A Mississippi River boat quietly pushes along its load aside the train tracks
The Southwest Chief winds through pasture and rocky cliffs as it
enters New Mexico from Colorado
Returning home through Bernalillo
The train ride back home
—Barb and Ty Belknap
Last month the need suddenly arose and the time became available to visit our parents in Ohio.
We had to leave the very next day so the cost of a conventional airline ticket would have been exorbitant. The search for discount airfares proved fruitless, and we’d sworn off cross-country road trips years ago. The only option left was to take the train, so we booked three coach fares on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief—a twenty-six-hour ride to Chicago. Where else can a fifteen-year-old ride for half price?
Luckily, the Chief was running two hours late, so there was time to find a downtown parking garage at a reasonable price, too (Amtrak does not provide overnight parking).
There was also time to fill a cooler full of snacks and beverages. Amtrak does provide food, but as Barb’s dad puts it, “It looks like something they dug up.” We picked up the tickets at the historic Curio building, a ramshackle structure spared from the fire several years back, and boarded the train in the hot afternoon sunshine. Soon enough the Chief was crawling through the North Valley and picking up speed through Bernalillo, Algodones, and the pueblos.
It would have made a lot more sense to board the train in Lamy, avoiding the city traffic and parking for free at the Lamy station. Maybe next year riders will be able to take the commuter train to the Albuquerque station from Bernalillo.
Rail travel is great, but in this country there are still a few details to be worked out. Regardless, it offers a way to be connected to the world outside while disconnecting from everyday life.
Settling into railroad reality at cocktail hour with a good book, the decisions that brought us here didn’t seem to matter.
Edward Abbey advised, “It doesn’t really matter whether you get where you’re going or not. You’ll get there anyway.”
Outside the window a monsoon storm blew in. Lightning flashes lit up cars pulled to the side of I-25. We later learned Las Huertas Creek had gushed six culverts wide in Placitas and poured all the way down to Algodones and into the Rio Grande, as in bygone days.
Waking up after a fairly restful night in the reclining coach seats, we could see Kansas whizzing by at ninety miles an hour. We joined “train world” in the lounge car where a Shrek 2 video was playing and the more sociable passengers were seeking out conversation. A hysterical woman was complaining on the telephone to an unsympathetic Amtrak official about the new no-smoking rules. A sarcastic conductor reemphasized all the rules at the Kansas City stop, “Keep your shoes on, smoke and we’ll kick you off, and we’ll be on our way momentarily in a minute.”
One delay led to another, but the Chief finally arrived in Chicago three hours late. The express car-rental desk at Union Station had closed ten minutes earlier so we had to catch a taxi over to the main downtown car-rental office. Friday rush hour in Chicago is no place to be after a long train trip. Feeling weary on the dark and busy highway, we decided not to make the planned five-hour drive to Ohio. The next stop was the first motel on the Indiana Turnpike.
The following day was bright and sunny and led to familiar places and faces along the drenched Lake Erie shore. We found our respective mothers in good shape, both having just had elective foot surgery.
Nine days and three meals of perch later we were back again in Chicago circling Union Station for an hour in the rental car, looking for the express car drop-off. This accomplished, some world-famous Chicago pizza consumed, and carry-on bags dragged through a crowded, stuffy waiting room, we were back on the Southwest Chief. Shrek 2 was back on the video. The sun was soon setting over the Mississippi River and its barges.
Sometime during the night the conductor announced that they were hot on the trail of an illegal smoker. After the next stop, his voice returned, gleefully announcing that they had caught the perpetrator and “removed” him from the train.
Unfortunately, somebody walked off into the Kansas City night with our cooler—our Ohio peaches and apple butter, smoked turkey and provolone, pickles, chocolate, and Canadian beer—and we were forced to survive the rest of the trip on train food.
Farmland gave way to prairie. As we approached the eastern range of the Rockies in the lounge car, a couple from the National Park Service started a narrated tour of the Santa Fe Trail that continued all the way to Albuquerque. Some guy commented on how barren the hills looked and how run-down the adobe houses were. Obviously he couldn’t see the most beautiful part of the trip.
We skipped the last meal to let our appetite for green chile grow.
To paraphrase Ed Abbey: The longest journey begins with a step onto the train, not the turn of an ignition key. That’s the best thing about riding a train, the journey itself. Every good train ride brings you eventually back home, right where you started.