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Completing the Amtrak System

by Chris Guenzler

San Diegan Express 771 8/8/1996

Following three months of planning, hotel reservations and the possibility of a national railroad strike, the morning finally arrived with me standing on the platform at the Santa Ana Station with two bags in hand waiting for the start of the completing the Amtrak system trip to begin. The San Diegan Express 571 arrived on time and I took a table in the new California dining car Imperial. As the train pulled out, my mind raced with thoughts like will I pull this one off? Maybe a few more nights in hotels along the way would have been a good idea? Some of my connections are going to be tight should I have changed them? Should I have learned French in school? To my old favorite, "Am I nuts?" By Fullerton reality returned and the motto of the trip and every other one from here on will be "Every trip is an adventure!" It seems like in no time at all that I had arrived in Los Angeles.

The Desert Wind 36 8/8/1996

I boarded the Wind taking my usual large right hand window seat. I pondered all my memories of that first trip on the Desert Wind and how that trip got me hooked on riding trains and led to the start of all this. It was like how that first drink of alcohol had gotten me started in that vain. The funny thing is that I have accomplished something with my train riding and that I would have never accomplished anything by drinking except maybe killing myself. Am I ever thankful that I quit drinking when I did. Was drinking all worth it, you ask? It was a worthwhile experience.

The train left on time, the conductor took my ticket and I was off to the Sightseer lounge car for a choice seat. Traveling through Santa Ana Canyon where did all those orange trees go? We left the now solvent Orange County and I purchased my California Zephyr/Desert Wind coffee mug which assures me of free tea all the way to Chicago. I sat back and watched the Inland Empire pass by outside my window. Since this is a non smoking train at any stop of length passengers can get off and light up. On this day they had to brave temperatures of 105 degrees in San Bernardino the trip over a busy Cajon Pass, 112 degrees in Barstow and 108 degrees in Las Vegas. I can relate to the needs of the smokers by my former need to drink. Anytime, anyplace was my motto, even if it did not fit in with society's values. If someone would have said free drinks in Barstow in the 122 degrees heat, I would have been leading the pack. Still I am very happy that I never took up smoking.

Once past Barstow, I am back riding on the Union Pacific passing through one desert scenic wonder after another. Afton Canyon with its colorful rocks, the Devils Playground, the Kelso Dunes, and Cima Hill with its Joshua Trees. Coming into Nevada it is time to play "Spot the new Casino" game from the last time that I had passed through here. Tonight's dinner was an excellent Prime Rib. Arriving in Las Vegas, it always amazes me what they will do to attract gamblers. Pyramids, Towers, Theme Parks and the like may bring in hordes of people but they will never seduce me. Now if they had slot machines on the train well......Leaving Lost Wages, the train heads to Meadow Valley Wash and the night. Tonight's movie was Golden Eye a James Bond thing and on the Chris Guenzler's train movie rating scale I gave it a five.

Sharing the movie and most of the afternoon for that matter were three Australian gentlemen who were drinking Coors Beer like it was water which was how I used to drink it. Colorado cool aide. They had flown into LA taken the train to San Diego and then visited Tijuana. Now they would be with me on the Desert Wind to Chicago then to DC, South Carolina and Florida. They were three of the nicest Australians that I have met to date and are full of all sorts of questions of what is outside the train's windows. The conductor had sold them a family bedroom and at Las Vegas they had rushed into the liquor store for another case of beer. With that bedroom they would have a good place to sleep it all off. I returned to my coach seat, fell asleep quickly and dreamed of what awaits me tomorrow.

8/9/1996 Waking up southeast of Provo, today's scenic adventure was just starting. I am back on the former Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad and today's route is considered the best scenery on the entire Amtrak system. I found a seat in the lounge car and just sat back watching the views change. Soldier Summit with its tough grades, the Gilluly Loops and tunnels seemed more alive than ever. We passed five long freights and a couple of helper sets. Passing Castle Rock is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed the Rio Grande back in their train robbing days. We arrived in Helper named for what the railroad does to its trains here. I detrained for the smoking stop and did that 48 degrees air ever wake me up. It's so cool and clean.

Leaving Helper we descended into the Utah desert where little grows and few people live. You can see for at least a hundred miles and the landscape is so desolate. My thoughts turn to what it might have been like to cross it as a pioneer and just how tough it must have been to build that first narrow gauge railroad through here on the same route that we are doing 90 mph on today. Water is scarce out here with two exceptions. One is a geyser along the highway where cars pull off to gaze in wonder and the other the low point of the day at Green River. It gets its name from the algae that gives it the color of green. To the north are the Book Cliffs where if you would stare at them long enough you can see anything that you could imagine like battleships, steam engines, buildings, faces, etc. We climbed to Thompson a flag stop where nobody flags us down today as I spot the Thompson Retirement Home. An idea, would that be the perfect place for me to retire? I mean clean air, pleasant climate and in the middle of nowhere. Who know, maybe in twenty-five years? Not!

The Train Chief came on over the PA to alert us that our engineer has spotted a herd of Jackalopes crossing the tracks ahead of us. Passengers were rushing to the windows to get a look at these creatures. I sat back and laughed with an idea popping into my head. Stop the train and we could have the first ever Amtrak snipe hunt. All we would need is some gunny sacks, sticks to bang and all of these gullible people which this train is full of after watching the Jackalope episode. With all this excitement, one of the Australians joined me as his other mates laid asleep in their room.

We descended to Westwater to start our 232 mile journey up the Colorado River and through the canyons that it created. We quickly entered Ruby Canyon my favorite canyon on the whole Amtrak system. There is only two ways to see Ruby Canyon that is by the train or on the water by rafts, canoes, etc. There are no roads and only a few traces of man so it has remains unspoiled.

A few ranchers live here but most of the ranching is done by truck. The canyon walls stand tall and the river runs wide. In the middle of the Ruby siding up on the canyon wall is a painted line that is the state line of Utah/Colorado. But with anything that is good it is over too soon as we plunged into a tunnel and left Ruby Canyon behind for the Grand Valley.

Grand Junction comes all too soon and I was off the train for the hobby shop to buy some railroad magazines. I have always liked Grand Junction for some reason. I do not know if it is the friendly people, the view here or the climate or maybe all three but to me it is a nice place. Passengers are busy buying fruit at the fruit stand the only one on the whole Amtrak system that I know of. With the train serviced, the smokers satisfied and our new passengers loaded, the engineer blows the whistle and off to the east we headed.

We continued our journey along the Colorado River as we entered De Beque Canyon. Each of the canyons is the river cutting through one or more geological layer so each one is very different from the others. The river is dammed so a lake fills its bottom with the railroad on one side and I 70 on the other. We passed through Rifle with me thinking of the old west and gunfighters. There were many rafters on the river a few saluting us with their exposed bottoms. We arrived in Glenwood Springs where Doc Holiday of Tombstone fame is buried. It is better known for its world class hot springs and scenic location.

This brings us to Glenwood Canyon. What a change from the first time that I rode through here on the Rio Grande Zephyr. The railroad and the river are basically the same but now there is a four lane interstate highway along with a riverside bike way where there was once only a two lane highway. This was the most expensive highway project of all time and cost more than sending a man to the moon. I must give the builders their due, they did not destroy the beauty of Glenwood Canyon. People are amazed at the sight of the canyon and the lounge car was standing room only for the only time on the whole trip. Some of them wonder out loud what would happen if a rock fell and hit the train. Thank God for slide protecting fences. We now have a threesome of Australians as the other two have just woken up. I looked at my watch and just laughed inside at all the great scenery that they had slept through.

