JACK & BRANDON'S VACATION
Written by: Jack L. Winebrenner
In April of 1996 plans were begun on what would eventually become J & B's Vacation. I had just returned from my vacation with my friend Bill. My roommate Brandon, who was not able to join us due to scheduling problems, seemed somewhat envious stating that he would like to go on a similar trip. Well, he didn't have to ask me twice. I started making plans--if only in my mind. I knew what improvements I wanted to make to this trip. Most importantly I knew I wanted to rent a car in Las Vegas and drive to the Grand Canyon, stopping by Hoover dam on the way, instead of making a train connection in Los Angeles. Although this would cost a little more, it would give us an opportunity to spend an extra day in Las Vegas.
In early August, I finally started making real plans, by making hotel and train reservations and such. I love train travel. Brandon had never even been on a train before. Nevertheless, he thought the train sounded fun, so that is what we planned for. Within days of making the train reservations I heard on the news that due to congressional cutbacks Amtrak had decided to terminate the Desert Wind effective November 10th, This was the train that would take us from our first stop in Denver to our second stop in Las Vegas. This was a major set back. We would now have to get off in Salt Lake City, spend the night, rent a car and drive seven and a half hours to Las Vegas. Since Brandon is not yet twenty-five the rental agency would not allow him to drive, therefore, I would have to do all of the driving. Oh well, there was nothing I could do about it. I changed all the necessary train and hotel and car reservations and was determined to make the best of it. We would wind up losing almost an entire day in Las Vegas but at least Brandon would get to spend a few hours in Salt Lake City.
Within a couple of weeks of changing everything to accommodate the cutback, I heard that Congress had decided to give an emergency six months worth of funding to save this train along with the Texas Eagle and the Pioneer, which were also scheduled to be terminated on November 10th. Fortunately, it was an election year and Congress and the President gave in to public pressure. I had done my part by calling my legislators and asking my friends and family to do the same. My friend Jim Poole was particularly vocal in his support of Amtrak and made this very well known to his legislators. Although, it was very time consuming and annoying to have to yet again change the plans, I was very pleased that the routes were saved at least temporarily and that we were able to return to our original itinerary.
Departure DayMinus One
After many months of anxious waiting, the day was finally here. I could not wait. We were all packed and prepared to go. It was Thursday March 13th and I was at home with dinner on the table waiting for Brandon to get home from his night class so we could quickly eat and then head up to my Mom's house. Brandon got home shortly before 8P.M. We ate, loaded the car, and were on our way by 8:45P.M. Brandon was driving the two and half-hours to my mom's house in Whiting, which is right outside of Chicago. I was happy that he was driving because it was raining very hard. It was the kind of rain that completely blinded you every time you passed a semi-truck. We made very good time, all things considered, and arrived in Whiting at 10:30P.M. local time. Our first stopped was at my Uncle Bob's where he and my mother were waiting for us. My uncle graciously agreed to let us park the car in his garage for the duration of our trip. After visiting for a short time we transferred our luggage to my mom's car and headed for her home where we would spend the night. Before retirering for the night we all watched Friends and Seinfeld as my Mom and I visited and watched in amazement as Brandon ate an entire quart of Cookiedough ice cream, and he is the fit one, oh well! My mother and I both went to bed around 1A.M. Brandon stayed up and got a kick out of looking at my mom's cat Demon who likes to sleep on the hump of my mother's hip as she sleeps on her side. He thought this was just about the funniest thing he ever saw. After several minutes he finally stopped laughing and watched some TV until a little after 2A.M. when he inflated the air mattress and went to sleep.
We got up fairly early so we could take baths and still have time to accept my mothers offer to take us out for breakfast before we caught the train. We had a very full and good breakfast hampered only by the fact that they were out of hot chocolate. Brandon wasn't upset about the lack of hot chocolate he was pre-occupied ogling the young, hot, curvy waitress. Unfortunately, for Brandon there was no time for him to swoon the waitress with his charm as we had a train to catch.
Our train, the Wolverine was scheduled to leave Whiting at 11:15A.M. The station was only minutes away from the restaurant and we arrived there at 10:45A.M. I immediately went up to ticket window to inquire if our train was running on time. I was told no, though a different train the Pere Marquette which should of been into Whiting more than an hour earlier was due into the station in about ten minutes, and we could catch it and actually arrive into Chicago a few minutes ahead of time! The train arrived at 11A.M. and we hugged and kissed my Mom good-bye and boarded the train for the twenty-five minute ride to Chicago.
The Pere Marquette is a BI-level train and we sat in coach on the lower level. This was Brandon's very first train ride; he found the rails to be much smoother and more relaxing than he thought they might be. The trip to Union Station in Chicago is interesting in it's own right. You pass the abandon Falstaff brewery and slums of the south side before working your way past the new Comminsky Park where the Chicago White Sox play. As you travel further north, you enter some very nice neighborhoods as you approach the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago. At 11:30A.M. sharp the train pulled into the station. We were in Chicago. Our vacation had officially started.
Chicago's Union Station is a site to behold. Originally constructed in the last century it has recently been remolded and updated. While the station still keeps its original charm in many ways, one might think that you were at a contemporary airport with all the modern computer screens listing arrivals and departures; rather than a train station. In an era that has seen many train stations either torn down or abandoned, Union Station is a model of what could be. The station is very busy with not only several Amtrak trains arriving and departing everyday, but also sees a very large amount of inter-urban train traffic as well. The complex is complete with newsstands, gift shops, restaurant, and bars. After checking our luggage for Denver we headed to the Metropolitan Lounge, an elegant waiting area for first class passengers, in order to relax a few minutes and have a complimentary drink. We were able to leave our carry on luggage with the hostess so that we may take in a few sites of the city before boarding our train the California Zephyr for its 3:05P.M. departure.
In the few hours of free time Brandon and I decided to walk the mile or so east to the Chicago Art Institute, one of the finest art museums in the world. It was a beautiful sunny day with temperatures in the upper thirties; however, it felt much cooler as the Windy City earned its nickname that day. Winds were gusting to over 30 mile per hour. We braved the elements however, and enjoyed the hustle of downtown Chicago on this Friday afternoon. Soon we were at the museum. You could easily spend several days exploring the museum. Unfortunately, we only had about an hour and forty-five minutes to spend there, so we limited ourselves mainly to the Classical and Romantic paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries. This is the area that interested us both the most. We both loved it. We did take a quick detour down to see one of my favorite paintings of the 20th century, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. Before we knew it we had to start heading back towards the station so we could have lunch. We ate at a nice little pizza place at the station that serves Chicago style pizza, which is my favorite. After lunch we headed back to the Metropolitan Lounge where we checked in with the conductor before boarding our train around 2:45P.M. We both really enjoyed our few hours in Chicago, which is one of my favorite cities.
