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If put on its side, the Washington Monument could lay within the confines of the Washington Union Station concourse.

The main physical attraction of Amtrak's Great Hall at Chicago Union Station is the 300-foot-long barrel-vaulted skylight that soars 115 feet over the room.

Finding the Heartbeat of America on the Capitol Limited

How People and Scenery Turned a Trip from Washington to Chicago into an Inspiring Journey

Charles Cohen

Charles Cohen is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.

I'm staring at the blotter black night somewhere out on the border of West Virginia and Ohio, feeling the gliding whine of the diesel roll up in my bones and that's all the inspiration that I need.

I'm on the Capitol Limited running from the gilded Union Station in Washington, DC, to the brawny Union Station in Chicago reading a New Yorker with an article, entitled, "The Train to Tibet: What Will the Greatest Rail Journey on Earth Do To Its Destination?" If the train to Tibet was the greatest rail journey on Earth then what was the Capitol Limited?

Nathan Bryan, the Sleeping Car Attendant, had made lifelong friendships with passengers he's met on the train.

The overnight trip from DC to Chicago was time enough for the Capitol to work its magic, converting what could have been a commute into a spontaneous vacation, a welcome respite from the hubbub. Much of this had to do with the Sleeping Car, a craftily refurbished nook that offered serenity and comfort. The click-clack of the rails underneath also does wonders for a restless sleeper like myself.

Plus, I was attended to by Nathan the Sleeping Car Attendant, who had a knack for showing up just when needed. He pointed out the ever-present coffee pot tucked on a shelf in the oak veneer-paneled corridor, an essential component to the late night discussions that I would have with fellow travelers. He was also at hand to remind me of my reservation in the Dining Car, where tables were set with linen and meals of chicken and lamb were whisked about by talented servers adept at keeping their balance to the train's sway while pouring drinks.

Crisp white linens in the
Dining Car.

The entire train was built for comfort from the Coach Class with its deep reclining seats to my favorite hangout, the top tier of the double-decker Lounge Car. Whoever designed the floor plan knew what they were doing. Rather than pack in as many seats as possible, the floor was broken into semi-circles, which invited people to get know each other. Plus, the second story bowed windows offered constant vistas of the ever-passing landscape. That's where I spent most of my time.

For me the trip wasn't so much about claiming the finest views. You don't have to climb Everest to experience that on top of the world revelation. You can also get it burrowing through America on the train in the middle of the night. I find just as much inspiration out of the old steel mills outside Chicago that extend seemingly beyond human capacity as I would gazing up at The Rockies.

You see, I believe that trains have a timeless style that goes beyond its function of merely getting from Point A to Point B.

An old abandoned warehouse building.

Like the Victrola, with its cabinetry and simple gears, or the wondrous simplicity of a well tuned bicycle, the train holds a rare place of artful technology. You can find it in the rockabye cradle motion as the train slows around a curve through Western Maryland, cutting through the cliff formations, offering spyglass views of hamlets and rope bridges over brooks.

What I didn't realize was that I was succumbing to the undertow of the railroad trip. The mundane chore that we think of as travel takes on the aura of a journey. [continued...]