Over the months I’ve become enamored with the slow pace of train travel via Amtrak. After several treks on Amtrak’s popular western routes — Coast Starlight, California Zephyr and Capital Corridor — and a yearning to catch up on years of delayed travel I embarked on a journey from San Francisco to Ojai to Los Angeles to Santa Fe and back. A near 70 hour trek across California, Arizona and New Mexico riding Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, Pacific Surfliner and Southwest Chief route through the American Southwest in July during the year twenty and twenty-two. An itinerary was hastily whipped up a week before departure from San Francisco.
Amtrak became an appealing option for slow transit for a very unexpected reason. Air travel has become logistically fraught due to the lingering effects of pandemic induced calamity. Airports are rarely efficient or places to look forward to — our friends in Homeland Security to thank for that — even more so with flights being cancelled making you a gambling man with transit. “Will my flight be delayed, arrive on time even fail to show up?” A question I don’t care to entertain right now. Should you live in a small towns with poor modes of transit — Barstow, Winslow, Gallup, Salinas, Dunsmuir, Klamath Falls etc — Amtrak is a lifeline to the larger cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Kansas City and Chicago. Should you want to see sights impossible to capture while driving and tour the United State’s majestic territories, Amtrak becomes the clear option.
Despite its oddities and inefficiencies — the system had done so much with so little — riding Amtrak becomes one of the most proud things you can do as a resident of the United States as you fling yourself from major city to small town across multiple states unchanged by time drinking in almost every natural wonder of the world. Let me know when Italy builds a competitor to Arches National Park and I can get there by train several countries away on one seat — I’ll be at the ribbon cutting ceremony.
All multi-states Amtrak routes west of Illinois begin or end in Chicago or Los Angeles. San Francisco, unfortunately does not lay claim to an elaborate rail station (yet) on par with the aforementioned cities. It wouldn’t matter much as Amtrak departures are an event of little fan fare void of the security theater and casual degradation of major airports. You step on the train, show your ticket and settle in to your seat. A full day’s journey await leaving San Francisco on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight route. The 11 hour coastal trek through California is an adventure that deserve its own entry to be expanded upon later. By night I’d arrive in Los Angeles’ Union Station. A cathedral to transit adorn in Art Deco and Mission Revival styles located in the city’s downtown — and an arduous 10 minute car ride from my hotel.
Amtrak’s multi-state and California routes, Los Angeles’ regional rail and metro lines all meet here in ceremony and efficiency. Entering or departing Union Station imbues a sense of grandeur upon your journey. The station layout is easy to navigate and straight to the point — a grand hall is flanked by pickup food options and restaurants getting out of your way leading to an underground train platform dotted with robust signage. Dense heat emitted from diesel machines overworking in the Los Angeles heat wallops you immediately. Union Station would serve as my hub for reaching Ojai, Santa Fe and eventually San Francisco across multiple returns.
Going east on the Southwest Chief while arriving from San Francisco on the Coast Starlight demands a one-day layover as the Chief leaves several hours before the arrival of the Coast Starlight. These multi-state routes run once a day raising the stakes of making your connections. A forced layover turned into a weekend of fun and festivities with family and friends in Los Angeles. A welcome proposition and an easy way to turn Amtrak’s weaknesses — single departures routes per route with little coordination — into a slower pace of travel forcing you to absorb the town and cities Amtrak serves.
Los Angeles to Santa Fe — Southwest Chief #4
My departure from Los Angeles would be at 5:55 PM on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief #4 route — one of more than 30 plus numbered routes. Late evening is an odd time to leave on a Sunday when dealing with early afternoon hotel check out. Thankfully, downtown Los Angeles isn’t short on ways to waste time. This route snakes east toward San Bernardino a few hours outside of Los Angeles before going north through the Cajone Pass and Mojave, flirting with an entrance to Nevada before settling into a route along the higher elevations in the norther regions of Arizona and New Mexico and finally ending in Albuquerque. The Southwest Chief continues its 2,265-mile trek to Chicago by way of a northern passage to Colorado — while tactically maneuvering its mountain ranges — Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri then Illinois. I wouldn’t be going as far this trip. But I could.
