This is a looooooonnnnggggg post!
At the end of April I said goodbye to Peru and arrived into Los Angeles where I was greeted by my lovely friend Mell. I enjoyed my time with her and her family in and around Ventura. It was great to be back near to the ocean once more. I’m starting to think I was fish or a whale or a dolphin or a mermaid or something in a previous life! It seems like only the other day that I was organising and booking this part of my adventures and now I’m doing them. Crackers. I enjoy train travel in a leisurely way, but not so much in a commuting to a job type way. The short jaunt from Brighton to London was a well travelled route for me, sometimes for librarian related actives and sometimes for fun times. I have been known to take the train from Brighton up to Rhosniegr, Anglesey which is the best part of a days travel. In Thailand I took the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, that was an overnighter on the way and a day timer on the way back. I’ve also travelled by train to the Netherlands. None of those journeys compare to the distance I’m going to cover going across the USA, but with train travel I appreciate seeing the changing landscapes whoosh by. You never know who you might meet and it’s often a more relaxing way to travel than driving or flying. Yet not always the most time and cost effective!
Aswell as enjoying travelling by train, I was interested in the history of the long distance train travel in the USA, specifically the story of the Pullman Porters, which I learned of by listening to a Radio 4 afternoon drama Super Chief. I was keen to travel on those lines where, from the 1860s, African American men that had been slaves were employed as Pullman Porters and other roles on the sleeping car trains, took the Pullman Car Rail Company to task over pay and working conditions. After 12 years they finally got better pay and working conditions, after forming the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925.
To following describes each leg on my route from LA to NYC.
The Southwest Chief is the service that goes from LA to Chicago. It covers 78 station stops and we go through 7 states. Flips.
So my train adventures actually started early than planned as I took a train from Oxnard through to Union Station, Los Angeles. This was a good taste of what was to come on my longer journeys.
Oxnard to Union Station, Los Angeles
Train – Pacific Surfliner
A short journey, in comparison to the others on my route, it took a couple of hours. I had a standard coach seat which was plenty big enough and had so much leg room I could fit both my daypack and my big pack. There was also wifi which was super. The train crew were entertaining singing little ditties along the way.
Arriving into Union Station, LA is quite something. It’s a beautiful station. Very grand. As I couldn’t check into my accommodation until 4pm I checked my bag with the Amtrak luggage office and then went for an explore of downtown LA, specifically MOCA.
Getting to my accommodation was by metro and bus, but I decided to walk the mile from the metro station. I was ready to put down my bags,by the time I got there that’s for sure, I think they weighed about 24kg combined! While in LA I travelled by the metro, bus and bicycle. While it takes a little more preparation, in terms of route planning and getting the right fare sorted, than having a car would, it is absolutely possible to visit and explore LA using public transport.
The next part of my journey was from Los Angeles to Flagstaff, for some Grand Canyon action.
Los Angeles to Flagstaff
Train 4 – Southwest Chief
Dep: 6.15pm Thursday
Arr: 5am Friday
This is the first of 3 overnight train journeys I am taking. I made it to the train with a little time to spare after a speedy jaunt around the Hello Kitty exhibition at the Japanese American Museum which is just one metro stop from Union Station. I didn’t need to check my big bag and so found my sleeping car and made myself comfortable for the evening.
My little room/cabin has two seats facing each other, which will turn into a bed and a second bunk above me that will pull down. There’s a fold down table, a tall, skinny wardrobe on one side, complete with hangers and steps up to the top bunk on the other. Water and tissues are provided along with blankets and pillows for sleepy time. There’s also a guide to the services on the train and some really quite comprehensive information about our route.
Tonight I’ll travel as far as Flagstaff and will arrive there at crazy o’ clock tomorrow morning. The train though carries right on through to Chicago and if you were to do it, LA to Chicago in one trip it would take you about 3 days!
So, back to this journey; Rick, the conductor has been round introduced himself and checked my ticket. Sam, the dining car attendant has given us the lowdown on how eating on the train works. He then came round to take dinner reservations. I’m down for the 7.15 slot, which is super because I didn’t get lunch today so I’ll be ready for eating for sure. As I’m in a little sleepy room meals are included.
It’s eating time before long, as I’m travelling solo I got seated with other people, wherever there is space. For this meal my eating companions are 3 women; one on an extended holiday with her terminally ill husband, one on her way home from visiting her daughter at university and one on her way back from a conference. Two of them are nurses. The other I’m not sure. They were thoroughly lovely people to share a meal with. Oh and I ate the pasta, which was a spinach and ricotta affair with a garden salad and bread roll, followed by a tiramisu, all washed down with icy cold water. It was a pretty good meal and we watched the sun go down as we ate. The service was super and efficient and friendly and we had real cutlery and fabric napkins! Fancy!
Back in my little room and I start making preparations for sleeping. I want to try and get a few hours at least as I’ll be awake at around 4am to get ready to leave the train at Flagstaff. There is a sleeping car attendant that can assist with bed preparation and the like, but I opt to give it a go myself and choose to sleep in the top bunk so I can still do sitting down underneath if I want to.
The sleeper cars come with tiny toilet bathrooms, obviously, but also with a shower. On this trip I did not take a shower, just got straight into bed :-)
It was a compact space to get into up top, but cosy and comfortable. The only thing that was a little inconvenient was that the light switch was below the top bunk! Good job I had my head torch to hand.
I didn’t really have any interaction with our sleeping car attendant. In fact she did t even introduce herself I don’t think. Given this was my first overnighter I didn’t really know what to expect, but in retrospect she was rubbish compared to the other two over nighters I’ve been on and the car attendants on those. I put my own bed together on this journey and that was not the case with my other two as I’ll explain a little later. Still, this wasn’t the end of the world. First world problems hey??!!
So, bedding down for the night and hoping for a lovely sleep as we would arrive into flagstaff in the early hours of the morning, sleep did not come. Just lots of busy brain activities, thoughts about all sorts of things that I won’t bore you with on here. It’d be like a therapy session if I did! And so, even though I was pretty tired after a day full of arty adventures in LA and with a belly full of food, I could not drop off to sleep!!! It felt like I’d barely closed my eyes and my alarm went off and it was time to get up to get ready to disembark at Flagstaff. We arrived a little later than scheduled, but the journey was smooth, without incident. It was pretty cool to arrive into Flagstaff and the sun was rising, but a bit of a shock to the system as it was so cold compared to LA! In the time that I was there it did snow. Off I went to find my hostel and organise myself for the next couple of days. Grand Canyon action is on the cards. Exciting!
Flagstaff to Chicago
Train 4 – Southwest Chief
Dep: 5.30am Sunday Arr: 3.45pm Monday
Ok, train chat. So it was another early start to leave Flagstaff, we were scheduled to leave at 4.40am. For a change, but not really, I did not do a good sleep! All those thoughts making my brain busy and knowing that I had to get up early stopped me from getting some good eyeball closing time. The fact that the train was late, like an hour late did not help matters. I was pretty wired by the time I got on the train! Why was it delayed you may be wondering? Signalling problems? Staffing issues? A leaf on the tracks? No. The train hit a bloody elk! Poor elk! They can be pretty enormous too and later on in the journey we felt the effects as we had to detach a coach car because one of the wheels was wonky from the emergency stop the driver had to do. The elk incident occurred around Williams which is the stop before Flagstaff.
Anyway, we got on the train. I had to wait a little bit of time while Justin, our car attendant made up my room as there was someone else in it from LA to Flagstaff. He had it sorted in quick time and before long I was getting comfy in my space. Now, the Flagstaff to Chicago leg of my journey is the longest at 34 hours and 34 minutes. We actually arrived a half hour late so it was a 35 hour journey in the end.
On boarding I could have gone straight to breakfast as they had already started serving, but my belly was not ready for food, so I asked if I could have a cup of tea in my room. Justin sorted that for me and it was greatly received. He even brought me a honey to go in it. Now, just an aside about tea drinking while I’ve been in the states. I’ve acquired a taste for black tea with creamer or half and half! Sounds yuck I know, but when that’s the only option… I’ve not quite developed my palate for hardcore sans milk (or alternative) black tea drinking just yet. I think that takes a little practice.
Now, where was I? Ah yes, Justin bringing me a tea. So, I settled back with my tea and made a start on making the special love gift I bought the eldest sister Illingworth back in Solvang, the funny mini Denmark in California.
