Two straight days with no shower, no bed and no familiar faces. Don’t dismiss it as a vacation option just yet, though: it’s also one of the best ways to see the United States from the ground. Two weeks before Passover, I did something I’d been dreaming of for nearly a year— I bought tickets for the Southwest Chief, an Amtrak train that runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles. The stops in L.A. and New Mexico were more than worth it, but the train is another adventure with a personality all its own.
I’ve done train travel before—a few times in Europe and once on another Amtrak route, the California Zephyr, which runs from the San Francisco Bay Area through mountains, desert, high plains and rolling prairie all the way to Chicago. No one who’s ever seen this from the ground could possibly call it “flyover country.” Train tracks bring you into areas you’d never see from highways or roads either. The Southwest Chief is like waking up in your own personal Western. The red dirt and the mesas and canyons and bleached cattle skulls are all real and totally engrossing.
The views are magnificent, and Amtrak exploits that: there’s a viewing car with glass windows from the floor to the ceiling, where you’re free to sit for hours on end, watching the world go by. This experience is most relaxing when the car is empty, but there’s something pleasant about it even full of kids and conversation. For my part, I learned as I was packing that this is a good place to practice musical instruments, which tipped me into bringing my ukulele on the trip, which turned out to be a good decision. But you can learn a lot just by looking out the window by your seat (which, I might add, is nicer than a first-class airplane seat, even when you ride coach). For instance:
• Just saw a billboard for “Dodge City Vittles.” Have we been in Kansas all night?
• Just saw a truck go by that said simply “BEEF IS BEST” along the side.
• “Micro Beef Technologies”? What does that even mean?
• 3 AM and wide awake on a train through the desert in either California or Arizona. This is either country music or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
Pictures communicate the scenery much better than words. But you get another perk from traveling on the train: train people. The people-watching and casual conversations in trains are top-notch. The man who sat behind me from Union Station nearly to Los Angeles was on his way home after appearing on the Jerry Springer Show. I ate dinner with a veteran of Okinawa and a man returning to Joplin, Missouri, after the devastating tornados last year. I shared a seat (and snacks) with a lady who spent every other three weeks working on a Navajo Nation organic farm. I learned from many people why Kansas City is the best place to live in the Midwest.
I’d like to take a moment and give a shout-out to the station in Lamy, New Mexico, which is where you get off if you’re stopping in Santa Fe. Lamy is one of those hamlets where you can see most of it from the station itself. As I waited, any number of locals came by to visit the station agent and chat with each other. The station is home to a library, shop and small nonprofit bookstore, run by volunteers. The train was on a three-hour delay to avoid last week’s monster tornados, but I was more than pleased to enjoy this little slice of very small town living.
Taking the train deliberately seems to surprise people when I tell them about this vacation. Sure, if you want to get to your destination quickly, an airplane is much more reasonable. It certainly lets you maximize your time away: I spent about a third of my trip in transit. But if you’re looking for something with the pace of a road trip without the responsibility of driving, train travel is a lovely way to go. If you need a little more convincing, well... this is the view from coach: