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Trip Report

Texas Eagle, Sunset Limited, and Pacific Surfliner

March 25-27, 2009


"My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing;
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going."

-- from Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Travel”

Wed 25 Mar

Arose at my usual time, a little before 600A. After doing a bit of housecleaning, went to the supermarket to get some lunch things to eat on the train. Finished packing my bag, and went next door to Rocky’s house around 1040 so he could drive me to the Forest/Jupiter rail station. Cloudy and a little chilly. Rode the DART train to Dallas Union Station (Beaux Arts, 1916). Using my credit card and reservation number, downloaded and printed my pre-booked ticket from a Quik-Trak kiosk, and boarded train #21, the southbound Texas Eagle, which had arrived ahead of schedule.

Found a seat on the upper level in the last carriage and about 20 minutes before departure, walked to the front of the train to note the consist: a single GE P42 “Genesis”-series locomotive, 2 sleepers, a diner, a lounge car, and 3 coaches. Having been a frequent air traveler over the past several years it was pleasant not to have to pass a security checkpoint, going thru a metal detector and being frisked or x-rayed. You could board without even showing a piece of ID, only your ticket. Soon after our 1220P departure brought out my lunch and ate it. On the hour-long journey to Ft. Worth, featureless leaden skies gave way quickly to thick, billowing storm clouds. (Last night’s weather forecast for today: sunny and mild.)

At Ft. Worth, there was a scheduled half-hour stop, so I got off the train and went into the station to stretch my legs. By now, swirling, ragged, purplish-black clouds seemed to portend an imminent tornado. Suddenly thunder and lightning split the still, muggy air; and then, just as I was re-boarding, came pouring rain and pea-size hail driven sideways by ferocious wind gusts. The rain, heavy at times, continued almost to Austin. Spent most of the afternoon in the lounge car, where wide picture windows and a glassed roof afford a panoramic view of the passing countryside.

Had planned to have supper in the Cross-Country Cafe dining car, and made a reservation for 5 o’clock -- a little early for me, but the dining car staff are getting off at Austin. From the menu, ordered the ½ roast chicken with garlic mash and green beans, with green salad and a roll. At table, made the acquaintance of Debbie, journeying to visit in-laws in Mexico; and Duane, from Chico, California, who, like me, is going all the way to Los Angeles and beyond. After supper, sitting in the lounge car, rang Bonnie and then Isabel on my mobile. Duane showed up a little later, and we sat and visited for a good two hours with our drinks -- for me a beer, for him a coffee.

Before nightfall the rain ended and it began to clear off. Recalled that south of Austin I’d spotted a trackside hobo camp from my train window when returning home from San Antonio in 1990. Duane has just completed a business trip to Houston and Ft. Worth, and, with longish grey hair, described himself as an “aging hippie”. Though recently divorced, he still wears a wedding band. He has two children -- a daughter of 22 and a son of 8 -- from two marriages. Found him laid-back, simpatico and interesting to talk to. Arrived San Antonio 915, over an hour early, and phoned for someone at the motel I’d booked earlier to come pick me up. After checking in at the Alamo Inn at 945, went to bed straight away.

Thu 26 Mar

Up at 430 to shower and get ready. On a cool, foggy morning, driven by the motel manager to the rail station for my 540 departure on Amtrak’s train #1, the westbound Sunset Limited. The carriage I’d occupied last evening is a through car and had been coupled into the Limited's consist during the night. Went to the lounge car for a coffee around 700A. Daybreak west of San Antonio revealed an entirely different landscape from yesterday's: instead of farms, fields, and woods there was ranch land covered in mesquite scrub, sagebrush and prickly pear cactus.

About 830 Duane showed up and we had breakfast together. By the time we reached Del Rio the fog began to disperse. During a short stop got off the train, and recalled that across the Rio Grande a few hundred yards away, lay Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, the home of radio station XERF. Its powerful 250 kW broadcasts could at one time be heard at night over much of mid-America, and I remember listening to deejay Wolfman Jack’s shows in the early 60s. Soon after we left it became sunny. The terrain gradually becomes more rugged and the soil thin and stony. Exposed rock strata indicate that this area lay -- eons ago, when I was a child -- at the bottom of an ocean. As we began our long steady ascent onto the high plains of west Texas, on wide curves I can see that our train has two P42 locomotives to help us over the mountainous terrain on the rest of our journey.

