May 1: I need a change of scenery. Winter has been long in Minnesota this year, the climate brutal, the snow abundant. And while I can't change the weather, I can change whether or not I hang around. It's time for some train travel. So, I'll surrender to the Capitol Limited's charms with a trip starting in Chicago, passing through Toledo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Connellsville and Martinsburg to DC. Then after a brief layover, I'll enjoy a ride on the Silver Meteor to Savannah.
Nothing so dramatically illustrates change like riding the train, watching the landscape transition from drab and barren to green and fruitful in mere hours. I think this multi-city, cross-country Amtrak trek to the south is just the ticket to chase away winter blues.
A Capital Idea — Capitol Limited
Small towns with antique houses remind us of simpler times.
As we pass beyond the windy city's reach, the landscape slides by like a poster for the American Dream — cobblestone streets, families sharing backyard picnics, crabapple trees blossoming, little leaguers running bases, just-plowed fields in the shadows of bulbous water towers proclaiming small town names like Roby, Pine Junction and LaPorte. (The latter's notable native sons include two pillars of the medical field — Dr. William Mayo of Mayo Clinic fame and William Scholl of Dr. Scholl's foot fungus/shoe-insert fame.)
"Community dining" is standard on Amtrak and the best way to meet new people. As I break bread with two first-time riders this night, the train slows and makes a brief stop in Elkhart, IN. With a long history as the Brass Musical Instrument Capitol, it's believed Elkhart inspired the musical, "The Music Man," a personal favorite. (I could easily envision a five-year-old, lisping Ronnie Howard singing, "Gary, Indiana" here.) The trio at our table decides to indulge in cheesecake for dessert, something we all agree we never do. Riiiiiiight.
Back at my room, Bill, my Sleeping Car Attendant, has turned down my bed. With Amtrak for 24 years, Bill had tried several routes, but found he loved the Chicago to DC route the best, so he's stayed with it for 17 years.
In that time, he's noticed more young people riding the rails. Then there are those who travel by train simply because they love it.
"I met one woman who traveled all the way from California to DC, had a two-hour layover, then hopped back onboard and rode the route in reverse. She did it because she loved it."
Sleeper Car Attendant Bill Bennett, has spent 17 of his 24 years with Amtrak riding this route.
Throughout the night and into the wee morning hours, we make brief stops. First in Toledo, where the origin of the expression "Holy Toledo" is speculative, though one theory suggests it's a reference to (or perhaps a prayer about) the disproportionately high number of bars to churches. Next is Cleveland (home to the first traffic light in 1914) and Pittsburgh (home of the first Ice Capades in 1940.) There might be an item or two of greater importance in these places, but I'll have to wait until my next trip to find out. By the time I wake in the morning, we've just passed through Connellsville, PA.
This morning's sun bastes the hills, trees and river with buttery light. Every mile or two, we pass antique cabins, constructed as simply as a child's drawing — rickety boxes with square windows, wooden doors and even a bit of smoke curling out of chimneys in the cool morning air. Laundry flutters in the breeze on clotheslines and dirt roads curve into dense, shadowed forests leading to mysterious destinations.
In this part of the country, the world is waking up after a long winter's nap. (Yet, it seems winter still has a kung fu grip on Minnesota. It's snowing there. On May 2nd, no less.) But here, the trees burst with pea green buds while tiny purple flowers are sprinkled like confetti on the ground beside the tracks. The sun flickers between the trees as we pass and I catch quick glimpses of the sparkling Youghiogheny River. All the while, the Capitol Limited serpentines beside it, the ride smooth, as if we're gliding on air.
The Dining Car is full when I arrive for breakfast and I'm seated with Alicia and Jaime, a friendly couple who first traveled on the California Zephyr from San Francisco to Chicago before boarding the Capitol Limited.
Alicia and Jaime Jimenez traveling from San Francisco to Chicago for a family reunion.
I take the plunge and order grits with my eggs, something I've never before tasted. (Yeah, living on the edge.) Over breakfast my tablemates and I talk about train travel and the always-incredible Amtrak service.
"It's like a small cruise," Jaime tells me.
"Yes," says Alicia, "It's perfect for people our age." On their way to a family reunion, the couple raves about their experience thus far.
"We met one man at dinner last night who offered to let us stay at his house in DC when we arrive. Everyone has been very kind and very friendly."
Outside the window, the West Virginia landscape unfolds and I think of John Denver's "Country Roads" — almost heaven, West Virginia. It's truly breathtaking.
At Martinsburg, the "Gateway to the Shenandoah Valley," we stop just long enough to snap photos of the historic hotel and train station. Because it was privately owned, General "Stonewall" Jackson spared the pre-Civil War Victorian style hotel while burning the other parts of the surrounding B&O Railroad yard. Across the tracks, the old roundhouse is crumbling, but the town is restoring it, honoring the railroad's significance to the town's history. [continued...]