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Leah and PJ Samuelson take a whirlwind trip to the Grand Canyon.
We discuss the painterly landscape, the conversation so absorbing that with a start, I realize we're only minutes from my stop in Albuquerque. With a hurried "goodbye," I rush to my room, grab my luggage and head for the door.
Beyond Albuquerque, the Southwest Chief will navigate the Rio Grande and Colorado Rivers, cross the Continental Divide and pass through the Mojave Desert, delivering her passengers to their final destinations, but for me, Albuquerque and Santa Fe await.
New Mexico — Serendipity Steps In
Four days immersed in the history, art and cuisine of Albuquerque and Santa Fe doesn't seem long enough, yet I'm excited to board the train once again.
I hurry back to the Sightseer Car to catch my last glimpses of the west.
Rambling through New Mexico is like watching a favorite movie in reverse. There is the same jagged terrain and patchy earth, yet the scene looks different this time, playing out under a bruised blue-violet sky. Storm clouds gather in the distance as we spirit along, heading east.
The view looks like a painting by Albert Bierstadt.
Lunch is deliciously prepared, but it's hard to focus on my meal as I listen to my dining companions. Sometimes another passenger is just another passenger, and sometimes it seems that the way Amtrak seats riders with complete strangers is more serendipitous than random. The woman beside me speaks of the deeply tragic circumstances for her trip and our table mate empathizes in response, having survived the same experience in her own life. She offers healing words and compassion, and I'm amazed at how people seem placed in our lives at exactly the right moment.
Outside our window, the rock formations are magnificent, supported by ground that is rich clay, red in some spots, purple in others. Mother Nature carves deep valleys and gorges here, then fills them with tall blonde grasses, restless cottonwood trees and gnarled pines. Quite unexpectedly, a beautiful home squats in the midst of it all. I long to make friends with its occupants in the hope that they'll invite me over for dinner, or perhaps a lengthier visit - like a year or two.
The southern edge of the San Andreas de Cristo Mountains hunker down purple and blue in the distance, their snow-covered peaks misty, the brilliant turquoise sky making the view look like a painting by Albert Bierstadt.
It's quiet in the car now, passengers speaking in hushed, church voices. Sometimes the only natural response to all this beauty is quiet reverence.
The southern edge of the San Andreas de Cristo Mountains.
The train stops in La Junta, and I hop off briefly to look around. A passenger asks if I've ever traveled on the California Zephyr?
"Completely breathtaking views, and in my opinion, the crowning jewel of the Amtrak line."
The Southwest Chief seems pretty jewel-like to me too.
Back on the train, I notice the setting sun peeking through the menacing clouds that still look far away, no matter how many miles we cover.
Kansas is lost to the night and I wake to an early morning stop in Kansas City, Missouri. Here I meet Mary Hoffman who is traveling with her husband to West Lafayette, Indiana, for her parents' 50th wedding anniversary.
Storm clouds gather in the distance.
"What an adventure," Mary says with admirable enthusiasm at a time of day when I struggle to even form coherent sentences.
Mary and her husband, "Ranger Frank," operate a wildlife educational program in Los Angeles. While waiting to board the train at Union Station, they met a woman traveling with her four-year-old son, Dylan, who was quite excited to meet the coonskin-cap-wearing Ranger Frank. After boarding the train, Dylan's mom pulled out a book for Dylan, only to discover that by sheer coincidence, it was a story about a character named Ranger Frank. Dylan was thrilled.
Later in the morning, I visit with John and Marissa Minchinton of Melbourne, Australia, who are crisscrossing the US for the next three weeks. From California, they've journeyed to Yosemite, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and Arizona. After arriving in Chicago, they'll travel by train to DC, Connecticut, Boston and New York. The scope of their adventure leaves me breathless, but John assures me that all Aussies' travel like this.
Mary Hoffman and Ranger Frank have the best day of their lives aboard the Southwest Chief.
"We get ten weeks of paid service leave," he says.
Briefly, I flirt with the idea of moving to Australia, then reconsider when he tells me it's a 19-hour flight.
Upon returning to my bedroom before lunch, I'm delighted to discover that Mary and Ranger Frank are my next-door neighbors. With grand enthusiasm, they list all the animals they've spotted along our route — a black bear, bison, elk, mule deer, beaver, prong-horned antelope, and countless species of birds.
"Seeing America on the rails like this," says Ranger Frank, “…it's been the best day of our lives!"
As we draw closer to the familiar Midwest, I ponder Ranger Frank's words along with the highlights of my adventure — the people, the sights, the fortunate coincidences — and finally, I understand why Debbie Reynolds felt compelled to sing all the way along her journey west.