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The Southwest Chief historic route was first traversed by the earliest Indians who first discovered its twists, turns and passes.

Riding the Rails in the Wild West

From Chicago to LA on the Southwest Chief

Mija Riedel

San Francisco-based writer and photojournalist Mija Riedel writes about travel, art and the environment.

It was nearly midnight when I checked into my room in Chicago. In just over 12 hours I would be boarding the Southwest Chief and, in spite of a few days' research, I still couldn't envision, exactly, what to expect. Having spent more hours than I cared to count padding, stocking-footed, through airport security, and studying smoking tail pipes in bumper to bumper traffic, I was keenly interested in an alternative way to cross the country. I spent the next hour wondering about my trip on the Southwest Chief.

Saturday, September 30

Sugar Creek, Missouri

What struck me as most unusual, as I sat cross-legged on the bottom bunk of the sleeper car with Susan and Doug, was not that I didn't know either of them three hours ago, but that it was 9 pm and I was in the middle of a mini-slumber party with a choreographer and a psychologist on a train scheduled to cross eight states and the Mississippi River in the next day and a half. As our train glided silently under an overpass, I watched steel beams rise beside us like temple columns. On the road overhead, passengers in crawling, speeding or stalled cars would never imagine the beauty and the stories that lay below and beyond the main highways. I'd driven and flown cross-country dozens of times, but this view of the country-with its multi-layered chronicles unfolding both outside and inside the windows-had my undivided attention. Following a route that had been traveled by hundreds of thousands before, I was rocketing westward along sections of the old Santa Fe Trail and Route 66, in a 20th century version of a 19th century invention, linked inseparably with layers of history.

"Look at this as an adventure," Victor Kral, the cabin attendant in charge of my car-sleeper number 330-had suggested to me six hours earlier, as the train pulled out from Chicago's Union Station. The city skyline stretched across the two windows running the length of my cabin. He tucked my suitcase under the seat, adding, "Everything that's going on in the streets of any city is going on in this train."

Zooming through the first days of Autumn in Illinois.

Victor, who had the longest eyelashes I'd ever seen, a saint's face and a quick step, had been working on this train, the Southwest Chief, on and off since 1984. The Chief covers 2265 miles and crosses eight states-Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. If all goes according to plan, it arrives in Los Angeles 43 hours after leaving the Windy City. Today's train included three engines, three coach cars, two sleepers, a dining car, an observation car, and anywhere from 250 to 400 passengers.

Shortly after the train set out, a crusty voice reminiscent of gravel on sandpaper crackled over the public address system and into my cabin, cabin B, a comfortable six-and-a-half-by-seven feet with a wall-length couch, an armchair, a closet, a private toilet and shower and, thanks to Victor, a bucket of ice, a box of juice and a stack of pillows in crisp white cases. "Ladies and Gentleman, boys and girls, this is Patrick, the bartender." Patrick Jinks, who sounded like a cross between Clint Eastwood and Yosemite Sam, explained the lounge car hours, described upcoming scenic points of interest, and delivered a critical review of the two films he would be showing that evening. A moment later, Victor arrived at my door with hot towels and the promise of hot coffee. Next door, he delivered something to four-year old Nicholas that provoked the first of countless happy squeals to come.

I headed back through the dining, observation, and three coach cars just in time to see the Chicago suburbs drop below the horizon from the rear window, then settled in a chair in the observation car to study western Illinois. The windows stretched from knee-level to the roof, and guests from both coach and first class gathered to watch the scenery and chat over coffee, coke or beer. Beside me, a young mother bounced a solemn little girl on her knees-in effect doubling the soothing, rocking motion of the train. Across the aisle, a young couple-two of seven Amish travelers-sat entwined. Dressed in a button down shirt and suspenders, the young man with a deeply chiseled chin and cheeks and a bowl cut wrapped a deeply tanned forearm snugly about a kerchiefed waif's waist. Within twenty minutes, a dozen conversations were underway, mostly in English, a few in Spanish.

"They wanted me to go Aruba," said someone behind me, "What am I going to do for nine weeks on that little island?" 

Beside him, a woman expertly rotated four knitting needles and a ball of pastel yarn into the toe of a sock.

"Wait till you see the scenery tomorrow — red rocks, herds of antelope, elk."

Massaged by the soothing rocking of the rails, passengers forsook cocktail chat for more revealing conversations. Gale Mack, who had taken the train cross-country four times in both first class and coach, told me, "Everyone talks to everybody and opens up their heart. It's much nicer than the airplane, much nicer than driving, safer for a woman I think to travel all over the country." [continued...]