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The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of radio stations.

Learning By Rail

Our train was rolling through the green hills of West Virginia. I was sipping tea in a wood-paneled dining car. A polite waiter in a pressed vest offered cream and sugar. I heard the hushed conversation of retired couples, families on summer vacation, business commuters. The spoons clanked on cups and the train rocked on its tracks. Then a gasp.

“Look!” a woman jumped to her feet and pointed out the window.

“Well, my, my!” cried another.

Laughter burst and nearly everyone reached for cameras. I looked outside. Waiting for our train to pass were five young men in nothing but Levi’s and their finest muscle-man pose.

“I feel 50 years younger!” laughed my 70-year-old tea companion. The half-naked men continued to flex and dance. In a small town, where even the train doesn’t stop, teens evidently don’t have much to do.

That’s one of the advantages of taking the train across country: catching a glimpse of life in America’s small towns.

My family of four spent two weeks last August on AMTRAK trains, starting in Klamath Falls, Oregon and ending in Boston, Massachusetts. My husband is an SOU professor and I work part-time, so budgeting to make the trip affordable was key. We brought our camping gear and cooked many of our own meals.

Views east of the divide are miles of rolling prairie, occasional lonely log outposts and in the distance several Blackfoot tipi villages. We felt like emigrants seeing the West for the first time.

We had 15 days to experience US geography and the living history of transportation along the tracks. And that’s what we did: Twenty-two states in just over two weeks.

Setting Off

We began our journey 60 miles from home and a hundred years back in time, at the 1910 Klamath Falls depot.

Each family member had a pack—clothing and personal items, sleeping bag, inflatable pillow, laptop or kindle, and camera. My husband hauled an extra piece of luggage: a wheeled cooler filled with our four-person tent, rain tarp, backpacking stove and mess kit.

“Mom, I feel like a hobo,” my 12-year-old admitted, uncertain whether that was a good or bad feeling.

“Will I have my own room on the train?” asked my more excited 10-year-old.

“One room for you girls, one for just your mom and me.” My husband winked as he said it.

“All aboard!” sang an engineer. We boarded the train heading northeast, to our first destination in Montana.

That evening, as our train passed east through the Columbia River Gorge, the August sun and AMTRAK schedule cooperated to provide a lovely sunset over the river, just as we tucked into our sleeping-car bed with two small bottles of champagne. Ahhhh. Add earplugs to muffle the clicking of wheels on rails through the night, and it was a perfect sleep.

The next morning we made our way to the dining car as the train jostled us right and left. Omelets, bacon, pancakes and hot coffee were included in the price of our sleeping car. We ate quickly. By 6am we were deboarding at West Glacier, Montana.

We chose to camp in Glacier National Park, although lodges like Glacier Guides and Village Inn at Apgar make it easy to enjoy the park on a larger budget. After picking up a rented car at the West Glacier train station, we headed to our campsite near the shore of Lake McDonald, the Park’s largest lake with great views of the glacier-topped peaks looming across the lake.

Two days were enough to enjoy high elevation at the park, witness mountain goats beside the roads, watch for grizzly bears, picnic along lakes and streams, hike, and touch our toes to the icy water from a few of the park’s namesake glaciers.

The kids, wearing their backpacks to the airport luggage check, looked as if they had hiked the Appalachian Trail

“See the glaciers now,” a park ranger advises. Of the 150 glaciers in the park during the middle of the twentieth century, all have retreated and many have disappeared altogether. We felt sad to imagine Glacier National park without glaciers.

The next day we packed our camping gear back into the wheeled cooler, returned our car to Hertz at the station, and continued east by train.

We were back on AMTRAK, following the route of the 1891 Great Northern Railway as it crosses the continental divide. Views east of the divide are miles of rolling prairie, occasional lonely log outposts and in the distance several Blackfoot tipi villages. We felt like emigrants seeing the West for the first time.

The train rolls from Eastern Montana to North Dakota, where we witnessed the North Dakota oil boom. From our train seats we saw in the distance and up close hundreds of fires burning day and night. A bi-product of fracking is natural gas, and in the rural plains, it’s simply burned off.

We passed Willison, North Dakota, the center of the fracking business. The train filled with workers commuting across states for oil jobs. We saw them sleeping in seats and on floors. The AMTRAK slowed and often stopped—traffic congestion as trains carrying tanks of oil head to refineries in the West and barges to sell overseas.

Deep In The Heart

It’s a slow ride through North Dakota. My family slept on and off, kids roamed up and down the train cars. I had plenty of time for conversation. I sat behind a man named Mike, born and raised in North Dakota. First I asked about winters: “I hear it’s pretty cold.” He smiled.