The California Zephyr
A friendly clerk directed us past the gate to our car, where we met Applegate, our attendant. Applegate directed us to our economy bedroom. I had attempted to prepare Brandon for how small our room would actually be, however, the expression on his face revealed that he didn't realize that it was this small! After just a few minutes, Brandon settled into our accommodations and realized although very compact, it was quite comfortable. The room consisted of two comfortable chairs that faced one another with a fold down table in between. These two chairs opened up into what becomes the bottom bunk. Above our heads was a compartment that upon opening revealed a second bed. Within the room is also a thermostat that theoretically controls the temperature in the compartment. Unfortunately, that was not the case in this car, the heat was pouring out. We adjusted the control all the way down and although it did help, it was still VERY warm in the room. Brandon was only a little uncomfortable, but I was very hot.
Fortunately, there were many other things for me to focus my attention on. We were traveling through northwestern Illinois. and the scenery was interesting. For Brandon it was a special treat. This was still all new to him and he was pleasantly surprised by the countryside in which the train passed. He thought the train would follow along roads and towns all the way, and was pleased to see that much of the time was spent traveling through the beautiful wooded landscape.
Shortly after 5:00P.M. I took Brandon for a little tour of the train. (Besides, this gave me an opportunity to leave our hot compartment.) We passed the dining car as we headed for the sightseer lounge car, where we spent some time watching the scenery. Later, we went downstairs to the cafe car, I ordered a glass of ice water as we sat at a table and talked. We arrived in the small town of Galesburg, the last stop in Illinois at 5:45P.M. We were running ten minutes ahead of schedule. Our luck was about to change.
We were still in the cafe car when the train came to a stop just before 6P.M. The conductor announced over the intercom that we were stopping before entering Iowa and that a mechanic from Burlington was meeting the train to work on our whistle. Apparently, our whistle on the lead engine had not worked since we left Chicago. There are many unprotected crossings in Iowa, so it was imperative that the whistle work. We decided to return to our room so that I could listen to the scanner I had packed in my suitcase. Over the next two hours I monitored the scanner as they first tried to repair the whistle before deciding that it would be necessary to disconnect the engines from the train. The train had two engines so the plan was to run them ahead to separate sidings and then reattach them in the opposite order. The engine that was behind would now be the lead engine since its whistle worked. This whole process caused a two-hour delay, during which we had no power other than emergency lights. But this also meant no heat, which was a very welcome relief for me. I must say, even though the delay disappointed me, I found listening to the whole thing on my scanner very interesting. Minutes after 8p.m we were on the move again. At approximately 8:20P.M. the dining car attendant called for all 7P.M. reservations to finally head for the dining car--just in time, as Brandon and I were getting quite hungry.
One of the nicer features of train travel is the dining car. First of all, the food is delicious. All of Amtrak's chefs are trained at the prestigious American Culinary Institute, plus as a first class passenger, meals are free. Upon entering the car, we were seated at a booth that has space for four. If your party is less than four, as were Brandon's and mine, then you are seated with other passengers. Although this might seem awkward, it really is just the opposite. It is very interesting to speak with people of all ages and backgrounds, while sharing each otherís travel stories.
Our dinner companions on this night were Jim, a sixteen-year veteran of the Coast Guard, and Penny, an interior designer for Sears. As Brandon and I enjoyed our New York strip steak dinners, we learned more about these people. Jim worked in the environmental enforcement and cleanup division of the Coast Guard. He was traveling from Boston to San Francisco en route to a training class. This was only his second train trip and he was happy to be aboard. He had been trying for several years to find the time to make a cross-country trip. Over dinner Jim told an interesting story:
While Jim was stationed in Mississippi in the late 1980's, there was a retired judge who still had good friends in very high places. The judge now owned an oil barge that would transport oil from the rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. The only problem was that for years this ship's inner hull leaked, leaving only the outer hull between the oil and the gulf. Leakage is a fairly serious environmental violation. After several weeks of investigation Jim and his coworkers found an informant who gave them all the information they needed to crack down on this guy. The Coast Guard eventually ordered him to make the necessary repairs to the barge and clean and properly dispose of all oil that remained between the outer and inner hulls. The clean up was going to cost him millions, much more than he had ever made in the business. One night, through their informant, the Coast Guard learned that the judge planned to "accidentally" sink the barge. They actually had drums of Dawn dishwashing detergent on board that they intended to use in an attempt to cover up the spill the sinking would cause. On the night of the intended scuttling, the Coast Guard lay in wait. Shortly after midnight, the barge and another boat appeared in the distance. The patrol boat turned on its lights and siren. Suddenly, the barge and its companion boat turned off the engines and lights in an apparent attempt to hide on the moonless night. Jim recounted, "Only in Mississippi would someone think, 'If we be quiet they won't find us.' " Jim was laughing as he went on to say, "it's not like we didn't have radar--we are the Coast Guard." Eventually they forced the retired judge to do the cleanup. The judge was later quoted as saying, "Hell, if this had happened fifteen years ago in the good old days, those boys(i.e. The Coast Guard)would have been alligator meat."
Our other dinner companion, Penny was returning to California from Chicago where she had just completed a training class for Sears. She was traveling by train mainly because she doesn't like to fly. Penny said she was really enjoying the train, but wished that she had a sleeper car rather than traveling in coach. I have successfully traveled overnight in coach, but I certainly wouldn't want to spend two days and nights in coach, as it must be rough.
We all finished our main course, and Penny excused herself from the table. Brandon, Jim and I ordered dessert. I had cherry pie a la mode; the others at the table had sundaes. Afterwards, Brandon and I continued to visit with Jim before finally returning to our room.
Brandon and I spent the rest of evening gazing at the lights of the small towns we passed by, playing cribbage, relaxing, and taking turns reading Howard Stern's book Private Parts. Around 12:30A.M., we prepared our room and ourselves for bed. Brandon climbed up into his bunk and read some more, while I fell asleep watching the world pass by my windows. I was awakened around 2:00A.M. by commotion outside our train. I turned on my scanner and discovered than an elderly gentleman who was riding in our car, had a heart attack. Fortunately, we were only minutes away from the station in Omaha Nebraska. From the radio conversations I heard it sounded like he was going to survive the incident. I can't imagine what it must be like for his wife and he to be in that situation in the middle of a strange city. What a way to spend your vacation. Eventually, we were back on our way and I quickly fell back to sleep.
I awoke the next morning shortly after 8A.M. as we pulled into Fort Morgan, Colorado. We made up a half-hour of our lost time overnight, so that meant we were now running an hour and thirty minutes behind schedule. I wakened Brandon and we got ready for breakfast. Brandon said he slept very well, and like myself found the rocking of the train and the clickadee-clack of the rails very relaxing and conducive to a good night sleep. My friend Bill with whom I traveled with last year is the only person I have ever spoken to who found it difficult to sleep on the train because of all the "noise." That's Bill for you.
We headed for breakfast and were seated at a table by ourselves this morning. Brandon ordered a cheese omelet, and I had scrambled eggs and bacon. We spotted Penny at another table; the poor thing looked really razzeled, as her night in coach appeared to have caught up with her. The food was very good. Over breakfast, we spoke about our trip thus far. I was pleased that Brandon was enjoying train travel. When planning the trip I thought that he probably would enjoy the train; nevertheless, I wasn't one hundred percent certain. Brandon is twenty-one years old and very active, so I was a little concerned that he might get restless on the train; therefore, I was very pleased that he liked it. After finishing our meal, we headed back to our room and got our bags ready. Within a half-hour, we arrived at our first destination Denver.