Soon after breakfast service had finished our diner supervisor Maureen came around to take lunch reservations. Honestly, the dining car crew do not stop. Like the sleeping car attendants they are on it all the time. I think I already mentioned that meals are included in the price of the sleeping car, but there was too much eating even for me!
The morning passed by with a mix of craft activity, email composing, music listening and gazing out the window at the changing scenery whoosh by. I saw some wildlife on this journey; those pointy horned antelope. I was hoping I’d see a jack rabbit as they are supposed to be quite something with big, long ears.
Lunch time arrived and I got seated with some, well, interesting people, yes, let’s say that. They seemed perfectly nice people in the short time I spent with them and while I found their company a little odd this was mainly because I could not find a common interest and I tried, believe me! This was made a little more tricky as one of our table kept chipping into the stilted conversation with a contribution of a completely unrelated topic! That’s how it seemed to me me anyway, but we’d manage to go with it all the same. As well as the challenging conversation there was increasing agitation from the other side of the table as the lunch service was not as efficient as it had been on their previous journeys on this line. Not one for confrontation, as the agitation opposite me increased so did my anxiety! The staff in the dining car were doing the best they could and it was the first shift for one of them.
Needless to say, the calm quiet of my little room was welcome! Before I knew it, Maureen was on her rounds again taking dinner reservations! More eating? I opted for a later sitting and in the afternoon I shut myself in my room and had a little disco party to try and work off some energy and work up an appetite for tea. It was a unique disco party experience. I got some more crafting done and some more daydreaming before tea. Tonight it started off as just me on a table. I was then joined by a solo man and another solo woman. As all the veg/fish options had gone I ended up having macaroni and cheese with some vegetables :-) This was accompanied by a tiny red wine, which caused some amusement amongst the diner staff. My dining companions were fun and easy going so conversation was a plenty. The fella was on his way to Washington, D.C. as one of his friends was graduating having returned to school to do museum studies. Amazing! He also has family there. He was an interesting chap, working in tech support but himself going back to school and undecided about what he would like to do next. The woman was going to Kansas City to visit family. Even though I was full up with mac and cheese I still managed to force down a tiramisu pudding and another tiny wine. It was good chat times and I was ready for sleeps when I got back to my room. Justin had already set my bed up, which was super, although I wanted to sleep up top, but I went with the downstairs bunk and it was just fine. It’s more roomy than the top bunk, so I had a pretty good sleep. Hurray! The train can jolt and rock quite a bit and so that woke me up a few times and there are people getting on and off throughout the night, but I soon drifted back off. I think the wine helped!
The on train route information leaflet was very, very thorough :-) One of the highlights on this route was at Raton Pass, which is the highest point on the Santa Fe part of the journey. 7800ft. Imagine that!
I’m going to pause for a moment with my description of the journey to tell my best learning fact from this journey, this one came from Justin, the car attendant and did not feature in the information leaflet provided :-)
The town of Trinidad, just over the New Mexico state line into Colorado, we dropped off and picked up at this town. In the 1970s it was known as ‘the sex change capital’ of the USA! This was because of a Dr Stanley Biber, who became known as one of the best gender reassignment surgeons at that time.
Morning came and with it sunshine and another landscape whooshing by my window. Maureen had already been over the tannoy to tell us the diner was open and breakfast was being served. I did some lolling about in the bed before getting up and washed and dressed, there is a shower on board and then I headed to breakfast. My breakfast buddies were a semi retired couple from Michigan. More food antics as there wasn’t any! Well, that’s a bit dramatic, there was only the continental left, which suited me just fine. You get so much food. I’ve done some good squirrelling bits away for later in the day; a yogurt and wheat biscuit, which is not like a weetabix, but a salty scone. It’s interesting to see how people respond in different food situations. While yesterday felt like there could be some crossed words with a traveller and diner staff, today was more disgruntled muttering from the chap to his wife about the lack of choice of food and slow service.
Again, no sooner had I got back to my room Maureen was on the tannoy letting us know that she was coming to take lunch reservations. I politely declined on this occasion, my belly totally full up with all the food. The kitchen and the diner staff do not stop. They must get very little sleep with the schedule they work to.
We were due to arrive into Chicago at 3.15ish, but we were a little delayed. Upon arrival it was rainy as I made my way to my hostel in Chicago, Holiday Jones
. It’s in the Wicker Park area of the city so a little way from downtown, but it is extremely well connected by metro and bus and there was a ‘divvy’ bicycle
station just about 2 minutes along the street.
