l.a. to denver on the southwest chief


After spending some time with family and friends in Los Angeles this summer, I headed for Denver and Boulder to visit more family and more friends.  I decided to take the Southwest Chief, an Amtrak line that runs from Los Angeles to Chicago via Albuquerque and Kansas City.  There’s no direct route to Denver on the Chief, but you can transfer to a bus in Raton, New Mexico, that will take you all the way to Denver’s historic Union Station.  Since the Southwest Chief departs from Union Station in L.A., there’s something that feels weirdly self-contained about the whole trip, like getting off the merry-go-round at the exact place you got on, except now you’re in an entirely different city.

Union Station in L.A. is one of the last great rail stations in the United States, a monument to a once-thriving culture of rail travel that has now almost entirely vanished.  The building opened in 1939 and was designed by John and Donald Parkinson, the architects who designed Los Angeles City Hall.  Wikipedia gives a fantastic and baroque description of Union Station’s architectural provenance:

The structure combines Dutch Colonial Revival Style architecture (the suggestion of the Dutch born Jan van der Linden), Mission Revival, and Streamline Moderne style, with architectural details such as eight-pointed stars.

It’s all true, of course, but one of the most interesting aspects of Union Station is how positively Californian it feels.  The palm trees outside help, as do the Mission elements, but there’s also something incredibly cinematic about this station; it feels almost as if it belongs in a classic film noir, or perhaps a romantic comedy involving missed trains and chance meetings.  To my mind, most classic train stations seem to have this sort of cinematic quality about them, which probably has as much to do with the visual dramatics of monumental social architecture as it does with the sound of hundreds of pairs of clicking heels maneuvering rapidly through the stations to meet their trains.  But sadly, most of the magnificent train stations in the United States have been destroyed and replaced with highways, parking lots, and postal sorting stations.  Over at The Infrastructurist you can read an amazing post about eleven great train stations that have been reduced to rubble (with photographs!).

Sleeping cars on Amtrak trains are pretty expensive, so I decided to rough it by going coach.  If you decide to sleep in the coach-class seats, there are a couple of things you need to know: 1) The seats are fairly large (much larger than airplane seats) and there’s tons of legroom.  If you can sleep easily on a plane or a bus, you’ll be set.  2) You’ll need to bring earplugs because the train makes stops throughout the night and there are often people moving around the car.  I need earplugs on airplanes too, so maybe I’m just an earplug kind of guy, but I would strongly recommend bringing a pair.  3) You’ve got to provide your own blanket.  The Southwest Chief can get pretty cold as it travels through the desert at night and if you don’t bring a blanket or a sleeping bag, you’re not going to get much sleep.  4) There is no Wi-Fi.

The Southwest Chief vaguely parallels the famous Route 66 as it makes its way through California, Arizona, and New Mexico.  I myself followed Route 66 as closely as possible on a cross-country motorcycle trip that I took after graduating from university, so the course of the train through the desert felt familiar in a dreamlike way.  Here’s a bit from the notebook that I was carrying with me on the Chief:

The Chief leaves L.A. in the evening and right away I meet Melvin, who is Navajo and works as a caterer.  He grew up in Gallup, New Mexico, and takes the train home because it’s the most convenient way to get there (the nearest airport is a five-hour drive from Gallup, so it doesn’t make sense to fly).  He grew up on the reservation and says he needed to get out for some adventure, though he loves the familiarity of the land when he comes home.  In the morning, just into New Mexico, the earth is red and the mesas begin to crop up and then we hit the desert proper, absolutely stunning in form and color.  It’s too bad that the Southwest ‘style’ had to get exported and expropriated  because it’s so appropriate and right for the desert, but so intensely ugly and cliché when it finds its way into suburban cul-de-sacs.  The train passes the red cliffs, tepees, and “Indian Jewelry” signs on Route 66 (actually I-40 now) that I rode past when I took a Suzuki GS400 cross country.

One of the most interesting Fourth of July celebrations that I ever attended took place during the desert leg of my motorcycle trip.  I had a friend who was working as a park ranger in Chaco Canyon at the time, and I had decided to visit her for a few days.  This friend also happened to be an anthropologist and I figured she would be the perfect guide to the Anasazi kiva sites at Chaco Canyon.  I wasn’t wrong about this; over the course of several days we visited most of the major kiva sites in the region, including Pueblo Bonito, Nuevo Alto, and Kin Kletso.  As we walked we came across several well-known sites where pottery shards are collected, and we visited some of the important petroglyph sites including a stunning depiction of a comet that’s painted onto the side of a cliff.  One of the most interesting things we came across, however, was a depiction of a submarine carved into one of the stone walls at one of the lesser-known kiva sites.  This carving is most likely a record of Navajo military service during WWII — some 44,000 Native American soldiers served during WWII, including the famous Navajo code talkers — and it reveals the connection that many Navajo feel with a past that they consider themselves to be a living part of.  Anthropologists and the park service, on the other hand, claim that the Anasazi are not, in fact, historically connected to the Navajo people and they tend to look on these contemporary petroglyphs as a kind of defacement of important historical sites.  Because of the conflicting claims that surround this historical site, there’s not a little tension between local Navajos — one of the Navajo reservations butts up against the federally-managed Chaco Canyon — and the officials, anthropologists, and park rangers who are in charge of preserving the kivas.  With this in mind, on to the Fourth of July story.

