An old way to find New Horizons: seeking out those new horizons is a mind-expanding experience, one that Monique and I are often finding. But for the Thanksgiving Week, I took a different approach from our usual means of traveling.
Both San Diego and Orange County airports, the two closest with flights eastward, presented problems for my trip to Louisiana. If I were to fly to see my newest granddaughter, either Monique would have to drive me to the airport and return to the Hill, an expensive proposition considering the cost of diesel fuel. Or I could shell out big bucks to park at the airport, which would also mean that Monique would be without a vehicle for a week.
Driving the 4,000 miles alone was out of the question, leaving only riding Greyhound as the alternative … but suddenly an idea hit me from left field – I investigated where I could catch Amtrak’s Sunset Limited headed eastward, and much to my surprise, it stops in Palm Springs just off I-10.
Before I invite you to board the train with me, let me clarify a couple of things. First, Monique wanted to stay in Idyllwild while the work being done on building an addition to our cabin was at a critical stage, and, second, our usual means of traveling since 2006 has been pulling our travel trailer.
I climbed the steps leading to the new experience schlepping a duffle bag packed with clothes and gifts for my son and his family. I had my computer case strap over my shoulder and a point-and-shoot camera on my belt. On my back was a backpack containing two Trader Joe’s fig bars and a blanket. While having the blanket made me among the most prepared on the train for the long trip, packing only two fig bars was a costly mistake.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS – Amtrak seats are roomy. There’s adequate space for torso and legs. The coaches are comfortable and kept cool, a benefit since there are coach seats for about 70 people of all sizes and descriptions in the cars in which I traveled. I had opted to ride coach rather than confining myself to a sleeper. It was part of the adventure and a real money-saver.
On an airplane, after boarding from a reasonably comfortable lounge area, you stuff yourself into a narrow seat and prepare for the whoosh. You taxi out, pause at the beginning of the runway, feel and hear the acceleration, climb sharply, bump a bit when the wheels retract and then continue the ascent to the flight’s cruising elevation. On the train, at most depots you stand alongside the tracks, climb in toting baggage, find your seat, sit back. When the landscape starts moving you know you’re on your way. No whoosh, percussiveness of acceleration or sounds of jet engines roaring.
Missing also is the rhythmic clatter of the tracks. Except for frequent jolts from uneven tracks, all is quiet. Quiet, that is, except for announcements about the dining car and snack bar openings and closings and the clatter and chatter of fellow coach travelers. For mot of the trip there is cell reception, a good thing If you want to make a call; a bad thing if the husky-voiced person in front of you wants to carry on an inane conversation that could wait until arriving at the destination.
SUN BETWEEN THE DARKNESS – Journeying across the southernmost reaches of America on the train is not a great opportunity to take in the variety of natural landscapes, especially on winter’s standard time. I left Palm Springs at 5 p.m. as darkness was setting in. Somewhere in the darkness beyond my large window was western California, all of Arizona and New Mexico. I saw none of it.
The first glimpse of America was as we neared El Paso on the western edge of Texas. The remainder of day lighted the desert with its scrub, chaparral, sage, featuring miles of flat, sandy, beige landscape. Ten short hours later somewhere on the edge of civilization the sun set leaving me back in the night.
On the return trip, it was the same – black in east Texas, bright in the desert, blackness from New Mexico to the 4:54 a.m. arrival in Palm Springs. A total of 74 hours ridin’ the rails, 54 of which was in the dark.
Long trips like this take 1) practice and 2) patience. Sleeping sitting up takes practice, even when you can stretch out on two seats or diagonally across the two-seat space. It reminds me of sitting up with a friend in the hospital all night, getting awoken by the nurses every time I got to sleep.
The patience part is learning to be in the moment without wondering when we’re “going to get there.” On the trip east we were often shunted onto sidings for Union Pacific freight trains to pass (they own the tracks). If that’s the only siding for 20 miles, we had to wait for the freight train to go by before going on. Patience. We were more than two hours late getting to Lake Charles, Louisiana. On the other hand, on
the return trip, we were never delayed. We hit every station on time if not early. We arrived in Palm Springs seven minutes ahead of schedule.