We passed through Dotsero and passed our westbound sister train after Red Rock Canyon. The name gives this one away and there were many deer to been seen today. What remains of the State Bridge could be seen. That is a funny name for a bridge so deep inside of Colorado. We headed into Gore Canyon which was used in the film Under Siege 2-Dark Territory. It is an amazing place with slide detector fences, short tunnels, the tracks being high above the Colorado River with its rapids and its very steep canyon walls. No matter how many times you travel through Gore Canyon you will always see something new if you keep your eyes open. I went to the dining car and had a meal of an oven baked chicken. Maybe the chef should learn the meaning of the word "bake".

The train has traveled from our low point of the morning at Green River, UT to our highest point of the day as the train entered the Moffat Tunnel. The train crew asked "That no one moves between the cars during our fifteen minutes inside the tunnel to keep the diesel fumes out of the train" I managed to get the rear lounge car door closed. It was the only time on this entire trip to Chicago when it was closed. The Moffat Tunnel is number twenty-nine so we had that many to go through during our four thousand foot descent to Denver down the front range of the Rockies. Once we came out of the mountains I got a great view of the lights of Denver. It is almost like you are descending on a plane. It is incredible. Passing out of Tunnel 1 before we descended around the Big Ten Curve where hopper cars filled with sand are located on the inside of the curve to help prevent trains from being blown off the tracks by the wind. We made a quick trip the rest of the way to Denver where the train backed into the station fifty-six minutes late and we were told that this train would leave at eight thirty with or without you.

The Australians asked where they could go to have a few beers during their layover. I suggested Wynkoop Brewing Company across the street from the station. I reminded them that the train leaves at eight thirty. I detrained, mailed a post card, went to Grandpa's Depot and then I went to Wynkoop to have a nonalcoholic beer where I found two Australians. The third had decided to walk to a liquor store a mile away. I asked them "What time does the train leave?" and they responded with "Nine thirty!" "No, it is eight thirty! You are on Mountain Time now. Who are you going to trust yourself or me, the train riding guy?" Well one of them went to find the other and I headed back to the station with me back at the train at 8:25 P.M. mountain daylight time. 8:30, 8:35, 8:40 all passed with no Australians. I decided that if the train was going to pull out I would fake having my knee go out to buy them some more time. At 8:43 PM they showed up and I boarded the train. We left with everyone on right?

Wrong, I learned that two of them got off to go back into the station when someone told them that they could buy beer in the station and they got left. The train did leave Union Station but then sat in the BN yard for forty-five minutes but they did not know this and our delay was what allowed them to catch the train at Fort Morgan. They got a taxi cab, went by a liquor store, bought a case of beer and then headed to Fort Morgan. It is a seventy-seven straight rail miles to Fort Morgan but over one hundred and twenty-five by highway as they had to zig zag to get there and pulled up to the station just as the train did. Their cost was $18.75 for the beer and $160.00 for the cab ride for a total of $178.75 for one case of beer. One very expensive endeavor indeed!

8/10/1996 Following a very good night sleep, I am wide awake out of Omaha as I was waiting for the Missouri River crossing. We traveled across the gentle rolling landscape of Iowa which is not as flat as most people think it is. Passengers watch cumulonimbus clouds developing and when they got dark they started a game called "Spot the Twister" after the popular movie. It is too bad that they do not understand tornado mechanics because there is nothing necessary today to produce one so they are just wasting their time and I am not going to spoil their fun. Iowa is known for the corn that it produces and we passed through miles of nothing but corn. It amazes me that they are all not the same height but I had forgotten that they are planted at all different times in the spring. Iowa is a good place to do word search puzzles and I did nine of them until we came to our last stop in the state at Burlington. Leaving Burlington, we crossed the Mississippi River and into Illinois. The train is speeding across the last state on the Desert Wind's route to our final stop at Chicago.

At Galesburg I detrained for a picture of the train and the steam locomotive on display. Princeton came and went with the train reaching the triple track raceway at Aurora for its sprint to Chicago where we were wyed and backed in to the station for an on time arrival in the Windy City. I said my goodbyes to the Australians and wished them luck. I think to myself that after that Denver debacle they need all the luck that they can get.

Chicago 1 8/10/1996

I cannot find a luggage cart anywhere on the station platform number eighteen so I carried my bags upstairs and had a pair of char dogs at Gold Coast which were really good. I think that I will eat here every time I am in Chicago. I eat with a few of my new friends from the train. I mailed another set of post cards before I headed downstairs to the waiting area for my next train.

Twilight Limited 353 8/10/1996

The first of the new trains of the trip and routes that I would be completing is a mixture of Amfleet and Horizon coaches with the front end of an Amcafe as the custom class section. The train left Chicago right on time and I noticed a different hat checking procedure used by the crew. Numbers are used for the stops between Chicago and Detroit and I got one with the three letter station code for Pontiac because my station stop was number twelve. It is a different style of doing things but like I always say if it works for you just do it. I reached the new tracks at Porter, IN and the train lives up to its name as first twilight arrived followed very closely by the darkness of night at Niles, MI. My conductor from Battle Creek to Pontiac was an ex San Diegan based crew person who wants to come back. It is a small world? Tonight's scenic highlights were the lights of the Ford Motor Plant and the Detroit skyline.

8/21/1996 The train arrived in Pontiac at 2:15 A.M. half an hour late. I had called Pontiac asking where I should stay and they said "Auburn Hills." I said that "I was coming to Pontiac" and they said that "You do not want to stay in Pontiac, stay in Auburn Hills." At least their chamber of commerce was honest about their town. I had to wait ten minutes for the only taxi cab in town that was contracted to Amtrak to take the LSA to his hotel before he would return for me. I was taken to the Motel Six in Auburn Hills to a long hot shower and a hotel bed for a good night of sleep.

The Lake Cites 353 8/11/1996

I returned by cab to the Pontiac station for the second morning train to retrace my route to Battle Creek on a train of assorted Amfleet, Horizon and my first Capitoliner car. We left Pontiac on time and quickly traveled to Royal Oak. My eyes are wide open taking in the views from my coach seat as I view the areas that we had passed through last night under the cover of darkness. Sometimes though I prefer to pass through some areas in darkness because as in this case I would never be looking at the urban blight and coming into Detroit that is what I am seeing. Worn out brick buildings, graffiti and junk. Nothing has changed my perception of Detroit since that cross county camper trip that went through here in 1971.

There are two things that I always remember when passing through an area like this. One, the railroads always go through the oldest areas of town and second, you are only seeing a small piece of the greater picture. This is not what their chamber of commerce would want us to see. For example, when they had the Super Bowl in Detroit {Pontiac} and they showed you views of the city, you did not see any of this. What you saw was a modern, clean city and neighborhoods that I might even like to live in. Detroit is on my list of cities to come back and explore someday.

Once out of the urban jungle of Detroit, we followed the Huron River for part of the trip to Battle Creek and I started noticing these purple flowering plants growing everywhere. These plants would be in evidence for the whole week ahead and I wondered exactly what they were. Six days later I would have it explained to me that these flowers came from Japan and will take over wherever they grow so I decided to name them the Purple Japanese Invading Flowers in honor of what they are doing, invading America. Coming into Battle Creek, we passed the Kellogg Plant with Mr. Tony the Tiger standing out front. I detrained at the nice modern Battle Creek station and sat outside on a nice pleasant August afternoon to await the arrival of my next train.

