From New York to Flagstaff, Arizona by train? People said I was crazy to do it. Why not take a plane? I wanted to see the country!
The Lake Shore Limited
The first leg was New York to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited, an overnighter. Although I could have checked my baggage straight through to Flagstaff for free, I wasn’t sure about the weather and wanted access to my suitcase in case I needed to take out more clothes. As it turned out, there was plenty of space to store luggage in the train as the car was far from full.
Tip 1 There is no access to checked luggage during the train ride. Bring any luggage onboard if possible.
I settled into my seat beside the window and was pleased to note that the reclining seat was wide with plenty of legroom. There was also a footrest, overhead storage and a pull-out section under the seat to support the legs. It was like a la-z-boy recliner.
Tip 2 There is no assigned seating. Get there early for a seat by the window.
We set off on time in mid-afternoon to head up the Hudson River. As the sun sank in the sky a golden light glinted off the river on one side and illuminated the stunning fall foliage on the other.
The glorious colors mesmerized me for the roughly 3 1/2 hours it took to reach the sleek but nearly empty Albany train station.
There, we had a stop long enough to look around the neighborhood and even grab a drink at this stationside bar.
By the time we re-boarded, dusk was turning to night. No more scenery!
I struck up a conversation with my new seatmate, a young woman well-equipped with a blanket, pillows and food. She had set off from California months before on a vague cross-country train odyssey that involved working periodically in rehab centers and the Salvation Army. She was headed as slowly as possible back “home” to rejoin the fiancé whose cellphone calls she glanced at and ignored.
Unlike airplanes where everyone is tense and slightly irritated at being in a cattle-car, conversation is easy on a train. Strangers are happy to chat.
I munched on a sandwich and read the news as the Lake Shore Limited has a wifi connection.
Eventually I pulled out the blanket I copped on the flight to New York and my neck pillow. After arranging the seat it was quite comfortable enough to sleep.
Tip 3 There’s no bedding provided for coach class. The car is somewhat underheated making a blanket necessary.
I woke up to a drizzling rain around Toledo. I grabbed a coffee and noodle soup at the cafe rather than an expensive breakfast in the dining car.
Tip 4 There are two dining options: a restaurant with sit-down service and a cafe for snacks. One is incessantly reminded via the loudspeaker that restaurant dining needs to be reserved.
Passing through grey and rainy Ohio, the cornfields were dusky and the trees a dull yellow. I listened to the local news and learned that Naloxone was now available without a prescription and that a man called the police to report that his marijuana was stolen.
Passing through Indiana via Waterloo the cornfields gave way to woods and a succession of lawns. Radio from Fort Wayne interspersed the Top 40 with ads for pre-owned cars, cheap diamonds and the University of Saint Francis. An interview with a spiritual counselor advised how to help people who struggle with being gay. “Sit with God”.
Near Gary Indiana, whitecaps danced on a steely Lake Michigan.
We pulled into Chicago’s Union Station about an hour late. I grabbed my luggage and decided to spring for the elegant Legacy Lounge which stored luggage for only $2 more than the luggage lockers. Plus there were drinks, snacks, TV, spacious restrooms and priority boarding.
Amazingly enough, Chicago was cold and windy. Go figure.
The law requires that all first-time visitors to Chicago must chow down a deep-dish pizza. I complied at Beggars Pizza, picked up a gigantic muffin and whole-grain cookie and boarded the Southwest Chief for the 30-hour trip to Flagstaff, Arizona.
The Southwest Chief
Amtrak’s historic Southwest Chief replaced the famous Santa Fe which opened up the west by linking Chicago with Los Angeles.
We left in mid-afternoon for the flatlands of Illinois. Just outside Chicago was Naperville, recently named the second-best place to live in the US. Its qualities were unapparent from the train.
We sped by grain silos, warehouses, fields, row houses and ranch-style houses lonely in their little yards. Roads fled from the railroad track in neat rows.
Finally we crossed the border into Fort Madison, Iowa where I was excited to see the Mississippi river just in time for sunset. So wide and placid, the river conjured up the spirit of Mark Twain. How he would have carved up this sad election year with his mordant wit.
As we sped on into the night, I headed to the dining car. No one eats alone on Amtrak. I took my seat next to an extremely well-coiffed California brunette from the sleeping car. A plump African-American woman that I thought had a bizarre air about her sat opposite us with her teenage son. I was mortified to realize after a few moments that she wasn’t bizarre at all but nearly blind. She wanted to see as much of the world as possible before her sight deserted her completely. She was also involved in social work, helping veterans with eye damage. When I mentioned where I live she remarked that it must be a calm and peaceful place. I replied with a reminder of the gruesome attack this past summer and immediately regretted it. She looked so stricken I thought she might cry. “Of course I remember now. I’m so, so, so sorry”. She wanted to know if there were grief counselors for the survivors and I reassured her that there were. Such a kind, gentle soul.
Dinner was a thoroughly respectable veggie burger with chips and salad but a bit pricey at $13. At the end of the meal the server started cracking jokes about Donald Trump and the table laughed which was the only time on this entire trip I heard anyone laugh at his name.
I read and listened to music for a while as there is no wifi on the Southwest Chief and the cell signal is sporadic. There are plenty of chargers though.
Woke up the following morning in time to pass into Colorado.
We made a 15-minute stop in a chilly La Junta where one of the passengers entertained us with her hula-hoop which she “takes everywhere”.
It’s black cattle country now. I headed to the comfortable observation car with plush seats and panoramic windows to watch the increasingly spectacular scenery. This first video with the Rockies in the distance was taken in and around Trinidad, Colorado.
Crossing into New Mexico, we made a short stop at Raton, New Mexico where, according to explanatory signs, the railway brought railway workers, immigrants and coal miners into traditional Native American communities.
After the endless grain fields and prairie of Colorado, it was a relief to see some green in the landscape. Cattle were rare.
Las Vegas, New Mexico had a particularly striking train station.
From Las Vegas to Santa Fe the scenery became particularly stunning with tall pines and distant mountains on the left and a rolling plain on the right marked by mesquite and red gorges.
The train track passed next to faded houses and mobile homes surrounded by yards full of old cars, stacks of wood, discarded appliances, tires and miscellaneous junk. Accustomed to the European countryside, it surprised me that there were few to no attempts to landscape or otherwise prettify the property.
Around Glorieta tall pines sprouted dramatically across the ever-changing landscape. I felt as I was watching a movie, too beautiful to pry myself from my seat. Little Lamy was adorable. As we hurtled to Albuquerque, the craggy plains were dotted with isolated settlements of humble houses and more junkyards.
We made a long stop in Albuquerque but not long enough for me to find appealing snacks to bring back on the train.
As night fell, I decided to splurge on spinach and cheese tortellini in the dining car, grateful that there were vegan and vegetarian options.
We pulled into downtown Flagstaff at 8.51pm, right on time. Truthfully, I was sorry to leave the train after such a comfortable and relaxing journey.