As we rattled across the Mississippi River on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, we spoke with a couple quite unlike ourselves. In the dining car, they seat you as you come in, so you never can tell who your dinner companions will be. But they were OK, middle-aged Mary and Luis from Pearblossom in the California desert.
She was white and pretty, with a vertical scar at her neckline. He was Hispanic and good looking, a skilled carpenter. Back home he’d completed a job for a wealthy family. They liked his work and his wife so much they paid round-trip fare so Luis could repair a second home in Pennsylvania.
The tan Mississippi, a mile wide, rushed southward under us as the Chief sped across our rusting steel bridge, other diners tittering as we and our new friends also found reasons to laugh.
We told them our troubles, mostly related to being 80-plus. A little more than half our age, they had some, too.
The scar had been for surgery to remove a tumor in her heart, thankfully, benign. Mary was learning to live with diabetes. They had two children of their own, cared for now by friends back home, plus Mary’s three by a previous marriage. Luis was a humorous guy, always struggling to suppress a grin. He struggled a bit to speak English but was helped by his wife, who spoke excellent Spanish. Celebrating his success at carpentry, Luis ordered the Amtrak Flatiron steak for $25.
Just to stay longer, we all ordered desserts but finally had to leave, swinging around to pat each others’ shoulders, to catch a couple of halfway hugs as we left the car. People like Luis and Mary find reasons to lavish kindness on old folks.
That’s the Southwest Chief, where transportation comes first but runs a hard race with entertainment. Every day at 6:10 p.m., the Chief departs Los Angeles. We catch that train at 7:43 a.m. on its second day out for our trip to visit Chicago friends. The Chief is an old train often hours late, particularly after that long run from Los Angeles. Round-trip fare to and from Chicago is usually about $108 each.
Sliding out of Kansas City through many blocks of underpasses, you will be amazed at what’s happened to graffiti. Every concrete wall and many passing boxcars are decorated — we saw no obscenity — just beautiful man-high lettering and designs in fading colors. Where do these thousands of artists hide?
From the train window you see the America hidden from highways — a cross section without billboards — little towns with little houses, backyard vegetable gardens, clotheslines with flapping laundry, trash burners still smoldering, an isolated farmhouse sporting a huge Confederate flag. Endless flat cornfields stretch with gigantic windmills turning above them, and then a windmill factory with hundreds of giant blades stacked on the ground.
You can wander the aisles through car after jiggling car, studying sleepers kicked back in their seats after the long ride from points west, tiny newborns and gray elders, Boy Scouts riding to or from Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, black people, white people, brown people — a gallery of the American people. Find an empty seat in the greenhouse Observation Car and chat with an Amish fellow.
Once we had lunch with an Amish couple, she with her ultra-starched white cap, he with that Amish beard — a sturdy silver fringe around the chin. They talked eagerly, leaning forward across the table. They said they ran a sawmill in New York state, and each winter cut ice from their pond for storage under sawdust. My wife and I are proud of two daughters and four grandchildren. They had 12 children, 75 grandchildren “and counting,” they told us with wide grins. I’m exaggerating. Conversations are not all this good.
But then, after just eight hours on the train, comes Chicago — as Carl Sandburg wrote, the “city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” The city with Millennium Park and its dirigible-sized, mirror-finished “Bean” reflecting the city and the sky, its boat ride up the Chicago river for views of the world’s first skyscrapers, its Chicago Art Institute and, of course, Lake Michigan —all within (strenuous) walking distance of Union Station.
Just look at what Amtrak’s Southwest Chief has sold you for $108.
Contact Charles Hammer at firstname.lastname@example.org