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Cross Country Trip:CHI-SBA

Chicago to Santa Barbara

It was about 1:30pm and I had only about an hour before boarding the Desert Wind. I could see myself getting lost riding the "L" and late for my train. There was a McDonalds right in Union Station, so I ate lunch there before heading for the Metropolitan Lounge I retrieved my luggage ($4.50 locker fee--what a rip off) and went inside the lounge where I got a boarding pass for the Desert Wind. I co uld have stored my bags in the lounge for FREE had I checked in before going to the Sears Tower!. Live and learn I guess. It was a real classy lounge too, free soft drinks, coffee, newspapers, magazines and nice comfortable easy chairs. I was only in the lounge about 30 minutes when they called for boarding.

The Desert Wind consisted of the older Superliner equipment. Sure was a step down from the new Superliner II equipment, but it was comfortable nonetheless. The Chief of on-board services was Greg Ernado and my car attendant was Theotis, or Mr. Theotis. Strange name for a strange man. Actually he was nice enough but he just didn't have that much, if any, enthusiasm about his job. He never offered to make up my bed or ask if I needed anything, or had any questions. No smile or "welcome aboard" greeting. He wasn't even at the door when I boarded the car! Being a veteran in sleeping car travel now, I knew where my room was, #6 upstairs, so I showed myself to it. I feel it is important to always ask, even if the passenger is satisfied It's the caring that counts in the first place. After departure, Theotis brought me a toiletries kit which consisted of a toothbrush, toothpaste and a comb. The package it came in was a cheap plastic billfold pouch. There was coffee in the morning but no soft drinks or ice by the coffee like there was on the Capitol. I was spoiled by that train. The Desert Wind departed at 3pm, right on time. Very pretty scenery west of Chicago as we rolled into farm country once again. Since this was a non-smoking train, there were designated smoke stops. I jumped off at the first smoke stop in Galesberg and ran up to the head end for photos. This was truly the heartland of America, farmland all around as far as one could see. I could get the outside temperature by listening to the Burlington Northern hotboxes as the detectors relayed the current temperature plus the name of the city in which the detector was located. I would have loved to stay in Galesberg for a day to ra ilfan since many lines cross over there plus lots of freight action takes place there.

Get out the camera! We were stopped on the Mississippi bridge at 6:50pm waiting for the eastbound California Zeyphr to depart Burlington, IA, so we could enter the station. The eastbound Zeyphr was over six hours late, which now made us a half hour late just waiting for that train to get out of the way. Dinner at 8pm consisted of filet mignon, carrots, rice and my favorite desert, apple pie a la mode. Great dinner with great company this time. One gentleman was headed for Denver and the other for Lincoln, Nebraska. The train was flying across the Great Plains at 79mph and we had made up the lost time in Burlington, IA. We then slowed to about 10mph and were rolling by the remains of a wrecked freight, about 44 cars in all! What a mess! There were broken twisted rails and ties piled up along side, some of which was thrown next to houses and in the yards. The derailment occurred Saturday, March 30th. As a result, the line was shut down for a whole day (I think) for the tracks had to be re-built. A huge log-jam of freight traffic had piled up and we were the last to head westbound! I heard this on the scanner and I knew it would be a long night. Went to bed about 11pm and remember going real slow most of the night.

April 9th.

I was in and out of consciousness until I got up at 6am to grab a shower. Brrrr! The water heater unit didn't work all that well and I got a lukewarm shower at best, sometimes turning cold! I didn't like that but it WAS a shower. Breakfast was the usual two eggs over easy, sausage, hash browns, coffee and a biscuit. The toasters in the diner had quit working so it was biscuits all the way from here on out. I didn't mind but lots of people were real angry about having a toastless breakfast. I sat with Maddie and John from Cincinnati who were on a similar trip I was taking. They were headed for Los Angeles where they would spend the night, catch the Coast Starlight to Portland, Oregon and then the Empire Builder back to Chicago. Great trip, great scenery.....in coach the WHOLE way! The man was very tall so I sympathized with him. In Nebraska and Iowa, I noticed lots of brush piles burning right along side the tracks. I guess it's a way to remove brush? I ev en saw a fire truck standing by to see if it got out of hand at one grade crossing. Earlier we passed the Eastbound Desert Wind which was running about five hours late. Just wait until it hits the congestion in Iowa and that will make it even later. Speaking of being late, the onboard services chief made an announcement regarding our tardiness and he spoke the truth to the passengers! I've been on trains when announcements weren't even close to the truth! I listen in on my scanner and get the scoop when the engineer gets it. I just laugh when they lie to the passengers, but this chief was perfectly honest. That says a lot about the crew. We arrived in Denver at 11:50am, 3 1/2 hours late and I got off and went into the station to meet a couple of friends I had made arrangements to meet. My friends were nowhere to be found! I assumed they couldn't wait around as they had to go to work. Had the train been on time, there would have been no problem meeting them either. With that, I ran back up to the platform and watched some real interesting locomotive action. They uncoupled the locomotives and rolled them about 100 yards down the tracks to the fuel tender for fueling and rolled them back to our train when fueling was completed. Is that common to uncouple them like that when refueling? There were lots of other Amtrak F40PH locomotives sitting around, most of them turned off. Just as we were leaving, I saw black smoke begin to bellow out the top of one of them and it had just started up. Wow! I've never seen so much smoke come out of one of those locomotives like that! Our engineer asked if the engineer on that particular unit had just fired it up as he noticed the smoke as well. Sure wish I could hear one start up fr om a dead silence.

