Link to Amtrak.com

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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Later that night, I caught up with Eric Tatera in a vestibule looking out into the Cleveland skyline. Tatera, 22, who was heading home to Green Bay, is very much old school in his love for old trains. He believes a purer form of travel can be found in train routes like the Capitol Limited and insists the rest of the world on their freeways and in airport terminals are missing out.

At 22, Eric Tatera of Green Bay has already become a train connoisseur, taking advantage of the gentile pace to meet new people.

"The late night discussions you have on Amtrak, everyone sits around the Lounge Car, they share stories, you talk about the state of the country is it going to hell in a hand basket?" he said. "It's what weighs on a lot of America's mind. It's the perfect snapshot of America. What everyone talks about around the country is what people are talking about on the train."

By default, train travelers have put themselves on the fringe of society. While commuters sit alone in their cars searching for salvation on the radio, on the train time binds us tighter. There's the commonality of the double decker Lounge Car with its stadium seating view up top, the submarine fellowship in the galley below and the Dining Car next door.

"That's what I like about the Dining Car. You're forced to sit next to three strangers," said Tatera. "The first time I was like 'oh, I don't want to sit next to [people I don't know]' But after a while you find common ground with people everywhere. Whether you are from Chile or anywhere in the states, people are all the same."

Tatera was right. The Dining Car was a rare exercise in civility. I found myself across from a Vietnam Vet, who talked about the computer in his artificial leg, finally beckoning me to take a peek under the table at his titanium appendage. I found myself receiving material from two ex-soldiers, who spent much of the dinner trying to figure out if there was a difference between a mountain lion and a cougar. "You should write about that in your column," said Donald Hughes, who was heading to a nine ball tournament in Philadelphia.

Lorraine Stanek of Simsbury, Connecticut finds herself watching the fields go by, wondering about the lives of their workers.

And during breakfast, I sat with Lorraine Stanek who was traveling from Connecticut to attend a conference in Chicago. Ever since she first took the train as a little girl with her grandmother from Connecticut to New York — "in those days people used to dress for the train" — she has been hooked on rail travel. Over French toast for her and a Western Omelet for me, we gazed at the farmland, some sprouted with electric green. Others looked muddied and roughly hewn.

"They're truly not huge farms. I don't see how they make it," she said. "I look and see if their house is maintained. I guess they're either doing okay or they're working elsewhere — although I don't know where elsewhere would be."

I recall stories of my Uncle Israel Rosen, taking a train to New York just to gaze at a painting. His obsession moved him to buy a smattering of art from the 1930s until his death in the early 90s. As a result, I was treated to the Picasso, Klee and Jasper Johns hanging throughout his rambling apartment. There was a Pollock in the dining room, and a Rothko at the far end of the living room.

A red tractor sits ready for work.

And there I was at the Art Institute of Chicago's information counter with two hours left to see the Cezanne to Picasso exhibit. The woman smiled at me and asked if I had come just for the exhibit. I wished I could have said "yes."

Inside I saw and learned about Ambroise Vollar, the art dealer for the early founders of Modern Art from Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin to Picasso, then a newcomer to Paris. Vollar was sponsoring these artists when others wouldn't even buy their paintings. By rounding up some 250 pieces that were shown in Vollar's legendary Paris gallery, the Chicago Museum presented the precise evolutionary path of contemporary artistic thought. Artists pushed themselves to reach beyond painting the form into the pure emotion. Cezanne's ability to capture his subject of say two card players at a table, wasn't as important as the aura that surrounded them.

End of the line.

That night I sat on the second tier of the Lounge Car watching the steel mills slide by in twilight, the torch flames bursting, the smoke blue and curling around the rolling mills. And I wouldn't doubt that Edward Hopper's paintings didn't germinate from a sight very much like this.

At which point I headed to my sleeper cabin and finally got to work, writing. Talk about the perfect setting to clear your mind.

Some people travel at great expense to reach this kind of rejuvenating retreat, placing their blankets on the perfect beach head or staking their tents along a bend in a river.

But now I find it here as I pause to watch the red in the sky as reflected in the wasteland swamp puddle along the track, fading until there's nothing but a blotter of blackness. I lie down in my bed and watch the flashing lights, the passing red signals and I allow the inspiration to go on by. 

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