The Great Plane, Train, Car and Bus Adventure - (Part 3)

The Southwest Chief (stock photo)
The Southwest Chief, the Amtrak train which would be carrying us from Kansas City, Missouri to Flagstaff, Arizona arrived only 5 minutes late at 10:40PM and we departed at 10:55PM, about ten minutes late. Since we would be on board for over 24 hours, we had reserved a sleeper room. It cost an extra $510 (with senior discount), but you get private quarters, fairly comfortable beds, three toilet rooms shared only by six sleeper rooms, a shared shower room and free meals. Oh, and 2 bottles of water - can't forget that freebie! Unfortunately, a sleeper only has room for two people and there were three of us. Youngest-daughter has a food allergy and picky tastes so, according to the menu I previewed, the "free" meals would have gone largely uneaten by her. I decided to not spend the extra $600 on a room for one person for just 1 day/night so I reserved the sleeper car in mine and the Momma-woman's name and just got a coach seat in Youngest-daughter's name. 

The tickets have your name on them, but I had noticed that not once did an agent look at the names so I let the girls board for the sleeper car with Youngest-daughter using my ticket and I used hers for the coach seat. I would spend another long, mostly sleepless night in a single seat while they slept in the bunks, but I wanted them to be comfortable. At meal time, I would use my sleeper ticket to get my meal free and Youngest-daughter could get what she wanted from the snack car or the food we brought for her. Very happy to report this worked exactly as planned! All three of us spent most of the next day together in the sleeper - it was a bit crowded with two of us laying beside each other in the bottom bunk, but doable. I strongly recommend if you will be traveling for 24 or more hours, by all means, pay the extra for the sleeper car! It is definitely worth it. Trust me on this.

Shortly after we left the station, I became aware of a nuisance problem. There was a rhythmic clunk, clunk, clunk accompanied by a very irritating little jerk as we rolled along. Other folks noticed it too and we all began looking around at each other with questioning looks on faces. We started talking amongst ourselves and finally concluded one of the wheels must have a flat spot on it. A lady sitting behind us said she had been traveling Amtrak for years and she has noticed in the last couple that maintenance has been severely lacking and service has really gone downhill. She thinks it's because Amtrak has been cutting expenses to the bone by not replacing workers who leave and delaying all maintenance not absolutely required. She thinks that's also why there have been a number of Amtrak derailments in the last couple of years. We sure had issues on our trip and since this was our first, I had no previous experience to compare or not take her word for it.

We had not left until almost 11:00PM so the car's lights had been dimmed and most of the occupants soon covered up in their blankets (the cars were always refreshingly coldish, especially at night) and tried to get some shuteye. There was a sliver of a moon, but not near enough light to see anything but shadows darker than the night as we sped along. We came to Lawrence and then Topeka, stopping for just a couple of minutes in both. Next came Newton where we slowed, but didn't stop. By then it was dark-thirty and the town had long since closed up for the night - just a few street lights and security lamps shining. As far as I could tell, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. Before we came to Dodge City, the soft, haunting sound of the horn in the dark and the gentle swaying lulled me to asleep in spite of that infernal clunk, clunk, clunk. I missed Garden City and crossing the state line into Colorado.

We stopped in Lamar, Colorado at 7:00AM, which woke me up. I had managed to sleep a goodly part of 4 hours and needed to walk around to get the kinks and folds out of my poor old abused body. I made my way to a working toilet room and then to the snack car for a cup of morning coffee to sip as I watched the world go by through the big windows. Now this was what I was expecting when we decided to travel by train!

At 7:45, I made my way to the sleeper car to wake up the Momma-woman and retrieve my ticket from Youngest-daughter so we could eat breakfast at our 8:00 reservation time. When the announcement came over the speaker system, we made our way to the dining car and were promptly escorted to a table for four where we were seated across from another couple. All of the white-cloth-covered tables seat 4 and if there are not 4 in your party, they seat another couple with you. This was one of the things I wasn't sure about at first, but turned out to be most enjoyable.

Our breakfast companions were a really interesting couple in their mid to late 50's. As we sat down, we shook hands and introduced ourselves. We learned the man lives in California and the woman lives outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico on a remote, mountain-top ranch. They never did say whether they are married or what, but they don't live together. They do, however, visit each other several times a year plus they travel together several times each year and they've been doing it this way "for years." Whatever works for you is good and this arrangement obviously works for them. Since Momma-woman and I both like Santa Fe, we discussed that and when they found out we're from Texas, they said they have plans to go to Big Bend National Park next year. That's one of my all-time favorite places and we've been numerous times so we gave travel advice and answered their questions. The meal, the usual breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, toast, juice and coffee, was about the same quality as a good IHOP or Denny's, and the conversation with friendly people was interesting and very enjoyable. All too soon, they were rushing us out as they needed the table for the next scheduled group of people.

