Rosanna and two of her brothers are aboard the Amtrak Southwest Chief on a rare winter break from the farm.
12:45 p.m. - MST La Junta, CO The conductor had an announcement: “We will be stopping for a little bit here. Smokers (cough,cough,hack!) will be allowed off for a smoke break.”
We burst into giggles over the funny timing of the conductor’s cough. We decided to get off for a bit of fresh mountain air and exercise. We held our breath as we ducked through the haze of smokers outside the cars, then quickly ran the 5 car lengths to the front of the train, and back again:
2:35 p.m. - Just left Colorado. New Mexico has a lot more trees than I thought they did. The boys have spotted a herd of mule deer and antelope in the mountains. For a half hour, the tracks follow the old Santa Fe Trail, now a nice dirt road. We pass through a tunnel at the Raton summit, This is the highest point on the train line at 7,530 feet.
8:30 p.m. - Albuquerque, N.M. almost five hours late. We typically have an hour layover while they fuel, but they pared it down to a 10 minute stop to save time. The last time I was here, I was about 5 years old. As usual, Dad got to talking with some folks and didn’t notice the time until the “All Aboard!” announcement came over the PA in the station.
The train had already started to roll and all but one conductor had closed their doors. Dad passed us children up to the conductor while jogging alongside, and everyone got safely aboard. But the fear of that occurrence has stayed sharply on my mind and probably impacted my life.
11 p.m. - We are picking up pace on this flat desert. Since its dark, there’re no meals being served and fewer folks walking around, so It doesn’t matter if the cars rock a bit more with the high speeds. Steven’s GPS now says 90 mph.
6:30 a.m. - I wake up feeling quite rested. It makes a big difference when you have twice as much room to sleep! We. crossed through Arizona during the night. We are just outside Needles, California. Mom calls me trying to find some of the meat she’s needing to deliver today. She can only locate half of the chicken wings she needs.
10 a.m. - We wrap up the games we are playing (there were four games going at once in the dome car) so that we can begin packing up our stuff. “There are two sticks of licorice left: someone take them! Here are three handfuls of popcorn: eat it!” We condensed the food down enough so that we now have two less tote bags to carry!
The man operating the café car bids us, over the PA system, a “wonderful rest of the trip, and a wonderful rest of our life!’ He is extraordinarily polite, having the manners of a waiter in an expensive restaurant. Not what you’d expect to be running a snack bar.
11:30 a.m. - We pull into Los Angeles, which is, from all appearances, the Graffiti City. We gather our luggage and huff arid puff a quarter of a mile or better to the check-in counter. For the L.A. to Modesto jaunt we CAN check our bags, so we check 34 pieces which leaves us with approximately 50 carry-on pieces.
We have a bit of time to stretch our legs, so we stroll around the L.A. station. I had lagged behind the group taking photos when I was approached by an Asian with questions about who we were. In a busy train terminal, it’s hard to give in-depth answers, but he walked beside me for a spell as tried to catch up with the others, so I was able to answer several of his questions.
1 p.m. - Amtrak puts us on a bus for our connection to Bakersfield. Because of the steep grades in the “Grapevine” hills, the tracks don’t go through, so we take Hwy 5 to Bakersfield. The hills are miniature mountains: there’s enough elevation to make my ears feel the pressure.
3 p.m. - We arrive in Bakersfield. The three-hour bus ride went fairly fast, considering we were confined to one seat for the first time in 36 hours We played a few games of Monopoly Deal, but spent most of the time conversing about the scenery. We don’t have a long wait before the train arrives, so we eat ham roll-ups and boiled eggs while standing and holding our luggage.
3:45 p.m. - We board Amtrak California for our commute to Modesto. We are now only 2.75 hours behind. One of the engineers is riding near us, and he lets us see the little cubbyhole where he “drives” the train. We’re on Amtrak’s double-decker commuter train, which has engines at both ends.
When the train gets to the end of the line, the back engine starts up and the train gets pulled the other direction. Since we are in the rear of the train, at the end of line, this will become the front of the train. We spend most of our time relaxing in our seats, but we had a bit of excitement when the Amtrak policeman walks up to one of the boys and asks,” Are you Roy?”
Eyes wide with surprise, Roy nods. “Get up, we’ve had a report of disorderly conduct!” Roy’s worry quickly dissipates when he sees Erlene giggling behind her camera as she photographs the scene. Apparently, this policeman was chatting with some of our group, when Erlene, that ornery widow, asked him if he could help them play a prank. Obviously, the officer was willing. The last hour of the ride is spent listening to the “cop stories” of this jolly fellow.
7 p.m. - Long at last, we pull in to our final destination: Modesto, California! We are only two and half hours late. Six friends are here to meet us and haul us to our places of lodging. We gratefully cram our luggage in the vehicles and eagerly head towards our first homemade meal in over two days.
Our friend Kristen had a question for us, “Did you have fun on the train?” After a resounding “YES!” she posed another question: “Are you ready to get back on?’
We assured her that we did come to California for more than a train ride, but after our visit was over, we were looking forward to the return trip. Often traveling is merely something to be endured, but riding the rails has been a great way to enjoy the full journey, and not just the destination. Of course, having 23 great traveling companions doesn’t hurt either.