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Day 1: Riding the Sunset Limited to California

 This is day one of a three-part travelogue on my recent train trip to California.  Enjoy!

“All Aboard!” The conductor called out. I hefted my backpack and stepped aboard the Amtrak train.

“Where are you headed?”

“San Francisco.”

“That’s a long way’s from here in Lake Charles.”

“Yes, it is.”   I didn’t reveal the reason for my trip.  He’d probably think I was crazy.

The idea for my Louisiana to California train trip began at the recent DeQuincy Railroad Festival as I spoke about the rich “No Man’s Land” history of western Louisiana.

I’m researching about World War II and how it shaped Louisiana.  I shared with the attendees about how Elizabeth, the main character in my new novel, As You Were, makes an impulsive train trip from DeQuincy’s depot to San Francisco.

I read the passage where Elizabeth tells her parents of her trip.

Elizabeth crossed her arms as Poppa said,  “You’re going where?”

“San Francisco.”

Momma dried off her hands. “What in the world?”

“I’m going to San Francisco to see Harry off.”

“How you gonna get there?”

She pulled the ticket from her purse.  “I’ll catch the Sunset Limited in Beaumont.”

“Have you gone crazy?”

“ I’m crazy in love.”

            “You ain’t never been past the Sabine River,” Momma pointed out the window. “And you’re going to California?  Why?”

 “There’s something I need to give him.”

 

I promise folks at the festival Elizabeth will leave from DeQuincy before catching the Sunset Limited in Beaumont.

My friend, Fennell Guillot, caught me after my presentation.  “I rode that same route during the war.  I remember it well.”

Lola Mitchell tells me of trains during that time.  As she shares, the idea for my train ride is born.

That idea becomes reality when I step on board at the North Ryan Street Amtrak station.  It’s Monday, May 7, 2012 1:44 PM.  The train is on time and I’m headed west.

To save money and be among people, I’ve booked coach.  Amtrak has agreed to reimburse my ticket if I write and blog about my trip.

We cross the Calcasieu, passing through Westlake, then Sulphur.  We’re headed for the Sabine River and then a thousand miles of Texas. Gradually the pines of SW Louisiana turn into Sabine cypress swamp.

 

Historic route of the Sunset Limited eastern end New Orleans to L.A.

There’s something soothing about the rocking of a train.  I’m soon relaxed, visiting with my seatmate, a Lake Charles woman going to Los Angeles to visit family.

Passing through Orange and Beaumont, I’m reminded of how scenery from a train is so different from the highway.  Whereas we see people’s front yards from a car, you get to see their backyards from the train window.

My research led me to the 1942 Guide to Railways. Our Beauregard Parish Library requested it from a Virginia library.

 

1942 Sunset Limited schedule.

Click on image for larger view.

I recall the words from my favorite train song, City of New Orleans.

Rolls past the farms and fields,

Passing towns that have no name.

Freight yards full of old black men,

And the graveyards of rusted automobiles.

You Tube of “City of New Orleans” by Steve Goodman.

I’ve downloaded a podcast by the National Park Service on each segment of the Sunset Limited.  It tells the history of many of the towns and sights along the way. During tourist season, the Park Service even has personnel in the observation car giving lectures.

The observation car is where I move to and spend most of the remainder of the trip.  There’s plenty of room with an open glass dome to see the country and the fellowship of the friendliest people on the train.

We stop in Houston for an hour layover and I tour the depot.  It’s not large and definitely not ornate.   Photos on the wall show the splendor of the old Southern Pacific depot.

I’m reminded that the glory days of the trains are gone.  Photos show hundreds of soldiers in front of a troop train.  It was how America moved during World War II.  Gas rationing and the scarcity of automobile tires put America back on the railroads.

 

Busy WWII days at the Houston Southern Pacific Depot

Darkness falls and we pull into San Antonio.  A two-hour layover is announced.  Two cars from the Chicago train will connect to our train before we continue west.

I head back to my seat and stretch out for the night.  The best thing about train traffic is the legroom.  I’m a frequent flyer and detest the cramped quarters of coach on airplanes. Train coach has plenty of room.  I can lean my chair back, prop up the leg rest and sleep soundly.  Trains may be slow but they’re comfortable.

I wake in the night and we’re rumbling west again.  The smooth rocking puts me back to sleep.

Once again, Steve Goodman sings to me,

“You can feel the wheels grumbling beneath the floor,

And the sons of Pullman porters, the sons of engineer

They ride their father’s magic carpet of steel/steam.

And mother’s with their babes asleep

Go rocking to the gentle beat

And the rhythm of the rails is all they dream.”

Next:  Day 2   California, Here We Come!

Curt’s Lists:
Reading list:  Rethinking Forgiveness  Michael O’Shields/One Thousand Gifts Ann Voscamp/ Writing Down the Bones  Natalie Goldberg

What I’m listening to:  “Black Eye Galaxy” Anders Osborne/  “Birds Fly South”  The Mastersons

Quote:   “Life is an adventure in forgiveness.”   -Norman Cousins

Bible verse:   “And your ears shall hear a word behind you saying,  “This is the way, walk in it.”   Isaiah 30:21

6 words:  Encouragement/passion/commitment/mentor/compassion/legacy

 

 

About Curt Iles

I write to have influence and impact through well-told stories of my Louisiana and African sojourn.

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2 comments

  1. This is wonderful! On Aug 1st, my father (age 93 and still teaches Math at a local Community College), and I are taking the Sunset Limited from Houston to LA; then on from there up the CA Coast; then return East via the Empire Builder to Chicago then taking the City of New Orleans to connect again with the Sunset Limited back home! Looking forward to your remaining blogs!

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