The International 364 8/11/1996

Coming in right on time is the International, a train of ex Santa Fe Hi-level and Superliner cars being pulled by Via and Amtrak locomotives. I got my lunch in the snack coach (called a panic box by employees who have to work this car) and figure on just sitting back and enjoying the scenery all the way to Toronto. Wrong! The train crew announced that we would be bused from Port Huron to London, ON due to a CN freight train derailment. So much for riding through the Sarnia tunnel and into Canada. I learned from my train crew that it is a Via train from Port Huron to Toronto so it would not affect my goal to ride every mile that Amtrak operates. Custom's forms were handed out and I let four people borrow my extra pens and I got none of them back. I hope that they enjoy them. I finally said "At least customs will go a lot quicker on the bus than on the train!" Everyone smiles at that statement.

We arrived in Port Huron and it was a case of the station people knowing what they are supposed to do but how can they do it. You have all our eastbound passengers for Canada standing on the platform and all the westbound passengers from Canada on the buses. A standoff which goes on for forty-five minutes before someone made a decision to unload the buses so we could load. We were finally off over the St. Clair River instead of under it as I was supposed to do on the train and entered Canada. Customs took about twenty minutes before the bus was speeding down the highway towards London. At the London exit, I think that if we stayed on the highway we could be in Toronto by nine thirty. What is this train riding person thinking? Staying on a bus instead of riding a train indeed!

Arriving in London, we have the train, the passengers and an engine crew but no train crew. We could not leave because our crew was told the wrong time and arrived to work back to Toronto an hour late. I hoped that they had a very nice dinner. This consist had a Superliner lounge car on it so I spent the entire trip in it looking out at the Ontario countryside under the covers of night. We arrived in Toronto Union Station forty-five minutes late and I walked past the CN Tower on the walkway to the Sky Dome and my hotel for the night.

The Maple Leaf 64 8/12/1996

Another day, another new train and part of a new route. Back in 1990 when I was on the Lake Shore Limited, I had ridden over the tracks from Albany-Rensselaer to Buffalo during the night in a Slumbercoach so this trip will give me a daylight view of the countryside on this Toronto to New York City train. This is the other joint Amtrak/Via train but we have an all Amfleet consist. My new mileage will be from Toronto to Buffalo and from Albany to New York Penn Station. I arrived back at Toronto Union Station to find a long line from the boarding gate. There is a lot of Canadians going to Niagara Falls, ON. I found a window seat on the right side of the train right behind the engine to take advantage of the two main scenic highlights of this route: Niagara Falls and the Hudson River Valley.

The crowded train left Toronto on time and the Canadian miles passed quickly with a view of Lake Ontario across the car for the first twenty minutes of the trip this morning. I was surprised that the train does not stop in Hamilton, ON. The countryside is hilly and we crossed a canal that is part of a system to reach Lake Eire from Lake Ontario around Niagara Falls on the Niagara River before we reached the station of Niagara Falls, ON. Canadian custom inspectors do their work outside of the train while our Via crew disembarks and our Amtrak crew boards. The train headed out onto the International railroad bridge over the Niagara River and halfway over I got a glimpse of the American Falls or at least the mists that is created from it.

Welcome back to the United States and they did the most complete search of a train that I have ever seen. They inspected above, below and around every seat. They lifted up the seat cushions of several passengers. Each passenger is questioned in detail. If you are a foreign traveler you better have your passport in order. They did not let five passengers in my car enter the United States. With me it was smooth sailing as I had my birth certificate and my itinerary out on the fold out tray. One quick look and two simple questions were asked of me. It could not have been any easier.

The Maple Leaf made its two Buffalo stops, one in downtown on Exchange Street and the suburb stop at Depew on the Conrail mainline also used by the Lake Shore Limited. The train took off east down the old water level route of the New York Central towards Albany. A funny thing about New York State is the first thing most people think about is New York City with its hustle and bustle of the big city. That only accounts for a tiny percentage of what New York really is and this trip is allowing me to explore it. It is a very beautiful state with a lot of farmlands, forest and hills. We paralleled the Erie Canal then follow the Mohawk River east.

Out of Rome, NY I was heading to the Amcafe to get a 7-UP, got to the door of that car and heard some very loud talking turn into swearing. This lady was really going at it with a male passenger and it got to the point where violence was about to take over. All over her table were empty beer bottles and drink cups while his table was littered with the same. Not wanting to get involved in an alcoholic situation, I decided it would be in my best interest to come back later and returned to my seat. At Amsterdam, NY we were stopped for a long time (30 minutes). Since I did not want the curiosity to kill the Chris and since I was really thirsty, I walked back to the Amcafe to see what was going on. On the ground standing was the conductor and the two passengers. They had been kicked off of the train and were both swearing at our conductor who was waiting for two of Amsterdam's finest to take them away. This whole procedure took almost an hour but once the train was on the move again I thought that would cut down my waiting time in New York City for my next train in half.

Arriving in Albany-Rensselaer we switched our F-40PH for an FL-9 so we can use the third rail pickup to power the train into New York City from Croton Harmon. The FL-9 is the last type of Amtrak locomotive that I had not ridden behind so for me this was going to be a special trip and it is right in front of my coach. After a few pictures in the waning light of the evening, we headed down the Hudson River Valley towards the Big Apple with me enjoying the sound of the FL-9. My seatmate is a jazz musician from NYC. We share our love for music and after dark she let me read her newspaper. It is the first newspaper that I have seen in five days and it is nice to find out what is going on in the real world. We joked about baseball, the weather, earthquakes, blizzards and my trip so far. I will see this in daylight tomorrow morning so it is the time to sit back, relax and travel through the night together. We arrived at Penn Station fifty-five minutes late and I went to find the Amtrak waiting area to wait for my next train from Boston to DC.

Northeast Direct 179 8/12/1996

The purpose of this trip is to avoid paying the big money for a hotel in New York City and to make a night time round trip to Washington, DC using the train to sleep in both directions. This also gave me a fast trip down the Northeast Corridor and the additional miles that went with it. I cuddle up in the two seats and fell fast asleep. I was awoken by the chilliness of the car as the air conditioner is working hard like it is a hot humid summer day not the cool rainy August night it was. I put on my long pants and jacket for the first time since Bakersfield and fell back to sleep. I was awoken again by the conductor after we had arrived in Washington Union Station.

Washington, DC The Dead of Night 8/13/1996

Washington Union Station at 3:30 A.M. is a deserted place. It's me and six workman cleaning up after the daily ritual of people using the station. Two workers stopped to ask me why I was here so early in the morning. When I explained my trip to them they were both amazed at what I was doing. I thanked them for the great job that they do cleaning the station and both said that I was the first person that they ever had met who appreciated the work that they do.

Northeast Direct 180 8/13/1996

Returning to New York City, I boarded Northeast Direct 180 and fell back to sleep. I was awoken in Wilmington by passengers who were boarding who did not realize that people were trying to sleep. At Philadelphia the train filled up. It was still raining and while we are a nonstop train to New York, we were stuck behind a New Jersey Transit train delaying our progress. We arrived in New York at 8:28 A.M. which gave me a mere two minutes to cross the platform to board my train to Montreal.

The Adirondack 69 8/23/1996

Looking at my next train as I walked to it, the cars are ex Santa Fe coaches that were used in Clocker Service which when built had forty four seats and now have eighty seats with an Amdinnite being pulled by a new P32-AC-DM. I walked in taking a right hand seat foregoing the Hudson River for the trip's later scenic highlight Lake Champlain. I stored my bags in the overhead luggage rack and stretched out in my coach seat. Less leg space than on Amfleet with a much larger window. When the train started to move the ride quality took over and in one word smooth!

