Southwest Chief: Los Angles to Chicago
This is Part 2 of my 6-part series covering my 11-day Amtrak trip around the western United States in May of 2006. Be sure to read about the planning and start of my journey from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles in Part 1.
Los Angeles to Chicago Aboard the Southwest Chief
Play Full Size
I had planned my trip and completed the first leg from San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles, where I changed trains from the Pacific Surfliner to the Southwest Chief bound for Chicago. We were assigned seats as we boarded the train and left promptly on time. I must have looked lonely because for some reason they decided to seat me next to another person, and it looked like we were the only people seated next to each other that weren’t traveling together. The person I was seated with was going home to Philadelphia, and we talked about coal mining for a while until he eventually he went off to the lounge. After he left the person in front of me turned around and we talked for the longest time, but about what I can’t remember. My seatmate never returned that night. I think he went off and found himself a quiet spot somewhere on the train to sleep, which worked out great for me. I stay up late into the night watching the lights go by, and get up at the crack of dawn when riding the train. That works out OK because although I don’t get much sleep, there isn’t much to do on the train so most of the time you’re relaxing in a seat. And if I get tired I can always take a nap.
The next morning at 6:00am we were in Flagstaff Arizona heading east across the Arizona desert. I went to the lounge where I spend most of my time on the train to watch the world go by through the floor to ceiling windows. At 9:30am I started hearing tweeting of birds. That was an odd thing to hear on a train, and I kept trying to figure out where the sound was coming from. This was way before everyone had a smartphone in their pocket, so it wasn’t going to be someone watching a YouTube video. And it didn’t sound at all like a recording. Then I looked at the person sitting next to me and saw that his lips were moving slightly. Everybody needs something to do on the train, this guy was making bird noises. Good ones, too. I stealthily pointed my camera in his direction and began made the short video you see here.
After the Birdman of Amtrak-Land had finished and I had spent some more time watching the Arizona desert go by, I encountered a man in the lounge car who was learning to play an odd stringed instrument somewhat reminiscent of a mandolin, but not quite the same thing. After plucking on that for a bit he went back to his coach seat and and returned with a guitar. A native of Los Angles named Gilbert Chavez, he was in a local band called “Trio Amor y Paz”. He kept us entertained for quite a while until he had to get off the train in New Mexico. I made this video as he gave us his rendition of “Route 66.”
A while later, the man I was talking with in the coach seat in front of mine came into the lounge car and sat next to me. His name was Michael Ferguson, and we got to talking about his adventures. He travels seemingly everywhere to explore by bicycle and told tales about some of his various trips around the world. He chronicles his travels at his web site at http://www.ferguson-by-bicycle.com (which I tested and is still up as of May of 2020.) When the crew came through the lounge to take dinner reservations, we decided to dine together. We continued chatting as we waited for them to call our name, but the announcement never came. We eventually discovered that dinner time had come and gone, so we went into the dining car to find out when we would be called. The crew claimed they made an announcement, but we didn’t hear them in the lounge. It turns out that we weren’t nuts. On all five long distance trains I rode this trip, the speaker didn’t work in the lounge on any of them. There’s no way I didn’t hear the dinner bell for eleven days. I asked the attendant on one of the trains about this later and was told that there’s something about the P.A. wiring that is causes problems because they switch the TV audio through it back and forth. (Either that or the lounge car crews just don’t get around to switching the RCA jacks back once the movie is over.)
That night I had my Personal Data Assistant (the precursor to a smartphone, but with no phone) disaster. I started keeping a journal of my travels using the PDA on my on my previous trip and was doing the same on this one. But I was an idiot and let the backup battery expire. So when I removed the main battery to swap it for a fresh one the backup was dead, and in the time the PDA was battery-less I lost everything. I had to reconstruct the previous days events from memory, and the quality of my memory for details explains the complete lack of them in the preceding text. Not only did I lose my notes from the previous days, but I also lost the writing software I used to use instead of the Microsoft software that was built into the machine. Remember, these were the days of “graffiti” and somewhat less-than-stellar on-screen keyboards, and I really hated writing with the stylus using the default Microsoft Pocket PC software. From this point forward I recorded my notes into my digital camera using its audio recorder. This didn’t work out nearly as well as writing on the PDA, though. I couldn’t just sit back and write when there was nothing to do, and if I talked to my camera too much people would think I was insane.
We got into Kansas City, Missouri at around 7am Central time on the 5th of May and were crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois at 11:30. By 3:15 that afternoon I was standing beside the train in Chicago.
The train got in half-hour early – I was worried it would be late because, well, the train is always late. This was the first time I ever cared if the train was on time and it was actually early – perhaps my karma for not caring the rest of the time.
