Unraveling the mysterious choo-choos


Japan is a nation obsessed by trains. Every time you turn on the TV, there is a program about trains. Not necessarily high-speed trains, either. These programs cover trains around the world, celebrities traveling across Japan by train, or just trains choo-chooing peacefully through mountain scenery to classical music.

Trains are a big topic. Almost every country has them. Japan is home to some of the fastest trains in the world, India’s railway system runs over 14,000 trains a day, Eurorailways travels through 23 countries (and includes the Orient Express), and the Trans-Siberian Railway covers nearly 10,000 km.

Then there’s Amtrak. Amtrak is America’s trans-continental railway that most people have never heard of and even fewer have taken. What about this mysterious railway? Could this be America’s best-kept secret? I decided to find out.

The challenge would be to cross the United States by rail. With Amtrak’s North American Rail Pass, you get unlimited travel on both Amtrak and Rail Canada for 30 days. That’s 45,000 km of track for just $516. So I set out from San Francisco eastbound on the California Zephyr, bound for Chicago via Reno, Salt Lake City and Denver. If all goes well, from Chicago, I’ll head to Detroit to catch a westbound train to Vancouver via Niagara Falls, Toronto, Winnipeg and Banff. The first thing I noticed when I got on the train in San Francisco was that this country is run by cultural Darwinism: a blend of “home of the brave” and “survival of the fittest.” Whenever you visit the U.S., you must always expect a degree of rebuffing from the American public. So, while the train allows you to skip the road rage taking place on the highways, you have to understand that there will be a bit of “rail rage” displayed by those passengers who are not driving that day. When the train was running behind schedule due to railroad construction, two passengers verbally abused the train conductor. The conductor, not about to lose an argument, chewed them back equally. Patience is not a virtue among the American public, and politeness is optional. Don’t get me wrong. Americans are the nicest people in the world. Unless you inconvenience them. Believe me, this is one country where guns should not be legal.

The passengers, when they are not threatening the train conductors, are very interesting people. The first fellow passenger I met was a former rodeo rider, and the second was a woman who grew up on a cattle ranch in Mexico. The three of us engaged in a two-hour-long discussion of cows: riding them, branding them and even how to make a special chocolate drink from fresh cow milk. And all this while choo-chooing through the High Sierras, admiring the scenery through large picture windows. Now, this is America!

These people were headed to Reno for the weekend. Nevada, the “Sin State,” is where many people go to gamble away weekends, and often end up getting married by accident at the little irresistible chapels along the way. The right mix of cocktails, gambling and a beautiful woman can land you in any of the chapels.

For those who prefer to plan their weddings, I recommend none other than the very shi-shi resort of Squaw Valley USA, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, located a shuttle bus ride away from the train stop at Truckee, Calif. At 25,000 meters (take a cable car to get there), who wouldn’t feel a little lightheaded and giddy when tying the knot? In addition, a reception at high altitude means you won’t have to spend so much money on alcohol for your guests. Just one drink should convince even the staunchest family members to heartily agree to your union. Your guests can also snowboard, ski, or engage in celebrity spotting in this “Aspen of California.” You can even find “omiage” for the loved ones who couldn’t make it: Fido and Kitty. The Tails by the Lake pet boutique for dogs and cats is located in the village at the base of the mountain.

I took advantage of the train stop at Truckee to visit some of the North Lake Tahoe ski resorts, including Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley USA. A few days later I am back on the train. Next stop? Reno, of course.