The California Zephyr
While she's circling through the canyons, can't you see that mountain stream?
It's the California Zephyr, the Union Pacific Queen
- Hank Williams
I took a cross country train trip last April (and, if you read through that entire blog post - bless you ). I rode all the major Amtrak routes in the west except the Sunset Limited (which I have taken 4 times before - it's wonderful) and, perhaps the most scenic and famous of them all, the California Zephyr. I knew I was missing out by not including the Zephyr but also figured I'd do it in 2023 or 2024 if I was still upright. But, hey, I had earned so many Amtrak reward Points that I qualified for the trip to be my favorite price - FREE and I could do it this year.
This was a short trip compared to my big trip in April. I would jump on the Southwest Chief and head to Chicago... walk over to my hotel and sleep - get up and jump on the Zephyr- sleep in Emeryville and come home on the Starlight. And that's just how it went down. The top photo is of the magnificent sunset on the night of October 13 at the Fullerton Station which I have grown quite fond of...it's a cool old place in a world that seems to value the old and rustic less and less (perhaps this has always been thus).
I got on the train at 6:30 PM and had dinner - it was dark and I went to bed...falling asleep to that gentle rocking and rhythmic "clack clack clack" of the train - I slept so tranquilly... and woke up to the Great American Southwest.
Then it was onward to Illinois. Here is the wide Missouri River with the reflection of the train trestle.
I arrived in chilly Chicago and walked over to my hotel - had a nice dinner and went to bed - thought about going out and listening to music and then I thought - nah - too cold (it was 39F). The next day I had a relaxing morning and walked back to Chicago Union Station - and boarded the Zephyr. The first day would be in the plains and I would wake up in Denver...headed over the Rocky Mountains - in autumn no less...what a dream come true...
Here are some photos from the first day...it was already scenic but I had no idea of the show that was to come.
We arrived in Denver at about 7:30 AM.
We started the long climb up the eastern slope of the Rockies and, man, I wished I could have washed the window. I did take several photos but many were marred by the filthy and spotted window. I really wish Amtrak would wash the windows more often (they're too high for passengers to reach) and certainly before the Zephyr goes over the mountains. I know, after discussions with several other passengers, that I am not the only one with this sentiment. Anyway...I will try to show you a bit of what I saw. I was on the "mountain" side of the train but ran over to the other side when I could. We also went through 29 tunnels and the famous 6.2 mile Moffat Tunnel...all of which were wild, fun and, at times, other worldly. The Moffat Tunnel is an engineering marvel and tragically took the lives of 26 workers while it was being built.
OK here we go...
Often, outside of my room - you could hear audible, "oohs and ahs" from my fellow passengers as we wound through the mountains. Soon we were near the headwaters of the Colorado River. Then we started the magnificent ride down the western slopes...
What an extraordinary day! After another relaxing evening and restful sleep I woke up in Winnemucca, NV.
The train rumbled into Reno and then up through Truckee and over the Sierra Nevada. The Zephyr kept on giving magnificent sights.
Now in California I saw sights I'd never seen before despite living here my entire life. Here is the Sacramento train station.
Soon the train made it's way to my hotel - right along the tracks - in Emeryville, CA.
Up early the next day to the jump on the Coast Starlight and come home. Lately, being the old fool I have become, I often tear up at extraordinary natural beauty. Let's just say it was a teary eyed journey. I sincerely hope I gave you a tiny idea of the wonders of train travel and, in particular, the famous California Zephyr.
See ya soon!
I officially became a geezer in 2022. I'm not sure what milestones you mark in your life but 65, as Ron Burgundy would say, is "kinda a big deal" to me. Moreover, it also marks my 20th year of sobriety. Of course, turning 65 isn't really anything at all except what's in your head. And here's what's in my head... I'm in the autumn of my life and, as the song says, "the days are dwindling down to a precious few." I could make a list of all the people that I have loved and lost in this lifetime - including my parents and grandparents and best friends and cousins and schoolmates but the names would fill this page - I know my time is coming. I wish it wasn't but that's the way this all goes. I am relatively healthy and I need to do the things I've always wanted to do and see some of the things I've always wanted to see. I watched too many of my relatives waste their last days watching TV and sitting on the sofa waiting to die. I want to celebrate being alive while I can. And, by God, that's what I am going to do.
I am a "Travels with Charley" and "Blue Highways" fan and, as a result, originally planned a cross country car trip and while I still have many road trips in front of me it occurred to me that I could take the train and see lots of the country - get fed - and relax in ways that aren't possible when you're driving. Further, I didn't want to be on the road longer than a month. I spent several of the Covid lock down months planning the 10,000 mile trip and it worked out well.
