We are no strangers to train travel. Distant echoes of the great Pullman era have beckoned us in years past to explore diverse long-distance routes. Once again that shimmering seductress enticed us with her song of the rails. There is something special even today, about the kinesthetic bio-feedback which only a train can impart, the rhythmic clack and click of wheels across rail joints and ties. We’ve traveled most of Amtrak’s routes across America on a wave of wanderlust and a longing for that hypnotic peaceful rail somnolence, and—on a whim—decided to leave our Airstream with friends near New Orleans and hop aboard the famous City of New Orleans sleeper coach to Chicago. But why eat a small piece of the pie when you can savor it all? For us it wouldn’t just be a there-and-back journey, but a circumnavigation of the central and western United States: New Orleans to Chicago, Chicago to San Francisco on the California Zephyr, then south to Los Angeles with the Coast Starlight, and our final return on the Sunset Limited. All these routes with names from an almost forgotten golden era bring to mind people dressed with appropriate travel etiquette and a flare to esthetics: Men wearing suits, ties, and fedoras; women bedecked in tailored dresses, high heels, hats, gloves, and a handbag to tie it all together. Fashionable sophisticated vestments for the respectful traveler.
Pre-journey excitement was tempered somewhat by the announcement in the first class lounge that, due to extreme flooding from heavy spring snows, the first 150 miles of travel would be on throughway bus. Continuous rain had been percolating south and flooding the tracks—well, not quite flooding they said, but close enough that Amtrak didn’t want to be in a litigious risk environment should the water rise any further. My vision of travel in the gilded era faded as we joined the queue to pack into our coach and its ubiquitous tension-inducing, space-constricting, economical seating. How quickly the anticipation of travel devolves in the rear of a bus near bathroom walls thin enough to replicate a church confessional.
Close to three hours later, we finally arrived at the flood-free station. We boarded our designated train car, found our way to our private roomette, and only then discovered that, due to the late hour, our included dinner had been canceled. We would not be daunted however, and our room steward quickly transformed our plush seating into lower and upper bunks. Lights dimmed, we watched lit windows in distant houses flash by in the night like a slow-motion strobe.
Night train travel is comfortably rhythmic, but there are elements that can prevent me from reaching REM sleep. First of all, railroad safety rules require the engineer to sound the horn with a pattern of two long–one short–one long at least fifteen but not more than twenty seconds before reaching any crossing below forty-five miles per hour. Above this speed they still must signal the same pattern at the appropriate distance, depending on speed.
Pondering the number of crossings we encounter over a typical eight-hour nightly journey, you see how my dream world is pretty much out of the picture. Then, as cars pass over road and rail crossings, temperature-created heaved and bent rails may suddenly cause the car to shudder and lurch, always making me think, “Will my ‘sleeper’ jump the track?” This is not a comforting thought for my now fully awakened self, and I resort to counting horn blasts to verify potential engineer emergencies. Seasoned riders know that the inner edge of each metal wheel—the flange—at times encounters too much spacing between the tracks (this is called wheel-rail interface), and a car can lurch unexpectedly. For this reason, if you’re walking through a car, particularly the lounge car, you can find yourself unexpectedly in the lap of a stranger. If you’re sleeping, you will wake with a start, and an instinctive desire to grab hold of something secure. But we were seasoned train travelers and were not daunted.
The following day, we arrived in the grand old downtown Chicago Union Station, collected our bags, and in short order found ourselves in the lobby bar of one of the Windy City’s old Art Deco landmarks: the Drake Hotel. This icon of the 1920s and ’30s was the “be-all, end-all,” “see and be seen” social spot of the roaring ’20s. All the rich and famous came to play. Newlyweds Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe carved their initials into the bar in the mid-1950s, and yes, we found them. The initials, that is. Poor J.D., dreamed of a kitchen-bedroom wife, while M.M. clung, trapped, in Hollywood’s glamorous life.
Several lovely days passed wandering Chicago’s magical skyline and the excellent Field Museum, and treating ourselves to iconic deep dish pizza and Italian beef sandwiches.
The California Zephyr is America’s grande dame of railroad lines. A book can be written about this seminal line, but if you’re going to ride a long-distance train, this is the one to choose. Leaving Chicago like the wind across the plains, the Zephyr wends its way into the foothills of the Rockies. Our flat land speeder took on additional engines trading its speed for torque, up narrowly cut channels in the eponymous terrain. Through a staccato series of tunnels, flashes of light assaulted our eyes, vistas of roadways and valleys far below counterpointed tunnel blackness, the train momentarily snaked so circuitously that front and rear engines revealed the exhaust of their labors. Clinging the mountainside, the panorama and illusion of hanging in space created a sense of vertigo.
On our second day on the train, we awakened into the brilliant light of a variegated-colored desert and transformed canyonlands. We had become acclimatized to the train’s relentless rhythm, yet deep in the night, I awoke to silence. It seemed to be a refueling stop, and I looked bleary eyed into the rain-soaked streets of a deserted town. Under-spaced sodium vapor streetlights illuminated darkened and boarded-up shop windows and reflected down a wet-sheeted corridor of concrete into infinite blackness. It was a picture of absolute stillness. A nameless town frozen in apocalyptic time.
