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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

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Travelers voiced as many different reasons for boarding the Southwest Chief in 2006 as there had been for climbing into a covered wagon in 1866, or a red corvette in 1966 — specifically, to visit parents in San Diego, grandparents in Los Angeles, a brother in the San Fernando Valley who hasn't been visited since 1982; to meet business partners; to stretch the summer; to see the Grand Canyon. Eunie Shurtleff, the town clerk from Strong, Maine, wanted to see the Pacific Ocean. Benjamin Price's small band of family and friends planned to continue west across the Pacific on an ocean liner bound for New Zealand. Within two hours, I'd also overheard every-every-reason not to board a plane (including lost luggage, lost engines and lost planes).

Late afternoon light falls on the prairie.

As the train swooshed through acres of tall grasses, rows of corn stalks flipped from red-gold to beige like the nap of a thick carpet. Fat, rolled bales of hay spotted the fields. Late afternoon light fell on silver silos, brightly colored freight car, and multi-colored autumn leaves. Narrow rivers of green grass snaked into the yellow fields, forming freewheeling variations on crop circles shaped like keyholes, commas and question marks. I'd read that this farmland-full of alfalfa, soybeans, corn and wheat fields-was some of the best in the country and had been in the same families for generations. As we chugged through towns, small and large, the train's whistle built to a full, deep boom, not unlike the fog horns I heard when the Pacific and San Francisco Bay lie enshrouded in mile-wide cloud cover. 

Around 5:00, I headed back to the peace of my cabin-a welcome counterbalance to the more social observation car. The Southwest Chief zoomed on through Galva, Illinois-former home of a Swedish utopian society-and Princeton, Illinois, "Pig Capital of the World", then crossed the Illinois-Iowa state line, and shortly afterwards, the wide, brown Mississippi. Soon the dining steward, Charlie Brown, began calling dinner reservations to the dining car. At promptly 7:30, I was seated at a table with a Wisconsin couple, my soon-to-be fellow slumber-partiers. Susan Gingrasso and Doug Henderson were en route to Arizona's Canyon de Chelly where they planned to celebrate Doug's birthday, and then on to Long Beach where the National Dance Organization would present Susan with a distinguished teaching award. 

Doug, a retired psychology professor, had ridden the train ten times in as many years, and preferred it to flying. "I forget who it was, somebody from the sixties or seventies, that talked about the journey is not the destination, it's the getting there. If you're not focused on getting to Los Angeles, then the process of getting there can be part of the vacation — it gets you out of the routine." 

The sun sets over Iowa as Day One draws to a close.

With that in mind, I ordered a glass of chardonnay and settled down to hear a few of their stories. Over salmon steaks and beef bourguignonne, Doug mentioned his stints on "Unsolved Mysteries" and Susan, a professor of modern dance, explained how she had come to set fireworks to music by Aaron Copeland, Yanni and The Who, among others, for the 2006 Pyrotechnics Arts Guild Conference held in Wisconsin a few weeks earlier. Fireworks choreographed by an award-winning dancer I had to see and so, half an hour after cheesecake and coffee, Susan fired up her laptop and I joined she and Doug in their cabin. We spent fifteen minutes watching Silver Waterfalls, Golden Comets, Purple Butterflies and Chrysanthemums with Jetting Small Flowers cross the Wisconsin sky in patterns undreamed of by the average fireworks impresario. Rocking gently back and forth, I noted that the Trailing Comets left swaying trails of light that mimicked, exactly, the soothing back-and-forth motion of the train.

At 9:30, half an hour after the last Jetting Small Flower had fallen to earth, I retired to my room, climbed into my own couch-turned-near-double bed, complete with fresh white sheets and soft blue blankets, and pushed open the window curtains. Isolated houses and streetlamps flashed passed, and occasionally a town or another train. I glimpsed the half-full moon, low in the sky, through a long line of freight cars; it flickered and jumped like an old, super-eight-film clip. Pale light fell on trees, bridges, silos and air-borne leaves, burnishing them to pale pewter. In moonlight, the landscape shrank from an eight hundred-page historical novel to haiku, from Technicolor to simple shapes, shadows and shades of gray. [continued...]