I took a few photos inside Union Station before heading out to explore the city. One thing I never do is warn people that I’m going to photograph them. That goes for everyone, whether I’m on vacation or with family and friends, because I’m not looking for posed pictures. I noticed a woman sitting on the station floor working on her laptop and pointed my camera at her. Just when i was about to click the shutter she looked up and saw me. She gave me the look of death, but I figured that as long as I was spotted I might as well just push the button. I shot the picture and moved on.
Soon after leaving Union Station I was approached by a man who asked me if I needed help finding my destination. I don’t know why I didn’t see it coming, but I foolishly said yes. Of course, after he gave me directions to my hotel he gave me the “my car broke down and I need some money to get home” story. I was way ahead in my budget anyway so I didn’t care, and since he actually was helpful I gave him a couple of bucks and walked on. I’ll bet his car is still “broken down” and he’s hanging out in front of the train station waiting to help more naive country boys like me on their first trip to the big city. Besides, it really isn’t a trip to the city unless you get hustled.
It was just over a mile to the Travelodge at 65 East Harrison St. I checked in and took the elevator to the tenth floor. After sliding my key card about a dozen times with no response from the door lock I went back down for a new one. I saw a sign on the wall by the front desk announcing that you could leave your suitcases with the desk for a dollar for the whole day after checkout at 11am. That seemed like a good plan for the next morning so I could walk around the city without having to carry my backpack. I explained that my train didn’t leave until the afternoon, and they let me extend my checkout time until noon.
After another elevator ride with a working key card I unloaded as quickly as possible and headed down to the waterfront. The weather was gray, and I was worried that I wouldn’t get any good photos in Chicago, but at least it wasn’t raining. There had been a post on a photography website that I visited while planning my trip from a photographer that was going to spend a day in Chicago and wanted to know where to go. I had brought it along with me as a PDF file, and luckily I had it and Adobe Reader on my SD card so I didn’t lose the information with my battery disaster. The replies to his question gave me a course to take. I started at the Shedd Aquarium in Grant Park. From there I walked north through the park and up the Lake Michigan shore. I knew I’d want to get to the top of the Sears Tower, so I made my way into town. I found a Walgreen’s and stopped to pick up some spare batteries for my camera. One of the things I really miss about my old Canon S2IS was that it took regular AA batteries. I had two sets of rechargeables, but it was nice that I could pick up batteries if I didn’t get a chance to recharge. I walked another two blocks and found another Walgreens. I picked up a few postcards and continued to the tower.
Twelve dollars later I was unloading the fanny pack I keep my PDA in and my camera bag so I could go through security. I had the straps looped through my belt hoops, and the buckles are a tight fit, so this was not a quick task. Eventually I had everything off and out and was walking thorough the metal detector. Then I loaded back up for the elevator ride to the top after a brief movie. I went up when it was light and didn’t leave until after dark. As soon as the lights in town started coming up I decided I had to stay until I got some night photos. There were reflections everywhere which made photography difficult. A place like that should have dark walls behind the windows, but I guess that doesn’t occur to anyone other than people like me. I eventually tried some shots where I put the reflections into the composition. After about two hours I went back down and walked back to my hotel. I left the curtains opened so I’d wake up as early as possible.
The next morning I was up at six. I looked out the window and the sky was blue and the weather was perfect. I couldn’t believe my luck. I had asked for a seven o’clock wake-up call, but since I was up so early I was out of the room by around 6:30. I decided that I’d leave my stuff in my room and shower when I returned so I wouldn’t miss the early light.
One of the things I wanted to do was to ride the el train. I got on, but only for a couple of stops since I was running out of time and I really didn’t know where the train was going. The stop was near my hotel and I was back in my room at 10:45.
I headed back down to the aquarium, and walked up the Lake Michigan shoreline of Grant Park until I reached the Chicago River. From there I followed the river until I found a place to cross, then walked over to Navy Pier. It wasn’t that early, but nothing was open and there weren’t many people around. I went out about as far as the Ferris wheel before turning around. I didn’t have much time, and decided Navy Pier wasn’t the best place to spend it. Eventually I walked through town to the Water Tower, then back down across the river. I’m glad I went to the Sears Tower the day before. The photos may have been better from up there today, but since they would be shot through windows the quality would have been marginal anyway. It was much better to spend all day walking around town.
It was getting to be time to get ready to leave Chicago, so I made my way back to my hotel.
I showered and got ready to go. Why hotels always have towels made of sandpaper, I’ll never know. I decided I didn’t want to check my backpack in because then I’d have to loop back to my hotel again to pick it up. I was back out at noon, and spent the rest of my time wandering back to the Sears Tower and around Union Station. As it approached time to leave I went into the station to find the right platform. The waiting room was full of people already. One guy had an upright bass he was lugging around. I decided there were too many people and went and got a sandwich while I waited. Soon it was time to head out and we loaded onto the Empire Builder.
Sounds like a lot of fun!