We arrived in Denver around 10:15A.M., ninety minutes behind schedule. Denver's Union Station was built in 1880, and is a gorgeous limestone building with a grand waiting area and fifty-foot high ceilings. The station underwent complete restoration in the mid-1980's. In addition to the two daily Amtrak stops, the station also is host to the Ski Train, which runs on the old Rio Grand line, delivering skiers to Winter Park and other ski resorts in the area. I had made arrangements to have a rental car delivered to the station. The pay phones were all in use, so I used my cellular phone to call Budget Rent-a-Car to come pick us up. By the time we claimed our checked luggage the representative was waiting out front.
The Budget representative drove us to the rental agency. We picked up our car for the day, a Toyota Camry, a car I would soon grow to hate. We drove a very short distance to the LaQuinta hotel. Our room was very clean and modern. I took a shower and got cleaned up first. I almost killed myself stepping out of the tub, (which had apparently been raised to conform to the American's with Disabilities Act) as there was an unexpectedly large step down. While Brandon took a shower, I looked through a tourist guide to get some ideas of what we wanted to do for the day. I gave Brandon a few options and he decided that we would drive to Golden, Colorado and visit the Coors Brewery. This sounded fun to me, especially since visitors are able to sample the product. On the way, I wanted to drive back downtown and visit the State Capitol building. I had been told that from its rotunda you could see for miles in all directions, with a particularly grand view of the Rocky Mountains.
We drove down to the State House. Even though it was a Saturday we still had to feed the parking meter, and of course neither one of us had so much as a nickel in change. Brandon ran down the street to a hotel and got change. I attempted to put money in the meter only to discover that it was broke and permanently read two hours--so we didn't need the change anyhow. We walked the two blocks to the Capitol building and found it locked up tighter than the US Mint, which incidentally was only two blocks away. I was really disappointed, as I really wanted to take pictures of the city from the rotunda. I can't understand why it was closed on a Saturday, as Denver is very much a tourist town, one would think government leaders might attempt to accommodate. Oh well!
I suggested we walk down the street and try to find somewhere to eat. The first several places we stopped at were CLOSED! I couldn't believe it; I have never seen a city like this before. After walking about four blocks we found a corner diner and went in. However, we didn't stay long. The place was dirty, and there was a homeless man standing in the middle of the restaurant doing what I believe was some type of rain dance. We left and went across the street to a much nicer place. Brandon ordered a turkey sandwich and I requested a cheeseburger. Both were served with homemade fried potatoes that were delicious. The sandwiches themselves were unique and very tasty. After lunch we headed for Golden to take our tour and sample our beer.
The ride to Golden, located in the foothills of the Rockies, was beautiful. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy the Camry I was driving. It did not handle very well at all and I had to give it most of my attention. We drove only about twenty-five minutes before we reached the Golden exit.
Golden is a beautiful little town, so we decided we would spend sometime exploring it after the Coors's tour. We followed the signs and parked in the designated lot. Within about ten minutes a shuttle picked us up for the very short trip to the brewery. The tour lasted about forty minutes and took us through the whole brewing process; it was very interesting. After which, we were lead down to an on site tavern where we were allowed three free samples of the various brews they bottle, not just a shot glass full--but a real glass. There were about fifteen options to choose from, so narrowing it down to just three was difficult. Our favorite of the beers we sampled was Herman Joseph's. Neither of us had ever heard of it before but we really liked it. As you exit the facility, not surprisingly, you pass the gift shop. We entered and shopped. I bought a couple of shot glasses, but Brandon bought much more. He found a really good deal on a Coors Light jacket that was fifty percent off. He purchased it and a pair of sunglasses. We left the brewery and headed back to town.
Around 5:30P.M. and everything in town, other than restaurants and bars, was closed. We walked around, and took some pictures of each other as well as the mountains surrounding the town. One of the mountains looked very familiar, it should of, it is the mountain that is depicted on the label of Coors. Evidently, the mountain inspired us, as we headed to a local bar and ordered a couple of Coors Light, before heading back to Denver.
We arrived back at our hotel around 7P.M. and decided to clean up and relax for half an hour or so before heading out to dinner. Around 7:30P.M., we decided to drive downtown to Larimer Street Mall, an area of downtown that has many restaurants, bars, and shops. The first challenge was finding a place to park. After circling the area several times we finally had to park in a pay lot and pay $7.00!! I couldn't believe how little parking was available compared to downtown Indianapolis.
We walked about four blocks on this clear cool night before we found a place that interested us; an Italian restaurant and bar named Josephina's. The restaurant was quite busy and we were told to expect a 45-minute wait. Brandon and I decided to walk around the downtown area and browse the shops in the area. However, as seemed to be the theme in Denver, just about every shop was closed on this Saturday evening. I just can't understand it, there were several hundred people in this area, and all the shops were closed, it wasn't even 8P.M. yet. The only two shops we found open were a modern furniture shop and an art shop with some very nice pieces, though not so nice prices--several thousands.
We went back to Josephina's and ordered a couple draughts of green beer on this weekend before St. Patrick's Day. We sat at a cocktail table and watch as a live band started to set up for their performance later that evening. We were finally seated for dinner and immediately served this wonderful unleavened bread, which was, cut pie shaped and topped with butter, garlic and parmesan cheese. It was unique, and it was great. For an entree, Brandon ordered a stuffed chicken breast, which was HUGH, and I choose the house special, Josephina's Chicken Penne Pasta. Both dinners were very good. Unfortunately, the entrees left us with no room for dessert--some of which sounded very good. After dinner we had a couple of beers and decided to head back towards the hotel. We had a very busy and long day and needed to get up the next morning before 7A.M., so after watching a little TV we headed off to sleep.
When the wake-up call came, I immediately called the Amtrak station to confirm that our train, The Desert Wind was running on time, which it was. So I took a shower and got cleaned up before waking Brandon. We caught a quick continental breakfast in the lobby of the hotel before checking out. I drove to Budget to return the car, and the man at the counter called for a complimentary cab to take us back to Union Station. When we arrived at the station, there were several hundred runners getting lined up for a St. Patrick's Days race. Brandon wished he had time to join in, however, being unaccustomed to the high altitude, it's just as well that there wasn't time as he probably would have gotten sick.
We entered the station, checked our baggage, and immediately boarded the train. Paul, our attendant showed us to our room, and gave us both complimentary solar powered calculators with the Desert Wind and California Zephyr logo on the front. They were neat. There was still fifteen minutes left before the train's 9:35A.M. scheduled departure, so we walked back out onto the platform and took some pictures. We watched in the distance as the race began. Neither Brandon nor I had ever spent any time in Denver before, and therefore we did not know what to expect. However, we both wound up really enjoying our time in the Mile High City, and wished we could have spent more than just twenty-four hours.