The Rockies were right in front of us as we began the long climb to Moffat Tunnel. I ate lunch at 1pm as we began the climb. Bacon burger (always my favorite) and the trimmings with apple pie for desert. Too bad my table mates were rude, know-it-alls. This couple had traveled this route before but were wrong about certain information. My mistake to enlighten them. The husband was a former steam locomotive engineer on a tourist railroad on the East Coast. His wife was not that friendly when I tried to tell them what I knew of the route from detailed track information I obtained from Mike, my friend I met on the Internet and who had met me at Los Angeles as my trip began. Mike had sent me a copy of the area I was covering: western Nebraska to California. I had detector locations, block names, siding lengths, tunnel locations and lengths and track grades at any given milepost! Very useful information and it is published by Altamont Press. Getting back to the subject, I quoted a few FACTS from the timetable and the couple just snarled at me, telling me that I was wrong. Ok, fine, so I did my shut-up routine the rest of the meal. I hate unfriendly people like that, but on long trips, they are bound to show up. On long-distance trains, I've noticed how some dining car crews "click" together, making it an enjoyable experience to watch them do their jobs so efficiently. This crew "clashed" I'm sorry to say. Actually it was between the dining car chief and one of the servers. They got into a rather heated argument in the upper galley area in which some of the nearby tables could hear it all. Bad idea to quarrel in front of the customers like that. I heard the chief say at one point "Fine, how about I just sit down and let you run it all?" Yikes! "I got one boy at home who gives me grief non-stop and I sure as darn heck don't need one while at work!" Yikes again. It made me feel uncomfortable every time I went into the diner for subseqent meals whether I'd see another confrontat ion. The diner crew chief was Jackie Ewing. The sever seemed to do a fine job at my table so I don't know what her problem was.

After lunch, I headed for the lounge car to take in the best scenery of my trip! I was following my rail timetable, counting the tunnels and mileposts in anticipation for Moffat Tunnel. I couldn't see the Moffat Tunnel sign above the tunnel entrance until we were just about to go into it. It was a straight approach to the tunnel for about 1/2 mile, unlike the curved entrance going eastbound. Just before entering the tunnel, we were instructed not to change cars as diesel smoke would pour into the train. Also, we were told to look carefully out the window to get a glimpse of the "Moffat People" who had glowing red eyes! Sorry, didn't see any this time! It took 9 minutes 54 seconds to get through Moffat Tunnel. Fraser-Winter Park was a smoke stop and a great place for photos. Because the train was late, the sun was against me when trying to take photos of the train. Rats. With lots of snow on the ground, I thought it would be cold. The temperature was in the 60s much to my surprise! Very balmy for such a high altitude. Down in Denver before departure, it was 80 degrees. I spent most of the day in the observation car looking at the Colorado river, breathtaking canyons and snow-capped peaks. Only one kyacker and he didn't salute the train. That water must have been frigid! Hospitality Hour in the lounge car from 3-4pm was great; $2 drinks, a good bargain so I got my fill. With the altitude and after a throwing back a few drinks, I became rather sauced and slept...er, passed out in my room until diner at 5:30. I would have rather eaten at 7:30 but since I had left my sleeper, the on board services chief passed there first so I wasn't one of the first to get my diner reservation. As a result, he didn't get to me in the lounge car until last in which there were only 5:30 reservations left. I was already full of Chex Mix and sauced on pinacoladas, that food was the fur thest thing from my mind.

I indulged in the Stuffed Trout like I had on the Capitol. This one wasn't as tasty, slightly overcooked and there were too many bones in this "boneless cut." Having eaten lunch a few hours before and was still uneasy on my feet, I skipped desert tonight. The two men across from me were heading to LA from Denver and we talked about skiing in Europe as well as trains in general. At 9pm, Grand Junction was a smoke stop so I enjoyed stepping off for a breath of fresh air. There is a stand right on the station platform that is run by a family and they sell ice cream, candy, fruit, magazines and newspapers. They most likely set the stand up just before the train arrives and clean up with the sales. Most of the train crew had gotten off, including the chef to buy junk food. I bought an ice cream sandwich and enjoyed the view. Looked around inside the station until I heard the conductor ask the engineer to "give a whistle blow." They do that to signal boarding. As always, I c arried my scanner to monitor when we were going to leave, or getting ready to leave. I was bushed from the day's activities so I turned in.

