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The Sunset Limited

May 11, 2009

GH1394~Amtrak-s-Sunset-Limited-Los-Angeles-to-Miami-PostersIn case you were wondering where I went, I just recently had a mini-adventure to the Big Easy to check out the New Orleans Jazz Festival 2009. It was an incredible experience, and I have lots of storys. But today I want to concentrate of the train (yes, I took a train to New Orleans). I’ll tell you more about the concert and the city later…

I’m not sure if you know this, but I come from a family of nomads. When I was little my baby brother and I traversed across the United States in an RV as we followed my father’s work. And as long as I can remember my family has been jumping back and forth between the Northeast and Southwest, whether it be plane or automobile. I’m very used to travel and rapturous over seeing different parts of the world, so when I couldn’t find air fare for cheaper than $333 I decided to check out my rail options. I wasn’t even sure if there was a train to New Orleans, but transcontinental rail travel has always been on my “bucket list” so I thought I would check. Turned out not only is there a transcontinental railway to New Orleans, but THE transcontinental railway goes to New Orleans. Dating back to 1894, the Sunset Limited line is the oldest continuously operated train in America, and it’s the only transcontinental train in the US (even though it stops in New Orleans now, and doesn’t go all the way to Florida thanks to Katrina). So due to cheap tickets, my free time, and a thirst for adventure I decided to check out Amtrak’s trek across country.

My friend was kind enough to drop me off at my Los Angeles starting point: Union Station. Dubbed “The Last of the Great Railway Stations”, Union Station is a stunning piece of architecture dating back to 1939. Thanks to LA traffic, I actually had to see it from a hustle-jog to my train. The Sunset 1 was a chrome colored double-decker train with red and blue striping down each side. Arriving slightly winded, I sank into my seat and was greeted by my friendly neighbor Ruby, a train veteran who was also traveling across country to the Jazz Festival. We chatted a bit as we watched the train yards of Los Angeles slowly roll by and be replaced one by one with orange groves. The urban sprawl turned to sprawling country, countryside turned to desert, and soon the I-10 sidled up to us in our departure from California. Cars rode alongside us in tandem, like steel dolphins playing in the asphalt wake of our great vessel. 

I found the nicest place to watch the scenery was in the “Sightseer/Lounge car”, a car comprised of seats angled out towards the sides with large windows offering picturesque views of the passing scenery. Near the end of the car were two rows of tables, where you would often find card players, writers working on various manuscripts, or people eating a light lunch or snack. The top of the car was lined with curved windows allowing extra light into the car and giving it an open-air conservatory-like feel. I often came up to the lounge with my book to read or watch the hypnotic diversity of the United States landscape. The vast spinning ivory wind fields of Palm Springs. The white sands  of New Mexico colored pink-orange by the radiant sunset. The red sand stone of Arizona with its network of canyons etched in through centuries of erosion. The proud prairies of Texas baking in the mid-day sun. The Mexican border by El Paso and the tin roofed shanty towns just beyond. The lush swamps of Louisiana and their dirt roads offering passage to rusted trucks from another era. This is a beautiful country, and the train is an excellent way to see it all as you travel. 

My second favorite place to see the scenery go by was the dining car. Twice a day the dining car attendant would go around and take reservations for the dinner and lunch. At your given time you would walk up and be seated amongst others who had the same dining time. It’s always nice to enjoy food with a view, but I felt the most interesting part of the meal was the conversation with strangers. One night over BBQ brisket I met a retired conductor who told me about the railroad business, raising a family while working for Amtrak, and the fallacies within the train system in the states. Over vegetarian stuffed shells with alfredo sauce I chatted with a weapons engineer from Austin and an Irish oil man living in Nigeria. We talked about the troubles with the growing reliance on automated drones for combat, the vast differences Eastern and Western cultures, and why sand stone was the best place to look for oil. I had a student from Alabama bless my scrambled eggs and biscuit as we discussed the moral degradation of American youth, the lasting effects of Katrina, and his calling to become a pastor. While I will never forget the beautiful sights we ingested along with our food, I think the conversation with the characters I met made for equally memorable moments.  

On the airplane everyone is stressed out. Whether they’re worried about making a connecting flight, losing their luggage, or the weather conditions people on are always on edge. On the train things are very different. Those traveling are in no rush to make it to their destination. They’re completely content in plodding along to the rhythm of the rail. They’re cheerful, relaxed, and interested. They’re open to conversation or sit in silence alike. There are no clenched jaws, no fingernails digging into the arm-rests, or hips jutting out to cut you off when exiting. I remember getting off the train at my final stop in Los Angeles and having this bizarre feeling. As I looked around at my fellow traveling companions getting off the train I recognized each one, associated them to some occurrence on the train, be it a passing conversation or a shared meal. And in a weird way I felt like I was going to miss them. I felt like we had all been on this great adventure, and now it was ending. I can’t remember ever having those feelings on an airplane.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Wes permalink
    May 12, 2009 6:32 am

    another wonderful installment…

    I wonder if you had any discussions about how the big 3 (Detroit) and big oil have almost detroyed the rail system in America. I have sat on trains all across Europe having the wonderful discussion you describe and it always makes me think about what happened to trains in America. Just look at New England, a small region separated by only 400 miles end to end, yet there is a single rail line that is more expensive than taking a plane. Why is it that a train from Boston to New York City should cost $200? The only thing that comes to mind is how the major lobbists in Washington pushed for expansion of roadway and the automobile rather than allowing for a reliable, inexpensive way to travel. My home town (one of them at least) of Simsbury, CT had a direct train to Hartford that ran 6 times daily until the late 1960’s when it was paved over to make a walking trail. Now it takes me 45 minutes and a 1/4 of a tank of gas to go the 18 traffic packed miles in Hartford.

    Last thought, I swear. when I think of trains, I think of the movie, “once upon a time in the west” (I think I stole your copy in College) and how the forethinking main character bought a piece of property way outside the city knowing that the train had to pass through his land. He banked on the train, and that people would always be riding. How disappointed would he have been when his town became dust bowl with a major highway running overhead.

    • blueskywriter permalink*
      May 13, 2009 12:10 pm

      Thanks for the great comment Wes. That part of the conversation never did come up, but it’s certainly evident here in LA as well. Trolley rails zig-zag all across LA, but no trolleys. GM was actually the villain in that debacle. They bought the train lines and demolished it so that everyone had to buy cars.

      What was interesting was some of the facts I learn that contribute to the poor rail system. For example: Union Pacific actually owns the rail lines, so Amtrak has to rent the use of the rails for their trains. Plus freight trains often have priority, so Amtrak becomes especially slow when they have to pull over and weight for a shipment of oil busting through. Lastly, a lot of the rail lines are singular instead of double-tracked, creating that one-train-at-a-time requirement.

      But bottom-line I’m in complete agreement with you. The rail system in the US needs to be vastly improved so that it might be a feasible means of travel to the average US citizen.

      PS. I never stole that back? Hmmmm…..

  2. Wes permalink
    May 16, 2009 6:49 am

    I don’t know if you’ve seen “TranSiberian” with Woody Harrelson, but it is a excellent indie movie based around a train trip on the trans-siberian railway.

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