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Andy Anderson 2012 Leg 1
Leg One - November 30th: The Southwest Chief - #4
Amtrak California Zephyr
The Southwest Chief on a sunny afternoon

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November 30th - It's off the Windy City

Well, would it be trite to say something like, here we go again?
Here we go again...
I'm glad that I got that out of the way.
As with my other travelogues, I will attempt to put words to paper while the thoughts are still fresh in my mind. I mean, heaven forbid that my thoughts get stale or anything like that.

Anyway, the Southwest Chief leaves Newton station at 2:59a, and I plan to be there an hour early. Taking into account it takes about 45 minutes to get to the station, and it's early in the morning... Well, barely morning; it's still late night. Actually, it's a bit after midnight on November 30th. I've contacted Julie (Amtrak's automated system), and in a sexy recorded voice she claims that the Southwest Chief will arrive into the Newton station, spot on time. That's nice to know; however, I check one more thing: I check when the train left Los Angeles, and she left right on time. So there's a good chance that the old girl is going to be arriving into Newton exactly when advertised.

I did find out something interesting about the Amtrak schedule: If the train is behind, they will do everything they can to make up the lost time. If, however, they are ahead of schedule, they'll stop at the major stations, and kill a bit of time, until they're back on schedule. I've noted in the past that Amtrak seems to build in a bit of time for unexpected delays. As a matter of fact, if the track is clear, and the weather is fine, they're almost always ahead of schedule.

Back to the travelogue
I get up, stretch a bit, and playfully jab at Bonnie, who is currently hiding under the covers on her side of the bed. It's a cool, but not cold, End-Of-November kind of day. Yesterday the skies were filled with low, grey-colored clouds, and the smell of snow was in the air (actually, with the current temperatures, that was more of a wish on my part).

This morning the temperature is hovering above the freezing mark; even the carpet seems cold as I put my bare feet down on the floor... Probably just my imagination...

The plan is to leave about 1:15a, so I just have time for a quick shower, and check over all my stuff before heading out the door. This trip I'm only bringing three things: A briefcase (computer, paperwork), a roller case (cameras & recording equipment), and a small piece of luggage (mostly clothes).

I'm going to limit my video equipment to my Canon HD, microphone, and tripod. As to my still camera equipment; I'll bring the full boatload. It's nice to be doing the entire trip on the train. Typically, I fly to a major hub, like Chicago, and begin and end the trip from that point, and then fly back home.

Last time, I flew to Chicago to pick up the train, did my thing, and flew back home from Chicago. Not this time: It's all on the train, from beginning to end.

By doing the whole thing on the train, I won't have to worry about baggage carry-on restrictions, and the like. I've heard that Spirit Airlines is going to begin charging 100 bucks for a carry-on bag, if checked at the gate. WOW, the airlines are getting crazy. After over two-million logged miles in the air, I've finally gotten out of that game at just about the right time. I'm sure that I'll still be flying from time to time; however, my life in the air is over, and no regrets.

I pop out of the shower, and get dressed for the current weather conditions, which are cool enough for a coat; but not freezing cold. I go over my inventory and make sure I've got all the bits and bobs that I'll need for the trip.

In an attempt to get as efficient as possible I have packed and repacked these cases several times, so I'm pretty confident that I have everything that I'll need. Even so, I check one more time, and load the cases into the back of my Mazda Miata.

The Trip to the Station
I give Bonnie a kiss, and she rolls over and tries to get back to sleep. Then I pile into the car, and head into the pre-dawn streets of Wichita, Kansas. As usual there's not a lot of traffic at 1:00a, but there is a line at the McDonald's drive thru. It's all those late-night partiers getting out of the bars, and grabbing one last bite before going home. Drinking does make you hungry.

In a few minutes I move out of the sleeping city (except those McDonald's people) and head north on Interstate 135. There's not much traffic, and I just about have the roadway all myself. Because this is a time of the night for all those bar people to be going home, I keep an eye out for weaving cars. The good news is there are a lot of cops out on the road, looking for those same weavers.

Newton is about a thirty-minute drive from our door to the station, but you can make it in about twenty-five, if you go a few miles over the limit. However, at this time of night (or should I say morning) there are a lot of police out on the roads, looking for drunk drivers, so I stay close to the limit.

