A GUIDE FOR THE INDEPENDENT TRAVELER IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
"With the completion of the Interstate Freeway System, it became possible to travel all the way across the country, from coast-to-coast, and never see a thing...." Charles Kuralt
When I was about 15 years old I lived for a while on the mainline of the Southern Pacific Railroad. I remember the rising thunder, the approaching rumble of the huge black steam engines swaying down the tracks. The rise and fall of the whistle, the incredible jolt through my heart as the train literally shook the earth and shook my bones and roared by, steel wheels pounding steel rails. Then the fade of the engine dissolving to the steady, rhythmic beat of boxcars and clickety-clack of wheels and swirl of dust and wind and old pieces of paper and smoke and heat and then the caboose goes by and the noise and fury fades away, swallowed up by all that distance way down the tracks out of sight. That train headed for some faraway, romantic place that I wished, Lord, how I wished, I was going!
What a rush! To this day I still stop and watch a train go by. There is still something out of childhood that sees in a train a rumbling magic that can take me, swaying and clacking, off to some special place.
So, every now and then I succumb to that childhood romance with the rails and climb aboard a train and let it take me on down the line to look for that place. I can only tell you it is elusive, this mystery place, lost off somewhere in the heat waves where shimmering rails come together and the red light at the back of the train wavers...blinks...and is gone. Lord only knows where that mystery place is, I've never found it, but I KNOW it's out there. And I keep looking.
In April of this year, 2004, Bonnie and I got on Amtrak in Albuquerque late in the afternoon and get off in Los Angeles early the next morning.
In what they call the "heyday" of passenger trains, the Super Chief (now called the Southwest Limited) was one of the premier trains, was THE role-model for other trains to imitate. Of course, passenger train service declined and deteriorated as more and more Americans got in their cars and on fast, efficient airliners and went those ways to all the places the train used to take them. When Amtrak took over the nation's aging fleet of 1920's and 30's and 40's passenger cars, the horror stories that came out of those first few years would curl your toes and make it seem almost suicidal to take the train.
Gradually, with whopping federal subsidies, Amtrak got their act together, replaced old cars with spanking new Superliner cars.
I’ve ridden other trains; Phoenix to New Orleans and back, Flagstaff to Chicago. Rode trains when I was a teen in the late 50's, Dallas to Denver, Denver to Los Angeles. I have pretty good memories of long, pleasant rides, not really caring if we ever got there. I ride the train because I want to be ON the train. And I found a lot of people on the train who felt that way. Mostly people were going someplace they wanted to get to, but the train was something they wanted to experience.
Amtrak arrives in cities and little towns through their back doors, scratching along their underbellies. Clickety-clacking past back yards, junk yards, freight yards, grave yards. Under freeways, horn wailing almost constantly for the crossings, cars waiting, drivers tapping the wheel impatiently, rise and fall of the ding-ding-ding of crossing bells, dogs yap furiously, backsides of factories drift by.
Except at those stations where the engines have to be refueled, Amtrak trains stop for only a few minutes, sometimes just long enough for a passenger to step off. Most train stations are sad, run-down buildings in sad, run-down parts of town. There are exceptions, El Paso and San Antonio, for instance, have renovated their stations. But mostly, off-track facilities are fading memories of what they used to be.
We left Albuquerque two hours late. We were actually sitting in the dining car waiting to be served when the train pulled away from what has become kind of a ratty train station in downtown Albuquerque. Unfortunately, this is where it all began to go bad.
Our sleeping car was immediately behind the dining car and just as we walked through the sliding door into the dining car, a loud, strident voice commanded, "PLEASE STEP BACK INTO THE VESTIBULE UNTIL WE COME GET YOU!" The man in front of me, at whom the voice was yelling, jerked back like he'd been shot. People already sitting at tables jerked around to see who was being yelled at.
The strident voice was the lady in charge of the dining car and she was running the place with the tight discipline of a marine drill instructor! COME WITH ME, SIT HERE, BOTH OF YOU SIT ON THIS SIDE, THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE'LL BE SITTING HERE! I suspect the guy driving the train could hear her.
Finally moving south of Albuquerque now, we flash across the Rio Grande River, long shadows play out in front of a setting sun. At this very minute, gazing out the window, and in spite of the drill sergeant, I am content with my place in the world. I have found a little bit of the magic. So far.
The serving person appears. Hi. We smile at her. We get a thousand-yard stare back. She's gazing out the window like she's trying to see Japan. Never, ever, the whole time we sat there, looked at us and never, ever said more than about three words to us. Or to the two little old ladies who sat across from us. Came back a few minutes later with our order and trying to get her attention after that was impossible. Waving our hands in the air got no reaction. "Excuse me ma'am," when she walked by...nothing. There's probably a contract out on us as I write this because we didn't leave a tip.
A guy named Paul was our sleeping car attendant and he was a very nice guy. He was the only bright spot going and coming back.
Still, I was on a train and a lot of stuff passes by outside your window. The window on a train is almost like a movie screen and you sit there, your own little mini-audience, wrapped in your own romance with the rails. You can make the world that approaches and whips by and disappears do anything you want it to. The passing world stays where it is, but you keep movin' on down the line...looking...looking for that magic place that this train is carrying you to. You never quite get there, of course, but it should be fun trying.
It is expensive to get on a train and get a little bedroom and go from Albuquerque to Los Angeles and back. Just about twice what plane fare would have been. The meals are part of the ticket but we didn't go to breakfast. The drill sergeant was on the PA telling us that since we were arriving so early there would be a limited breakfast menu and we'd better hustle or even that wouldn't be there.
Coming back was worse. The dining car attendants were snappish and Fred, the sleeping car attendant was just short of being as mean as a junk yard dog. Impatient, sullen and just short of rude with one couple we saw him dealing with. Barely courteous to us and no pleasantries at all.
When I say the dining car attendants were snappish, consider that I was walking from the sleeping car, through the dining car, to the lounge car and one of the attendants yelled at me as I walked through the door..."SIR, THE DINING CAR IS CLOSED!"
"Well, I'm going to the lounge car, ma'am?"
Coming back through the dining car, swaying and lurching with a handful of sodas and chips, the same lady watched me come until I was just to her, then stepped in front of me and opened a cabinet door. And stood there. After a couple of excuse me's, she let me pass. But I knew who was in charge there.
Bonnie and I didn't go to dinner, breakfast the next morning, or lunch. We made up our own beds in our compartment. We just didn't want to deal with Fred and the dining car crew. We sat in our little compartment like good little troopers and didn't venture out and annoy any of the train staff.
This train trip didn't work out for me. I paid over 500 dollars for rude, sullen, irritable behavior. Amtrak commercials don't paint that kind of picture.
After I got back I indulged in what I thought was going to be a fruitless effort. I complained to Amtrak. Didn't ask for anything, just wanted them to know. Didn't really expect any answer.
But, surprise, they e-mailed me right back and said they wanted to talk to me about it. Let them have a phone number and they'd call me. Wow! But that was it. Never heard another thing.
I sure do like trains. Maybe I have a look on my face that angers train attendants. Never have before, but, who knows. I'm just so disappointed. I still want to look for whatever it is that draws me off somewhere into the heat waves where shimmering rails come together...and the red light at the back of the train wavers...blinks... ...and is gone.
Maybe another time.