“All Aboard!” The conductor called out. I hefted my backpack and stepped aboard the Amtrak train.
“Where are you headed?”
“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?”
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 and then a thousand miles of Texas. Gradually the pines of SW Louisiana turn into Sabine cypress swamp.
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.
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.
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!
Daylight comes and I go to the lounge car for coffee and fellowship. I learn we’re three hours behind schedule, due to a delay in San Antonio.
I move back to the observation car watching the beautiful Texas hill country pass by. It’s raining and the streaks on the window only heighten the feeling that we’re rolling across the world.
We’re paralleling Interstate 10. The train is passing 18-wheelers. I learn that Amtrak can go up to 79 mph. Soon the trees thin and we leave the Texas hill country.
In the observation car, a beret-wearing man practices his clarinet, balancing his sheet music against the window. He plays a beautiful assortment of jazz, blues, and pop to the delight of the listeners. Others in the car play cards, scrabble, or read.
I visit with the musician during a break. He’s been to the New Orleans Jazz Fest and is traveling back to Seattle.
West of Del Rio we cross the high bridge over the Pecos River just above where it flows into Lake Amistad and the Rio Grande. The mountains of Mexico rise in the distance.
We speed through Langtry, Texas, home of Judge Roy Bean and his law west of the Pecos. It flies by as the hills turn to small mountains. The sun comes out and brings out the color and hue of the bare mountains.
We stop in Alpine Texas and I get off for a break. The air is cooler here in the Davis Mountains. We’re about two hours north of Big Bend National Park, one of the unsung wonders of our nation.
We continue west and I’m reminded of how big Texas is. We’re still a ways from El Paso. I think of the old refrain,
“The sun has riz
And the sun has set,
And here I am in
An Amtrak public relations man is riding the Sunset Limited. We visit and he unpacks the reason for our three-hour delay. “It shouldn’t happened, but it did. Our train and two more all arrived in San Antonio together. One was the westbound Sunset Limited heading to New Orleans; the other was the Chicago train. They had to be serviced with fuel, water, checked carefully, and baggage and passengers shifted. It was a mess.”
He smiles. “That’s why we build three hours slack time into the timetable. You should be in Los Angeles Wednesday morning on time.”
I’ve traveling light but decide to visit the dining car. A waitress directs me to a booth. “We have community seating. You’ll be making new friends while you eat.”
I’m sitting across from a lovely elderly woman named Judy. She’s wearing a nice dress and fine jewelry. Bill, a man about my age joins us. He is traveling to a California horse ranch for seasonal work.
The three of us—a Louisiana writer, a semi-migrant worker, and a well-to-do socialite enjoy a baked salmon meal together. There’s something about sitting down together over food that unites folks.
Everything is served on china with silverware and real napkins. Outside the window, barren west Texas rolls by. The meal is expensive but worth it. I’ll stick to the ham and cheese sandwiches in the club car for most of the trip, but I enjoyed the salmon in the diner.
Nearing El Paso, we pass Fort Bliss. It’s special to me due to the fact that the First Cavalry from here did their last horse training in Louisiana during the 1941 Army Maneuvers. The tough cavalrymen from this barren land were separated from their horses and put in tanks and trucks.
I take notes on how I will use that story in my novel.
In the midst of this desert, we pass miles of pecan groves. Irrigation pipes stretch everywhere on this oasis in the desert.
After a stop in El Paso, we cross the Rio Grande where it turns east to become the US-Mexican border. There’s more water in Bundick Creek than what flows here in the famous river.
The P.A. announces, “Folks, we’re finally leaving Texas and are now in New Mexico.”
There’s applause throughout the car. We’ve been in Texas for most of two days. I’m reminded of the interstate sign in Orange, Texas. “El Paso 846 miles.”
We ride beside the tall border fence for the next several miles.
I look at my map. We’re already half way across New Mexico. As I read about his area, the town of Deming catches my attention. I make notes on how it will be part of Elizabeth’s train ride in my novel.
At Lordsburg, NM a sign greets us that this is the western Continental Divide. My research revealed how Lordsburg was an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during the war. As I study the stark landscape, I wonder how these California men felt when displaced to this place.
I’ll find a way to put that in my novel.
It’s dark now and the observation car thins out. I’ve decided to spend the night here, stretched across three lounge seats. I use my pack for a pillow and cover with my sleep sack. I sleep the sleep of the innocent. There’s something about that rocking motion that soothes the soul.