3 human sardines crammed in the
lower bunk
We went back to the sleeper and I tried to get Youngest-daughter to go to the seat I had tried to sleep in the night before so I could actually lay down and take a nap and digest breakfast. Somehow all three of us ended up sardined together in the lower bunk. This lasted for about 3 minutes of laughing and saying, "Go away!" "No, I want to stay here!" "Get off me!" "But I'm cute and I'm your daughter! You would kick your poor daughter out?" "Yes, go! Come back when you're rich and can support us in the manner to which we would like to become accustomed!" I finally decided I would crawl into the upper bunk for my well-deserved rest. Youngest-daughter didn't think I could get up there because to her, I'm, you know, old and decrepit. Much to her surprise, this decrepit, old man made it up there lickety-split. OK, maybe not lickety-split, but I did wiggle my way up there after only a few grunts and groans of effort. Then they decided both of them would go to the coach seats. Great. After all of that and NOW you girls decide to leave me in peace. You people are not funny.

I crawled back out of that top bunk because there's no window up there like there is in the lower and I wanted to see what I was missing. I took a Colorado picture, I believe it was around La Junta, but I'm not sure. Amtrak doesn't announce where you are so it's hard to figure out until you arrive in a town and see the name on a sign. If you like knowing where you are between towns, I suggest you bring a portable GPS. When I woke up a short time later as we were coming into Trinidad, the scenery had changed to forested. For the rest of the trip, the scenery would be wonderful and very enjoyable to watch. However, we were only about halfway to our destination and the scenery and our meal-time companions would prove to be the only enjoyable part.

Trinidad, Colorado
Watching the scenery was really pleasant so I decided to make my way to the lounge car to watch from its big windows. Coming into the car, I found my way blocked by a large group of Mennonites. I admit I don't know much about this particular group of religious people except I think they are a tight community group, family oriented, and against violence. What I now know about them for sure is they are not adverse to taking over a train car that is supposed to be for everyone to enjoy. There were dozens of them taking up every seat and standing in the aisle. They had board games spread out on all of the tables with people standing looking on and totally blocking the aisle. Women were sitting and standing everywhere sewing and embroidering. OK, so I wouldn't be sitting in the lounge car, but I needed to get through to reach the car where my wife and daughter were. I could see several people on the opposite end of the car trying to get through also. When seeing that somebody needed to pass by them in the aisle, instead of moving to the side a little, they would ignore you, pretend they didn't see you and refuse to move. After saying excuse me a couple of times with no response, I gently put my hand on one guy's shoulder, gave a very slight push and said excuse me again. Most people would say sorry or something like that and move over, but not these people. It was like they had no idea you were there. I finally gave the guy a firmer push and he looked at me like I was disturbing him, but he did move over enough that I could get by. I had to do this 4 or 5 times to get by everyone. I thought there might be a fight brewing because one of the guys coming through on the opposite side began pushing harder than I was, but nothing came of it except we all finally got to the other side.

Church along the tracks outside Trinidad
When it came time for lunch, the Momma-woman and I had to navigate our way back through the lounge car. I guess some of the Mennonites had gone to the snack car for lunch as there wasn't as many of them, but they had left their board games and sewing set up on every table and jackets and shoes on every chair with a number of the adults sitting guard. Someone said that didn't surprise them because Mennonites as a group think they are better than anyone else. I don't know about that, but I know their actions sure were not appreciated by other travelers.

Lunch was again enjoyable. The food was tasty and we were seated with a young married couple from Germany visiting America for the first time. They had been to New York City and Chicago and were now traveling across country by train to see the Grand Canyon and then on to Los Angeles. They said they had been very pleasantly surprised by how friendly and helpful all Americans are. We gave them some travel tips, invited them to come to Texas the next time and found out about their little town and living in Germany. We left looking forward to supper to see who we would meet.

Old mine
We negotiated the Mennonite gauntlet through the lounge car, collected Youngest-daughter and all three of us went back to our sleeper for a short siesta. The rest of the afternoon went fine with a little reading, a little internet browsing, and a lot of scenery watching through our window. During that time, three announcements were made - the first informed us that several of the toilets were broken and wouldn't be fixed until we stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This prompted a rush by us to the sleeper car toilets, but all of them worked. The 2nd announcement informed everyone that for safety purposes, shoes must be worn when walking around the train and that the lounge car was intended for all passengers and seats could not be taken up with personal items in order to reserve them for extended periods of time. Anyone not adhering to the rules were subject to being removed from the train at the next stop. (We heard later there had been many complaints about the Mennonites who had homesteaded the lounge car.) The last announcement came as we left Albuquerque letting us know the toilets had been fixed.

