Riding the train across the USA: Part 6 — Plains, trains and a detour

We make plans and then life happens…

Planning this journey from Little Rock to Los Angeles and home again was simple enough. My conference ends at 7pm on Sunday and the train leaves Los Angeles at 10pm. Perfect. I’ll be in Little Rock on Tuesday evening.

That’s the plan.

A few weeks before the trip, I get an email from Amtrak. Due to track work, the Sunset Limited is now set to depart Los Angeles at 7pm.

Ouch. That would mean leaving the conference mid-afternoon to make it to the train station, missing the conclusion of the conference. I’m not going to do that. So back to the drawing board.

Since the Sunset Limited runs 3 times a week, the next one won’t leave LA until Wednesday night. I can spend another couple days in La La Land or find another train out of the city. I go check train schedules.

From LA, I can take the Southwest Chief towards Chicago. It runs daily and I could catch it on Monday evening. That would mean one more night and day in the City of Angels.

The Southwest Chief is actually on my bucket list. It runs the classic Santa Fe route from LA to Chicago through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Iowa. This route was in danger of being abandoned a few years ago. BNSF (the owner railroad) decided they didn’t need it any longer since it has too many curves and hills for today’s long freight trains. Finally the states, BNSF and Amtrak worked out a deal to keep the route for the passenger trains.

Back in Santa Fe days, the all sleeper Super Chief and the all coach El Capitan whisked travelers from Chicago to LA in 39 3/4 hours here.

I could possibly catch a train from Kansas City to St Louis and there take the Texas Eagle to Little Rock. If I did that, I’d be home on Thursday morning.

Or I could stay on the Southwest Chief all the way to Chicago. Then spend a day or two there and come home on the Texas Eagle towards the weekend.

If I stay in LA and leave there on the Sunset Limited on Wednesday, I’ll be home on Friday.

Options, lots of options.

I finally decide to take the Southwest Chief to Chicago and then head home from there.

One quick phone call to Amtrak to get my ticket changed and I’m ready to go.

US map showing the route from Los Angeles to Chicago and on to Little Rock

Fast forward. It’s Sunday night in LA. The conference is over and I relax at the hotel. The next morning I get some work done and then eventually head downtown on a city bus. As it winds through the neighborhoods, I get to see what Los Angeles really is like.

Late afternoon, I’m at LA Union Station. Purposely get there plenty early because I want to explore the station with its interesting mission-style architecture, art deco details and gardens.

I’m curious about what the boarding process will be here. Every station seems to be a bit different. People eventually start lining up. I join in and get my seat assignment. Then there’s another line. I wonder if they’re going to march everyone out to the platform. Nope. This is for people who want a golf cart ride to the train. Want to walk out there? Go ahead. So I do.

Los Angeles Union station, people on platform waiting for Amtrak's the Southwest Chief to come in for boarding
Waiting for the train to be brought in to the platform for boarding

Soon I’m on a platform with plenty other people waiting and no train. Eventually we see 2 red lights and a train backing in. I was told the coach for Chicago would be at the end of the track, so that’s where I’m waiting.

Everyone piles up by the one door of the train car. The folks stowing their luggage in the lower level racks are blocking the way for everyone until they’re done. I notice nobody is by the door to the next train car. So board there, then go upstairs and cross over to my car. Find my seat and now I’m already seated while others are still waiting to get on the train. I always put my backpack up on the overhead shelf above my seat. Fits fine and I can easily get to it anytime I need something. On this journey, I will definitely need to change clothes. It’s sunny and warm in LA. In Chicago it may be sunny, but it will be freezing and snow on the ground.

As the train glides out of the station, across the LA River, away from downtown, it’s already getting dark.

I was planning on the dining car for dinner, but that changes when an announcement is made that they will only serve the sleeper passengers tonight. That’s a bit odd, me thinks. The train leaves right around dinner time and I can’t be the only coach passenger getting hungry. Sure, I could have picked up dinner from any of the establishments in the station, but I was looking forward to the dining car experience again tonight.

Instead it’s the café car experience and pizza. That works too. Then get some work done in the lounge car and call home for while.

Sunrise in Arizona
Waking up to sunrise somewhere in Arizona

Next morning I wake up to a sunrise somewhere in Arizona. It’s a different landscape than on the more southerly route I traveled going to LA. No cactus here. Just shrubs and grass. Reminds me of areas in Colorado. Lots of interesting rock formations and even snow on some distant mountain peaks.

After breakfast in the café, I get busy with work, while also keeping an eye on the panorama rolling by outside the big windows.

I’m not quite sure what I expected, except maybe more mountains. Instead we’re in flat territory where standing at the tail of the last car, I can look back at straight tracks for miles until they disappear at the horizon.

Albuquerque station stop for refueling, restocking and windowashing
Albuquerque — the train stops to refuel and restock. Passengers stretch their legs and a crew washes the windows on all the cars.