The Desert Wind
The staff on the Desert Wind was excellent, starting with our attendant Paul, who checked in with us several times during the journey to see if we needed anything. Our car was stocked with complimentary sodas, bottled water, and ice. Most importantly to me was the fact that the thermostat in this compartment actually worked. Shortly after the train got moving, the Chief of on Board Services stopped by our room to introduce himself, he seemed like a nice man. Minutes later the dining car attendant announced the last call for breakfast over the intercom. Since we both had already eaten we decided to take a short nap instead.
Within an hour, we were both awake and watching the scenery. Shortly before 11:30A.M. we made a five minute stop in Winter Park, CO in order to let off several passengers. This place is a very beautiful and popular skiing community. Brandon and I hopped off the train and snapped a couple of pictures and took in some fresh air as we gazed at the snowcapped mountains all around us.
As the train left Winter Park, the next eight hours would provide the most amazingly beautiful and majestic journey of any land travel in North America. Over the next 350 miles, the train would climb through, over, and around the great Rocky Mountains, following the path of the Colorado River for 250 of these miles. We would pass through nearly thirty tunnels, one of the first and the longest of which is the Moffat tunnel at nearly six and a half miles in length.
The Moffat Tunnel is named after David H. Moffat(1839-1911). Mr. Moffat was first known as a mining tycoon, owning more than a hundred gold and silver mines. Later he became President of First National Bank of Denver; however, he's best known for the tunnel in which he dedicated twenty years of his life to procure the necessary financing. The tunnel crosses the Continental Divide as the Rocky Mountains rise 13,000 feet above. The Moffat Tunnel not only carries rail traffic, but water to Metropolitan Denver via a pipeline. On either end of the tunnel are huge doors that open to allow trains to pass, and close afterwards, to keep hikers from attempting to take a very dangerous shortcut to Winter Park. The tunnel's construction wasn't started until 1923, twelve years after David H. Moffat's death. On February 18th, 1927, President Calvin Coolidge pushed the switch that detonated dynamite clearing the final obstructions to the tunnel. Moffat Tunnel was officially dedicated in 1928; it immediately shortened the route through the Rockies by nearly thirty miles. Six years later the mission was realized with the completion of the Dotsero Cutoff. The journey across the Rocky Mountains was now 176 miles shorter, maximum elevation was 2,400 feet lower, and travel time was seven hours shorter, a truly amazing feat. This is the route that both the California Zephyr and the Desert Wind continue to travel today.
We passed through the Moffat Tunnel shortly after leaving Winter Park. During the ten minutes it took to pass through we were not allowed to walk between cars. Even though there are huge blowers at both ends of the tunnel that attempt to ventilate, diesel fumes still become thick in the tunnel, consequently opening and closing the doors between cars would allow fumes into the train. After exiting the west end of the tunnel Brandon and I went to the dining car for lunch.
Our companions for lunch were an elderly lady and a younger lady. The elderly lady was traveling with her husband but he wasn't having lunch with her. Her husband and she are both members of the Pacific Railroad Club. There were a few dozen members on this train, many of whom were easily recognizable by their nametags. We spoke to her about the history of rail travel and specifically the Moffat family and according to our lunch companion, Mrs. Moffat was a doctor, back in the days when many women were not in that profession. Mrs. Moffat was the only doctor in the area and initially some people would prefer to go without treatment than go to a "lady" doctor. Our other lunch companion was a younger lady who was unable to convince her husband to travel by train with her. She was enroute to Las Vegas and her husband was going to fly out and meet her. Lunch was enjoyable as Brandon and I both had hamburgers for lunch and cherry pie a la mode for dessert. After lunch, Brandon went to the Sightseer car, which was just about filled to capacity; he watched the scenery and read Private Parts. I returned to our room and read the Sunday paper, listened to my scanner, and watched out the window, taking an occasional picture.
Later in the afternoon Brandon returned to the room and we played a few games of cribbage. After which I took my book back and Brandon read some homework he brought along. All the while our attention was often called to the windows as we followed the Colorado river on our journey back down the mountains. Around 3:30P.M., all first class passengers were invited to the dining car for a snack. They had a pretty nice spread, consisting of red and white wine, several types of cheese, dip, and fruit as well as crackers and bread. As the sun slowly set a few hours later, the wonderful sights we had been treated to all day slowly faded to black. If a person was to take just one train ride in America in their lifetime, this is the trip to take. The view between Denver and Salt Lake City is truly amazing.
Brandon and I headed to the dining car for our 7P.M. dinner reservations. We were seated with a couple of older gentlemen who were deep in conversation with one another. A few minutes later, the larger of the two gentlemen, introduced himself as Harry, and his friend as Frank. Harry asked if Brandon and I were brothers, and I responded, "no." He then speculated that we must be asked that question often, since we looked so much alike. Brandon, who is half of my weight, immediately responded, saying, "No, I don't think so." I think he was insulted. I on the other hand thought it was pretty funny. However, what happened next wasn't at all funny. Harry wanted to take his insulin pills before dinner. According to Harry, he was supposed to take them before eating. We had already been served our salads, but no one had taken our drink order. A few minutes went by, but no sign of our waitress. A couple of minutes later, Jimmy Boyd the dining car manager walked by. Harry very politely got his attention and asked for a glass of water. Mr. Boyd said, "I am not your waiter. Your waitress will be with you shortly." Another five minutes passed by with no sign of our waitress. Mr. Boyd walked by again, and again Harry politely asked for a glass of water, explaining once again that he needed to take his medicine. Mr. Boyd responded in a very loud and stern voice, "I will get your dam water but I am NOT YOUR WAITER!" As Mr. Boyd walked away I overheard him saying to the waitress who was now a couple tables away, "I got to get this old man some water before he dies over there." Finally, about three or four minutes later Mr. Boyd returned with a warm glass of water and slammed it down on the table. Harry was obviously upset by the ordeal. He was very red in the face and his hands were shaking. Harry said to Mr. Boyd, "I don't appreciate your attitude, I should speak to the Chief of On Board Services." Mr. Boyd responded, "Go ahead old man, talk to him, I don't care, go, go, go, talked to him." This was by far the biggest "downer" of my entire two-week vacation. I regret to this day that I didn't confront Mr. Boyd right then and there.
Fortunately, after a few minutes, everyone settled down. We all finished our dinners, Brandon, Harry and I ordered dessert, Frank didn't order dessert and excused himself from the table. Harry told us all many stories of his life. He is 86 years old and was married for 55 years. His wife passed away three years ago. Harry was a musician most of his life as he played Big Band music and recorded with many of the big names of the day, like Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, and even Frank Sinatra. Although, he played many instruments, he excelled best with the saxophone. In the thirties he often played in blues and jazz clubs of Chicago. During WW II, after basic training he joined the Marine Band. He had many stories of his Marine days, including the following:
The barracks in which Harry was stationed in Georgia had non-regulation beds. Harry described them as "girl's beds" as they were on wheels and had big head and footboards made out of bars. One evening Harry and a buddy returned from a night of drinking in town. They found another friend passed out in his bed. They wheeled his bed out into the street, pulled a jeep up behind the bed and started pushing it down the road. After, getting the jeep and bed up to about twenty-five miles an hour they laid on the horn. The man in bed suddenly woke up and you can only imagine his confusion. Harry said he would never forget the expression on the guy's face illuminated by the headlights of the jeep.
