Saturday, May 18, 2013

Great Train Ride

I was heading to Indianapolis for a conference so I decided to make a real trip of this jaunt, riding Amtrak's Cardinal through Charlottesville, Staunton, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Cincinnati to Indianapolis; then, three days later, hopped on the Hoosier State at 6 one morning, then changed in Chicago's Union Station to the Southwest Chief for Los Angeles.

Each train was either on time or early, not that Amtrak doesn't pad the schedules just a bit.  But the ride was a delight--especially the Chief, which is a direct descendant of the Santa Fe's famed Super Chief, heading west through Galesburg, thence across the Mississippi at Fort Madison, Iowa, on to Kansas City, then past Dodge in the middle of the night and across southeastern Colorado to New Mexico, Arizona, and on into L.A.

Remember the old trick question that the Santa Fe never did go to Santa Fe--some folks I met on board got off at Lamy, where you shuttle from the dusty station named after Willa Cather's memorable archbishop to New Mexico's capital. The Chief is among Amtrak's premier western trains--full diner, lounge car with dome-like windows, good service.  The Cardinal is a much smaller train--the Capitol Limited makes the Washington-Chicago run through Pittsburgh in faster time but runs almost entirely at night--with only one sleeper (the Chief had four or five) and a half-diner where the waiters were hard put to fit everyone in and get them served very efficiently. 

We came back on a quick United flight from LAX, under five hours.  It was fine but when you take the train, you really get an idea of what this country is like. Lots of open space still out west--sure, someone owns it and is mining it if there's anything underneath worth extracting--but miles of sagebrush and mountains and deserts.

The Hoosier State runs from Indy to Chicago on the days the Cardinal doesn't.  It had about eight deadheads--empty cars being taken to Chicago for use on other trains--but only two open coaches, no diner, no cafe, no nothing, lucky we had rest rooms, I suppose, for the five-hour journey.  But you only realize that Indiana and Illinois are mostly flat prairies while right over the river in Iowa, you go through hills aplenty. 

Chicago's Union Station, now handling what it once took four separate stations to operate, seems bustling since all four long-distance western trains leave within a two-hour span. And Amtrak treats the sleeper passengers nicely--a lounge serves you as well as any airline's, not that that's saying that much.

L.A., of course, welcomes you at the wonderful southwest-styled Union Station--I almost looked for the Fred Harvey's--which is also busy with commuters and the new LA subway system. Much still to see and do in the greater LA world--the LA County Musuem of Art, the new American art building and Chinese garden at the Huntington, and yes, the Nixon library and museum in Yorba Linda, which offers some light relief, even after the government took it over from the glorifying foundation.

Saw the Pacific on a drive down to La Jolla and it remains a fabulous sight to behold. And then there's the Valley, replete with marvelous delis and the Brat Brothers on Ventura, celebrated on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.

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