It was 10:30 p.m., a time of night when I’m usually snuggled in bed with my cats nearby as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert bring some laughter at the end of a long day.
Instead, I was bundled up against a chilly autumn evening walking into Kansas City’s historical Union Station and down the corridor to the waiting room filled with other night owls. In recent years, the magnificent old train station has frequently hosted late night parties, but that was not the occasion this night.
This night, we gathered for Union Station’s original purpose.
Ticket and carry-on bag in hand, I boarded Amtrak’s Southwest Chief along with several dozen other passengers on its westbound journey toward Los Angeles, Calif.
I have traveled across Europe, Canada, and Japan by rail, but never in the U.S., and never in a sleeper car. I was as excited as a preschooler on Christmas Eve ready to board the imaginary Polar Express. My journey was real, but nonetheless magical.
The Southwest Chief Route
The Southwest Chief route is 2,265 miles that crosses seven states in about 51 hours. It starts at 3 p.m. at Union Station in Chicago, Ill., stopping in the Illinois towns of Princeton and Galesburg before heading toward Fort Madison, Iowa, and Kirksville, Mo. The train is scheduled to arrive in Kansas City, Mo., about 10:45 p.m.
As we crossed the open plains of western Kansas in the middle of the night, we traveled nearly 100 miles per hour. We ate lunch while creeping through the canyons of northern New Mexico at about 20 miles per hour.
The route follows the path of the old Santa Fe Trail in places with stops in Albuquerque, N.M.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; and San Bernardino, Calif.
The Southwest Chief is a two-story Superliner and offers five options for sleeping accommodations: roomette, bedroom, bedroom suite, family bedroom, and accessible bedroom. As a solo traveler, I chose the roomette, which technically can sleep two, but you would really have to like that other person’s company a lot to enjoy your trip at all.
When I boarded in Kansas City at 10:45 p.m., my porter, Steve, had my bed made up with two pillows, a sheet, and light blanket. Each little roomette has its own climate control, but I wish I had a heavier cover. I was a bit chilly.
The bedroom suites and family bedrooms include a toilet and a very tiny shower. For others, a public shower on the lower level is as big as most home showers. Full size towels and bar soap are available.
My little roomette was just across the hallway from the toilet where I brushed my teeth and washed my face with the cloth and hand towel provided. Back in my space with the sliding door and curtain closed, I snuggled into bed. It was really quite a cozy space and I have no complaints about the comfort of the bed.
But I didn’t sleep right away. Perhaps it was the excitement of the trip or the unusual sounds around me, but sleep didn’t come easily. Friends had promised I would sleep so well, rocked by the sway of the train. It just didn’t happen for me.
Dining on the Train
By 7 a.m., announcements over the loud speaker told me that breakfast was ready in the dining car. Thanks to my porter, reservations had been made for me at the 8:30 seating. Dining space is limited, so you just can’t show up when you’re hungry. Reservations are required.
I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food. Each meal offered about five choices, from sandwiches and soup, to pastas and steak. Snacks are available below the Observation Car, but it’s certainly OK to bring your own treats, including alcohol, to save a bit of money.
I was assigned to a table of four with another solo traveler and a couple from the Baltimore area. They had never seen the southwest U.S. and were excited to visit the Grand Canyon for the first time. They booked a package that included transportation and overnight accommodations at the Grand Canyon. Theirs would be a two week round-trip adventure.
After breakfast, I wandered the train a bit. Not a space was available in the Observation Car where seats faced the windows and travelers talked quietly, read, and just watched the scenery pass.
The two coach cars were a different story. Filled with European backpackers, American college kids, and others who chose to sleep sitting up, there was an unmistakable Bohemian energy to this car. I learned that train travel is an approved mode of transportation for the Amish, so many Amish families gathered in another car.
Stops Along the WaY
Every few hours, the train would stop to pick up other travelers, to load supplies, and offer passengers an opportunity to get out and stretch their legs. Often local crafts people or other vendors would have tables set up selling their wares.
My stop was in Albuquerque where I spent the night with a friend.
At noon the next day, I caught the Southwest Chief on its return journey east. This time, I felt like a veteran rail traveler as I made reservations for dinner and read the latest copy of Arrive, Amtrak’s magazine. The conductor pointed out interesting sites along the way, including a brown bear not far from the tracks in southern Colorado. I was too slow with my camera to catch that shot.
That night, as I snuggled into my little roomette, sleep came quickly and deeply. Although I had my phone alarm set, my porter gently knocked on my door about 6:30 a.m. to let me know we were nearing Kansas City. The sunrise illuminated Kansas City’s beautiful Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the sculptures atop the convention center, and of course, our beautiful Union Station that has been welcoming train travelers for 100 years.
And now, I count myself among them.
Diana Lambdin Meyer is a contributor from Parkville, Mo.
May/June 2014 Issue
Many of us fall in love with trains early in life. From the vintage Lionel toy train that circled our Christmas trees to that first ride we took with our parents or grandparents, many just inherently know there’s something about train travel.
The country will pause to celebrate its trains during the seventh annual National Train Day, which is May 10 this year. Exhibits and events will inform and entice.
Amtrak, the country’s rail system, serves more than 500 destinations in the U.S. and Canada, including more than 100 small towns served only by rail. In 2012, more than 30 million trips were taken on Amtrak. And 25 million Americans live within 25 miles of an Amtrak station.
Here’s a boarding call for some of the train service that serves Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
For more information about National Train Day and what might be happening in your area, or to see a video about train travel, visit www.nationaltrainday.com.
|The National Train Day event staff is all smiles at last year’s event held in Little Rock at Union Station. Amtrak photo|
If you head west via Amtrak–or any other means–and want to see one of the world’s natural wonders, consider a trip on the historical Grand Canyon Railway. The railway offers two- and three-night packages for AAA members, and you can save up to 32 percent. For reservations or more information, see your AAA Travel professional or visit here.
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