One last thing about Harry, during our conversation he told us he was really worried about our country's future, "Seems instead of all of us joining as one, society is getting segmented. Every group blaming everyone else for their problems." At the end of our evening together we all shook hands, and Harry said to us, "Talking to you has been a real pleasure. It is meeting young people like you two that gives me renewed hope for our country's future. God bless you two, and good luck in everything you do." What a kind thing for him to have said, it left both Brandon and me with a warm feeling inside. Brandon and I spent almost two hours speaking with Harry that night. I don't believe either one of us will ever forget him.
After returning to our compartment, we played several games of cribbage, read, and I listened to my scanner. We stayed up till midnight waiting for our arrival in Salt Lake City. The train has an hour stopover in Salt Lake to uncouple some cars, and take on fuel and water. Brandon and I took advantage of the time and jumped into a cab. We took a quick tour of the city. I was in Salt Lake last year, but Brandon, had never been in the city before. I had the driver take us around downtown past the Delta Center where the Utah Jazz play, and finally to the Mormon Temple, which looked just as splendid lit up at night, as it appears during the day. After our short tour we returned to the train and headed off to bed.
We awoke around 6:30 the next morning. After getting dressed and cleaned up, we headed to the dining car for breakfast. We met a lady who was also on her way to Las Vegas. We were all excited knowing we would be in Vegas in less than an hour. Breakfast was good as usual. We ate quickly so we could get back to our room to pack. After packing, we tipped our attendant Paul twenty dollars since had done such a very fine job. About this time, the train pulled into the station, which is conveniently located in The Plaza Hotel and Casino where Brandon and I would be staying. Brandon and I enjoyed our time aboard the Desert Wind; however, we had mixed emotions knowing that this train route would soon be terminated due to federal cutbacks. (Less than two months later, on May 12, 1997, Amtrak's Desert Wind train #35 made it last stop in Las Vegas. As the train pulled out of the station for the final time, observers could see a banner across the back of the train that read "The End")
Las Vegas greeted us with unseasonably warm weather. This time of year the high should only be in the upper sixties, but on this sunny day it was not even 8A.M. and it was already seventy-five beautiful degrees. This fine start was a preview of the weather we would experience for the rest of our vacation.
We claimed our checked luggage and headed to the hotel registration desk. Check-in wasn't until 3P.M., however, I was hoping to be able to check in early so we could take showers and get cleaned up. Unfortunately, our room wasn't ready yet. After checking our baggage with the bellboy, we decided to take a walk down Fremont street, which is the main street of downtown Las Vegas. We walked out the doors and headed down Fremont Street towards Las Vegas Boulevard. This was Brandon's first time in Vegas, and he was surprised it wasn't bigger than it was. However, the next day when we went down to the Las Vegas strip, he realized just how BIG Vegas really is. Like many first timers, Brandon was also surprised to see how clean the casinos and walkways were. However, what amazed him the most was the age spread. In Las Vegas you see many older people, as well as teenagers, and every age in between. It is nice seeing all the ages commingle.
Brandon and I went into the Four Queens casino. We didn't want to get into serious gambling right away; therefore, we each got a few dollars in nickels and played some nickel slots. It took me about fifteen minutes to lose all of my coins, but only ten minutes for me to remember that I HATE slots. Brandon, on the other hand, hit for 200 nickels. I told him I was going to go over to the blackjack table and see if I had any luck. I did. In less than a half-hour, I won $80.00. I was hoping this was a good omen.
It was now 10:15A.M., we could see a lot of action down by Las Vegas Boulevard. As we walked closer we discovered that they had a St. Patrick's Day parade going on. We headed that way stopping by Woolworth's to buy some suntan lotion so we wouldn't burn watching the parade. The crowd was about five deep and we couldn't really see anything. Fortunately, Brandon spotted a nearby parking garage with an excellent vantagepoint. We had an great view and spent the next two hours watching the parade, enjoying the view of the surrounding city and mountains, and soaking in the wonderful sun and weather--Brandon was even able to take his shirt off and get an earlier start on his tan.
After the parade we went to Prima Pizza and Deli, which is located in Fitzgerald's casino. At first, I couldn't get over how large the crowd in the casino was, until I made the obvious connection between Fitzgerald's and St. Patty's day. The Leprechauns on the carpet should have been my first clue. Fortunately, just about everyone was in line for the restaurant that was serving cornbeef and cabbage, consequently, we were seated right away at the Italian place.
The prices were great. Nothing on the menu was more than ten dollars, and this was a nice place. The waitress immediately served us a basket consisting of garlic bread, Italian bread, and garlic bread with mozzarella cheese, tomato and basil. All three were wonderful. We were also served a salad with raspberry vinaigrette dressing, my favorite. Brandon and I both ordered grilled chicken with fettuchini al fredo. It was delicious. We finished lunch around 1:45P.M. and decided to head back towards our hotel to see if our room was ready.
Thankfully, our room was ready. The bellboy led us up to our room. My first impression of the room was how delightful the view was. My second impression was how terribly dated the decor was. It looked like Mike Brady himself had decorated the place. Furthermore, handles were missing from drawers, the air conditioner was loud, and the thermostat didn't work as it was either on or off--nothing in between. There was no cable TV, and worst of all, the shower sucked. When in Vegas you don't spend much time in your room, however, there are so many nice rooms in town that I felt really cheated. At least the beds were comfortable, and the place was clean. Most importantly to Brandon, the hotel also had a nice swimming pool. Nevertheless, I attempted to find another hotel in which we could stay. I started with Lady Luck, where I had stayed last year. Unfortunately, they were booked solid. I then called a few more places downtown, but I didn't have any luck. I decided not to waste any more time and gave up.
I was ready to go back out and play some more blackjack. But first, I spent fifteen-minutes or so, giving Brandon some tips on playing blackjack. He caught on to the basics fairly quickly. Afterwards, I was on my way to gamble, and Brandon was on his way to the pool.
We met back up a couple of hours later and headed out to Lady Luck to play. We wound up at different tables. My hot streak was continuing, over the next ninety minutes I won an additional $100 and was now up more than $200. for the day. I visited Brandon at his table a few times. He was still learning the game and suffering from beginner's anxiety. I decided to share the wealth a little, and added a $25 chip to Brandon's bet, fortunately he won the hand and made a quick fifty. That seemed to pep him up a little.
Around 8P.M. we went back out to Fremont Street to watch the Fremont Street Experience. Running for four blocks from in front of the Plaza, our hotel, down to South Forth street, is a huge metal canopy containing tens of thousands of light bulbs, which make up a giant video screen. They have five shows a night that are shown on the screen, accompanied by music. The sound system consisting of several hundred speakers is truly amazing. Currently, there are three separate shows that play on a rotating bases. The show we saw was new since I was here last year. It was called, Viva Las Vegas, and consisted of old film and audio clips of Elvis, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, The McQuire Sisters, and many more of the legendary musical performers of Las Vegas. The show was great, and the music sounded awesome.