So, let's go. I'll do a short narrative for each day so hold on tight and please remember this is an overview. Several events, by necessity, have been left out but these are most of the highlights. Also, please note that the photos in this post are not high quality - they were often taken through the dirty window of an Amtrak passenger car replete with smudges, reflections and lens flare - nevertheless, since this is a TRAVEL blog, I shall include them - I hope that's OK- the idea is a to provide a summary narrative...it ain't high art.
Oh, and guess what? Apple Music finally acknowledged their problem and fixed it! MY library is back...I listened to some SWEET tunes - maybe I'll share my playlist on another post.
April 11, 2022
It started early on an April morning in Fullerton - just a few miles from home. Lupe dropped me off at 5:45 and I waited - on the wrong platform until about 5 minutes before the Pacific Surfliner arrived. A kindly Amtrak employee inquired if I was headed to LA? Why yes, yes I am. Well, you need to get in to the elevator and cross the tracks the train is almost here. Yikes! So, off I went with my suitcase and Tortuga backpack in tow.
After arriving at LA Union Station I walked to the Amtrak booth to say hello and the agent said, "Hey, you want some coffee"? "Sure!" Well, head on up to the Metropolitan Lounge. This was the first of many lounges that I was to spend time in over the next 3 weeks. Free coffee and snacks are the mainstays of all the lounges but none of them compare to the New York Lounge. Here is the LA Union Station "Metropolitan Lounge":
I waited a few hours and then headed down to Track 12 where we boarded the Coast Starlight bound for Portland, OR. The photo on the lower right was my roomette view in the station.
Excited, I settled in and we headed up the coast. This was my 4th time on the Coast Starlight. The first was back in the early 2000's to celebrate earning my doctorate at USC. That was in December and it was rainy and we were stopped for hours because the tracks were covered in water. This time it was mid April so - I looked forward to the beautiful American spring weather. (This is what is known in the writing business as "foreshadowing".)
I do love the parts of the California Coast that one can only see on foot or by train. I have driven Highway 1 dozens and dozens of times in my life and missed so much of the coast that is only accessible by train. These photos were all taken from my window (as are 90% of the photos in this blog post). The lower photo here is of Gaviota - a place I have visited every year for 10 years.
By the afternoon the train turns inland and you roll through California's extraordinary Steinbeck Country.
The evening approached and I had a fine chicken dinner in the Dining Car. I went to bed early. After all, lots more to see and tomorrow night I'd be meeting the great Lilster, my amazing daughter, who is attending school at Oregon State University in Corvallis for dinner in Portland.
When I awoke in Northern California it was a darn winter wonderland. What the? So much for the mild spring weather. I looked at the weather app and it looked OK in Portland but the route of the Empire Builder - the train from Portland to Chicago which I was scheduled on for 4/13 - looked like it was going to get some real winter weather.
We were delayed for two hours in Klamath Falls due to an Amtrak personnel issue (yeah - I don't know - something about a crew change). I was hoping the snow would clear up but on the ride to Portland it got worse and worse.
As we got closer to Portland the conductor made an announcement that all passengers heading east on the Empire Builder would be terminated at Spokane as the tracks were closed beyond that station. Welp, there it was. As the conductor came by my room I stopped him and told him my situation - that I was headed east on the Empire Builder tomorrow. His response was, "It doesn't look too good". Oh great...I was just starting my journey and already there's was a potential major hiccup. I started looking at the airfares from Portland to Chicago. I had to be on the Lake Shore Limited in 3 days.
The beautiful Willamette River came into view as we rolled into the pretty Portland Station. My sleeping car attendant said goodbye and wished me luck. Lilly was waiting for me and drove us to the Mark Spencer Hotel in Portland. That night we prepared for a possible flight if my train was canceled. Lilly showed me her packing tips - I folded all my shirts into burritos based on her direction. I gave her a bag of some items that I could survive without and which would allow me to perhaps not check both my bags at the airport. Then we went and had a nice dinner at local Mexican joint.
I slept in a bit in Portland and checked in with Amtrak - the train was still running despite the various websites showing service disruptions and closures at stations like Minot, ND. Lilly met me at the Metropolitan Lounge and we waited - sure enough, the train was running after all. No one knew but we would be the last train through for nearly a week - a historic blizzard was bearing down on the Montana Hi-Line.
I sadly said goodbye to my sweet daughter and got on the Empire Builder bound for Chicago. In the over 10,000 miles I traveled on Amtrak I believe the most scenic part of the ride was from Portland to Spokane and through the Columbia River Gorge. It was simply stunning. A few times in my life I have been moved to tears by nature's splendor (OK OK - more than a few times - I am a sentimental old fool) but this was certainly another one of those times. I gazed out the window and relaxed. This then was the trip I'd been planning and dreaming about for over a year. It was happening. The good life...
After an excellent night's sleep I woke up to chilly weather outside. It was 9F but according to the weather app "felt like" -1F. There was snow on the ground but the sun was shining and I looked forward to another relaxing day staring out of the window.