I arrive at the station a few minutes after 2:00a, and since the train arrives around 2:59a (to be precise), I have plenty of time. If you're driving your own car, you can park it for free in a small lot to the west of the station, next to the post office. It's a well-lit area, and I called the local law in Newton and said that they do a regular patrol of the area. I officer I talked to said that in all his time serving in Newton, he has never received a call about any vehicle being vandalized in that lot. I really hate leaving my baby outside for a week, but I've done it before, without a problem. Besides it means I don't have to make Bonnie get up in the middle of the morning to drive me to and from Newton... A point that she likes. Anyway, I grab my stuff out of the trunk, lock her up, and walk the short distance across the street to the "Official" Newton, Kansas Amtrak Station.

The Newton, Kansas Amtrak Station
The Amtrak station in Newton is not a big place, but it is nicely done. As a matter of fact, it was built in 1929 (or thereabouts) as the Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad station, and it was modeled after William Shakespeare's house in Stratford-on-Avon. Why, you may ask, did they choose to model a railroad station after the dude that penned such classics as Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet? I haven't a clue. Anyway, in 1985 it was put on the National Register of Historic Places. I'm sure Bill would be proud.

Since the two Amtrak trains that pass through Newton, both come around the same time (fourteen minutes apart), the station is only manned by Amtrak personnel from midnight to eight in the morning. Or, at least, that's what it says on the Amtrak site. In truth, it's after 2:00a and I don't see any Amtrak personnel. Of course, they could be out on the platform doing their thing... Whatever that is. For me, it really does not matter. I have my ticket, and I'm ready to board.

The station contains a waiting area that's spacious with benches that are the typical Amtrak seating. In other words, if you sit in one for too long, you'll wind up with a sore back. My theory on this is that Amtrak decided that they really didn't want people coming into their stations milling about, so they devised these seats that discourage sitting.

The other people waiting at the station (those that are awake) give me a once over, and go back to whatever they were doing. I count about a eighteen warm bodies, half of them are sitting on the floor (not in those awful benches), attempting to get some sleep, and the other half are standing, looking particularly bored with the whole experience. Only two people are brave enough to sit on the benches, and they're reading the newspaper. They don't look very comfortable.

Besides the waiting area, there is a secure ticketing area, and doors leading out to the platform. The Amtrak station in Newton boasts three tracks. I don't think the three ever get used at the same time, but they are there.

Actually, I did some research (I am a writer, after all), and I did find out that the number of people using the station in 2011 was 13,890. That figure is based on Amtrak stats on people boarding the two trains that stop in Newton. If you average that out, it's only 38 people a day. Today must be a slow day.

Note: Actually, we had about thirty people at the station, but most of them were waiting in their cars until the train arrived. Only eighteen of us chose to wait in the actual station.

The Southwest Chief
The Chief only makes two stops at the Newton station. One is the Southwest Chief #3, headed for Los Angeles. The other is the Southwest Chief #4, headed for Chicago. I'm there for the good ole' #4.

It must be because Kansas is just about in the middle between Chicago and Los Angeles, but the westbound #3 gets to Newton at 2:45a, and the eastbound #3 arrives fourteen minutes later at 2:59a.

Assuming that the trains are on time that means the westbound train has fourteen minutes to stop, discharge and then take on passengers. Since I've never taken the eastbound train before, I have always picked up the first one. Now, I'll have to wait for the first train to arrive, and wait for my train to come after.

There is talk of reopening the old Wichita Union station, but Amtrak is not going to do it unless the State of Kansas upgrades some of the rails coming into the city. While, I would really like to pick up the train in Wichita, considering the current state of the economy, I doubt if the money is there for the upgrades to the rails. So, if I want to take the train, it will probably be the Newton station... At least in my lifetime.

The Arrival
The westbound train hits the platform about five-minutes early, and the station personnel (I count one person), helps to direct people to the train. About half the people get on the train; all in coach seating, and five-minutes later, the whistle blows, the All Aboard is given, and the Southwest Chief #3 glides out of the station.

The Newton station is not exactly a full-service station; however, being that only two Amtrak trains come through here (both around 3:00a), it's not that bad. The chairs are not designed to make you comfortable, but I've seen worse...

The place is warm, and it does have washrooms. It's manned by a single person from midnight to 8:00a. Although why they need to be here after the trains come and go, is beyond me.

Weather this morning is not too bad... Temps about 45f, and it's clear with no wind. That's a good thing, since the only thing that I'm wearing is a knit shirt and my camera vest. Well, that's not accurate; in addtion, I have on pants and shoes. I might take a bit of notice if I came into the station wearing nothing but a knit shirt and camera vest... But I digress.

