Notes from the Lake Shore Limited, which leaves 3:30 in the afternoon three days a week from Penn Station in New York and arrives at Union Station in Chicago 20 hours later. A version of this iconic train has been operating between New York and Chicago since the 1890s.

End of the line: Amtrak train 49, the Lake Shore Limited, in Union Station at the end of its two-day run from New York City. (Photo from Les Jacobson)

When Train # 49 pulls out of New York City mid-afternoon on June 7 what we quickly notice is a different America, different from the view 35,000 feet up, mostly clouds, different from the view at highway level, mostly concrete. From the train, rolling north along the Hudson River toward Albany, we see the real America, America in full living color versus the gray of clouds and highways, the America of steep poverty and vast wealth, small towns and lush forests, crumbling bridges and terraced hills; the air dappled with occasional rain; the walls dabbed with frequent graffiti; the vacant, hollowed-out factories; the luxury homes on bluffs; algae-encrusted lakes; soccer fields and ball fields; rail trestles and tracks lying in heaps along the sidings; backyards strewn with junk.

America’s backyard.

So much to see, streaking by at 70 miles per hour, a fine speed to engage the eye and mind moment by moment, image by image. There’s a small lake dotted with rowboats tied to docks below modest homes. Ruined, empty, ancient cottages – shacks really.

We ride north on the east bank of the Hudson River, near fabled towns like Tarrytown, West Point, Hyde Park. On the other side is Highway 9, which runs alongside for a stretch, then rises up into the hills. We pass one-street towns like Stuyvesant, pop. 2,000. I know the name and population thanks to the vast encyclopedia I carry around in my pocket. What my phone can’t tell me is what it’s like to live there. An alien existence for a city kid like me. For a moment I consider the prospect of living in Small Town America. After all, every locale has something special to fill a life.

So many oddities, curiosities, questions. Small factory with a large sign above the office door that says “Redemption Center.” What gets redeemed? Graffiti on most buildings facing the train. Are the artists putting on a show for us riders?

After three-and-a-half hours heading almost straight north the train swerves west past Albany to flash by small towns, one happily named Hungry Hill outside Schenectady. Through a miles-long curtain of greenery there’s a 500-foot break where electric wires strung on tripod pylons like alien invaders march forebodingly up a hillside.

5W, a fine road, runs just north of our train, through small towns and tree-lined countryside. No cars, one red pickup truck. Half past seven, dinner time? Village of Fonda, population 795, just two deserted streets, like something out of “The Twilight Zone.”

5W meanders off somewhere, replaced by hills of green that rise quickly to small mountains. Then the road is suddenly back – a highway magic act. I wouldn’t mind driving it: two-lane America as seen from two-track America.

A grazing horse. Once, years ago on a train journey, I saw a horse galloping down a city street with two men chasing it. Unforgettable.

It all goes by in dimming obscurity as the light fades behind the mountain. Like life.

Like life, there’s a fabulous mystery about trains. There’s the palpable immediacy and size – the huge engines, the tons of steel, the powerful acceleration, the great thrust forward, the speeding dynamo eating up the miles. What could be more “real” than the reality of the train, the track, the speed, the sights? But there’s also the hypnotic, narcotic effect of the click-clacking rails, the lulling benumbed contentment, the almost spiritual complacency. And an appreciation for the wonders of the land in all its varied glory.

Or the way the trip ensorcells the senses: the spectacular visuals, the rumbling vibrations, the smell of the cars and taste of the meals, the sound of the warning horn. I am too many cars back from the engine to hear the constant warning blasts – two long, one short, another long – a mournful cry at every of the hundreds of intersections on the trip  that screams primacy and danger. It’s all spelled out in the “Train Horn Rule” (49 CFR Part 222) of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration guidelines. Maximum volume: 110 decibels.

Or the way trains take in America’s faded past – speeding by the empty factories that once employed thousands, the small towns hollowed out by the loss of jobs, the junk-strewn back lots and backyards – as well as the glorious rivers, emerald green fields, mountains, rivers, lakes, farms, cropland and countryside, festive red barns and farm houses.

