Amtrak’s Best-Kept Secret: The Cardinal – Part One

(The following is an account of one of my several trips on the Cardinal. It was originally published in the Columbus Dispatch. Part 2 on Monday.)
The Cardinal isn’t a big train – a locomotive, a baggage car, 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 the Cardinal passes through some of the loveliest rural and wilderness areas in the entire eastern United States.
I board the Cardinal in Baltimore on an early summer morning and settle into my cozy roomette for the overnight trip to Chicago. An hour after leaving Washington, we reach Manasas where early in the Civil War young men from North and South fought over a strategic rail center at Bull Run.

 At lunch in the dining car, 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. “I could have flown, but that would have meant three separate flights and taken most of the day anyway.”
As we’re finishing lunch, the Cardinal stops at Charlottesville, Virginia, home of three presidents – Jefferson, Madison and Munroe – and the University of Virginia, just off to our right. 
Back in my roomette, I start a crossword puzzle, but the Cardinal is in the Blue Ridge Mountains now and I become absorbed by what’s passing by outside: dignified 150-year-old 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.