Ascending the Sierras on Day Three, a 180-degree panorama of big sky and rich landscape manifested themselves while we lounged in the famous all glass-ceilinged Vista Car. How glorious it is to travel without driver’s fatigue, to be able to walk around, have your meals, chat with fellow travelers, or just spend quite time in the comfort of your own meditative cloistered room, watching the world slide by, unencumbered! By plane, you depart in stress and concern for your safety at 40,000 feet, crammed into a pressurized cabin next to cranky kids and sneezing, coughing fellow passengers, to arrive in hopes of claiming your luggage ahead of the hoi polloi. Train travel is the civilized, comfortable, time-slowing adventure that calls us to remember to breathe and smile as in the bygone Golden Age of Train Travel. And we were not daunted.
Arriving in Oakland Station, across the Bay from San Francisco, we were met by friends and escorted to an inner sanctum of the Bay Area’s culinary delights, then spent the night in a nearby hotel, rising early and refreshed to greet the Southern California leg of our journey.
For some reason, I really enjoy looking out our private car window down on the backyards of America. The infinite panorama of changing scenes, organization transforming into chaos, beautiful flower and vegetable gardens, clean blue swimming pools rimed with fine barbeque sets and furniture; or, just as easily, junked cars and appliances, guarded by junkyard dogs, and dilapidated, disused, unseen storage. This is a clandestine, covert, furtive sneak peek into how “the other guy lives,” with no repercussions; a lifestyle encyclopedia, a cross section of the American mind and culture.
The Coast Starlight, which has its origin in Seattle, works its way along the coast in central California up into the rugged Santa Lucia Range Mountains from Monterey County into San Luis Obispo. Here also, during our passage through these coastal mountains, we pass through seeming countless—though they are numbered and dated—what we call “kissing tunnels,” opportunities for a giggling, surreptitious smooch in darkened concealment, even though we’re in our own private room.
Soon the train drops down the heights, hugging the coast along the edge of Vandenberg Air Force Base. This affords the rare opportunity for passengers to see the rocket launching sites of the U.S. military and the western landing strip for the now-defunct space shuttle, with the private Space X rocket launch facilities on one side, and sweeping ocean vistas on the other. The train passes the vast, private, unapproachable-to-the-public lands of Hollister Ranch, and the homesteads of filmmaker James Cameron, Patagonia Company founder Yvon Chouinard, and musician Jackson Browne, to make its way to lovely Santa Barbara. You know at this point that you’ve crossed into Southern California as the train makes it way into the eye- and lung-burning, mind boggling, Los Angeles basin. The famous Union Station lobby in L.A., before its late transformation into a working transportation hub, was filmed in the dreamy retro-futurism, perhaps dystopian, art deco, film noir epic movie, Blade Runner.
We wandered around Union Station’s old Hispanic neighborhood origins, finding local gourmand-a-terias, snooping through the old Mexican food neighborhood, Olvera Street and other late nineteenth century landmarks, and left the following day on our final leg and east trackward travel on the Sunset Limited back to New Orleans.
Of our four legs of this journey, I don’t consider this one—across much of the southern border of the U.S.—to be the most beautiful, or geographically iconic. To the discriminating observer however, crossing the desert and vast southern plains in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, these regions are packed with the subtleties of land changes (geology), study of ethology (animal behavior), zoology (animal life), botany (plant life), and the omnipresent psychology of your own thoughts as they naturally arise in this continuous train window TV. From moment to moment scenes change, hoodoos (a column of weathered rock) arise out of the sand and dirt, families of owls roost within chambered canyon walls, deer and antelope romp across prairie acreage. Cattle, unused to train movement near their watering holes, run in fear from train whistles and roaring engine pulsation; families of flora enter and leave your field of vision, rich verdancy replaced by cactus and Joshua Tree; hawks and eagles hunt or are chased by flocks of nest-protecting sparrows; beekeepers place hives, conserving fruit and vegetable fields. Old train stations and dying towns from a forgotten era speed past.
As much as the mind can absorb, this morphing landscape stimulates questions.
Our train travel has opened our minds to a vast continent and its ecosystems, just in time to come to terms with symbols of closure, separation, and other human ecosystems. Approaching El Paso, the train slowly slides parallel to and within feet of the U.S.–Mexican border. There are few gardens and sparse grass in this hardened land bridge. The trackways of hundreds of people slip perpendicularly across these tracks following their own dreams and aspirations, unable to afford the seeming luxury of first class travel. I perform a mental exercise and imagine my world through their eyes. I can’t hold these thoughts too long; a soul might get lost and not find its way back. We both look out our respective “windows” and see our hopes, dreams, and future. Many border towns along this route are severely impoverished in resources, finances, and water. Our Sunset Limited is a representation of unfettered opportunity to those seeking refuge.
Old windmills still stand from the dust bowl era, pumping water into cattle ponds or through snaking pipes into single-room shacks. Native American reservations capture the heart and imagination in their poverty, occasional small herds of buffalo retain a tiny vignette of life before shooting for sport or destruction of Native American food supply was rampant.
On our last day on the Limited, we crossed into Louisiana in a passage from desert dust to water-logged overabundance and clattered slowly into the city of New Orleans. One of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in America expresses its grand motto with pride: Laissez les bon temps rouler! This pronouncement represents the theme, capstone, and descriptor of our whirlwind, zephyr-like rail journey. Perhaps these are the lyrics from that seductress’s song: Let the good times roll!