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SUMMER 1997 AMTRAK TRAVELOGUE

PART VI - AMTRAK SOUTHWEST CHIEF

by Carol Larsen

SUNDAY, JULY 6, 1997

Two P42 engines pulled the Southwest Chief into the station right on time at 9:15 PM. The rail buff men had the whole thing down to a science, telling me exactly where the 0430 car would stop. They wished me a good trip as I was greeted by sleeper attendant Harold Richardson and boarded the car. One of them called to me that I should be sure to wave from upstairs in my room. My room was on that side, so I did just that as the train departed. When they saw me, they waved back, making me feel as though I had more friends seeing me off. After my aunt and Bruce in Oceanside, I hadn't expected any further well-wishers.

Again the sleepers were at the end of the train. I had previously been accustomed to their being at the head of the train behind the dorm car. This configuration meant I wouldn't have far to walk into the station when I detrained in Chicago. As I settled into my room, I found my meal voucher and also a Southwest Chief toiletries kit in a clear plastic case. It contained lotion, shampoo, travel toothbrush, and toothpaste, all imprinted with "Southwest Chief" and the Amtrak logo. The car was a Superliner I sleeper. It's no longer possible to determine from the outside whether the equipment is Superliner I or II, as the stripes on all the cars I've seen are now repainted in the Phase IV color scheme (two narrow red stripes over a wide blue stripe instead of equally wide red, white, and blue stripes). As to the meal voucher, this is the only route I found on this trip that uses this voucher, which you must show in the diner in addition to signing your meal check if you're a First Class passenger. It seems to be a quicker way for the diner staff to ascertain who signs and who pays.

I had never been in room 10 on any other trip and thought it might be noisy, being by the door into the next car. I normally prefer one of the lower number rooms as being closer to the beverage center and the stairs. However, when my aunt's change of plans caused my change of plans and train reservations at a late date, I was lucky to get a room on that train at all and not be stuck on the lower level. This room was even on the side of the train that I prefer. I didn't find it noisy at all, maybe because the door outside my room didn't lead to the diner. The passengers from the last sleeping car were the only ones to come through that door.

As soon as the conductor took my ticket, I headed to the diner to check on the availability of the cheese and fruit buffet that I had read about on the Amtrak list server. The diner had taken on a relaxing atmosphere with dimmed lights. Not only was the buffet still set up, but there was more than I had hoped for, having passed the dinner hour to which my stomach had become accustomed over the past several weeks. A few people were still sitting in the booths, partaking of the crackers, several types of cheese, melon slices, grapes, strawberries, and finger sandwiches. There was a choice of white wine or cola, although there may have been other beverages earlier. I filled a plate and chose the wine, since the hour was late and it wouldn't matter that the wine might make me feel sleepy. When I finally left, I checked on the movie showing in the lounge car; it didn't look that interesting and I was tired by then.

Back in the sleeper, Harold opened my bed, verified that I had found my meal voucher, and informed me that fresh coffee and juices would be available at the beverage center in the car in the morning. By now I was anxious to curl up under the covers, but sat up watching scenery until noting our on-time stop, 11:22 PM at Victorville, CA.

MONDAY, JULY 7, 1997

I awoke at 4:55 AM with daylight just beginning to break over the forests of western Arizona. I rolled over and the next thing I knew it was 6:10 AM. Languishing in comfort, I finally decided when a newspaper came under the door that I had better be up and doing. We had stopped at Flagstaff, on time to the minute at 6:38 AM, even after some concern with red flags and lights, heard on my radio during the night.

I knew we would be losing an hour when we crossed from Mountain Standard Time in Arizona to Mountain Daylight Time in New Mexico sometime this morning, but I hadn't remembered how soon that would happen. By the time I headed for the diner at 7:50, I realized it was really 8:50 AM! That was poor planning on my part. I shouldn't have stopped to make notes for this report before breakfast. One advantage was that Barbara, the dining car steward, seated me immediately in Lisa's section, as most of the other people had already eaten.

I enjoyed the Western Omelette served with home fries (they were out of grits), sausage, orange juice, biscuits, and coffee. I don't usually like hash browns or home fries, which have a tendency to be greasy, but these were particularly good. Seated at my table were a mother and young son Mikey from Manitowoc, WI, which isn't far from where I live. They had been vacationing in California. Her other son, age 13, was sleeping through the breakfast hour. I overheard interesting talk about trains coming from a table across the aisle. I thought perhaps I might have a chance to sit with those people sometime during the trip.

