• First Trip to Arizona

  • Tell us where you were and what you saw!
Tell us where you were and what you saw!

Moderator: David Benton

  by JLJ061
For some time my girlfriend Linda and I wanted to travel on Amtrak from South Bend, Indiana to Phoenix, Arizona to visit my mom who I haven't seen for some time due to personal commitments and limited funds to travel. Finally, we got the chance in September, 2011. We both scheduled a week long vacation from work on the week of September 17th-23rd to make the trip. This would be a new experience for both of us, and we couldn't wait. We booked our trip from South Bend to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited, then the remainder of our journey to Flagstaff on the Southwest Chief. The last 2 1/2 hours of our journey to Phoenix would then be completed on an Amtrak Thruway bus. Since neither of us could really afford it, we both decided to make the trip Coach Class.

Saturday, September 17th
Finally the day came upon us and we arrived at the South Bend Amtrak station a half-hour early to avoid any rush to get to the train. It was then we were advised that the westbound Lake Shore Limited, Train 49, was running about an hour late, and would arrive into South Bend shortly after Train 29, the Capitol Limited from Washington, DC would pull in. The station agent offered to exchange tickets to anyone who wanted to take the Capitol Limited to Chicago before the Lake Shore, but also advised us the Capitol was almost filled to capacity, and space would be rather tight for additional passengers. Because of this Linda and I both agreed to wait for the Lake Shore, despite its late arrival. Neither of us was concerned about making our connection to the Chief in Chicago, since there was a scheduled 4 hour layover in Chicago before departure.

Train 49 finally pulled into South Bend around 10:00 am, and we quickly boarded and easily found a couple empty seats for us. We were both very excited that our journey had finally begun! The ride to Chicago Union Station was very uneventful, and the sunny day made for some decent photography. For the trip I also decided to take my GPS receiver so I could track our progress across the country, as well as determine our location when needed. We pulled into Chicago Union Station at about noon, which gave us about 3 hours to explore Chicago before continuing our journey west on Train 3, the Southwest Chief.

At 2:30 pm we boarded Train 3, and Linda was simply amazed by the sight of the Superliner consist, as she had never seen a double-decker passenger train before. She was equally impressed with the roomy seats in Coach, and enjoyed the fact that she could recline her seat and put up her legrest without interfering with other passengers in any way. At 3:00 pm the highball was issued, and the Southwest Chief pulled out of Chicago Union Station, right on time! Within moments we were cruising west along Burlington Northern Santa Fe's famous "Racetrack" through the west suburbs of Chicago, making our first outbound stop at Naperville. At about this time the Chief's dining car steward was making her way through the train, taking reservations for dinner that evening. I opted for the 5:30 pm seating, though Linda declined to join me, as she was very tired and wanted to take a short nap at her seat, so I dined alone that evening. I decided to have the New York Strip steak, along with a baked potato, vegetable medley and tossed salad with Ranch dressing... all of it delicious!

After dinner I returned to my seat where Linda was waiting, so I regaled her on my dining experience. Not long after dinner the Chief was crossing the Mississippi River from Illinois into Iowa, with a station stop at Fort Madison on the other side. This was a designated smoke stop, so passengers could get off to get their nicotine fix, or simply stretch their legs for a few minutes if they liked. The train's conductor warned us not to stray from the station platform, and be ready to reboard at a moment's notice. However, one gentleman seemed to not have heard, or taken the warning seriously. He wandered around the platform for a minute or two, then for some unknown reason walked to the rear of the train and then crossed the tracks to the wooded area beyond. At that time the conductor called out "All Aboard!" and we all reboarded the train. As soon as the train was underway I looked out the back window in time to see the gentleman who disappeared at the station suddenly emerge from the trackside foliage, running after us in a vain attempt to catch up with the train. Oh well, he had been warned not to stray too far!

As we continued west into Missouri darkness settled upon us, and we pulled into Kansas City, on time. This was another designated smoke stop on the Southwest Chief, and I believe also a crew-change point for the train crew. This allowed us about a 45-minute layover at the station, so I took the time to catch some pictures and video of the Kansas City skyline, as well as explore the outside of the train. When I reached the head end of the train I was taken by both surprise and delight that the lead locomotive of our train was Number 184, one of the few locomotives Amtrak had selected to receive a "Heritage" paint scheme, to commemorate Amtrak's 40 years of passenger service to America's rail-riding public. The 184 was repainted into the "Phase IV" scheme, which gives it two different shades of grey, accentuated with a large blue stripe and red-white pinstriping down the middle of the unit, the same standard paint scheme Amtrak had adopted in the middle 1990's.

It was close to midnight when we departed Kansas City, and headed west into the Garden State of Kansas. Linda and I decided to turn in for the night in our coach seats, while outside the train signs of an approaching thunderstorm started to light up the night sky.

Sunday, September 18th
During the night onboard the Southwest Chief I made an important realization about riding in Coach: The seats, while roomy and comfortable during the day, are not so much for a good night's sleep. So I basically napped throughout the night, periodically awakening to peer out the window, listen to the patter of rain, and watch the occasional distant lightning strikes against the darkened Kansas plains landscape. During the night we made brief stops at Topeka, Hutchinson and Dodge City. After we departed Garden City dawn finally started to break the night sky behind us as we continued our westward journey, the previous evening's storms long since passed.

