[Part 1 of this story covered joining the Southwest Chief in Chicago, a bit of an adventure in itself, and settling in for a two night and three day journey. In part 2 we travel through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico to Albuquerque and spend our first night on the train.]
Sleeping on the train is fitful. The massive jerks as the train crosses points and crossings tend to wake you up with a jolt. The lower bunk is a bit more spacious and less claustrophobic than the top bunk. The top bunk also has canvas strapping to stop you rolling off with the motion of the train. Although we both thought we had not slept a great deal we started to realise we were quite refreshed so must have dropped off more than we knew. The only station we woke at was Dodge City (791 miles) just before dawn. For most of the journey from Chicago the track follows the line of the famous Santa Fe Trail, the trail that was used to get people and provisions out west and to bring cattle back to the massive meat markets in Chicago. The coming of the railroad saw the formation of the Atcheson Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company and it’s that line that much later was absorbed by Amtrak to give us the Southwest Chief that we are travelling on today. A real bit of American history.
It’s 8 am on Wednesday morning with 24 hours to go to LA. We’ve just stopped at Lamar CO (941 miles) which is just across the border from Kansas. During the night the train has crossed the entire length of Kansas some 500 miles and is now running about one hour behind schedule. No, that’s wrong, the train is now running to Mountain Time so it’s only 7 am and the train is on time.
[Just a brief note on time-travel US style. In the course of our journey we will cross three time zones, namely Central, Mountain, and Pacific Standard Times. The train runs to the time of the time zone it is in. All very confusing - constantly changing our watches - all adding to the surreal nature of the trip.]
After ablutions in the rather small but clean restroom we get our call for breakfast. Today we’re seated with a large, pleasant but mainly silent guy and a dumpy lady who can’t stop talking. She joined the train at Dodge City and is getting off at Albuquerque. She tells us all about her breathing difficulties – emphysema? – and the breathing machine she has brought on the train, her daughter of twenty whom she has left behind for the first time and who “has no problem getting men but not good college guys with prospects” and how rude the crew were to her when she was trying to board the train with her baggage and machine. Fortunately she ate up quite quickly and departed.
One of the waiters overheard us mentioning that we couldn’t get a straight story as to why the California Zephyr was not running and he offered to tell us the real problem. Apparently there had been floods in Nevada which undermined the track and eventually a passing passenger train came off the rails taking with it a serious length of the track. A number of people were hurt sufficiently badly to need hospitalisation but there were no fatalities. Because of the need to rebuild a substantial section of track the line is going to be closed until mid October. [see the footnote at the end on the ‘real’ story]
The lady at the next table joins in and commiserates with us missing the California Zephyr, “one of the most beautiful train rides in the world”. She tells us to write to Amtrak explaining how long we had planned to make this trip, that it was to celebrate a special occasion and how disappointed we were. She said that Amtrak were good at compensating passengers and the waiter agreed. Let’s see what we can do when we get to San Francisco.
The next stop is Trinidad CO and we’ve passed the 1,000 mile mark. We can see ahead to the point where the prairies finish and the Rocky Mountains begin. The prairies can be quite beautiful in their own way and we’ve passed many herds of cattle and horses but a change of scenery is long overdue. The train manager announces the arrival at Trinidad and cautions that this is not a smoking stop. The train is of course entirely non-smoking. The announcement continues by telling smokers that there will be time for a smoke at Raton NM and Albuquerque NM.
Shortly after leaving Trinidad the train goes through a tunnel which marks the border between Colorado and New Mexico. It climbs to the top of the Raton Pass which at 7,588ft is the highest point we will reach on the whole journey. Through NM we will not drop below 5,000ft. To our right Margaret spots a herd of antelope grazing on a hillside.
The ride down to Raton is through a long ravine where it would seem that water has washed away a lot of track ballast and there has been a lot of reconstruction necessary. The train is limited to about 20mph for 10 miles or so because of the steepness and tight curves.