Not wanting to miss any of the available Southwest Chief souvenirs, I thought I should check on them early in the trip. The attendant, Bruce Anderson, said the coffee mugs came in black or white. I took the last white one and also selected a ceramic Southwest Chief trivet. I then returned to the upper level to observe scenery.

At Gallup, NM, a Native American guide boarded the train to do a commentary between there and Albuquerque on the history and tribes of the region. The last time I rode the Southwest Chief, the guide was a man with a slight Native American inflection. This time the guide was a girl from the Laguna tribe, who spoke without an inflection. I didn't see her when she boarded and she was stationed on the lower level of the lounge car, so I didn't see if she was in costume or street clothes. Her commentary was interesting and that was the important part. Toward the end of her time on board, she showed two videos on their culture, the last one being on pottery making.

By then, Barbara was announcing lunch. What, food again already? The morning had flown by, partly due to the time change. I really prefer traveling from east to west where I gain an hour each day. I thought I would wait to eat until after our stop at Albuquerque. We arrived there early at 12:45 instead of 12:59. I remember running early on my last trip on the Southwest Chief, too. Since we couldn't leave Albuquerque until 1:24, I had plenty of time for photos, browsing at tables set up by the locals to sell Native American jewelry and crafts, and jotting down the details of the consist:

P42    37
P42    62
P40    840
MHC    1517
MHC    1452
MHC    1509
MHC    1448
MHC    1556
MHC    1512
MHC    1542
Baggage car  1165
Transition Sleeper  39016
Coach  34058
Coach  34132
Coach  34046
Coach  31520
Sightseer Lounge  33038
Diner  38008
Sleeper  32016
Sleeper  32067

Since it had been three years since I last rode the Southwest Chief, I thought a new depot might have been built at Albuquerque, a stop which is both for service and crew change. Not so. I've seen pictures of it, but never saw the original station building which was destroyed by fire and torn down in early 1994. This was just a few months before my first trip through there. As it is, the only facilities for passengers at the platform are the food service trucks and a pay phone. However, no new depot could ever fully replace the historic charm of an older depot, if well-maintained.

By 1:15 PM I was seated in the diner at Lisa's table again, and again without having to wait. I selected the LaPlata salad with sliced chicken, cherry tomatoes, black olives, green peppers, and mixed greens, with iced tea to drink. I was joined briefly by Ralph, a constitutional law professor from Kalamazoo, MI where he teaches at Western Michigan University. He was having only dessert, his favorite banana cake, but he left the delicious looking nutty frosting behind.

Bob Sine, the Chief of Onboard Services, came through, introducing himself and inquiring how everyone's trip was going. He asked me if Harold was taking good care of me. This was only Harold's second week as an attendant. I never would have suspected that he was new at the job. Bob was glad to hear that and asked if there had been coffee ready in the morning. I assured him that there had been coffee and juices, which he was also glad to hear.

Back in my room, I heard Bob make a PA announcement that we would be delayed slightly because a red flag was down for a track crew. I'm sure passengers who don't monitor rail frequencies appreciate knowing the nature of delays, but this information is seldom announced. He also announced that there would be abbreviated serving times in the lower level of the lounge car. Josie, the regular attendant, had strained her back and had to leave the train. Bruce Anderson was only filling in for her part of the time. A replacement attendant was on his way to join the train that evening.

The track crew delay didn't last long. By then, Barbara announced she would be coming through the train taking dinner reservations. I chose 7:00 PM, my usual eating time at home. I didn't want to chose a later time when they might be out of some items. However, sometimes they call the reservations earlier; I didn't want to have to eat any sooner than necessary.

After that, I returned to the Sightseer Lounge where I could photograph the train going through the horseshoe curve and also the former LaCastenada Harvey House at Las Vegas, NM. It's no longer mentioned in the route guide, but is still there. What a shame that it hasn't been restored for a museum, hotel, or some other useful purpose, as it's quite an impressive structure. We were still on time despite the track crew delay.

Bob Sine came through the lounge car, still meeting and greeting. He saw me writing notes for this report and, teasing me, offered to give me some of his paperwork, too. No thanks! I overheard him telling some other people that he had been with Amtrak for 23 years. He's very tall, with grey hair and a goatee, so makes an imposing figure as the Chief. In fact, if he was much taller, he would have to duck when going through the doorways. I secretly thought that Bob and his crew could be called "Bob Sine and the Sine Waves." Perhaps only electronics experts and my fellow Ham radio operators will understand that. I must have been getting goofy toward the end of my trip!

