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Andy Anderson The Texas Eagle
Leg Two - Oct 20th - 23rd 2009: The Texas Eagle
andy anderson chicago union station image
Chicago Union Station Main Hall

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Chicago Union Station

It's about 11:00AM, as I head into the hotel lobby. After checking out of my room, the concierge is kind enough to call me a taxi. I drop into the back seat, and tell the driver to head for Union Station. The taxi drivers in Chicago have a little trick that they pull. As soon as you get to Union Station, the driver pops the trunk and a homeless person runs to get your luggage. That means the driver doesn't have to get out of the cab, and you now have the problem of tipping the taxi driver, and the homeless dude standing on the corner with your luggage. It's a hard life in the city.

I tell the driver up front, that I don't want him popping the trunk until I'm ready to exit. I explain that I have some delicate camera equipment, and I want to handle it myself. He nods his head, and I notice a sly grin on his face. As soon as the taxi stops at Union Station... POP goes the trunk. Immediately, a homeless dude grabs my luggage and stands expectantly at the curb; while I'm stuck in the taxi paying the bill. My, my, what's a small town fellow like me supposed to do?

I tell the driver that he just lost his tip, and if he wants it, to go get it from the homeless dude with my luggage. He shoots me a glance (if looks could kill), and I quickly exit the taxi before things become too heated. I give the homeless dude a 4-buck tip, for the fun of moving my luggage from the trunk of the taxi, three feet to the curb. He grabs my hand and begins shaking it... for a moment I think he's going to give me a hug. The smell coming off this dude is so strong you could hang your hat on it. I decide that the first thing I'm going to do when I get on the train is take a hot shower... my second one of the day.

The forgotten taxi driver rolls his window down and shouts something at me, and then (as only a Chicago taxi driver can do) merges effortlessly into the ever-present traffic. What he said wasn't in English... however, I get the feeling that the translation wasn't exactly: Have a nice day.

This is cool... I haven't even boarded the train yet and I've had my first big adventure. Small town boy in the big city... What a treat.

Chicago's Union Station, as usual, is a hub of human activity. As I move down the escalators, I notice a permanent population of homeless people eyeing me. They're probably sizing me up and deciding exactly what they can get out of this mid-western rube. If they saw the tip I just gave the other homeless guy, I could be in big trouble.

andy anderson chicago union station tickets
The Amtrak ticket counters in the vast underground areas of Chicago Union Station

I ignore the requests for money, and head for the station's main food court. One of the hardcore homeless keeps pace with me, and waits patiently as I order a pan pizza from the local Pizza Hut (Meat Lovers). I better watch it, this guy is obviously a pro.

As I sit down to eat he comes over and stares at me... a typical technique. Intimidate the new guy... get some of that Pizza Hut pizza. I finally get tired of the odor, and ask him if he wants a slice. He basically says that he wants the whole pizza (can you believe it?). Since this is a family-oriented review, I won't tell you what I told him. However, I did suggest that if he didn't move away, I was going to call the local constable. He moves away and begins his Rasputin-like stare of a woman with a huge order of BBQ ribs... she gives in and hands him her whole order... What an amateur. Then, he sits down directly in front of me, smiles, and proceeds to chow down. Gee Wiz, I guess he really taught me a lesson. I finally call it quits and take the remainder of my pizza to the relative safety of the first-class lounge.

Chicago Union Station is a haven for the homeless. I don't understand why the city of Chicago doesn't do something about it, but they don't. Oh, and it's much worse during the Winter months, because they're all looking for somewhere warm to hang out.

Andy's Advice: If you don't want to be overwhelmed by the homeless, just remember to stand your ground... be compassionate (always have compassion), but be firm. Hint: Never give the homeless money... well almost never. Offer to buy them a meal. I've seen the homeless offer to work for food; however, when I offer those same people a meal (without working) they turn me down. What they want is some cash. I hate to say this but in many cases it's about drugs, booze, and cigarettes. A meal won't help them get to their goal; and they are expecting you to take the easy way out by giving them a few bucks... offer them a meal instead, and see what happens. As a matter of fact, there was this one gentleman holding a “Work for Food” sign. When I offered to buy him a meal, he said he wasn't really hungry at that moment; however, if I would give him ten bucks, he promised to buy a meal later... Oh yeah, like that's going to happen any time soon.

In the Metropolitan Lounge
Chicago, being an Amtrak hub, has a lounge for first-class passengers. The definition of first class is anyone who has booked a sleeper-class ticket... or, everyone but coach passengers. The number of warm bodies occupying the lounge depends on the number of first-class passengers traveling on Amtrak trains. Since I'm on the Texas Eagle, a normal Winter-season consist is something like this:

  • 2 P42 Locomotives
  • 1 Non-revenue Sleeper, also known as a Transition Sleeper (typically for the crew)
  • 1 or 2 Sleepers
  • 1 Diner
  • 1 Lounge
  • 1 Coach/Baggage
  • 2 Coach

There is a change in San Antonio, where an additional Sleeper and Coach are typically added; however, if you look at the number of warm bodies that can be on the Texas Eagle, let's do the math. A Superliner Sleeper Car (assuming the rooms are filled to their recommended numbers) can hold forty-four happy travelers, and the Coaches hold seventy-four cramped bodies. That comes out to two hundred and sixty-six... not bad. However, the number of people in the lounge waiting to board the Texas Eagle would be based on the number of available rooms in the sleeper car, or about forty-four warm bodies. Of course, that's not counting other trains that will be boarding.

When I arrive the place is full and noisy. In checking the status board, there appears to be several trains arriving over the next couple of hours. People are mingling about, eating snacks, drinking coffee, and generally waiting to hear a call for their respective trains. I don't like to get to the lounge too early. As I'm writing this, my train's on time, and will board around 1:00PM... it's currently 12:30PM. So I've only got a half hour to wait. However, after talking to some of the other passengers, I find that some of them have three hours or more waiting time. The problem is that the lounge is not designed to hold that many people. Currently, the lounge is so full, I don't see a single available seat, and there are people milling around, just waiting for someone to leave.

I finally see a seat and grab it; however, a few minutes later, an older couple comes by, looking for somewhere to sit. I offer my seat, and the person next to me offers his. So, it's back on my feet again. Heck, as soon as the train boards, I'll be able to sit down for three days.

