JEFFERY TAYLOR enjoys an unforgettable rail journey from the Windy City to the Pacific coast
NEW YORK, Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle. Tourist travel in America usually means the Atlantic or Pacific coasts. I will never forget my journey through the American heartlands, however.
The romance of the Rocky Mountains, filling my lungs with pure, sparkling Utah air and the feeling of liberation on the banks of the Missouri River flowing through the vast Nebraskan wheat fields.
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All this was yet to come as I picked my way through the gloom of Chicago's Union Station. I was embarking on a 2,436-mile trip on the Amtrak California Zephyr train, straight through America's Mid-West from the Windy City to San Francisco.
The towering, double-decker silver train glinted and gleamed, like a gigantic liner itching to be launched. The sense of occasion was palpable. My Deluxe Sleeper included a wash basin, a combined toilet and shower and cunningly devised wardrobes. The coffee machine was free and attendant Dan obliging and friendly. Best of all was my picture window.
As Chicago slipped by in the early spring sunshine and the vast Illinois farmlands unfolded, I fell hopelessly in love. The harvested acres, the conical grain silos and dead straight highways were, as a keen cinemagoer from my youth, scenes I had grown up with.
My first stopover was Omaha, Nebraska, known as "the front door to the American West".
All the roads are six-lane highways, built wide enough by Omaha's founding fathers to turn a six-horse covered wagon. I was stunned by its 1931 Union Station, fabulously restored to its original splendour with breathtaking marble décor.
At night I wandered through the Old Town and after supper I happily joined the queue for Ted & Wally's Premium Ice Cream parlour on Jackson Street.
Best of all, just a couple of hours' drive away is the Winnebago American Indian Reservation.
Do not expect picture-book wigwams and dancing braves, this is serious history in the making.
Next year the Ho-Chunk tribe takes over a US government built self-supporting community.
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I chatted with Thomas Pretends Pony, descendant of Sitting Bull - General Custer's conqueror - and bought folk art.
Back on the Zephyr I met Rich, a regular traveller. Chas the head waiter shuffles you around at every meal and Rich and I shared a table with Dot and Jasmine, four singles adding up to friends for life thanks to the American gift of instant intimacy.
I settled down after supper in the glass-roofed observation car with Amish brothers Daniel and Amos Lapp from Philadelphia.
"We like to keep things simple, " they replied to every query about their dedicated religious lifestyle.
This included 11 children each and hands like spades, gnarled with broken skin from manual work.
That night I drifted off to sleep consumed by the traveller's dearest wish: I couldn't feel further away from home if I tried.
We rattled into Denver, Colorado, in an early morning golden glow and the Mile-High City proved the friendliest new town I had visited. I felt completely at home as I wandered the streets.
One essential shopping foray is Rockmount Ranch Wear on Wazee Street where a 20-year-old dream came true when I purchased a pair of home-made cowboy boots.
Denver's Oxford Hotel is a delight, with huge dark-wood beds and furniture.
My next stop was Salt Lake City and the Sunday morning Mormon Tabernacle Choir's broadcast. It proved to be a magnificently theatrical and surprisingly non-sectarian affair.
Electronic cuckoos warn you against crossing the road in Salt Lake City, while there seems to be a mountain at the end of every street.
A half-hour's drive and you are into 10ft of snow and some of the world's best pistes. I travelled early in the year and skiing was clearly taken very seriously, with parties of skiers constantly hopping on and off the Zephyr.
My penultimate adventure before San Francisco and my flight home was Sacramento, California's capital city.
On my way to the hotel, my taxi crossed Sacramento River and my driver said: "Look to your right and you'll spot it."
There was the hotel Delta King, a converted riverboat, straight from Jerome Kern's Fifties film Show Boat.
The Delta King is in the centre of Old Sacramento's waterfront, all carefully restored to replicate the 1848 Gold Rush and a treasure trove of art galleries and restaurants.
Sitting at sunset on my own bit of deck at the blunt end where the gigantic paddle is now motionless, was one of the most romantic moments of my life.
I shall never forget my whistle-stop trip through middle America and will be forever devoted to that rattling string of silver boxes packed full of new friends and never-ending discoveries called the Amtrak California Zephyr.
America As You Like It (020 8742 8299/americaasyoulikeit.com) offers an 11-night California Zephyr rail journey from Chicago to San Francisco from £1,885pp (two sharing), full board. Price includes flights from the UK to Chicago, returning from San Francisco; two nights at the Essex Inn, Chicago; accommodation on Amtrak's California Zephyr on all legs (except Sacramento to San Francisco) including all meals on board; one night at the Embassy Suites, Omaha; two nights at the Oxford Hotel, Denver; one night at the Marriott City Center, Salt Lake City; one night at the Delta King, Sacramento; and two nights at the Handlery, San Francisco.
California Tourism: 020 7257 6180/visitcalifornia.co.uk