After the show, we went to the Golden Gate casino, the oldest in Las Vegas, dating back to the turn of the century. We had dinner at a steak house located inside the casino. Brandon and I both ordered a sixteen ounce porterhouse steak with all the trimmings for only $7.77, boy is Vegas great or what? We spent the rest of the evening visiting the different casinos, before heading off to sleep.
Our second day in Las Vegas started with brunch at the Golden Nugget's buffet. Their buffet was incredible; the food was not your usual buffet fare. Brandon and I had deep fried ravioli, succulent turkey breast, bacon and eggs, roast beef, accompanied by all of the trimmings. Brandon stuck with fruit for dessert; however, there was no way I could resist the incredible fare.
After lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoon playing at the casinos, and Brandon went to the pool. In the evening we headed over to the strip. The journey to the strip is too far to walk so we rode the bus. The strip is very different from downtown. It is much more crowded, much larger, and most of the casinos are much bigger. If you actually walked the entire length of the strip, stopping at every casino for one hour, it would take four year, seven months and twenty-seven days to complete the mission.
We walked a good portion of the strip that night. We first visited the Mirage then Treasure Island, having dinner at the latter. Our meal was good, but a little pricy for Las Vegas. After dinner we watched the Volcano erupt at the Mirage, and the now famous ship battle at Treasure Island. Brandon and I also played a little blackjack at Treasure Island. Our dealer was a real snob. However, I must admit I found his smart-ass sense of humor pretty funny. When we first sat down at the table and asked to have our chips from the Plaza exchanged, he put his nose up in the air as he turned to the pit boss and asked, "Do we accept chips from the 'Plaaaazzza''?" Of course they did and we got to playing. It was just Brandon and myself at the table for a while; eventually an elderly woman joined us. No one was talking much and after a few minutes she asked, "why isn't anyone talking?" Well, the dealer immediately pounced on her, "You want to talk, okay. Where did you get 'thaaat' accent?" She responded, "South Carolina." The dealer said, "That figures. How far do you live from Mayberry?" "Are you any relation to Barney Fife?" After that the lady didn't seem to want to talk as much as she did before. When Brandon and I were both done we were each up about fifty dollars. As we walked away from the table the dealer said, "Oooooh, are you boys going to cash in your BIG winnings." He was a real smart-ass but he did make me laugh.
The only other casino on the strip we really spent any time at was Caesar's Palace. The Palace is enormous! It must take up two square city blocks. The nice thing about the place is that they have motorized walkways, the kind you see in some large airports. The funny thing though, all the walkways lead in, none take you back out--you must use old-fashioned foot power for that. After leaving the "palace" we checked out one of the newest casinos, New York, New York which is made-up of scale replicas of the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, and the Brooklyn Bridge. The last two casinos we walked to before heading back were MGM and The Luxor.
The bus ride back to downtown--which would only be a ten-minute car ride--took us forty-five minutes. The bus was half-empty when we boarded, however, after just a few stops we were packed in like sardines. We finally got back to Fremont street and headed back to our hotel. Brandon and I played a little more blackjack downstairs at our hotel and had a couple of beers before heading off to sleep.
We spent out last full day in Vegas back downtown, playing at the casinos, swimming, and eating. I had a real roller coaster day playing black jack. I started the day off up over $300.00 for the trip. By evening I had lost two thirds of my profit. Fortunately, the Golden Nugget proved itself golden to me. After several hours of playing at the "nugget," I found myself up a total of $280.00. Since it was my last night in Vegas, I decided to be a little more brazen and took a hundred of my winnings placing several fifty dollar bets until I eventually won another hundred. At this point I was up $380.00 for the trip, which was my highest yet. I decided to stop while I was ahead and walk back to my hotel. Brandon came back to the hotel a few hours later with an interesting story. I will let him tell you it in his own words:
I had been up and down in winnings all day. Jack and I were both at the Golden Nugget when he approached me and indicated that he was up nearly four hundred dollars and was going to quit while he was ahead. Unfortunately I wasn't doing as well; I was down nearly a hundred for the night. After Jack left, I stayed just a little longer before deciding to head back to our hotel and try my luck at the tables there. Although, I had some luck there earlier in the week, that wasnít the case this night, as I lost twenty-five more dollars in a very short time. It was now past mid-night on this my last day in Vegas, and I was determined to not end it on a sour note. I left the Plaza with the last twenty-five dollars I had won earlier in the trip and walked across Main Street to the Las Vegas Club, which claims to have the most "Liberal 21 in the World." I sat at a table already occupied by three gentlemen, a man whom appeared to be in his fifties and went by the name Fred, a friend of Fred's about the same age, and Fred's son who looked to be in his thirties. Also sitting at the table was a forty-ish woman. From the moment I sat down, until the moment I left I didn't stop laughing. These people were such characters; they were cutting up on the dealer left and right. They really played off each other very well. Fred always had a smart ass comment to make to the dealer, he kept trying to get the dealer to let him change his mind and take a "hit" even after the dealer had already turned his card over. At one point Fred lost a few hands in a row and threatened to take the dealer out to the desert and bury him in a hole for no one to find. Those guys were as entertaining as any show you might see in Vegas. I was to busy laughing and socializing to realize that I was up over a hundred dollars. Meanwhile Fred and his companions were making much larger bets with the same luck as I. They must have been up a couple of thousand. I played for nearly two hours before saying my good-byes and heading back to our casinos. After counting my money I realized that I won about one hundred and twenty five dollars while having a blast. All in all in turned out to be a great night!
We awoke Thursday morning and had breakfast at the Golden Nugget before checking out of our hotel. The doorman hailed a cab for us. I said to the driver, "Don't you love the weather we have had." He said, "Sure the weather is great now, but If it is already this warm now, I am afraid what it will be like in a couple of months." Our driver went on to tell us that in the summertime it is often 110 degrees or higher in the afternoon and 100 degrees or more at midnight! Not the place for me! Our driver told us that a friend of his actually had to buy a system that cools his pool, in the summertime it would get very warm.
After waiting in line more than 30 minutes at the Hertz's counter, we picked up our 97 Thunderbird. We headed towards Boulder City, in order to visit the Hoover Dam.
We arrived at the dam a little after noon. The admission is eight dollars and includes a thirty-minute walking tour of the dam. We boarded an elevator and took a ninety-second ride down 726 feet. After exiting the elevator we viewed the hydroelectric generators, and then walked outside where we were now at the base of the dam, this was all very impressive.
We learned that construction of the Dam, located in Black Canyon between Nevada and Arizona, began in 1931. The last concrete was poured in 1935--two years ahead of schedule. The dam measures forty-five feet at the top, and 660 feet at its base. The first generator went on-line in October of 1936. The 17th and final generator went into commercial operation in 1961. Hoover Dam's reservoir, Lake Mead, is America's largest man made reservoir. It can store 9.2 trillion gallons of water! This is nearly two years of the river's average flow. Hoover Dam is a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. In 1994 the American Society of Civil Engineers named it one of America's Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders.