The Adirondack left Penn Station twenty minutes late and started the journey to Montreal. This is my first daylight ride over the West-side Connection that allows the Amtrak trains from upper New York to use Penn Station instead of Grand Central as they always had. This allows Amtrak to have only one station in New York City. I went to get breakfast, and who was behind the counter but the none other Dara Lee, an ex San Diegan LSA who had served me just three weeks ago back home. We both wonder what the other is doing here and throughout the day we discussed our lives. Old friends do turn up in the strangest places when you least expect it! We sped north along the Hudson River with the rain stopping at Poughkeepsie allowing for a few views of the Catskill Mountains across the river to the west. The train stopped at Albany-Rensselaer to refuel the locomotive which allowed for a few more pictures.

We crossed the Hudson River with the view of Albany and the New York State Capitol Building seen across the train before we stopped in Schenectady. The train started up new trackage for me and a dream is coming true as I started my ride up the former Delaware and Hudson Railroad (CP Rail now).

The D&H a long time eastern favorite railroad of mine had an attractive paint scheme, an interesting assortment of locomotives and a fascinating history. Most of all it was pictures of it in books that really caught my eye. Curving onto the D&H mainline we went under one of those familiar signal masts that the D&H was known for. Outside of Schenectady we passed the remains of the old Alco Locomotive Works before we traveled to Saratoga Springs and the start our crossing of the Adirondack Mountains which gives the train its name. The new train crew that boarded in Albany is full of details about the route and I received a first class education of the route as we passed north along it. We travelled past Lake George, below Fort Ticonderoga and came to a stop at Port Henry.

Now for what I have been waiting for, the one hundred miles of running along the west shore of Lake Champlain. I first saw it in a picture with a D&H passenger train The Laurentian on a ledge high above the lake. From that point on I had dreamed of riding over these tracks and today my dream is coming true. The tracks at some points are right along the water's edge reminding me of BC Rail and at other times high above or even away from the lake but there is one thing that is almost always there, that is the view of Lake Champlain.

I see Vermont for the first time ever across the lake and I think "Hey, that is where I will be tomorrow!" Returning to reality, the train passes through the lake shore communities of Westport, Port Kent {with ferry service to Vermont} and Plattsburgh. Following with one final view of Lake Champlain the train headed north for Rouses Point and the Canadian Border. There are no fences here just a marker in the middle of a field and with that we pulled to a stop at Cantic, QC for Canadian customs. I put all my ID on the seat and a very sexy Canadian Customs agent took one look and said "Have a nice stay in Canada!". The train made a sprint to Montreal stopping briefly in St Lambert before crossing the St Lawrence River where we wyed the train and backed into Central Station ten minutes early. What a great trip and the train lived up to its repetition of being the most scenic Amtrak line east of the Mississippi River.

Montreal 8/13/1996

I stayed the night at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel next to the station. There is a McDonald's in the station and I ordered a plain hamburger. Well the little girl must not have known what the word plain meant in English or in her native French because when I got back up to my room and opened it up it had the works. The language problem strikes again. I went back downstairs and tried it again. She says "Yes, plain. Do you want cheese on it?" This should explain to you why I only eat breakfast at McDonald's because it is the only meal that they can not screw up. I did manage to get my hamburger plain though.

I asked two separate people where does the bus to St Albans, Vermont leave from. One was an Amtrak employee who pointed to the large train departure sign that says "Vermonter 3:45 A.M." and told me to be there ten minutes early so that the driver would come and get me. With that information, I went up to my room, called for a 3 A.M. wake up call, took a nice long shower and called it a night.

Taxi Grab or the Nightmare Chase 8/14/1996

A phone call at 3:00 A.M. and I was up headed towards the shower. I checked out at 3:25 AM and I was down below the sign at 3:32 waiting for the bus driver to come and get me. There is one other person waiting nearby so I took out a word puzzle book and wait. 3:45 came and went so I figured that the bus driver was running late. The next thing I know its 4:15 and I was still waiting. I called the Amtrak 800 number and talked to a reservation person. She called the bus company and was told the bus had left right on time. She asked me what time did I get here and asked if I had the right time. I said "I got here at 3:32 AM the same time on the station clock and that nobody had come to get me as I was told by one of your employees. She puts me on hold to talk to a supervisor. I wait impatiently knowing that I had to be in St. Albans by 6:15. After what seemed like an eternity, she told me to take a taxi to St. Albans. I asked "Who was going to pay for it?" She answers "Amtrak, most likely." I asked her the price and she said $120.00. That started my mind working, how would a reservation sales person know the cost if it had not happened before.

I walked out to the taxi cab stand and there were no taxis to be found. Who needs a taxi at 4:35 A.M.? The Jethro Tull song Taxi Grab is playing in my mind. I find a cab phone and the operator tells me that it costs $120.00 to go to St. Albans. He told me that he would have a taxi there in three minutes. A cab pulls up at 4:46 A.M. and I was off on my way to St. Albans. I asked the driver if he had ever been to Vermont and he said "No!" We crossed the St. Lawrence and followed the only sign I saw in Canada that said Vermont. We followed the road south in search of a train passing all sorts of junctions and towns in Vermont. We journey further south and the driver states that he thinks that we are on the wrong road. He suggests that we stop and ask someone at this ungodly hour of the morning. There is no roadside business open so we drive on passing a sign that reads "Phillipsburg" We then found two police officers along the road but they did not know if this is the road to Vermont. That did wonders to my confidence about making the train.

We sped along blindly, passing another Phillipsburg sign which must be a popular place as it is the only name on the sign for this road. I got an idea. I asked the driver if he has any maps? He hands me a map of downtown Montreal. "That was not going to work. Do you have a map of Quebec?" He hands me the Montreal Atlas. An Atlas I think, may have what I need to find. Thumbing through it, on the very last page I found a map of Quebec. First I found Lake Champlain in the US and right to the east across the border is Phillipsburg. Hallelujah! We're on the right road. We are within fourteen kilometers of Phillipsburg when we spot a sign that reads "St. Albans, Vermont 21 Miles." We should make it easy I was thinking looking at my watch.

My driver then announces that there might be another problem, "What about customs?" "I'll handle that!" I responded as we passed the turnoff for Phillipsburg that the driver almost took by mistake. "No time to visit an old friend", I say. Crossing the border we pulled up to the custom station and I rolled down the back seat window. The agent came over. "Good morning. I am Christopher Guenzler of Santa Ana, California. I am a citizen of the United States born December 31, 1957 in Orange, California. I was in Canada for one night and I have nothing to declare!" He said" Thank you Christopher" then turns to the driver and asked if he was Canadian. "Yes. I'm taking Chris down to his train in St. Albans because the bus left early without him. "The agent then asked me "Whose is paying for this you or Amtrak?" "Amtrak I hope!" I responded before I asked "Does this happen all the time?" The agent replies "All too often!" he then wished us "Good luck!" and off we drove.

