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"Thelma and Louise" Do Amtrak
By Anni Wood awood@trinity.uwa.edu.au
http://www.trainweb.com/travelogues/2003/thelma.html

It took a little black negligee and an exotic perfume full of eastern promise to convince my husband to let me loose in America for a month. It took three Bloody Marys and the promise of bumping into Sean Connery to convince Trudy, my 50-something girlfriend, to go with me.

So here we are, Trudy and Anni, aka Thelma and Louise, a little older, a little wiser and definitely a little dumpier. Our bags are packed, cameras loaded, and the trains are ready to roll.

A shuttle bus from Los Angeles airport deposits us outside Union Station, where Amtrak is to be our ticket across the Painted Desert, down into New Orleans, over to Texas, and up into the rugged wilderness of Oregon. Amtrak, 'servicing 500 stations, across 45 states, a chance to meet and make new friends, experience new foods and view breathtaking scenery' - Amtrak, where satisfaction is guaranteed!

Now for the real story.

The "Southwest Chief," LA to Chicago, a two day journey through the heart of cowboy country. The first thing we do is check out the train, especially the toilet at the end of the hall, it has great suction and travels anti-clockwise. The lights are a mystery - up for on and down for off. "So who's from down under?". In the dining car we demolish a restaurant class three-course meal. We return to our car to find Sal, our steward, has magically transforms our seats into bunks. Chocolates are placed on our pillows. He wakes us just before Flagstaff. It is here we will detrain and begin our exploration of America with the Grand Canyon.

Two days later we re-board the "Southwest Chief." The seductive tones of Al, the Lounge attendant, heating up the intercom, invites all and sundry to come down to the café car and share coffee and a Danish with him. We answer his call and 'when in Rome' order a bagel and cream cheese, which proves to be an acquired taste. Al informs us he is a foundling left in a basket on a doorstep. His mother came back two days later, to reclaim the basket which had cost her a lot of money! Al entertains us with more jokes and comments as we enjoy the passing landscape through huge panoramic windows in the Sightseer car. We cross the Painted Desert just as the sun rises, turning the land into a sea of multicolored jewels.

At Gallup we stop to take on Gerald Pinto, a full blooded Navajo Indian. Majestic cliffs provide an impressive background for his commentary. Rocks and boulders perch precariously along ledges adhering to clay beds, deep gashes replace empty waterbeds. In the 45-minute crossing of reservation lands, we learn about Hogans, Sun Daggers and the Anasazi people. At Albuquerque Gerald leaves us but we have 20 minutes to explore the wares offered by the Pueblo Indians, waiting behind the stalls along the platform.

Amtrak, we decide, is where soul mates find each other and where perfect strangers swap life stories. Like Tim the recovering alcoholic and Betty, a sprightly intelligent lady in her 70's on her way to a family reunion. Then there's Peter, returning to Washington DC after visiting his sister in Portland. While there he brought a house, found a new job, and fell in love. We meet Sharon who works for a pharmaceutical company and who before Sept 11th never traveled by train. At Chicago we say goodbye to our new friends promising to keep in touch.

The "Lake Shore Limited," (Chicago to New York.) We are greeted by coach attendant Miles, and sit with Jan, a divorcee who is rediscovering herself. We chat about men and their deficiencies, before nodding off. We are woken by Miles via the intercom, shouting at the guard in the next carriage to open his door for a waiting passenger. The guard either doesn't hear or is asleep. Miles asks again while the passenger beats frantically on the door. Eventually, Miles tears down the passageway, enters the next car and rips open the door himself. He is greeted with loud cheers and applause on his return. At 4:15 am we reach Cleveland Ohio, detrain and catch a connecting Amtrak bus to Columbus, where we will be staying with friends.