“Best memories of North Dakota are winters. Ice fishing. My dad set up a shed on the lake every year. Walleye.”

“Do you still fish?” I asked.

“Not so much.” I moved to Idaho four years ago. I couldn’t afford my rent. With the oil business, rent rose so much. I lived in my car for a few months before I left for Idaho. I’m trying to move back.”

We learned more about living in North Dakota at our next stop, Minot. “My-not? Why not?” my husband punned. We hopped off the train by evening and headed to the Dakota Rose Bed and Breakfast for a sleep in a comfortable bed rather than in a semi-reclined train seat.

Minot was a pleasant surprise. We spent the next day walking from our B&B, across the Souris River, to the Scandinavian Park, to Souris River Brewing, and back to the AMTRAK station. Along the Souris River, we witnessed the devastation from the 2011 Souris River flood, a 200 to 500 year event. Close to 12,000 residents were evacuated during the flood. Many who lost homes had no insurance, and many homes remain boarded up even today. But North Dakotans are strong and resilient. We were awed by the Scandinavian Park where we saw enormous, hand-carved replicas of Nordic dwellings that looked to us like Viking ships. The park honors the nearly 40% residents of Scandinavian heritage. We ended our day at Souris River Brewing—enjoying buffalo chili, great beer, and an excellent mix of hippies, dreadlocks, Wrangler jeans and gingham.

From North Dakota we rode the AMTRAK to Chicago. Entering an industrial city by train is an eye opener. By morning, as we approached Chicago, we saw miles of graffitti on warehouses, sprawling refineries, factories and mills, chemical and energy plants, discarded waste and the substandard housing that lines many tracks. Not pretty, but an important piece of America witnessed from the comfort of an upholstered chair and train window.

Chicago’s Union Station dates to 1881, when growth was so rapid that by 1913 the station needed renovation to accommodate five railroads. We took advantage of the 7-hour layover in Chicago.

From Union Station, we grabbed a cab to Lou Malnati’s for sausage deepdish pizza on a buttercrust—pure decadence. We walked off our lunch. On foot, we headed to the Art Institute of Chicago and strolled past the “jelly bean” sculpture of Millenium Park. We diped our feet in Lake Michigan before hailing a cab back to the AMTRAK station.

That evening we splurged on another sleeping car. “Mom, why are those passengers dressed like that?” my daughter whispered. She motioned toward a family who looked to me Amish or Mennonite. We were heading through Pennsylvania, where the train is an acceptable means of travel for families with these traditional values.

From Chicago through Pensyllvania and West Virgina, the AMTRAK shares the rails with industry—coal. It was a slow ride alongside miles of coal trains. By morning we reached historic Harper’s Ferry.

I’d seen Harper’s Ferry in movies about the Civil War and heard about abolitionist John Brown’s historic raid, a catalyst for the Civil War. The town is part of Harper’s Ferry National Historic Park, with an 1894 train station that sits near the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. We carried our backpacks up a cobblestone road to the nineteenth-century Town’s Inn, where I reserved a large room. We dropped off our luggage and went to Private Quinn’s Pub for a cold Samuel Adam’s and root beer for the kids. My daughters soon began exploring the old building. They peeked into the fireplace, where behind burnt logs they saw a small dark passage.

“Where does the secret passage go?” my youngest asked. We ordered another beer and asked our bartender. During the Civil War, confederate troops took hold of Harper’s Ferry eight times. Residents fled through secret passages.

A full day and night was enough time to explore museums, follow the Appalachian Trail over the Shenandoah River, and walk the historic center of Harper’s Ferry. The next day, we took a commuter train to D.C.

It’s a relief not to have a car in cities like DC and New York. No stressful driving in traffic. Arriving by train we experienced the flow of workers, streams of subways, busses and cabs at Union Station. We stashed our camping gear in a locker at the station and walked to The George, the most expensive hotel on our trip.

We could afford one night at DC hotel rates. We had enough time to spend half a day at the Smithsonian, ride the carousel at the National Mall, enjoy two hours at the Spy Museum, stroll by the White House at sunset, and watch the moon rise beside the war memorial. It was dark when we returned to the hotel. “My feet hurt,” complained my youngest. We were all tired.

We were happy to rest our feet traveling from DC to New York City. “Are we there yet?” It’s an existential question. Are we ever THERE? I answer, “no.” We had 3-1/2 hours to Penn Station.

