Fear of Flying: Across the US on Amtrak's Southwest Chief
"I'm sorry, lady," announced the Amtrak dining car steward loudly. "You are naked."
He was joking, giving First Class passengers a giggle. The sleeping compartment he had barged into was empty, and the naked lady was fiction. He was setting a relaxed and silly tone for the two-night Superliner trip from Chicago to Los Angeles.
I was in a sleeper Car on the "Southwest Chief," one of Amtrak's scenic long-distance services. It traverses eight states and follows, more or less, both the historic Santa Fe Trail and the legendary Route 66.
"There are Amtrak souvenir blankets on sale for $7 in the Cafe," came an announcement over the P.A. system. "The Cafe is downstairs from the Sightseer Lounge. It closes at 11:30 p.m. 11:31 is a terrible time to discover you are cold."
The dining car steward, after setting the passengers at ease, asked for dinner reservations. Meals are included with sleeper cars, so I scheduled a late dinner and stared out at the bleak Chicago snow. We had left Union Station, but immediately stopped again, while mail cars were added to the train. Amtrak supplements its passenger income by carrying mail, and there were more mail cars than passenger cars on the Southwest Chief. In short order, we were en route to Kansas City. The Midwestern winter made me glad for the individual temperature controls.
I had rolled double-sixes for the evening and my dinner companions were charming and unique. The middle-aged woman was a friendly high school guidance counselor from Orange County, and the younger man was a working Hollywood character actor with his photo in Variety to prove it. Both freely admitted an irrational fear of flying, a common phobia among long-distance train travelers. But, also an increasingly more common reaction in light of the recent terrorist attacks and the increased security measures on air travel.
We lingered for an hour over tasty penne pasta and good conversation. My dinner companions were sleeper car veterans, and they taught me to tip two dollars at the end of my free meal, and five to ten dollars to my car attendant at the end of the trip. They also told me that while all sleepers fit two people (and a baby, if necessary), single travelers never have to share. This was a relief to me, as I'd been eyeing the top bunk in my compartment and wondering if someone was going to show up to claim it.
The next morning the scenery changed from gray winter to gold expanses of hay and leafless trees. Cows grazed near the tracks, scampering away as the train approached. I picked up a clean towel from the luggage rack and had a warm, pleasant shower before joining a stranger for breakfast.
A few hours into Colorado, we slowly ascended Raton Pass to cross the Rockies into New Mexico. The highest point on the route at 7,588 feet, the Pass marked both a change in scenery and atmosphere. The Midwestern plains were replaced by colorful landscapes, rock formations, and the mythology of the American West. Billy the Kid, Kit Carson, and Teddy Roosevelt reputedly frequented this area. As I sat in the Sightseer Lounge and stared out of the huge panoramic windows at the dramatic mountains and cliffs, I could see why.
The Southwest Chief had a half-hour rest stop in Albuquerque. The passengers all got off the train, stretched their legs, and bought crafts from the Native American vendors that lined the platform. Everyone milled about and chatted with new acquaintances, before getting back on the train for the main event.
The rails between Albuquerque and Los Angeles were rough, making for an interesting dinner that night. The waiters smiled as the train lurched suddenly, sending them careening across the aisles without warning. Amtrak doesn't own the rails the freight companies do. Freight doesn't require comfort and the weight of the heavily loaded cars damages the rails. Every few years, the rails must be repaired, but this had obviously not happened in some time. I found myself wishing the railroad equivalent of ice hockey's Zamboni machine would come along and straighten things out. But the inconvenience lasted only one night and didn't disturb my sleep.
Early the third day, after a morning breakfast of pancakes and bacon, we arrived early at Los Angeles' Union Station, with me singing the praises of Amtrak's long-distance rail service. While cross-country train travel isnt the quickest way to reach your destination, for those afraid of flying, it is certainly the most comfortable.
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