Sunday, January 31, 2010

Chicago to Los Angeles by way of San Antonio

First of three parts

Three trains. Five nights. Exactly 4,984 miles. And the most important statistic of all, 32 new manuscript pages for Hang Fire, the novel-in-progress, bringing its total to 162 pages so far. The light at last looms at the end of that tunnel.

So ended my latest railborne writing trip late Friday afternoon, when Amtrak's eastbound Southwest Chief tied up in Chicago Union Station.

Writer's tools: A roomette, a Macbook, an iPod Touch and an electric outlet.

As Alex Haley, that old Coast Guardsman, needed voyages in tramp-steamer cabins to beat writer's block, I use journeys in rolling sleeper roomettes to get unstuck. There's something about a gently rocking long-distance train, even an Amtraker, that loosens the impacted imagination. Or so it seems.

Trains attract me for other reasons, such as the luxury of suspended time and the beauty of American scenery, but I won't go into that, having sung their praises often enough. Here, however, is a trip report for the railfans who visit this blog:

The journey began the previous Sunday in the first-class lounge at Chicago Union Station, where sleeper passengers can loll on overstuffed chairs before departure. It's hardly a Ritz-Carlton lobby, but it is clean and comfortable and boasts a large hi-def TV screen for travelers who are neither readers nor Gameboy addicts. The free wi-fi was down, however, and by the look of the bedraggled sign at the room's sole computer, it had been for quite a while.

Chicago Union Station's sleeper lounge is relaxing -- but wirelessless.

That was disappointing for a traveler who likes to stay connected to news of the outside world, and dispiriting for one who likes Amtrak (and has even written a book about it) and hopes it survives. Too often things are broken and not fixed for a long time.

I told the lounge's desk agent that I was deaf and couldn't hear announcements, and asked when and where Amtrak 421, the Texas Eagle, would board. She was both pleasant and caring, going out of her way to find me just before boarding was announced and making sure I found the right track before she returned to her station.

Because Amtrak has just started using each day's incoming City of New Orleans trainset for the outgoing Eagle with only a 4 1/2-hour break to clean and restock the cars, I wondered how well the job would be executed. My sleeper was in good shape, but the car number displays had not yet been changed from the New Orleans train, confusing some passengers.

First stop Joliet, where the station is as forbidding as the famous prison.

The cars had not been through the wash, but were not terribly dirty, although the windows were a bit grimy. That didn't matter overmuch since the day was gray and rainy and not conducive to photography.

Inside, City timetables and route guides still sat in the room windows. Shortly after departure at 1:45 p.m. on the dot, the attendant, Donald, brought Eagle timetables, but no route guides. (I had forearmed myself with older Amtrak guides available at

Donald was cheerful and always busy, and the waiters solicitous and efficient. I thought it a particularly good crew, even though Donald (presumably on his dinner break) did not show when I called him to make up the bed for an early night -- after 30 minutes of waiting, I did that myself. It's not hard and I've done it often. Not to blame Donald; he probably announced his meal break on the PA system and I didn't hear it.

The next morning Donald was on the job quickly, making up the room for the day while I was at breakfast.

The Amtrak "Cross Country Cafe" diner-lounge combo did not seem so bad.

I did not find Amtrak's newish "Cross Country Cafe" diner-lounge layout all that objectionable, despite grumblings from others that they are inefficient, especially when there is no separate lounge car. There is a different arrangement and shape of tables and seats, some of them facing the aisle rather than outward. That was fine with me; it not only made for a change from the usual tight and rumpsprung quarters in conventional dining cars but also allowed this lipreader to converse more easily with his tablemates.

The Cross Country Cafe's "diner lite" (as railfans call it) cuisine -- prepared off the train in commissaries and baked in convection ovens aboard -- was satisfactory, not terribly tasty but reasonably well prepared. I opted for the "fried" chicken, carefully deskinning it in heart-healthy fashion. The stringbeans were a bit stringy but the rice medley was fine and the Haagen-Dazs ice cream excellent as always. (I shouldn't have had that last but one has to live it up once in a while.)