Maybe it was all the food that I can't bring myself to cut back on. At home I never eat that much and almost never eat desserts except for special occasions. Riding Amtrak is a special occasion, right? Right! Bruce announced Happy Hour in the lower level. I would have liked to have a margarita and chips, but was still rather stuffed from lunch, with dinner less than three hours away.

Sometime between 6:00-7:00 PM we crossed the state line into Colorado. I remembered from a previous trip that living on the north side of the tracks in that area was an older lady who always waved at the train. If it was the time of year when it would be dark, she then waved with a flashlight. I asked Bob if he recalled hearing about this lady. He mentioned the flashlight before I came to that part, so I knew he did, but he didn't remember where she lived. I was sitting on the north side of the lounge car until 7:00, when I had to leave for dinner. We were at Trinidad, CO by that time, and I hadn't seen anyone waving.

At dinner I was seated in Lisa's section again, this time with Art and Phyllis from Bolo, IL. Art is a minister and they were returning from a religious conference in California. We were joined by Allison, a girl from Las Vegas who had been seated with them at breakfast. She was going to visit her parents in New Jersey to inform them of her recent engagement. We had a very enjoyable visit, with conversation on a variety of topics including weddings and trains. Even after Allison finished eating and left, Phyllis, Art, and I continued to linger over dessert (that banana cake) and coffee until 8:50 PM.

On my way back to the sleeper, Bob stopped me and said he heard that I was a railroad person. I verified that he didn't think I worked for a railroad. On some of my previous trips, I though a few crew members suspected I was an Amtrak "plant." I don't know if it's the way I look, act, that I frequently come equipped with a full complement of paper work, or what. Bob must have overheard part of my table conversation. When I told him that I hadn't seen the lady waving, he said it had been five years since he was last on this route, but he was sure she was still there. He told me to ask the woman conductor where it was that she lived, but I didn't see that conductor again.

I asked Bob what flick was showing that night, since I had heard some people earlier saying it would be shown both at 7:00 and 9:00. It was "The Associate" with Whoopi Goldberg and he was about to go rewind it. That was a good one I wouldn't want to miss, even though it might be 10:30 or so before it ended. One of my friends and I had talked about renting it last winter when it was coming out in the video.

When I entered the lounge car a little after 9:00, the first showing was just ending, with no seats available close to the monitors. At the end of the movie, almost everyone left the lounge, so I was able to move to an ideal location before the next group of watchers arrived. It was almost 9:30 before Bob had the movie ready to go again. Worse still, we soon crossed into Kansas and Central Daylight Time, losing another hour. Consequently, it was midnight before the movie ended. Bob was sitting in the diner with some other personnel when I cut through on my way to my sleeper. He asked if I would recommend the movie and said he would have to rent it sometime, since he never has time to watch it on the train.

TUESDAY, JULY 8, 1997

I had intended to go to bed early in order to have an early breakfast, spaced adequately before lunch around noon, due to our 3:15 PM arrival time in Chicago. However, I sat up watching our 12:36 stop in Dodge City, KS and arose around 6:30 AM. During the night, we traveled through heavy rain, thunder, and lightning. It didn't really disturb my sleep, but at one point I heard talk on my radio about having the conductor listen to the weather bureau report for any mention of tornadoes. "Kansas-tornadoes-Wizard of Oz!" ran through my mind. I must have been tired to fall back to sleep after that!

It was still gloomy and raining when we arrived early into Kansas City, MO, a service stop, at 6:55 AM. This would not be a good time for walking the platform. I was seated in the diner by 7:10 in Peggy Lyon's section. This time I ordered the Grand Canyon combination: two pancakes, an egg, sausage, with a grapes garnish, along with my orange juice and coffee. What did I say about cutting back on food? I also chose a side order of grits to make up for having missed them the day before. I never eat grits at home, only on the train or when traveling in the south--part of absorbing local color. I was joined by a girl from Los Angeles who was going to visit family in Detroit. We were stopped in Kansas City until the scheduled 7:38 departure, which was during most of the meal. By now, it seemed strange to be eating on a motionless train.

It was cool in the diner, so after breakfast I went back to my room to get my jacket. Harold had made my bed, but the pillows looked so good propped up on the seats that I decided a nap was in order. It was still gloomy out and I had eaten way too much. When the sky began to clear, I called a halt to the nap.