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The Union Station lounge is full of people waiting to board their respective trains

Andy's Advice: Check with Amtrak and see if your train is running on time; then plan to be there (at the most) an hour before departure. If everyone did that, the lounge would always be a pleasant place to be.

Actually, the first-class lounge is a great place to get away from the hectic activities of the station, and they offer nice seats (when you can get one) and other amenities... In addition to free drinks and a few snacks, you can leave your luggage by your seat, and it's pretty safe (I really don't know too many thieves who could afford a first-class ticket); however, with all these people moving about, I really don't want to take a chance with my special stuff. Did I tell you I was paranoid... Well, now you know.

Instead, I leave my luggage in Room 341, which is a baggage storage room for first class passengers adjacent to the Metropolitan Lounge front desk. The Red Cap will give you a baggage receipt and your bags will be secure. Then, place your name at the front desk of the Metropolitan Lounge and you will be called when the Red Cap is ready to board your train. I hand the red cap a five-dollar tip, but it's worth it for my feeling of security for my stuff.

With my luggage secure, I take a walking tour of Chicago's Union Station (camera at the ready). It's  lots of fun, and there are lots of shops, and lots of chances to take photos, and just plain people watch. Okay, let me say this: Yes, there are some interesting parts to the station; however, don't confuse Chicago's Union Station to other great stations; like Los Angeles Union Station. Now there's a station; if there ever was one... but more on LAUS later in this travelogue.

Andy's Note: Watch the picture taking. Here I am shooting photos, and I've already been stopped by three Amtrak personnel, asking me what I was doing. And, when I tried to walk out onto one of the platforms, I thought they were going to have a cow. Other people are all around me taking photos and no one is saying a thing... It must be the ponytail.

andy anderson chicago union station image
I shot this image on the tracks, just before I was stopped and told not to take any photos of the trains (bad andy... bad andy).

After awhile I get tired of all the questioning, and move back to the relative security of the first-class lounge, read a cooking magazine I brought along, and wait patiently for the boarding call... it doesn't take long.

All Aboard the Texas Eagle

Typically, in major stations, such as: Los Angeles, Chicago, etc., the first-class passengers board before coach passengers... that gives us a chance to get to our rooms and settle in before departing... we're so dang special.

Actually, if everyone tried to board at the same time, you would have coach people trying to board the sleeper cars, and sleeper car passengers trying to board the coach cars... Or... utter chaos, and the end of civilization, as we know it.

About forty-five minutes before its scheduled departure, an announcement over the PA informs us that a Red Cap is ready to board the Texas Eagle. There's a door at the back of the lounge that takes us out to the tracks. It's interesting to watch how some of the first-class passengers will try to get to the front of the line... as if the train would leave without them.

When you're traveling on the airlines, getting on first is sometimes important. For example, if the flight is full, the plane might run out of overhead storage space (I HATE it when that happens). However, when you're traveling in a sleeper, you have your own bed, and your own storage space. If I were traveling in Amtrak coach, I might see why getting on the train first would be important... but not if you're traveling in first class.

I wait until everyone is happy with his or her place in line, and then get up, and join the back of the queue. I don't know... maybe I just don't have any ambition. Actually, the truth is that I don't want to rush this trip. I plan on enjoying every minute, and pushing to get to the front of the Que is just not my style.

andy anderson chicago union station tracks
The Amtrak station underneath the streets of Chicago

The Red Cap opens the door out to the tracks, and we head toward the Texas Eagle. A walk down a dim tunnel... past other trains... the smell of diesel fuel... dark, dank, and dismal. As I walk toward the Texas Eagle, afternoon sunlight streams through dingy overhead windows; occasionally illuminating potions of the track with stripes of gold.

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Sunlight streams through the upper windows, illuminating the tracks of Chicago's Union Station

Our first-class attendant (Brad) meets and greets us by our sleeper car, and then directs us to our respective rooms. As I step aboard the train, clean passageways and the bright lights of the Texas Eagle replace the dismal surroundings of the underground station loading area. Everything seems to be going great, and I find myself getting more and more excited about this journey. I began the initial planning for this trip over eight long months ago. Back then, Spring was just beginning to replace Winter. Now, Fall has replaced Summer, and it's finally happening.

andy anderson chicago union station image
The Texas Eagle waits patiently for its load of happy passengers

I drop my duffle bag in the lower floor holding area, navigate the narrow stairs to the upper floor, and enter my private sleeper. The room is set up for day travel, and Brad has seen fit to put two bottles of water on my window-side table.

I brought a couple of Snapple ice teas in my travel bag (the lounge car doesn't officially open until about an hour after we depart), and while everyone is getting to their rooms and having a good sort out, I grab a cup and some ice from the first-class service area, settle into my room and casually watch the boarding process through my window... life is good.

The mood of the other passengers seems happy and expectant. We all know that we'll be together for the next three days, and we're ready to get this train on the track. That's the cool thing about train travel. On the plane you get to your seat, pick up a magazine, and ignore everyone else. I've only been on the train for about ten minutes, and already several of my neighbors have come by to say hello. By neighbors, I mean the other passengers traveling in the bedrooms. There are only five bedrooms per car. Most of the time, they have two, or even three people each. Since I'm by myself, I could probably get by with a roomette; however, I like the advantage of having my own shower and toilet.

At 1:45PM (spot on time), I hear a distant, Allll Abooaaarrrd, and the Texas Eagle makes a slight lurch. We're on our way... The journey is about to begin.

Way to go Amtrak!!!

Andy's Advice: Although Amtrak trains are often late out of the gate; a conductor once told me that they are never supposed to leave the station early. In most cases, that means if the train arrives at a station early, we will stay put until our scheduled departure time.

This portion of the trip from Chicago to Los Angeles is a 70-hour journey east-to-west through the southern part of this great country. I settle back, take a deep breath, and watch the beginning of this excursion through the privacy of my bedroom window. After a few minutes we emerge from the dark tunnels of Chicago's Union Station, and break out into the subdued light of a typical Autumn afternoon... I so love the Fall and Winter seasons.

andy anderson chicago skyline
It's a cool, cloudy day in Chicago, as we emerge from the tunnels under Chicago's Union Station

The Texas Eagle goes from Chicago to San Antonio, and then returns to Chicago. Since I'm going all the way to Los Angeles, we have a train change. We don't have to physically get off the train; instead, our cars will be switched from the Texas Eagle to the Sunset Limited in San Antonio. Down time is typically seven hours; however, since the switch takes place in the middle of the night, most passengers sleep through the ordeal... that is if you can go to sleep with all the moving, jostling, and bumping. I've never experienced this switchover before, so it should be interesting. I'm hoping that they allow me out of the car to take some photographs of the process.

