If we didn’t see much of Iowa, we saw none at all of Kansas. Pre-dawn light seeped into our bedroom sometime before Lamar Colorado. Like earlier stations in Illinois, Lamar’s station has examples of old railroad stock adjacent to the station. This is not the Colorado of “Rocky Mountain High” but instead a barren desert plain. Not far past Lamar is the John Martin dam and reservoir, but the water captured there shows no sign of making the desert bloom. One lesson we learned on an earlier trip on the Sunset Limited was that all desert is not alike, and that often vegetation that is everywhere in one locale will vanish completely only a few miles away. This is certainly true on the Southwest Chief. The whole second day you travel through deserts of astonishing variety in geology and in vegetation. (Probably in wildlife too, but desert critters tend to be shy during the heat of the day, and we saw no wildlife from the train other than birds.)
Over breakfast, we stopped at La Junta, which had both a Santa Fe caboose and a locomotive by the tracks. The scenery here had changed from a flat, almost featureless desert to a desert of rolling hillocks dotted with dark green shrubs. The land was gashed with small eroded sandstone banks of dry creeks. A few lonely cows tried to eke out enough grazing from the forbidding landscape. I felt a little guilty, eating my pancakes and slurping my coffee while they toughed it out on the unforgiving Colorado plains. Along the tracks periodically were little ghost towns—if two or three ruined buildings count as a town. Mostly they were derelict farmhouses, dry goods stores, or taverns, perhaps once sustained by the railroad but no more. The desert landscape began to change again as mountains began to loom in the distance. Great billows of cumulus clouds hinted that the bone dry desert might be loosing its grip, and the vegetation was getting greener and less sparse. Rocky outcrops appeared in the foreground of the mountains in the background. We saw the clifftop sign for Trinidad well before the train slowed for its stop there. Trinidad appears to be a real town, with houses and businesses in a historic district visible from the tracks, but just beyond Trinidad the desert closed in again. More ghost settlements—we flashed by Ed’s Tavern, with its broken Coors sign out front, and a roof that is near to collapse. Last call at Ed’s must have been some time ago.
But, past Trinidad the desert changed its character again. Now we were in a land of rocky ground, sandstone cliffs, and scrub pines. We passed by the façade of an old mission style church—only its yellow sandstone front and cross survive. Someone—Amtrak?—has posted a large sign noting that we are passing what was the Dick Wootten Ranch and the Old Santa Fe Trail here. The land is hilly and craggy, strewn with boulders the size of bulldozers. You can feel that the train is climbing. Soon we pass another such sign; this one telling us that we are at the Raton Tunnel, at 7588 feet the highest point on the Santa Fe Trail, and the highest point for us, too.
Like Trinidad, Raton marks its existence with a cliff-side sign. Raton has a lovely adobe style station, with a couple of other nearby buildings that must have been railroad-buildings once (a Harvey House perhaps?) We had a ‘fresh air’ break to stretch our legs a bit, but the station was locked up, so no information there. Just past the station is a string of businesses that appear to cater to tourists. The vistas here beckon for exploration, but we need to re-board, and do.
Again, the desert changes in the next hours. We see black basalt mesas—the remnants from prehistoric volcanos? Wagon Mound is one of the famous sights along the Sante Fe Trail, and it gets us thinking about the early white settlers coming along this route. What for us is starkly beautiful must have for them been forbidding and terrifying to travel through. The skies are marked with dramatic clouds—there will be some kind of weather event, no doubt. Rain must be more common here, since there are more cows and the grazing looks easier. Soon we are in Las Vegas, New Mexico, with its red Spanish-style station. In fact, past Las Vegas, the soil and rocks redden, too. This is the Southwest of the Southwest chief Amtrak poster. We stayed glued to the window, agog at the splendor of the desert Southwest. We pass by Glorieta and what may once have been a tiny railway station but is now a tiny post office. The railroad had to blast its way through layers of red rocks here, leaving dramatic cliffs and boulders everywhere in its wake. Silvery sagebrush contrasts vividly with the red desert sands, and upright scrub pines punctuate the land.
We pulled into Lamy station, with its trackside old rail cars (one appears to be a diner now) and a solitary guy waiting to board the train. Just past the station is a large, elaborate mission-style chapel that is boarded up and abandoned. Past that are collections of small houses and trailers that appear to be Pueblo homes, since most of them have a bee-hive horno oven in the yard. We are bearing down on Albuquerque, where we have a long stop scheduled. The skies look more and more forbidding as we finally approach the station. Sure enough, just as we arrive, it begins to rain. Some of the Native artisans who set up shop on the platform have already packed up, given the weather. All in all, Albuquerque is a disappointment—although it is a charming place, you see none of that from the train, only razor-wired junkyards and broken-down dwellings. And we didn’t even get the chance to admire (and buy!) any Native handicrafts. Ah well, we’ll just have to come back another time…
Past Albuquerque, the rain stops as quickly as it had started, leaving us a little rainbow as a goodbye. Tumbleweeds accumulate in piles along every barbed wire fence, as the desert again shows us another face—this time, sandier, with obvious erosion in soft sandstone from past flash floods. Yellow sandstone outcroppings give way to striated outcroppings of harder-looking rock. Some of the striated rock formations are tilted violently from level, indicating that this land has seen radical shifts in geologic time. We reach Gallup New Mexico just before dark, and I resign myself to recognizing what the schedule warned me about earlier—we are going to sleep through Arizona.
Yessirree, we slept clean through all of Arizona and woke in California, near Barstow to be exact. Barstow station has what I think of as a classic California look—long series of arches and a red tile roof. Past Barstow, well into the Mojave Desert, we passed by a plane graveyard, where planes no longer in service get stored in case somebody wants them for something. Apparently deserts are good places for this, since there is another such graveyard we’ve seen in Goodyear Arizona—you can actually see the jets from the bleachers in the Goodyear spring training stadium!-- and there are others thorough the desert Southwest. Once past Barstow you can periodically see parts of old Route 66, which has become quite a tourist destination, apparently. (Bring plenty of water if you go!) Soon the desert revealed another trick up its sleeve—Joshua trees, which we saw for a span of perhaps twenty miles and then never again.
By now we were becoming aware of the fact that the trip on the Southwest Chief was coming to its close, so we tried to savor these waning moments. We passed by San Bernardino and its beautiful Mission revival station with four domed towers. It was here we saw our first palm trees—date palms, I think. Okay, palm trees—now we are definitely in California. We are still in the desert, though, since the nearby mountains looming are largely barren of visible vegetation. From here on in, we begin paralleling major highways, and soon notice strip malls at exits along the highway. While Riverside is just a station platform, Fullerton is graced with another beautiful Mission-style station. But the Southwest Chief isn’t why that station continues to exist—we’re now in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Soon we notice the tracks multiplying and we know we’re counting down the last few miles to Union Station. Out the window we get a peek-a-boo view of the LA skyline, and too soon we’re in Union Station and Ryan, our ever-helpful SCA, was moving our bags downstairs for detraining. We got into Union Station about 10 am, just about two hours past schedule.
We stayed at the old dependable Metroplaza (where we generally stay when taking the Coast Starlight) and spent the day at the California Science Center which is hosting the big King Tut exhibit. Which, incidentally, is fabulous, but you’ll have to hurry to see it, since it packs up in January. They actually let us into our room at noon, which was nice, so we could drop our bags and take a quick subway trip out to the Science Center. We left LA the next morning, took the Flyaway bus to the airport, and a quick flight back to Seattle in time for me to actually check in at work late that afternoon.
So, is the Southwest Chief worth saving? Well, we think so.