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

The Southwest Chief, running daily between Chicago and Los Angeles, takes its name from its former name — the Southwest Chief and the name of its indirect predecessor — the famed Santa Fe Super Chief.

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• Southwest Chief Route
  Guide (PDF , 260K)
• Easy-Booking Tips for
  Long-Distance Travel

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Singing & Serendipity on the Southwest Chief

How the Journey West Inspires Travelers, Both Now and Then

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It occurs to me then that these kids are the perfect resource for recommendations on New Mexico cuisine.

Larry Spiro's goal is to see all the ballparks in America.

"A Frito Pie at the Five & Dime," Adam advises. And of course, they all concur, the highly popular Green Chili.

Sunlight fades as we push west, first toward La Plata, a town whose name was drawn from a hat, then Mendon and Bosworth, whose populations combined are still less than my high school graduating class. I contemplate the peace of an existence spent so far from major cities; of citizens content to spend their whole lives in rural areas, while others spend their whole lives itching to leave.

Meandering past the Missouri River, I recall some of my old history lessons. Searching for a water route to the Pacific coast, Lewis and Clark spent a fair amount of time on this waterway, which ultimately only took them as far as Montana. While there, it's said, they killed some bears, bought some horses and waited for their Netflix queue to catch up with them. I could be wrong. In any event, it's difficult to imagine spending years traversing uncharted wilderness like this, yet that's exactly what they did.


Night slips over the train and a Blood Moon glows, an amber-colored ember in the sky. This draws a momentary hush from the car's occupants, then animated talk resumes.

Outside Raton, New Mexico.

Larry Spiro from Claremont, California, is one of the more gregarious passengers, striking up conversations with nearly everyone. With a 15-day Amtrak Rail Pass, he's just completed another phase of his mission to visit all the ballparks in America. On this particular trip, he ventured to Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Wrigley Field in Chicago, Miller Park in Milwaukee and Target Field in Minneapolis.

"The train is perfect because it always stops in downtown areas. Then I just walk to the ball field."

All through the night, we move through Kansas, an agricultural quilt of farmland and prairie stitched together. We pass through Kansas City, situated in the unlucky corridor known as "Tornado Alley." Topeka is here too and Newton, known throughout history as the "wickedest city in the west" due to a nasty skirmish between cowboys who couldn't hold their tempers or their liquor.

The countryside brings to mind wagon trains and settlers, cowboys and cattle drives.

In the morning, the view from my window stretches all the way to the horizon, topped by a blue bowl sky with high clouds floating around in it like fat noodles. I imagine wagon trains and settlers, cowboys and cattle drives.


By early morning, we've slipped into Colorado. One pictures the Rockies when thinking Colorado, but at least while it's nudged up next to Kansas, it remains a smooth plane.

Venturing toward La Junta, the countryside transitions, hills and bumps on the land suddenly appear while deep olive, gold and rust-colored vegetation sprout up all around. I have French toast delivered to my room, but I'm too busy snapping photos out the window to eat it.

A geological change occurs as we pass La Junta and suddenly we're in a honey-colored countryside. Indigo foothills emerge in the distance and the earth is speckled with green. I spot elk and antelope and hum "Home on the Range," but quietly, and to myself.

New Mexico

The train climbs upwards, and a sign announces the upcoming Raton Tunnel, "The highest point on the Santa Fe Trail — 7588 ft. elevation." In a flash, we whoosh through one side and out the other.

Stunning landscapes surround an occasional Pueblo-style home.

Lunch is another grand meeting of new acquaintances as I'm seated with three other ladies, all traveling solo.

"My life began at 50," one woman tells us. "That year, I took a road trip cross country for the very first time, completely alone. That's when I realized I could do things on my own and not be afraid."

As we talk, I realize that each of us probably view our own lives as rather dull. Yet, listening to the details of my companions' personal histories, I see only vibrant women and the colorful paths they've taken to arrive at this place.

After lunch, I note bright patches of sun light up the lounge while folks chat amicably, doze, or read books and newspapers. One man with rainbow-colored hair sips coffee while pouring over maps at his table. The train seems a mobile microcosm of the world — people from myriad places gather together, and just for a time, I see a slice of life that I would never before have witnessed.

A painterly landscape outside Las Vegas, New Mexico.

As we move along, a five-year-old girl traveling with her dad sings her own composition, "This is New Mexico, that was old Mexico." I consider joining in the refrain, but laugh out loud instead at yet another comical announcement from our Café Car Attendant. "He's so funny," remarks native Chicagoan, Leah Samuelson, a 20-something blonde traveling with her brother, PJ. These two are the most spontaneous travelers I've met thus far, planning their trip just one week ago. Leah, a Community Art Teacher at Wheaton College, and PJ, a recent Western Michigan graduate, are Grand Canyon-bound. [continued...]