It’s a short walk from Union Station to Clinton on the blue line and then around 20 mins to Division and another short walk to the hostel. All very manageable.
I’ll write more about Chicago in a separate post, but for now, just know that I had a fabulous time there.
Chicago to Washington DC
Train 30 – Capitol Limited
Dep: 6.40pm Thursday
Arr: 1.05pm Friday
I arrived at Union station with around an hour to spare; as I had a sleeper car ticket I could make use of the Metropolitan Lounge which is a bit like the Virgin first class lounge at Euston. Travellers received a warm welcome from the reception staff there, we could also make our dinner reservations, I went for 8 o’ clock. It does amaze me how some people are not very good at following instructions. The fellas checking people in have the most amazing patience! Once I was sorted I made the most of the facilities; had a tea and a pink lemonade, munched on some crisps and then it was time to board the train.
Another long journey with this one, scheduled to be 17ish hours it was nearer to 18 1/2. It was my last overnighter of the trains across the USA and the service wonderful once again. This time I was in car 3000 in room 3, our car attendant was Phil, a friendly chap with a love of The Beatles; he’s keen to visit Liverpool at some point and his sister is cross stitching him a ‘Beatles’ quilt for his 40th, it’s somewhat overdue! The car attendant has room 1 and so I did some good earwigging on conversations between the car attendants :-)
We set off and I continued with my crafting for sister Illingworth. I had some chat with the car attendants and enjoyed a tiny red wine I’d bought at Walgreens for $1.50 as my aperitif then we were called for our dinner slot. My eating companions this evening were all British! A lovely couple; civil servants, from London who were in Chicago for a very fancy wedding by the sounds of things and were on the way to Washington, D.C. to visit the sister of the woman. Then there was a very entertaining and engaging Doctor, a Gastroenterologist in fact, based in Bournemouth. He was in Chicago visiting his nephew after a gastroenterology conference and was going to Washington, D.C. to see his brother in law and family. As the couples son had done an MPharm and was in the midst of his pre-reg we had a lot of health/NHS chat, which was interesting. Especially given the result of the election.
Eating wise I had salmon and a jacket potato with some vegetables, it was a bit salty, but good apart from that. You can’t get lemon, lime and bitters here, but they have a pop called Sierra Mist which is just lemon and lime so that’s s good thirst quencher with a bit of fizz. I had a tiny ice cream for my pud, back in the comfort of my tiny room :-) Company for this tea was ace.
During this journey we changed time zone so time went forward and hour. Phil made up my bed at around 10pm, but really it was 11pm. I got into my pjs, washed my face, brushed my teeth and settled down for the night.
The day before there had been that awful Amtrak train crash near Philadelphia, those poor people and their families. With this in my brain, I had trouble dropping off to sleep as with each jolt of the train or the sound of another train whooshing by or a sharp stop would bring me back to awakeness. I eventually did fall to sleep, those tiny cabin beds are actually pretty comfy.
I woke up to sunshine and more lush greenery whooshing past my window. Very different to the more arid scenes of the eastern side. What I liked very much on the LA to Flagstaff and then the Flagstaff to Chicago journeys was the information leaflet in the tiny room. It explained about significant historical places along the way. On this train they had a couple of volunteers from ‘Trails and Rails’ in the observation car to explain a bit about places of interest; history, nature, that sore of thing. I was keen to go and listen to them, but I had a stroll through the observation car and it was full up! I retreated to my tiny cabin room and followed our route on the leaflet. That’s something I would suggest they do actually, make their leaflet more like the one on the Southwest Chief, with more explanation about the route, significant landmarks and the like.
I do so enjoy passing through all those few house villagey towns along the way, getting the briefest of glimpses into the lives of those who live there; do they have bicycles outside? Have they got a dog? Are there children’s toys laying around in the yard? How many cars do they have? All of these things that fly by in seconds can give some indication of those who live there and then I can make up my own stories about their lives :-)
On this leg of the journey we pass through Martinsburgh which is the oldest, still in service, train station in the whole of the USA! There’s still evidence of an old fort there from the civil war times.
