Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sniffling and coughing all the way home

Third of three parts

My journey back to Chicago from Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief wasn't nearly as much fun as the trip out on the Texas Eagle, and for just one reason: On the way out I caught a hedduva cold, probably made worse by the dry air conditioning in the Eagle sleeper, and by the end of my one-day layover in L.A. it had turned into major waterworks accompanied by hacking cough.

In Los Angeles Union Station the Amtrak information agent replied to my snuffling inquiry that the track for No. 4 would be posted half an hour before its 6:45 p.m. departure, and that she'd be sure to point me in the right direction.

Northeastern Arizona on the morning of the second day aboard the Southwest Chief. The weather was lousy -- just the way I felt -- and I took only a few photographs, all from my sleeper window.

But the rail photographer/writer Carl Morrison -- with whom I had spent the day photographing nearby sights -- had tipped me off earlier that day that the Chief always departs on Track 12.

I took advantage of that knowledge to hike up to the platform of 12 and wait comfortably for the train on a bench, camera in hand, watchful for cops who might chase me back into the concourse under the platforms. Unlike Chicago's Union Station, however, little security was visible in the concourse, let alone up top. (All the rent-a-cops seem to patrol in and around the waiting room, looking for vagrants to roust and swatting at cheeky sparrows that flit in the open doors from the station courtyards to assist folks with their lunches.)

At 6 p.m. the Chief slowly backed in from the north, led by two coaches, then a Sightseer lounge, a dining car, three sleepers and a baggage car. Two standard P42 locomotives made up the business end.

Owning a caboose in Gallup, N.M., is probably more trouble than it is worth. "This Car is Patrolled by Private Police," the sign says.

Just as the train stopped, the attendants of two of the sleepers opened their doors. (The third was the crew dorm.) I boarded the second, whose train consist number read "0430," the same as on my ticket. The attendant looked at it and waved me up to Roomette 6.

Shortly after I settled in she returned. "Wrong sleeper," she said, and apologized for her mistake. "This is Car 0431." (Its number board read "0430" all the way to Chicago. The electric number system must have been on the blink.)

"No problem," I said, and debarked and walked to the next sleeper, whose car number also read "0430." Its attendant, a tall man with "Vincent" on his name tag, looked at my ticket and said, "You're the author of Zephyr. I've got that book at home. I know all the people you wrote about."

That book was published 16 years ago, and Vincent was the first Amtraker I've encountered in recent years to mention it.

An old Pullman observation car, probably from the 1920s or 1930s, just east of the station at Lamy, N.M. Is it somebody's home or perhaps a clubhouse?

As any reporter would, I prefer anonymity to being singled out for special treatment in hopeful exchange for a favorable article. It seems, however, that Vincent extends singular courtesies to all his passengers, and as things turned out I was grateful for that.

By then the grippe had me well by the throat -- or, rather, nose and chest, so much so I don't recall what I had for dinner shortly after the train departed. All I remember is that Vincent was quickly on the job making up my bed for an early night. I hacked through much of the night and dreamed that my coughing turned all the other passengers into a lynching party.

As the train rolled across Arizona that first morning, I felt so lousy I stopped Vincent in the corridor and asked him to bring breakfast to my roomette so that I wouldn't have to share my germs in the dining car. He brought a menu, squatted in my doorway so I could read his lips without craning my aching neck to look up at him, and was back with the meal in ten minutes.

That day he brought lunch and dinner, too, and was always quick with a meal recommendation. At supper he suggested the stuffed manicotti with marinara sauce, and it actually turned out to be better than OK. (Amtrak seems to have been working on the quality of its vegetarian dishes.)

The abandoned Castaneda Hotel in Las Vegas, N.M. Once a Harvey House for the old Santa Fe Ry., it was a favorite place for Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders of Spanish-American War fame to hold their annual get-togethers.

