On the Southwest Chief to Chicago

N.B. I was off the grid for much of the last few days as there was no wi-fi on the train and long stretches where my cell phone had no coverage. I apologize for the lengthy post.

Ready to Board

We spent the afternoon of Thursday the 23d of October in downtown Los Angeles with our good pal Betty Rosen Ziff. The site of the original El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles is across the boulevard from Union Station. We sauntered around the plaza and the Mexican market on Olvera Street and had French dip sandwiches at Phillipe’s, an old school eatery that reminded us of Brennan’s in Berkeley. It was warm and a little humid in the Basin, and the Santa Monicas were collared in smog. The station itself is an art deco monument, beautifully restored for its 75th anniversary. We had drinks in Traxx’s bar before heading upstairs to the boarding lounge. The No.4 train departed on time at 1815 Pacific, and we enjoyed the slow roll through the underbelly of the city. We slept through the nighttime traverse across the state.

Classic LA Eatery

The first real stop was Albuquerque where we had about an hour and we got off to stretch our legs in the pleasantly warm desert air. It was clear skies in all directions. The sun had come up when we were still in Arizona and we had breakfast just after the earlier brief stop in Gallup. It was hard sleeping that first night, the train making a panoply of creaks and groans, but we were comfortable in our surprisingly spacious cabin. It’s a unique experience on the upper deck and I could watch the scenery all day without being bored. It’s not like being a passenger in a car where you feel like you are part of the road and the blacktop is never out of sight. The train glides along the rails but you are detached from that contact with solid ground and feel a bit like you are floating. It’s not much faster than highway speed (I could see cars on Interstate-40) and the landscape moves by at a steady but relaxed pace. And what a landscape! Mesas, buttes, arroyos, and washes, dotted with hardy shrubs and interspersed with some tough-looking trees. I saw juniper and what I think were mountain mahogany. The bunch grasses were a scruffy yellow-brown and seemed to be just hanging on in the sere, rocky layer that I was hard-pressed to call soil. Jagged peaks rose up in little groups here and there, like shark fins out of a waterless ocean. Occasionally deciduous trees appeared, sporting their autumnal colors and marking the watercourses, the bright colors contrasting with the earth tones and pastel hues that dominated. It was beautiful in its stark, forbidding way, a great place to visit and appreciate but I can’t imagine living in it.

Suzy in Albuquerque

Later that afternoon we climbed steadily through canyon country and stands of Ponderosa pine were scattered along the north-facing slopes. We passed through Lamy with its connections to Santa Fe and chugged through the long tunnel at Raton Pass. We got a brief respite in the town of Raton and I stepped off the train to see the sun set behind the high ridge to the west. Southeastern Colorado was high and flat and we spent time in the observation car watching the twilight colors over the mountains we were leaving behind. My buddy JC Parsons was sending me text updates of Game Three of the World Series, but unfortunately we disappeared off the cell phone grid for much of the action. Alas, the lads lost the contest. We slept through the run across Kansas, this time with our ear plugs which worked wonders. We had breakfast after the stop in Kansas City, Missouri. I wore my Giants gear but I didn’t see any Royals fans. The city and environs were smothered in tule fog, similar to what we get in the Central Valley back home in California. As the train moved north towards Iowa we got a look at the Missouri River basin farm country. Lots of corn, as you might expect, and the opposite of what we saw in the Southwest, namely wet and green. The riparian trees were unfamiliar and they were all in the midst of the fall changes. The Midwest we got a look at had that Norman Rockwell feel, neat homes in villages tucked in between the big farms. As we headed east the land became more undulating, not exactly hills but rolling waves of topographic relief. It sure ain’t the Pacific Northwest but I enjoyed the unique pastoral beauty.