Around 11:00 AM it started to snow. And then it really started snowing. Then the wind began to bend trees over sideways and drifts began piling up. The conductor made an announcement that the next few hours were going to be a challenge and that we should expect delays. He also named several train stations along our route that were not in service because they were snowed in. A hush fell over the train.
In the afternoon we were forced to a siding to wait out the storm. I talked to one of the sleeping car attendants and she told me they were a little nervous. All Amtrak and even the freight trains were now canceled on our track - we were the lone rangers and the only train running. We passengers mumbled worried words to each other and visions of "Train Stranded for Days" headlines ran through our heads.
After about an hour on the siding the conductor announced we were ready to move but there was a frozen switch ahead and that he and some other crew members would need to manually throw the switch. This required him to exit the train in the blizzard and would take him about 30 minutes to accomplish the task if, "it goes like it should". It was a rather nerve-wracking experience for all of us but at least we were warm and inside. Fortunately it went, "as it should" and we were on the move plowing through the snowdrifts.
I ambled down to the dining car and saw the conductor. I thanked him for braving the elements and getting us on our way but before I could finish my compliments we were interrupted by an extremely agitated woman who demanded that we stop at her station even though it was closed. I sat down and listened while the conductor explained that they were not going to drop someone off in a massive and historic blizzard at a closed station. "Cars are not able to get to the station. Amtrak would essentially be stranding someone by dropping them off. It is "CLOSED". I admired his patience but he grew progressively firmer as the conversation went on for maybe 10 minutes - finally the woman asked, "well, what stations are open"? The conductor told her and she exclaimed, "Oh! That works! I can get a ride from there". She got a major eye roll - not just from the conductor but from everyone within earshot. When things get dicey some people are calm and centered and, well, let's just say some others are not. It had been a helluva day. In fact it would be another FIVE days before passenger trains were back on this route.
Woke up - had my coffee and looked out the window at downtown Fargo, ND. Today, if the fates would allow, we would get to Chicago where the temperatures were supposed to be downright tropical - high 40s!
By the time we hit St. Cloud, MN the sun was shining. Oh how welcome it was...
It was a chilly but glorious afternoon in St. Paul as we rolled alongside the Mississippi River. I knew I'd see it again in a week or so but way down south near New Orleans.
Grateful to have made it through the blizzard (how do people live in Minot, North Dakota anyway?!) I spent a very enjoyable afternoon and evening rolling through the farms and fields of scenic Wisconsin. I also must mention two of the greatest employees that work for Amtrak -Lisa and Aiyana. They took amazing care of me when things got weird on the Empire Builder. I'll never forget their kindness and hope they are reading this!
We arrived in Chicago and I had this delivered to my room. Yes, I know Lou Malnati's is not on my diet but, come on, when in Rome...er.. Chicago! And yeah...it was as good as it looks - maybe better.
I went for a long walk in the neighborhood along the Chicago River after I stuffed myself full of pizza but it was too cold and windy - about 36F with 40 MPH gusts. I also saw so many people, all bundled up, enjoying time with one another and got a bit lonely. It doesn't happen often in my solo travels but it did that night. I headed back to my cozy hotel room where I slept for 10 hours - a rare thing indeed.
After spending a lazy day resting in my room and wandering around Chicago I hailed a taxi and went back to Chicago Union Station. Turned out to be the craziest taxi ride of my life. The driver was angry. I asked if he was alright. His answer, "NO- you are only going to train station everyone else is going to the airport! Airport is much bigger fare!". He was driving 65 mph through the streets and then screeching the brakes at every stop. In my experience the people of Chicago are generally quite polite but when this taxi driver cut them off I found that they do have a quite extensive vocabulary and aren't afraid of expressing their displeasure by use of an age old finger gesture. After 15 minutes of Hell I finally arrived at the station - not the entrance mind you - but close enough for me to get the hell out of that cab. Geez. The world seems so angry these days.
Chicago Union Station is HUGE - ten city blocks long and it feels a little intimidating at first but with the help of station personnel it's not too challenging to figure out where to go to eat and to relax. Like most things Chicago I like it. The train platforms are all underground and on my way to my roomette on the Lake Shore Limited I saw this private car and stopped to take this photo. The photo isn't much but in taking it my suitcase and backpack fell and and splattered on the platform. The passengers behind me were not amused so as I put my luggage back together I let them go ahead, muttering, "sorry".
As usual I had a marvelous sleeping car attendant and he assisted me with my luggage and directed me to my room. I was surprised at how different the eastern trains (Viewliners) were from the western trains (Double deck Superliners) - the biggest difference? A sink and toilet in the train compartment.
Again, I slept very well that night. I was on my way to Utica, NY to rent a car and drive to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown - a place I'd wanted to see since childhood. I was stoked. I can remember in High School telling people that I doubted I'd ever get married but, if I did, it would only to be to a woman who wanted to spend our honeymoon in Cooperstown. It was a joke, of course, but it had a sliver of truth to it.