Meal companions can be hit or miss. A number of times I've dined with folks just off the farm and frightened about eating with strangers, or louts whose mothers never taught them manners.

But my dinner companions the first night out were both convivial and interesting. One was a Washington TV broadcast reporter bound to San Antonio and the other a Navy lieutenant commander traveling to Palm Springs. Both had come in on a "bustitution" from Ohio owing to a freight derailment the day before that stalled the inbound Capitol Limited for nine hours and caused them to miss their connections to the Eagle. Amtrak put up all the stranded travelers in a hotel and found them seats (and in some cases bedrooms) on the next day's Eagle -- which may explain why the train was listed as "sold out" the night before departure.

On Monday morning I was first into the shower on the lower level. The water pressure was the wimpiest I'd ever seen in a sleeper car, but it sufficed -- just barely. At first call for breakfast I stepped to the diner, unfortunately sharing my table with a scruffy young man who said a perfunctory hello and never looked up from his iPhone.

Afterward I repaired to the roomette to write, getting in six pages before arrival in Dallas. There I had lunch again with the Washington newsman, who had been a young broadcaster in Dallas in 1963. He pointed out the Texas School Book Depository and Dealey Plaza as the train rolled past those landmarks of the Kennedy assassination on the way to Fort Worth and a long stop. The sprawling transportation center in Fort Worth features a preserved interurban coach from the 1930s, and the old station has been restored to its former glory.

Amtrak's Texas Eagle tarried for more than an hour at Fort Worth.

Though I'm not a vegetarian, I had the "veggie burger" for lunch -- a surprisingly delicious chipotle-flavored black bean-and-corn concoction, one I chose instead of a beef burger because of the ongoing controversy over the cleanliness of ground beef. I will have that dish again, but I'll skip the softball-sized bun, full of empty calories.

Speaking of the dishes, they are disposable lightweight hard plastic, not very elegant but a lot better than the Styrofoam of the 1990s. (Amtrak saves by not having to pay a dishwasher.)

The Eagle ran On Time all the way through the early afternoon, often reaching a stop well before the advertised and tarrying until official departure time. If Amtrak were king it could easily have knocked two hours off the schedule, but the need to allow for freight train traffic requires leisurely timekeeping.

The lead service attendant, once called the steward, came around at 3 p.m. to take dinner reservations at 4 and 4:30. When I asked why they were serving so early, he replied that the dining car crew gets off at Austin at 6:30 and needs to clean up before then.

Dinner was OK, the salmon a tad rubbery and fishy -- but just a tad.

The night in San Antonio was fitful because the train sat stationary on its 10-hour layover waiting for arrival of the Sunset Limited from New Orleans rather than rocking me to sleep. Some time before dawn I was awakened by the vigorous switching out and coupling up of my sleeper and one coach onto the Sunset.

Train 1/421 departed San Antonio right at 5:40 am. My through sleeper was now the last car in the consist, and next in line was the through coach from Chicago, coupled on with the seats facing backward. The riders, I thought, can't be happy about that.. Then came two coaches from the Sunset facing the right way, then the lounge car, then the diner (a conventional one), then a sleeper and a dorm-sleeper, then baggage, then two P42 locomotives. That is a long train.

I kept my breakfast virtuous and small: a little apple juice, half a cheese omelet (one of the few dishes prepared aboard, not reheated), half a biscuit, coffee.

Back to the sleeper to write for a while. When I took a break at 10 a.m., the conductors were flipping the seats in the Eagle coach to face forward. People looked happier.

To this admittedly ignorant rider the west Texas desert displayed a striking if sere beauty that soon grew wearying. You seen one tumbleweed, you seen 'em all. It's the perfect place to keep one's head down to write.

Alpine, Texas: That's a loooong step to the stony "platform."

For the first time on a rail journey I took along my GPS receiver, a Garmin hiker's model once used as a backup navigation instrument when I owned an airplane. It was nice to know one's location, especially in the small dark hours, and it was priceless to know exactly where one was along the railroad and when the next station would be looming ahead. (The GPS had to be rested on the roomette window ledge to catch enough satellites for the instrument to do its thing.)