At this point you’re probably saying, “I bet you wouldn’t do that again.” In truth, I would if the circumstances made it practical – maybe for the Zen of it or the chance to tap away on the keys of my laptop without much interruption. What I mean by “the Zen” is that it’s a peaceful experience, an open-eye meditation, where monotony can be transformed into inner-healing or sorting out things in life unhampered by external distraction.
As for tapping the keys, I’m referring to Amtrak’s assistance with technology. Most important, there are 120-volt outlets for plugging in computers, DVD players and recharging cell phones. I brought along a small power strip, which came in handy when the young lady sitting next to me wanted to plug in her laptop.
Cellular service comes and goes over the miles, which means that if you have a smart phone that gets internet and emails, or like mine that works like a modem with my laptop, you can contact the grounded world beyond distant horizons.
I pause as we cross the highest railroad bridge in the U.S. over the Pecos River, just north of its confluence with the Rio Grande. Soon we will be paralleling what the conductor calls “the loneliest road in American,” which is not quite as lonely as other “loneliest roads” Monique and I have experienced, especially the never-ending two-lane path through “The Great Basin “ of Northern Colorado and Nevada.
The scenery between the border town of Del Rio and the desolate village of Sanderson is mostly ranchland with few cattle in sight. Just scrub and cactus, rolling hills and pale green grass surrounding sad-eyed yellow bushes.
SERVICES WITH VALUE AND SMILES – In the Dining Cart, breakfast aboard the train starts at 6:30 and starts at about $8.00. Lunch is higher; dinner
is between $16.00 and $27.00. My meals were very good, what I consider a good value. There is also a snack bar with, well, snacks including coffee, hotdogs and soups. You can eat there, take food back to your seat or sit in the roomy, bright Club Car.
What I appreciated the most was the congeniality of the dining experience. Singles are seated at tables with fellow travelers. At my first breakfast, I sat across from a young man who had never been outside of California and a genuine Hollywood agent and actor. I felt he had interesting stories to tell, but the lady next to me preferred to steer the conversation in other directions.
At dinner, I sat with an athletic 40ish lady, a man my age and an 89-year-old character. We talked and ate for 45 minutes and then stayed there talking until it was evident we had outstayed our welcome – they were ready to close up. Our elderly companion’s main contribution to the conversation was to interject personal stories that turned out to be jokes that we had heard years ago, but he was cute. Adding to the enjoyment was the friendliness of the staff. That meal was a highlight of the trip.
IN MY BACKPACK — Going over to Louisiana, as I said, I took only two fig bars. For the return trip, I stocked up on Genoa salami, pistolette rolls, rice cakes, peanut butter, candy, bananas, Cokes, water, nutritional bars, peanut brittle (a gift) and a fifth of whiskey that I never opened. Eastbound I spent about $45 for food; Westbound, it was $2 for coffee and $15 for groceries bought before boarding, not including the booze.
In Louisiana I bought two movies to play in my laptop … then forgot them, so my entertainment (other than looking out the window at a test pattern) has been listening to my very limited music collection loaded on the computer by accident. I did put ear-buds in my computer case for the trip. As I write this, I am listening to Gregorian chants, which I don’t remember downloading. It’s fitting background music for the drabness of the terrain.
SHOULD YOU FOLLOW IN MY RAIL-STEPS? – Seeing America from the backdoor, the side you rarely see from Interstates provides a unique perspective on our glorious lands. Between staying in our cabin in Idyllwild and traveling in our RV, which one I prefer is a toss-up. Yet, this has been an interesting deviation in what has become normal for us.
If it interests you at all, I suggest that you either go online to Amtrak now [www.amtrak.com] and weigh your choices of trips, or you just make a promise to yourself to take the Coastline or another line at a time convenient to you and at the time of year you find most interesting. The website lists 33 different routes. I couldn’t find the equivalent of the AmeriPass offered by Greyhound.
If your interest holds out, you’ll do it. If it doesn’t, you probably didn’t want to make the commitment in the first place.
Happy to be back “On Top of the World.”