Supper was once again good and we had a nice chat with an older couple who were headed to Los Angeles. They were friendly enough, but seemed to be more food focused so there wasn't as much talking this time. Certainly not unenjoyable, but not as memorable as our previous meal companions. Afterwards, I let the girls head back to the sleeper and I went to the coach seat for what was supposed to be just a couple more hours until we reached our departure at Flagstaff, Arizona. As I passed through the lounge car, I noticed the Mennonites all had their shoes on and they only took up about half of the car.

We were somewhere between Gallup, New Mexico and Winslow, Arizona when the train slowed down, pulled onto a side track and stopped. After a few minutes of everyone wondering what the heck was going on, an announcement came that we had to wait for a train coming from the other way to pass and that it should be just a few minutes delay. We waited. And waited. And waited.

Watching the scenery go by on this leg
of the trip never got old
Almost two hours later, still sitting in the same spot, a "lady" sitting three rows ahead of me, in a loud voice, said, "I could have walked there by now!" Everyone chuckled. That was the wrong thing to do as it only encouraged her. In a louder voice, she really began complaining and, much to everyone's shock, began peppering her complaints with a few choice adult language words. Then she proceeded to complain about how parents can't discipline children today because of the G*d government and kids are growing up to be f*king wimps. I couldn't believe nobody was saying anything to her. I don't claim to be anywhere near a saint and am not fervently religious, but there were a few children in our car and a number of older folks and there was no need for them to be exposed to such vitriol so I got up, walked to her seat, asked her to please watch her language and went back to my seat. She was quiet for a couple of minutes, but started up again saying the G*d government had no business telling people what they could and couldn't do and "they can kiss my ass." About then the conductor came up the aisle from behind us, walked straight to that woman and told her if she didn't stop using foul language she would be removed from the train. And that was the last word we heard from her.

New Mexico
After almost three hours of not going anywhere, a train finally came past us and we proceeded on our way. We stopped in Winslow for 30 minutes and knowing Flagstaff would be the next stop, I went to join my wife and daughter in the sleeper car. After pulling out, the train seemed to be going very slow, but there was no announcement as to why. We had been told our attendant would come by about 30 minutes before our stop to ensure we were packed and ready to depart, but she never showed. By now it was 1:00AM. 6 sleeper car passengers other than us were getting off in Flagstaff so we all kind of took care of ourselves, looking at the little paper tags above the doors to make sure all Flagstaff people were up. The 9 of us gathered by the door as the train pulled into the station and waited for our attendant or someone to open the door for us to get off. The train stopped, but nobody came to open the door. We saw other people getting off and walking by so we started trying to figure out how to open the door ourselves. About that time, our attendant arrived. One side of her hair was pushed flat and her clothes were rather disheveled so it was obvious she had been sleeping. So much for the "porter to attend to your needs" advertisement. She opened the door (there's a metal bar at the top to pull over) and let us off.

I don't know if it is like this at all stations, but there were 5 or 6 cabs available and waiting. Our little group had gotten off later than the others due to our sleeping attendant, but we managed to grab the last-but-one. After the cabbie and I stowed our luggage in the car's trunk and the girls had seated themselves in the back seat, I stood for a few seconds watching the train pull out as it headed on down the dark tracks, fading into the distance.

The cabbie was nice and as he drove us to the Howard Johnson hotel, he informed us the reason we had been almost 4 hours behind schedule was because some poor drunk woman had wandered onto the tracks and had been hit and killed by the train that had passed us going the other way. The police had closed the tracks until they completed their investigation. I wondered if that rude and crude woman would feel bad about her statements if she knew about the dead woman being the cause of our delay, but I figured, no, probably not. It was a very short ride, the cabbie didn't try to cheat us by taking a long, winding route and it was the middle of the night so I gave him a twenty for the $8 fare.

Sunset picture taken by Youngest-daughter Katie
We checked into the Howard Johnson and got a downstairs room. It was older and there were a few minor things that needed attention, but it was clean, everything worked, the A/C quickly got the room nice and chilly for sleeping and the two queen beds were comfortable. Not the height of luxury, but it was reasonable in price and we would be leaving about 8:00 the next morning so it served our purpose just fine. I was the last one in bed and as I drifted off to sleep, my last thought was that my fantasy of train travel would never be the same.