Back in the United States and heading down the Interstate heading for St. Albans. I closed my eyes and thought "How could this have happened to me? I am not a rookie train rider. I have been riding trains since 1980, I ridden many thruway buses and never missed one. Sounds like a hundred twenty dollar scam to me!" We arrived at the St Albans Amtrak Station and I went in to see the agent. He tells me that he does not have the cash to pay for it but told me the steps I needed to do to get a refund. I went outside and paid the driver $120.00. He said "You can pay me more since they are going to pay for it!" I did not like the sound of that and that left me with a lone twenty. I was in need of an ATM. The Northeast timetable has a table in its listing all the station's services and to my delight New Haven has an ATM. As I look at the train I think, "It is going to be a great day despite the beginnings of it"

It just dawned on me. I am standing in Vermont for the first time ever, the last of the 48 continental states for me to visit. I am in a much happier mood upon the realization of that fact. At that moment on God's great planet and through all of this morning madness, drinking never crossed my mind and because of that fact I am still sober now. I walked to the front of the train for a picture of the Vermonter and our colorful baggage car. I stopped to take a deep breath of the clean cool Vermonter air. I boarded the train asking the conductor which side of the train is the most scenic and I chose a backward facing seat on the east side of the train. The reason I did that is that at Palmer, MA the train would switch directions to continue south.

The station agent came out to see me on the train. He gave me the bus driver's name and told me that the bus driver came and got the other riders before 3:30 AM. He loaded the bus, took the tickets and never went back in the building to see if anyone else was waiting to go with him. I talked to many of the passengers who had been on the bus and one even asked the driver why he was not going to check for anyone else. He said they can find their own way to St Albans. Sounds like a scam to me and that proved it. I will let Amtrak know so they can take care of it.

Vermonter 55 8/14/1996

Today I travel by train in Vermont and a slight part of New Hampshire for the first time with the train pulling out of St Albans on time. I sat back, relaxed and just took in the countryside after the crazy start to my day. I used to say that plumbing would make my day start off good or bad but a $120.00 cab ride is truly in a league of its own. I pray that I never have another. I'm tired and decided to take a nap to recharge my batteries so I was out between Burlington and Montpelier-Barre. With a forty-five minute snooze I felt like my old self. The Vermonter from St. Albans to Palmer rides on the rails of the New England Railroad. We went into the siding at Randolph to let one of their company's freight trains pass. White River Jct was our next stop where I detrained for a picture of a Boston and Maine 4-4-0 steam locomotive 494 on display.

Leaving town we followed the Connecticut River and I spot the only covered bridge of the trip. I always wondered why there were covered bridges if there were not any covered roads? We crossed the Connecticut River to enter New Hampshire with a stop at Claremont. This is the last state that Amtrak serves in the United States which I have now visited.

After a brief station stop and a few more miles we crossed back over the Connecticut River into Vermont. Bellow Falls was the next stop which used to be the home of Steamtown, a railroad museum which has since moved to Scranton, PA. At the depot I saw a Green Mountain Railroad passenger train. I will come back and ride it someday in the Fall so I can see the trees in all of their brilliant Fall colors. With our departure from Brattleboro and the final crossing of the Connecticut River in Vermont, we entered the next state on the trip Massachusetts, a name I can spell but can not ever say correctly.

We are scheduled for two stops in Massachusetts. Amherst which we departed from on time and Springfield two and a half hours later. We traveled down to Palmer where more problems awaited me. In fact it was what happened in Palmer that almost jeopardized the whole goal of this trip. On a normal day the train comes off the New England Central and pulls onto Conrail's Boston and Albany mainline. The engineer then walks from the engine to the cab car on the other end of the train, does an air test, gets a signal and off the train goes to Springfield and points south.

Today we arrived at Palmer and Conrail would not accept the train to their railroad. They had decided to replace some welded rail and they have their railroad out of service. We will be bussed within two and a half hours to complete our trip to the south. Our train crew is very upset. If Conrail knew that they were going to do this, why did not they tell Amtrak so that the buses would have already been here. I figured that I have to be out of Springfield by 2:30 PM or there is no way to make it to New Haven so I would have to kiss my goal of riding every mile of the Amtrak system goodbye for this trip. I explained my situation to my conductor and with an understanding of what I am trying to do he gets an idea. Call the Conrail dispatcher to find out what time the tracks would be open. The buses arrived while we were on the phone waiting for an answer. I was mentioned in their conversation. The answer was 1:30 and we would be the first train though. That was going to make New Haven work but it is going to be tight.

Since all short distance Amtrak trains are nonsmoking during our delay the crew opens up the cab car as a smoking area. During a delay it is interesting to watch how people handle it. Some just sit back and read their books. Others sleep. The smokers are now happy in their area and are getting to know each other. Strangers meet and become friends. Some passengers are talking about a guy's wild cab ride and his goal to ride the entire Amtrak system. Wonder who that could be? The conductor is telling jokes like "A lady on a late train asks the conductor when it will arrive at the station and that she's expecting a baby at any moment. The conductor says "Lady, you should not have gotten on the train in that condition." She replies "I was not in that condition when I got on the train!"

At 1:30 PM, Conrail allows the train to move onto their mainline and we headed towards Springfield. Passing the work site we crept by with the engineer blowing his whistle freely to warn men and machines at the work scene. As the conductor left the train at Springfield he wished me luck with my goal and said that I should make it to New Haven with ten minutes to spare before my return train to Springfield leaves. He also tells me there is a customer service office in New Haven so I can get my $120.00 cab fare back.

The trip to New Haven is relatively uneventful with good track and short station stops. This train crew's motto is "Get them off and put them on with no delay!" All the rest of this segments stops are in Connecticut after we crossed the Connecticut River. We arrived all too soon under the overhead wires that mark the present end of the Northeast Corridor electrification at New Haven fifteen minutes to spare. The Customer Service Person is on the platform and blows me off telling me that he would not do anything about the taxi situation. That angers me until I say the AA serenity prayer which calms me back down. He must not know how to help people in true need. I went inside the New Haven Station and found the ATM getting more cash for the rest of the trip. I bought and mailed some post cards before I went up to the platform on track ten to wait for my next train.

Northeast Direct 486 8/14/1996

I boarded the Northeast Direct Train 486 to take me back to Springfield so I can connect with the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago. It is a three car Amfleet train with no food service. I took a right hand side seat so I could see what I had missed coming down from the north. Most of the station buildings are on this side so I got a good look at each of them. Passing through Hartford I saw the most English looking capitol building in the United States. Of all the capitol buildings that I have seen this one leaves a lasting impression on me.

I met a business man who thought that the "M" on my hat stood for Michigan. It does not matter though because of our love for trains, rock music and our nation passes the time away on our way back to Springfield. Once there I saw an agent who copied my taxi cab receipt, gave me the computer printout of the message about me being left in Montreal and gave me the address for refunds to write to. I then called home to check up on things and to see how everyone is before my next departure at 6:04 P.M.

Lake Shore Limited 449/49 8/14/1996

Climbing aboard a sixty seat Amfleet II coach, I found an aisle seat which turned out to be a new experience for me in sleeping. I am sitting next to an Amtrak engineer who works out of Boston sitting across the aisle from his mother and grandmother. They're going to Chicago to visit family members. We talked trains, what he does for a living and what I do for a hobby. I show him my mileage book and he starts on page one reading every entree out loud. He does well with all the names except the Spanish ones and that makes sense as Spanish never made its way into New England. His mother offered me dinner which turned out to be the best cold fried chicken that I have ever eaten. Following the unexpected dinner, I excused myself to the lounge car for a window to take in the crossing of the Berkshire Mountains. To me eastern mountains look like hills when you compare them to their western counterparts but remembering my history if I would have had to cross them on foot, I would have called them mountains too. My mind turned to the thought that this might be my last crossing of the Berkshire Mountains as come November 10, the Lakeshore will no longer have a Boston section. (Note: Congress bailed out Amtrak and the November 10, 1996 cuts never happened.)

