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Off To Oklahoma

by Chris Guenzler

Upon finishing the Canadian portion of my North American Rail Pass 1999, I had added a short trip, by my standards at least, to Oklahoma City to see my good and dear friend Bonnie Isbill as well as to ride the new Heartland Flyer which had started in May. The running joke between Bonnie and me was that I would only come and visit her state if they got passenger service to get me there. When they added the Fort Worth to Oklahoma City service, I then had no choice but to make the trip and besides it would be the 49th state that I would ride a train in

San Diegan 585 8/28/1999

Having spent just three nights back in my own bed, I was back at the Santa Ana Amtrak station waiting for San Diegan 585 to take me to Los Angeles. I had an uneventful train ride to Los Angeles with an on time arrival. I went into Union Station, received my boarding pass and started the line of passengers waiting for the Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle.

Amtrak 2/22 Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle 8/28/1999

I boarded the rear coach just ahead of the sleeper in the through car section of the Sunset Limited that would be added to the Texas Eagle in San Antonio. This meant that we were a long way from the lounge and dining cars on the train with me thinking I could use the exercise of the long walk to my advantage. We waited for a late running Coast Starlight, so we left Los Angeles fifty-two minutes late and headed out east into the night. With the lateness of the hour, I fell right asleep.


Morning light came just east of Yuma and I ate breakfast while the train passed through miles of Saguaro Cactus, the trademark of this route. We arrived in Tucson for servicing and left town fifty-two minutes late. It was a nice relaxing trip on the Sunset with no delays for a change. Steve, a friend is our lounge car attendant and I have an excellent dining car crew abroad this trip. For a change, I ate lunch in the dining car as the train sped across the continental divide at seventy miles an hour. Without a single delay from Tucson, we arrived in El Paso early with time for an extended walk. I enjoyed a steak dinner, watched "George of the Jungle" in the lounge car before I called it a night.

8/30/1999 I awoke in San Antonio the morning of August 30 after all the switching was done. I am amazed how well I sleep in coach on a train.

The Texas Eagle departed San Antonio with its usual back up move before it headed north up the former Missouri Pacific tracks of the Union Pacific. I enjoyed another excellent breakfast as the Eagle made all of its stops on time.

Just before Temple, TX we switched onto the BNSF tracks and continued our on time running even crossing at Tower 55 with no delays, a first for me. We arrived in Fort Worth early and I detrained to wait for my connecting train to Oklahoma. A perfect trip on both the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle. I could not have asked for more.

Amtrak 822 The Heartland Flyer 8/30/1999

I was boarded in a Superliner snack coach (Panic Box) before I moved into an ex Santa Fe Hi-level car which had been rebuilt for this service. We left Fort Worth right on time with a friendly welcome aboard and a warning about freight train interference along with slow orders for track work. This is of course a new route for me so I'm all eyes looking out of my window on my way towards the 49th state that I will ride a train in.

Leaving town, the Flyer runs on a fill above the UP line before it ran parallel to it across the Trinity River. The train passed through the BNSF Saginaw Yard after passing the Fort Worth Airport. There was a UP freight waiting at the Saginaw Crossing being dwarfed by the immensely large grain elevators. Within minutes, the Heartland Flyer entered the gentle rolling North Texas countryside having escaped from the urban sprawl of Fort Worth. The train next passed by the BNSF Alliance Yard before returning to the agricultural lands. At Ponder, TX the tracks turn from a northwest direction to a more northerly trek. It was too bad that we did not stop here as I could have time to ponder in Ponder. We continued to cross the nice North Texas scenery to our next and only stop in Texas at Gainesville.

The Heartland Flyer then crossed the Red River and with that crossing I entered Oklahoma and now had ridden a train in 49 of the 50 states. I drank a Mug Root beer to celebrate and my mind started to think of taking a train ride on the Hawaiian Railway in Ewa Beach, Oahu, Hawaii as the train continued into new territory for me as the sun sank lower in the Oklahoma sky. It looked larger than normal as the shadows enlarged. It really was a sunset of little interest, just watching a big ball disappear. I got into it only because it was my first Oklahoma sunset.