We arrive into Washington, D.C. a little later than scheduled. Now, while waiting in the metropolitan lounge at Chicago, I received an email to say the train I was due to catch from Washington, D.C. to NYC had been cancelled, I imagine due to the crash the other day, and so I’m advised to speak to an Amtrak person about alternative services. I make my way to the Amtrak ticket desk and I’m told without a shadow of a doubt that there are not and will not be any train services running in the next few days at least. Oh. They refunded my ticket and I had a small, internal panic about how I was going to get to NYC and meet up with Papa Illingworth. There’s always a way though hey and I resolved to sort that out once I got myself to the hostel.
I made my way to the hostel, this time a Hostelling International which is related to our YHA network, via the metro red line, which needs an update. I mean, carpet, in a metro train? Yucko. They could just tear that out and out and put in a more easy clean floor, then it might not smell so bad in there! Still, it did the job and I got to the metro center and walked the 3 blocks to the HI Washington DC. Now, accommodation in Washington, D.C. is expensive! This hostel for a bed in a 4 bed coed dorm room is $50 a night. Granted, it’s not mega monies, but compared to other places I’ve stayed, some where I’ve had my own room, it is!
Turns out I’m the first one to arrive into the room, followed by 3 fellas; Manush; an orthopaedic doctor from North Carolina, had been doing a poster presentation at a geriatric medicine conference and was hanging out for the weekend. Chris, an Irish chap who had been working in Australia and was now waiting for his visa to go and work in Canada and the final of our four, I have no idea! He appeared in the time that I was having a shower and was spark out in the bed, fully clothed and all! He must’ve had a long and tiring journey. I can say though that before he arrived our room wasn’t stinky, but on retuning from my shower there was defo and aroma of stinky feet! Urgh…
Anyway, meeting the roomies happened over the course of the evening. I’ll say more about my whistlestop evening bicycling adventures round Washington, D.C. in a separate post.
Back to my travel arrangements for the Washington, D.C. to NYC leg of my journey. Now the train was out, I had a look at the bus, and while cheap and cheerful, that would take circa 6 hours so I would have even less time in Washington, D.C. I opted for a flight which would take around the same time as the train, with getting to and from the airport. Travel sorted thanks to the wonders of the emergency credit card, I hit the streets of Washington, D.C.
Washington DC to New York City
Train 192 – Northeast Regional
No train time now as I mentioned this service, along with many others as cancelled after that pretty tragic crash earlier in the week. Awful.
So this leg of the journey became Delta flight 2627 from Ronald Reagan’s airport in Washington, D.C. to La Guardia airport in NYC.
As I type, I am in a plane, I have been in the plane for 2 hours and all we’ve managed to do is taxi to the runway! We are now taxi-ing back to the terminal as we cannot take off because of stormy storms in the north Eastern corridor coming our way. Literally just as we were going to the runway a big old thunderstorm plopped on our heads and while it passed over, some time ago now, air traffic control won’t let us take off because there are three more storms on the way :-/ BUMS! Still, I’d rather be on the ground in an aeroplane while a thunderstorm is happening rather than up in the air in it. Oh gosh, that would be like the flight from Lima to LA with that high drama, out your seat turbulence and the shouting of Ay dios mios! accompanied by repeated praying. Yowsers!
So, update. It’s now 3 hours since we were supposed to take off. We sat on the place for circa 2 hours and then we got off the plane for circa an hour and now we’re back on the plane. I’ve got my fingers crossed that we take off and make it to NYC. As always, it’s an eclectic group of passengers. I’m sat up in the front row of the plane, next to a really fancy, dandy man, with an impeccable dress sense. He looks expensive. He also has a very cool carry on bag that I know my friend Christopher Whale would love. The lady sat to my left, is equally well turned out and looks expensive. I look like a stinky bag of rags! The most noteworthy passenger on board though, well noteworthy to me I guess, is none other than Spike Lee!! SPIKE LEE! How exciting is that?!
So, now, for the second time this evening, the doors have been cross checked and we are being made ready for take off. Fingers crossed, fingers crossed, fingers crossed. I’m going to sit back, relax and listen to the drama of the week podcast and hope that one of the flight attendants will come round bearing wine once we are airborne. They can’t serve it when we’re just on the runway, alcohol I mean, not just wine. I didn’t know that.
Anyway, see you in New York City, for Papa Illingworth and littlest daughter Illingworth adventures.