Posted by Michael Jameson on Nov 23, 2017
Jenny and I arrived in San Francisco on September 1st to begin our epic journey across the US by train.
Taking two hours to get through US Customs on the hottest day ever recorded in San Francisco and in the non air-conditioned terminal was not a great start but it did get better, much better. We did three major Amtrak train trips with “bedroom” accommodation most of the way. The bedrooms are up on the top level of the passenger cars and were comfortable with sofa beds, our own toilet cum shower, hand basin, enough space for one suitcase and great views as we travelled.
The most enjoyable part of the train journeys proved to be the huge variety of (mainly) Americans we met over our meals in the dining car. We met a woman lawyer from LA working for the military, a black academic woman from Chicago and her black woman friend who worked for CNN, a young female student from the University of Kansas, a dentist from Baltimore, a high-flying Amazon executive and wife from Seattle, a young Swiss couple from Zurich and many others. No one seemed to be greatly enamoured of President Donald Trump!
The first train trip was in daylight on the “Coast Starlight” from Oakland (San Francisco) to Los Angeles following a historic route through Spanish mission towns established in the late 1700s and with great scenery along the coast. After a day in LA, we joined the “Southwest Chief” which goes all the way to Chicago taking nearly 48 hours to get there. We broke our journey however after 9.5 hours and left the train at 3.45am to divert to the Grand Canyon. This meant getting off the train at a place called Williams Junction in Northern Arizona. We then went by a van to nearby Williams town and boarded another private train that took us sedately the remaining 80kms to the wooded canyon rim and our accommodation under the trees at Maswik Lodge at an elevation of 7,000 feet. It was still warm, over 25C, every day.
The Grand Canyon is all it is cracked up to be with astonishing scenery as you peer down to the Colorado River some 4,000 feet below you. The National Park is superbly set up for visitors and free buses provide transport to all the viewing points, trail start points and a splendid geological museum. Venturing to the canyon floor is a serious undertaking needing at least two days, considerable fitness and a huge amount of water to cope with the heat as you descend and on the exhausting climb back up. This we didn’t do!
After two nights at the canyon rim, we went back to Williams to rejoin the Amtrak train on the long haul to Chicago. We only had a few hours there before boarding our next train the “Lakeshore Limited” which goes due east to Boston, or New York, if you take the half of the train that splits off at Albany, New York. We did get off at Albany to visit relatives in the Hudson River valley before resuming the journey to our final US destination of Boston. Our Boston host whom I hadn’t seen since I was in the Marshall Islands in 1996 greeted us with a huge sign “Welcome Mike and Jenny to Boston” and so meeting up again was not a problem.
Boston has many sights and places of interest to visitors and can be highly recommended as a place well worth visiting. Our introduction to the city was by way of the famous Duckboat Tour. This involved a tour of the inner city by land and water in an amphibious vehicle, ex-World War 2, with an informative commentary. We then visited the Boston Public Library which has some magnificent huge murals and finished up at the famous Cheers Pub. Another day involved going to nearby Cambridge to visit Harvard University, have lunch in the open with students, do a historical tour and visit the famous “Glass Flowers” display. The Glass Flowers consist of hundreds of magnificent botanical specimens faithfully reproduced in coloured glass in precise detail and used for teaching purposes. They are quite amazing.
We particularly enjoyed our visit to the very large John F Kennedy Memorial Library, located prominently on the coast just south of Boston. We spent several hours looking at the many interesting displays and hearing again some of JFK’s famous speeches and becoming better acquainted with Jacqueline Kennedy’s important role in the JFK presidency including opening up the White House to ordinary Americans to visit. Our cultural experiences in this great city also included a visit to the excellent Museum of Fine Arts. This has the best collection of Monet paintings outside of Paris and we spent several enjoyable hours there without the severe overcrowding you typically find in similar galleries in Europe. The finale was a visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to hear a great Chopin piano recital by a young American. The museum is famous for having experienced the world’s biggest art theft with the works still unrecovered with blank spaces on the wall from which they were stolen. It is worth visiting in its own right.
In conclusion, we say go by train, avoid the jet lag and wasted hours at airports, and meet people you would never be able to meet on a long flight in a noisy jet plane and yes, the US, and Boston and the Grand Canyon in particular, are great places to visit.