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Hale Bopp, the Northwest via El Paso

by Chris Guenzler

As the days passed between my trips, I continued my San Diegan riding when up in the northwest sky from a point overlooking the ocean where I would walk to in Solana Beach, the comet Hale-Bopp became visible. I had many nights of great viewing many on nights right before the Pacific Ocean Fog would blow in. It was a beautiful sight up in the sky and little did I know that Hale-Bopp would be a part of my next trips. With the finish all the states sober goal completed, I started a new goal to ride back over every Amtrak route that I had drank on. By completing the every state goal and the Amtrak system since I had admitted that I was an Alcoholic, I thought it would only be fitting to start a new goal. There was one route segment in the Northwest that I had yet to ride sober so with my Spring Break from McFadden I decided to head for the great Pacific Northwest with a trip to El Paso prior to that trip. My nightly trips to Solana Beach was yielding good results in seeing Hale-Bopp, the comet, so I had wondered what my next trips would bring in viewing the comet.

To El Paso with Bus back from Tucson 3/21/1997-3/24/1997

I always have liked the Sunset Limited route so I was surprised when we ran all the way to El Paso early. It was quite an uneventful trip with nothing really out of the ordinary. I spent one night at the Travelodge with a room overlooking the Southern Pacific yard and the flood of passing freight trains. That night gave me a great view of Hale Bopp. Following a good night of rest and watching the Comedy Channel all morning, I hiked back to the Amtrak station to discover that the westbound Sunset Limited was running six hours late. Good news I was thinking Yuma to Los Angeles in the daylight, I could not be happier. The agent stored my bags and the security guard when his shift was over drove me to a movie theater past the University of Texas-El Paso where I saw Space Jam for a dollar. I had a very nice walk back to the Amtrak Station thinking how lucky I was to be sober in El Paso.

Upon my return to the Amtrak Station I heard the agent use the "Bus" word and delving into that matter further I learned that the SP had a major derailment near Yuma and the westbound Sunset would only travel as far as Tucson. I the train rider would be bussed from Tucson to Los Angeles. This was bad news indeed. Living my new found sober life style where I do not worry about things that I can not control, I decided to turn this negative into a positive. Since I would be on a bus for nine hours of my life, I would do a comparison between Bus and Train travel. I decided to take this one step further and give the reasons why I don't like bus travel thus taking out my anger and frustration over this situation. Writing is always a good release of emotions anyway. I killed the time waiting in El Paso by doing word fill in puzzles and listening to music. The Sunset finally showed up and I boarded quickly immediately into my sleeping position. The female AC said, "You look like you have been on the train for days!" I said, "With all my miles on the rails I feel right at home here." She took my ticket and I fell right to sleep. I slept all the way until I was nudged at Tucson. The Sunset Limited pulled into Tucson and then waited a good hour for the buses to show up.

A long Bus ride from Tucson to LAUPT

I boarded the second bus and managed to keep two seats to myself. So after the driver finally found the freeway we were off down Interstate 10 for Los Angeles. I curled up and slept until about one hundred miles west of Phoenix. I passed out the juice and Ding Dongs that Amtrak had provided to the now bus passengers. I sat there looking out at the Arizona desert and started writing down my thoughts. We stopped at Blythe, Ca for twenty minutes at a McDonald's which I had talked the driver into stopping at for his rest break which allowed for me to have Hot Cakes and Sausage for breakfast before we continued west. Breakfast was all I needed to finish my list so I will now present my findings here for your pleasure, a good laugh and a dose of traveling reality, why Chris Guenzler does not like the bus!

