With all the traveling I’ve been doing of late on the internet: East Coast, West Coast, Midwest, Canada, Central America, Australia, England, etc. a different form of traveling comes to mind a type experienced between 1991 and 1995 when I rode the rails. I did this not once, not twice, but thrice from Ventura, California to the hometown of St. Clair Shores just north of Detroit, Michigan.
Between 1986 and 1997 I assisted in film processing and selling camera accessories at a locally owned camera and video/film store in Ventura where I met a man and his wife who are retired and avid train buffs crisscrossing the states on Amtrak passenger trains. After each trip they brought their film in for processing and excited to relive their trip spread out photographs on the counter right in the store and went over each with me. My love for trains began on summer vacations in northern Michigan so, when the gentleman went over his pictures I listened intently.
For the first 14 years of my life the Pykonen Family ventured north from St Clair Shores to the village of Atlantic Mine, Michigan, 12 hours one way, to visit Dad’s mother Lulu Pyykkonen where freight trains thundered past her home a mere 25 feet away on a line laid at the beginning of the 20th Century. The trains shuffled copper ore rock from mine to mills on Lake Superior a few miles to the west, but underground mining fell off due to cost so company’s found the stamp sands (by-product of the mills) to contain a lot of copper which continued to keep men employed and the trains passing Lulu’s home. This too died out and, ironically, the last trains carried the remnants of the mill and Americas first mineral boom to the scrap yards in the late 1960’s. Watching these long trains lumber past her home all day, wheels clashing on rail secured a lifelong love for all things to do with trains so that when I came to talking with this gentleman at the camera store about his excursions excitement grew within to create my own.
March 1991, Ventura, California, setback. The Coast Starlight (Amtrak combined Southern Pacific passenger train names Coast Daylight and Starlight) traveling south from Portland, Oregon is delayed two and one half hours due to washed out track and when I do board the conductor checking tickets looks at me and speaks, “All the way to Chicago,” and I reply with the affirmative. I detect some sarcasm in these words but not even a jealous conductor can wave the uncertainty I feel. The train arrives at Union Station in Los Angeles,
a very young station at 52 years with Spanish and Art Deco architect, clock tower, surrounded with palm trees, it screams Southern California. From the outside all is calm but step through the heavy brass doors a beehive of activity engulfs you. The Southwest Chief, my connecting train to Chicago, has already left as it could not wait so those heading east climb aboard Amtrak’s bus service and are driven two hours north to Barstow, California where the Southwest Chief awaits. What a way to travel. The Chief started running in 1937 under the name Super Chief and became popular with Hollywood stars going to Chicago then in 1971 Amtrak took over the failing line renaming it The Southwest Chief with the route roughly following the Mother Road Route 66. The bus makes the connection in Barstow around 1 a.m., we lumber aboard, and shortly after the Southwest Chief chugs up to speed as it passes south of the Mojave National Preserve and on into Arizona south of the Grand Canyon near pine surrounded Flagstaff with the San Francisco Peaks on the northern horizon.
I booked a reservation in coach as opposed to a sleeper due to cost and having flown so many times I prefer the ambience provided by the company of others even when sleeping. The only downside to coach is there are no showers so a spit bath is in order washing the face and hair (only three days of this but most passenger do the same so…) in the restrooms. Booking a sleeper may be an expectant way to travel by train what with a bit more privacy for those intimate moments but I am alone so tucking the bags under the seat I catch some sleep but not for long as the kid wakens. Walking from one car to another takes a bit of a balancing act as the cars sway left and right so timing is important and by the time I reach the snack bar for coffee and a donut I have mastered it.
At first, I am nervous not knowing what three days in a train would be like for an independent spirit such as me and settle into the observation car sipping coffee as the American Southwest passes by: plateaus, snow-capped mountain, remnants of adobe homes, and tee-pee shaped motels for the weary road traveler. My mind gets distracted and discomfort floats away so with Sony Walkman, book, and journal I spread out in the observation car for the experience of a life time. Sanctuary lasted only two hours for a couple sits down in empty seats next to me and with exchanges of, “where are you coming from and going to,” the day fills with enlightening conversation. Because there is more room on trains talk tends to be more in-depth, lively where in an airplane room is scarce and so too are chats.
Because the trip from Oxnard to Detroit takes three days and there is no overnight stops in hotels meals are served in the diner car (others brought own snacks to save a buck)requiring reservations. I have watched countless movies that romanticize train travel and the diner car with all the main characters seated together so it never dawns on me tables are actually shared with strangers alike due to limited space. So, for the experience I book dinner and breakfast just once as I prefer the openness of the snack bar where the meals are not gourmet as in the dinner car but sufficient.
