The Southwest Chief is roughly 2,300 miles long and runs from Los Angeles to Chicago, passing through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, and Illinois. Before all the independent lines were consolidated in 1971 under the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, which became known as Amtrak, it was called the Super Chief and was operated by the Santa Fe Railway.
After grabbing my bags at the Hotel Metro Plaza, I headed over to Union Station, which looks like an old Spanish Mission on the outside and an opera hall on the inside. Riding the train can be like traveling back in time. I’d always envied the explorers and pioneers, who’d made the journey out west, back when America was a land of unlimited opportunity. By the time I got out of school, there was no place you could just show up and not be trespassing. It could even be considered a crime to sleep in your car, if you could afford one. As long as my Rail Pass was good, I had a place to be. After that I’d need to find something fast, which probably meant leaving the country.
I checked in and requested a window seat. The gate had yet to be announced, so I went over to sit down in the cavernous waiting room. The chairs were roped off. You needed to prove you had a ticket to enter and sit down, so I was curious about a guy who appeared to be homeless, his bags scattered all over the floor, laughing at jokes that no one could hear and speaking a stream of unintelligible gibberish. It was hard to contain my dismay then, when we finally boarded the train, and he ended up on my coach, only a few seats back. He couldn’t sit still and began to pace the aisles, his pants down to his knees, flapping his hands in the air. The tag above his seat indicated that he was going all the way to Chicago. It was an inauspicious way to begin the trip.
When we pulled out of Union Station, the train retraced the tracks I’d arrived on the day before, past the same riverbeds, graffiti and industrial rooftops, stopping once again at the Fullerton Station. Then we headed east, reaching Riverside by dusk and San Bernadino by nightfall. A short while later it was Victorville. The car I was in was still pretty empty. Everyone had two seats to themselves. Young homey would be up pacing the aisles for the duration of the trip. It was clear he was high on something, but on what, I wasn’t sure. He appeared to be harmless, almost autistic, but was definitely a nuisance.
The first stop we came to where we were allowed to get off the train for a smoke break and to stretch our legs was Barstow. It was cold out and I wandered the platform, feeling like I should join a conversation circle, but lacking the appropriate vice to do so. I took pictures of the sides of the train and the Amtrak logo, then walked behind it and took pictures of the caboose, the two red lights flashing like the eyes of a silver robot.
After leaving Barstow, the overhead lights turned blue, with a matching set of green lights running down a strip on the floor. The desert outside was dark and the train rocked back and forth, the whistle blowing incessantly, giving voice to the sorrow and angst that was rising in my soul. In the blue light I caught my reflection, the same reflection I’d been seeing in bus, train, airplane, and boat windows for years now, once as a young man with a dream in his eye, now as a battered, blown-out old one, still desperately clutching to that dream because there was nothing left to hold onto. Had it ever come true? In some ways, it had. Had it mostly been a nightmare? There was no question that it had.