USA 2015 - The Epic

It was a long time in the planning, and quite a long time in the execution. The financial impact was significant, to the point that it became necessary to invoke the cure-all phrase ‘it’s only money’. Was it worth it? Well of course it was, and I'm not just saying that to justify the last-but-one sentence.

It was epic in a number of ways, and you didn’t have to be a railway fan to appreciate it (although it helped considerably). As in a lot of things American, size was a factor, from the length of time needed to go coast-to-coast, to the dimensions of the world’s largest steam locomotive, to the number of railways visited in a three-week period.

A detailed travelogue would take too long to write, so here are a score of highlights, in roughly chronological order:

1 Walking around New York

London on steroids. Virtually everything you might find in a large UK city is there, but it all looks different, bigger and quicker.

2 The view from the Empire State Building

I’m not a fan of heights nor of the high-speed lifts that get you there, but seeing New York laid out like a (very) large-scale map was amazing.

3 Central Park

From the Empire State, a large unbroken rectangle of tree canopy. At ground level, people-watching could fill the whole day.

4 New York Yankees v. Tampa Bay Rays

My first baseball game. An experience not to be missed, but more for the spectacle than the sport. Contrary to popular belief it’s slower than cricket, and a lot less nuanced. See ball, hit (or more likely miss) ball.

5 Amtrak sleepers

If you’ve got a big loading gauge, flaunt it. Humungous double-deckers, with multiple accommodation options plus toilets and showers. The beds transform into seating during the day, bijou but comfy. The restaurant car service was an experience - if it’s a choice between being addressed as ‘sir’ or ‘precious’, the latter gets the style vote every time.

6 The South Shore Railroad out of Chicago

An inter-urban line with sections running down the main street, a rare feature nowadays.

7 Denver station

Almost demolished when trains became infrequent, but renovated and transformed into a bus and light rail hub. UK developers take note!

8 The Colorado Railroad Museum

Not only an impressive collection of prototypes, but also the Denver Garden Railroad Society, whose members obligingly turned out to operate their layout for us.

9 Riding behind a Shay at the Georgetown Loop

The geared loco was a bonus I wasn’t expecting. Visually and aurally unlike anything else, even without the trestle and the echo. And Georgetown itself was a very agreeable small town.

10 The lift at the Mollie Kathleen gold mine

1000ft straight down, packed tightly into a tiny double-decker cage. Breathing by numbers, with no room for even a sardine.

11 The workshop tour at Cheyenne

It was a privilege to be shown round by the visionary engineer masterminding the Big Boy restoration from concept to well on the way to completion. The professionalism and attention to detail were unrivalled.

12 The Pike’s Peak Cog Railway

So high they sell bottled oxygen for those of a delicate constitution, or of a nervous disposition. Not even the relentless running commentary could spoil the views from the upper reaches.

13 Riding the Durango and Silverton Railroad

Atmospheric steam and spectacular scenery, with a real sense of what it was like in the days of gold and silver mining.

14 Ditto the Cumbres and Toltec

With the bonus of seeing the steam-powered rotary snow plough, sorry plow, parked up ready for the winter snowfall.

15 The Great Sand Dunes National Park

A bit of a filler, but worth the diversion across featureless scenery to see what looked like a big chunk of the Sahara piled up against the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

16 The chapel of the Air Force Academy

Another filler, with extraordinary purple stained glass.

17 The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad

Proof a diesel train can still give you a good time, with great views from the observation cars, excellent food and drink, and attentive staff. The run past was an enjoyable extra.

18 The Sacramento boardwalks

Complete with railroad and paddle steamer. Somewhat touristy, but a welcome contrast to the more modern shopping streets elsewhere.

19 The streets of San Francisco

My favourite city of those we visited. A different mode of transport at every turn, interesting buildings, and three-dimensional roads. On the waterfront the Breitling Jet Team and a seaplane competed for attention with the bridges, the ferries and of course that convict island.

20 El Capitan in Yosemite National Park

3000ft of straight up. Respect to all who climb there. A bit whistle-stop, but worth the early start.

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