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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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Sunday, October 1

Lamar, Colorado

I began day two of my journey stretched across my couch, sipping a steaming cup of coffee as the train plowed through green fields on the right side of the train and gold fields on the left. On both sides of the train, deer leapt between what Victor declared to be unusually abundant clusters of wild flowers, blooming sage and black-eyed Susans. Sleepy brown cows, black cows, and black and white spotted cows breakfasted absently on Colorado greens. Stretching west from the red smudged horizon, the Colorado landscape little resembled what I had glimpsed of Missouri and Kansas.

We're not in Kansas anymore. Snowcapped mountains appear on the horizon west of Trinidad, Colorado.

Just before ten o'clock, we drew parallel to the Purgatoire River and into the town of Trinidad. As Patrick's scratchy monotone crackled to life, I remembered Gale Mack complimenting his informed commentary the day before, "When they tell you what's going on, it's even better." 

"Over years, the cast of characters that's lived in Trinidad and stayed at the Columbian Hotel you could do a miniseries about?" Patrick began. He gave a quick summary of Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid-en route from "his native Brooklyn to his short-lived career as an outlaw in New Mexico"-then moved on to Tom Mix, star of silent westerns, who also frequented the Columbian. "Tom Mix would occupy room 214 and his horse, Tony, would be in room 212. He was oftentimes seen riding Tony through the lobby and up the staircase."

Coming around the bend just east of the Wooton Ranch and the 7588-foot Raton Pass.

Just west of Trinidad, the Southwest Chief entered New Mexico, climbing through the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the 7588-foot Raton Pass, then plunging into the pitch-black, half-mile long tunnel-Nicholas, never sad and rarely silent, released his happiest squeal of the day-and through the town of Raton, gateway to the 13,000-plus-acre Philmont Boy Scout Ranch. The train tracks flattened down onto the plains of eastern New Mexico, passing through herds of pronghorn antelope.

"Fastest animal in North America," Patrick announced, "and the reason they're here is, basically, this is the where the deer and the antelope play-and you'll probably not hear a discouraging word-and the skies are not cloudy all day." He signed off, then signed on again a moment later, "If you look out of the right hand side of the train, you'll see one lone cow on a Sunday stroll on the Santa Fe Trail."

I stepped from my cabin, located on the left side of the train, into the bright, window-lined hall. Doug Henderson appeared around the corner with his camera and we stared at the narrow, crumbling path, better suited to goats than wagon trains. "People were born and died and probably conceived along this trail," Doug said thoughtfully. "Thinking about what it was like for those people to come across on wagon train, it gives me a sense for what the people went through in this country in founding it." 

Doug's words reminded me of Gale Mack, the openhearted traveler I'd spoken with the day before. Gale, who was criss-crossing the country to care for her dying mother, had met another woman in coach who was traveling to help an ailing parent. "You meet these great people," Gale had told me, "It's very comforting to me."

On Day Two the sun sets on the red cliffs of the southwest.

I spent the next hour in the observation car, surrounded by the hum of quiet conversations, staring through wall-sized panes of glass at red rock mesas. They rose sharply from the plains alongside yellow and white striped cliffs. The geologic history of the country, written in the stratified layers of stone going back millions of years, overlapped with layers of human history-grain silos, old Harvey House restaurants, boarded up motor courts, small homes with tractors parked out back or black and white spotted Appaloosas grazing in the side yard. Two motorcyclists straddling an all terrain dune buggy raced alongside the train while in the distance, three cowboys trotted along on horseback. Somewhere between Raton and the Pecos River, the Southwest Chief turned into the famous double-horseshoe curve-passengers could glimpse both the engine and the rear coach car — our past and our future — all at the same time.

America's railroad history is honored in La Junta, Co., by this state bank office housed in a caboose. (Photo: Doug Henderson)

In Rivera, the train slowed briefly in front of a row of doghouses that ran parallel to the tracks. As he has for the past ten years, conductor Joe Tabor tossed handfuls of milk bones to the wide range of shepherds, terriers and pups that had come to associate the Southwest Chief with treats. Shortly before 4:00 and half an hour ahead of schedule, the train pulled into Albuquerque. This would be our longest stop, while the train refueled. Attendants cleaned the bug and brush-spattered front windows. Patrick loaded fresh bags of ice into the lounge car. Victor directed families to the nearby Cold Stone Creamery. Along the sidewalk, a few Native Americans sold silver and turquoise jewelry. At 4:35 we headed west again and by seven, we had passed through Gallup, located in the heart of Navajo and Zuni tribal lands, its main street full of well-lit shops advertising Indian Jewelry, Silver Jewelry and one offering Al-Zuni Global Jewelry.

Back in my room, I spent an hour watching the sky fade to black, counting passing freight trains-the longest pulled 103 cars. Since Chicago, something onboard had struck me as odd, but it had taken a full day and a few quiet moments before I could pinpoint it-no one was rushing. There was no place to go. Cell phones worked sporadically at best. WiFi didn't exist. As time relaxed, travelers did too. Skimming along the earth with a backdrop of prairie, plains and desert, the train created its own unique time line. 

Crossing through Apache Canyon, a narrow granite gorge located between Lamy and Las Vegas, New Mexico. (Photo: Doug Henderson)

Doug detrained in Flagstaff ("probably the best place in America to breathe," said Victor, "That pine in the air"). Somewhere between Klingman, Arizona and Needles, California, I nodded off, rocked to sleep by western rails a bit wilder than those back east.

Monday, October 2

Los Angeles, California

Next morning at 8:00 am, amidst the spaghetti-bowl highways and palm trees of Southern California, the Southwest Chief pulled into Los Angeles. Here Benjamin Price's family would transfer from train to ocean liner and continue on to New Zealand. Maxine Strigle would track down a brother she hadn't seen in more than twenty years. Eunie and Richard Shurtleff would continue on Amtrak's Coast Starlight up to Seattle and along the way, Eunie would realize a long held dream-for the first time, she would see the Pacific.

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