1. No food service
2. No drinking water
3. Uncomfortable seats
4. No leg room
5. Smelly and hot restrooms
6. The noise factor
7. No reclining seats
8. Bus riders attitudes
9. No freedom to move
10. The feeling of confinement

Number 8. I had several passengers on the San Diegan going home to Santa Ana with me and I watched them go from uptight bus riders to laid back train riders right before my eyes. I was of course Mr Happy Go Lucky like I always am making the best out of every situation but was most extremely happy when that bus pulled into Los Angeles Union Station at eleven fifteen that morning. No one from Amtrak met the bus. I had told each rider about their missed connection options and each one of them thanked me for taking such good care of them. As I waited for train 776 to arrive, I ran into Linda Paul fresh in from San Diego ready to start her weekly LSA cycle. A quick trip on that San Diegan made me once again thankful that I am a train rider and thank God I did not become a bus rider in my life.

Coast Starlight 14 3/31/1997

I boarded a through coach on the end of San Diegan 771 and after a brief visit to the lounge car for a soda, I worked on the first East Coast story from 1990 for the book. I spent the morning happily writing my way to Los Angeles, through the switching moves onto the back of the Coast Starlight, across the San Fernando Valley, plunged into the tunnels and out into the Simi Valley. After all of that writing I took a nap from Oxnard to Carpinteria.

We arrived early into Santa Barbara which allowed me to run over to Subway for a sandwich. I do not recommend you trying ever to do this. North of Santa Barbara, I did something that I had never done before. I sat in my seat on the inland side of the train and focused my attention only on that side forsaking the usual wonderful coastal views. What I saw was the splendid Coast Range Mountains, canyons leading back into them, ranches and the odd homes scattered about. I really improved my knowledge of Vandenberg Air Force Base. It was truly a unique traveling experience looking at things that most passengers on the Coast Starlight will never see as they focus only on the ocean side of the train. I walked into the lounge car for a soda with all of the lounge seats that could be turned still facing the ocean side. Those passengers will never know the scenes that they missed. San Luis Obispo was the next smoking stop or post card mailing location for me. My seat gave me an excellent view of the climb up Cuesta Grade and then our trip down the Salinas Valley. After Paso Robles I got the last dinner time reservation for dinner. I have yet to get a logical explanation to why the coach passengers going the furthest get their dinner reservations last? I went back to the rear door of the train to watch the mileposts fade into the distance before I stepped off into a cold strong wind at Salinas while the smokers shivered with delight. After Salinas, they started the movie "Toy Story" which I enjoyed in the lower level of the lounge car. As the train proceeded in the night we stopped at San Jose, sped on to Oakland stopping at the Jack London Station where they called me in for dinner. At the late hour it seemed to be the perfect way to end the first day of a trip. I enjoyed a Beef Tenderloin while they cut off the rear coach and had my dessert as the train passed Capitol and San Joaquin train sets in the West Oakland Yard waiting for tomorrow's runs. I got a day's end breath of fresh air at Emeryville before I curled up and slept the night away.

4/1/1997 I woke up with the Starlight pulling into Dunsmuir and I stepped off into some nice cold morning air. Sunrise hit the train as it rounded the Cantara Loop and climbed out of the Sacramento River Canyon. We were running through here in daylight due to the fact that the Starlight had several broken air hoses after running over something so we were now running two hours late. At milepost 330 there were some boxcars over the edge and once we got to Small I had a glorious view of Mt Shasta. We passed through Mt Shasta City with no signs of the McCloud River Railroad before we passed Black Butte and traveled the north flank of Mt. Shasta. By the time we had reached the Hotlum Trestle Mt Shasta as hidden away behind the clouds so I am just lucky as usual for being an early riser. I just sat back in the lounge car with my headphones on watching Northern California turn into Southern Oregon. We arrived at Klamath Falls and I enjoyed the cool clear morning air. We left two hours down as I returned to my seat to continue working on this book. We passed Upper Jalama Lake and passed two freight trains before we did a double station spot at Chemult. I put my writing aside for my favorite part of the whole run, the Cascade Crossing and did I get a nice surprise as there was snow on the ground making this a winter wonderland on April 1st. I did my usual switch sides of the lounge car to keep the valley before we descended the steep west side grade through the many tunnels and curves. As always this grade is truly impressive. Past Oakridge the CTC was out so we enjoyed a more extended view of Lookout Point Reservoir than normal. We pulled into Eugene three hours late with that now giving me thirty minutes to make my connections in Portland if we do not lose any more time. The train sprinted up the Willamette Valley meeting one freight and our southbound counterpart costing us a total of fifteen minutes, but I needed not to worry as my connection is guaranteed. We passed Albany and Salem and made it to the point across the river from Portland Union Station where the Steel Bridge delayed us and the Portland Light Rail System twenty five minutes due to river traffic. We finally arrived in Portland fifteen minutes after the Empire Builder should have left. I walked off of the Starlight across two tracks and boarded an empty coach on the rear of Train 28.

