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Story by Sylvia Blishak, photos by Ted Blishak   February 1, 2010


While looking at a new Amtrak timetable, Ted said, "Our friends and relations live all over the country—and most of them are near Amtrak stops. Let's visit them."

Thus began our plans for a five-week sentimental rail journey with stops in California, Arizona, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

Packing for a trip with so many climate zones is a challenge, but with Amtrak tickets in hand we can check our bags, with appropriate wardrobes, ahead to various stations along our route.

  Coast Starlight departing Klamath Falls  

Coast Starlight departing Klamath Falls
photo by Craig Bass

Starting in Klamath Falls, Oregon, on the last day of October, we depart at 10 PM on Amtrak's double-level Superliner Coast Starlight #11. Our Deluxe Bedroom includes a lower bed just big enough for two, a folding chair, and a private toilet/shower stall. We leave the upper single berth unused and tucked into its place and climb into the lower, with its crisp sheets, cozy blue blanket, and four pillows.The motion of the train rocks and rolls us to sleep.The next morning, soon after breakfast in the dining car, finds us looking across San Francisco Bay as far out as the Golden Gate Bridge.

On Nob Hill, where two Cable Car lines cross, we meet our friend Jan for a few days of big-city fun. Checking into the San Francisco Fairmont, we're prepared to dress for the city's famous cold fog, but are surprised by sun and 80-degree temperatures. (In fact, it will prove to be the warmest place we visit.)

  Amtrak Pacific Parlour Car  

Continuing on the Coast Starlight, we travel through the fertile vegetable fields of Salinas Valley. The Amtrak Superliner then climbs over the oak-covered Santa Lucia mountains, where a far-off glimpse of the Pacific Ocean precedes our arrival in San Luis Obispo, Sylvia's home town.

Sylvia still has friends here she knew when she was four years old.The town (population 10, 001 when Sylvia left) has grown, changed, and become a tourist destination over the decades. Ted's nephew Greg and his wife Tonia, recent transplants from the Los Angeles area, now live nearby.

On November 5th, we're back at the palm-and eucalyptus-shaded San Luis Obispo station with its signature skyline of San Luis Mountain and Bishop's Peak. We've persuaded Sylvia's cousin Robin to join us on the 6:45am departure of the Pacific Surfliner.

Klamath Falls, Oregon  Amtrak Station:  The Coast Starlight is the only Amtrak train that offers sleeping car passengers their own private lounge car.
  Robin will ride as far as Santa Barbara with us.Views of the Oceano sand dunes, fields of artichokes, and the Pacific Ocean unfold as the train rumbles along the coastline.  

Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal is basking in perfect 70-degree weather. The patio at the art-deco mission-style station with its shady lawns, Spanish tile fountain and extravagant California foliage is a pleasant place to wait between trains. With six hours until departure, we park our suitcases at the parcel room and venture to Olvera Street, a block away, with its Mexican-themed shops, restaurants, and music. 

Redcaps with electric carts carry passengers and luggage to and from the trains through a lengthy tunnel. Our departure on Southwest Chief #4 occurs just before dinner time.

  Amtrak Pacific Parlour Car Interior  

In the dining car, booths seat four, with community seating the rule. Our table mates are a pleasant couple from Japan.

The endless bright lights of Southern California towns stretch eastward for miles and. Eventually, we roll into the empty high desert as it drowses under a nearly-full moon. The train hits its top speed of 79 mph heading towards Arizona's Grand Canyon country.   

The next morning we pick up a rental car at Flagstaff's Amtrak Station, turn onto the legendary Route 66 (which leads to I-40) and drive to Williams to check into the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel.

Pacific Parlour Car Interior: A car attendant takes drink orders in the Coast Starlight's first class Pacific Parlour Car, which is reserved for the exclusive use of sleeping car guests.
  The tourist trains of Grand Canyon Railway run from the hotel to the south rim of the canyon. For the ninth year, there's a nighttime holiday train with a Polar Express theme, based on the children's book and movie.  

The "North Pole", a make-believe village complete with Santa's sleigh and reindeer, stands at Milepost 17. Outlined in brilliant colorful lights, it leaves even the adult passengers breathless. Santa Claus, authentic down to the small rectangular spectacles, climbs aboard.

True to the Polar Express story, we're each presented with hot chocolate and a silver sleigh bell.

We drop the rental car in Tucson and locate the hard-to-find train station. Oddly, there are no Amtrak signs on the building, identified only as "Historic Train Depot". Across the street is the Congress Hotel. Opened in 1919, the hotel looks its age, but with live music, a wedding party, and a crowd spilling out onto the patio, it is a hot party spot. We check into the hotel, enjoy the fine hors-d'oeuvres at Happy Hour, followed by a shower and rest until the train departs after midnight.

The eastbound Superliner Sunset Limited #2 stops here, and then rambles across the sand, sagebrush and cactus desert of Texas where distant mountains line the horizon. We wake up next morning as the train departs El Paso. The landscape changes to thick forests and swampland.