The photo below is of the dining car on the Viewliner. On the train I am always up early, typically the first passenger to arrive in the dining car - there for my coffee and the view.
The Lake Shore Limited is a more scenic train than I had anticipated. It hugs Lake Erie and I enjoyed every minute.
Here is a photo of Buffalo, New York or, "Dirty Old Buffalo" as the great musician and my friend, Gurf Morlix, calls it in one of his terrific songs. It looks like I always thought Buffalo would look - frigid.
Yep! That's snow on the ground! And more was coming. I arrived around noon in Utica on Easter Sunday. No taxis around so I sent for an Uber to take me to my Motel. The driver arrived, it was sunny, and it was only a 5 minute drive to the Best Western. By the time we got there the ground was covered with hail. That was an omen.
I walked through the slush over to a nearby restaurant and had a fine dinner. I returned to my room and went to bed fairly early because I was renting a car at 8:00 AM the following day and meeting my buddy Tom Thrash at the Baseball Hall of Fame around 10:00 AM.
I awoke at 4:00 AM to a storm alert on my phone. A big red STORM WARNING. The next day 12-16 inches of flipping SNOW was supposed to fall. Road closures were predicted. I was supposed to be in Cooperstown for the next two nights. Yikes! (I didn't actually say yikes- just FYI - I used another word). After living in the snow for 30 years of my life the last thing I wanted was to have to deal with THAT - in a car rental - 3000 miles from home.
So, what to do?
I waited until 6 AM and, casting polite behavior to the wind, and because he's such a good dude, I texted Tom and asked him to give me a call when he awoke. Tom had also reserved a room in Cooperstown and I figured he would have an idea of what to do. Five minutes later I was on the phone with Tom and, yes, he knew exactly what to do. The first thing he made clear was that I was not overreacting. Indeed, a big storm was on the way. In fact, he was already planning on not staying in Cooperstown in order to avoid the mess that was surely coming. Thanks to his insight, savvy and kindness we came up with a plan. I would grab my luggage, check out of the Best Western, and get a ride to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Tom would drive the several hours to meet me. We would spend the day at the Hall and then Tom, out of the goodness of his heart, would get me the heck out of there, take me to Poughkeepsie where I could catch the train for my next stop - the Big Apple. It was kind of a genius plan. So, after a very enjoyable ride to Cooperstown through some quite beautiful upstate New York countryside, I met Tom and, after all these years of dreaming about it, we went to the HALL OF FAME!
Look, I know social media stinks and is responsible for much needless angst and stress and plain meanness in the world but my Twitter account allowed me to meet my friend Tom Thrash. Let's see...what is Tom interested in? Baseball (a fellow SABR guy), nature, National Parks, history and trains. Anyone you know who likes similar things? It's uncanny, isn't it? We really are, in many ways, two peas in a pod. And, let me tell ya, we had a damn fine time at the Hall of Fame. Here is the old man with the first group of inductees.
𝐁𝐀𝐂𝐊: Honus Wagner, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, George Sisler, Walter Johnson 𝐅𝐑𝐎𝐍𝐓: Eddie Collins, Babe Ruth, Connie Mack, Cy Young. Not pictured: Mathewson (sadly deceased), Cobb (tardy!).
Yes,. it does appear as if I am sitting in Connie Mack's lap - he was a gentleman and wouldn't say a word.
Speaking of gentlemen. Here's Tom's photo with the first class. Smarter than me he's sitting between Connie and the Bambino.
Pictures don't really do the Hall justice - it is a pilgrimage that all baseball lovers should make. I know, if I stay upright long enough, that I will return. Nevertheless, I will offer a few photos for those of you who might find it interesting. The Hall consists of 3 floors - the docents recommend exploring floors two and three before coming back down to number one to see the plaques. So let's start on the second floor.
The first floor highlight is the Plaque Gallery. I remember hearing the great Tom Seaver talk about how proud he was to have his plaque at the hall and that each time he visited he would run his hand over it - just to make sure it was real. The first photo is my childhood (and adulthood) hero.
Here are a few more plaques - it's just a taste. You should go and see them in person - it was an emotional experience for me. They are vertical photographs and, if you see someone you like, be sure and click to read the entire plaque.
Lastly, here is the statue of the great Buck O'Neil.
After spending several hours in the museum I went to the Gift Shop. As I was checking out the cashier asked, "You staying here in Cooperstown? We are gonna get two feet of snow! I can't believe this is April". She confirmed my worries. "No," I said, "my buddy is driving me to Poughkeepsie". "Your buddy is smart!" she replied. And so he was. My hero Tom drove me all the way to Poughkeepsie. I got a room a few blocks from the train station and avoided the storm - which was huge and did indeed end up closing roads and was, in general, a huge mess. I am including the following photo -it's not mine (thankfully) that I pulled off the internet from a resident of Cooperstown to give you an idea of what happened and how Tom saved my behind from dealing with that wintry drama.