The first few hours traversing Los Angeles are an unexciting slog through an industrialized sprawl. Around sunset the true splendor of this trip begins to unfold — an ascent through the Cajone Pass. This is one of the most optimal routes connecting Southern California with the Mojave Desert. The Cajone Pass is not without peril however. Chaotic, beating winds form at the northern end of the pass causing havoc for trains, cars and planes alike as far south as the Banning Pass and San Gorgonio mountains. Much is demanded from train engineers negotiating this steep, curved ascent and descent. Temperatures around the summer range in the 100’s and become incompatible with human life. The festivities unfortunately are muted due to the darkness, knowing we’re ascending through the pass is no less awe-inspiring.
We safely enter the Mojave late at night with an opportune viewing for star gazing. I tuck in for the night hoping to be well rested for a sunrise wake up with time to explore Flagstaff, Arizona — our first proper fresh air stop with plenty of time for immediate adventures on foot. The two enemies to sleep on an overnight trip in a cabin are noise and movement. Noise is easy to overcome with proper ear plugs. They’ll filter all sorts of mechanical oddities — remnants of Amtrak’s aging rolling stock — and the occasional conductor announcement or horn blare. Movement is a far more difficult enemy to defeat, one I gave up fighting. The sway of a train is dictated by tracks it rides on. Rail in major areas are well kept but out here in terrain constantly shifted by greater forces, uneven rail will rock your cabin far more than the worst turbulence an airplane could manage. Getting into a state where this doesn’t bother you may require a chemical aid, a truly carefree mind to the natural world or participation in another reality where sleep doesn’t matter. Option 3 would be my inevitable choice as my first bit of real sleep happens as we enter Arizona and I miss an opportunity to visit Flagstaff. Waking up groggy I hastily get ready and waddle to the Observation Car. I’m much too excited to sleep anyways. The wonder of Arizona’s desert is a good antidote to a sleep deprived mind, after all, the whole point of this absurd adventure is to take in as much of the geography as possible and I have to hold true to that.
Finally, breakfast is called. I decide now is a good time to continue reading my guide — A Land Of Many Frontiers, a convenient find in an Ojai bookshop — on the American Southwest. I’m informed communal seating has returned when a passenger infinitely eager to conjure up conversation joins me across the table. We exchange pleasantries, mine far less enthusiastic with a face conveying exhaustion and any remaining interest reserved for the book in hand. The meal is dominated by an overly jubilant man monologuing to me about the mundane observations of his life — the HOA wrote him a concerning letter his lawn should be manicured more, the price of gas slowly increasing, just where is everyone at 6:12 AM, aren’t they hungry? I can’t be mad, I enjoy the company and while I don’t care to engage, my table mate seems just as content to monologue to any sort of audience. I’m guzzling coffee in a sort of desperation that I’ll snap back with some sort of enthusiasm to engage which unfortunately never materializes. The man finishes his meal and moves to another table for conversation with another, slightly more willing couple over a second cup of coffee. I’ve no doubt violated the sacred rule of Amtrak — thou shalt eat and talk with everyone — which may lead to some spiritual bankruptcy of which I will unabashedly confess to. I’ll have to rid my sins through though the indulgence of conversations in the communal Observation Car later for lunch.
No shortage of characters occupy any Amtrak trip from Boy Scouts ever so excited to broadcast their journeys as if they’re all Odysseus thirsting to save a Penelope, an unsavory individual who may be on the run from the Feds becoming friendly when he realizes you share his disdain for authority, the eager to adventure elderly couple coming from Alabama to San Francisco to visit our 7th wonder of the world — the trolley car. All curious audiences but people I’d never meet in my day-to-day. I meet an Amish family who mistake me for a fellow member based on beard alone. As a Middle Eastern man traveling on any sort of TSA controlled transport, this is the best I can ask for in mixups as usually the facial hair leads to more unsavory prejudices. I inform them I’m not Amish and decline their offer to join their community. After serious thought, perhaps a world without technology would be good for the soul. Perhaps, I need more coffee.
The day continues on with ever unfolding and breathtaking natural wonders. Verdant rolling hills. Stunning mesas. Choice decisions to lay rail through a canyon. Lunch becomes an uneventful ceremony by myself in my cabin. I’m too busy absorbing the new-to-me terrain of New Mexico. A child of the Mojave Desert and Los Angeles Basin, forests and monsoons being equal occupants in a vast sprawl of sand and dirt whipped into shape by tectonic forces if an exciting new discovery. I feel like a little kid at Disneyland awed into frenzy by every new animatronic and ride. This being my first time in New Mexico, doesn’t feel like my last. I’m excited to taste hot desert air in Albuquerque and continue on to Santa Fe. I’ll spend a week here humbled by floods, storms — the never ending joys of Monsoon Season — heat and mountain hiking.