By noon we’ve made it to Albuquerque, right on time. The train has a long stop here for servicing. Perfect time to step outside for some exercise. Not that I’m sitting still the whole time on the train anyway.

Local vendors have set up stands selling souvenirs to the train passengers. Business doesn’t seem to be overly brisk today and some of them pack up and leave before the train departs.

A crew also comes through and washes train car windows. Presumably the good folks at Amtrak don’t want us to miss any of the scenery ahead. Because things are about to change.

After Albuquerque, the landscape gets increasingly hilly. The stop in Lamy is as close to Santa Fe as this train goes. A good number of passengers debark here, most of them going on up to Santa Fe. I’d love to join them and spend some time exploring this area: the city of Santa Fe, the national forests around here or even head up to Chama and the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. The mountains are calling, but I stay on the train today.

Looking back from the train at single train track weaving around a curve in the mountains
View from the last car as the railroad climbs into the mountains with patches of snow here and there

Rolling on, the train now winds its way up a valley. Again reminders of Colorado. These are real mountains and there’s snow on north-facing slopes along the tracks. Some of the cuttings are tight enough, I feel I could stretch my hand out (if the window opened) and touch the rock from the train.

While it’s slow going because of the curves, it’s also exciting as the view changes constantly.

Meeting the westbound Southwest Chief
Trains meet: Yesterday, my train left Los Angeles and will be in Chicago tomorrow. Yesterday the train passing by left Chicago and will be in Los Angeles tomorrow.

And then the rocks give way to plains. We’re rolling along on a high prairie and the train is doing 80mph. Not much out here, except grass, occasional cows and Interstate 25 that has more or less followed the railroad much of the day.

For a moment I’m a bit confused. I was expecting the famous Raton Pass where we cross the mountains. Did I miss it?

Not quite. The hills return and we climb again into a narrowing valley. A creek below, then the railroad and higher up the hillside is I-25.

Raton Tunnel sign: Highest point on the Santa Fe railroad system: 7588 feet elevation
The Raton Tunnel is the highest point on the entire Santa Fe railroad system (before Santa Fe merged with Burlington Northern to become BNSF)

There it is: The sign proclaiming the Raton Tunnel, the highest point on the Santa Fe system. Then into the tunnel. Once out on the other side, there are patches of snow on the ground. We’re in another valley, still with I-25 to the side, making slow progress downward.

Eventually we level out on a high plain and the train speeds into Colorado as evening comes. There are a couple station stops. All day I’ve watched the station stops. Groups of people get off. For them it’s the end of the journey. Others get on, beginning their journey. I wonder about the stories their lives represent. What prompts the journey for each of them?

On Amtrak’s long distance trains, end point to end point passengers are just a small percentage of the total number of passengers carried. Most passengers travel just a portion of the entire route.

For the Southwest Chief, running from Los Angeles to Chicago, that’s a lot of possible city pairs. For instance, a lot of people traveled Los Angeles to Lamy (Santa Fe). Others get on there and they may go to Kansas City or even all the way to Chicago. Or they might just be going to La Junta in Colorado.

It’s a unique feature of trains that they can connect many communities along the rail line in a large number of ways, all with the same train.

If I had more time, I would have gotten off at Flagstaff, AZ, and visited Grand Canyon. Then at Lamy to spend time in Santa Fe. Then maybe at La Junta and gone up to Colorado Springs. Someday that would be a great trip, but not today.

As it gets dark outside, I notice that there are a few lights out there. Farms and small towns. We’re rolling over the Colorado plains. I look at my phone and the time is an hour later than a few minutes before. It’s Central Time Zone. Toto, we’re back in Kansas.

Kansas City Union Station with the Southwest Chief on the right and a River Runner train on the left
Kansas City morning at Union Station. The Southwest Chief on the right and on the left a River Runner train that will shortly head for St Louis.

The next morning, the train is standing still when I wake up. I peek around the window curtain and realize we’re in a refueling facility. The overnight ride across the Kansas prairie is behind and the train soon rolls into the Kansas City Union Station. We’re early and it’s cold on the platform. I put on a jacket and get some pictures of the train and chat with other passengers. Most prefer to stay in their beds or seats and get a little more sleep.

Leaving Kansas City, the train crosses the Missouri River and speeds along through a very different landscape from the earlier journey. Here are farm fields mixed with wooded areas. Definitely the Midwest. This trip will even get me back to my old home state, Iowa, even if for just about 20 minutes. The train stops in Ft Madison, IA, right by the Mississippi River. Then rolls out on a big bridge and crosses the river into Illinois.

Ft Madison, Iowa. The train rolls out onto the bridge across the Mississippi. The engines are visible through the windows on the left.
Ft Madison, Iowa. The train rolls out onto the bridge across the Mississippi. The engines are visible through the windows on the left. The train runs on the lower level, while cars drive across on the upper level. A swing-span in the bridge can rotate open to let river traffic pass. This is the longest double deck, swing-span bridge in the world.