Was mine really VIP treatment? I don't think so. Every other passenger in Vincent's car seemed to be treated like royalty. He was always present when I looked for him, cleaning the restrooms, making up bunks or bringing meals to other passengers. He often looked in on me to ask how I was feeling and if I needed anything. I wondered if the guy ever took a break and if he was bending union work rules.

As I put away the breakfast, No. 4 pulled into Flagstaff, still dark at 7 a.m. on a wintry cold day. Six or eight inches of snow covered the ground, and we were still on time into Gallup, N.M., in a snow that slowly seemed to be changing into rain. Just two lonely Navajos had spread their jewelry and blankets under the vendors' shelter, trying to keep out of the sleety rain. Most passengers stayed aboard the train.

By the time night fell as the train approached high Raton Pass, it was shouldering through a whiteout at full speed. I wondered how the engineers could see ahead through the driving snow.

Slowly and fitfully all day I worked on Hang Fire, my novel-in-progress. Miserable as I felt, I didn't want to waste valuable time on the train, the best place in the world for me to write.

As the Southwest Chief neared Raton Pass in eastern New Mexico, the sky turned into a near whiteout.

I retired early and awakened the second morning still sneezing and coughing, but felt better, and took both breakfast and lunch in the dining car.

I don't remember my tablemate at breakfast, but my lunch companions were a well-to-do couple (judging by the woman's ostentatious gold jewelry) who said they divided their time between San Diego and Chicago, and were on their way to the opera. They were pleasant enough, and although the woman seemed discombobulated by my deaf speech, her friendly husband handled it with aplomb.

At noon I closed the Macbook for the day, having written 32 new pages of novel over the trip and solved a knotty structural problem. Hang Fire is about three-quarters done, and I now have a pretty good idea how it's going to end. That alone made the ticket worth the price, and everything else was gravy.

The sun emerged as the Chief approached Galesburg in western Illinois. But the air was bone-chillingly cold, in the teens with a brisk breeze.

There was one more surprise from Vincent. As the train approached Naperville, Illinois, its penultimate stop, he came by with a bucket of hot wet face towels and handed one to me with tongs, like a flight attendant in first class on British Airways. I was delighted and asked if this was a new Amtrak perk in the sleepers.

"No," he said. "It's just something I like to do for my passengers."

He had made the difference between a miserable trip and a more than bearable one. It was almost like riding in a luxury Pullman sleeper of old, where the porters practically acted in loco parentis.

Ironically, just after Naperville -- which we left 20 minutes early -- something went wrong with one of the locomotives and the train had to creep the rest of the way into Chicago at 15 m.p.h., putting our arrival more than an hour past the carded 3:20 p.m.

Somehow I didn't mind that at all.


  1. I just wanted to tell you that these blogs about your train trip have made me want to take one myself.
    I love, love the phrase, "...the woman seemed discombobulated by my deaf speech..." -- that's a perfect description of people's reaction to my speech as well (only sometimes, thankfully).

  2. Really enjoyed your travel adventures aboard a variety of Amtrak trains- well written by a professional author. I'm glad you got a good attendant on the Train #4. He sounds like one of the best- I used to do that job for a living (20+ years) so I know a little about the nuts and bolts of service. The hot towels @ NPV were a great idea! Never heard of that being done...

  3. I rode the Zephyr (and the Crescent, Capital Limited, Coast Starlight, and Empire Builder) in 2004. After "rail kill" (a 10 point buck tried to cross the tracks the wrong time, stopping the #5 train just West of Denver for awhile), I wrote a poem (posted on blindedbyinsight.blogspot.com) with the first and last verses: "From the dirty rail yards in the Windy City, Through the canyons cut by the rivers' run - Beaver dams and eagles' aeries -
    Snow-topped Rockies shimmering in the sun. ... Feeding and caring for lots of people For 2,000-plus miles is sometimes a pain. God bless the engineers and all the operating crews And the service crews on all the Amtrak trains." My vacation this year may just be to ride the train somewhere and back! Netagene (just a reader of your books, and a bit of a rail fan)