We experienced New York the way New Yorkers do: by subway, on foot, in a cab, by commuter ferry. Our first evening, we wandered through crowds at Times Square, illuminated by mammoth displays of LED lights and digital billboards. “Mom, look!” My daughter huddled around a young artist with spray paint and poster board. In less than a minute he created a moonscape in blues and oranges. We were awestruck. Near City Hall, we watched a street performer jump over six volunteers from the audience. A long jump would be impressive enough, but this street performer did a flip in the air while sailing over six people. We walked down Wall Street and across the Brooklyn Bridge. For free, we rode the Staten Island ferry and photographed the Statue of Liberty. After two days in New York City, I looked in my wallet. Our hotel, booked ahead, cost $140/night. Two days and nights, including meals, travel and entertainment cost us less than $400. That’s New York on a family budget! We left the city with a desire to return. “Next time, when we come back,” opened many conversations on this whirlwind trip across the country.

We were on our last segment, New York to Boston. We unfolded a map and pointed to the states we passed so far: Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey. In a short four hours we would pass through the last four states: New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and finally Massachusetts.

At the Boston station we rented a car and headed up the coast to Acadia National Park. All along the highway were signs advertising lobster. We stopped at a diner decorated with lobster traps. My husband coached me on how to eat a whole lobster. We both wore plastic bibs. “Really, mom? You’re wearing a bib,” my teen looked away embarrassed. “Delicious,” was all I could reply with a mouthful of lobster and butter.

“Where are you from?” our waiter asked. It was evident we weren’t from around here.

“Oregon.”

“Oregon! I hear it’s gorgeous! Trees, beaches. Why did you come here?”

Turns out, after two days in Maine, we wondered the same thing. Yes, Acadia National Park is beautiful and Bar Harbor is a fun town to eat a lobster roll, but next time we’ll save a bunch of money and stay in Oregon—awesome beaches and chowder right here at home.

We choose Boston as our final destination, both for its enormous history and its cheap flights back to Oregon. In Boston, lodging is expensive. We spent two nights at a Vacation Rental by Owner on Beacon Hill and chose a red-eye flight the next day, so we would have three days in Boston for the price of two.

Our last day we followed Boston’s famous 2.5 mile Freedom Trail—a trail marked by gold bricks in the sidewalk passing Boston’s most famous historic sites. We started at the Massachusetts State House, first covered in copper in 1802 by Paul Revere’s company. We read the faded script on the grave stones at the 1606 Old Granary Burial Ground, the resting place of Paul Revere, among many other revolutionary war-era patriots. We talked about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne as we passed the 1828 Old Corner Bookstore, where the authors met during the 19th century. Back in Oregon the kids would be squirming in their seats but walking through history, like we were doing, had them fully engaged. The kids asked about the Bookstore’s first owner in 1638, Anne Hutchinson, accused of heresy. We stopped at the Old South Meeting House, known for its role in the Boston Tea Party, and lingered under the balcony of the Old State House, standing at the site of the Boston Massacre.

Homeward Bound

My Irish great-great-grandparents arrived in Boston during the Potato Famine in 1846. They could not make it in the big city so, with thousands of other immigrants, they took the train West. It strikes me as we are walking in Boston that we could be retracing the same steps. In downtown Boston, two statues remember the Irish Famine. The bronze figures show two groups—one family starving; the other strong, determined, walking away. My family is struck by the number of homeless in Boston. On a street corner I see a homeless man crying in the arms of a woman. I see a third beggar rise with his cup of coins to give what’s in his cup to the crying man. I’m struck by the generosity of one homeless to another. People in suits walk by. Do they even notice?

We flew home that night. We were exhausted. The kids, wearing their backpacks to the airport luggage check, looked as if they had hiked the Appalachian Trail—all 2168.1 miles.

“Been backpacking?” the Alaska Air agent asked. We checked our packs and lightened our load. On the flight home we scrolled through photos from our trip and reminisced with tired smiles.

Experience is the best teacher. When school started in September, both my daughters aced their geography tests. They remember the names of the capitals and know exactly where each state is: Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana . . . Rhode Island and Massachusetts, all 22 states they saw from their railcar window.

Before You Go: Getting Ready For Your AMTRAK Trip

  • For the best prices, make sleeping car reservations in advance. Cost can range from $100 to$500 for a room for two, meals included.
  • Consider a rail pass. AMTRAK offers 15 days with 8 segments of travel for $449 (half price for kids 12 and under).
  • If you plan to camp at National Parks, reserve ahead. They fill up quickly during the summer months.
  • Rent cars at the AMTRAK station. Hertz operates from most stations, with after-hour key drop available.
  • Ask your hotel for complementary shuttle to and from the AMTRAK station. Similar to airport shuttle, many hotels offer rides for AMTRAK travelers.

Laura Jessup lives in Ashland, Oregon, with her husband and two daughters. She teaches at Southern Oregon University.