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

Los Angeles Union Station main waiting room early morning

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.