Empire Builder 28 4/1/1997

The Builder got the few connecting passengers off of the Coast Starlight and we left Portland thirty minutes late starting my first sober journey to Spokane. The only other people in this coach are a mother and daughter going to Spokane. After my ticket was taken I was off to the lounge car for a hot dog dinner. I was back in my seat as the Empire Builder crossed the Columbia River and came to a stop in Vancouver, Washington. We left passing "The Crossing" that great restaurant made out of railroad cars before passing the many new homes built along the river shore. I passed on tonight's movie preferring to enjoy the scenery as the train headed up onto the Columbia River Gorge. I amazed me at how good my memory is as I know where all the landmarks are before we got to them. I felt lucky that I didn't do any damage to my brain with all of that drinking I did. I now have the opportunity to be right here now instead of being a slave to the bottle that limited my choices. If I wouldn't have quit drinking would I be seeing the magnificent Mt Hood like I am now? I am one grateful man who is observing all of this beauty in the last hours of daylight. As the train headed deeper into the gorge the sun set in the west and night began to take hold. With it being such a clear night I went back to the rear door to try and spot Hale-Bopp. As it got darker, the conductor came back realizing what I am trying to do and suggested that if we turned off the car's lights the four of us could have a better view of the comet. The mom agreed so off went the lights and through the windows came my best view yet of Hale Bopp complete with a fiery tail easily seen with the naked eye. This was one very special sober moment on the Empire Builder. What a scene! After such a wonderful sight as that, I called it a night, falling asleep until about five minutes from Spokane where I packed up and headed off of the train. With only forty five minutes until my next train for Seattle with my goal of all sober rails west of Rockies completed.

Empire Builder 7 4/2/1997

There was not much going on in the middle of the night in Spokane other than two sets of trains serving the Amtrak Station. The westbound Empire Builder arrived on time, the conductor took my ticket and gave me a car number. I went up onto the platform into my coach finding a right hand window seat upstairs and off to dreamland I went. The Spokane flip-flop went extremely well and now asleep I was heading west for the crossing of the Cascades on the former Great Northern route of Burlington Northern. Later that morning I awoke while the train was making the stop in Wenatchee where I headed to the dining car for breakfast consisting of pancakes and sausage. The train made its way to Leavenworth with the snow taking over the ground as we continued to climb. I love winter scenes from the warmth of a train and this morning has proved to be exceptional as the train climbed the narrow canyons and passed through the tunnels that led it to the east portal of the Cascade Tunnel where there was a BN freight waiting for us to pass. The train then plunged into the longest railroad tunnel in the United States and the next fifteen minutes were spent in darkness under the summit of the Cascade Mountains.