Because Chaco Canyon is a national park, there are absolutely no fireworks allowed; however, a local Navajo land owner was willing to donate the use of one of his fields for a Fourth of July party.  The rangers at Chaco had loaded themselves up with a huge supply of every type of firework that you can imagine, and an equally huge supply of booze.    The day of the fourth came and went, however, but the party never happened because the winds were too strong to set off fireworks safely.  So on the night of the fifth we drove several miles outside the perimeter of Chaco Canyon national park, out along a dirt road, and finally into the middle of a field where there was nothing else in sight other than a large storage tank of some sort.  The rangers had brought the local firetruck with them and parked it in the middle of the field, just in case things got out of hand.  A bunch of Navajo parents had brought their children out to see the fireworks display, which turned out to be an almost violently incendiary event.  There was a lot of drunkenness going around when the fireworks were set off, and by the time the bags of explosives were empty several bits of the field and at least one ranger had caught on fire.  There was a festive air about the event, and the Navajo children ran around in the midst of the party enjoying themselves immensely, but as the party began to get louder and more chaotic I began to wonder what all the Navajo parents, lined up along the road and watching with expressionless faces, must be thinking.  Here we were, interlopers on Navajo land, celebrating an Independence Day that had ultimately resulted in the stripping of freedom, land, and liberty from Native Americans across the entire continent.  After the party was over and the last of the fireworks burned out there were thanks given to the owner of the land and then everyone moved off into the night.  Given the structural context it was almost impossible for me not to think of Frederick Douglass’s great speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?”:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?  I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.  To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.  There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

On the same cross-country motorcycle trip, I also visited the petroglyphs just outside of Albuquerque at Petroglyph National Monument.  These petroglyphs are different than the ones at Chaco Canyon in that they are inscribed with a more complicated and layered history of the peoples who have passed through the region, including Pueblo, Apache, and Navajo people, and later, early Spanish explorers and settlers.  Sadly, suburban settlers from the rapidly expanding city of Albuquerque have also begun to leave their marks and the incredible rock drawings in the area are in constant danger of being defaced.  The drawings on the rocks include images of spirals, birds, hands, serpents, crosses, and cosmic beings.  There are more than 20,000 petroglyphs in all.

Here’s a bit more from the journal that I kept while riding the Southwest Chief:

When the train stops in Albuquerque, I step off to pick up some Native-American jewelry as a present — a small silver pendant with a turquoise inlay.  I think about my great-grandmother, Nora, and all the time I used to spend with her in Albuquerque when I was young.  Then the train moves north, and I think about Placitas, where I saw the first snow that I can ever remember.  I was so excited that I ran outside with bare feet and ended up accidentally stepping on a cactus leaf that was buried in a drift of snow.  Later the train moves through Las Vegas, the first time I’ve ever seen the town where a relative of mine spent several years stuck in a mental institution.

From the train window I can see a fox standing by the edge of a fence, watching the train as it goes by.  For some reason this makes me think about the famous Bugs Bunny line, “I knew I should have made a left turn at Albuquerque.”

But the funny thing is, the Southwest Chief does take a left at Albuquerque and ends up paralleling I-25 as it heads north toward Colorado.  All through the afternoon the clouds had been growing thicker and thicker and finally, as we began to move up alongside I-25, we entered into real storm-cloud territory.  The New Mexico landscape is some of the most spectacular in the world, but the cloudscapes in the desert can be equally incredible.  The area along I-25 is an area of lightning and mesas, of thunderclouds and arroyos and the potential of flash floods.  And mostly, horizon, as far as can be seen.


3 Responses to “l.a. to denver on the southwest chief”

  1. 1 Maureen Murphy

    Hi, I have just read your travelogue of your journey on the Southwest Chief which was really interesting and informative. We are currently planning a trip from Chicago to the Grand Canyon on the Southwest Chief and I wonder if you could give me some information on the layout, etc.

    My husband is disabled and walks with the aid of crutches. Looking through all the photos, I just cannot see one of the stairs and I’d be grateful if you could give me some idea of these – for example, do they have a handrail either side, how many steps and how steep.

    We live in England and have never travelled by rail in the US before – this trip certainly looks great but if we spend all of the time on the lower deck, I am not sure how good the trip would be.

    Thanks and regards.

    • 2 Trane DeVore

      Hi Maureen,

      Sorry to take a bit of time to reply to your comment, but I’ve been busy with work lately (and with watching the World Cup too, I have to admit). I’ll try to answer your question about the stairs, but I have to admit that I’m going purely from memory and it would be best to confirm these details with an Amtrak representative.

      From what I remember, the stairs are quite steep but there is a handrail. All the best views are definitely from the upper deck, although the views from the lower deck aren’t bad, so I wouldn’t completely discount the trip even if you think that you might end up spending a lot of time on the lower deck. The biggest issue I can foresee is that the bathrooms are all on the lower deck (as far as I remember) while the dining car and the viewing cars are top deck. There’s also a lounge where you can buy some drinks and snacks, but that’s on the lower deck. I haven’t spent any time in the sleeper car area, so I have no idea what the setup is like there.

      There are a couple of things you should take into account before deciding whether or not you want to take the Southwest Chief: 1) Although the train was perfectly on time when I took it, there are horror stories about incredible delays on all these scenic Amtrak lines that run through the western U.S. (I’ve heard of delays of up to 12 hours). If you’re on a tight schedule and being strictly on time is important to you, you may want to schedule some extra time in for potential train delays. 2) The Amtrak is totally great and relaxing and the views are phenomenal, but it really isn’t what one would call a “luxury train.” The food, while certainly passable, is nothing special and the interior of the train is pretty average — in fact, it pretty much feels like riding in a standard commuter train.

      That much said, I spent a total of about 70 hours riding Amtrak trains last summer and I loved every minute of it. The views were wonderful, I made fast friends with some fellow passengers, the staff were really great, and the trains were always on time.

  2. 3 Mari

    Thank you so much for sharing all of that. Extremely helpful. I’m traveling coach on the Southwest this September and doing some research ahead of time. Your tips, pics and journal sharing were helpful and entertaining.

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