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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

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And for some like Mike Stell, 32, it was a quest. Stell had left his home in Philadelphia to pursue his dream of becoming a comic book artist. He had plenty of superheroes loaded up on his laptop computer. He also had a picture of his son who was staying with his mother. He was heading to California where he will work framing houses by day and will work on his art at night.

Destiny Pinchon heads home to Whitefish, Montana so that her father can get his first look at his grandson Benjamin.

"I just want to do what I want to do instead of what everybody thinks I should do," he said.

As I would come to realize, the trains are the rolling common ground of America. I met Steve and Patti Stevenson, an ecstatic couple from Virginia, who were making their first cross-country trip to Portland. Having been a model railroader since he was a kid, Steve, a newspaper circulation consultant, was more than due for a continental splurge. There he and his wife sat like newlyweds sharing a glass of wine looking at the very stretch on the C&O Canal where they would pause in their hikes to watch the Amtrak trains pass. Now they were on the westbound train.

"We've talked about doing this well for over a year, put some money aside — this is a once in a lifetime kind of deal," he said.

I met Destiny Pichon and got her 8 month old son Benjamin to smile more than once, which wasn't that hard.

Pichon was going back her hometown of Whitefish, Montana, where her father will get his first chance to hold his grandson. Pichon has loved trains ever since she made a cross country trip with her mother when she was seven and she didn't even have the advantage of having Baby Einstein DVDs. She's convinced that showing Benjamin videos of trains before the trip has paid off. During the trip he was all about spotting the trains whipping by the window.

James Sullivan fell in love with rails when he was a youngster riding the subways in the Bronx.

Also onboard were train-riding veterans like James Sullivan, who claims to have ridden thousands of trains since the 70s and proceeded to detail Amtrak's history, including some of the more eccentric stops like Whynot, North Dakotawhere they give away free books, and Houston where they sell ice cream by the pint in the vending machines.

I'm like the last American Hobo," he said. "…Basically my only real home is on the train and everything else is a stopping point."

Then there was David Eckiss, from Effingham, Ill, a veterinarian who was savoring his first train trip. He spoke about how a horse prompted him to switch from treating farm animals to focusing on pets.

"Oh those horses are kind of fast and big and strong and I kind of got between one and a wall and I got a broken leg from the deal," he said.

I sat in the second story lounge listening to two fathers commiserate about advising their twenty-something kids. One was a white ex-corporate lawyer now in the banking industry; the other was an African American chase driver, whose job was to follow trucks being transported to their new owners.

Talk about penetrating the thin blue line of fatherhood. Their conversations meandered from deep regrets to child support to the etiquette of autograph hounding.

A B&O caboose sits in front of a restoration project in West Virginia.

It's been a while since I've taken an overnight train so I had forgotten that people encountered along a journey were just as vital as the scenery. I found my camaraderie on the Capitol Limited in the Snack Car after hours as we were finishing our beers.

Just like when I was a kid, there was that kind of sleepover excitement as we all spread the insomnia virus through the night. Holding court was an ex-Marine named Ron Smalls, who specialized in tormenting the five of us like we were grunts under his care.

"We're supposed to be somewhere by now, but we ain't there yet," said Smalls, who had the mass of a tugboat and he seemed too spry for his age of 58. [continued...]