Emerging from the west portal of the Cascade Tunnel we found another freight waiting for us to pass as the train returned to the winter wonderland experience. I have only been westbound on this route once but my memory is working well. I am enthralled with the passing scenery and having watched a few videos on the railroads crossing of Steven's Pass it helped put everything into perspective. As the train descended westbound, we lost the snow as the train followed the Skykomish River all the way down to our next station stop of Everett on the shores of Puget Sound. South of Everett, the Empire Builder hugged the shoreline of Puget Sound and this part of the line was shut down for two months because of over one hundred mud slides from a winter of very heavy rains. The train stayed on the outside track avoiding most of the slow orders as repairs continued to firm up the slopes. I crossed the coach frequently to observe the damage to the hillsides and the cleanup operations the BN crews were making remembering that tomorrow I will pass through here twice. We made our next stop at Edmonds and proceeded to the Emerald City of Seattle with no further delays arriving forty five minutes late on a beautiful clear Pacific Northwest morning.

Seattle 4/2/1997

I detrained at the King Street Station and headed over to the King Dome to purchase a ticket for tonight's Mariners verses the Yankees baseball game that evening. I next walked to the Pioneer Square Hotel and checked in but my room was not ready yet. They stored my bags and I took the waterfront trolley to the north end then walked to the Space Needle to board the Seattle Monorail for a round trip for the very first time. It runs one mile south to a shopping center so I rode in a rear facing seat south so on the return trip north I could watch the operator run the train. Following my short jaunt on the Monorail, I walked back to the Waterfront Trolley and took it to the south end stopping off at a Japanese Deli for a hot dog before returning north to my hotel. I got into my room, showered, watched the Guiding Light before venturing to a bank to get some Canadian Currency for tomorrow. I walked to the I-Max Theater at the Seattle Aquarium where I watched a movie on the Eruption of Mt St Helens before visiting another deli for a roast beef sandwich which I took back to my room. I went to the King Dome watching my first baseball game in this building and noticed how well the ball carried during batting practice. Tino Martinez, the former Mariner must have remembered that to, as he hit three home runs in his first three at bats. I stayed to see if he would hit number four which he did not before I returned to the hotel for the night. I received a good night's rest at the Pioneer Square Hotel before walking back to the station on a dark stormy morning.

Mt Baker International 760 4/3/1997

I got my boarding pass for a left hand side of the Talgo train so I would have a shoreline view of the Puget Sound on my way to Vancouver, Canada. We left on time, plunged into the tunnel under downtown before passing Seattle's rainy waterfront. The Talgo slowed for BN's Interbay Yard before it crossed the drawbridge at the Ballard Locks to reach the shoreline of the Puget Sound. The sky now directly overhead is blue but clouds loomed over the Olympic Peninsula. Compared to the glassy smooth waters of yesterday, today the water is choppy and the wind is really howling. My breakfast was a warmed cinnamon roll from one of Seattle's best bakeries and orange juice which made an excellent meal. We made our station stops along the way all on time with the Talgo passing in and out of the low clouds on this most windy morning. I really enjoyed this route with the Puget Sound ducking in and out of sight. The morning's movie was the "Associate" which I watched both it and the scenery at the same time. We passed a BN freight at Bellingham which had a caboose with "DARE" in big red letters. DARE is the Drug Abuse Resistant Educational program which is taught in schools all over the United States. At Ferndale, we passed another BN freight as the skies cleared and remained that way all the way to Vancouver. We passed the Peace Arch on the US/Canadian border to enter our northern neighbor. The mountains to the north of Vancouver were really standing out in the distance with the city in front of them. We followed the Fraser River to our crossing of it at New Westminster before we headed through the suburbs of Vancouver. We wyed the train before we backed into Pacific Central Station in Vancouver right on time.

Vancouver 4/3/1997

I was first off of the Talgo, through Customs and out the depot's door to start my afternoon in Vancouver. I bought an all day transit pass and took the Skytrain to the west end of the line at the Waterfront where I transferred to the Seabus to North Vancouver. I walked west down the BC rail line to their station. I picked up timetables and brochures for my Orange County Railway Historical Society friends and a BC Rail T-shirt for me. I returned to the Seabus on this extremely cold windy afternoon and made my return to Vancouver. I reboarded the Skytrain and made a round trip to the east end returning to the Science World stop. I went to the I-Max Theater to see a movie that took me outside the universe then all the way inside an atom then all the way out again. It was one of the most interesting movies that I had ever seen before. Following a McDonald's dinner as it was convenient, I returned to the station, visited the Great Canadian Rail Tours Offices before filling out my custom's form, getting my boarding pass and stepping back aboard the Talgo.

