The only thrill worthwhile is the one that comes from making something out of yourself.
~ William Feather
A romantic adventure with my husband Ed. Riding the rails in mid-July of 2009.
"We'll take you through the Heart of the West! Eight states and across the mighty Mississippi—past deserts and mountains, missions and pueblos, ranches and wheat fields. Carving through curving canyon passages only a few feet wider than the train itself. You'll see spectacular landscapes and pristine vistas. You'll be mesmerized by this land's beauty and allure."
Fullerton, CA, to Chicago on the Southwest Chief - the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. Over two thousand miles of the Old West along the Santa Fe Trail: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. Ed and I would leave Fullerton on Monday evening and arrive in Chicago Wednesday afternoon. Two pleasant, relaxing days riding the rails, soaking in the wonder, beauty, and mystery of the Old West.
Cities like Needles, Flagstaff, Gallup, Albuquerque, Dodge City, and Kansas City – haunted by Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid. Echoes of gunfights and gambling. Honky-tonk pianos and saloons. Matt Dillon, Chester, and Kitty on slatted sidewalks in a cloud of gun smoke. Donkey carts hauling flour, salt, and tobacco. Shawnee, Comanche, Navaho, and Zuni. Silver and turquoise. Hand-woven blankets and baskets. Good pawn and babies in papooses.
The exquisitness of an ever-changing landscape. A purple and orange sunset over the Mojave Desert, the terra cotta of Canyon Diablo, the clear rush of Little Colorado River, the Red Cliffs of New Mexico, the Rio Grande, Apache Canyon, Pecos River, Starvation Peak, Sugar Creek, and Nauvoo. Flowering deserts and eagles soaring over shadowed cliffs.
And the train. Wine in the lounge car. Swivel seats. Elongated windows for a panoramic view. Gracious, romantic meals in the dining car. White linen tablecloths, fresh flowers, porcelain. And finally in the luxury of our reclining, plush seats with headrests, footrests, and overhead reading lamps. Comfy pillows and snuggle blankets. We'd watch the red sun-ball disappear below the horizon as we slowly drifted off to sleep, soothed by the train’s muted whistle and left-right sways. The soft clickity-clack of the rails, gently beating time to its own lullaby.
We arrived at the Fullerton train station an hour early to pick up our tickets and check bags. A café of sorts, with a sticky counter and the odor of diesel and mustard, offered a variety of snacks: nachos loaded with a thin cheese sauce, microwave pizza and burritos, wrinkled hot dogs revolving on heat rollers, hermetically sealed skinny sandwiches, candy, chips, soda, coffee, and milk. Good enough for regular travelers with families to feed and entertain. Too mediocre for us. We'd dine in style on the train.
We waited on an outside bench and watched commuter trains drop off day workers going home to same-old, same-old, not beginning an exciting journey through the Old West.
About a hundred Boy Scouts charged the platform waving backpacks and duffle bags.
"Please, please, don't let them be in my car," I said. Sharing my ride with card-playing, joke-telling, coke-swilling teenage boys who were probably on their first big trip away from parental supervision wasn't in my game plan.
Our train pulled into the station and hissed to a stop. There it was – the Southwest Chief - rising two stories high. A series of double-decker cars with passenger seating in the upper level and storage below. One car – a little car - a half car with lower level seating - trailed behind like a railroad afterthought. Several conductors emerged and placed three-tiered stepladders in front of open doors. Ed and I headed forward to be near the lounge and dining cars - away from the Boy Scouts.
"CHICAGO PEOPLE – CHICAGO PEOPLE - LAST CAR! LAST CAR!"
We turned around. A uniformed man waved his arms at the back of the train. "AAAALLLLLL CHICAGO PEOPLE – LAST CAR! LAST CAR!"
Dismayed, Ed and I hugged our carry ons and threaded through the mass of khaki to the end of the platform.
"You two going to Chicago?"
"Can't we sit up there?" I pointed to the upper level.
"You're Chicago. You're in there." He pointed to the railroad afterthought. "Turn right."