The following photo was taken from my hotel room in Poughkeepsie and I never thought I'd be so happy to be in Poughkeepsie, NY - but, I was, I was. Whew! Now I would spend an extra night in New York City but, hey, I could handle that! What a relief it was to be out of that crazy weather. I am so grateful to Tom for helping me - and I knew in a few days I was headed south to The Big Easy on Amtrak's Crescent and warmer weather.
It was chilly and windy in Poughkeepsie and I went to the Station which was old and drafty and beautiful.
Here is a view from the platform.
The ride on Amtrak's Empire Service was uneventful to New York City and, of course, the minute I got off the train the New York experience hit me - full force. How I love and have loved that city. There was so much to do and see and it had been ten years. My hotel was adjacent to Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. I know not everyone agrees but I think New York City is magnificent. Here are two views from my 33rd floor hotel room.
My first night I had a wonderful dinner at Uncle Jack's Steakhouse on 9th Avenue. It was a bit cold - no snow - and so I walked around for awhile just taking in the perfect madness and rush of the Big Apple. It took me awhile to get it together and get my bearings. It had been awhile and, to use a surfing metaphor, you have to ride NYC like a big wave - it takes a while to stand up on the board and be comfortable when you return. And then, unlike any other city I know, once you do catch your balance, you will go for the ride of your life. There is no place I have ever been that's like it.
I woke up and leisurely walked up to Times Square and the TKTS booth. I was hoping to see American Buffalo with Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell. I got to Times Square about an hour before the booth opened and already there was a long, serpentine line for tickets. That was OK - it was a nippy but sunny day and it felt so good to just feel New York. After some searching, I found the end of the ticket booth line. I heard someone yelling behind me, "SIR! SIR! HEY! HELLO! THAT IS NOT THE END OF THE LINE! - THE END IS OVER THERE". Hmmm, it seemed like someone was yelling at ME. I looked around and the people in front of me pointed to another spot. It was only a few feet away but I had clearly committed a major TKTS faux pas. I moved to the REAL end of the line and a young woman who had observed the entire episode turned around and with a twinkle in her eye said, "Well, I'll guess you'll never make that mistake again!" We both laughed and rolled our eyes. Oh, you fabulous New Yorkers. Embarrass me one moment and let me know that's it's all OK in the next - such is my favorite city.
I was able to score the tickets for American Buffalo and it was even better than I'd hoped. Sam Rockwell is probably my favorite actor these days. He was utterly brilliant. It had been awhile since I'd seen a show on Broadway and now I gotta hurry back.
The next day was devoted entirely to the New York Mets and baseball in the Big Apple.
I was up early to eat a hotel breakfast and then take the Number 7 train to Long Island. When I arrived at Hudson Yards station (the steepest incline in NYC) - the first stop on the line - I was the only passenger. An empty NYC train was an odd experience. It wouldn't stay empty for long. We rolled along and picked up Met fans all along the line until the train was FULL of folks in Mets gear.
It was, for me, another cold day but setting my eyes upon Citifield changed all that. It is magnificent. I am a Dodgers fan but I love the New York Mets and Tom Seaver has been a lifelong favorite and was a fellow USC Trojan. His statute is perfect- and captures his style, competitiveness and unique pitching motion - the drop and drive - extraordinarily well.
Mets fans are a serious and baseball savvy bunch and they follow the game intensely. No selfies or the wave or arriving in the third inning or leaving after the seventh inning. Some west coast fans could learn from them.
A trip highlight happened just before the game started as the players came out to warm up. I saw the Mets first baseman Pete Alonso - a fine player come trotting out and just then a young boy - maybe 8 years old - yanking his mother by the hand came flying down the stairs next to me and ran to the railing while shouting in a perfect New York accent, "OH MY GAWD! IT'S PETE ALAAAAAWNZO!". It absolutely cracked me up and reminded me of every child who has ever fallen in love with a baseball player and finally gets to see them for the first time in person. It always feels like a miracle. My GAWD, I loved that little boy and baseball and all the feelings it engenders.
One last night in New York.
I couldn't sleep so I walked around Hell's Kitchen already missing New York and not having left it yet. Got back to my room and made a melancholy photo while lying in bed. As I grow older each visit to a place I love makes me a bit sentimental and I always wonder...will I be back?
Up and at 'em. I walked across the street to Moynihan Train Hall. It was time to take the Crescent all the way to New Orleans. At last - some warm weather!
We rolled out of New York and my sleeping car attendant wasn't too helpful. Apparently her beau was also on the train so let's just say she was scarce. The spring weather was uplifting as we passed over the Delaware River near Trenton, NJ and Philadelphia and nearby environs.