After the tour, Brandon and I walked around on top of the dam and took several pictures while enjoying the wonderful weather. Eventually we walked backed to the visitors center (which was completed in 1995) before heading back to our car and on towards our next destination, the Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon
Our trip from Hoover Dam to the Grand Canyon took about five hours, including a stop for dinner in Kingman, AZ. On our journey we traveled through the beautiful mountainous region of northwestern Arizona. The first couple of hours we traveled across US 93, primarily a two-lane highway. It was sometimes hard to keep my eye on the road with such lovely scenery all around. We eventually turned onto I-40; which to my delight had a speed limit of 75 miles per hour. I enjoyed driving the Thunderbird as we headed east towards the canyon, arriving there just before 7:30P.M.
We were able to park right in front of our hotel, The El Tovar. After checking in we walked the twenty feet or so to the edge of the canyon, there was a full moon that night and the canyon appeared surreal under the glow of the moon. As an added bonus the Hale-Bopp comet was nearly at its closes proximity to earth on this night. The view of the comet over the canyon was astonishing. Brandon and I took a short stroll while enjoying the unseasonable mild night. We headed back to our hotel after a half an hour or so, however, the images I saw that night I will long remember.
We spent the next day exploring the canyon. We woke early so we could explore the canyon before the buses carrying thousands of visitors arrived. It was a heavenly day, there wasnít a cloud in the sky and the temperature would reach the lower seventies, almost twenty degrees warmer than normal. (Ten days after we returned from vacation the Grand Canyon received thirty inches of snow!)
After lunch at the Bright Angel Lodge, Brandon and I took a very long walk along the east rim of the canyon. We walked nearly two miles to Grandeur Point. Along the way we took many pictures of the canyon and of ourselves. Around 5:30P.M. we walked back to our room. Our spacious room was very nice, as it was comprised of antique furnishings. Brandon and I both decided to take a short nap before dinner.
After our nap, Brandon and I stopped by one of the many gift shops to buy souvenirs before we headed to the El Tovar dining room for dinner. The restaurant is a rustic yet elegant place. Our service was first class. We both order filet mignon accompanied by a bowl of jalapeno cheddar soup, potato, vegetable, freshly baked rolls, and a wonderful dessert. We ordered a bottle of cabernet sauvignon to wash this all down. Afterwards Brandon and I were in complete agreement; this was the best meal we had our entire trip if not our entire lives. After finishing dessert we walked over to the hotel's cocktail lounge and enjoyed yet another bottle of wine and conversation before finally heading off to bed. There is nothing more conducive to a restful night's sleep than good food, good wine, good fellowship, and a day of fresh air.
We woke up early Saturday, our last day at the canyon, and after getting cleaned up we packed and prepared for our 11A.M. checkout. Our rental car was still in the prime-parking place where we left it two days earlier; therefore, every time we walked towards the car to load the trunk six or seven cars would appear from nowhere hoping to grab our spot. When we told them we weren't leaving they would all put their heads down and head back to wherever they came from, waiting to pounce on the next available space.
We had lunch at the Bright Angel Lodge, enjoying our Indian bread tacos, before we went back to the car and drove to the West rim of the canyon. We made several stops at the various lookout stations traveling as far as Hermit's Rest. Along the way we were able to view many incredible views, including the Colorado River as it winds its way through the canyon as it has for millions of years.
We said goodbye to the mighty and majestic Grand Canyon shortly before three in the afternoon. I know I will someday return again.
We drove south on US 180 toward I-40 and Flagstaff. We arrived in Flagstaff shortly after 4P.M., however, we drove past our exit and traveled an additional thirty miles east. We had decided to take a side trip to see, "The Best Preserved Meteorite Impact Site on Earth," Meteor Crater.
The crater was formed more than 50,000 years ago. It is 570 feet deep and measures over 4100 feet across. What is most interesting is the fact that a meteor estimated to be less than 175 feet wide created this huge crater. I am glad we made the side trip however, I must admit that after having spent a few days at the Grand Canyon, viewing the crater was a little anti-climactic. Furthermore, I found the admission of eight dollars a little steep.
We headed back west towards our hotel in Flagstaff. Shortly before 6P.M. we checked into the Dayís Inn. Brandon immediately headed to the hot tub, he had been hoping for one our entire trip and now he found one. I joined him a few minutes later and I found it very relaxing.
That evening we had dinner at a nice little Mexican restaurant that was recommended to me by the clerk at the hotel. After dinner we walked across the street to a movie theater and watched The Empire Strikes Back. On our way back to the hotel we bought a couple of bottles of wine for our train trip the next day. After arriving back at the hotel I washed a load of clothes in the convenient launderette, before heading off to sleep.
We awoke the next morning shortly after 6A.M. After getting packed and cleaned up we drove to the rail station just a couple of miles away. We had some difficulty returning our rental car at the station, we had to park it in an overflow lot a block away and on the other side of the tracks; but first we had to wait for a passing freight train to clear. After walking back to the station we checked our luggage and waited for the arrival of the Southwest Chief. Our train pulled into the station shortly after 7:30A.M. right on schedule.
Immediately after boarding the train and dropping off our carry on luggage in our room, we headed to the dining car for breakfast. Our lunch companions were a young lady from Compton, California who was traveling all the way to South Carolina to visit with family, and an older gentleman who was making the much shorter trip to Albuquerque. Brandon had pancakes and I had the cheese and green onion omelet; the food was very good as always. Apparently this was not true of the coffee. The gentleman at our table got into a debate with the waitress about the temperature of his coffee. He felt it was cold, however, she seemed certain that it was warm enough. We had a pleasant conversation with our dining companions before deciding to head back to our room.
Once returning to the room Brandon and I both decided to take a nap since we had been up pretty late the night before. I woke up a couple of hours later and monitored my scanner as I read the complimentary copy of the Sunday newspaper provided by Amtrak. The front page of this edition, being from Flagstaff, was covered with news concerning the University of Arizona advancing to the NCAA Final Four which were to be held in my home town in Indianapolis. (Eight days later they won the national championship.) I enjoyed watching out the train window as we traveled through the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. On the way we traveled across lands of the Hopi, Apache, Navajo, and Zuni Indians. Many Indian pueblos are visible along the route. The pueblos are centuries old squat stone homes, many of which still have "hornos," the traditional beehive-shaped ovens, out in front. As we continued our travel through New Mexico, there were many amazing natural wonders as well. East of Gallup the Southwest Chief passes through the Red Cliffs of New Mexico. The cliffs, which are named for the color they take on during sunset, are spectacular as they rise 7,300 hundred feet above the desert floor. Shortly before 11A.M. we crossed the Continental Divide at Campbellís Pass, from this point on water no longer flows west to the Pacific but east to the Atlantic Ocean. I woke Brandon up around 11:30A.M. so we could head to lunch. I wanted to have lunch a little early so we would be finished before the train reached Albuquerque.
