Riding the Tracks Toward Sunrise

As the light fades on my first evening on an Amtrak train (the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans) there’s a few things I am realizing. 1) I am glad for the sleeper car, though also equally glad that I don’t suffer from claustrophobia. 2) the food on the train is better than I expected (especially given that I wasn’t sure there would be anything I can eat and now I know there is at least one dinner I will be good for at least part of the trip. 3) Asking people what they think about being American is an even more loaded and complicated question than I ever imagined. 4) the train moves faster than most cars on the highways in Texas. – I’m not sure I expected that last one to be possible or true, but there you go.

The rocky cliffs rise seemingly out of nowhere – well somewhere between El Paso, Texas and Alpine, Texas anyway. The plains that stretch out between me in my diminutive train car and those rocky almost mountainous outcroppings are dotted with trailer homes. Trailer homes are a phenomenon I have see nowhere else other than the USA. Elsewhere in the world you might call them demountables or portables. They aren’t really a trailer either, because once they are in place they take quite an effort and large semi-trailers to move.

The train platform at El Paso took me by surprise. I am familiar with large train stations where the vestibule gives way to doors and platforms, but here the platform is to the side of the building open to the carpark – although a locked gate prevents anyone entering or leaving without having their ID and ticket checked.


The passengers getting on needed to stand in the sun for about 15 minutes before boarding. It is significant because it was well over 100 degrees.

Tickets on Amtrak are still largely paper, and the USA rail pass I am using is apparently rarely used. The ticket cashier in El Paso, Lupe, was patient and meticulous as she carefully checked each of my sectors and tried to find cheaper options. She had to print each of my sectors as separate boarding pass like tickets. With the USA rail pass I can hold and change reservations without charge for any other service (prior to the service and as long as the accommodation/sleeper charge does not increase). There is very little information out there about this. I did all of my initial reservations directly with Amtrak via email and it was extremely convenient (if a little obtuse). You can’t book any of your sectors through the Amtrak website, nor can you use the Amtrak app for reservations.

As the sun goes down I begin to relax. This small little cubby is quiet and peaceful. I listen to a This American Life episode about education in NY state and the benefits and challenges of elected school boards. I will travel through Texas most of the night rocked to sleep by the train on the tracks.

A sleeper car seat includes meal service in the dining car – with tablecloths and silverware. No real glasses, but nice enough. It makes the exorbitant cost of a sleeper car roomette or room more palatable.

There is a sightseeing car that has floor to ceiling picture windows and provides an alternative to your seat or sleeper to sit!


The restrooms/toilets in the sleeper car are a little bigger than an aircraft toilet and the corridors are narrow – apparently as narrow as a submarine. The large picture windows open to beautiful views.


I sleep well, if a little fitfully. For a while it is the announcements about the dining car and café that wake me, then they too cease until around 730am. I realise the train has stopped altogether. We aren’t moving. I open the curtains and that “beautiful view” is of an industrial area with rusty cars, asphalt piles and fences. I look at the schedule and figure out that we are in San Antonio.


We were originally due in San Antonio at 4:00 so the train is somewhere beyond 3 hours late. I had been forewarned that punctuality is not to be expected with Amtrak. This is vastly different from Europe where it takes a major weather event or an act of God for the train to be more than 1 hour late. I’m not worried – this is why you schedule things out with plenty of room to spare and space in between the sectors of the journey.

This morning I ate breakfast at a table with Miss Mary from a small town outside Lake Charles, Louisiana, a Great Grandmother she was kindly and opened up progressively as we shared food and she told me about spending time with her family more now that she was retired. She shared the struggle she had had getting time off before, and how she had to schedule any time off at least six months in advance. It got me thinking about America and work, and about how American culture thinks about ageing and treats its elderly citizens.

In any case, after a breakfast of Grits and eggs, I am ready for Louisiana!

Listening. Observing. Participating. Writing. Photographing. Reflecting.

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 Social Entrepreneur. Speaker. Advocate. Traveler. Photographer. Writer. Dreamer. This Adventure around America is a crazy adventure marked with photos and word and inspired by the incredible women in Anna’s family, especially her late grandmother, whom she knew as Nan-Nan. During the Journey Anna is speaking, writing, and working on her Not A Pedestrian Life book!

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