Trains are an excellent way to see hidden America that you miss when flying and even from a car as they fly by forgotten towns on Interstates, towns such as Minot, Havre, La Junta, Emporia, Naperville, and Holbrook. Some of these towns the tracks are laid right through the their living room revealing cars and junk piled up, portions of walls hanging on while the rest has fallen, adobe homes in need of repair, and train depots some made of stone to last others of wood that could use a good paint job. Along the northeast corner of New Mexico a sign on the highway we parallel informs the motorist “rest stop one mile ahead” and as the train passes there are no facilities, gone, nothing so the poor motorist with clinched legs must hold a bit longer. Late at night the train passes through the famous Raton Pass (huge lit red sign on distant hillside announces this so the event can even be marked at night) and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from New Mexico into Colorado. The Southwest Chief picks up passengers at Dodge City, Kansas and from the looks of the weary depot it is hard to believe that Earl Flynn and U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon tamed this town. Unplanned stops are common so after leaving Dodge City and its past behind the train comes to a halt somewhere between here and Kansas City, sits idling, waiting no conductor announces whether a freight train is coming, problem with tracks, or someone hit by train we just sit and wait. Once the train begins moving again we pass through Marceline, Missouri where the town folk proudly display that you are now passing through the birthplace of Walt Disney. Wow you do not see this from 30,000 feet however, I wonder what it may look if you could, You are now viewing the hometown of Walt Disney, courtesy of Google Maps. Also in Marceline there is a gazebo close to the tracks with flags flying, a red Santa Fe caboose nearby, and a restored steam locomotive with coal car and Disneyland R.R. on the side. Suddenly a strange sensation overcomes me as the west melts into the Midwest and I feel in an altogether different world. The Old West, the Midwest a world of red-brick homes, tornadoes, cracked and pothole streets from snow and ice, salt used on the roads during winter, and green, green, green grass.
The Mississippi river divides two worlds, east and west and as The Chief crosses at Fort Madison, tug boats ply the waters and I step back in time, to a life left so many years ago, not much seems to change except the seasons. I am lost in thought. Two and one half days after leaving Oxnard, California the Southwest Chief chugs into Chicago’s Union Station leaving me five hours before the Wolverine leaves for the last leg into Detroit. I choose to stroll around Chicago, take in some sites, and snap some pictures. Venturing into a nearby mall I stop in a Starbucks for the first time and order a shot of espresso that fuels the walk back to the station with a couple of hours to spare which is spent roaming the inside of the Great Hall and the many spaces of stores and restaurants that branch off.
Boarding the Wolverine excitement grows as the journey nears end. This line, once owned by the mighty New York Central, travels south of Lake Michigan, then northeast stopping in Niles (known as the City of Four Flags as once occupied by France, Britain, and Spain, today by the United States) and Dowagiac, Michigan (the name means “fishing water” from Potawatomi Indians as the Dowagiac River is nearby) where few passengers board. The last leg is at night, pitch dark night save the occasional car or street light. Then the city of Battle Creek, named after a skirmish between a white survey party and Indians and famous for a crunchy breakfast cereal then Kalamazoo popularized by Glenn Miller in 1942 with the song, “I Got a Gale in Kalamazoo.” The journey terminates at signal-sized mobile home like trailer Detroit uses for a depot as the Michigan Central Depot with its towering office facade is abandoned.
The 1991 train trip made me a harden veteran of train travel and it was not the last as I again ventured to Detroit in 1992 for my sister’s wedding, this time on the Coast Starliner along the California coast past the Vandenberg Air Base which was going to launch space shuttles but abandoned due to poor construction. The Starliner goes through Portland, Oregon along the Columbian River, through Glacier National Park and Montana grasslands where nature put on a spectacular light show with some heavy rain, through North Dakota, Minnesota into Chicago and the Wolverine to Detroit. The last voyage in 1995 for a family reunion in northern Michigan, which I stretched into three weeks, again the Coast Starliner this time to Oakland, California where I transferred to the California Zephyr where all heads craned up as the train meandered through the Rocky Mountains. The Zephyr terminates in Chicago as well then on old friend the Wolverine to Detroit. On the way back I stopped off at Grand Junction, Colorado to visit former California roommates Rob and Kim, amazing territory. I have not taken a trip by train since but the memories of desert sage, red rocks, and small towns I’d never heard linger keeping the romance that is train travel alive, it is unrivaled.