We picked up speed nearing Baltimore and I clocked the train going 107 mph (there's an app for that called Speedbox).
We slowed down here to cross the Susquehanna River.
I was deeply interested in the next part of my journey. While I am a regular New Orleans visitor I had never seen much of what is considered the "Deep South" other than a visit to Atlanta. As a music nut, and a Delta Blues fan, I had always wanted to travel to Memphis and to see the Mississippi Delta. Moreover, the view from the train often captures a kind of hardscrabble point of view of America - after all, people of means don't usually live too close to the tracks or in a hobo jungle. I wasn't going to get a glossed over chamber of commerce version of the South. As a California man I had lots of stereotypes in my head...just what would my experience be like? One guy on social media said for me to "watch my back". Yeah. OK. I thought at the time that was a racist comment - and still do. The Delta is approximately 85% African American.
In the meantime...the view from my window on the Crescent was mesmerizing. Here are some photos near DC and Baltimore.
I fell asleep in Virginia.
And woke up in Georgia.
The next several hours I had my nose glued to the window taking in the sights. As a man of the West I have become somewhat snobbish about the great outdoors. However, I must say that there is some true scenic splendor in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi that I did not anticipate and brought on my favorite feeling while in nature - a feeling of awe. I hope you enjoy the photos. Here is Alabama:
And my first glimpses of Mississippi.
The photo just above struck me somehow. It is of Meridian, MS the hometown of the great Jimmie Rodgers or as he was affectionately known, the "Singing Brakeman." I envisioned old Jimmy working out there on that particular part of the railroad while dreaming of making music. Regardless, for me it is an evocative photo reminiscent of the past and, oddly, perhaps my favorite of the trip.
We arrived in New Orleans late due to freight train interference which is a ongoing and regular problem with passenger train travel in the United States. If you are an Amtrak traveler you know just what I'm talking about.
Finally, around 9:00 PM I was in the Crescent City. It was a heavenly 79F!
My day in the Big Easy. I woke up and walked to the French QuarterFest. It was hot and steamy and so very welcome. I went to the Chevron stage near Jax Brewery along the River to listen to Cajun Music. As usual in New Orleans it was a party. I often think about the notion that we should let go of the past and stop worrying about the future and focus on the NOW (and try to live accordingly). That viewpoint seems to be the philosophy of New Orleans which is a major reason why it is and will remain one of my favorite places on earth. It's a gas.
What a fine day I had!
After hours of listening to terrific music and chatting with some locals, I ate a delicious gumbo dinner and went back to my room. I got sick to my stomach afterwards and figured it was a passing thing. It was not and would plague me off and on for the rest of the trip and then for a few weeks after I got home - it was a particularly virulent stomach bug (good news -after many doctor visits and tests I am better now!).
The next day I was up early to find my brick at the WWII Museum and then make my way to the train station to ride the City of New Orleans train to Memphis.
Several years ago I made a donation to the WWII Memorial in DC in my relative's names for its construction and for the construction of the WWII Museum in New Orleans. One of the donation opportunities was to fund a brick to be placed outside the museum - and I visited the museum several times after I purchased it but never actually looked for it - until this trip. I didn't have time to explore the museum again but wanted to find that darn brick- the docent located it on the computer and gave me a map and, indeed, I found it. I am proud of ALL who served but in particular my 3 uncles - W.A. (Shorty) Hubbard, Bill Hubbard and Edward Poppe. Each of them served in the Army Air Force and my Uncle Shorty flew 35 missions over Italy, France, Belgium and Germany. He was severely injured as a tail-gunner on a B-17. I am a bit of a WWII historian as a result of my family's influence and service.
Speaking of inspirational people - there is a modest monument to Anne Frank at the Museum and she has been a personal hero to me for as long as I can remember. When I became a high school drama teacher I couldn't wait to direct my own production of "The Diary of Anne Frank"- it remains one of the poignant stories of my life and one of my proudest moments as an educator.
After that short visit I jumped on my next train which is only a few blocks from the museum. I was unprepared for how scenic the initial section of the City of New Orleans train was as it moved north through the bayou country and into Mississippi. The sleeping car attendant caught me staring, slightly agog, and said, "Oh yeah...I see you. I know I should be working but sometimes I just have to stop and look out the window too. Some days I count the alligators. Counted 50 once".
The clouds rolled in as we got closer to my destination of Memphis and the rain fell - very hard at times - and it was dark and beautiful and made my little roomette even cozier.
The train arrived in Memphis about 11:00 PM and I was excited to see that my hotel - the Central Station Memphis was adjacent to the tracks. How convenient. I had been receiving confirming emails from the hotel for a few weeks and it looked great.
Looks can be deceiving.