Our next stop is Lafayette, Louisiana. The conductor and car attendant get our suitcases down -- there is no checked luggage at this stop -- and hurry us off.


"We are 15 minutes behind schedule", says the conductor into his phone to the engineer. "Hiball, number two." And the train whooshes away.

This stop is near a shaded bus terminal. A Coke machine holds a placard saying "Louisiana Hospitality", and sports a photo of an alligator holding a coke bottle between its teeth.

The new Crowne Plaza Acadiana hotel sends a van to pick us up.  The young driver offers us each a bottle of chilled water.

"Lafayette has two personalities," he confides.  "We're catering to  tourists during the day, but at night we locals enjoy live bands and party in the various restaurants. We feel that life is to be enjoyed as much as possible, and we don't like to hurry.

  Amtrak Pacific Parlour Car Interior 2  
  "See the strings of Mardi Gras beads people tossed onto tree branches.? That keeps a carnival feeling going for us year round."  
The exclusive first class lounge on the Coast Starlight's Pacific Parlour Car Interior
  Our driver's Cajun accent is somewhat hard to understand. We arrive at the hotel, where he whisks our baggage up to our room, adjusts the temperature, and goes out to fill our ice bucket – without being asked. He corrects Sylvia's compliment on his Southern Hospitality.

"No, this is Cajun hospitality!"

We have Cajun relatives here, who welcome us with traditional  chicken  and sausage gumbo.

Originally known as Acadians, the French Catholic immigrant community was located in what is now Nova Scotia, which, under British rule at the time, was connected to the Church of England. For religious reasons, the Acadians were kidnapped, forced aboard ships and dumped unceremoniously on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico with only the belongings they could carry. Starting over with no resources except their own determination, they developed their own food, music, and culture.

We cleverly take only summer-weight clothing to Lafayette, checking our cold-weather clothes ahead to Pittsburgh. But on the day we leave, the temperature drops to 43 degrees with a cold wind. Back at the unmanned Lafayette stop, after being sheltered in the bus terminal, we board the Sunset Limited once again.


At lunch, we are seated with Rick, a male nurse from  San Francisco. He is shocked by the hovels and boarded-up buildings we are passing.  "They should all be torn down," he opines.  Bayous, rivers, and swamps appear; as well as sea-going oil tankers at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

There is a bottle of Tabasco Sauce on the table, and we pass it to Rick, explaining that our relatives had just taken us on a tour of Avery Island, the quiet green oasis on top of a salt dome where the condiment is brewed. We had enjoyed Tabasco-flavored ice cream and soda pop while there.

"No thanks -- I stay away from  Tabasco. Mom used to sprinkle it on my tongue if I talked back or used bad language."

Crossing the Mississippi on the 4.5 mile long Huey Long bridge, we prepare to de-train in New Orleans, where we must overnight as trains don't connect here. We  spend the night at the historic Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter.

Amtrak Coast Starlight
Amtrak Coast Starlight photo by Craig Bass

Amtrak's Southern Crescent #20 pulls out of New Orleans at 7:05 AM. This Viewliner train is single-level with high ceilings and windows. It hurries along the shore of Lake Ponchartrain. Across Mississippi it swings through swamps and thickets which wear the last traces of fall colors. Wooden barns in picturesque decay come into view. "So much of this area is covered with water!" Sylvia says. "Homes in some Arizona desert locations, where they don't have the option of wells, need to have water delivered by truck."

Ted sighs, "Like so many other situations, it's a distribution problem".

As we de-train in Greenville, SC to visit our son and his family, spring-like weather greets us.

By the time we re-board the Southern Crescent #20 to continue to Washington DC, it's pouring rain and all passengers are soaked. But the car attendant gives us a warm greeting and carries our bags up the steps and into our cozy Viewliner Roomette. This contains an upper and lower bunk and a toilet and sink. The beds are comfortable and the upper bunk has its own window.

Amtrak consistently supplies route guides and timetables for each train which explain on-board services, function of each crew member, etc. Under "Scenic Highlights" for this train, Vibrant Northeast Cityscapes included Atlanta, Washington, DC, and New York City.  Also included in this Scenic Highlights list are the Blue Ridge foothills, which we passed at night.

De-training at Union Station in Washington, DC, we repair to the first class Acela Lounge which features comfortable chairs and handy work spaces, plus free coffee and soft drinks. The station has a large mall area in which everything imaginable is sold, along with a number of things one never knew one needed.

It is possible to walk to some of our nation's icons, including the Capitol Building Dome, between trains.

After a few hours we board the Amtrak Superliner Capitol Limited. Our sleeping car attendant, Nathan, is talking to another employee, saying, "...all I could see was flames, the floor melted, and then it went up in smoke".

"Did this happen on our train?" we wonder.

"Oh, no," he reassures us.  "I was talking about my house, which caught on fire this morning."

How anyone can be calm and efficient after that experience we cannot imagine, but calm he is!

