I don’t know about you, but I’m afraid to fly. My fear started long before the pandemic and is, I realize, highly irrational. But there’s little I can do to calm myself when I’m convinced that whenever I hear a noise we’re going to plummet from the sky.
So I take the train instead. Every year or two I travel across the country from my home in San Francisco to the beautiful state of Maryland. I have old friends who live in or near Baltimore, and it’s always a treat to get out to the Atlantic coast.
I board Amtrak’s California Zephyr in Emeryville, just across the bay from San Francisco. The Zephyr is the most stunning train ride in the country, as it ventures across the Sierras, the Nevada and Utah deserts, the Rocky Mountains, the plains of Nebraska and Iowa, and — two days later — into Chicago’s stately Union Station.
After a brief layover I change trains and spend another night on either the Capitol Limited or the Cardinal. The Limited runs along the old B&O line through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, a smidgen of West Virginia (Harpers Ferry), and into the western part of Maryland to D.C. The Cardinal, which runs three days a week, offers views of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley as it dips down from Chicago into Virginia and north up to New York City, passing through Baltimore along the way. Both routes are gorgeous.
Riding the train is not for anyone in a hurry. Amtrak’s timetables are merely charming suggestions. But train passengers are generally unworried, with plenty of time on their hands. Rail travel is like being in a moving cottage with beautiful picture windows and the great American expanse passing in front of your eyes. And you fall asleep to the rhythmic rumble of the wheels and to the periodic squeaks, squeals, groans, and random hisses, and of course the low-pitched whistle of the locomotive.
And if the engine fails … well, nothing happens. No plunging out of the sky.
The most economical way to ride is in coach, with huge reclining seats, miles of legroom, electrical outlets, leg and foot rests, eating trays, reading lights, and the ability to stretch your legs anytime you want when you head to the observation car or the cafe.
If you’re of a “seasoned” age, as I am, and prefer your own roomette or bedroom (which has its own bathroom), you can enjoy a bit more privacy and have access to the dining car, where the meals (included with the ticket) can be surprisingly good. The railroad French toast and the flat iron steak are popular favorites. In the dining car you’re often seated with people not in your traveling party, and despite my being an introvert I’ve never met a passenger I didn’t like. I’ve dined with pastors, business people, teenagers, grandmothers, college professors, farmers, park rangers, folk singers, world travelers, honeymooners, gamblers, saints, and sinners. It’s an experience that opens your heart and mind to people with whom you have absolutely nothing in common. Just ask folks where they’re headed and listen as the stories unfold.
My passions happen to be trains, books, and baseball, so once I arrive in Baltimore there’s a lot for me to do. It’s easy for me to spend an entire day in the B&O Railroad Museum. I’ve taken a self-guided literary walking tour of Baltimore, with so many stops (including the Edgar Allen Poe house, the Owl Bar, and the Peabody Library) that it took multiple trips to see them all. And of course there are always the Orioles, the other orange-clad team that plays in the second-most-beautiful ballpark in the country. (I’m from San Francisco — hello!)
Oh, I forgot to mention food and drink. You folks cannot keep me away from your Orange Crushes (the ones made with vodka). Or the pit beef at the ballpark. And I relish my trips to Faidley’s in Lexington Market; we may have Dungeness crab out here on the Pacific coast, but your perfectly seasoned, hearty Maryland crab cakes are beyond compare.
If you’re considering a new adventure, may I suggest that you climb on board a train yourself and consider heading out west to The Other Bay? At this end you’ll find some familiar things: an ocean, a rich literary pedigree, delicious crab, and a baseball team in orange jerseys. What more could you ask for?
Paula Bocciardi is a freelance writer who enjoys baseball, train travel, and playing the drums.
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