Santa Fe to Los Angeles — Southwest Chief #3
Departures for Amtrak can be a blessing or a curse. If you’re begging for your trip to last as long as possible, you’d be in good company. Should you be a betting man, timing the inefficiencies of US rail transport to your favor can be a costly wager with little reward. I decided against departing from Albuquerque by way of a connecting local train — the Rail Runner — opting for the closest stop to Santa Fe in Lamy. Santa Fe exists in an excellent spot, tactically speaking, nestled in jaw dropping, beautiful mountain ranges cradling its inhabitants against invaders. From the Rio Grande to San Francisco, Spaniards have done the Herculean task plotting optimal trade routes, towns to grow and ranches for farming. For their work, we’ve inherited a blueprint to persevering in hostile environments and how to live as a community.
Which makes arriving in Lamy an unfortunately forgettable experience. Its days a rail junction long gone and untouched by modern cellular technology. Sending a text message invokes the same nostalgia and pain of the Pony Express delivering a letter across desert plains waiting days for your recipient to receive correspondence. Gambling on a late minute arrival to Lamy’s Amtrak station I bet on a 10 minute wait from arrival to boarding — a too close for comfort arrival for a train that arrives only once day, but to be honest, another day in Santa Fe would be divine. 30 minutes passed and I began to accept that more powerful forces were against my bet coming to fruition leaving me on the losing side. A cell signal would be nice to know how long I’d need to wait. 50 minutes would pass before a train horn would blare and all of us would awake from our heat induced daze to clamor on as fast as possible. The thrill of 20+ hour adventure on the Southwest Chief was about to begin.
A troupe of Boy Scouts bunched on and bounced around. The same Amish family I met in passing from Los Angeles were curiously still aboard. An elderly couple at peace with the calamity of the observation car gazed longingly in the distance to sprawling green fields. While Lamy is a short distance from Santa Fe, connecting rail lines take a dramatically different route revealing more expansive and verdant plains before forming into picturesque mountains. Eventually we merge with the Rail Runner and encounter rolling delays, setting all aboard back a few hours altogether. Storms that had been plaguing me all week continue to form in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains bubbling with intense ferocity and threaten to hamper our journey with enough rain to conjure floods. Evening falls and I’m watching a view to the south this time around. Wide open plains littered with an occasional blip of light from a car. Sunset is far less dramatic this turn as storm clouds from the north continue their unrelenting march south. I tune out and stare until true nightfall sets and flashes of lightning strike across the sky. I was hoping to see Flagstaff during our pit stop but we won’t realistically make it until midnight at the earliest, an early morning on the schedule and poor sleep demanded I turn in early. An overnight journey still contains some form of angst that so much exists outside your window you can’t possibly experience it. All while you’re desperately hoping to adapt your body to the uneven sway of train riding uneven track so you can comfortably sleep.
Waking up on Amtrak is always a surprise. Should you need to be at your destination by a certain time after an overnight trip, your stomach may be pooling with dread. “How far behind schedule am I?” A high stakes question with too much risk for no reward leading you to reschedule a whole itinerary. Should your plans be flexible and punctuality not matter where you’re traveling to, you may be rewarded with sunrise in a place otherwise shroud in darkness earlier in your trip. I awoke around 6 AM expecting an announcement for breakfast service indicating our trip was coming to a close and the punishing industrialized sprawl of Los Angeles would be just outside my window. I lay in my makeshift cot having gotten better sleep than previous night but aware some light was starting to seep into my cabin. No breakfast announcement meant the end is further away — our call into Los Angeles should have been 7 AM. Realizing the delay meant I could be in an entirely different region, I pulled open the blinds praying for remote terrain if at least for the lack of judging gazes from passing vehicles to a frantic man wearing briefs pressing his face against the window.
What greeted me was certainly the Mojave Desert. Pink and purple hues painted the mountains in my field of view. Desert scrub blurred by wistfully as our train barreled ahead at maximum operating speed. The not yet visible sun telegraphing its ascent with an orange glow crowning the mountain it was behind. Outside temperatures were pushing 100 °F. A truly hellish scenario though not expected for the summer months. I was beginning to thank the 30 degree difference A/C was affording me. I put on some clothes in case a conductor popped by with a status update or breakfast order and slunk in my seat watching the Mojave desert shift to orange and red gradients.