Just before lunch came a half-hour smoking stop at Alpine. The station platform is very short, so most of the train loomed just above the roadbed, making quite a drop to the ballast for an old guy like me. I also used the time to get off a couple of e-mails. I could find no wi-fi at the stations along the route, but at Alpine at least two unsecured wi-fi nodes lay within range of the train. Of course using other people's unpassworded wi-fi is illegal, and I would never encourage anyone to break the law.

Tracks, tumbleweed and a big sky looking back from the last car.

Lunch was a boring iceberg lettuce salad with three lonely strips of chicken, but it was palatable and reasonably healthful. At my table a painfully shy young man read a book all through lunch and ignored my attempts at conversation.

The writing went well -- a dozen new pages that day, and a solution to a knotty structural problem I'd been having.

Mare's tails over the beautiful but enervating Chihuahuan Desert.

The afternoon between Alpine and El Paso was a long slog across barren Chihuahuan desert, mountains and mesas far to the north, hours and hours of mesquite and cactus and the occasional juniper, with vultures circling in the sky and in one location tearing at a dead cow near the tracks.

El Paso and its curiously forbidding Texas Gothic railroad station.

The outskirts of of El Paso featured a long maze of junkyards and orchards. At the station half the passengers fired up cigarettes on the windless platform, resulting in a cloud of smoke so choking I returned to the train to escape it. Sad as it is to say, the average American train passenger seems hell-bent on shortening his life with tobacco, sugar and fried food.

In fact, a skinny British couple at dinner remarked nastily about the corpulence on the train. True, two immense men in my sleeper had to struggle to squeeze through the narrow corridor, and I feared one would get stuck on the twisting stairs to the lower level. In the coaches, three people -- two women and one man -- were wide-bodied enough to occupy two seats each. I wondered if Amtrak is willing sell two seats to one passenger for this purpose. I don't see why not. For many Americans too large to fit into an airline seat, train travel is their only recourse. Two long-distance coach seats on Amtrak is still a lot cheaper than first class on an airline.

Dinner was a steak that tasted decent although gristly; it was so big I ate only half, and half the baked potato as well. One Amtrak dinner serving, like those of most road-food emporia, could satisfy the average older couple.

Early morning the third day near Pomona in the Los Angeles Basin.

The combined train's three-person waitstaff, like that on the way to San Antonio, displayed an esprit often absent in previous years. Their dark blue uniforms all were neat and pressed, their shirts blinding white. Only a harassed coach attendant (who seemed to be in charge of three coaches) seemed a trifle cranky, notably when passengers took over seats reserved for large groups down the route.

My sleep that third night through New Mexico and Arizona was lousy, thanks to repeated and long siding stops that put the train two hours behind going into Yuma -- my roomette must be rocking if I am to sleep.

The third morning the shower wouldn't work at all, and breakfast was cardboard French toast -- I will not have it again. But my seatmate was a delightful Californian who had raised a deaf daughter and knows American Sign Language. She was evangelistic about Deaf culture, and we had to agree to disagree about hot-button issues like cochlear implants in infants. As always, for every annoyance on the train there are at least two fine experiences.

Our arrival at Los Angeles Union Station was just 20 minutes late, thanks to the schedule padding.

NEXT: The 10-hour layover in L.A.

The grand waiting room at Los Angeles Union Station. The bagel shop on the right offers a free wi-fi node for its customers.


  1. Great journal; great photos. And glad to hear Hang Fire is getting done! Awaiting parts 2 and 3.

    Bet you could get another railroad book out of your travels, such as this, especially one so well documented. There were other trips described on this blog about your train trips....

  2. Love the picture of the Texas Eagle at Fort Worth! I didn't realize what a behemoth the "High Iron" is until I rode other than the Crescent. The Crescent (from the Big Easy to the Big Apple) is only a single because of a tunnel or 2 not big enough for the double deckers. And amen to another train book. My copy of Zephyr has been read and re-read by me and others.

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