My slight sadness over that matter turned to joy as I looked out my window. We entered the State Line Tunnel and exited into the state of New York with our next stop being Albany-Rensselaer. The schedule called for us to be here an hour and twenty minutes while the New York section arrives and they make one long train out of the two. I took this opportunity to write Amtrak Customer Service in Philadelphia about the whole taxi cab scam. The agent gave me an envelope and with that I mailed it off and put the whole situation behind me. (Note: I received a check of $120.00 for the cab fare on December 16, 1996) I then got some walking in and when the New York section finally arrived it gave me my first chance to inspect a Viewliner Sleeper. With no sleeping car reservation tonight I returned to my coach seat for our on time departure from Albany-Rensselaer. I unpacked my pillow and blanket from my suitcase, curled up and fell asleep in the aisle seat. I should be able to sleep through the night right? Wrong! Four different times during the night, my hand hits the seat recline button popping the seat back to the full upright position with what seems to make the loudest noise you could on a train which woke me up. I never appreciated those handles on the Superliner seats until now. The funny thing was that I was not the only passenger on the train doing this. The next morning I talked to four other passengers who had done the same thing all in aisle seats. We formed the brief Button Club and shared cups of tea the next morning to help keep the four of us awake for the day after that long night.

8/15/1996 Waking up in Cleveland, I was off to the dining car for a breakfast of pancakes and sausage. Lake Eire is outside the train's window thus the name Lake Shore limited. The Button Club had its one and only meeting. Toledo comes with time to stretch my legs and take in some fresh air. I returned to the lounge car and met a guy from Lincoln, NE. He got a deck of cards and we played all the way past South Bend, IN. While we were playing, at Elkhart there is a railroad museum right outside my window. There was a Pennsylvania Railroad GG-1, a New York Central 4-8-2 and a NYC E-9. Unfortunately those engines are stored outside, victims of time and the elements. Nearing Chicago, we skirted the steel mills of Gary, IN and the gambling casinos on the lake front of Lake Michigan. The skyline of Chicago appeared, we passed Comisky Park home of the White Sox before we backed into Chicago Union Station arriving right on time.

Chicago II 8/15/1996

Stepping off onto the platform at Chicago Union Station there is not a single luggage cart to be found, so I lugged my bags to the Amtrak First Class Lounge to check them in since I will be a sleeping car passenger on train 30. Next stop is Gold Coast for a pair of Char Dogs for lunch and then the Metra ticket counter for a round trip ticket to Orland Park.

Metra 7 and 14 8/15/1996

I walked to Track 28, boarded the train and wrote post cards until departure. This train will afford me my first look at what is on the south-side of Chicago from a commuter train. This route I am riding today was once that of the Wabash Cannonball but today sees only commuter trains and Norfolk Southern locals. We passed through a couple of rail yards and then the junctions with many railroads serving the Chicago area before we headed out to Orland Park. I am amazed how unlike the north side of Chicago where you pass buildings for miles how quickly the south-side of Chicago ends. We passed through some very nice communities like Oak Lawn, Worth and Palos Park. We crossed the Calumet Sag Channel and I was amazed at all the undeveloped land there still is. There are three stops for Orland Park and I got off at the last one. Orland Park (179 St) has a small parking lot and overnight holding tracks for commuter trains.

The temperature is in the low seventies, making me wonder if this is really August in the Midwest. The train pulled down into the yard and the engineer switched ends, picked me up and we were heading back to Chicago. I sat on the opposite side to take in the sights that I missed on the way down. Within an hour I am back in the first class lounge in Chicago Union Station watching World News Tonight as I sipped a soft drink while I waited for my next train.

Capitol Limited 30 8/15/1996

It was another walk out to Track 28 but from the First Class Lounge it is a long walk. The track is right outside the door but to get to my car I had to pass the front end of the Empire Builder, a gap of 100 feet, the three low level cars of the Three Rivers then the cars on the rear of my train. I walked past a transition sleeper which connected the sets, three Superliner coaches, the lounge car, dining car before I reached my sleeping car where my attendant was waiting, greeted me and crossed my name off of his list before I headed upstairs to my Economy Bedroom 5. This is my first trip riding in a Superliner II Sleeper. I noticed all of the changes and improvements to the room from the first batch of cars. The Train Chief pays me a visit, introducing herself to me and gave me the low down on dinner. I told her the purpose of my trip, show her my mileage book and she was blown away by it. My attendant showed up next with my dinner reservation and an explanation of the car's features.

The train left Chicago on time and as it passed Comisky Park it was time to go have dinner. I am seated at a table with three other people who enjoy train riding. We tell stories and one topic came up about what was the slowest section of track that any of us have ever ridden over? All agreed that I was the winner with the five MPH on the Eureka Southern in Northern California. I had a Filet Mignon with a Bourgeois Sauce which was excellent. Following my meal I walked back to the lounge car to be greeted by a line extending into the next coach. This line I learned is from passengers who had missed their connections from western trains yesterday to their eastern trains so the passengers had to take today's train to get to their destinations. Remembering that I have a soft drink bar in the sleeper I returned for a night cap of ginger ale. My attendant brought me a gift of a Capitol Limited glass coffee mug before I made my bed and fell fast asleep.

8/16/1996 Awakening east of Pittsburgh to old deserted buildings of the steel industry, I went to the dining car for a breakfast of French Toast and Sausage followed by a trip to a nearly deserted lounge car. During the night we lost an hour but with a two and a half hour window between my next train in Washington, DC I am not worried. We also had gone over a new section of mileage for me as I slept between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. I took my favorite seat in the Superliner Lounge Car for this morning's ride over the old B&O Sand Patch Grade across the Appalachian Mountains. The most noticeable difference from my first trip over this line is where I am sitting. In 1990 I was in the front seat of the dome car looking out over the train. Here I am sitting in the lounge car looking straight out of a side window of this car. In the dome seat I would see the tunnels coming as the train approached them, today I am having to anticipate where they are so it makes it a little more interesting. Passing through the forest and small towns its very small town America that lines the Youghiogenhy River of Pennsylvania to the valley of the Casselman River at Confluence which we will follow to the Rockwood Tunnel at the summit of Sand Patch Grade.

Twisting and turning we climbed steadily until we popped into the tunnel cresting the Appalachian Mountains to the headwaters of the Potomac River which we will follow to Washington, DC. Passing through the CSX yards after Cumberland, I decided to take a nap to recharge my batteries, the advantages of having a sleeping car. I awoke at Martinsburg to a PA announcement about connecting trains in DC. We have lost another forty five minutes during my slumbers due to CSX track work so I headed to the dining car to find out about my connection. The Chief tells me I will have no problems and hands me a fifty dollar service voucher on account of the train's poor performance. This shows me that Amtrak takes pride in their service.

Stopping at Harpers Ferry, WV, I managed a glimpse of the Hilltop House where I stayed in 1990 while we crossed the Potomac River and entered Maryland. We parallel the river and the remains of the old C&O Canal. We made a quick stop in Rockville then passed through the suburbs of DC before we ran along the Washington Metro Subway for the final miles into Washington Union Station arriving one hour forty-five minutes late.

Silver Star 81 The Zone 8/16/1996

With less than eight minutes to spare before the Silver Star was scheduled to depart, I detrained from the Capitol Limited and walked the length of the Star to find my heritage sleeper, boarding the car to find Roomette 6 in the Tampa section of the train. The Silver Star splits into two sections at Jacksonville with mine going to Tampa via Orlando while the other goes to Miami via Ocala. In November there would not be a Tampa section anymore which will allow Amtrak to close their Tampa maintenance facility. The Silver Star will be rerouted via Orlando to Miami and a new train, the Silver Palm, with serve Ocala and pass through Tampa on its way to Miami.