The menu on this, the Southwest Chief, had a southwestern flair. I ordered a burrito; Brandon wasn't very hungry and settled on a salad. Our lunch companions were a couple from California on their way to Chicago. They seemed to be in their late forties and at first they came across as being aloof. After just a few minutes, they warmed up and we had a pleasant conversation. They both were happy to have the time to travel cross-country by train. We all joked about some of the odd things you see in people's yards as you travel through cities. One of the oddest of which is the house that must have over two hundred old washing machines covering their property. Outside the train we were presently crossing the Rio Grande River, this indicated that we were just about ten minutes away from our station in Albuquerque. All four of us ordered brownies to go for dessert and Brandon and I headed back to our room.
A few minutes later our train pulled into the Albuquerque station. The train has a twenty-five minute stopover at this station so Brandon and I stepped off the train to enjoy the sunny weather. There are many vendors, mostly Native Americans, who sell Indian and southwestern jewelry, art, and tapestries. Passengers also browsed an old school bus that is converted into a convenience store that sells snack food, toiletries, and souvenirs. Brandon purchased an Indian neck chain and I bought another shot glass to add to my collection. We walked a little more enjoying the seventy-degree temperature and taking pictures before re-boarding the train.
We spent the rest of the afternoon reading, relaxing, and watching the great Southwest pass by our windows. One of the more interesting highlights of this day's travels came late in the afternoon. Shortly before 4P.M. the train transverses a huge "S" curve, during which you can see both ends of the train as it winds sharply to gain altitude while crossing the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Two hours later as we approached Raton, New Mexico the train ascends 175 feet per mile until it reaches its highest point along the route nearly 7,600 feet before entering a half-mile tunnel at Raton Pass. As the train emerged from the tunnel we left New Mexico behind as we crossed into Colorado. One hour later as the last light faded from the sky to the west we entered Trinidad, Colorado. The town's name, which means "trinity", is displayed and illuminated atop of a hill 400 feet high. About this time we were called for dinner so Brandon and I headed that way.
Our dinner companions proved to be quite interesting, a twenty-one year old lady and a thirty-five year old man. They were traveling separately but seemed to become quite friendly with one another since boarding in California the day before. Over our excellent steak dinner Brandon and I learned that the man, John had gotten divorced just six months ago. Amy, our other companion was on her way to Missouri to finalize her divorce. We all laughed a lot during dinner and I think Brandon who is only twenty-one enjoyed dining with people close to his own age. After dinner I commented to Brandon that if those two had a sleeping compartment rather than coach seats they might really get "friendly" with one another. Brandon was quite sure that the lack of a private compartment would not stop them from getting "friendly." We will never know.
Unfortunately for Brandon and I, neither one of us had anyone to get "friendly" with; therefore, we had to settle with playing cards and sharing a nice bottle of Beaujolais Villages. Later that evening Brandon read some more and I listened to my scanner while watching distant lights across the plains of Kansas as the train travel the mostly straight rails at seventy miles per hour. I fell asleep sometime after 1A.M., when I next awoke we would be just hours from Chicago.
When I next looked out the window, we were In Kansas City, Missouri. For the first time since the night we left Indianapolis, clear sunny skies had given away to clouds and rain. The gloomy mid-westerner weather really telegraphed the fact that our vacation was nearly over. Brandon and I both missed breakfast, as we were too lazy to get out of our bunks. We barely got up in time to get cleaned up before heading to lunch.
Our companions for our final meal aboard Amtrak were a mother and her adult daughter--both from Colorado. They were headed out east. The mother had not been on a train since the forties and was really enjoying the adventure. She told us that she decided to treat herself and upgraded to a deluxe bedroom for her entire trip rather than the economy bedroom she had originally booked. I think the economy room is just fine for younger people, however in her situation I think making the upgrade was a wise decision.
Brandon and I ordered for this our last lunch, the same thing we ordered for our first lunch almost two weeks ago, cheeseburgers. Again the food was good and we had brownie a la mode for dessert.
We enjoyed our table talk and I informed the ladies that the First Class Metrolpolitan Lounge was available to them in Chicago. They were happy to learn of this as they had a three-hour lay over in Chicago. With that last bit of information we said good-bye and headed back to the room.
With less than two hours left until we would arrive in Chicago, Brandon and I played cribbage and gazed out the window. We pulled into Union Station shortly before 3P.M. twenty minutes ahead of scheduled.
Back in Chicago
While Brandon went to claim our baggage, I went to find out when the next train to Whiting was scheduled to depart. Although there are ten eastbound trains running daily from Chicago to Whiting we would still have to wait two and a half hours for the Pere Marquette scheduled to leave at 5:30P.M. Unfortunately, we had just missed the Lake Cities, the last train before the Pere Marquette. Brandon and I made ourselves comfortable in the Metropolitan Lounge; eating complementary muffins to go along with the soft drinks, coffee, and juice. The time went by fairly fast as I read some more of my book Private Parts and Brandon read a couple of magazines. Around 5:15P.M. we boarded our train. The Pere Marquette usually runs a single level consist, however, for reasons I am not sure of, it was made up of BI-level equipment this day. We sat in the lower level where there was plenty of room for our luggage since we did not bother to have it checked for this twenty-five minute trip.
Once the train pulled out of the station I called my mother on my cellular phone to arrange to have her pick us up at the station in Whiting. She informed me that she had made stuffed peppers for us and we were to stay for dinner. Before I knew it, we were in Whiting.
Back Home Again in Indiana
By the time we arrived in Whiting it was really pouring rain outside. Thankfully my mom had pulled up right next to the gate and we made a dash for the car. On the way back to my mom's house we stopped by my Uncle's to pick up Brandon's car.
Once we arrived at my mom's house I gave her some souvenirs I had brought back from the Grand Canyon, after which we settled down for dinner. Brandon and I enjoyed telling her all about our trip and especially our winnings in Las Vegas and the great weather we experience along the way. Brandon also told her that he really enjoyed his first train ride, and at over 3500 rail miles, what a first trip it was.
After dinner, we visited a little while longer before heading home to Indianapolis. With a kiss and a hug, I said good-bye to my mother, and Brandon and I hopped in the car and headed towards Indianapolis.
As Brandon drove towards the Interstate the rain got lighter and lighter and finally just about ended after thirty miles. The trip home was uneventful and we arrived back in Indianapolis just in time for me to catch the final hour of the academy awards.
It has been more than two months since we returned from vacation. Since returning home, I have had the many photographs I took developed. Fortunately the photos came out very well. Additionally, I have periodically worked on this trip journal. However, what I have most enjoyed is sharing the stories of Brandons and mine's vacation with friends and family. Many, many people have asked me questions and stated interest in train travel. By sharing my story, I hope in a very small degree to enlighten people about the joy of traveling across this great land by rail.
Written by: Jack L. Winebrenner
Travel dates: March 13-24, 1997
Amtrak Routes: California Zephyr, Desert Wind, and Southwest Chief.
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