April 10th.

The territory was beginning to look familiar now so I knew my trip was almost over as we crossed into Nevada. I am not sure what time we actually left Salt Lake City as I slept through everything and woke up just after departing Milford, UT. Went to breakfast at 7am and had my usual eggs, hashbrowns, coffee and biscuits. This time there was turkey sausage which was quite good. The man I sat with was from England and he was traveling alone around the United States by train. He had a camcorder with him and I had remembered seeing him shooting video in Denver of the locomotives uncoupling and being fueled. There were two elderly couples sitting at the table across the aisle and one of the couples were in the compartment next to me. They were all using sign language with each other. That would explain some of the half words I would hear coming from my neighbor's room.

Still running more than three hours late, we rolled into Las Vegas around 10:30am, another smoke stop and crew change point. Also, another photo opportunity at the head end. I really wanted to run to a casino as I had already pre-sorted some quarters and nickels and was ready to do some quick gambling! The on board services chief cautioned against it as most people are left behind in Vegas and the next train wouldn't come through until Saturday, three days later. Even though I had my radio, I might miss the call as the casino noise is quite high.

I had lunch around 1:30pm as we sped across the desert at a mere 40mph due to some signaling problems. Great. I had another train in Los Angeles to catch to Santa Barbara which left at 5:55pm. It was going to be a close connection but with the latest set of problems, that would mean I'd be riding a bus for the last leg of my trip. For lunch I had what I'd been eating for lunch all along, except I did ha ve the apple pie a la mode this time as I was real hungry and it was my last Amtrak meal. I actually was getting tired of train food even though it is quite delicious....and fattening. Canned chili beans sounded good at that point! I had good company for my last meal. A couple from Iowa who had gotten on before the freight log jam and a woman from west of Denver who lived in a cabin 30 miles northeast of Moffat Tunnel. She gave me the town name but I don't remember what it was. The couple was going to Ventura to visit their son so they were in the same connection situation I was. After Ventura, they were going up to Idaho to visit another son. The lady who owned the cabin in the mountains was on her way to Los Angeles to visit the grandkids. She goes to California about six times a year, living in Colorado in Spring through Summer and in California in Winter. My aunt used to live in Frisco, Colorado at the 9,300 foot level and that was quite cold!

Nearly 7pm and we have been sitting in Fullerton for half an hour! Turned out the crew had gone "dead" on us so we are waiting for a fresh crew. Oh no, I'm going to miss my BUS now. Amtrak can put me up in a hotel now so I can catch a train tomorrow. The crew arrived and we arrived in LA at 7:25pm, 4 hours 15 minutes late.

Consist of the Desert Wind--Chicago to Denver:

Denver to Salt Lake City: Same as above but minus one MHC car

Salt Lake City-Los Angeles: Same as above but no MHC cars now

In Los Angeles Union Station, I ran down the ramp from the train and talked to an awaiting Amtrak agent who said the bus wouldn't leave until 9pm due to a late San Diegan! That particular bus is tailored to connect with a northbound San Diegan train and is guaranteed to connect with that particular train, no matter how late it is. With that information, I went to the ticket counter and asked about the bus. The agent said that I'd better hurry as it was leaving in two minutes! I ran over to where the bus was and the driver was standing outside the bus having a smoke. I showed him my ticket and he said he wasn't leaving until the tardy San Diegan train arrived which would be around 9pm now. Since I had talked with the driver himself, I knew I could at least half way take his word for it. I went back inside the waiting room and sat down in a big chair and was going to continue reading All Aboard! and suddenly an announcement came over the PA: "Last call for Amtrak throughway Bus to points northbound including Santa Barbara..." Here we go again. I ran outside and the driver had the bus running and taking tickets. This was 8pm now and we left the station. I don't know what happened. Perhaps someone got mad enough that they charted another bus for the late San Diegan. All the people on the bus were from the Desert Wind, all six of us, who were going north, including the people I had lunch with. I never sleep on buses. I did this time! I was coming down from my trip and I slept the entire way to Santa Barbara. So for those keeping score, take 103 miles off my track miles as I completed my last leg of my rail odyssey by interstate.

With my dream trip over with, I'm planning on another trip next year. I am planning on going to Portland, changing to the Empire builder to Chicago and then back to LA via the Southwest Chief. Not as long of a ride but it won't be as expensive. This trip has been very enjoyable and I've seen so much of this country that I would have never seen by plane (and I've flown across it many times). I hope this report will be an inspiration to anybody thinking of taking a cross-country rail journey.

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