De-training at Pittsburgh, on time at twelve minutes to midnight, we find Ted's brother George waiting for us. Ted's home town, Ambridge, is a 25-minute drive away. We spend Thanksgiving there and visit with many relatives.  

Leaving Pittsburgh by night we're surrounded by an entrancing festival of light. Luminescense from buildings and bridges reflects in the Ohio River. The Gulf Building is capped with an illuminated pyramid; one building features glowing blue stripes. Some high-rises are decorated with Christmas lights of many colors on the roofs or walls.

We set our watches back an hour and look forward to the 25-hour days ahead, as we will gain an hour with each westbound time-zone change.

This train's dining car is newly remolded; it provides some larger booths that seat more than four people. Large families with children are seated there.

We arrive in Chicago, Amtrak's largest hub. In fact, one cannot travel from Pacific to Atlantic without changing trains here.

The old station's grand concourse is available to sit in, and is festooned with extravagant Christmas decorations; it provides a cooler, less crowded option than the added-on Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge for first class sleeping car passengers. The newer section of the building contains the ticket counter and has a food court upstairs; we choose the Metro Deli located near the entrance to the concourse. There are several hotels with fine restaurants within walking distance, and the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) is close, too.

Some chit-chat overheard in the lounge: "Surely we'll see snow in Montana tomorrow?"

Amish families wait here; the men sport distinctive flat hats and beards. They are speaking an unfamiliar language.

Several long-distance trains depart in the afternoon; our Superliner Empire Builder #27 is one of them. Redcaps come into the lounge to take us and our luggage to the sleeping car we've reserved. Two toiletry kits are provided in our room.

The landscape between Chicago and Portland reveals rolling farm country with winter-fallow fields. A few brown leaves cling to skeletons of trees; gray ponds reflect a gray sky. This wintry landscape is restful; it does not seize the eye and demand to be watched.

After dark the train pauses at Red Wing, Minnesota. It has triple-globe street lights, a traditional treat compared to the garish sodium-vapor lights overused in so many places. Freight trains growl past us in the night.

We awake about 4 AM, and see a dusting of snow illuminated by a full moon. Towns are few and small here in the North Dakota prairie.

At breakfast the ember-colored sun begins struggling up over the flat landscape; the train is kicking snow plumes into the air which dim its light to a silver glow.

Fine snow crystals fill the air as we pause at Minot, a service stop for a crew change. The temperature in our sleeper is 73 degrees, but outside the weather is below freezing and people are dressed in heavy layers of warm clothing.  The newspaper reports a low of 6F and a high of 18F.  Passengers are invited to a wine and cheese tasting in the dining car.

Mountains on the horizon, the Bear Paw Range, are so remote that no roads go into the area.

The sun flames out. The Empire Builder climbs through the Rocky Mountains in the dark. We relax with good books.

After midnight, the Empire Builder splits into two segments at Spokane. Our half will continue into Portland, while the other portion heads for Seattle.

We awake with the Columbia River flowing past as a sunbeam guilds the train. Across the river on the Oregon side, the snow-covered volcanic peak, Mt Hood, looms. At breakfast, we hear someone say that school kids in Portland are supposed to carry protective masks in case Mt Hood, like its neighbor, Mt St Helens, should erupt.

The deep Columbia River Gorge is a stark, rocky desert until we reach Bingen-White Salmon; suddenly pines begin to appear on the hills. It's December 4th, yet scantily-clad trees still wear yellow and red foliage. Clad in green, the mighty river gorge becomes the most scenic part of this train's route.

Travelers in the Lounge Cafe reminisce about past trips, detail future trips, and try to one-up each other.

"I've been to all 50 states except Hawaii," a woman claims, "and I'd like to go there to see the palm trees."  We try to tune them out and enjoy the present moment.  

At Portland, on December 5th, we de-train and wait in the first-class Metropolitan Lounge for the last segment of our trip home. Portland provides many diversions; some of our fellow passengers visit the legendary Powell's Book Store. The Chinese Gardens are only a short walk away from the station.

At 2 PM we board Coast Starlight #11, which will complete the grand circle of our route.

After crossing the Willamette River, where seagoing ships are loading, the Superliner threads its way out of the city. Sunshine and verdant fields appear in the Willamette Valley. While it looks like spring outside, the temperature is just above freezing. Our car attendant presents us with chilled champagne.

Of all Amtrak's trains, only the Coast Starlight carries a Pacific Parlour Car, a first-class lounge complete with books and board games. Overstuffed chairs and sofas are arranged in conversational groups. It is possible to have meals in the lounge at booths for two, which gives one the feeling of being in a private club.

As the sun sets, the train climbs into the Cascade Mountains.

We arrive a half-hour early into Klamath Falls, back where we started. We've been gone for five weeks, connected with friends and relatives, and traveled about 7,400 miles.

Amtrak Coast Starlight in snow
Coast Starlight in the snow at Calimus, OR photo by Craig Bass
  Sylvia Blishak can be reached at  

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