It was twilight as we arrived in Ardmore, the first stop in Oklahoma. It became totally dark outside but I learned from the assistant conductor that after Pauls Valley going south on my way back is the really scenic part of the line as the train passes through the Arbuckle Mountains along the Washita River and to sit on the west side of the train heading back to Fort Worth. It was a night train ride the rest of the way to Oklahoma City on a nice peaceful train. It made me think of the train to Grand Rapids, MI, all darkness on the way there and daylight back to Chicago just as my southbound run going back will also be in total daylight. I was listening to the new Jethro Tull "" as we arrived in Pauls Valley after passing a brightly lit refinery. Purcell and Norman were both quick stops in the night before we arrived in Oklahoma City, twenty-five minutes late. I met Bonnie and following a walk through the hulk of the former Santa Fe Depot which was in a state of repair, I started my Oklahoma visit.

Oklahoma 8/31-9/2/1999

On my first day after a good night's rest, we drove out to Shawnee and went to the museum in the old stone Santa Fe Depot. We drove south to Temesch where we went through the Indian Museum there. Returning to Oklahoma City via Norman, we pulled off of the I 35 to visit the area damaged by that F5 Tornado that had hit the southern part of Oklahoma City in May.

After seeing what a tornado could do, I would take my earthquakes back in California any day of my life. In an earthquake we shake for maybe a minute and then may have to live with aftershocks while with tornadoes it is now you see it, now you do not. Where a house was there is only a driveway now. That house, all of its landscaping and even the grass was ripped away from the earth. Total destruction in seconds while a house next door stands totally unharmed. I stood in awe of nature's total power. We returned to Bonnie's for an evening of TV Land and the Colonel's for dinner with my it is not KFC but PKG in Canada joke. At least, I had mashed potatoes here not chips as in Canada.

9/1/1999 On my second full day in Oklahoma, Bonnie took me around the northwest part of the city. I learned that Oklahoma has no natural lakes. My tour ended at the Federal Court House Bombing Site. I was very touched by all the Teddy Bears on the fence. That afternoon, we went to the mall and saw Dudley Do-Rite. That evening Bonnie and a friend George drove me to Edmonds where we ate at Jammals, an excellent steakhouse and I had a Kansas City Strip Steak which was the largest steak that I had ever eaten. Returning to Bonnie's on a very full stomach, I went to bed thinking about what an interesting and informative trip that I had during my visit to Oklahoma.

Amtrak 821 The Heartland Flyer 9/2/1999

After saying my goodbyes to Bonnie at her house, George drove me back to the station down the expressway allowing for more views of Oklahoma City. The train came from its overnight storage area about fifteen minutes from departure and I was back aboard the ex Santa Fe Hi-level coach. We left Oklahoma City on time to start my daylight trip back to Fort Worth and towards home.

Leaving the downtown station, the Flyer crossed the North Canadian River before heading out into the southern suburbs. The train passed through the BNSF Flynn Yard prior to crossing the path of the F5 tornado's damage. We made our first stop of the morning at Norman, home of the Oklahoma Sooners. The train ran across the rolling hills and past the occasional oil well on the way towards its next station stop at Purcell, which happens about ten minutes after the train crossed the South Canadian River. The stop is located in the river's bottom land with the town on the bluff above. South of town, I spotted three more deer which is more than I saw up in Canada on the first part of this trip. We crossed the Washita River just before Pauls Valley where there is a Santa Fe steam locomotive on display as well as a Frisco caboose. We passed through the large refinery and I must say that refineries look much better all lit up at night. From here to Gene Autry siding is the line's scenic highlight, the passing through the Arbuckle Mountains following the Washita River.

