AT DAWN WE awoke in western Kansas and shortly later crossed into southeastern Colorado, setting our watches back one hour to Mountain Daylight Time. Before breakfast in the diner I took the soundings of our sleeping car and found it to be one of the original Superliners from 1979-1980, badly in need of another overhaul, with sprung and frayed upholstery, duct-taped cracks and the like. Everything important, however—electric outlets for laptops hot water, shower, toilets—worked. And the shabbiness of the car was more than made up for by Joan's friendly, efficient and attentive service.
No. 3's conductor guiding his engineer to a precise spot at the short platform of La Plata station.
More and more in the last year or so we've noticed a considerable uptick in the quality of Amtrak's service crews. There seems to be a new pride in their jobs, not only in the sleepers but also the dining car, where a good experience can overcome annoyances such as late arrivals and broken footrests. On this part of our trip the coach bathrooms, so often a noisome mess thanks to rough-trade travelers, were as spotless as those in the sleepers.
The Southwest Chief runs for hours and hours across desolate Colorado rangeland.
Not all passengers appreciate the crews’ fresh esprit de corps. Two women in our sleeper were too corpulent to negotiate the narrow passageways to the diner, let alone fit between table and seats. They demanded that Joan bring to their large family bedroom (the only one big enough to accommodate them) all their meals the entire way from Chicago. Joan, who is a petite woman, had to hump their huge overload of heavy suitcases on and off the train and, as attendants also must, gently mentioned that they'd vastly exceeded the official baggage allowance. In retaliation, when they debarked they stiffed her on the tip. Not one thin dime.
In the dining car, however, Debby and I were delighted by our company at breakfast. He was a Canadian actor from Montreal on the way to Los Angeles to visit his 97-year-old father, and he was well educated, well read and knowledgeable about the world.
When we mentioned that we had enjoyed Amish country the previous day, he said that his grandfather had been an Amishman, and he explained at fascinating length the many differences among Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites, all farming sects common to Canada as well as the United States. Even though their diet is heavy on red meat, sugar and lard (reflected in the ladies’ ample physiques) the Amishmen, the Montrealer said, tend to be, lean, muscular and long-lived because of their heavy lifelong physical labor.
A trackside flea market at La Junta, Colorado. Our doughty sleeper attendant, Joan, is third from right.
The desert scenery becomes more interesting as the train approaches the New Mexico border.
Is this fellow a journalist or just keeping a journal of his trip? Laptops get heavy workouts in the newer Sightseer Lounge cars, equipped with electric outlets at each table.
The historic Wootton Ranch in southwestern Colorado, on the way up to Raton Pass just past Trinidad.
You know you've arrived in the Southwest when the train stops at Raton, N.M.
Shortly after the Southwest Chief negotiated 7,588-foot Raton Pass in northeastern New Mexico, we went to lunch and in the luck of the draw were seated with a charming couple from Naperville, Illinois. He was a retired commodities trader and a fellow camera enthusiast, and we spent much of the meal exchanging experiences in photographing wildlife and talking about our former professions.
When we asked if he was glad to be retired, he said, “I loved my work in the pits as a trader. I traveled the world giving lectures on trading when traveling by air was fun. But a lot of the honor in trading is gone. It used to be 'My word is my bond.' But no more.” (I'm a former newsman, and I feel every much a dinosaur as he does.)
Amtrak shares its Albuquerque station with the Big Dog.
The Chief stayed On Time all day through parched and picturesque Navajo country—this part of the trip always reminds me of Tony Hillerman's mysteries—and, thanks to schedule padding, we called at Albuquerque half an hour early, stretching the maintenance stop there to nearly 90 minutes. Debby, who owns many pairs of shoes because she wears them out so fast, spent the entire time striding up and down the platform burning off calories.
A station agent in Albuquerque awaits his mate with the baggage cart.
Albuquerque is a pit stop for refueling and an operating crew change. We tarried there for 90 minutes.
They also serve who wash: A maintenance crew at work cleaning the windows of desert dust.
Navajo trackside vendors have been a fixture at Albuquerque since the days of the Santa Fe's Super Chief.
On another track just east of the Southwest Chief a New Mexico Rail Runner commuter train prepared to depart.
Much of the joy in train travel is meeting new and interesting people in the dining car, but tablemates are always a crapshoot. At dinner shortly after the train left Albuquerque, we had the misfortune to be seated with a pair of End of Days cultists who informed us gravely that the world will vanish in “a catastrophic event” next December 21. (You read it here first.) They were passionate, they were evangelistic, and they were tiresome.
At least the meal was excellent. Sometimes the chicken is a bit dry, but the steaks are always tasty, and ours were juicy and not overly chewy. Amtrak seems at last to have found a good balance between quality and affordability in its on-board provender, with which it had been struggling the last few years. It has been a long time since I had a complaint with dining-car quality.
Shortly before 9 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time (8 p.m. Arizona time—more about this in Part 4 of this report—the Chief pulled up next to La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona, and we stepped though the dark night across a disused track to the platform, a little confused by the chain across the gateway to the hotel. (More about that, too, in Part 4.)