Today, I’m riding the oldest named train in the country, the Sunset Limited. It starts in New Orleans and ends it’s trek in Los Angeles. The train used to start in Orlando, but the eastern rails were washed out during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Amtrak doesn’t have the money to rebuild the tracks so they’re safe for passenger travel.
Most of the rails in America are owned by private companies at this point and that’s one big reason passenger travel takes longer than it should. Every commercial engine takes priority over the Amtrak cars and so passengers have to wait for freight trains to go by. Amtrak only owns 730 miles of railway in the U.S. now, including the northeast corridor where it can run high-speed trains.
A retired couple chatting with the man in the roommette next to them. The first man says he’s been riding trains for 40 years because “they’re an elegant way to travel.” He likes the pace, he says, and since he’s retired he’s “laid down the burden of hurrying. I wish I’d done it years ago.”
Let me disclose something here: if you’re speaking loudly enough for me to hear, I’m probably listening in to your conversation. I’m that kind of person.
The second man is traveling alone because his wife hates traveling unless she’s going to see family. But he’s excited because this trip includes a ride on the famed Zephyr train that travels between San Francisco and Chicago. “Oh, we want to ride that!” says the first guy’s wife. “That’s the best ride in the country, people say.”
I plan to take the Zephyr this year, too, because I’ve heard how spectacular the views are. Here are a couple photos:
The Zephyr is Amtrak’s second longest route, going nearly 2,500 miles over 51-and-a-half-hours. I will definitely pay for a bedroom for that trip, instead of a roommette.
The second guy says he plans to look out the window during the entire trip and “drink it in.” “When I was working,” he says, “I never paid attention to what was out the window. I just wanted to get where I was going.”
The couple chimes in again, anxious to talk about all the drama they’ve seen while riding the rails. Once, they watched federal agents quietly board their car and take away two men who were carrying duffel bags full of narcotics. On another trip, they chatted with a guy who bragged about his marijuana plants and his success at selling weed and hemp. Sadly, he was carrying some of the product with him and was arrested at the next stop, since you can’t carry MJ over state lines.
The trio is talking about the burrito lady in the El Paso station now, which is a cruel thing to do to a native Californian. Now I really want a burrito.
When we get to New Iberia, we stop briefly next to a barbecue place where the owner/bbq master is standing out front, waving. Debbie, the server in the dining car, explains that his barbecue wins awards and he often hands food into the employees on train. In fifteen years, though, Debbie has never gotten to try the ribs.
After lunch, back in my cozy little roommette, I’m a little too comfortable and the swaying train car rocks me to sleep. When I wake up, we’re in Texas and it’s time for dinner. Not a bad life.