Sometime around 6:00 am Linda started to rouse from her fitful sleep, so I suggested that she accompany me to breakfast, which she agreed. It did not take her long to realize one needs "sea legs" to be able to traverse a train moving at 79+ miles per hour, but she quickly learned how to keep her footing. Breakfast in the dining car consisted of scrambled eggs, potatoes and biscuit, along with Linda's morning cup of coffee (as she calls it, a mandatory necessity!). By the time breakfast was over we had crossed the border into Colorado, so Linda and I decided to take in the scenery in the Sightseer Lounge Car. However, every seat on the upper level was already full, so we went to the lower level where we found an empty table. So, for the next couple hours we watched the Colorado landscape speed past our train while we played a few hands of "Crazy Eights" with the deck of cards I brought with us.

We pulled into La Junta, Colorado, right on the advertised at 8:15 am, for another smoke stop/crew change. As we pulled into the station Linda quickly spotted a small trackside vendor open for business just outside the station. As soon as the train stopped we got off and headed over to the vendor so Linda could check out the merchandise being offered for sale. Unfortunately, Linda decided the prices were a bit too rich for her, so we went back to the train empty handed. About ten minutes later we were back underway again through the Colorado foothills.

Linda and I spent the rest of the morning hanging out in the lower level of the lounge car, playing card games, chatting, and watching the distant mountains start to loom up toward us. We passed a few rural farms, one of which had cattle grazing out in the pasture. The lounge car's attendant also spotted the cattle, and got onto PA system to announce their presence to the rest of the train's passengers. He concluded his little presentation with a little quip: "See the cows laying on the ground? That's called 'ground beef!'" Linda and I were both amused at this little humor, and were equally amused when a few minutes later a lady passenger came to the lounge car, just to lecture the attendant that ground beef does NOT come from cows!

As we approached the New Mexico border, I checked my GPS to see that we were steadily gaining altitude. At this point we were at 6600 feet above sea level and still climbing. I figured we would reach the peak at Raton Pass, at the Colorado/New Mexico border, which put us at 7700 feet. Linda was momentarily shocked when all daylight outside suddenly disappeared, until I told her more likely we were passing through a tunnel. Sure enough, a minute or two later we re-emerged back into sunlight and started our descent from the summit, and arrived into Raton, New Mexico, still on time. Here we detrained for a few minutes to stretch our legs and take in the beautiful, mountainous scenery of this little town, particularly the large name "RATON" standing on top of the largest plateau.

It was about noon as we continued south through the New Mexico landscape and hunger pangs were starting to set in. But instead of having lunch in the dining car, I purchased a cheeseburger and a drink from the lounge car attendant, who told me "The only tip I require is a smile!" After lunch Linda and I headed back to our seats to grab a short nap, since neither of us slept very well the previous night. Shortly after we departed Lamy, we passed by our sister Train 4, the eastbound Southwest Chief headed to Chicago, on time.

We both woke up from our naps in time to see the Albuquerque skyline start to form in the distance ahead of us. We pulled into town at about 3:45 pm, ten minutes early. Here was another smoke stop and a crew-change point, and the train was also scheduled to be cleaned here after our trek through the mountains. All this gave us a layover time of an hour, so Linda and I took the time to explore the station. It looked like an old vintage train station, but I later found out it was relatively new, built to replace an older station that was destroyed by fire, I believe back in the early 1990's. There was also a trackside vendor at the station, selling authentic Native American clothing, jewelry and novelties. Linda, being part Cherokee herself, lamented that she did not have enough money on her to purchase little more than a couple necklaces, earrings and postcards. During our layover I noticed more passengers started to gather on the platform, which gave me the impression that it was time to reboard the train. However, it did not take me long to realize these were commuters waiting for the next outbound New Mexico Rail Runner, a commuter rail service that runs between Albuquerque and the state capital of Santa Fe.

Upon departure from Albuquerque we were called to the dining car for dinner. We were seated with a couple travelling to Los Angeles to visit family out there. They said they take the Southwest Chief to California every year, and every trip is a new experience for them. Linda had the fried chicken, while I tried the roast duck with mashed potatoes. The potatoes were so good, Linda decided to order some for herself. After dinner we arrived into Gallup, New Mexico, as fading light of the day started casting long shadows on the small town and the surrounding mountains.

Nightfall had finally set in as we crossed the border into Arizona, and made our next station stop at Winslow. With only an hour left until our destination at Flagstaff, we gazed out the window, watching the passing traffic on the parallel Interstate 40. As we approached Flagstaff we gathered our luggage and made our way downstairs to the vestibule as the train began slowing. When we got off at the station to make our Thruway bus connection, we turned around and bid adieu to the Southwest Chief as it pulled away, and silently thanked it for a fantastic journey, one not soon to be forgotten.

Here are video clips of our journey...
South Bend to Chicago:
Chicago to Flagstaff:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8B2Otd9Ai4E Part I
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VggCS7p3CJk Part II
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwiQsT8NiDQ Part III

Flagstaff to Chicago:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vn5g3Z_aAkQ Part I
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=df8bPuEuP2o Part II
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G05BicAIEOo Part III
Chicago to South Bend:

Hope you enjoyed reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it!
  by tahawus84
Nice write up. Thanks for sharing. I have been considering taking a long distance amtrak trip for a while. Enjoyed your story and videos. Thanks!