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A Father and Son's Cross-Country Train Trip

Sharing this Trip was a Dream Come True

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At Mendota, Illinois we got our first hearty wave, from an older couple, standing hand in hand on their porch. At the Mendota station we witnessed an efficiently-moving older fellow, toting baggage in his conductor cap and overalls. Mendota would stick in my mind as one of those idyllic Midwestern towns.

Past Galva, Lyndon suddenly announced: "I want to play Eat the Cereal." A wave of silent appreciation went through me — his silliness was developing just fine. He then pointed out his discovery of a fairly complex mathematical property (for a five-year-old, at least): "We're in the train, and the train is in Illinois. That means we are in Illinois." I took this opportunity to explain this property in another way. "Yes, it's like after school. When you carry your own backpack, but I then carry you as you request, then I am carrying you AND your backpack."

Crossing the First Divide

We arrived at the first great divide of the transcontinental journey — the one and only Mississippi River. As we bumped over the epic bridge into Iowa, we dashed from window to window to gape.

Our short trip through the southeast nub of Iowa was not short of interest. At Fort Madison we saw the fort itself along the river, and I tried to give Lyndon a mind's eye view of the frontier on which this fort was built. The edge of civilization, it was. In some ways, it still felt like this edge.

In the budding woods of northeast Missouri, the train's clicking quickened impressively underneath. Grogginess took over both of us, and after one last PB&J and organic pop tart for the day, we both drifted off. The wake-up came, as it commonly does, when a train slows when making its transition from the country to the suburbs.

I saw the neon Western Auto sign that signals arrival into Kansas City's Union Station. This monumental edifice rivals Chicago's Union Station is size and stature. Kansas City has preserved its magnificent old station, and it is a historical and cultural hub of the city and region today. No station in the country receives more freight traffic.

Our Prairie Schooner Sets Sail

As the speed of the clacks quickened, I was asleep before we reached Lawrence. Lindy was sleeping soundly with his blue jay and bluebird. I couldn't hold out any longer. I was out too soon, and didn't wake up until we were past Hutchinson, about the center point of the giant rectangle known as Kansas.

Dawn started just west of Dodge City. I thought back to my first Southwest Chief trip, when I woke up to the sight of spring-green prairie sailing by. I remember the quality of that quiet, the sun warming my face through the window, the soothing rhythm of steel wheels on rails. It was much like that this morning: mist in the air, horns for every ranch road, grain elevators reflecting the brilliant, low sunshine.

Lindy popped up shortly after sunrise at Garden City, Kansas. He was downright chipper, talking about a little bit of everything and gazing out the window. Near Syracuse, Kansas, our witty Cafe Car Attendant came over the P.A. He offered cheeseburgers, pizza, and hot dogs at 7 am "It's okay," he said. "I'm not your mom."

Stretching our legs, Lindy and I took a look out the back window. The tracks stretched to the horizon with nary a minute change in direction. At about eight we crossed into Colorado, at Holly. I love the fact that people don't understand Colorado. The truth is that half of Colorado is plains and prairies. These are also beautiful, but they get a bad rap from impatient travelers speeding to get onto their skis.

Southeastern Colorado was still brown in April, with the grassland punctuated by grand cottonwood trees and some sage. I wished I could have smelled that sage, one of the best odors, and my favorite welcome to the west.

At La Junta we headed to the Dining Car for a well-deserved hot breakfast. One of the wonderfully civilizing aspects of train travel is the way they seat unrelated passengers together in the diner. Lindy and I were assigned to a table with Mike, a 50-something respiratory therapist traveling from Kentucky to California to help his pregnant daughter-in-law while his son is in Afghanistan.

Lyndon pounded his French toast by far his favorite breakfast. I do believe he could eat his body weight in it, if the stack were only high enough.

We finally left La Junta and set off onto the Comanche National Grassland. This land is blissfully devoid of houses, roads, or buildings. We saw some antelope lounging and some tumbleweeds tumbling. Then came the first sighting of the snow- capped Rockies, which can't get old, no matter how many times you have this experience. We oohed and aahed the mountain views as we turned southwest to run parallel to them, into Trinidad, the last stop before famous Raton Pass.

Up Up and Across — The Second Great Divide

Raton Pass is a place to feel sorry for the locomotive. Known for its steep climb up to 7,500 feet, and also for its S-curve, where both the front and back of the train can be seen at the same time from the dome car, Raton Pass slows trains to a laborious crawl. Near the summit my ears popped, and again at the top. Lindy gripped his ears, surprised.

Somewhere in the pass we passed into New Mexico — my favorite of the 49 states I've been lucky enough to see. The Raton station stop offered us a very welcome chance to stretch our legs. The air was crisp and clean, and the sunshine abundant — overall, an excellent break before the reach across New Mexico — the leg of the trip I most anticipated. [continued...]