The Southwest Chief: Eastbound
Well, we're off and running. This is the first time that they boarded me on the platform. Usually, I have to walk down the train to the sleeper cars, while coach gets to board at the platform. While I am the only one in first class, they still stopped for me on the platform... I'm touched.

I must say that the start of this trip is going very smoothly... and very nice. My car attendant helped my on with my luggage, and welcomed me onto the train. Then he came by my room, just to see how I was doing, and if I needed any help. I told him I was an old hand at riding he rails, and he left me to settle in; but not before giving me a couple of bottles of water for my bedside. If this is an example of the service I'm going to receive while onboard Amtrak... Well, it's going to be a great trip.

At this time of the morning, the train is ghostly quiet. Occasionally, I hear someone move through the hall, probably on his or her way to the washroom. While the bedrooms on Amtrak (5 per car) have their own washrooms, the roomettes (15 per car) do not. That's one of the reasons I like booking a bedroom.

The Southwest Chief glides through the Kansas plains headed east to Chicago. At this time of the morning, my bedroom window does little to show me what's out there. In the distance, I can see small points of light, almost like stars set against black velvet. Every once and awhile we'll pass through a small town, and I'll see streets framed in the orange glow of a street light, quickly come into view, and then pass away. However, as we move farther away from the larger towns, even these brief glimpses of rural Kansas life become fewer and fewer.

Some of these small towns are really quite amazing... They seem frozen in time. I believe that if you remove all of the "modern" cars parked on the streets, you visually go back in time. Many of these small towns have changed very little over the years.

Well, enough of that for now. I think that I'll get me a bit of shut eye until the sun comes up. My attendant informed me that breakfast begins at 6:30a, and I'll probably be one of the first in line. Actually, the diner car is right next to my sleeper. Now, how perfect is that?
The gentle swaying of the train, mixed the the mournful wail of the train's whistle slowly lulls me to sleep. We're on our way to Chicago...

Hog Butcher for the World,

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;

Stormy, husky, brawling,

City of the Big Shoulders:
Chicago by Carl Sandburg

Morning on the Southwest Chief
I wake up after an hour or so of sleep, and set up my computer. In the early morning rays of the sun, I can seel the rural midwest spread out before me in all it's glory... It reminds me of where I grew up.

I grew up in Chicago. Well, actually it was the suburbs of Chicago. Actually, you couldn't even see the city from where I was raised in the burb of Hometown, on the Southside. When I grew up, it was white-picket fences that separated backyards, not the six-foot security fences that we are used today. Thursdays was laundry day, and the neighborhood was full of wash on the lines. White bed sheets (I think that white was about the only color back then), dotted the clotheslines of backyards, and we kids would play hide and seek between bed sheets and clothes while our mothers would yell at us to keep away from the laundry.

This segment is a short one: From Newton, Kansas to Chicago, Illinois in about twelve hours. If all goes well, we'll pull into Chicago around 3:00p today, and I have a room at the Courtyard Marriott. I figure I can stay up for this segment, get some work accomplished, and go to bed early tonight, when I get to the hotel.

Breakfast on the Southwest Chief
This will be my only meal on board the Chief; they do serve lunch, but since were getting into Chicago around 3:00p I think that I'll skip that one.

Breakfast is a cheese omelet with sausage, biscuit, and coffee. Since that's my favorite Amtrak breakfast, you'll probably read about me eating that more then just here. I ate by myself, which is fine by me. In my travels on Amtrack it has been my experience that if you go to breakfast when they first open (in this case 6:30a), you'll be pretty much to yourself. Now, lunch and dinner are a different story. Amtrak practices community seating, which means if you're by yourself (like I am), you'll probably find yourself sitting with other people... Most of the time the conversations are quite interesting.

I leave the diner car, and head back to my room. The remainder of this short trip, I spend looking out at the scenery, and plugging away at my computer. As we approach the city, the skies turn cloudy, and a gentle rain begins to fall. The clouds hang down from the sky, and by the time we reach Chicago, the tops of the buildings are lost in the clouds... I guess that's why they call them, Sky Scrapers.

I pick up a waiting taxi, just outside the station and head over to the hotel. The Chicago Courtyard by Marriott is excellent (all Marriotts are, in my opinion), and I go to my room, unpack, and head outside for a short walk. I end up at a seafood place called, Shaws, for some excellent crab cakes... They really were quite good. Then I return to my hotel.

It's been a long day, and I did get up in the middle of the morning, so make it an early evening... Tomorrow's another day, and another adventure.



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Keep the faith... And keep traveling
Andy Anderson