I rode downstairs with the assistant conductor with the top dutch door open so I could photograph and enjoy the fresh air. It was a beautiful trip through the canyon and only a higher water level in the river could have improved it by making the rapids more wild. The canyon is such a distinct difference to the typical Oklahoma scenery that I will long remember it.

The rebuilt Santa Fe Hi-level Cars have blue carpeting and Amfleet seats with no leg rest but foot rests of the seats in front of you. The windows have dark blue curtains with the walls a light gray. Downstairs there are bike racks, three bathrooms and a handicap seating area. These cars were rebuilt for the State of Oklahoma service and are a good use of these historic cars.

Coming into Ardmore, the train passed another refinery prior to sprinting the final miles of Oklahoma before we crossed the Red River back into Texas with a stop at Gainsville. I was wearing my Jethro Tull Roots to Branches T-shirt and after getting the usual great comments about what a great shirt it is, I find a woman trying to draw it from memory after seeing me walk by. I stopped and posed for her so she would walk off the train with a perfect drawing. For the rest of the miles to Fort Worth, I just sat back and enjoyed the North Texas scenery as the train ran slowly through the work areas of three different track gangs before we arrived back in Fort Worth twenty-nine minutes late thus ending a most enjoyable train ride on Amtrak's newest route.

The Heartland Flyer at rest at Fort Worth.

Fort Worth 9/2/1999

Learning from the Amtrak agent that the Texas Eagle would be 3 hours late, I stashed my bags and went out into the city to find a movie theater. Getting conflicting directions, I managed to find one about three quarters of a mile from the station and saw "Mickey Blue Eyes". Upon returning to the Amtrak station, I learned that the Eagle was stuck behind a freight train whose lead engine had caught fire. Best guess would be a six thirty arrival later revised to an eight thirty arrival if all went right. At six thirty, the station agent came around the lobby giving out non revenue soft drinks, chips and cookies. Everyone took the delay in stride with me playing solitaire, doing word fill in puzzles, reading the entire USA Today and listening to Tull. I sure know how to kill time when my trains are delayed.

Amtrak 21 The Texas Eagle 9/2/1999

The evening temperature was pleasant on this star filled night as I waited outside for the Eagle's arrival which finally took place at nine thirty with me boarding quickly. I took my usual right hand window seat and after my ticket was taken, I went to the dining car which had stayed open waiting for us and had a nice steak dinner. I returned to my seat and turned in for the night after a very interesting day.

9/3/1999 I awoke the next morning in a darkened car with no power at San Antonio. I ventured into the station to use the bathroom and to inquire about the Sunset Limited. About seven, the Sunset arrived and a switcher added our two through cars to its rear end. I helped our attendant turn the seats so that they would all be facing in the direction of travel. We left San Antonio at eight A.M. for a long day across West Texas with me enjoying music, puzzles and the scenery.

As the train neared Alpine, TX a pass rider inquired about getting a room which the conductor said he had a few. When they were done, I asked about a room and I was upgraded to a standard room for the last night of my North American Rail Pass to do it right. At three there was a wine and cheese party in the dining car for all sleeping car passengers so I went and had a soda tasting party. I had dinner with the same dining car crew that I had going east. They went to Florida and I went to Oklahoma. They were the happiest dining car crew that I ever had in all my miles of train travel. I visited with Steve in the lounge car before El Paso where I took a nice after dinner walk. Once into New Mexico there was a brilliant thunderstorm over old Mexico as we raced toward Deming with me writing a few new lyrics. I made my bed up and slept peacefully all the way to California.

9/4/1999 I awoke to the sight of the sand dunes near Glamis, CA and had a nice breakfast along the Salton Sea. I took a fresh air break at Palm Springs before the Sunset made fast work of the remaining miles into Los Angeles where we arrived at 10:45 AM. San Diegan Train 574 was waiting two tracks over and Conductor Lawrence Dixon greeted me aboard and home. Within fifty minutes I was stepping off the train at Santa Ana thus ending my first North American Rail Pass, my 49th state and the longest trip that I had taken. At least so far.