This trip has offered a lot of different landscapes. Majestic mountain valleys, grand high plains, lots of prairie and now farm land dotted with homesteads and towns. This part feels like home to me. America truly offers a lot of variety.

I’ve definitely proven my idea of doing real work on the train. The website is ready to load up to the server when I get home and I’ve spent time going over my conference notes, planning the next steps. Really wouldn’t mind doing more of this travel/work-on-a-train thing.

So far the train has been early into most stations. We just might make it to Chicago early too. Already we’re closing in, zooming right along.

Then the train stops, in the midst of farm fields. I hear from the crew that a trackside detector has flagged an issue. If that means someone has to be sent out to fix an overheated bearing or something else, we could be here for a while. Then comes an announcement that the engineer talked to dispatch and we’re going to be on our way soon. Which we indeed are.

As we roll through the miles of Chicagoland leading to the station, I get my things ready. In Chicago, I’m again going to visit Debbie and Bob. She emails, asking if I can catch the train up to their house instead of her driving down to pick me up at Union Station. Sure can. I check Metra schedules on my phone. There’s a train leaving Ogilvie 5 minutes after this train gets in at Union Station. Just a few blocks between the stations. If we get in a bit early, I should be able to make that.

No matter how many times I ride a train into a destination station, it’s still exciting — and a bit sad. Exciting because the next step of the journey is about to unfold. Sad because a journey is over. You get into a routine when on a train for a while and now that’s done.

The city landscape as the train nears Union Station is interesting in itself. A mix of industry, warehouses, residential areas, rail yards and bridges. When we roll over the big steel bridge spanning the Chicago River, I know we’re close.

By the time the train comes to a stop at Union Station, I’m ready by the exit door with my backpack and shoulder bag, and of course dressed for winter weather. Getting on in LA it was T-shirt weather. Here it’s somewhere close to freezing.

Once off the train, I head towards the Great Hall and finally up to street level. It’s sunny, but nippy outside and the afternoon sun is already casting long shadows in the stone canyons.

Walking up to Ogilvie Transportation Center takes just a few minutes. I get a ticket and then dash into the waiting Metra train. Still ahead of rush hour, so I get a seat. Yay!

The train starts and rolls out of the train shed, into the afternoon sunlight. Looking back I can see the tall buildings of downtown.

Neighborhoods fly by as the train moves north. Soon enough I get off and find there’s snow on the ground. The walk to Debbie’s and Bob’s house is a stroll through a winter wonderland. Glistening snow — not too much — just enough to cover the ground and roofs, making everything look fresh and clean.

Residential street with cars, houses and trees and snow

After a few minutes I’m at their house and as I ring the doorbell, Debbie opens the door. I have arrived.

A couple days later I board the Texas Eagle to Little Rock and home, to complete the journey.

A journey that’s turned out quite different from what I originally planned. But because it did, I got to experience so much more of the US.

I would have been just fine with the original plan: train Little Rock – Los Angeles and back the same way. It was efficient. A good plan.

Then track work changed it and I took the opportunity to ride a train route I had wanted to travel for a long time. And so coming home turned into a very different experience from the trip to LA.

As an added bonus, I got to experience some winter by going to Chicago. (Yes, living in Little Rock, I do miss winters with snow.)

When traveling, how do you handle changes in plans?
Do you look at the change as a negative or as an opportunity to maybe experience something you didn’t plan on?
Have you experienced a change in travel plans that turned out to give you a much better travel experience than you originally planned?

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Capturing family stories

Grandpa met Geronimo! That’s what my wife Diane’s Grandpa told us. But, let’s face it — we didn’t always know if his stories were fact or fiction. So yeah, right.

Then years later, Diane and her mother went to Oklahoma and the town where Grandpa grew up to research family history. They learned that Geronimo did indeed come into town. And he talked with school kids from time to time. So turns out Grandpa wasn’t making that one up after all.

Family history is like that. You just never know what you’re going to find.

A friend from my hometown in Sweden recently sent me his memoirs. He’s written down his life’s story, mostly for his own family, but decided to share it with others who hail from the same town. It was fascinating reading, because I knew all the people he wrote about. They were part of my growing up years and reading it all put lots of things in a fresh perspective.

A friend told me the other day that she is writing her family’s history, gathering information from extended family members. That’s a great undertaking and I wish her all success with capturing the many stories. Have a feeling this could be of interest to a larger audience.

Then I stopped by the website my cousin’s husband has put together of a giant family tree, tracking his family and ancestors, as well as hers. He has well over 7000 people in there. I looked up myself and then traced back through the generations. In the 1600s records get sketchy and dates lost. But that’s a trail stretching back some 350 years! There are 4 generations of my family buried in the same cemetery in Sweden.

Ester Jonasson talking about her life on video
My mom, Ester, talking family history to the video camera

Years ago, I sat down with my mom and a video camera. Several hours later, we’d made it through part of her life history. I asked questions and she talked. Other times talking family history, recording it on video followed. Sometimes over a photo album or even a map. Anything to get the memories flowing.