I could have walked like a snail to board this train as it departed thirty five minutes late. Walking back to the lounge car though the coaches I found out why the Tampa coach section had been sold out three months in advance. Two and a half cars of Girl Scouts and their families from Philadelphia are going to Orlando to Walt Disney World. I called these coach cars the "Zone". The children were playing games and some were blocking the aisle. Food is being passed or in some cases thrown. Headphones from the video monitors of movies are left on the seats with the volume on full blast so you can hear the soundtrack without the need for them. Trash is being batted around like a volleyball. It was like a picnic in the park but it was on a train. Walking through this "Zone" required great care and patience as it was the biggest group of coach passengers that I had ever seen on a train.

Got to the lounge car and got a ginger ale then made a major decision. I will only cross the "Zone" to get my meals. I return to the peace, the quiet and the sanity of my room. At five fifteen it is back through the "Zone" to the dining car for the best chicken dinner that I ever had on an Amtrak train. A visit to the lounge for a fresh supply of ginger ale and then made my last crossing of the "Zone" for the night. Entering North Carolina I was treated to an amazing display of Mother Nature in a combination sunset/lightning storm of multi colored clouds and brilliant flashes of light. The sound was not bad either. Tired I made my bed and I was asleep before Raleigh the state capitol of North Carolina.

8/17/1996 The next morning I woke up after Jacksonville. I slept through the splitting of the train and I am traveling down this route for the first time southbound. Breakfast awaited me so I made another trip through the "Zone" to the lounge car. The "Zone" is so much more wild with the anticipation of Orlando. Since the dining car goes to Miami, the Amlounge served a tray meal of French toast and sausage as part of the sleeping car package. Upon completion of breakfast I took a table in the lounge section which also serves as the smoking section. I chose to sit here rather to return through the "Zone" plus it gave me a chance for the rear door view from the train. At Winter Park I moved to the other end of the car meeting a foursome traveling to Tampa who points out the sights to me as we traveled south through the Sunshine State. The conductor stopped at our table when he heard the purpose of my trip, looked through my mileage book and was totally amazed.

Orlando came and with that stop the "Zone" detrained leaving nearly three empty coaches now known as the "Quiet Zone". Now you know why the "Zone" was sold out and why I had to pay for that roomette. Now I think had there been fifteen people less would I had wanted to sit in that circus for eighteen hours? Video monitors showing cartoons and movies all the time? Loud and wild children to drive me crazy? I think that you all would agree with me that paying the extra fare for privacy and peace of a sleeping car was worth the cash paid. No wonder why those poor adults in the "Zone" looked at me in awe when I would walk through the "Zone" with a big smile on my face.

Passing the Miami section going in the opposite direction at Auburndale where the train shared the same route for about five miles before we reached the junction with the Ocala route. I am on the final section of new mileage for me as we sprinted the final miles of the Amtrak system that I needed to complete riding their whole system. We pulled to a quick stop in Lakeland then ran to the outskirts of Tampa where we wyed the train before we backed into the Tampa station. The Silver Star Tampa Section came to a stop at the station at 12:17 P.M. eastern daylight time on August 17, 1996. I had completed riding every route of the Amtrak system. As I stepped off the Silver Star the conductor announced that "Passenger Christopher Guenzler has just completed riding every route on the Amtrak system, let us all give him a hand!" Station workers, the train crew and passengers all stopped what they were doing to come over and shake my hand. It ranks as one of the proudest moments of my life with me accomplishing this goal that I had set for myself.

Tampa 8/17/1996

The Holiday Inn shuttle arrived and delivered me to their hotel. With being one hour late my rest period in Tampa is 24 hours and at this hotel I had planned to use it all. The corridor outside my room is a hundred twenty five degrees up on the ninth floor. I had not been feeling like myself for most of the day and it now hit me like a ton of bricks. I wondered what it could be and then it dawned on me. It was exactly one year and six months since I had quit drinking. It must be a dry drunk and it must be my last one as none other had hit me like this before. The fat in my brain cells had stored up alcohol in them and would release them back into my body system every so often. This would make me feel drunk but I had not been drinking. To get through it I took hot baths and slept alternating between the two until the next morning when I woke up feeling hungry and like my old self.

8/18/1996 A good full breakfast cures the hungry and I watched a few hours of television before I checked out and returned to the Amtrak station. Tampa in August is not what I expected. I waited for the thruway bus to take me to Winterhaven and a connection to the Sunset Limited. Outside it is in the very low eighties and low humidity, very pleasant while inside the station it feels really cold as the air conditioner is set for higher temperatures and humidity. They announced that the bus would leave an hour late since the Silver Meteor is running that late. This gives loved ones more time to spend together and myself more time to watch cable TV inside the station. I opted later for the fresh air outside meeting two nuns, one with forty-six years and the other one with forty-two years of service to God and the sisterhood.

Thruway Bus 8/18/96

While I am not a bus fan by any means I was looking forward to this trip as it will let me see some more of Florida which I have not seen as the bus will take a different route than the train. Looking at the buildings I think about what it takes to make a building survive a natural disaster. Here they have hurricanes and tornadoes. People often ask me about earthquakes when I travel. I tell them that I do not fear them as I know that they will occur and I know what to do. I guess that where ever people live they must know the right thing to do when their time comes. With no passengers in Lakeland the agent there just waved to us. It was a quick ride to Winterhaven under threatening skies where I waited for my train back to California and home. I was treated to two CSX freight trains and the Silver Meteor before the Sunset Limited arrived.

Sunset Limited 8/18/1996

The thunderstorms abounded all around us as the Sunset pulled in. My attendant arranges for a right hand window seat for me once we leave Orlando so I am off to the lounge car to watch the train pass through the great thunderstorm at Auburndale. There is nothing like a storm when you're safe inside a train. It is a light load on the train tonight so it is come whenever you want to eat. I took the first opportunity and was seated with the two nuns. They are two of the nicest people that I have ever met and are just so full of life. After a New York Strip, I watched Sgt Bilko in the lounge car as the train headed north. I stepped off at Jacksonville to make a phone call and I discovered a phone card machine. For ten dollars I got thirty minutes so I called three people in California. The train left Jacksonville on time and I retired to my coach seat for the night.

8/19/1996 Mobile, AL and with that stop I was off to the lounge car for a light breakfast. Returning to the upper level, I took a window seat on the Gulf of Mexico side to enjoy the coastal trip to New Orleans. The sky is overcast with periods of rain as the train moved west. Some of the most striking features of this route is the above ground graveyards, homes built off the ground, the many bays that the train crossed over and each of the small towns that the train passed through. Once into Mississippi I noticed that the gambling industry is much more intense than it was last April with many new hotels and casinos going up. As we arrive in Biloxi I was listening to a live tape of the Rolling Stones in New Orleans and Mick Jagger says "Anyone from Biloxi, Mississippi?" Now how is that for de ja vue? Crossing Bay St Louis we entered Louisiana and within an hour we were passing the City of the Dead before we backed into New Orleans Union Passenger Station. With a three hour layover in New Orleans and I am still short on cash because of that $120.00 cab ride so I elected to stay on the train. I did take a walk into the station to say good bye to the nuns, mailed some postcards and buy a Subway sandwich for lunch. Returning to my car on a near empty train, I had my lunch and a nice quiet nap for an hour and a half.