Mark in Iowa

Our Amtrak experience was like living in our VW camper. Comfortable, but requiring patience and strategic planning to co-exist in the small space. We had a full bedroom with a lavatory which meant we could hang out in our own little corner and relax completely. Dining is shared, of course, although sleeper car passengers can get their food delivered to the room. Part of the experience is meeting new folks, and we appreciated our lively meal companions. Jessie, a thirtyish blonde who looked like she just graduated high school, was headed for a wedding in KC. She was an electrical engineer and software developer who also made short films. Smart, engaging, and creative, we covered a spectrum of topics and she struck me as wise beyond her years. The meals were good and filling. Not exactly fine cuisine, but certainly palatable and satisfying, wholly superior to airplane food. We also conversed with a retired teacher who I think was named Myrna. She made my day when she starting talking about the influence of psychology on post-war Hollywood movie-making and how it was fully realized in film noir! Most of my friends look at me and say “huh?” when I tell them I’m heading for NoirCon. This lady wanted to go with us. We spent another meal with Al and Sue, he was a retired power company lineman and she was a retired teacher. Former educators must like to travel. Sue was a chatterbox but not the annoying kind as she was also a sharp and perceptive listener and could respond quickly to the twists and turns in the conversation. We shared some classroom war stories and soft-spoken Al dazzled us with high voltage tales of terror. She was a native Angeleno and he was from Illinois. They were veteran Amtrakers and had a multi-city pass to visit relations all over the heartland. Both were outspoken liberals. I usually avoid politics when I meet new people but somehow they knew we were kindred spirits. Perhaps it was our story of how we met at UC Berkeley. The train also had several Mennonite traveling parties. It was interesting to see the women in their homemade dresses and white cloth caps, and the men with their long beards and bowl haircuts. I could overhear them switching easily between English and their native “Pennsylvania Dutch” dialect of German.

The afternoon brought us across both the Des Moines and Mississippi Rivers as we continued northeast through Iowa and into Illinois. We had a brief stop in Ft. Madison just before the border and I was surprised by the warm weather. I expected late October to be cooler and I packed extra layers and a raincoat just in case. We were nearly eighty minutes behind schedule which counts as “on-time” for Amtrak. The national rail line has an unfortunate reputation for tardiness. They don’t own any of the rails and have to yield to freight traffic. Americans don’t seem to have an appreciation for passenger railroads. Short-distance commuter rail is one thing, but long-distance travel is the province of airlines and interstate freeways. That’s too bad as I think this is a terrific way to go. One gets a sense that Amtrak is like a faded movie star—still capable of a great performance but slowly losing luster, vitality, and box-office appeal. I like old movies better than new ones so I’m not surprised that I prefer the leisurely pace of yesteryear to the go-go-go of the 21st century. After all the journey matters too, not just the destination.

Crossing the Mississippi

Just outside of Galesburg there were wind turbines amongst the acres of corn. The rest of the world refers to our native plant as maize. Corn is an old English word that just means grain. Botanically it is Zea mays and it is the most important agricultural product in the nation. We’ve managed to stuff it into everything, particularly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, a virtual toxin masquerading as a sweetener. Much of the maize grown in the Midwest goes to livestock as feed. Corn oil is also a major commodity and vast amounts of the remaining harvest are converted to ethanol fuel, another sadly misguided public policy that serves mostly to prop up the price of a bushel. Corn, in many ways, is America. We did our part for the economy, buying a couple of HFCS-laced candy bars from the snack service. A coal train passed us on the adjacent line, heading south. Earlier, while still in Missouri, we had seen a coal-fired electricity-generating station next to the tracks. If anything else can said to be America, it would have to be that four-letter word. Just under half of our nation’s electric power comes from burning coal. Besides the obvious enormous environmental consequences of extracting and consuming this abundant fossil fuel, most people don’t realize that the combustion of coal dumps far more radioactive material into the atmosphere than all the country’s nuclear power plants combined. Radioactivity my friends is natural, just like the apples on the trees and the fishes in the seas.

Naperville is the penultimate stop in the Land of Lincoln. Chicago is thirty minutes away! It’s 1535 Central as I type this so we are a little under an hour behind schedule. Looks like we’ll have plenty of time to get to our lodgings and get settled before the ball game. GO GIANTS!

3 thoughts on “On the Southwest Chief to Chicago

  1. Loved your description of the Midwest. ..too bad you missed seeing the Sunflower State. Great pics…keep them coming. Hi to Sue. Dianne

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  2. Dianne I did wake up during the run across the Sunflower State and looked out the window and saw the station sign for “Lawrence, KS” and thought of you. Hope you are digging your new digs across the pond. Santé!

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  3. Hi Mark and Sue. I loved reading your account of your trip so far. It sure seems that Amtrak is the way to go! Lovely views, good company and a nice, slow pace. Thanks for sharing it with us. I look forward to your next post! Wendy

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