We stepped into a hallway that held shelves of luggage, stairs leading to the upper level, and four bathrooms, which emitted a stench that I prayed wouldn't waft through the door leading to our seats in the other half of the car. The glare of an overhead fluorescent light made Ed's face look green.
Our little car had four rows on either side of the aisle, and except for the first row on the right, each held passengers sprawled across empty seats - protecting their territory so no one would sit there. We claimed the first row and placed our carry ons in the wheelchair area in front of us.
No plush reclining seats with headrests and footrests. Instead, burgundy plastic with rusty metal reclining levers, bumps that rose two inches behind the neck, and seat extensions that clicked into place under the knees, leaving the calves and feet to hang in mid air. The seats faced the door to the other half of the car. And the overhead fluorescent light shone through the car window directly into our eyes.
"We have to sleep facing . . .."
The electric click of an intercom interrupted me. "EIGHT O'CLOCK DINNER SERVICE IS NOW BEGINNING AND THE DINING ROOM IS CLOSED TO NEW DINERS. EIGHT THIRTY DINNER SERVICE WILL BEGIN AT EIGHT THIRTY. SHARP. BE SURE TO MAKE A RESERVATION. NO RESERVATION - NO DINNER." He repeated it – three times. So began the regular pronouncements by the soon-to-be-familiar Train Voice.
The door slid open and a conductor entered. "Tickets, tickets."
"Can we sign up for dinner?" I asked him. "And can we move to another car?"
"A hostess does that." He punched our tickets and shoved them into the metal holder above our seats. "You're Chicago - you stay put."
Soon after we made our eight thirty dinner reservations, Train Voice declared that the eight thirty dinner service would begin precisely at eight thirty and anyone who signed up for eight thirty dinner service better high tail it or they'd be out of luck. That's not exactly what he said, but pretty close. Three times.
We opened the door to the hallway, held our breaths, walked up the circular stairs, and made our way through six passenger cars, the snack bar, the lounge, to the dining car. The passenger cars had blue cloth seats with white head protectors over nicely sized headrests. Except for those people who sat with a hundred Boy Scouts, I was envious of the passengers in the upper level.
"When did Chicago become chopped liver?" I said.
The snack bar offered much the same food choices as the Fullerton Station café, with the additional breakfast items of Cheerios, strawberry yogurt, and hermetically sealed cheese Danish.
I grimaced. "What's that smell?"
"Nachos? Armpits?" Ed said. "Hard to tell."
I was glad we were having a gracious dinner in the dining car. Wouldn't want to be stuck with such unappetizing fare on my romantic adventure.
The lounge car was a series of booths filled with people drinking beer and wine, playing games, reading, and chatting. A few swivel seats offered views through floor to ceiling windows, but the people there had swiveled themselves into conversation circles, ignoring the sun as it danced over the Mojave Desert.
We entered the dining car and headed for an empty table.
"You there. You don't seat yourselves." A fellow in a white chef's jacket holding a plastic tray with two sweaty glasses of water covered in Saran Wrap stepped in front of us. "This way."
"I think he's Train Voice," I whispered.
He led us to seats opposite two gentlemen. Single travelers – ushered to their seats – no choice. We sloughed off the disappointment and introduced ourselves, making the best of forced togetherness. We chatted about nothing in particular and watched the orange sun-ball slink behind cactus and sandy hillocks.
The faux-fabric tablecloth and napkins looked like the interfacing used to reinforce jacket lapels – much like the covering on airplane pillows. A white plastic vase held dusty fake roses. We ordered off the crumpled, stained, one-card menu. Chicken en croute for me; vegetable lasagna for Ed – both of which were heated in the microwave and served on melamine plates. Our dinners were overcooked and chewy on the outside, lukewarm on the inside.
It was past ten when we returned to our car. The fluorescent light was still on. It would stay on all night. Necessity overcame repulsion, so I went to the bathroom. I calculated how many more times I'd have to use the wet-floor, toilet-paper-strewn facilities before we got home. Too many. Along with everything else inside the train, bathroom cleanliness wasn't addressed in The Promise.