The stop at Raton gives us the first daylight chance to get off the train and actually see what it looks like. There are two locomotives at the front followed by a large baggage car. Next come four sleeper cars of which ours is the second from the front. The dining car comes next followed by the observation car with its windows in the roof and the cafe bar on the floor below. Last are three coach class carriages which are equipped with recliner chairs. All carriages are double-deckers. A few photos are taken then the train whistle blasts and the train manager shouts out “all aboard” just as they do in the movies and we’re away again deeper into New Mexico.
The countryside opens out again with miles and miles of pasture but very few animals grazing. In the middle distance are a range of butte and mesa, the typical flat topped mountains of this part of America. The buttes have tops that are only a few hundred feet across. One of the most famous is Wagon Mountain which was a landmark on the Santa Fe Trail. The mesas have tops that may be several miles in diameter. They have their own unique vegetation and micro climates. In olden days the Red Indians (Native Americans) used to farm the tops as they were more self-contained and easier to defend.
Inadvertently we are travelling through country that we visited as recently as June 2010 when on a road-trip with our grandson Henry. On that trip we left his home in Hutchinson KS and drove roughly parallel with the railway to Taos NM which is some miles off to our right. It’s interesting to see the same country from a different mode of travel but also frustrating as the guidebooks and maps for this region are back in London – we didn’t plan to need them for this trip. We do have detailed maps for Northern Colorado and Utah but they are now consigned to the excess baggage pile.
After a glorious day yesterday, today is a disappointment with more or less continuous cloud cover and showers. Let’s hope it clears up for this evening in Arizona where it would be nice to get a good sunset.
The next station is Las Vegas NM, not to be confused with Las Vegas Nevada. Although it is a town packed full of the history of the development of the West and the railway, today it is a very scruffy, rather run-down town at least from the perspective of the station. It’s now our sitting for lunch.
Lunch is another excellent meal. Light salad with a choice of dressings, spicy macaroni cheese, ice cream and coffee. Our table companions turn out to be a couple from York who have had their journey completely disrupted by storms near New Orleans. They had arrived in New York with a plan to travel by train via Washington DC, New Orleans, San Antonio, El Paso, Los Angeles to San Francisco. But not to be. They had finished up doing New York to Washington, then Washington to Chicago to Los Angeles and on to San Francisco. We were able to exchange our ‘refugee’ stories.
During lunch Dan, our Tea Party and gun club dinner companion from last night, stopped by with interesting information about sites of civil war battles and also produced some railway postcards from the late 1940’s showing the mighty El Capitan locomotive of the ATSF (Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad) and interior shots of the dining car with passengers in best bib and tucker. He points out Glorieta as we pass, a significant site from the Civil War. There was a skirmish there on March 26 1862 between advance forces from each army, with the main battle occurring on March 28. Although the Confederates were able to push the Union force back through the pass, they had to retreat when their supply train was destroyed and most of their horses and mules killed or driven off. Eventually, the Confederates had to withdraw entirely from the territory back into Confederate Arizona and then Texas. Glorieta Pass thus represented the “high water mark” of the campaign. He also tells us about a window at the back of the train that looks back down the track. We head there and get a whole new perspective. It would a good place to take photos on the more scenic parts of the route.
To get to the back of the train we have to pass right through the coach class area. The size and spacing of the seats is very impressive. There’s plenty of legroom and you could stretch out pretty well for a single overnight. It’s far more spacious than airline economy where you’re supposed to be able to sleep on long-haul flights. We must try it next time.
Somewhere along the line we stopped at Lamy NM. Neither of us can remember it. Now we are at Albuquerque NM (1341 miles) where we stop for about 1 hour. The locomotive has to be refuelled and some other re-provisioning takes place. Waiting for the arrival of the train with temporary stalls set up on the platform are local crafts people and knick-knack sellers. M is tempted by a rug which looks good but the thought of trying to pack it and keep within the draconian airline weight limits soon brings the purchase to an end. She does however buy a lovely pair of silver earrings with enamel inlays.
[ Part 3 to follow in which we have a disastrous meal, cross Arizona in the dark and arrive at LA Union Station, a fine example of the Art Deco style of architecture.]