At 1200N went for lunch in the lounge car (a little less expensive than the dining car): a turkey sandwich, crisps, and a beer. Duane dropped by and purchased his lunch and we sat about an hour. Went back to my seat to nap and when I awoke an hour later we were in the mountains (and also the Mountain Time Zone). Advantages of train travel: more opportunities to socialize if you‘re so inclined, more room (the seats are bigger and further apart than in an airplane), and you can move about (walking from one end of the train to the other -- which I did several times -- affords some exercise). Disadvantages: takes more time (obviously) and a little more expensive than the cheapest air fares (which, however, have of late become increasingly difficult to find).

The sere, desolate west Texas landscape gave way east of El Paso to a broad valley of lush irrigated green fields. Reached El Paso at 355. As we have arrived early and have an hour-and-a-half stop here, got off to look at the station (Gothic Revival, 1903) and then walked into town to explore. High winds and blowing dust gave me burning eyes and a mouthful of grit by the time I returned about 45 minutes later. Phoned Bob and Bonnie before boarding the train. Departed El Paso at 525 and before supper, made the acquaintance of Abby, from London, traveling the world on her gap year at university. She’d gotten on at San Antonio. Had a nice chat with her about England and about my yearly visits there at Christmastime. A tall, blue-eyed brunette, she was bubbly and vivacious, and had been befriended (probably not with the purest of motives) by some of the younger guys in our carriage, even though she'd mentioned that she was meeting boyfriends in LA. Clustered around her and intrigued by her accent, they seemed to derive quite a thrill out of hearing her pronounce the name of a common English dessert, Spotted Dick. They even asked her to repeat it several times, much to her amused bafflement.

Entering the state of New Mexico just west of El Paso the train comes closest to the Mexican border -- about 30 feet -- a fact pointed out by the dining car attendant while announcing the first call for dinner. Duane and I had made reservations this afternoon, and at the last minute decided to invite Abby to join us, but she politely declined. To me, a meal in a real dining car -- table linens, metal cutlery, fresh flowers, and waiters in white jackets -- is one of life’s greatest pleasures, particularly when the route traverses scenic countryside such as this. Had the barbequed roast beef dinner with salad, mash, and veggies.

Seated at table with two other gents, Tom and Harold, traveling together, from Cheyenne, Wyoming. Railroad buffs, they leave their wives once a year for 7 to 10 days and take a train somewhere. They say they have, over the course of the last 35 years, ridden every scheduled train in the US and Canada. They had even been on some trains (with their wives) in Australia. Spent the rest of the evening in the lounge car riding off into the sunset and taking photographs. Made my way back to my carriage around 1030, and, sprawled out on my two seats, tried to get some sleep.

Fri 27 Mar

Slept well -- hah (LOL)! But earplugs and eyeshades helped. Awoke and got off at Tucson in the middle of the night; as we are once more way ahead of schedule, there is a lengthy stop here. Before daybreak, arose at my usual time (actually an hour later, due to another time change) and went to the lounge car for a cup of java. At sunrise, got out for some fresh air at a brief stop in Palm Springs. Just after leaving, saw my first wind farm, one of many in southern California. Remembered reading a few days ago about environmentalists' objection to them: the whirling turbine vanes occasionally kill a bird or two. Huge orange groves comprised of thousands of trees. Palm trees and eucalyptus trees.

Shaved and brushed my teeth in the bathrooms located on the lower level of the carriage. Felt much better: simple acts which make a big difference. Wondered if the tap water was safe to drink -- luckily I had bottled water. The toilets are running low on paper and evidently haven’t been cleaned since New Orleans (where this train originates) and are becoming kinda grote. A light breakfast with Duane in the lounge car, watching the world whiz by and happy to not be part of the freeway commuter madness already in full swing. Arrived 840 at Los Angeles Union Station, 1½ hours early on a warm, sunny day. As we both have a long layover here, Duane and I decided to have breakfast together; for me a chocolate-chip muffin and a coffee.

The station dates from 1939 and is built in Mission Revival Style, with Art Deco interior flourishes. Wooden-beam ceilings and red-tiled floors inset with colorful mosaics. Leather-upholstered wooden benches in the main waiting room appear to be original. Took several photos inside and out. Went outside to sit in the garden as the weather was so clement. Exchanged addresses and phone numbers with Duane, and around 1200N said goodbye and made my way to the departure platform for my train to Oxnard. Left 1220 on the northbound Pacific Surfliner. Arrived Oxnard at 207 and waited at the station for Isabel to come from work to pick me up. [I returned home on the Greyhound coach a few days later.]

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