In Pittsburgh we try the 'Pennsylvanian,´ which runs from Chicago to New York. This train does not issue seat numbers; it's a case of first in best dressed. Smoking is prohibited, but smokers can look forward to a couple of designated puff stops along the way. Our attendant stresses all smokers must remain on the platform, listening for the "All Aboard" call. (Apparently a number of small American towns have boosted their populations dramatically from the smokers left behind.)

At 1.00 am we arrive in Philadelphia. Amtrak has spent the last ten years and over $100 million US Dollars restoring this Union Station to its original beauty. The most striking feature is the 1950 bronze Railway War Memorial, which has been installed in the main concourse as a tribute to railway employees who gave their lives in service to their country. We take advantage of the roomy mahogany bench seats and stretch out to rest our eyes. We wake a few hours later. The Railway Police are waking the homeless who have joined us on the bench, with a polite "Move on now buddy, it's time to start the day."

The "Twilight Shoreliner," Boston to Washington DC, is our next home away from home. It arrives late. It's also a good time mention the correct way to get onto an Amtrak train. You place one foot onto a wobbly portable step, step up onto the train, squeeze up the stairs, and juggle your luggage and hand luggage all at the same time. No wonder we were looking good.

We arrive in DC in time to connect with the "Crescent," originating out of New York.. This is the train to take if you like to be fed gourmet-style meals from the regional areas you travel through. Our Lounge car attendant has a smooth singsong southern accent that is a delight to the ear. Unfortunately, we can't understand a word he says. We pass lush tropical countryside, deep-misted valleys, trees dripping with moss, blue-ridged mountains and algae-covered bayous. The further south we travel the more we are convinced we are going to visit Scarlet O'Hara, but instead we arrive in Atlanta, home of the 1996 Olympics and Martin Luther King. Georgian buildings and towers with spires, compete with majestic trees. Our stop here is all too brief and at 8:00 pm we arrive in the Big Easy (New Orleans) - a multicultural metropolis which is quite unlike anything else we have seen so far. We decide to take a four day break.

Smooth talking Karen is our Lounge car attendant on the "Sunset Limited," which travels from New Orleans to Los Angeles via Florida. A snoring passenger is busily sucking all the air out of the atmosphere so we move into the Sightseer Lounge. We sit next to a nice old lady who is drinking hot water to get her gas up. After a few genteel sips, her gas announces itself loud and clear. We travel through Louisiana swamps, over rives and past cane fields. The swamp trees around Lake Charles remind us of scarecrows in shrouds. We make friends with Carol, the snorer, who has lived through two earthquakes, one in LA and one in Seattle and stay awake until we leave the State of Louisiana and enter Beaumont, the first town in Texas. At 4 am we arrive in San Antonio Texas, and decide this is a good place to stay for a couple of days.

The "Texas Eagle" runs from Chicago to San Antonio and on to Los Angeles. A three day journey covering 40 cities from the Midwest to the Southwest. We learn when we arrive at the station that our train is four hours late and will not reach us until 1:30 am. The good news is that our carriage is already here, so the guard allows us to board and we snuggle down and get some sleep. (Sometime during the early morning, the engine and the rest of the carriages arrive and hook us on.) At Del Rio we move into the viewing car to see the Rio Grande. We spend the day in this car, watching small herds of grazing sheep pecking at the predominantly low scrub. The hills in the background are small pimples rising from the earth's crust. We follow dry creek beds, as the pimples become rugged peaks of crumbled stone. Fourteen year old Amanda tells us about Nu-Nu, her 300 pound pork-belly pig. "It's cleaner than a dog but like hugging a brillo pad," she drawls. Amanda and her mother Lynda, an artist are on their way to LA to pick up Lynda's great Uncle and drive him and his truck back to Kilbourne, Texas. The train makes an emergency stop at four the next morning; Lynda has fallen down the steps leading to the shower. An ambulance waits to meet her. We later learn she has two stress fractures, torn ligaments and muscles. Mountains, and whirling phantoms of wind paint the wide picture windows of the viewing car for the rest of the day. Albert Flowers, our Satchmo-voiced Lounge car attendant, stops to chat with us about religion masquerading as greed. Another day and night pass and at 6:30am we arrive in Yuma, Arizona. Soon we are passing through postcard perfect desert, peppered with Joshua trees, and feel as if we are the only people in the world - well, at least until some-ones mobile phone rings. At Palm Springs, surrounded by Darrieus windmills, we leave the train to board an Amtrak bus, which has been laid on because our train is now six hours late and we will miss our connection in LA to Portland. Our driver, Ken, entertains us with a commentary about the countryside we are passing through, while Erica, in the seat behind, sings Gospel songs to herself. The Santa Ana wind turns the dirt from the mountains into a thick blanket that covers the road in front of us but Ken gets us to Santa Barbara in time to board the train that will take us to Portland.