It’s been many years since she passed away, but we have the recording and her story in her own words. Unfortunately, my dad passed away much earlier and so I don’t have a recording of him telling his family history.

Diane and I have been fortunate to get her mom to sit down and record memories on video. Even got an audio recording of her dad one time. And one of Grandpa.

My mom did write down the story of my first years, up until I was in school, and in her words, “could remember for myself”.

Stories are powerful, especially when they are about us, who we are and where we came from. For many of us, capturing those stories is one of those things that we talk about doing, but never get around to.

As I write this, Christmas is not far away. Holidays are often a time when we get together with family we don’t see frequently during the year. So it can be a perfect opportunity to capture stories about life in close or extended family.

Written or spoken
For the longest time, I’d ask my mom to write captions for pictures in our family photo albums. But she never could get around to it. Then finally, I sat down with her, the photo album and a video camera and we talked about those photos, what they were of and who was in them. That was easy!

I bet your family isn’t any different. So people you can ask from here to kingdom come to write down some family stories and who will never do it, may be quite willing to sit down for a while and talk. After all, most of us like to talk when someone else is listening.

You probably already have the tools
There has never been an easier time to capture those stories. We have cell phones with high quality video cameras. And for those who don’t want their faces on video, the same phone records audio only as well. Or you may have a camcorder or a still camera that also shoots video.

An external microphone ensures better quality audio. You can get one on Amazon or from B&H Photo & Video quite inexpensively.

A tripod or other support for the video camera will make the video steady (and watchable).

One option is to find a quiet area with a comfortable chair for the person telling their story. As the interviewer, I prefer a regular chair where I can lean into the conversation and also see and run the camera.

Other people do better in a small group. Maybe gather a few people around a table and let them just talk family memories, while you keep the camera rolling, capturing it all.

Since everything is being recorded, there’s no need to try to take notes while it’s all going on. It can however be very helpful to come with questions or if you’ve heard the stories before, be prepared to drop in a reminder if something gets left out.

What makes family history most interesting isn’t all the dates and who married who and who moved where, but details about daily living:

  • What was the street like where you grew up?
  • Did you grow up in city or country?
  • Talk about your friends.
  • What was school like? What were your favorite subjects?
  • How did you get to and from school?
  • What did you do in your free time when you were a teenager?
  • Talk about your first job. What do you remember most about it?
  • Tell about how you met [your spouse]?
  • What has been the highlight of your adult life?

The key is open-ended questions that invite the person to talk for a while.

Ask about what they thought about things or how things made them feel. That gets most of us thinking deeper and get more engaged.

You can also refer to historical events and ask what is was like when that event happened. For instance, most of us old enough, remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we learned that President Kennedy had been shot.

Of course you may find that a person doesn’t want to talk about some historical events. For instance, my mom really didn’t want to go into much detail about life in Southern Sweden during World War II. To her the threat of invasion and the war coming there was scary enough that even many years later, she didn’t want to dwell on that time. (My dad on the other hand was always happy to talk about his time in the artillery during WWII.)

Legacy forward
When the person being interviewed is a parent or grandparent, it’s powerful to ask them to express what they want to say to their offspring or the grandkids. I’ve seen a number of people get really excited about answering that question and it may get them to express what they really hold as important and articulate their deepest values.

Keep it fun and easy
Above all, the process should be fun and easy on everybody. Especially for the person who is telling their story. That’s why I favor doing a recording instead of asking people to write down their story. Plus you will invariably get so much more detail when the story is spoken than if the same person sits down to write their story.

For posterity
So now the conversation and recording is done. Be sure to check the recordings and then back them up. Several copies.

Depending on time and energy, you may edit highlights together for a shorter version. While that can get really involved, the important thing is that the stories were recorded and the original, uncut version should always be kept intact. It is priceless.

You may even make a family tradition out of watching some of the recordings together at holidays. For years, at Christmas at my mother-in-law’s house, she’d pull out the old family home movies (8mm) and we’d sit up half the night watching the sisters growing up. (And yes, those family movies have been kept safe, and transferred to video for easier viewing.)

As we collect family history and learn where our ancestors came from, we also learn more about ourselves. That can only be a good thing. And the more we know ourselves, the better of a legacy we can leave for those who come after us.

If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. – Michael Crichton

You know your own history — Do you know your parents’ stories? How about your grandparents? What if you asked them about their stories the next time you see them? Might they be willing to let you record the conversation? Maybe the starting place is for you to record your own history to share.

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Riding the train across the USA: Part 5 — The one with cactuses and a moon

Train station in Little Rock, Arkansas, at 3am. It’s dark outside. Inside the lights are very much on. The tall, wooden benches harbor an assorted gathering of humanity waiting for the train to arrive. Scheduled departure is 3:10am, but the Texas Eagle is running about 45 minutes late. So we all wait.