Then night. Only the pinking clouds retains some light.

In my little sleeping car I enjoy a surprisingly tasty dinner of shrimp and andouille sausage and a brownie for dessert, happy to be alone, snug in my little roomette, content to watch America roll by.

As we roar through the dark, I think of the perfect accompaniment: Steve Winwood’s fierce and virtuosic Night Train. “Down on the night train, feel the starlight steal away. Use up a lifetime, looking for the break of day.”

Wake up briefly at 1 a.m. stopped in Cleveland, across from FirstEnergy Field, home of the Browns. Seems like a lively place, even at that hour.

Tuesday, June 8. The expansive, dense foliage of upstate New York has given way to expansive, exquisitely manicured Ohio fields of corn and soy. We’re slicing across the heartland. Huge factories, surrounded by railway side yards with trains heaped with scrap metal. Smelting? Refining? If only I knew it all: the history, geography, geology, and commerce of each region we pass through, each scene bearing the marvelous specificity of life. On west-bound trains from Chicago, a Department of Interior guide meets Zephyr passengers in Denver and lectures on everything visible from the observation car. Maybe Amtrak should provide us with earbuds to listen to a narrative of the land and its people.

Massive electrical transmission stations. An ancient cemetery. Backyard windmill.

There’s a station stop at Bryan, Ohio. Next stop, Waterloo, Indiana. In between is Edgerton, which we fly by in seconds, just a glimpse, not even long enough to wonder: what’s it like here in small-town America? Any town, as Sherman Alexie points out in his novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” is a place of mystery.

W6, another strip of two-lane America. Waterloo station at 7:30 in the morning. No people, one car plying the road. Perhaps a quiet, safe, dull place, maybe a nice town to raise a family.

Running northwest besides Indiana 33 into Elkhart. Pretty little town. Just past Elkhart are large yards of compacted scrap metal. Then a timber mill. The ubiquitous graffitied buildings. (If only the artwork showed some originality.) Block-long string of storage unit buildings.

Mishawaka, another pretty little Indiana town. (Looking it up later, I see the population is 48,000 –­ not so little.)

Indiana state motto is “The Crossroads of America.” Should be: “Flat as a Pancake.”

Into South Bend, a substantial city, like Evanston a university town. Wish I could see Touchdown Jesus from my window.

Thousands of pallets stacked in haphazard piles.

Sometimes, surprisingly, as in LaPorte, the train runs right behind people’s homes, with no barrier, no fence, nothing to keep child or dog (or despondent adult) from walking onto the track.

Also, surprisingly, an African savanna outside Gary: miles of empty grassland and forlorn trees, many burned as in a forest fire.I expect to see gazelles leaping by or elephants tromping along in the distance. Instead, a giant rail yard west of Gary. Then a huge refinery, perhaps, or the U.S. Steel plant.

East Chicago on either side of Indiana Harbor, Lake Michigan gleaming outside my window. Horseshoe Casino outside Hammond. Calumet Harbor and then Chicago’s south side. In the distance, a hazy downtown.

Everyone has their own idea of paradise. Mine is here and now, crossing the continent on parallel rails.

South side train yards, crossing over the Dan Ryan Expressway, junk yards, churches, ballfields, the backyards of Washington Park, Fuller Park, Canaryville, Bridgeport. There’s Sox Park, where a goodly number of cars are already parked, maybe stadium workers getting ready for tonight’s game.

Past apartment blocks new and old. Sliding under I-55 along Stewart Avenue, not far from my alma mater, University of Illinois at Chicago. (Why “at”? Always sounds like a typo to me.) We cross over Chinatown at Archer Avenue, then over the Chicago River’s south branch, into an immense railyard on south Lumber Street, dozens of Amtrak trains parked, Sears (Willis) Tower looming ahead.

And into Union Station. Twenty hours, past a thousand miles of two-lane and backyard America. No better way to see it.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...

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