Sleeping comfort became an all-time priority. We found a stash of miniature pillows in an overhead bin and placed them under and behind our necks, backs, and elbows. We lengthened our seat extensions with ersatz footrests of piled carry ons. I made an eye mask out of Ed's bandana to block the fluorescent glare.
Ed listened to old time radio on his mp3 player, and I tried to sleep. Finding a comfortable position was next to impossible. Every part of my body ached. My back, my head, my neck, my elbows, even my wrists. The undersized pillows didn't alleviate the discomfort. Several times I had to rearrange my carry-on-hassock after it fell apart by the jerking of the train. I think I finally drifted off to sleep around eleven thirty.
I was jolted awake at midnight. A bunch of preteens ran down the stairs, pushed open our door, and shouted into car. "Hi!" and "You're dumb!" and "Wake up!" Then they sang and danced and whooped beside the bathrooms.
After the third time yelling into our car, I pushed open the door to the hallway and said, shouted actually, "You kids quit it! Now! Or I'm going to get the train police."
They laughed at me and ran up the stairs before I could finish my tirade. They repeated their routine – twice - before an Amtrak hostess put a stop to it.
The night passed slowly with the glare of the light in my eyes, the jab of the armrest in my back, and the numblike tingles in my right leg. At least one part of me could sleep.
Morning came with the sun rising someplace in the West. I wasn't sure. The scenery was pleasant enough, but until my brain could function, the view became a low priority.
We had signed up for EIGHT O'CLOCK BREAFKAST SERVICE, so we honored our commitment even though we knew what to expect. Breakfast with strangers, plastic dinnerware, pillowcase tablecloths, dusty fake flowers, surly hosts, and crumpled menus. We had over-cooked-under-cooked egg frittatas and sweaty glasses of warm orange juice covered with Saran Wrap.
During breakfast, the train stopped at Flagstaff, and we watched a sea of Boy Scouts disembark and board Greyhound Buses that would take them into canyon territory.
"Look," I said. "The lucky guys get to ride in comfort. Plush seats, head and foot rests, a nice little bathroom in the back."
"Those bathrooms stink," Ed said.
"We already have stink – at least we'd have sleep."
For the rest of our trip to Chicago we endured the graceless amenities of the Southwest Chief - dubbed DamnTrak soon after breakfast. A thirty-minute stopover at the Albuquerque station offered a chance to walk without tilting and browse the tourist-trap market. Silver and turquoise jewelry, baskets, and woven rugs. It was hard to tell what was real and what wasn't. Like the jewelry, my adventure had lost its luster.
The remainder of our meals came from the snack shop. Hermitically sealed sandwiches for lunch, microwaved pizza for supper, Cheerios and yogurt for breakfast. We sat in our plastic seats, and between fits of sleep, watched with droopy eyes as the probably gorgeous landscape rolled by. The preteens continued to run up and down the stairs, push open our doors, and shout into the car. But I didn't care. They couldn't hurt me anymore.
The Home Arrival
As AmTrak approached Chicago Wednesday afternoon, it went right through our town of LaGrange. We knew Amtrak didn't stop there - that we'd be taking a commuter train from Union Station back home. When we sailed past LaGrange, I waved at main street and whispered, "See you soon."
We arrived in Chicago's Union Station on schedule. After collecting our bags, we lugged our stuff to the commuter platform and found a train that was just about to leave for the suburbs. We were glad that this was the last time we'd have to wrestle our luggage onto a train.
The conductor approached us. "Tickets?"
"We need to buy them," Ed said. "Two for LaGrange."
Ed smiled at me. He knew what I was thinking – a hot bath, a dry martini, and a good night's sleep. We had planned that I would stay at the station with the luggage while Ed walked the five blocks to our house to pick up the car. In fewer than thirty minutes we'd be home.
"Doesn't stop in LaGrange," the conductor said. "You're on an express. Won't stop 'til Downers Grove."
Too exhausted to place blame for this added layer of distress, we succumbed to defeat and watched our home sail by for the second time that day.
EVS – 04/11