Here's an interesting fact: On most Amtrak trains, the first class cars are toward the forward part of the train; then you typically have the diner, and sightseer cars, and finally the coach cars. The logic to this is that there is never any reason for the coach passengers to be in the sleeper cars.  It's kind of like the airlines... coach passengers are not supposed to enter the first-class cabin... OH HORROR OF HORRORS.

Well, think about it. The sleeper cars have showers and toilets that are just for the first-class passengers. In addition, there is an area on the upper deck, between the roomettes and bedrooms, which the first-class attendant uses for coffee, juices, and snacks. I don't know about you; but if I happened to be a coach passenger, and saw some free snacks, I'd probably grab one or two (I hope that doesn't make me a bad person). I'd also rather use the first-class sleeper's toilets, and showers, since they're probably better maintained than the ones in coach. Actually, that's not accurate... Let's just say that the restrooms in a sleeper are used by fewer people, so they have a tendency to stay cleaner.

You get the point. First-class passengers pay a lot of money for their rooms (a whole lot more than coach), and they expect the amenities that come with first-class service. In my option, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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The Joliet Correctional Facility. I believe that this was the place used in the opening scene of the Blue's Brothers... or not.

I've been told that on the Texas Eagle, the first class cars going to Los Angeles, are toward the rear of the train (this makes it easier to do the switch in San Antonio), but not this time. Our first-class car is located at the front of the train. This means that in San Antonio, they will have to break the consist, separate our cars, and then reconnect to the Sunset Limited. This also means that the coach cars are toward the rear of the train, with the diner and sightseer lounge cars in-between (typical setup).

Andy's Advice: I've talked to many first-class passengers that wish Amtrak would put the first-class cars at the back of the train. They claim that the ride is quieter back there because it's further away from the engine. In my experience, I've not found the noise argument to be valid and, as a matter of fact, the cars at the rear, especially the last car, have a bumpier ride. As far as I'm concerned, Amtrak can leave the first-class cars toward the front of the train.

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The Texas Eagle carries two cafeteria cars... in San Antonio they will be switched out for a standard Superliner diner car.

Traveling the Iron Rails

I've always been intrigued with train travel; even as a young boy, growing up in the South Suburbs of Chicago, I used to spend time watching the trains traveling their bright metal tracks. Occasionally, I would even see the old coal-fired steam locomotives roar past. I always used to wonder where they had been, and where they were going... places, that at my young age I had never visited; except in books, movies, and childhood fantasies.

There was one train in particular... an old steam locomotive with a big faded red caboose at the end. On the small back porch, surrounded by a worn iron rail, sat a gentleman smoking a pipe and sitting in an old rocking chair. He always had a wave for us kids when he passed. I used to think that was so cool. When other kids my age wanted to drive the train, I wanted to be on the back watching the world go by. I suppose some shrink would read a lot into that; however, at this point in life, you know what... I really don't care.

As I return to the present moment, the Texas Eagle purposefully moves out of the confines of the city. Slowly, inexorably, the landscape outside my window changes from skyscrapers to business districts with large dirty warehouses, and trailer trucks backed up to docks waiting to be loaded with their designated cargo. A group of truckers, waiting for their trailers to load, huddle around a large oil drum that's been converted into a fire pit. They rub their hands over the fire in a vain attempt to keep out the October weather.

As we pass, one of the drivers looks up and gives the train a sharp military salute. I salute back; however, I doubt if he sees me.

Minute by minute we slowly move out of the city, and the Texas Eagle begins to pick up speed. According to my GPS unit, we're traveling 69MPH, and the familiar clickety clack, clickety clack of metal wheels on metal tracks begins... it's a sound that will lull me to sleep each evening, and wake me up every morning.

For some reason, I'm reminded of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and the ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa sound all of the machines in his daydreams made. If you don't have a clue as to what I'm talking about, then you need to go to your local library (remember what a library is), and pick up a copy. Anyway, I digress...

As we move ever further away from the city, the sun moves westward and eventually sinks into a mass of dark brooding clouds. It looks as though we might get a bit of rain. I move away from the window and wash up. The nice thing about being in a private sleeper is that it's the only accommodation aboard the train with its own private sink, shower, and toilet.

It's also the reason that I only do these trips once a year... they cost... big time. The cost of a coach seat is a small fraction of what a deluxe sleeper costs. But, HEY, it's a small price to pay for your own toilet. Anyway, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it... at least for now.

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Outside the city, large electric windmills, generate power for the surrounding area.

Give Rail Travel a Chance

If you've never had the chance to travel by rail, you should give it a try. If it's a short trip of a few hours, then do it in coach; however, if it's a longer overnight trip, you should explore the possibly of booking a roomette or deluxe sleeper. It really is an amazing experience. No crying babies to keep you up at night, and your own personal window to the world... I call it traveling through America's backyard. You will see things that no one on the expressway will EVER see. You'll see backyards and the secret places of America's families. You'll see laundry hung up on clotheslines, and children playing on antique swing sets. In addition, you'll see trees, forests, and virgin lands that you will never experience from the windows of your car, van or SUV. You'll see deer playing by the tracks, and wild bear catching fish in unexplored mountain streams. It's an experience of the American landscape that you will never witness... unless you take to the rails.

Andy's Advice: If you board the train in coach, it's possible to upgrade to first-class during the trip (assuming any sleeping accommodations are still available). Considering you have your own space, and all your meals are provided, it might be worth considering. After boarding, check with your car attendant... they can give you information on pricing and availability. However, wait until the boarding process is complete. The car attendant has a lot to do at each one of the stops; once the train is moving, you can catch their attention, and ask about upgrades.

On and on the Texas Eagle travels. Gazing out my window I see somber prairie lands; already beginning to turn from Summer green to shades of Autumn brown. In several towns we pass through, I see pumpkins set up on rural porches; their internal candles giving them a flickering yellow/orange grin. Yes, Fall is in the air, and Old Man Winter cannot be far behind.

andy anderson texas eagle farmer image
A farmer waves from his tractor as we speed past

For several miles we shadow the Illinois & Michigan canal. In Chicago's past the canal was an important transportation artery for Chicago trade.  I know that because on this portion of the trip we have a member of the Park's commission on board, and she mentions all the historical parts of the trip thru the room's speaker system. I take a deep breath, relax in my chair, and take another tug from my Snapple; this is just the beginning of an eleven-day journey, and so far things are going fantastic.

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The Texas Eagle crosses the Vermillion River

As we continue to move through the golden afternoon, clouds slowly mount the southwestern sky; finally gobbling up the sun. These clouds are not your normal white puffy balls of cotton; these babies are dark and serious. As the train passes through the storm front you can feel a jostle or two as strong winds tug at our speeding train. In response, the engineer drops the train's speed by 10MPH... we are now traveling at sixty MPH. Five minutes later the rain hits. This is one big storm. Lightening streaks across the sky and stitches patterns of jagged white light onto my retinas. I count the interval between the flash and the boom. One... Two... BOOM!!! Wow, those bolts are close. The engineer responds by lowering our speed to forty MPH.

Passing through a small town, I see people on the street running with their hands over their heads, in a vain attempt to keep the water off. One woman has an umbrella, and as I watch the wind takes it and pulls it inside out. I think it's funny; however, I doubt if she shares that sentiment.

Five short minutes later, the Texas Eagle blasts out of the storm front; ten minutes later, the sun comes out in a patchy sky of rain-washed blue and white.

Since this portion of the trip is three days, I pull myself away from the passing scenery, and begin the job of settling into my room. I get out my camera and computer equipment, and begin setting up my workspace. This will be my world for the next seventy hours, so I want to make it as comfortable and homey as possible. I think that I'll take a stroll through coach, just to see if the horror stories are true. 

Oh, come on now... we've all heard the horror stories. Just go out to the Internet and type in Amtrak Horror Stories, and read them for yourselves. Everything from crying babies in the seat next to you, keeping you up all night, to overflowing toilets, unkempt showers, and drunk passengers going to the bathroom in the middle of the floor. Yes, they're all out there. I have a hard time believing most of them. However, as I've said before, I've never ridden a long-distance train in coach. And, in all my years of traveling on Amtrak, I've never had a horror story to write about... I'm charmed, lucky, or just plain stupid. Anyway this trip should show me exactly how Amtrak handles coach passengers on long-distance trains.

Andy's Note: I'm going to forgo my trip to coach because the sun is beginning to come out and the color on the trees is simply fantastic. I'm going to try to get some shots though the window. We're beginning to pass a lot of farmland now, and the fields are full of what looks like corn. I'm not a farmer, but I assume that corn is a Fall crop here in Illinois, just like wheat is in Kansas. Anyway the color of the shocks is golden against the westering sun. It's a photo-op I can't pass up.

While I'm gazing out at the scenery, the dining-room attendant, Tamera, drops by and takes my reservation for dinner. She has an infectious smile, and fantastic attitude. Since I've been filling up on snacks (bad Andy), I take a late 7:30PM reservation, and continue to gaze out at the passing scenery as the Texas Eagle slices south through the ever-darkening world.

I've said this before, and I'll say it again. The crew of any Amtrak train will make or break the trip. Brad, our sleeper-car attendant, is great; he has a fantastic humor and is very friendly. I'll have to see if I can catch him for a talk later on in the trip.

So far, from our car attendant to the conductor, everybody seems to be friendly and in good spirits. This journey has only been going on for about three hours, and I'm already beginning to feel comfortable... this is going to be a great trip.

I find it interesting how many people watch and wave at a train when it passes. It reminds me of when I was younger... much younger, waiting by the tracks, and trying to get the engineer to blow the whistle (he always did).

America's Heartland

Slowly, the sun begins its inexorable journey toward the western horizon... It reminds me of how an old plough horse after a hard day's work in the field will instinctively head toward the barn, and a much deserved rest. We pass rural areas containing proud old houses with peeling paint, and row after row of grain elevators. People who could be my grandparents, sit on old wooden porches, and wave as we pass. It was in a town, very much like this one, where I grew up.

I'm in the heart of this great country of ours, and I can almost feel its strong pulse beating in time to my own small heartbeat. To the right I see a VFW post, and the American flag flying proudly overhead. Jack-O-Lanterns begin to light up the evening on unnamed streets in unnamed towns. The golden embers of an Autumn sunset, set the oak and maple trees afire with a pallet of orange and red, and the shadows cast from their trunks seem to stretch on forever. As our train slows to take a curve, I see a group of children playing in a small town park. They're taking advantage of the last rays of the sun for one more swing. They know that there won't be many more evenings like this one. Soon those golden leaves will fall out of those trees, and old Jack Frost will begin to weave his icy tapestry onto the landscape.

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Small town America

This is it... this is where America's strength lies. It's not just in the big cities, or trust in government... it's here. There's a reason this is called the Heartland of America, and I don't think that I've ever felt that more strongly than at this precise moment. I almost wish that I could get off the train, walk down these streets, and talk to the people living here... but I can't. With an indifference to my current feelings, the Texas Eagle moves quickly past these hallowed streets, and travels ever westward.

As you might have figured out, I'm attempting to write this journal as it happens, and not days later from a set of notes. While this part of the journey may not find it's way to the Web for awhile (I never know when I'll get an internet connection), most of it was written as it happened.

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The setting sun sets the October clouds on fire

As the sun approaches the horizon, I begin to lose my light for outside-the-window photos, so I set my camera down. I'll bring it to dinner, and see what I can shoot. On this journey we don't have a typical diner car, like those you see on most long-distance trains. Instead we have two cafeteria cars. The seating is a bit different; however, the service is the same. I talked to one of the diner-car attendants, and she said that after the switchover in San Antonio, we'll drop these cars and go back to typical Superliner diner cars.

Well, I think that I'll work on organizing my room for the rest of the journey... see you at dinner.

Dinner on the Texas Eagle

Dinner consisted of three pieces of chicken with rice pilaf. I had ice tea for a drink, and I turned down dessert. Considering that they had all kinds of goodies (cheesecake, ice cream, pie), I think that I did pretty good. My dinner companions were on their way to Oklahoma to visit their son, and be at his wedding.

The evening wasn't that exciting. I played about with my computer, and did some writing. After a bit I got bored and went to bed around 10:00PM. I was lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking motion of the train, and the mournful whistle of the engine.

Day 2 on the Texas Eagle

I wake up at 5:00AM, and grab a cup of coffee from the service area. I'm not sure what time Brad (our car attendant) gets up, but the coffee is fresh and ready. About 5:15AM we pull into Texarkana; which means that I slept through all the Arkansas stops... Hey, I'm not planning on staying awake twenty-four/seven. Anyway we were not supposed to be in Texarkana until 5:58AM. So we've been sitting here cooling our heals for the last forty-five minutes; then at 5:58AM, I hear the engine whistle, and we're back on track (pun intended).

If an Amtrak train is late, there's not much they can do about it; except try to make up the time. If, however, the train is running early, they'll stop every so often and wait until they're back on time.

Breakfast begins at 6:30AM, with no reservations required. Since my experience is that most people wait a bit before eating, my plan is to hit the diner car when it first opens. We'll see how many early risers we have on the Texas Eagle. Currently, it's 6:05AM, so twenty-five minutes to go.

Well, we pulled out of Texarkana, just a few minutes ago, and now we're stopped again. It's not really that big of a deal; it's almost time for breakfast, and it's so dark outside that my bedroom window might as well be a piece of black glass.

I had one cool experience last night. I woke up about 2:30AM and peered out my window. There, framed like a perfect photograph, was the constellation Orion (the hunter). It must have been a pretty clear night because I could even see a bit of the Milky Way... Then I went back to sleep.

A freight train is currently passing us on the adjoining track, so I assume that's probably why we're stopped. Except for the North-East Corridor, Amtrak does not own any of the tracks they travel on. So we have to share them with the freight haulers. Amtrak is supposed to get priority on the tracks; however, in years past that seldom happened. The results were that Amtrak trains had a dismal record when it came to on-time arrivals. Now, it seems that things have changed, and that Amtrak is getting the priority they deserve. The results now are that Amtrak trains have an excellent on-time record.

Well, as soon as the freight train passed, we got under way. Even with priority status, Amtrak will still have to occasionally pull over and let another train pass.


Breakfast consisted of a cheese omelet with grits. Dan, the person I was eating breakfast with had the same thing with one big difference. His omelet was shaped exactly like North America... including Florida, and Maine. I kid you not. We talked about putting it on eBay and seeing what we could get for it. I was going to take a picture; however, Dan ate Florida, before I could pick up my camera... he was really hungry. To sum it up, breakfast was excellent, and our server, Carol, was great. One thing about Amtrak, you won't ever complain about the portions, they're huge. And if you're in a sleeper, the price is right... FREE!

Back in my Room

I get back to my room, just in time to shoot some photos of the colorful sunrise over Marshall, Texas. Then five minutes later, the colors fade and it's over. Sometimes you've got to be quick to capture that image.

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Sunrise over Marshall, Texas

We're currently stopped next to a strange type of tanker car. Or at least what looks like a tanker car. On first inspection, they look like they might carry liquid; however, they're not round like a tanker; they're more flattened on the bottom, almost as if it's a top on a serving dish. It reminds me of the X-Files TV show... In one episode they had these tankers cars, and inside were these aliens... you get the picture. I think I just found out where the government is hiding all those aliens, and it's Marshall, Texas. Be afraid... Be very afraid.

andy anderson texas eagle tanker car image
Interesting container cars outside Marshall, Texas

Okay, we move past those scary container cars (or whatever they were), and stop at the Marshall Amtrak station. This is not supposed to be a long stop; but we've been here for about twenty minutes.

Actually, I hadn't bothered to check my times. We arrived into Marshall about twenty minutes early, and we were just waiting to bleed off some of that extra time.

It's raining now, so this will give me time to talk about the consist of the Texas Eagle. For those of you who are not train buffs, a consist is a detailed account of the cars and engines on this train.

Texas Eagle 421: Chicago to San Antonio

Genesis Engine 162
Superliner Sleeper 2132
Superliner Sleeper 2130
Cafeteria Style Diner 37016
Cafeteria Style Diner 37005
Superliner Coach 2210
Superliner Coach 2111
Superliner Coach 2814

Andy's Note: When we get to San Antonio the first class and coach cars that are going to Los Angeles will be removed from the Texas Eagle consist, placed on the Sunset Limited and pulled to Los Angeles.

andy anderson texas eagle genesis 162
Genesis Engine #162 pulled us all the way to San Antonio, Texas

Cooling our Heals in Dallas... Home of J.R. Ewing

Okay kiddies, here we are in Dallas... That's Dallas, Texas. We got here early, and we're not leaving until our scheduled departure time, so we've got almost an hour. That's the good news: The bad news is that it's raining, and I don't just mean raining. We got cats and dogs falling out of the sky. It's raining so hard that the frogs are strangling... got the picture.

Anyway, I decided not to get off the train (smart move), and I am unable to find a wireless connection. So this deathless prose will have to stay on my computer for another few hours.

The Amtrak station in Dallas is right next door to the big Dallas Hyatt, and that's where the cast and crew of the TV show Dallas used to stay when they filmed here; hence the reason for the title of this section. Many years ago, I was on a photo-shoot in Dallas, and the cast of the show was at the Hyatt... I tried to get up to their floor to take some shots; however, I was stopped by this huge dude guarding the entrance to their floor (they actually had their own floor). I smiled at him, and I thought he was going to throw me down the stairwell.

Now I bet that's a bit of trivia you never expected to see on a train site.

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An old WWII Pullman Troop Sleeper, sits on the side rails in Temple, Texas


The diner called lunch early (sneaky people), so with the train still stuck in Dallas, I make my way to the diner car. I'm seated with a coach passenger (Rose), and a retired school teacher from Pasadena. She's getting off in Taylor, to see her son, and the school teacher is going back home after visiting the Windy City. I chow down on the BBQ sandwich with some hot tea and, once more, forgo dessert... I must be getting old or something. Anyway, at 12:20PM, about halfway through lunch, the Texas Eagle makes an on time departure out of Dallas and heads purposefully towards Fort Worth. We're supposed to arrive early, so I'm hoping that I can snag a wireless connection, and drop this off... we'll see.

Okay, no wireless yet... I'm hoping that on our seven-hour layover in San Antonio, there will be some wireless connection that I can hook into. I really don't want to wait until LA to dump this portion of the trip. It's still raining outside, however we're still on time. In fact, we're pulling into stations ahead of time, and then we're waiting extra at the station.

So far this trip has been exceptional, the personnel are all friendly, the service is above and beyond, and the food is excellent. I talked to the conductor about the schedule, and that we're beating our timetable, and he said that Amtrak is working more closely with the freight carriers, and they're even using some alternate tracks. The result is that the Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited has consistently pulled into LA on time or even early. They're so confident that they guaranteed a connection to the Coast Starlight out of LA, and it leaves less than one hour after we're supposed to arrive. To guarantee a connection after a seventy hour trip with less than an hour window, indicates a high degree of certainty.


Because our dinning crew is getting off in Austin (7:00PM) they're having an abbreviated dinner. It starts at 4:00PM, and ends at 5:30 (three seatings). I take the 4:00PM seating. That's a bit early; however, for some reason, I'm hungry. I sat with a retired woman who was going to Yuma, Arizona to visit her son. We talked about train travel, and how much it has improved over the last few years. For dinner, I had the flat-iron steak with rice, and ice tea. Once again, I turned down dessert. I think I need to see a doctor. Anyway, it was excellent; the steak was tender, and the rice cooked to perfection. I said good-bye to Tamera and Carol, the dining car servers that would be getting off in Austin, and made my way back to my room.

Back in Old Bedroom D

You know, after almost a day and a half, this space is beginning to feel like home. Well, not really, but I have managed to put it together and make it homey. While I'm typing the, rain begins to abait, and the farmlands we pass don't appear as water-soaked as they did a few miles back.

Southern Texas has been in a drought for several years; however, with all this rain, I think (hope) that the back of the drought is broken. Hey, maybe they hired Burt Lancaster from the movie, Rainmaker to do his thing... It worked in the movie. If you don't have a clue as to what I'm talking about, rent the old classic: Rainmaker.

Taking a Shower on a Moving Train... Or My Attempt at Fiction

After a hard day of walking to and from the diner car, and typing on my computer, I feel the need for a shower. If you've never experienced taking a shower on a moving train, then you've really missed out one of life's greatest pleasures. As a matter of fact, you need to add it to your bucket list.

First of all the shower in a first-class bedroom is rather small... and it's not only a shower, it's also your toilet. Keep that in mind as we proceed.

So, you get into the shower/toilet combo, naked, and shut the curtain to cover the door... you don't want any water leaking out into your bedroom... That would not be a good thing. Then you grit your teeth, grab the flexible showerhead in your right hand, and turn the water on full blast.

Does anyone spot the flaw in this plan? No, well, then let me proceed.

At that exact moment in time, the train makes a sudden lurch to the right, forcing you to steady yourself by sticking your left foot in the toilet. Oops, did you forget to close the lid?

So, now you have an active showerhead in your right hand, and your left foot is in the toilet...

Still don't see the flaw?

As you continue your balancing act, the showerhead sends out an icy blast of cold water (it hasn't warmed up because you never gave it a chance ).

This is the point where the fun really begins.

As the icy cold water hits your body, one of two possible things will happen: You will either let out a blood curdling scream, or you will spew out a string of curse words (I personally believe that a combination of both screaming and cursing is the best approach). In the resulting confusion, screaming, and cursing, you manage to drop the showerhead... trust me, you will drop the showerhead. The showerhead, now left to its own devices, knocks about the tiny shower stall like a rabid rattlesnake. It hits and knocks open the cover protecting your toilet paper. The toilet paper falls out of the container, and proceeds to block the drain.

In a panic, you bend over (not too smart), to clear the drain before it floods your room, only to be cracked in the head by the rampaging showerhead. This knocks you into into the curtain covering the door. The door bursts open, and you wind up falling backwards through the door into your bedroom (still screaming and cursing). Your neighbors hear the commotion, and open your door, only to find you wet, naked, and covered with bits of soggy toilet paper. They smile and leave you to your own devices.

And that my friends is how you take a shower on a moving train... any questions?

Okay, this never really happened... I just have an active imagination.

Heading into San Antonio

While I was having my shower adventure (I really did take a shower), we hit our last stop (San Marcos), before arriving in San Antonio. If you've been paying any attention at all to my narrative, you'll know that's where we switch trains, and head out to LA LA Land.

We head into the city from the southwest, and pass much of the industrial part of San Antonio. At this time of night (9:30PM) the area appears dark and deserted. A light rain is falling, and the wet surfaces reflect the yellow glow of the street lamps and security lights. It gives everything a surrealistic look. Even the rural areas we pass on the outskirts of the city appear to be sleeping.

This part of the city is not where the tourists go; they stick to the Riverwalk, this is the area that houses the people who keep the city alive; and at this time on a Wednesday night, they all appear to be sleeping. After a few minutes of sitting still, the train reverses direction and heads back down the track. Since I've never done this before, I don't know if it's part of the process, or if there is a problem.

We stop after traveling several miles back down the track, and then stop again. Then I hear the whistle of another train, and a freight hauler barrels by us. We must have had to back up onto a spur to let the other train pass. After the other train passes we back up some more... this is getting to be fun. I think what we're doing is backing up to switch to another section of track.

Well, we actually backed into the San Antonio station, and most of the Chicago crew has departed. The only passengers left are those in my sleeper (2130), and one coach (2814). Everyone else is gone. The car is quiet, and has been hooked up to auxiliary power.

It's now 9:44PM, and we won't be leaving San Antonio until about 5:30AM. About half of the passengers in my car are headed into San Antonio to experience the Riverwalk. The good news is that we can re-board the train anytime during the evening, or early morning (the bars don't close until 2:30AM).

I'm not going out tonight... it's raining, and besides I've been to the Riverwalk many times. I do expect; however, that I will be woken up in the middle of the night by a bunch of drunks coming back from town. That means I'll make sure my door is closed and locked.

Okay, a lot of people came back at all hours of the night; however, no drunks that I heard, or saw came crawling back on the train... my mistake.

Day 3 on the Texas Eagle

The process of moving the train was interesting; they basically uncoupled our car and one of the coach cars, and when the Sunset Limited pulled in, they stuck us on the end. As a matter of fact, our sleeper car is at the very end of the consist. I didn't 't get a chance to get off the train, because it rained hard all night. Now, it's 5:30AM and it's still raining. Some of the tracks in the station look like rivers. I understand that Texas needs the rain; but how about a little sunshine now and then.

Scheduled departure is 5:40AM, so in a few minutes we should be getting underway. If things go according to plan, we'll be pulling into Los Angeles at 9:40AM tomorrow. The cool thing about being the end car is that our back door doesn't open into another car, it's actually a window out the back of the train.

In the middle of the night, our sleeper was pulled off the Texas Eagle, and placed at the end of the Sunset Limited


amtrak truck image texas eagle
The truck on the Amtrak Texas Eagle


Since our sleeper is located at the back of the train, I'll have to pass through the coach car to get to the diner. I've never been in a coach car on a long-distance train, so this will be an opportunity to see how the other half lives.

Well, it's 5:52AM and we just started moving. That makes us twelve minutes late out of the gate, but somehow I really don't think that presents any sort of problem... do you?

On the Road Again

It's only 6:30AM so it's still dark outside. Since it usually takes a bit of time for the crew to get breakfast ready, I'm assuming that they're still closed for business. However, I really don't know that because even if they're open, they won't make any announcements over the PA until 7:00AM.

On the train, the hours of 10:00PM thru 7:00AM are considered quiet time... Isn't that special. You're supposed to keep the noise down, put your cell phones on vibrate, and if you decide you want to talk on your phone or have a fun conversation with someone, you're supposed to take it to the sightseer car.

Since we just got underway, I haven't had a chance to explore the train. It's possible that the diner and sightseer cars are quite a ways up the train. Maybe it's time to do a bit of exploring, and see what's what.


It's a looooong walk to breakfast. Yesterday, our car was right next to the diner, now we have to go through three coach cars, and the sightseer car. By the time you get there, you've really worked up an appetite. I had a cheese omelet with hash browns and hot tea... another excellent meal. My dining partner was my next door neighbor (room E). He's the retired history teacher, that I spoke of before. We managed to talk about everything but history, and then I made the long journey back to my bedroom. As I pass through the three coach cars, most of the people are still asleep. They're scrunched up in their seats, some with the backs reclined. Some have opted to sleep across two seats. Most have blankets over their heads to keep out the light. I feel like I'm intruding into someone's bedroom.

Andy's Note: Although I'm used to traveling in a sleeper, these coach cars don't appear all that bad. In fact, the chairs look quite comfortable.

The sun has finally made an appearance, and where ten minutes ago everything was gray and overcast; now there's not a cloud in that hard blue Texas sky. Outside of San Antonio, the land changed to large flat areas populated by nothing but low scrub bush and cactus plants. Occasionally, I see a horse grazing on the wide open plains. Since there are no fences denoting property, I wonder if he's wild, or just out for a long walk.

The empty landscape seems to stretch from horizon to horizon. Texas is truly a huge state. Along each side of the track I notice what looks like meg-shift fences: Just odd pieces of wood stuck into the sandy soil, and connected together by rusting pieces of barbwire. The conductor says they are designed to keep animals off the tracks. Unfortunately, these areas are so desolate, that the fences have fallen over, been broken through, or are just plain missing. There are no paved roads out here. Only trails carved into the dry, hard landscape. Some of them follow the path of our speeding train, only to disappear into the scrub brush, a few miles down the track.

andy anderson sunset limited telephone pole
Broken fences and telephone poles without wires follow us as we speed through the vast open areas of western Texas

The sky is hard blue and fearless; in fact, the only thing I see in the air are groups of eagles, or hawks, circling the ground. They're probably looking for their morning meal.

andy anderson sunset limited eagle
He owns the sky

Occasionally a small pocket of humanity appears in this harsh environment... typically a collection of worn-looking mobile homes. A frayed wire snakes off a power pole, and connects this small community to its electrical lifeline. Then the community passes, only to be replaced by miles and miles of empty lands. I wonder how this small community of six mobile homes gets its food, water, and supplies. No wireless connections out here, and no order-out-for pizza. This is a different world. I see it; however, I'm isolated from it by the bubble of this train, and by the lifestyle I've chosen for myself. This world is as different from mine as the earth is from the moon. Again I'm reminded of why I chose to take the train. These are areas of this great country that you will never see by car or by watching the Discovery channel. Believe me, that nice Chevy, won't work out here... this is truck country.

andy anderson sunset limited trailers
A group of six trailers, sit literally in the middle of nowhere

At 9:10AM we pass over Lake Amistad. It's a fresh water lake and reservoir. According to my GPS it's fed by at least three rivers, and the waters appear clear blue and inviting.

It's 9:46, and we just passed over the Pacos River High Bridge. According to our car attendant, Lloyd, it's the highest river bridge on this line. When you look down, the water is 320 feet below our speeding train.. cool!

andy anderson sunset limited river bridge
A river bridge, taken from the back window of my sleeper car

At this point in time, we are quite close to the Mexican/American border; occasionally you see border patrol vehicles pass by the train. We're so close to the border, that you can see Mexico, just off to the left. Every once and awhile I see these raised stands. They almost look like the deer high-hides you see in Kansas. I was informed by another passenger that they're spotting posts for illegal aliens.

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The border patrol keeps a vigilant watch on our Southern border

As we speed along, we occasionally pass a sign of civilization... Interstate 90. Paved, painted, and well maintained, I90 is a major artery between some of the empty spaces and the larger cities of western Texas.


Another loooong walk through the coach and sightseer cars, then sitting down with a retired couple heading to Tucson, Arizona to visit relatives. I have a salad for lunch, and drown it down with a cup of hot tea... once again, I turn down any dessert. Since we get into Los Angeles tomorrow morning, tonight's dinner will be my last chance to try a dessert... the pressure's on. I make a 6:15PM dinner reservation, and take the long stroll back to my personal hiding place... Room D, Car 2130.

Here's something interesting. There's a group of Amish traveling in coach... every time I pass them, they stop and stare at me. I'm not talking about a short glance, I'm talking a fixed stare. I figure I look like someone they like... or don't. Must be the ponytail.

I spend the afternoon working on various projects and staring out at the vast wide-open spaces. About 6:00PM I see a doe grazing by the tracks, she looks up once, and then continues eating. She was the only wild animal I saw on this leg of the trip. I did, however, see some pretty wild looking people.