I’m about to start another train journey. I’ll board the train here in Little Rock on Monday morning and get off in Los Angeles on Wednesday morning. Same seat the entire way.

It all started when I decided to go to a business development conference in LA. I think that says it all about how the organizers figure most people will arrive. And yes, I could fly. Definitely waaaay too far to drive by myself. Or I could take the train.

Planning the trip, I decide that the time on the train to LA will give me the chance to properly prep for the conference and coming back I will have ample time to digest and plan implementation. Perfect. I’d never get any of that done at home.

US map showing the route from Little Rock to Los Angeles via San AntonioIt’s an easy enough trip to plan. Get on the Texas Eagle (coach or sleeper) in Little Rock. In San Antonio those cars are switched to the Sunset Limited (New Orleans – Los Angeles, runs 3 times per week) and I get to LA without changing trains. So I’ll get into LA on Wednesday morning and the conference starts Thursday evening. I like to see a little of places where I’m go for conferences, so that’s just perfect.

The Sunset Limited runs 3 times a week each way between New Orleans and Los Angeles. Of the 15 Amtrak long distance routes, most have a daily train each way. The Sunset Limited is one of the exceptions.

Days of operation and schedules are worked out between Amtrak, which runs the trains, and the host railroads, which own the tracks and also operate their own freight trains on those tracks. The Amtrak passenger trains must fit into slots between freight trains and that can be a significant puzzle work out.

Coming back will be equally simple. Conference ends at 7pm on Sunday and the Sunset Limited departs at 10pm. Again, a one-seat ride right to Little Rock.

Can’t get any easier than that. So I book the trip. (Eventually there would be a change in the plan, but I’ll get to that in the next part, when it’s time to head back home.)

Finally the train comes in and all of us tired passengers board. I find a window seat. Outside, the Little Rock Union Station receedes as the train glides away from the platform. Towering in the darkness is the floodlit dome of the state capitol. Then the train picks up speed, heading out of the city and into what remains of the night. I recline the seat and get some shut eye.

Rainy morning in eastern Texas (this is the part with forests and hills — not your stereotypical view). In the sightseer lounge car I find an empty table and set up shop.

Yes, I’d planned to spend the trip prepping for the conference I’m going to, but because of deadlines, I ended up bringing a website project with me. It needs more work and then to go live online in a few days.

Computer set up on a table in the sightseer lounge car and I'm ready to build websites
Computer set up on a table in the sightseer lounge car and I’m ready to build websites

I have this idea that I can do web design anywhere, as long as I have a computer. Don’t even need internet access, because everything is on my computer. Time to find out if I’m right. Turns out it works quite well. Plus it’s energizing to have an ever-changing landscape outside the window.

When lunch rolls around, I can go next door to the dining car or downstairs to the café. I do the latter and grab a burger there.

The train was about 45 minutes late in Little Rock. Mostly on time in Dallas and an hour early to Ft Worth!

I take the opportunity to stretch my legs during the stop in Ft Worth. My fitness goal is to walk at least 3 miles every day and here’s a long platform giving me the chance to log some of that.

Eventually the train rolls out of Ft Worth and heads for San Antonio. I get back to work. By mid-afternoon, my MacBook Pro is getting low on battery and I dig into my shoulder bag for the charger.

Oops — it’s not there. As in, I didn’t put it in. So I have the rest of today and all of tomorrow — lots of time that I planned on working on this website and other things on the computer and here I am with a low-battery computer and no charger.

Major change of plans. I have my phone (did bring the charger for it) and I have books, so I’ll have things to do. Just not the things I really need to be doing right now. And I’ll be hard pressed to get the website done in time once I arrive in LA.

That evening, I’m in the first seating in the dining car. Definitely the oddest time on my trips. The person seated next to me at the table isn’t at all interested in any interaction with the others at the table. Just eat and rush on. After he is gone, the 3 of us find the meal much more enjoyable and conversation flows. I look forward to these meals with strangers. Because you just never know what their stories are and it’s a glimpse into the lives of other people.

The train gets to San Antonio early — and has a generous stop there as it exchanges cars with the Sunset Limited that is just coming in from New Orleans. Some people head off to nearby restaurants to while away the time. I’d pondered the options for obtaining a power supply while in San Antonio, but of course the Apple store is nowhere near the train station, and it’s after store closing time anyway.

Amtrak's The Sunset Limited being serviced at San Antonio
The Sunset Limited has come in and is being serviced. Soon the sleeper and coach from the Texas Eagle will be added to it.
Riding trains over the years, I’ve been through switching cars between trains numerous times. Still find the process fascinating. Now I’m curious how it’s done here. 2 cars — a coach and a sleeper from the Texas Eagle, are going to be added to the Sunset Limited. As we wait for that to happen, there’s front-row opportunity to watch the refueling and refurnishing of the Sunset Limited on the next track. Lots of activity.

In the 1950s, you could board a sleeper in New York and travel in it all the way to Los Angeles or San Francisco. The railroad that got you to Chicago handed over the car to the railroad that would get you the rest of the way. While they did that, you could sightsee or have lunch in town.

