue our chat with Elizabeth, and this meant going through the military-efficient maitre d’ Jeanette who told us, in a voice which could have been Hattie Jacques in a Carry On film, when to arrive at the dining car and where to sit.
Next morning at breakfast we had a reminder both of America’s past and its more sobering present. As the train sped through the Midwest corn belt towards Denver, the scenery was straight out of Hollywood westerns: tumbledown farmsteads and fields teaming with black-and-white cattle.
Next to us sat a man from New Jersey who had witnessed 9/11 at close quarters. His hobby was gambling in Reno and he gave us the card of a man at the Atlantis Casino who, he promised, would show us how to emerge from the casino a winner.
We had already decided to break our journey at Denver. But getting off at the Mile High City is not straightforward. The train has to stop and then reverse into Denver, a slow process that causes severe jolting, so severe in fact that you have to remain seated.
It’s all because Denver wasn’t a city when the main transcontinental rail line was laid, there being no natural reasons for a city to emerge: no lake, river or navigable body of water. A few flakes of gold led to its creation and, a little later, the building of this back-to-front branch line.
Even though the gold discovery turned out to be a hoax, the city prospered.
Eventually we alighted at Denver’s beaux arts-style Union Station – on the first ground-level platform of our journey.
We wandered through a stylish century-old waiting hall and, after looking back to take in the station’s striking facade, made our way the few hundred yards to the Oxford Hotel, the most charming hotel on our trip.
Built in 1891 by the local brewer, Adolph Zang, it had originally offered a room with a bath for two dollars.
Now much more expensive, its Romanesque and neo-classical architecture combines homely comfort with elegance and provides a glimpse into Denver’s past.
The walls are adorned with paintings by American artists of the last century, some of them left as payments for tabs at local saloons. The story of the waitress who worked at the striking Art Deco cruise room bar told us something about the economics of modern American education.
She had been working at the bar for two years to pay off debts of $26,000 incurred while studying television and communications. The debt was nearly cleared and she soon planned to be on the train to San Francisco and a lucrative media job.
The stop at Denver also gave us a chance to glimpse the Rockies. We took a drive up the highest continuous highway in the world through the 10,759 ft high Milner Pass to the famous watershed known as the Continental Divide.
The rivers on the east side of the divide flow all the way to the Atlantic, and those on the west head off towards the Pacific.
It was only a brief foray into the Rockies but it became all the more memorable when next morning the California Zephyr brought us to Wyoming. The view could not have been more unremarkable.
It was easy to believe that the state has half a million more buffaloes than humans – and more oil refineries and oil wells than cowboys.
But though the scenery was less than captivating, the passengers on the California Zephyr reminded us what had brought Americans westwards.
We shared breakfast with a former postmaster from New Hampshire who was on his way to pan for gold in the Sierra Nevada, site of great gold finds in the 1850s.
He told us: ‘Not all the gold has been taken out, only ten per cent. Ninety per cent is still there.’ And holding out what looked like a green salad bowl, he explained: ‘You can use pans like these. It is legal to pan gold in the state parks. You don’t have to have a licence. You can keep anything you find.’
Then, as his wife’s face creased into a big smile, he added: ‘This is just a hobby, I am not looking to become a millionaire by panning for gold.’
After Wyoming came a two-hour stop at Salt Lake City at very nearly midnight. Eight years ago when it staged the 2002 Winter Olympics, the city was buzzing. Now it seems to have gone back to being a sleepy Mormon town where to get a drink you have to order food as well.
Next morning we discovered that Reno is another town searching for lost glory.
It advertises itself as the greatest little city in the world but its mission is to remind people this was the place where you could get a quickie divorce and gamble away a fortune long before Las Vegas existed, and whose casinos, like the Atlantis Resort, can compare with any in the brash desert city.
An hour away from Reno is Lake Tahoe. Surrounded by forested granite peaks it claims to be one of the deepest, cleanest, coldest lakes in the world. But it is more a reminder of 1930s America and the opulent lifestyles some people continued to enjoy even at the height of the Great Depression.
Tycoons, untouched by the economic collapse, built huge holiday mansions here and the Thunderbird Lodge owned by the reclusive millionaire George Whittell Jr between 1936 and 1940 is wonderfully evocative of this era.
The Tudor-style summer retreat still houses his pristinely maintained Thunderbird speed boat.
The journey from Reno to Sacramento proved the most enchanting part of the trip. As the train went through canyons and tunnels and over passes in the Sierra Nevada – some of them between 7,000 and 10,000ft – we were children again, craning our necks to see the front of the train going round the bend ahead of us.
All along the way we were accompanied by the voice of 90-year-old Dan Luddock from the Sacramento Railroad Museum, part of the team of volunteers who provide a daily running commentary on the route.
As we entered California he pointed to a spot called Bird Eye, where the first train robbery had taken place. Here, the Wells Fargo bank was robbed of $40,000, and the treasure is still said to be buried somewhere in the area. No, said Dan, nobody robs a train now.
We arrived in Sacramento, the Californian state capital, just in time to see the helicopter of governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, lifting off from the city.
The ride from Sacramento was very much like a British suburban train ride, as it is the commuter route to San Francisco. As we neared the Pacific the sound of the train’s hooter grew louder, with a final blast ushering us to Emeryville.
Once infamous for the stench from its meat-packing factories, this is where you leave the train and take a coach on into the centre of San Francisco, as it was deemed too costly to continue the rail line across the bay.
As the coach crossed Bay Bridge we caught a glimpse of Alcatraz, the infamous jail, then slowly the full majestic panorama of the Pacific came into view.
Later that evening we went to the roof top bar of the Marriott hotel. The drinks were plentiful but I noticed there were no nuts. Dorothy, our waitress, explained that it used to cost the hotel $2,000 a month to provide nuts with cocktails. Now they are only served if people ask.
It was a sobering end to our journey. You can still cross America in the 19th Century style on the railroad – but there’s no way of avoiding the 21st Century recession.
MIHIR flew with Virgin Atlantic from London to New York and San Francisco to London. Fares start from £647.27. See www.virginatlantic.com or call 08442 092 770.
AMTRAK sleeper tickets from New York to San Francisco cost from £1,000, including meals. Visit www.amtrak.com
Hotels: Chicago Hilton (www.hilton.com) prices start from £137 per night
Oxford Hotel, Denver (www.theoxfordhotel.com) prices start from £120 per night for room only.
Atlantis Casino Resort, Reno (www.atlantiscasino.com) room rates start from £33 per night.