I had the chicken for dinner with rice and, believe it or not... no dessert. My dinning companions were a husband and wife, and a retired doctor. The husband was retired from the Air force and worked at the boneyard (a place where they store mile after mile of old and mothballed airplanes), the wife was a librarian. Both were returning to Yuma from New Jersey after visiting his relatives. The retired doctor sat next to me. She had a lot of opinions about everything... including evolution. I must say that she kept the conversation going during the entire meal. Eventually I got tired of debating the origins of our species, so I said my good-nights, and retired to the relative security of my sleeper.

This is the last evening on the Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited, and the last three days have been excellent. Both Brad (Texas Eagle), and Lloyd (Sunset Limited) were excellent car attendants. And the dinning crew never missed a beat.

Day 4

I get up around 4:00AM... it's that time-change thing. Central Standard Time is two hours ahead of California, so my brain thinks that it's 6:00AM... whatever. Since we're getting into Los Angeles this morning, the diner car is serving a modified breakfast. It opens an hour early at 5:30AM and closes at 7:00AM. Since I'm almost always up by 5:00AM, I wish the dinner would always open that early. The cool thing about this is that very few people are up and about at that early hour. I usually have the diner to myself.

Andy's Advice: Since this is the end of this leg of Andy's Great Adventure, let me give you a word on tipping. Meals should be tipped the same way that you would tip in any other eating establishment. Sleeper car passengers do get their meals for free, so look at the prices in the menu figure out what you would have paid for the meal, and then tip accordingly. The only other person you might consider tipping is your sleeper car attendant. In the day, they keep the place spruced up,and keep the coffee, ice, and juices flowing. And one other thing, you might not have considered. They have to be up for any stop that is decanting passengers. So, for example, if someone is getting off in Tucson (that's a 1:00AM stop) they (or the conductor) will have to be up. If the train is busy, they may get very little sleep. That's a lot of work. An average tip is considered five bucks per day... up to you.

I can't really tell by my GPS where we are; however, it looks like we're in California. If that's true, we are an hour ahead of schedule. That's interesting because this morning we pulled out of Tucson almost 20 minutes late, and that was only a couple of hours ago.

Okay, the GPS says we're about the pass the Salton Sea, if that's true, it would put us about an hour ahead of schedule, or 9:00AM. I really don't have much to do at that time of the day, so getting in early is not a priority; however, I could jump over to Original Philippe's and get breakfast... It's supposed to be the place to go.

Arrival:  Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS)
As much as I enjoy rail travel, after three days on the Texas Eagle, it feels good to step off the train and place my tootsies on firm ground. I say good-bye to my sleeper car attendant, and tip him twenty bucks. Then I head into Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS). This is a fantastic station; however, I'm more interested in getting to my hotel, taking a nice hot shower, and relaxing. There will be more time for checking out LAUS later today, and tomorrow, before I board the Coast Starlight, and my thirty-five hour trip up the coast to Seattle.

Andy's Advice: The official arrival time for my train into LAUS is 9:40AM, and the Coast Starlight leaves at 10:15AM. Technically speaking, I should just be able to walk over and pick up the Starlight; however, don't you EVER attempt something like that. I'm not sure why Amtrak still books this type of switch, but its ridiculous. It's not unusual for the Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited to pull into LAUS an hour or more late. Do you think the Coast Starlight is going to wait for you? I'll let you answer that question. Get a room, spend the night and relax... HECK, you've been on the train for three days; take a dang break. Besides, this is LA, and there's just tons of stuff to see and do.

Andy's Additional Note: Although Amtrak had a better deal with the freight carries, and they're almost never late into Los Angeles, I still don't think it's smart to book a trip of this duration with only a thirty-five minute window.

andy anderson Los Angeles Union Station image
Exiting the Sunset Limited after my seventy-hour journey across the United States

And speaking of seeing and doing, there is one thing that I'm going to do on this trip that I've not done before. I'm planning to go to Original Philippe's, and get one (or two) of their famous French Dip sandwiches. A lot of train writers have talked about it... now I will experience it for myself. You can check them out at

andy anderson los angeles union station image
Hello Los Angeles

I exit Union Station and, head for a taxi. I had planned to go to Philippe's for breakfast, but I had snacked on the train, so I decided to head to the hotel, and do Philippe's tomorrow.

The Marriott I usually stay at is a bit over a mile from the station; however, they were totally full up. So, I'm staying at the Marriott in Hollywood instead. The six-mile journey down the crowded 101 costs twenty-five bucks. At the hotel, I once again snag a room on the concierge floor. This is really cool because it's only 9:00AM, and the official check-in time is 4:00PM... Did I tell you that I love the Marriott chain?

A shot out the window of my Marriott room.

The concierge lounge doesn't have as much free food as the Chicago Marriott on Michigan Avenue, but I still manage to fill up on finger foods. I return to my room, unpack my stuff, do some laundry, and relax. I have a call to Rockhurst University at 2:00PM to do a voiceover for a Web Seminar that I'm doing for them, so I rehearse my lines while sitting on the bed. At 2:00PM the voiceover session goes without a hitch (one less thing to worry about), and I head downstairs to see what kind of trouble I can get into.

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Smog enshrouded Los Angeles... from a respectful distance

This particular Marriott is near the Kodak theatre, El Captitan, and the Chinese Theatre. The streets are covered with stars (Hollywood's Walk of Fame). As I walk outside I'm confronted with a lot of stuff you usually don't see in Wichita, Kansas. There are your basic cross dressers... actually, some of them have very good taste. I'm constantly confronted with people asking for spare change, and I just passed a guy that's dressed like Batman. He looks like he just stepped off the set of Batman Begins.

The young people walk around like they're models, just off the cover of Vogue. But hey, this is Hollywood and everyone hopes that they'll be discovered and become the next superstar... Mr. Spielberg... I'm ready for my close up.

I take a few pictures, if only to help remind me why I live in Wichita, Kansas... In truth, this is a fun place to be, it's just not my cup of tea. Just like Wichita isn't some people's cup of tea. I return to my room, and hit the hay around 11:00PM.

The next morning, I get up, do some exercise in my room, shower, and do some ironing and packing. Then I go down to the lobby, hail a taxi, and head to Union Station.

It's time for the Coast Starlight, and the next leg of the journey...

Are we having fun yet?

Navigation: Home - Journey Index - Leg 1 - Leg 2 - Leg 3 - Leg 4 - Leg 5

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Keep the faith... And keep traveling
Andy Anderson