Mt Baker International 4/3/1997

The Talgo left Vancouver on time and we stopped about a mile from the depot to align a few switches before we could continue south. The tall buildings of New Westminster were silhouetted by the late afternoon sun and as we crossed the Fraser River, a Skytrain crossed high above the river on their bridge. Mt Baker loomed in the southeast in Washington with a pinkish color from the last long rays of sunlight. Looking back towards Vancouver the view was awesome with the mountains to the north of town and Vancouver Island out to the west with the sun setting behind it as we crossed Bridge 69 and had totally set by Bridge 70. The conductor turned off the car's lights so we could better enjoy the grand Pacific Northwest sky. Right when we crossed back into the United States, the lights came back on as the train stopped to pick up the US Custom's officials to perform their jobs with me having no problems this time. A newlywed couple was separated at Vancouver because his wife was a non citizen who didn't have the proper paperwork to enter the United States so the husband had to leave her in Canada and come into the United States to find a legal way to get her here. It is never boring crossing the international border on a train. The custom officials detrained in Bellingham and they showed "My Fellow Americans" about twenty minutes later. In the meantime, I had another encounter with Hale-Bopp this time out of the window of the Talgo. We made excellent time to Seattle where once outside the station there was Hale-Bopp very much visible in spite of the lights of Seattle. I enjoyed a peaceful walk back to the Pioneer Square Hotel and another good night's rest.

The Coast Starlight 11 4/4/1997

I did the boarding pass thing one more time at the King Street Station before climbing aboard the rear coach for my trip back to Santa Ana with my car attendant being Glen Anderson. The train departed Seattle on time on a rather cloudy morning and once past Boeing Field it was obvious to me that the peaks of the Cascades would not be seen today as they were hidden behind the mask of clouds. I enjoyed the morning's ride in the lounge car down through Tacoma, along the southern end of the Puget Sound and all the way down to Portland where I detrained for some fresh air during the servicing stop. I was surprised that the Starlight had run on time so far on this trip. We headed up the Willamette Valley passing our northbound counterpart between Salem and Eugene. I stepped off in Eugene and thought about Carol Palmer in nearby Cottage Grove. We left Eugene on time followed by dinner in the diner with a version of Starlight Steak. We climbed over Cascade Summit under the cover of night with another showing of the "Associate". Running early into Klamath Falls allowed for an Oregon night time viewing of Hale-Bopp on a beautiful star filled night. Departing K-Falls I fell asleep in Oregon not waking until Sacramento the next morning.

4/5/1997 My stomach was turning as I walked the platform at Sacramento and the Parlour Car Attendant gave me a bottle of Ginger Ale which allowed for several good burps that relieved the problem. Still running on time we stayed that way all the way to Emeryville arriving ten minutes early after a delightful trip along San Pablo Bay. We made a stop at the West Oakland Amtrak Yards to add a coach to the rear of our train before we arrived at Oakland's Jack London Square Station ten minutes early. Leaving Oakland I was amazed that the Starlight was doing so well as we left on time. We stayed that way all the way through San Jose, Salinas, the entire length of the Salinas Valley over Cuesta Grade and into San Luis Obispo, twenty five minutes early allowing for a nice long walk along the station platform. I enjoyed the nice coastal views along the Pacific Ocean to Point Conception then had Beef Tenderloin for my last dinner of this trip. The Coast Starlight arrived into Santa Barbara twenty five minutes early which left me in a state of amazement at the way this train had been handled. It was unbelievable!

