I Spent 36 Hours On Amtrak's Sunset Limited Train To Break Out Of My Post-Graduation Rut

The Sunset Limited is Amtrak’s oldest continuously running line. Since 1894 it has been the train line closest to transcontinental, at one point connecting California and Florida.
Publish date:
March 14, 2014
travel, trains

“Nobody on a long-distance train is ever really alone” Nathaniel Rich, How to Spend 47 Hours on a Train and Not Go Crazy, February 28th, 2013

In the days and weeks surrounding my college graduation I found myself in a rut. I had forgone plans to apply to law school, changed my mind about where I would be living no less than three times in one month, and had no job opportunities. After four and a half years I had a liberal arts degree and a wealth of knowledge but no marketable skills besides knowing how to read and write.

I finally had time to do whatever I wanted but I spent most of time doing nothing. A trip to the Natural History museum sent me into a panic. I couldn’t enjoy the exhibit on the caves of Lascaux because I was so stuck in my head, doubting every decision I had ever made. Instead of working or preparing for law school I was telling everyone I wanted to be a writer. But I wasn’t thinking or living, let alone writing. So I did the only thing I’ve ever known how to do: escape.

My decision to take the train from Houston to Los Angeles came from out of nowhere. One day I looked up train prices, and three days later I bought a ticket, boarding the train only four hours later. In fact, the reality that I would be on a train for 36 hours and 1,995 miles only truly hit me the next day when I woke up on the train.

The Sunset Limited is Amtrak’s oldest continuously running line. Since 1894 it has been the train line closest to transcontinental, at one point connecting California and Florida, but now only connecting New Orleans and Los Angeles.

When I was little my mom used to show me pictures of the Grand Canyon through her old fashioned viewfinder. She had taken the train with her family from Chicago to Los Angeles every year, feeding her passion for the Southwest. In the 1950s the train went through the Rocky Mountains- now if you take the train from Chicago you make a connecting stop in San Antonio with the Sunset Limited. My mom grew up and traveled through Arizona and New Mexico, even riding down the Grand Canyon on mules twice.

I’m not sure if I came to love the Southwest because of my mother, or because it really is the land of enchantment. I spent my childhood taking long road trips around the East Coast, and occasionally into Canada. My dreamy landscapes were made up of forests and autumn leaves on the northbound I-95. Save for a few trips to visit my grandmother in Sun City, Arizona, my adventures in red rock canyons didn’t happen until high school.

I’d never set foot in New Mexico or west Texas until I was 16. After a winter break trip to Sedona with a stop at the Grand Canyon, I finally understood why my mother was so drawn to the place. Even as a cynical teenager I saw just how beautiful Arizona was. There was something so peaceful about the desolate red canyons.

Five years later I went to Santa Fe with my mom. In those five years we had moved, lived through her divorce, sent me off to college, then France, and home again. On the car ride from the airport in Albuquerque to the hotel in Santa Fe, I felt myself surrounded by the same peaceful beauty as I had in Arizona. At 21 I was coming off a particularly rough year, feeling more broken than ever before. But there was something about the air, the mountains, that ever present red rock, that calmed me more than any drink ever had.

At 23, I was the same girl I was at 16, and 21, only less broken and now with a college degree. Unemployed, anxious, and hungry for something to write about, I booked the train ticket to Los Angeles. We left the station in Houston around 9 PM after a three hour delay due to a fire in the dining car. It wasn’t until around 1 AM that we arrived in San Antonio. At the station I went outside and smoked a couple cigarettes, bought some diet soda and bottled coffee drinks, and then jumped back on the train.I settled into my row of seats and fell asleep.

In the morning, I woke up at 7 AM. After searching for coffee I settled down in the Sightseer car. I had picked my seat based on proximity to the Sightseer car, only two rows from the connecting cabin. The walls of this lounge car are made up of floor-to-ceiling windows, with rows of blue and white seats and little tables. The Sunset Limited is a double-decker train with luggage and cafe cars on the bottom and seating and sleeping cars upstairs.

Drinking my coffee, I looked out at the empty landscape. So little of West Texas made an impression on me because there’s so much open, empty, space.

The Pecos Bridge is the highest river bridge in the United States, and was our first landmark sightseeing event of the day. I eagerly looked out my window and took pictures of the bridge on my phone to send to my mom. As the manager of the cafe car directed our attention to the left window and told us a little history of the Pecos Bridge, my neighbor began yelling that the conductor must be on drugs. “He’s smoking the dope! He’s on crack! He’s doing crystal meth!” I really wasn’t sure what to make of this. I was quite certain the man teaching us the history of a river bridge was stone-cold sober, but the man carrying on about drugs was probably not. I silently cursed him for interrupting my sightseeing.

There was a family of four nearly identical brothers, with slicked back dark hair and matching black suspenders. They were German Baptists traveling to Arizona from Chicago. These brothers traveled together throughout the train, like a small pack. It was eerie to see them all lined up.

The stops in between San Antonio and El Paso are some of the least served Amtrak stations in the country. One notable stop is Alpine, TX, not far from the artsy oasis of Marfa. Alpine was the first smoke stop. It was practically summer out, near the mid-seventies. Everything about the stop at Alpine was charming, from the little store fronts to the hand-painted car in the parking lot.

After Alpine it was more empty space until we reached El Paso. Past El Paso is New Mexico, and then Arizona, the heart of the Southwest.

Whenever I’m traveling someplace beautiful, I get so wrapped up in the moment that I forget to take any pictures. I have pictures of the tired and grey Amtrak station in Houston, the Pecos Bridge, Alpine. But no pictures of crossing through El Paso and the haunting juxtaposition of Ciudad Juarez, and the border crossing. And no pictures of those canyons, the very reason I took the train in the first place.

I spent time just looking out the window while the train traveled on a thin strip in between the red rocks. To write about it as it was happening or take pictures would have somehow tainted it. There was something so archaic about taking a long-distance train, it felt wrong to take out my phone or waste valuable time I could have spent looking out the window to jot down notes. I could write about it once we’d lost the daylight hours and there was nothing to see but darkness.

For those hours between El Paso and night time, time stopped for a little bit. Cell service was limited and there was no internet on the train. People talked to their seatmates, read, slept, played cards. I alternated between looking out the window and watching my fellow passengers.

In the row in the front of me were a man and a woman who couldn’t have been more than ten years older than me. They hadn’t known each other when they boarded the train but in between Houston and Los Angeles but I watched them grow closer over the course of the journey. By the time we were in New Mexico they were sleeping in each others arms and they got off the train together in Los Angeles.

When I got off the train at Union Station at 9 AM, one and half days after boarding, time started up again but I wasn’t the same. I was exhausted, ready for a shower, and still unemployed.

But there was a sense of calm in the air. It was sunny and the air felt lighter- everything felt lighter. In the rusted, dusty beauty of the Southwest I let everything go for a little bit and I came out on the other end a little less broken.