When I arrived the young lady at the front desk informed me that there was no record of my reservation. I showed her my confirmation number and emails. She said, "Sorry, sir, I have no record of a reservation and we have no rooms" and smiled. That awful smile. It was 11:00 PM and I explained I was tired and none of this made sense and she said, "Call booking.com" - and then, because I didn't leave, she called her supervisor. After several minutes trying to get the phone number for Booking.com I spoke to someone overseas who said, "Oh, they have to find you a room. We will ring them". Finally, the hotel front desk had another person arrive to help - a sympathetic and evidently more experienced employee. She winked and said, "don't worry...we will figure this out." Finally I started to relax a bit until the first employee hung up the phone with her supervisor and said, "DON'T EVER USE A THIRD PARTY. That's your problem."
She then sighed - a huge sigh - and started punching the keys of her computer and then gave me a key to a room - a suite because, "that's all we have".
Wow. What a mess. It was now midnight. I was supposed to get my car rental at 8:30. I got into the room - took a shower and tried to relax -nope - still too wound up by the reservation drama - couldn't sleep - all night. Still, I was thrilled about renting a car and driving through the Mississippi Delta and exploring the home of so many of my musical heroes. How curious and interested I was about my next adventure.
At 7:00 AM I went down to the hotel restaurant, ate a veggie omelette, and then called Enterprise car rental who said they would send someone to the hotel to pick me up at 8:30. I gathered all my luggage and walked outside. It was a nice morning. I waited and no one arrived. At 8:45 I called back and someone said, "we are on our way". At 9:15 I called again and was told, "Sir, we are having a challenge getting you a car". I can't remember precisely what I said but was later told that the guy expected me to yell and that I remained calm and told them I had no place to go and needed a car and that they were to come pick me up and I would wait in their office for a car and didn't give a damn how long it took. So far, Memphis had not been exactly a welcoming place. They sent someone for me.
My grumpy strategy evidently worked and I believe they got tired of my pouting geezer face because within two hours I had a car. It wasn't exactly pretty but it was a car.
Fired up, I jumped in and, of course it was on E, but I got 'er filled up and went directly to Stax Museum.
After spending about 10 minutes inside I thought, "Hey, did I get all my luggage from the Car Rental place?" As soon as I had that thought I received a call from "Enterprise - Memphis".
Hello, Dr. Hubbard? Yes, I know - I'll be right over...
I gathered the suitcase I left behind at the rental agency and decided to get out of Memphis. Soon, windows rolled down in the sticky springtime Mississippi heat, I was driving south on legendary Highway 61.
First Stop - Tunica, Mississippi.
I took my sweet time driving down to Clarksdale. My first stop was to visit Roger Stolle and his fabulous Blues store Cathead. He was as kind and friendly and knowledgeable as expected. If you are a Blues fan and make a pilgrimage to the Delta like me - I strongly encourage you to to make Cathead your first stop. Your mind will be full of ideas about what and who to see and where to go...and you'll walk out and feel like you're going back in time to an earlier era. Right next to Cathead is an old Rexall sign...how many years since I'd seen one of those? 30? 40?
From Cathead I drove to my spot to sleep the next few nights - the famed Shack Up Inn. It was my kind of place. Here was my bit of shangri-la. I was in the "Caddy-Shack".
I sat outside at the shack with a cold drink and meditated and read and relaxed and felt that cool Delta breeze on my forehead. I immersed myself in the feeling of the place. It did feel just as I supposed it would. The problem is that as I imagined it long ago there was too much pain to contemplate. Still, I was grateful to finally be in the place I'd dreamed of seeing my entire life.
Slept beautifully and was up early and off to the crossroads. Yep. Those crossroads.
I wandered around and ended up at the Delta Blues Museum.
I had dinner at Abe's back at the crossroads and tried one of their tamales. Sometimes we Westerners don't realize that tamales are eaten in the South - there is even a "tamale trail". It wasn't too bad although eating it with saltines seemed pretty darn weird.
I spent most of the day exploring the Delta with a visit to the Grammy Museum in Cleveland, MS which is right across the street from Delta State University and in the same town as the Martin & Sue King Railroad Museum. Everyone that day was extraordinarily kind and helpful and generous with their advice and time. Southern hospitality is a real thing.
On my way back to my room at the Shack Up Inn I stopped and made a few photos of the old Hopson Plantation which is adjacent to the Shack Up and the surrounding area.
The next day I made a leisurely drive to Memphis to spend the day at the National Civil Rights Museum and the Lorraine Motel where MLK was assassinated. I also wanted to see the Blues Hall of Fame Museum (of which I am a member). In my life - one leader towers above all the others in my estimation - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His philosophy of non-violence, patience and kindness and love have inspired me my entire life. Thus, it was a deeply emotional experience to see the very place where the world lost him. My breath left me and I had to walk away from other people and gather myself upon witnessing it. In my life I have never seen another site that brought so much sadness for our country and "what might have been". I have not been to Dealey Plaza - perhaps it will have the same impact.