Today train travel coast to coast requires a change of trains in Chicago or New Orleans. Switching of cars from one train to another as practiced in San Antonio is rare now, although I sure like the convenience of it. Some long distance trains have sections that split at some point to let the same train reach multiple destinations. For instance, the Lake Shore Limited is one train from Chicago to Rensselaer, where one section heads for Boston and the other for New York City.

Inside the coach, the car steward comes through and rotates the seats. I’ve been on the left side of the train from Little Rock. Now the seat is turned around facing the other way and I’ll be on the right side of the train from here to Los Angeles. This way, all passengers ride facing forward (except for the one set of seats that refused to budge — the steward leaves it facing the other way — fortunately the train isn’t full enough that anyone has to sit there).

Eventually the train is all ready to go and rolls out into the Texas night. I make myself comfortable and go to sleep. Traveling light, I use a jacket as cover and a rolled up sweatshirt for a pillow. Other travelers have brought along blankets and pillows — all the comforts of home. With the lights out and only very dim night lights giving some form to things in the car, a gentle, rocking motion and the swishing of air rushing by outside the window, it’s easy enough to drift off to sleep.

Full moon, almost sunrise and brush land
Waking up to a full moon and the sun about to rise over the horizon
When I wake up, there is a full moon out there and a first glow of sunrise on the horizon. Awesome sight I would never see at home.

A message on my phone welcomes me to Mexico. No, didn’t cross the border, but that close. Service comes and goes here.

As the sun rises, it reveals a landscape of lots of rock, brush and cactuses. It seems flat and then all of a sudden there’s a canyon. Some pretty big ones. The train crosses one on a bridge and it’s a long way down to the river at the bottom. Quite impressive.

All of a sudden there’s a deer is standing on the other side of a fence near the track. A while later another one out in the brush. The landscape becomes hillier. It’s everything I’ve seen in countless Westerns. But I’ve never been through it in person before. That’s the beauty of train travel: You get up close and personal with the landscape you’re traveling through and experience distances in a totally different way than when flying. Starting out in the middle of the US and going to the West Coast IS a long way!

At lunch time I head down to the café in the lower level of the sightseer lounge car to get a sandwich and notice a couple sitting there with their Macs out. After getting my sandwich, I ask them if I can borrow a charger for a little while. Sure thing.

While my Mac is charging, I eat lunch. Even a partial charge will be helpful and let me get some more work done. The couple gets up to leave and tell me I can get the charger back to them later. I know we’re on the same train and all, but I really appreciate that trust… and the full charge.

Later a guy in my coach asks to borrow my phone charger since his phone died. Apparently I wasn’t the only one to leave home without my charger.

All Amtrak trains have power outlets available by the seats and in lounge areas. I bring a short extension cord and power strip, in case I need to plug in several items at one time.

We reach El Paso and on leaving there, the tracks go about 20 feet from the Mexican border at one point. Houses on this side and houses on the other side. Kids playing in the streets. On the border sits a tall metal fence. The scene reminds me of Jerusalem where neighborhoods are divided by a wall, cutting people off from each other. And the Berlin Wall. Quick fix in the short term. Long term not so much. Quite the contrary actually.

With a fully charged computer, I can get back to working on the website. Yay.

The landscape outside has been a lot of brush and cactus all day. Some mesas visible towards sunset. It’s beautiful land and I shoot lots of pictures. Also very big land. We pass by a ranch. That is, there’s a road running along the train tracks and every so often it has signs by roads leading off it that this is “gate so-and-so of the x Ranch”. Finally one sign announces an entrance to the head offices — 20+ miles down the road that is. Yes, that is one big ranch.

Sky with clouds, brush flats, hills and mountains
Big sky land — just waiting for a cattle drive and cowboys to show up
Many people love living in New Mexico and Arizona. Just not my idea of a place to live. I’m definitely more of a rolling farm fields kind of guy. But very glad I’m getting to see this land for myself now.

Come evening, I’m back in the dining car for dinner. My table mates tonight are a couple from Portland and a man from Fresno. He’s a business traveler who’s given up on flying and takes the train now. Says it helps him keep his sanity. We all have good conversation over dinner.

Tucson is a long stop. I would definitely shorten stops and tighten schedules, having grown up with European long distance trains where even a stop in a major city is only a few minutes.

I settle down for another night on the train. It really feels like home by now.

Still dark when I wake up. The train is going through a rail yard with switches. Then it slows down and stops. I wonder where we are. My phone says it’s about 5am. If we’re on time, we should be about 30 minutes away from Los Angeles Union Station. Then I look out the window and there’s a platform with a canopy. Not a sign anywhere. But something tells me this isn’t some suburban stop. Maybe we’ve actually arrived! Beyond the platform are high rises in the distance. This is indeed Los Angeles.

