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Riding the Southwest Chief from Chicago to LA


Taking the Southwest Chief out of Chicago means spending a good 15 minutes traveling through one train yard after another, followed by a seemingly endless stretch of suburbs. But once you get past Naperville you are in farm country and the vista opens up. Flat fields off to the horizon. The trees are wind breaks, or provide shade for houses. On a grey day like the day we traveled the sky and ground just kind of blend into each other like an impressionist painting, losing distinction in the distance.

IMG_0094Illinois Farmland

IMG_0099Mendota IL

IMG_0100Downtown Mendota


Coming into the town of Mendota IL, past the Del Monte Factory and the silos, we are met with a very quiet Easter Sunday afternoon. A few square blocks of downtown, then it is back to the farms. Truthfully, I can’t imagine living in a town like Mendota. As a city kid it would drive me nuts, but I know that there are people here who feel the same way about living in New York City. 


But here I am, passing the brown fields of late March. To my untrained eye it looks like they are not planted yet. I can see the dead stalks of last year’s growth laying over the soil, light brown over dark. There is no other evidence of work on the fields. They are not plowed, and there is no one out in the rainy Sunday gloom working on them. Just a whole lot of empty roads and crossings. We pass through one farm town after another, through the width of Illinois and across the Mississippi River into Iowa. This is the 5th time in my life I have crossed it at ground level. I always forget how wide it is, even this far from its mouth.

IMG_0109Crossing the Mississippi

IMG_0112The original Fort Madison

At about 10:30pm we pulled in to Kansas City MO. which has maintained its old terminal – Union Station. Like Chicago, this is a grand old station, and even at night is worth the time to go inside to get a few pictures.

IMG_0120The Southwest Chief in KC

IMG_0125The Kansas City skyline

IMG_0128Union Station in Kansas City



The first night out I hit a real road block. The upper berth in the skyliner trains is a coffin. It has maybe 15 inches of height from the bed to the roof. It is extremely difficult to in to or out of, or even to move around once you are in it. I woke up at 12:30 in the morning in the middle of a major claustrophobic panic attack. I had to get our RIGHT AWAY! It was not a good feeling, and it was one I had never had before. So now I know – travel coach west of Chicago.

 One advantage of taking the train instead of driving is that the train keeps moving while you sleep, and so I got to sleep through all of Kansas. I woke up the next morning on the plains of Colorado. No more farming. The industry here is cattle. Huge dusty brown fields, speckled with black dots. The soil is sandy, desert like, and with nicer weather on the horizon is a sharp line. You can follow where the land is lower by looking for the lines of trees. Though not yet green, you can how life clings to water, the difference between the dry and wet areas. I wonder what this land would look like after a May rain. It must bloom with green grass and flowers.

IMG_0147IMG_0152First sighting of the Rockies


Then out of the plains and into the town of Trinidad CO, gateway to the Rockies. From here it is up and over Raton Pass and down into New Mexico. Once we came through the pass, New Mexico seemed like a blur, or at least a somewhat monotonous trip. The train bypasses almost all civilization, except for Las Vegas NM until we reached the pueblos north of Albuquerque.

IMG_0154Trinidad CO


IMG_0166Climbing toward Raton Pass


IMG_0175Raton NM


Going west from Albuquerque, the train follows old Route 66. It was dark by the time we go to Gallup and time for bed before we got to Flagstaff. We woke up the next morning near Victorville CA and then down into San Bernardino by 7AM. We reached Los Angeles a little after 8 in the morning.

One thing in concluding this piece, and this goes for both my trips on the Lake Shore Limited and The Southwest Chief. The staff on the trains were, without exception friendly, helpful and thoughtful. They really helped make this three day journey fun and interesting. Even in a sleeper, they made sure that no one was truly alone, and that we all had a great trip.


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Thanks for the pointers! Since I'm about 6 weeks away from my first U.S. sleeper, I'm both excited...and a little worried about the 15" space...we'll see...maybe I should practice by sleeping UNDER my bed for a couple of days!

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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