Here are a few other photos I made. I took too many and didn't like any. In candor, I struggled with the fact that this was the place chosen for the Civil Rights Museum - until I saw that Coretta King had agreed to make it so. If she thought it was fine then who am I to doubt it? It is a place that every American should see.
Leaving the Museum was bittersweet but I know I'll be back - hopefully with my grandchildren.
I have been a member of the Blues Foundation for many years. Their museum is located in Memphis directly across the street from the Civil Rights Museum. When I arrived and shared my membership card one of the docents jumped up from her chair and said, "WELCOME We have been waiting for you!". It was too sweet and, of course, I loved it.
Here is - no kidding - Muddy Water's guitar. 😲
Soon it was back to the train station and the City of New Orleans on our return trip to Chicago.
The ride to Chicago and back to the cold weather was uneventful on the City of New Orleans although I had oddly stopped being hungry and, trust me, that it is highly unusual for me. Nevertheless, Arlo Guthrie's version of Steve Goodman's classic song, "City of New Orleans" song was stuck - as it should be - in my head and on repeat. And look! Here is Kankakee! Followed by a few other photos I enjoyed making and that made me hum... "Good Morning, America- how are ya?"
That night in Chicago, despite not having much of an appetite, I walked down the street to the Berghoff and had a Root Beer and a few bites of German food. When I got back to my room at the Central Loop Hotel I checked my Amtrak ticket on my phone and it said, "service disruption". That is trainspeak for, "you are screwed -the train isn't running". I called Amtrak and the agent said, "well, maybe you're getting that information before we are, which often happens, but it looks like your train is still running". That was encouraging - or not. I slept fitfully. I was ready to get on the Southwest Chief and come home - it had been almost 3 weeks.
"Service disruption" no longer was displayed across my iPhone Amtrak ticket. Thank goodness. I took a taxi to the splendid Chicago Union Station. It's really quite a place. Unlike airports (yuck) there is plenty of room to spread out and walk and sit and relax without other people around. There is also no TSA theater where they do things like take away your 6 oz sunscreen because you know... well, actually I don't know.
I got on the train for long trip home. It was beautiful ride - the Southwest Chief is a gem. I was also enthusiastic about going through my father's home town - La Junta, CO on the train where, in the early 1950's, he got on the "El Capitan" and came to Los Angeles and met my mom.
Unfortunately, my stomach issues really kicked in and I wasn't able to enjoy the trip as much I'd hoped. Still - I was able to make a few photos and I hope you enjoy them and they give you a sense of what riding on "the Chief" is like.
We were reaching Colorado and I was able to take a few photos of the place where my dad grew up. I will return this September, in my little Mazda, and visit the graves of my grandparents and Uncle and my last remaining Colorado family who live in Pueblo. The photo below is the "old" train station in La Junta - did my dad walk out those doors? Buy a ticket from that window? Wait outside for the train right here?
These photos are all in New Mexico - the next day I'd wake up in California.
My trip was originally supposed to include a stop in Kansas City - due to Amtrak staffing shortages that part of the trip had to be eliminated - I was bummed at the time but it actually worked out OK. By the time I hit California I was pretty sick from that nasty (and long lasting!) stomach bug. It felt good to be home. And, let's face it, I love California.
What a journey. Of course, a blog post and these photos don't do it justice -if I had the creativity and energy of a younger version of myself I might be tempted to write a short story or novel about it. As it is these words and photos will have to suffice. I can't imagine taking another trip similar to this length on the train - it might happen but I doubt I'd do it solo. Maybe if you came along?
The big Western train I didn't take was the famed California Zephyr - I'll make up for that this autumn. I'll also visit Kansas City when I visit Colorado late this summer while on my Bob Dylan Center and and family ancestry pilgrimage.
This was a long post because, well, it was a long trip. I truly appreciate you reading and allowing me to share. Connecting with people has always meant a lot to me and, after retiring several years ago, I lost my ability to do much of that. Except with you - and for that I'll be forever grateful - and when I say much love to my friends and readers I mean MUCH love to each of you.
May this summer be the best of your life. Thanks again.
Let me leave you with lyrics from a favorite Dylan song that has inspired me these many years and that I thought of often on my once in a lifetime cross country train trip.
"Let me Die in my Footsteps".
Let me drink from the waters where the mountain streams flood
Let the smell of wildflowers flow free through my blood
Let me sleep in your meadows with the green grassy leaves
Let me walk down the highway with my brother in peace
Let me die in my footsteps
Before I go down under the ground
Go out in your country where the land meets the sun
See the craters and the canyons where the waterfalls run
Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho
Let every state in this union seep down deep in your souls
And you’ll die in your footsteps
Before you go down under the ground.
This will mostly be a journal of my travels. I may include other items that interest me. Feel free to join in.