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Riding the Rails: Around America With Amtrak : From sleeper to diner to lounge, an expatriate discovers a world both stimulating and peaceful.

August 30, 1992|RUTH ELLEN GRUBER | Ruth Ellen Gruber, author of "Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Central and Eastern Europe," has lived overseas for 20 years. and

It's just past 9 p.m. and an excited tenor voice comes over the public-address system.

"Ladies and gentlemen! In 10 minutes, we will be arriving at the railroad capital of the world, Altoona, Pa. . . .And on the left side of the train, we will circle the world-famous Horseshoe Curve!"

I lean forward in my Slumbercoach--a nestlike sleeping compartment containing a sink, a toilet and a fold-down bed that's small even for someone of my 5-foot-4 height--and peer out the window. It's pitch-black outside as the Broadway Limited rumbles through the night en route from New York to Chicago. I'm on the first leg of a more-than-6,000-mile rail trip around the U.S.A., and I can't see anything but the occasional fleeting light.

Railroads have always held a special place in the heart of the American traveler. From songs such as the "Rock Island Line" or "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" to movies such as "Strangers on a Train," "Silver Streak" and "North by Northwest" (including Alfred Hitchcock's metaphoric, now-legendary use of a train hurtling into a tunnel to suggest the sex act), they are firmly ensconced in America's collective nostalgia.

Still, when you tell people you are going to take a long-distance train trip in the United States, they look at you askance. The United States has become so plane-and-car-and-time oriented that riding the rails--while still the norm for travel in Europe, where I've lived for many years--is seen as somewhat eccentric.

Ride the rails is what I did this past winter, though, taking advantage of Amtrak's money-saving "All Around America" package on a route that took me from New York to California to Texas and back again. The basic excursion fare of $259 allowed me to travel anywhere on the Amtrak network, making three stopovers. On top of this, I paid $705 for private sleeping accommodations (including most meals) on all overnight legs of my trip (prices have risen since then, of course).

I rode trains whose names conjure up puffing steam, clanging Bells and drawn-out calls of "All abooooard ": the Broadway Limited, the California Zephyr, the Sunset Limited, the Texas Eagle. I went through the Appalachian rust belt, which reminded me of parts of Eastern Europe; across the Great Plains and vast Western prairies; up and over the Rocky Mountains and through the lonely splendor of the wintry high desert: All in all, seven nights on the train during five weeks of travel.

For me, the experience combined elements of the normal with the extraordinary and provided--for most of the trip--just what I was looking for: a way to see, feel and get under the skin of this country, and a means of obtaining much-needed breathing spaces between a series of intensive visits and business meetings in a number of cities.

It also turned a trip, or series of trips, into a journey. Like the old Cunard ad used to say, "Getting there was half the fun"--even though the limited Amtrak restaurant menus got monotonous after a while and the contortions involved in washing (or, in Western trains, in actually taking a shower) became a bit of a drag.

Trains, like cruise ships, are self-contained universes, and you realize that as soon as you step aboard. You feel it much more on Amtrak's long-haul routes than in Europe, where trains are a normal, matter-of-course way to get from one place to another. Trains and stops are frequent; stations are always bustling; train windows usually open. In America, the fact that so few long-haul trains still run makes them special: Stops are few and far between; windows are for looking, not breathing, through.

And everyone on board is conscious that he or she is doing something that most people in this country don't. "I'm taking this trip just to ride the train," said one fellow passenger on the California Zephyr en route from Chicago to San Francisco. "I'm going to Salt Lake City, then turning back. I just love to ride them trains."

Dining car, lounge, coaches and sleeping compartments define physical space. Fellow passengers and crew members define society. Except on a few special trains, there is no telephone and little chance for contact with the outside world for days at a time--unless you manage to make a quick phone call or grab a newspaper at one of the brief station stops. Life--breakfast, lunch, dinner, cocktails, conversation--goes on within this insulated metal universe at what appears to be a normal rate, while outside, another world spools by, separated from you by speed and thick windows. It's a world generally unseen even by most people who live in the places you pass--the back yards and freight yards and still lives of lonely landscapes.

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