On my radio, I heard talk about kids deliberately stopping up two of the toilets in one of the coaches. Obviously the attendants weren't very happy about that. That was also about the time that Barbara announced lunch would begin at 11:30, due to the early arrival in Chicago. How was I going to eat again in two hours? Perhaps I could postpone going in until noon.

Enjoying my own little space, I stayed in my room until around 11:00, when I thought I had better at least walk to the lounge car for exercise. While there, I cashed in my free beverage coupon that Harold had left the afternoon before. On the Empire Builder, George had given us coupons for non-alcoholic beverages. This one was good for any beverage, alcoholic or not, but I took a Diet Pepsi to bring along on the Hiawatha. The new lower level attendant was Michael.

Before lunch, I had noticed we were behind schedule at a couple of stops. I heard that another crew member, I think it was a trainee, had become ill and was taken from the train by ambulance. That made two down on this trip.

I proceeded to the diner shortly after noon and was seated in Peggy's section again. I was joined by Drew, a high school senior from Wichita, KS who was moving to Boston to live with his father. He was a personable young man and a good conversationalist. His father owns a restaurant and Drew plans to become a chef. I really wasn't hungry but settled on the Great American Burger and iced tea. Drew ordered the same. I normally avoid ordering burgers, which I can have anytime, anywhere. There was a problem with the dishwasher in the diner, so our meal had to be served on foam plates with plastic glasses and utensils. Otherwise, we always have Amtrak china and good quality tableware in the diners on all routes. The burger was exceptionally delicious and was accompanied with tomato, lettuce, and sliced onion, plus potato salad. I even managed to find room for a dish of vanilla ice cream, but passed on having chocolate or fruit topping.

Upon finishing lunch, I waddled through the door into the Sightseer Lounge car for one last time, flopping into the closest seat. The man in the next seat looked at my notebook and asked if I was writing an article for publication. Lenzie Hedrick, a AAA Travel escort from Ohio, puts together tours including rail travel, which he and his wife escort. I explained that I thought my report would appear in TrainWeb.

Lenzie told me that I would be able to use the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago while waiting for the Hiawatha, even though I wasn't continuing my travels as a First Class Passenger. I thought we had decided otherwise on the Amtrak list server, but said I would have to give it a try so I could report back. By the time our conversation ended, I was interested in a tour he's planning for next year, although it probably won't fit into my calendar.

Back in the sleeper, I began packing up my "toys." The third piece of baggage, the Eddie Bauer tote, was in use again by now. The toiletries kit and the Southwest Chief souvenir items I purchased wouldn't fit in anyplace else, so I had put my change of clothing into the tote bag with them. When I don't otherwise need to use the extra tote, I normally keep my change of clothing in a large zip-lock bag inside the zipper compartment on the front of my suitcase. After I board a train, I slip the zip-lock bag out of the suitcase and bring it to my room. When I wear that outfit on the second day of the trip, I put the first outfit in the zip-lock bag and slip it back into the suitcase.

Zip-lock bags are great for travel. I pack all my blouses and other tops and miscellaneous items in zip-lock bags to put in my suitcase. With two or three folded tops to each bag, I press the air out and zip the bag shut. The tops can't shift in the bag, so stay wrinkle-free in the suitcase even if the bag shifts inside the case. All these bags go in and out of my suitcase easily; I only have to fold and unfold the items I want. Smaller zip-lock bags keep socks, lingerie, and miscellaneous loose items from being misplaced.

Harold came through the car, picking up refuse and offering to take baggage downstairs in preparation for our arrival in Chicago. Then Bob came through, shaking hands, telling everyone personally that he was glad to have had them aboard, and to come again soon. By then, we had more than made up the lost time, thanks to schedule padding. When we went into the wye and began backing toward the station at 2:55, I thought I might make the less crowded 3:15 PM Hiawatha instead of the 5:08. I hadn't entertained any idea that this might be possible, since we were due in at 3:15 when that Hiawatha would be leaving. Of course, I would still have to wait in Milwaukee for my ride.

We had to wait for some other train traffic, so by the time we actually stopped in the station, it was exactly 3:15. I said good-bye to Lenzie and his wife, who were standing with me in the lower foyer. Harold lifted my suitcase to the platform, and shook my hand in parting. Stacking my totes on the suitcase, I wheeled off down the platform, into the station, and then to the Metropolitan Lounge.

Copyright 1997 by Carol Larsen

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