Whenever I think of journeying west, I envision Debbie Reynolds belting out tunes in How the West Was Won, a song-filled, star-studded motion picture from my youth. I always found her behavior a bit curious. For centuries now, settlers in wagon trains, explorers on horseback, merchants on the old Santa Fe railroad and those seeking a new life, have traveled west across the US.
Whether striking out for territories along the Santa Fe Trail or driving toward the Hollywood lights on Route 66, the journey became an integral part of the adventure, although I'm not sure how much singing was actually involved.
Vicky and Bill Crawford fulfill a lifelong dream to travel by train to the Grand Canyon.
In the spirit of the pioneers (but with far superior accommodations), I climb aboard the Southwest Chief bound for New Mexico. I intend to explore, have adventures, meet interesting people and experience new things. However, unlike Debbie, I will not be performing elaborate song and dance numbers at any point along the route.
Beginning in Chicago, or "Paris on the Prairie" as it's sometimes known, the Southwest Chief pulls through lush Iowa and Missouri farmlands, crosses the checkerboard Kansas plains, treks alongside rocky Colorado and New Mexico territory and chugs through the arid Arizona expanse, finally settling in at the edge of the country — Los Angeles, California. Along the way, she zips through tiny hamlets and big cities, past landmarks, rivers and highways, every spot on the map differentiating itself through its history, attractions or appeal.
Illinois — The Adventure Begins
A brisk wind blows me into Chicago's Union Station and onto the Southwest Chief. Like most Midwesterners, I'm ready for a change. Spring this year has teased us with only occasional warmth followed by sub-zero temperatures and May snowstorms.
The Des Moines River was a main transportation route in the mid-19th century.
Dropping my luggage in my bedroom compartment, I immediately navigate toward the Sightseer Car. I want a front row seat to the fading gloom of the Midwest and the brighter vistas sure to open up before me.
Just minutes outside of downtown Chicago, little pockets of communities unfold, less big-city, more small-town Midwest. Brick houses line up like genteel ladies, the well-manicured lawns spread like crisp napkins before them.
Natives of New Mexico, Brian Ostenak, Sonya Radetsky and Adam Ratzlaff meet for the first time on the Southwest Chief.
Picking up speed, we whoosh past a Norman Rockwell still life — a main street with a corner drugstore, a dairy building white as milk, ball fields, back yards with inflatable swimming pools and scampering children, a stately old home the color of butterscotch, white rockers gracing its front porch.
I share a table with Vicky and Bill Crawford of Plano, Illinois. They're on an Amtrak tour, traveling to Lamy, Santa Fe and Sedona before arriving at the legendary Grand Canyon. Vicky's eyes dance.
"This trip was on our bucket list," she says. For years, they talked about taking the trip, but never followed through until now.
"There's always something that gets in the way of doing things like this," says Bill, shaking his head. "Our kids convinced us to go."
While nudged up next to Kansas, Colorado remains a smooth plane.
Adam Ratzlaff, who I'd met briefly at Union Station, waves to me from across the car. He's taking the scenic route home to Las Vegas, New Mexico from New Orleans's Tulane University. Unexpected Mississippi River flooding required he ride the Crescent from New Orleans to Washington, DC, then transfer to the Capitol Limited in Chicago, where he'd hopped on the Southwest Chief.
"I've always wanted to take the train," he says. "Usually I drive, but I'm really enjoying seeing parts of the country that I wouldn't get to see from the highway."
Underscoring his words, we roll over the Mississippi River, looking bloated now from profuse spring rains. As the fourth longest river in the world and the 10th most powerful, her name seems apt, coming from the Ojibwa word, misi-ziibi, meaning Great River.
The train only sticks a toe into a corner of Iowa before moving on to Missouri. Nonetheless, we Sightseer Car inhabitants sit like schoolchildren, secretly longing to smash our noses against the windows to get the best view of the scenery. All the while, passengers chat with seat mates, commenting on the landscape or engaging in conversations that are more personal.
Sightseer Car passengers enjoy the view of the scenery passing by.
Before we can blink, we're creeping by the serene Des Moines River. In earlier times, we might have spotted a passenger-filled riverboat coming round its bend, as they so often did when this waterway was a main transportation route in the mid-19th century.
After a savory meal, I move back into the Sightseer Car. Something looks different and I realize that whole groups of passengers have moved en masse to new seats. I must have missed a rousing game of musical chairs while at dinner.
I spot Adam with two others, Brian Ostenak and Sonya Radetsky, all laughing and talking like old pals, though they've only just met.
Until recently, Brian had been working in New York, but now he's moving back to his native Los Alamos.
"I loved New York," he says with a dazzling grin, "but I really missed nature and the way things are in New Mexico."
Sonya is a petite NYU student and Albuquerquian, journeying home as well. Like Brian, she's missed her native state and its natural elements. [continued...]