The Cardinal is not a big train – just one sleeping car, three coaches, and a diner – and it runs only three days a week over a meandering southerly route between New York and Chicago. But, in between those frenetic metropolitan centers, the Cardinal passes through some of the loveliest rural and wilderness areas in the entire eastern United States.
I’m boarding the Cardinal in Baltimore on an early summer morning and settle into my cozy roomette for the overnight journey to Chicago. An hour after leaving Washington, we reach Manassas where 150 years ago in the Civil War young men from North and South fought over a strategic rail center at Bull Run.
Meals are family-style in Amtrak dining cars and at lunch a pleasant blonde woman is seated opposite me. Irene is from Wilmington, Delaware, and has decided to enjoy three days of pampering at the famous Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, still several hours up ahead.
This is her first long-distance train ride and she is gloating over her decision. “I had no idea it would be so pleasant,” she says.
Back in my roomette, I begin a crossword puzzle, but the Cardinal is in the Blue Ridge Mountains now and I become absorbed by what’s passing by outside: dignified 19th century homes, weathered by time and surrounded by rolling pastures with grazing horses.
Leaving Clifton Forge, the Cardinal begins a long, steady climb into the Allegheny Mountains, running on a track carved into rocky ridges on one side, picture-postcard valleys sloping away on the other.
Two hours later, we’ve crossed over the Appalachian Trail and are winding through narrow passes, rumbling in and out of a half-dozen tunnels, the longest taking us under the Eastern Continental Divide. From this point on – we’re in West Virginia now – all water flows westward toward the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico.
The sun is low up ahead as we enter the New River Gorge – thickly wooded mountain walls on either side of the train and, just a few dozen yards off to our left, the river tumbles and foams through the gathering darkness. Every mile or so, we pass fishermen and backpackers who look up from their flickering campfires and wave.
At dinner, I’m seated with a husband and wife from Philadelphia on their way to visit a daughter in Portland, Oregon. They’ll be connecting with the Empire Builder tomorrow in Chicago for two more nights on the train. “My wife wasn’t sure about it,” says the man, “so we made a deal: I get the upper berth.”
My bed has been made up by the time I return to my roomette. I climb in and start a paperback thriller, but drift off to sleep just as the Cardinal comes to a stop at Huntington, West Virginia.
We’re in farm country when I awaken at dawn the next morning, a thick mist blanketing and softening the landscape. Soon, tidy farm houses set among broad fields recently planted with corn or soybeans give way to towns, then suburbs, and finally to the industrial outskirts of Indianapolis.
Later, over breakfast in the dining car, a conductor explains that we’re running more than an hour late because there was a medical emergency last night. Back in Huntington, as I was blissfully falling asleep, a passenger had complained of chest pains. He was examined by paramedics, then removed from the train and taken to a local hospital.
Just a few minutes outside of Lafayette, Indiana, the Cardinal slows and the clickety-clack of the wheels takes on a deeper, hollow sound as we roll onto a bridge over the Wabash River. Several dozen Canada geese are waddling around on the far bank.
There’s another short delay as the train slows for a Union Pacific crew working on the tracks, but the Chicago skyline is off in the distance now, and the Cardinal finally settles to a stop in Chicago’s Union Station. This is home for many of the passengers, but others among us are here to connect with one of several other Amtrak trains heading south and west.
Just inside the terminal, I say good-bye to the couple from Philadelphia who will soon be on the Empire Builder heading for Seattle. “Well, we’re going to make our connection all right,” says the husband, “We’ve got Montana and the Rockies and two more nights aboard to look forward to.”
“Just remember,” his wife says, “you get the upper berth.”
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Jim Loomis has logged more than 250,000 miles on Amtrak’s national rail system. A travel writer and blogger (www.takeatrainride.blogspot.com), he’s the author of “All Aboard-The Complete North American Train travel Guide”.