On my next trip, I’m bringing my wife and we’ll travel in style. But this is a hobo trip and I’m fine.
It’s morning and we’re in California. The desert slowly turns into rows of irrigated crops. I’m amazed at the endless rows of spinach, radishes, and greens.
My Amtrak friend shares about Union Station in Los Angeles. “It’s one of the last of the huge stations. You’ll love it.”
He explains about the history of these classic rail routes during the war. I scribble as fast as I can.
We reach the Los Angeles suburbs and slowly travel for miles through the city. When the Sunset Limited pulls to a stop, the rail has ended. It truly is the end of the line.
It’s commuter time and the tunnel leading into the terminal is crammed with hurrying travelers. I try to imagine Elizabeth, my Louisiana schoolteacher, hurrying through this terminal in May 1942.
Union Station-Los Angeles is everything it’s talked up to be. The high ceilinged echo of voices. Inaudible announcements of train schedules. High-backed leather chairs.
Opened in 1939, it’s worth the trip to see. A friend, hearing of my strange trip, connected me with Randy Newman’s beautiful ballad, “Dixie Flyer.”
Newman, a New Orleans resident, tells of his family traveling through this station during the dark days of World War II.
My poor little momma
Didn’t know a soul in L.A.
Went down to the Union Station
Made our getaway.
Got on the Dixie Flyer
Bound for New Orleans
Cross the state of Texas
To the land of dreams.
I admit I’m a sentimental dreamer.
I think of the stories that have walked through this building known as “The Last of the Great Train Stations.”
My San Francisco train, the Coast Starlight, leaves in three hours. I walk the early morning streets of downtown Los Angeles taking in breakfast at a famous café called Phillipes. The café is adorned with train photos and stories. Four working phone booths sit in the corner. I feel transported back to the time I’m writing about.
On the northbound train, my seatmate is a German teen named Leoni. She’s been in New Zealand for a year and is traveling through America on her circumventing trip back to Germany. It’s fascinating to hear her insights on America and her travels. It’s one of my favorite things about travel. The people we meet.
Amtrak travels along the Pacific coast as it wounds toward San Francisco. The craggy California coast is on our left and the beautiful hills and valleys on the right. I move to the observation car and debate which side to sit on.
An off-duty conductor provides information. “That house on the hill belongs to Tom Hanks. Spielberg lives in that one.” A few miles later. “That’s a secret Air Force base.”
Amtrak rents rail space from the freight lines. Therefore, we must often pull onto sidetracks to let the freight trains pass.
Winding through the mountains, we often can look ahead and see our engine and lead cars in the curve ahead.
After a ten-hour ride we arrive in Oakland. The trains now bypass San Francisco. The passengers in our unload onto a waiting bus. It’s near midnight and my drop off point is Fishermen’s Wharf.
The strange part of my trip is that I’m flying home in the morning—Thursday. I’ve ridden the train since Monday afternoon. I’m in one of the world’s most famous cities, and I’m only spending about eight hours here.
I remind myself that I’ll be back to see it. This was a scouting trip. My purpose in coming wasn’t to see San Francisco. It was to ride the train from Louisiana “with Elizabeth.”
I’m nervous as I exit the bus with my backpack and bag. After midnight. Fishermen’s Wharf has closed for the night.
It’s cold here. I pull out my fleece jacket, recalling the words of Mark Twain,
“The coldest winter I ever spent in my life was a summer in San Francisco.”
It’s quiet on the piers except for the sea lions barking in the harbor. I’m glad I’ve come. I nearly expect to hear Otis Redding whistling “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”
I find a 7-11 and tank up on a midnight snack. The subway, my connection to the airport, is closed until 4:00 am. The store clerk explains about the Owl bus system. “You can ride it all night. You’ll get to see the real San Francisco.”
He’s right. I see it all. I’m reminded that I’m a long long way from Dry Creek, Louisiana. My Owl bus story is for another time.
I get off the bus just before 4 am. The subway police are clearing the homeless from the warm gated entrance to the underground trains. I get my ticket and ride the first subway train to San Francisco International.
By tonight, I’ll be back in the piney woods.
In the words of The Grateful Dead, a band that loved San Francisco, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”
Randy Newman sings as the plane takes off for the South.
On the Dixie Flyer.
Headed for New Orleans.
Back to her friends and family
In the land of our dreams.
I’ll be back in Lake Charles by bedtime, and then home to Dry Creek by midnight.
I’m glad I went on this trip.
I’m glad I’m coming home.
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