The tail end of the Sunset Limited at Los Angeles Union Station in early morning dark
5am in LA: The Sunset Limited has arrived at its final destination
By now others in the coach car are also getting up and grabbing their things. Soon I’m out on the platform with backpack on and ready to find my way into the station. Nobody seems to be in a big hurry to leave. People take their time getting off the train. Kind of anti-climactic. But what’s the hurry when it’s 5-something am and the train came in early!

Eventually I walk down to the tunnel to the station building. The question is what to do now. It’s early enough that nothing is open. In a while I’ll put my backpack in storage and make for an Apple store to procure a charger.

Finally head into the waiting room, where there is an area with ornate stuffed chairs marked for Amtrak passengers. Apparently they have an issue with people hanging out there all day, so this is supposed to be for passengers traveling within 2 hours. Security people patrol the area and check some people for tickets. I decide to just look like I belong and make myself home.

Los Angeles Union Station main waiting room with ornate ceiling
Los Angeles Union Station is an inviting place that makes it easy to while away some time
Eventually I go over to the luggage office that has opened by now and put my backpack in storage. It’s only for ticketed Amtrak passengers. The lady working there is satisfied with my ticket and that I just came in. Then she looks at my backpack and lets me around the counter so I can put it up on the shelf myself. Fine by me.

The Los Angeles Union Station is beautiful and I really don’t mind hanging around there until the city awakens. Lots of interesting spaces and even gardens to explore. In some parts the inside and outside just blend together. It feels very much like California.

It may seem odd now that almost every city has a Union Station, even if there’s only one train a day each way that stops there. The name goes back to when several railroads served a city. At first each often had their own depot. Passengers transferring from one railroad to another had to find their own way between the stations. Eventually, someone had the idea for several railroads to join forces and build one station where all their passenger trains arrived and departed. It was then called Union Station to indicate that it was served by several railroads.

Later in the morning, after a subway and bus ride, I’m at an Apple store. A girl quickly helps me get a charger and even clears a place to set up my computer and get it charged right in the store. In the process, I learn that she is not from LA (Florida originally) and she is just working at the Apple store until her big break in acting comes along. Yes, I’m in LA and Hollywood is just up the street.

That night, at a B&B in Hollywood, I upload the website I’ve been working on. My client in New York is happy when I text her that the site is now live. Mission accomplished.

Santa Monica Pier - the end of Route 66
I have reached the end — Route 66 meets the ocean
The next day I hop on some buses and wind my way to the Santa Monica Pier. There’s a sign marking the end of Route 66. Funny that a while back I was in Chicago where Route 66 starts and even traveled along some of it by train in Illinois and here I am at the end of it.

Sitting at the dock of the bay, watching the waves roll in, one after the other makes for an awesome day. This is all going to be good.

Time to dream. Where would you like to go? What ways could you get there? (plane, car, train, boat, etc) Which mode of transportation would make the journey itself the most rewarding for you? Because sometimes the journey is just as much part of the experience as the destination.

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Reflections on a train journey

By now you’ve been with me on a trip across half the US, taking the train from Little Rock via Chicago to Washington, DC. From there up the Northeast Corridor to New Brunswick, NJ, and finally in to New York City. Then on from there to Chicago and eventually back to Little Rock.

In all 3232 miles of travel by train.

During the 11 day trip, I spent 4 nights on trains. I chose not to get a sleeper accommodation, but rather travelled in coach. Even with 2 nights in a row on the train, that was perfectly fine.

Amtrak long distance coaches, be that the 2-level Superliner cars or single level Amfleet coaches have very comfortable seats with plenty of room to wiggle and stretch your legs. The seat reclines and there’s a leg rest and a foot rest.

When traveling I always bring some snacks and something to drink with me. Beyond that, I count on the on-board service for meals and wasn’t disappointed. The dining car provided good food. Some trains offer a carry-out service in coach, where the coach steward can order from a limited menu and bring to your seat. Costs a bit less than the dining car.

Being seated with strangers in the dining car provided opportunities to converse and meet new people. Only onece did I end up at a table of 4 with a person who just wanted to eat and get out of there and not be social at all.

Originally this trip was all about getting from Little Rock to Washington, DC, for a meeting. I could have flown or driven. Have done both before. Did not fancy driving all that distance by myself, plus I-40 through Tennessee and especially I-81 through Virginia are full of trucks.

By taking the train, I got from Little Rock to Washington in just a few hours more than driving and stopping overnight on the way would have taken. Plus I was rested when I got there. And was able to read and write on the way, as well as enjoy the sights.

For quite some time I’d wanted to retrace my first train journey in the US, from New York to Chicago. It took place when I had just come to the country a couple days earlier. I knew how I remembered the adventure and wanted to see what it was like now, many years later.

I was not disappointed, even with the train being quite late into Chicago. The ride along the Hudson River is spectacular. So is skirting Lake Erie. Lake Michigan gets intriguing in glimpses from the train every once in a while when you can see past buildings and old industries. For me that old industrial landscape is fascinating in its own right, so I enjoyed the ride.