The "Coast Starlight" runs from LA to Seattle. It is another Super liner and has all the comforts of what we are coming to think of as home, including the Kiddie Car, a children's playroom complete with activities and movies. As the train gathers speed, the only thing that separates us from the Pacific Ocean is the window we peer through. Our attendant is Delores, a former marine and Tina Turner look-alike. She enumerates the usual Amtrak rules - no running, no walking around without your shoes and no smoking She informs us that by the time we get to Sacramento she will have to find seats for another 23 people.

"I like my people to stretch out," she says, "but if I need to shrink you, I will."

During the night, I answer a call to nature and sneak down to the toilets without my shoes. Delores is waiting for me when I get out.

"You'd better do something about your feet little lady," she barks.

"Yes Ma'am," I say

"Don't you 'Yes Ma'am' me," she roars.

"No Ma'am," I squeak feeling suitably chastised and scuttle back to my seat.

At 6.00am we wake to an unbelievably beautiful sunrise as we cross into Oregon. Tall pines caress the sky, a golden halo lights the snow on the mountains, and fog clings to lakes. We have breakfast with Cowboy, who is returning home to Oregon after several years in Texas. He is detraining at Eugene to see his girlfriend of two years. They have never met, only corresponded over the Internet. He waits anxiously at the station. We wait anxiously at the window. She arrives. It's love at first sight. We cheer. Four days later we do the journey in reverse and get off in San Francisco to catch a plane back to Australia.

We compare notes and agree it has indeed been a worthwhile journey. We have met so many real and wonderful people and have seen so much of the country during our 30 day trek.. We decide that the majority of Amtrak staff are frustrated comics, but without them it would only have been just another train. Unlike the screen Thelma and Louise, we have survived the experience and are here to relive it again and again whenever we read our diaries, look at our photographs, or drop an email or two to our new found friends.

When you go.

Amtrak runs all year round and offers a variety of rail passes and holiday packages. Overseas travelers must purchase their tickets prior to arriving in USA. Tickets can be purchased via the Internet at www.amtrak.com . Rail passes are not valid for passage, so passengers must present their pass at an Amtrak authorized ticket office for issuance of tickets. You can also reserve your seat by going online to book in advance of travel. Reservations can be changed prior to travel subject to the availability of seats.

You are allowed to carry one two bags, checked luggage is not accessible until you reach your destination - if you have a quick connection, take your bags with you to avoid waiting for them the other end.

Always confirm your reservations; Amtrak alters timetables from time to time so do confirm your onward journey at each stop. Don't be surprised if you find yourself on a bus instead of a train.

Be aware that Amtrak trains often run late. This is because Union Pacific own the lines and freight trains have right of way. If you need to be in a city at a certain time, allow an extra day, otherwise just relax and enjoy the ride!

Tips:

The dining car serves three meals a day, but this can be expensive if you are not traveling in a sleeper (where meals are included). Snacks and microwave meals are available from the Café Bar, but this can be monotonous, as well as expensive for the budget traveler. Stock up on fresh fruit and nuts to supplement your diet.

Buy a souvenir mug on board and enjoy a bottomless cup for the remainder of your Amtrak journeying.


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