Friday, August 11, 2017

Flagstaff to Chicago on the Southwest Chief: Part 1

Riding the rails cross country is somehow both familiar and completely foreign. Though the landscape may remind you of road trips past, the tracks wander loose from highways and veer into the unknown, through canyons, backyards and farm fields. And though many elements are the same as airline or bus travel (cramped bathrooms and sloppy sinks, sitting next to strangers, long hours and delays) a train trip is a completely different animal; its own wild and romantic universe.  

Amtrak’s Southwest Chief only tops about 60 mph at its quickest, a speed ideal for humans to process, so the first few hours of the trip east to Chicago is an easy preamble. I stretch out, decompress from the previous night’s nervous arrival in downtown Flagstaff.

First leg of the train trip- Driving to Flagstaff, 50 miles.
It’s a scenic 62 mile drive in a vintage yellow car from Clarkdale, anxious across a blazing hot summer valley and then calmingly cooler up the rim into the high country. 
Train #4 arrives from the west around 4:00am, when it’s on time (which is seldom). Due to the wee hour and nerves about hitting an elk in the dark or having a mechanical breakdown and missing my train, I drove up the night before and lay my head in a tiny room at the Weatherford Hotel til train time.  Amtrak has a long term parking , free, and a short walk from the depot in an unwatched, fenceless lot behind a bus turnaround. We’ve lived in Flagstaff and know it tends to be full of wandering weirdos especially during the summer season. I put faith in the universe that a hobo won’t take up residence in my Karmann Ghia during the week it’s left unattended, but it’s hard to walk away. I check the locks too many times. I stop and gaze back to it as it gets smaller and smaller, with just a street lamp to keep it company.

6-17- hotel weatherford long exposure- 24 seconds

The Weatherford Hotel is a Flagstaff classic. Built in 1899, it exhibits so many wonderful historic features: tall ceilings, transom windows above the doors, comforting smells (reminding me of many old buildings I have known and loved), creaky staircases, lovely downtown vistas, wrap-around balcony, great location. I loved all of this. Flagstaff is a college town and the hotel and bar staff is young and friendly.  I stayed one night in room 59, adjacent to the Zane Grey Ballroom. The management had warned me when I booked this room that though it was their most economical it was also potentially their noisiest. That said, the room wasn't noisy because of the Zane Grey Ballroom-- though that bar did slowly start to build to a crescendo around 11:00pm, it was a steady, flat din that didn't bother me. Mainly the room was noisy due to the Charlie's bar below. There was a thumping baseline of loud music and crowd sounds, though as customary in downtown Flag, the worst noise is people shouting on the streets til 2:00am. That's what happens everywhere in downtown Flagstaff. I worked at the Hotel Monte Vista up the street years ago and we received the same complaints from guests then. Young people having tipsy conversations at amplified volume on the sidewalks late at night. All of downtown is like that. There is no train noise to speak of, just loud humans shouting to each other. Despite the clatter and commotion outside the open summer window, the experience of spending a night at a classic hotel was not negateds. Eventually those bar folks do simmer down and stumble home. After 2:00am the streets grew quiet.

6-17 hotel monte vista neon- sx70

Before bedtime I enjoyed a Lumberyard Red Ale (brewed just the other side of the tracks) on the balcony with some new friends, Flagstaff locals who invited me to sit and talk with them. Nice cool mountain breezes and fun conversation about changes in town we'd seen since the 1990s. The Weatherford is classic Flagstaff, a focal point for visitors and locals alike.  I had fun hanging out at the Weatherford for one short summer night. It is a "real" place.  And one beer, at 7,000 feet, is equivalent to 2 beers at 3,500 feet, my usual elevation. 
Right to my head. 

At pre-dawn I gathered my gear for the short walk to the train depot, with my printed e-confirmation in hand. The boarding procedure is kinda whack. Nobody checked my ID or suitcases at any point on this trip, which made me nervous in a TSA/Homeland Security kinda way. Sure it's a pendulum swing way back in the other direction from airport security-- I didn't have to get x-rayed or take my shoes off...but do they really know who is riding that train and what they're carrying with them? Seems like a serious security breach bound to happen.

6-18 morning at flagstaff train station waiting for the southwest chief train 4 (late!)

The train is late by nearly two hours and the sun is up by the time it arrives. Traveling solo I'm curious about how I'll be seated and the people I will meet. A few passengers exit, Flagstaff their destination, freeing up seats for the dozen or so travelers waiting track side. The conductor directs those heading to Chicago towards the rear of the train, the final car for the final destination of Train #4. They have a process, a shorthand, to keep track of passengers and departure points. People exiting in New Mexico and Colorado were seated more towards the front, Kansas and Missouri towards the middle and folks bound for the Windy City at the very end of the line. 

My ride to Chicago

I was assigned a window seat next to a father traveling with his grade-school age sons. Kelly, a former Marine, an artist and sometime poet and rapper, rode Amtrak to California every summer to collect his sons for their annual summer visit to Berwyn, Illinois. They were on the second leg of the trip, back to Chicagoland. 
Trey, Kelly and Jaden

Handsome, polite and friendly, gentlemanly Kelly was the ideal person to be seated next to on a train ride, and I enjoyed talking with him for hours, til I developed a kink in my neck from looking sideways back at him in his aisle seat. His sons were seated across the aisle. Further up, a young bohemian mom traveling to Maine with her young daughter. Behind us, a wacky older woman, chattering endlessly about her trip to the Kiwani Club national gathering in Indianapolis. She was both overly social as well as socially awkward, as she's lecture people on various topics or butt into or trample atop conversations already taking place.


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