I decided I could definitely see taking a train trip for the purpose of focusing on my writing. Because you can move around on the train, you can find a good place with as much or as little distraction to hang out and get work done.

Maybe the biggest bonus of taking the train was that I had “think time” — unpressured time to reflect, ponder and let concepts form.

Would I do this trip again? Yes, in a heartbeat.

I came back from the trip refreshed and energized with direction for what I wanted to do next with my business (even though this was not a business strategy planning trip).

A definite bonus of the trip was that I got to catch up with several friends I hadn’t seen for a while. That, as the saying goes, is priceless.

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Expressing gratitude or “the rest of the story”

When I was in 5th grade, our teacher was a tall man who loved to tower above us from the raised platform his desk was on and remind us little kids of all his hard work knocking sense into our little childish minds:

“One day, you’ll come back and thank me!”

Yeah, right, we all thought, that’ll never happen. (No one dared to say that out loud, because sassing the teacher would most definitely get you detention or worse.)

Many years later though, I did what that teacher predicted. But to a different teacher.

Here’s the story:

When I was in 9th grade, we had a home room teacher, Inga-Lisa, who every year would take her students on an exchange trip to Berlin, Germany. A group of Swedish kids went to stay in homes of German students our age and then those students came to Sweden and stayed with us. A week in each place.

It was my first trip abroad (in southern Sweden, crossing over to Denmark doesn’t count as abroad). The week in Berlin (in 1971 very much surrounded by the Wall) made a huge impact on me. I discovered exploring other cultures and traveling and never stopped. Actually went back to see my host family several times over the next few years.

Decades later, I learned that Inga-Lisa was on Facebook and connected with her. Finally got to tell her how big of a difference that trip made for me, for it led to other trips and eventually me coming to the US.

But at the time it was just a class trip — a fun thing to do.

That’s how it often is: The big, life-changing things don’t seem so big and life-changing at the time. Only much later can we see all the difference that encounter made. And all too often, by then the person originally involved isn’t around to hear the rest of the story.

This of course applies to both sides of the equation: My wife Diane operated a daycare for a number of years. Children would come into our house as babies or toddlers. Many stayed until they went off to pre-school or kindergarten. That was a long time ago and we often wonder what happened later. How did those children’s lives turn out?

So it was fun when we got a wedding invitation from one of those little kids. Okay, not so little anymore. That toddler girl had grown into a lovely young lady. It meant the world to Diane to see how one of those kids from the daycare turned out.

Family dinner at Ron and Betty's house
Betty and Ron with the family gathered for dinner
When I first came to the US for college, I stayed with a family in the Chicago area for a while before heading off to the University of Iowa. Mom and dad in the family (Betty and Ron) took me in like just another one of the kids. I felt totally at home from day one.

A while ago I was back in Chicago and decided that I needed to go see Betty (Ron had passed away some years before). I’d actually written to Betty and Ron years earlier to say thank you for all the hospitality and friendship all those years ago, but I wanted to see her face to face again. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked up to her door and rang the bell. (Still same house.) Just knew I wanted to say “thank you” face to face.

It turned out to be a wonderful visit. I expressed to her how the kindness of her and her husband helped launch me well in a new country. I know that it meant a lot to her to see that what she did back then truly made a difference. And of course we caught each other up on what had happened in each of our lives over the years. Betty even reminded me of some things from when I stayed at her house that I’d forgotten.

I left that night promising to come back next summer and bring Diane. As fate would have it, that’s not how things turned out. Betty passed away about 6 months later. I am so glad I went to see Betty and got to visit with her one more time.

Our lives don’t play out in isolation. We each have people who are crucial at various points in our lives. Some for a short encounter, others for a longer season. The important thing is that in a particular situation, they provide insight, encouragement, friendship, a willingness to walk the road with us for a while. They inspire us to dream and follow those dreams.

Sometimes we get to be in that position for others, to cheer them on or help them move forward on their path or even try a new one.

And so I got to thinking that I needed to express my gratitude and let some people who were key in me becoming who I am know how things turned out.

It’s involved letters, visits in person and opportunities to reconnect. I didn’t have an expectation of a particular reaction from the other person when I set out to express my gratitude. I simply wanted to tell them of the difference they made.

Yet “the rest of the story” became as big of a blessing as the first part.

There are really two takeaways from this:

Do good things for others, be helpful. You never know where that will lead or what foundation you are laying today. Investing in other lives is like planting seeds, or watering a young plant. One day it will blossom and bear fruit. How awesome is that!

Thanksgiving is right around the corner. What better time to take pause and think of people who have been influential in your life? What was it they did that stood out or made a difference for you? What did their acts accomplish in your life?

Then make some time to let them know.

Truly, today it’s easier than ever to catch up with people or reconnect. Think of 3 people who have been truly instrumental in your life and then find a way to let them know. Write a letter or email, call them, see them in person — whatever works in your situation. Just do it.

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