Tuesday June 27, 2017

Crossing the USA On Amtrak

Written by Robert Groothuis
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Crossing The USA On Amtrak Destination El Paso
Crossing The USA On Amtrak, Destination El Paso

  Meeting The Real America

On a very wet Montreal morning, our train, the Adirondack, pulled out of the station and made its way slowly through sleepy industrial and suburban areas. This was day one of my 30 day Amtrak nationwide train pass.  Next stop would be some 10 hours later at New York’s Penn Station.

A stop at the Canadaian border was required in order to complete 2 hours of US customs formalities.  At that time in the world's history, we were assured that Mr Bush was far too busy looking for Osama Bin Laden than to worry about a lone Aussie, a family of bewildered looking Native Americans and I, a Kiwi.  We completed the necessary paper work, handed over our five dollars, and were duly wished a pleasant stay in the United States of America.

Sitting next to me was Jeff who happened to co-own one of Manhattan’s newer chic restaurants, The Biltmore Room.  As the New England countryside and small town railway stations rolled past, I heard stories of when a Sex and the City episode was filmed in the restaurant and life socialising with New York celebrities.

Next stop, Washington DC.  This time it was a relativity short five hour (checktime) trip.

On each different train we were always made aware of the entertainment that was on offer.  A call asking for dinner reservations in the dinning car was nearly always followed by an announcement from Bob in the snack car informing us exactly when he would be open for business and what tasty treats were on offer.

The ride from Washington DC to Chicago would be the first overnight journey of this trip.  Opting to go for the budget option of coach seats as opposed to an actual sleeper cabin, I was thankful that each seat was easily as comfortable as a large reclining armchair with leg room to match.

After a couple of movies were shown that evening in the observation car, quite a stir was created when we stopped around midnight at a small sleepy town. Two police officers boarded the train and escorted off a rather irate women who according to the conductor had been caught smoking twice in the toilets downstairs.
Despite the tightened security measures in the US these days, every station still offers lockers or checked baggage facilities.

I now had a whole day ahead of me to wander around a bitterly cold and windy Chicago, before catching my next train.  New Orleans by 8pm that evening and then onward south to Memphis.

“Now boarding train 58, track 15, all aboard”, said the boarding announcement.

Slowly passengers armed with pillows, blankets and their luggage shuffled down the platform where an attendant would stand by the entrance of each carriage making sure that we were seated correctly according to our final destination. This solved any unwanted wake-up calls for passengers not leaving the train in the middle of the night or early in the morning, which proved to be the case in Memphis.

I decided to wait it out at the station until after dawn and spent some of the time selecting a hotel from the coupon book at the counter.  I asked a man next to me for help with directions.

Outside The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas

Outside The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas

Tony looked on the level and as he insisted that it was on his way, I decided to take up his offer for a lift to my hotel.  On the back of a business card he scribbled directions for Reverend G E Patterson’s Bountiful Blessings Sunday Gospel service.

“You’ll probably be one of the only white folk there, there’s the Al Green service too, but he’s way outta town by Graceland”.

St Louis was the next destination and yet another early morning arrival.  An Amtrak Thru-Way connecting minivan service had met my train at Carbondale station earlier at 4am, for the two hour drive onto St Louis.  As with most of the major railway stations I encountered, downtown was nearly always just a short walk away.

After hitting a coffee and bagel shop, I learnt that this season’s final home game of the St Louis Cardinals was on tonight.  In preparation for my second consecutive night on the train later that afternoon, the park in front of the old court house would become a mass of food stalls, merchandise, beer tents and bands.

Continuing on the Texas Eagle, next stop Dallas.  Quite frequently each carriage would only be half full, so as it turned out, getting two seats to yourself seemed almost normal.
A St Louis Cardinals FanA St Louis Cardinals Fan “We’ve now crossed the state line here at Texarkana, welcome to Texas folks”, came the announcement around mid morning the next day.  The cold weather I had encountered in the north had disappeared, and it was back to into the scorching southern heat.

First, find a room for the night.  The lady at the downtown Dallas tourist information office was more than helpful, once again referring to the ever useful hotel coupon book.  This gave me the afternoon to wander around downtown, checking out Daly plaza and the Sixth Floor JFK Museum, which was only a couple of blocks from the station.

The following afternoon the Texas Eagle service continued down to Austin.  Amtrak operates on the same lines as freight trains in the US, which always take priority. A late train makes us wait.  A young guy also waiting, turned out be an ex-marine who had served in Iraq. 

“Every day we just got different orders, it was just plain stupid”, he told me.
Sitting behind me on the train, Randal, though a native Texan, couldn’t help but voice his opinions on current US politics, as we went past the small town of Crawford where I was told George Bush’s ranch is located.  Iraq, not surprisingly, proved to be a popular topic of conversation with locals throughout this trip.

Yet another train delay just out of Austin.  Randal was quickly on the phone organising his girlfriend to pick us up.  Along with us, a number of other people had also decided to leave the train, calling for taxis to collect them from the side of the freeway.  Finally, I was dropped off at my hostel, but not before we’d stopped for a drink at one of their favourite local bars and given instructions what to check out in town over the weekend.

Austin to San Antonio and then boarding the 5.40am Sunset Limited train bound for El Paso, some 12 hours away. The sun arose to display a barren desert rolling by.  When it wasn’t our conductor announcing points of interest and photo opportunities, Steve the snack bar guy would be announcing that Bloody Marys were now on the menu.

Late that afternoon I left the train in El Paso, and once again found myself being offered a ride by complete strangers.  This time Darleen and Gladys, a couple of local women.  The Gardener Hotel took a bit of finding downtown, but as I grabbed my bags from out the back of their pickup truck, they bid me farewell and safe travels.

After a Greyhound Amtrak Thru-Way bus onto Albuquerque, New Mexico, it was only then that I realised how much more comfortable the train really was.

A few days later, when the west bound daily train pulled in, a hive of activity would start at the station.  Local Native Americans were keen to sell their handicrafts to the passengers walking up and down the platform stretching their legs, before re-boarding the train for the four hours onto Flagstaff, Arizona.   A pleasant city connected with the old Route 66.   I felt it still had a real frontier feel, courtesy of the many freight trains constantly passing through the middle of town, horns blaring throughout day and the night.

Day 29, one last overnight train, the Southwest Chief onto Los Angles.  Yet another city, but this time it was the end of the line.


Stevie Ray Vaughan, Austin, TexasStevie Ray Vaughan, Austin, Texas
Amtrak Stop Fort Worth, TexasAmtrak Stop, Fort Worth, Texas
Crossing The USA On Amtrak Destination El PasoCrossing The USA On Amtrak Destination El Paso


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“No”, gasps the women behind the counter, as I hand over my passport and paperwork.  In an attempt at her best English she replies, “You need to sign out of Ecuador first”.  My heart sinks for the second time this evening.  The man ahead of me from the bus turns around and interrupts in English, “You need to return to Ecuador border control to sign out, first”.

“30 minutes, that way” he continued, pointing back in the direction we had just traveled from.  “The bus driver says he can take your backpack and you can collect it from the depot in Tumbes”. 

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