The ear bludgeoning sound of steel scrapping against raggedy track lurching us side to side felt like a small price to pay for inhabiting hostile, yet beautiful terrain during a time when the cost would result in diminished compatibility with life. Despite this, my wonder and awe was immeasurable. The desert is a curious place of eternal mystery. Waking to the Mojave Desert felt like the apex of this journey. Traveling for days on end to find the last puzzle piece… to a puzzle I wasn’t sure I was solving — was this some deeper meaning I was lacking or just a convenient alignment with the sun, earth and sand? Perhaps Edward Abbey summarizes the desert’s complexities best:
Where is the heart of the desert? I used to think that somewhere in the American Southwest, impossible to say exactly where, all of these wonders which intrigue the spirit would converge upon a climax—and resolution. Perhaps in the vicinity of Weaver's Needle in the Superstition Range; in the Funeral Mountains above Death Valley; in the Smoke Creek Desert of Nevada; among the astonishing monoliths of Monument Valley; in the depths of Grand Canyon; somewhere along the White Rim under Grand View Point; in the heart of the Land of Standing Rocks.
Not so. I am convinced now that the desert has no heart, that it presents a riddle which has no answer, and that the riddle itself is an illusion created by some limitation or exaggeration of the displaced human consciousness. This at least is what I tell myself when I fix my attention on what is rational, sensible and realistic, believing that I have overcome at last that gallant infirmity of the soul called romance—that illness, that disease, that insidious malignancy which must be chopped out of the heart once and for all, ground up, cooked, burnt to ashes... consumed.
And for so long as I stay away from the desert, keep to the mountains or the sea or the city, it is possible to think myself cured. Not easy: one whiff of juniper smoke, a few careless words, one reckless and foolish poem—The Wasteland, for instance—and I become as restive, irritable, brooding and dangerous as a wolf in a cage. In answer to the original question, then, I find myself in the end returning to the beginning, and can only say, as I said in the first place: There is something about the desert. ... There is something there which the mountains, no matter how grand and beautiful, lack; which the sea, no matter how shining and vast and old, does not have. — Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey
I checked my phone once the sun was higher and far too blinding to discover freight traffic slowed down our journey by 5 hours. Somewhere around Flagstaff a slow moving traffic jam coagulated. Thankful for the inefficiency in US rail for unlocking a new realm for viewing and further pushing my arrival to Los Angeles to enjoy further ascents through desert mountains during daylight. A prayer for my fellow travelers who would be missing one-a-day connections for the remainder of their trip to other far flung areas of the US. As we pushed through the remote communities and began our crawl through the Cajone Pass, I couldn’t help being drunk on not just the natural wonder in view but being able to fully imbibe. Making this same ascent with my father on road trips to Nevada was always a nerve wracking experience requiring maximum concentration. Car problems — of which always seem to crop up here — are not easy to recover from. Drivers not capable enough to negotiate steep curves present more risk than fellowship in navigating a snake like labyrinth of rock and sand. This time, I was free from those worries. I could see every part of the pass I’d overlook maniacally staring down the minivan in front wondering how it would take the next sharp turn and whether I’d need to smash the brakes to compensate.
The Cajone Pass started to drift away. Our ascent and descent concluded without any difficulties. Natural wonders afforded from the more remote parts of the desert blurred to the industrialized outskirts of Los Angeles wiping away the glow of train travel. At this point, the experience shifts to an elongated commute to some sort of destination one which is already operating behind schedule several hours. I figured now was a good time to put in that breakfast order, work in a nap and douse myself in caffeine for whatever adventure lay next.
Before noon I stepped foot in Union Station for what seemed liked the umpteenth time — a cathedral for transit imbuing a sense of wonder on any passenger arriving or departing. At this point, Union Station has all the familiarity of a local airport down to nuances like the ideal time to call an Uber during high demand, where to stand for easy pick up without blocking traffic, what part of the cracked tile floor would snag my luggage’s wheels. I was awash in some feeling of triumph that the majority of this long journey was well behind me. My next leg would continue in a couple days on the Coastal Starlight returning to San Francisco.
For now, I’d be spending another weekend in Los Angeles, conveniently at the Ace in Downtown for what feels like the conclusion of a hero’s journey I get to share with friends.