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From Raton we embarked on the wonderful western travel treat — the dramatic yet quick change of scenery. Like wholly different chapters in a book on landscapes, New Mexico dazzles with its variety. In northeastern New Mexico, we rolled through great grasslands, with distant mesas — some of which are ancient, extinct volcanoes — giving some relief to the terrain. Then, to canyon country, with rocky outcroppings. As the train climbed into the mystical Sangre de Cristo Mountains, we were in pine country, and against the odds, it rained. As we rolled past Las Vegas and Lamy, we watched the rain dash down the gullies and fill the washes; we were mesmerized by the dances the raindrops did down the windows.
We rolled to a stop at Albuquerque. Lyndon and I bounded off, happy to have a precious hour to roam around, on the ground. On the platform, Lyndon and I watched with surprise as a tumbleweed — a real tumbleweed — bounced by us. I caught it as it rolled by and handed it proudly to Lyndon. Another reminder of our arrival in the West.
Southwest Streak to LA
I felt giddy about the next leg of the trip — western New Mexico and hopefully some of eastern Arizona in the daylight. I knew that the amazing light of the southwest gets even more amazing near sunset, as the sun gets low in the sky. As we set out toward Gallup, I looked north to some imposing snow-dusted peak that I think were the Chuska Mountains. Lyndon was tired and reserved, but peaceful as he stared out the window. “There's nothing out here but the bushes,” he said at one point. I was happy to know that he was expressing appreciation, not frustration.
To my delight, we crossed into Arizona during daylight. The very eastern part of Arizona features dazzling red rock, vast vistas, and very little of anything else. Lyndon and I made our way to the dome car to soak in every ounce of the day's light. The dome car denizens were diverse and even a little rowdy. The Amish family from rural Wisconsin was, I do say, partying, playing cards with the black family from Chicago. A young girl from the Chicago family bounced the precious Amish girl in her lap.
Although I was hoping to catch the corner in Winslow, Arizona made famous by the Eagles, we were both sound asleep by Holbrook, he first stop in Arizona. And like the last time I took the Southwest Chief, the excitement of the Colorado and New Mexico day took its toll and we were out cold.
The light and horn of a freight train coming the other way woke me. It was still pitch dark, and we were crawling our way through a massive rail yard. Although Fear of Missing Something afflicted me as I thought about all the terrain I slept through — the vast deserts of western Arizona and southeastern California — I was glad to have slept almost through a night. Of course, Lyndon, curled up comfortably in his seat, was a log from well east of Flagstaff to well west of Fullerton. He woke as we were slowing into the LA tangle.
Bleary eyed and rubber legged, we bade farewell to our trusty Southwest Chief and made our way into Los Angeles' Union Station. I looked back at the train, thinking that any complaint I may have been tempted to make about the exhausting trip should immediately be buttoned up. We had traversed the entire Santa Fe Trail, yes, but we went almost a thousand miles instead of fifteen miles a day, and without getting lost, caught in downpours and hailstorms, or delayed for weeks by a broken wagon wheel. I felt more than a bit humbled as we settled into seats in the gleaming LA Water Authority cafeteria.
Union Station Los Angeles has a beautiful courtyard with palm trees, fountains, and lots of colorful tile. I've always said that California is like a Dr. Seuss book — colorful, and wacky. Thankfully, this peaceful courtyard was sealed off from the southern California megalopolis that was seething all around us. While we waited for our Coast Starlight train to take us up to Santa Barbara, we reveled in this oasis, playing a little chase, and admiring the fish — and impressive turtles — in the burbling fountain. We spent a little while relaxing on the remarkably generous and handsome leather and wood benches in the terminal.
Last Leg — The Coast Starlight
The Starlight departed on time. We decided to spend this last leg in the dome car. We felt the same anticipation of the first ocean view as we did for the first Rocky Mountain view. At Ventura we got that view, and I started to hear my favorite Ventures songs in my head as the train rolled along the coast, very near the waves. The mist hugged the surprisingly green cliffs; the sun tried relentlessly to penetrate it.
Finally, Santa Barbara, with 50-some hours and 3,000 miles of memorable rail-riding behind us. A continent traversed! I beamed with admiration and pride as I watched Lyndon — intrepid transcontinental traveler — step off the train behind me and squint into the dazzling southern California sun.
In 1992 when I first took the Southwest Chief, I was just out of school and more than a little anxious about the future. I thought then about how special it would be to someday share the Southwest Chief with my own child, if I was fortunate enough to have one. I was that fortunate, and what a fabulous traveler, and little human, Lyndon is. It feels all right to have a dream come true.