At Santa Barbara the train filled up with what I call "Day Trippers", people who come to Santa Barbara for just the day and then board the Starlight for their trip home. It changes the whole character of the train from a nice and quiet long distance train into a short haul commuter train with long lines in the lounge car where I went standing the 12th person in line. There is a guy who had been quietly drinking all day who is now cutting into the line to get more booze. His use of filthy language had increased the more he drank and now he is out of control from his use of alcohol and a good example of my former life style. I was thinking, "Thank God I do not live that way anymore!"

The Starlight dining car was doing take out service and when I walked out of the vending area I saw two passengers trying to throw out the dining car china and silverware. I left my Sprite with a nice older woman in order to take the china back to the dining car. I found two little girls playing on the stairs and I told them. "That's not a safe place to play on a train!" as they were blocking access to the upper level. They hurried up stairs and I found two more sets of china on a far table so I gathered them up and now had four sets to return. I carried them up the stairs and found one of the girls swinging in the aisle between the seats. I was not about to talk to them again so I walked along the window, excusing myself to the people who were sitting there and returned the china back to its rightful place in the dining car. I returned to my seat avoiding the swinging little girl and continued to enjoy my ride as the train arrived at Oxnard on time.

Oxnard our luck ran out as the train's HEP {Head End Power} had major problems for a forty five minute delay. Fifteen minutes into it I returned to the lounge car to get another Sprite. Our drunken passenger was now totally out of control and our conductor came down to talk with the guy. He said, "If you keep this up I am going to throw your off this fucking train!" The passenger then listened to him going on and on. When we left to go back to work up the stairs, the passenger replied with, "OK! Try to throw my fucking ass off of the train!" in a loud enough voice that anyone in hearing range could hear. I took my Sprite up stairs and found an empty seat past the swinging girl. I thought about the exchange between the passenger and the conductor. If I was that conductor I would not have talked to him in that way instead I would have given him a way out such as returning to your seat and remaining there until Los Angeles. I would have never used any profane language towards him as I do not approve of using it myself.

My attention was now turned towards that swinging girl. When no one was coming she would not swing but when she saw someone coming she went into action. Following delaying two passengers by her swinging, here came my car attendant, Glen, moving at a good pace. She got a late start facing away from him, she swung forward and then swung back nailing Glen in his crotch area. People who witnessed this were stunned in disbelief. That was everyone except the little girl's parents who busted out in laughter. There wasn't anything funny about this and myself a male could relate to Glen's pain he must have been in at that moment. Glen upon hearing the parents laughing at him, he looked at them and said, "Jerks!" before he left the area of the lounge car. The next time I saw Glen he was walking outside the train on the Oxnard platform back to our car avoiding the parents and children. Upon finishing my Sprite I returned to my coach seat and discussed that incident with Glen.

We finally left Oxnard and went to Simi Valley where we incurred another lengthy delay as the Los Angeles County Sheriffs removed our drunken passenger from the lounge car of the train. They put him against the station's railing and searched the guy right in prime view of everyone in the lounge car. Out of his inside right coat pocket came a gun and out of his left inside pocket came a seven inch knife. Did that get my mind working. The Conductor said what he did, our passenger pulled out his gun, shots the conductor and then realizes that he had a lower level of the lounge car for witnesses and then killed all of us. I was very glad our drunken passenger had shown some restraint.

After losing another forty seven minutes the train made the remaining miles into Los Angeles without any further incidents. At Los Angeles Union Station I enjoyed my chance to step off of the train as they attached an engine to the back three cars and we left Los Angeles now running backwards as Train 511. Did the comet Hale-Bopp have anything to do with the actions of the passengers on the Coast Starlight tonight or was it just another trip on Amtrak where every trip is adventure. I arrived home at Santa Ana only forty five minutes late with the west now completely done sober. It was now time to plan a trip east to work on completing the entire Amtrak system sober.

Note: On May 10th,1997 Amtrak lost the routes of the Desert Wind and Pioneer.