Our Train Trip to the West – Part II

Traveling on the Southwest Chief

We arrived at Chicago’s Union Station – the bustling station that is a hub for Amtrak’s national railroad network – around 1 pm on May 5th. We had booked our trip with a tour company: America by Rail and they had send us detailed instructions as to where and how to dispatch our luggage, and where we should meet our Tour Directors: Ann and Jerry Bray. Ann found us in the Metropolitan Lounge (we were wearing our tags), where we also met some other fellow travelers. Ann gave us some instructions about our travel arrangements. (She and her husband, Jerry, would give us many more during the rest of our trip)

By quarter to three we were lining to go to platform where train # 3, The Southwest Chief, was waiting for us. We boarded the train and were guided to our “roomette”. It looked a little cramped, but the seats were comfortable and the window was large enough to give us a good view while we were traveling.

The train left the station exactly at 3:15 pm. After we crossed the suburbs of Chicago, we came to the open prairie. Once in a while, we passed through some little town. One was La Plata, a Spanish name that means silver and was chosen because the prairie grasses blowing in the wind resembled a silver river. (This is an example of how much influence Spain had on this land, before the English colonists and their descendants decided to push their dominion towards the West.)

Mississippi
The Mighty Mississippi

Talking about rivers: while we were having dinner at the Dinning Car, we crossed the Mighty Mississippi. What a sight! The Sun was setting over the water. The wide river was flowing gently and all around there was peace and quiet. How much we wished that the train would stop there for a while; but no, we continued our fast pace.

Once we crossed the Mississippi we were in Missouri. The Sun did set finally under the horizon and night fell upon us. By then, our sleeping car started to smell funny. The reason: the toilets were backing up and we had to go to other cars to use their toilets. We were glad that we were on a train and not in an airplane…

By 10 pm the sleeping car attendant prepared our beds, but we were not ready to go to sleep. We stayed a while in the Sightseer Lounge car. The train stopped in Kansas City, MO and they tried to fix the problem of the toilets. For a while it appeared to have worked, but not for long. Finally, we went to bed. I picked the upper berth. In order to climb into it, I had to face down on my stomach and turn over once I was in the bed. There was no way I could sit on it: the ceiling was, uncomfortably, only a few inches above my face.

Long freight trains went by in the night and many times we had to wait until they passed before we could continue our journey. During the rest of the night we traveled across the state of Kansas. Some of the station’ names evoked images of cattle and grain fields, as well as cowboys and gunslingers: Lawrence, Topeka, Hutchinson, Dodge City…

Tuesday, May 6th

Dawn arrived. Neither Marité or I, had a good night sleep, but we made it through. We were in the state of Colorado. Here we set our watches back one hour to Mountain Daylight Time. (The first of many time setting changes to our watches.)

We had our breakfast in the Dinner Car. The Dinner Car, besides being the car where we had our meals, was the place where we would meet with our fellow travelers. (Another one was the Sightseer Lounge car.) We did exchange pleasantries with some of them there and during the rest of the trip, but we did not become friendly enough to continue the relationship with any of them after the trip ended.

Meals in the train were not something to brag about. They were a little better that airplane food, but mostly worst that coffee shop food. Although, you wouldn’t expect gourmet food to be prepared in cramped quarters, while the train moves at 60 or 70 miles an hour. Still, I have to say that the meals on our trip with the Canadian Railroad, were much more satisfactory. But, so it goes…

Thus, on our second day, we traveled across the southeast part of Colorado. Stopped in Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad (those Spaniards again!). By noon we entered in New Mexico traveling first on a southward pattern and then westward. I was surprised to find out that there is also a Las Vegas in New Mexico, but I believe they don’t have gambling there. (At least not legally.)

We stopped in Albuquerque, NM. It was one of the stops that the train made to change engine crews and let smokers have their fixes. (There was no smoking, in the train.) We crossed the Arizona border after sunset. Once again we had to change our watches to take in consideration that Arizona, we believe, is the only state that doesn’t change to Daylight Savings Time, as the rest of the country.

Our train was running over one hour late, but finally we arrived in Flagstaff, AZ, our final destination for our trip on the Southwest Chief. (The train actually continues to Los Angeles, CA.) There was a big bus waiting for us and also a big, bald shaved guy, who was introduced to all of us, as Mark. He would be our driver on all the motor coach traveling segments of our trip.

Mark and Jerry, loaded the tour member’s entire luggage as we all took our seats in the bus. A while latter, when we arrived to our hotel, they also unloaded all the bags. Ann, in the meantime, went into the hotel and got our room keys, which she distributed to the tour members. We went up to our rooms with our handbags and hotel personnel brought our larger bags a while later. This routine would repeat at each hotel where we arrived. Everything was pretty well organized.

Our first destination: The Grand Canyon