Leaving New Orleans right on time, the cast of characters had changed with our new boarded passengers. I went to the lounge car for the crossing of the Huey Long Bridge and I met two park rangers from the Jean Lafitte National Park who will be pointing out things between New Orleans and Lafayette. I love the thought of having a National Park named after a pirate. Why was the Emerson Lake and Palmer song Pirates running through my head. I learned things about the bayou region and also what sugar cane looks like. The most common question that passengers ask is "When do we see alligators?" The answer is always near Morgan City and I have yet to see one from the Sunset Limited.

On board we have a person in drag. The first time I saw him I did a double take and wondered about him. My better sense took over so I decided to treat this passenger just like any other for if he is happy in his life style who am I to question it for after all I had led my life style as a drinker doing whatever I pleased no matter what anyone thought. Who am I to object to his choice! I am sitting with a truck driver from near San Jose. His family moved from New Jersey and he is returning to California after closing down his business. He is hoping to have this done by December so he can retire. He reallly enjoys train travel and told me some interesting stories. My dinner tonight is off of the lounge car menu, a hot dog, chips and coke. As darkness settled across the sky I witnessed another thunderstorm. Tonight's movie is "Two of a Kind" which I really enjoyed. Reminds me of "The Parent Trap." I was fast asleep and in dreamland by the time the Sunset Limited had reached Houston.

8/20/1996 Sunshine came blazing in through my window awakening me to West Texas just about sixty miles west of San Antonio. I went to the lounge car for a light breakfast and found my favorite seat for today's twenty six hour day ride. Twenty six hours when there is only twenty four hours in a day? Well we will cross into Mountain Time at Alpine, TX and into Pacific Time at the Arizona border. Guess I have lived some twenty two hour days going east.

I spent the next two hours with the truck driver who is cracking every joke that he could think of some which were pretty funny. West Texas brings out something in everyone. There is more conversation taking place than normal because there is nothing to see out of the train window unless you are looking for something out of the norm. The norm is a sea of brush extending out as far as one can see with the odd cattle trail thrown in for a diversion. What we spotted as something different were the beautiful pinkish flowers in the low spots along the tracks in bloom from the last rainfall and the elevated hunting towers where the hunters of the fowl await their targets to appear. Other than the occasional mountain range thrown in, this is West Texas until Del Rio.

Del Rio has all the characteristics of a Mexico border town and the train made a brief stop. Leaving town the train followed the Rio Grande River for a few short miles before it comes the long way from El Paso via Big Bend National Park. Everyone is staring across the river wondering what Mexico is really like. I kept my mouth shut and just smile as I know the secrets that it holds. We climbed away from the Rio Grande and then viewed the Amistad Reservoir and crossed over one of its branches which makes me wonder that with all of this water why isn't there anything being grown? Bad soil I guess.

More West Texas, more emptiness but the train is on the long climb to Paisano Pass, the highest point on the entire Sunset route. The train crossed the famous Pecos River High Bridge with everyone sitting in the lounge car waiting for a diversion to the West Texas norm. At the crossing I witnessed more people taking pictures than normal. I think the later schedule and running an hour late bought out more people just wanting a picture of anything out of the West Texas norm.

With the addition of the Texas Eagle through car passengers the train now has some of the craziest passengers that I have ever ridden with. Two males who acted like Bevis and Butthead, a guy in a leather jacket that thinks he is the Fonz even snapping his finger hoping that the women will rush to him. Several young ladies who are dressed like they should be standing on a corner on Hollywood Blvd and of course our guy in drag causing more stares than the day before. Every time I see him/her I heard the Aerosmith song "Dude Looks Like A Lady" in my head. At least I am not busting out in song.

We passed freight trains in the numerous sidings along the way and after one long climb then a dip before a short climb the Sunset Limited arrived in Alpine. If the word Alpine conjures up beautiful snow capped mountain slopes covered with trees and cool mountain air try Colorado, Montana, Washington or California. This Alpine is hot and dry with every crack on the mountains visible because of a lack of vegetation. Alpine is the gateway to Big Bend National Park and a watering stop for the Sunset's dining car. We climbed the final miles to the summit of Paisano Pass where we sliced through the pass and then made the one hundred eighty mile desert trek to El Paso. I sat with my headphones on just watching the rest of West Texas go by. On this trip I finally realized just how big Texas really is as we reached our servicing stop of El Paso at five forty-five. I beat everyone to the phones and then watched the "Dude" making more heads turn and people making unbelievable comments. Before I got back on the train, I walked down to the engines which are of course really loud, made sure no one was in hearing range and belted out "Dude Looks Like A Lady" to once and for all get it out of my system. Only the wind and the engines roar heard the lyrics that I sang.

The train left El Paso and leaves Texas as it crossed the Rio Grande into New Mexico where we passed within one hundred and fifty feet of Mexico with a shack city laying just across the border. Its trivia time on the Sunset Limited and most of the questions were about presidential running mate with the "Dude" winning a T-shirt and is ecstatically happy. Now came a question that I could answer. "We just left El Paso Texas, what three states are we near?" People were coming up with Oklahoma, Arkansas, Colorado and Kansas. At least I knew what the true answer was Texas, New Mexico and Chihuahua. I received a Sunset Limited T-shirt just like the one I was wearing as a prize. The trucker rejoins me for the trip across New Mexico as we watched the sunset from abroad the Sunset Limited. We had an eight thirty dinner reservation. We went to the diner at that time and five minutes after we had sat down we had crossed into Arizona and it was seven thirty again as we were on Mountain Standard Time. The last dinner of the trip was a Filet Mignon which was prepared excellently. Tonight dessert was a trip to the rear of the train to enjoy this evening's thunderstorm as the train ascended and descended the grades of the Dragoon Mountains. The trip to Tucson was quick and I stepped off for my last fresh air break of the trip.

When the Sunset arrived at Picacho, I started my trip over the last miles of the Amtrak system that I had not ridden Picacho to Welton, AZ. The reason that I had never ridden this section is that until June the train ran via Phoenix. The Southern Pacific Railroad running just one train over the route west of Phoenix on the jointed rail route put the line up for abandonment and unless Amtrak paid for its maintenance they couldn't continue to run the Sunset over it. They would not pay for it so now the train now bypasses Phoenix. I decided to go to bed after Casa Grande instead of staying up as the effects of a twenty-six hour day. I asked our conductor to get the Welton time for me so I would know what time I had finished riding every mile of the Amtrak system. The time of completion was one thirty-seven A.M. mountain standard time on August 20, 1996.

8/21/1996 The next morning I awoke at Garnett, CA outside of Palm Springs as the Sunset climbed Beaumont Hill. This morning there was no Southern Pacific freight train on the line which is very uncommon for a very busy Sunset Route. We made a fast trip down San Timiteo Canyon, crossed the Santa Fe at Colton Crossing and managed to get through West Colton Yard without even slowing. We stopped at both Ontario and Pomona, took a five minute delay at Industry due to an SP switching move, took a trip down the middle of the San Bernardino Freeway during rush hour and arrived at Los Angeles Union Station one hour and forty-five minutes late. I gave the trucker a tour of Union Station and then bid him farewell. I saw the "Dude" who was still turning heads and we said our goodbyes wishing each other a safe trip before I headed down the tunnel to my last train of this trip.

San Diegan 772 8/21/1996

I climbed abroad the Amfleet train for Santa Ana for a quick trip to home. We left on time but when we got to Redondo Jct. we headed onto the Santa Fe's Harbor Sub in order to turn the train. I got some new mileage but all I want to do at this point is to get home. Back on the mainline I was now riding backwards but really do not care. I arrived back at Santa Ana thirteen days from when I left, twenty-seven minutes late having completed the goal that I had been working on for 16 years.