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Sunset Limited
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Sunset Limited
« on: Dec 14th, 2009, 1:20am »
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The following article appeared in saturday's Sydney Morning Herald travel section. It also appeared in The Age (Melbourne).
It may be of interest in that it identifies many American customs and attitudes viewed from and outsiders perspective.
Waken the Sleeper  
Helen O'Neil
Three weeks driving through America's Deep South and I'm ready to go postal. The fury has built up slowly. There was the south Florida beach club, where all the members seemed to be white, all the service staff black and everyone intent on not noticing a thing; the doting father keen to teach his girls, aged eight and 10, how to fire a gun so they could protect themselves against attackers he felt sure were about to pounce; the radio shock-jock who believed Barack Obama's every move on healthcare reform was controlled by alien forces, and the woman who practically begged me not to visit the west coast.
"Because of the bushfires?" I asked. "Because of the [Democrat-voting] liberals," she replied. I need a break, so we dump the car and hit the train - Amtrak's Sunset Limited, a double-decker, silver leviathan that thunders from New Orleans in Louisiana across the southern rim of the US to Los Angeles, on the California coast.
The Sunset takes about 46 hours to travel 3210 kilometres through two nights and three time zones. It's one of the oldest and most famous train rides in the country and of all the ways to cross this deeply divided nation, it is undoubtedly the most democratic.
Fares range from the cheap - recliner "coach" seats cost $US133 ($145) - to the steep - bedrooms are $US645 a person or $US778 twin share. The Sunset slices through the continent carrying passengers who represent a cultural cross-section of the nation.
Until Hurricane Katrina washed out the tracks in August 2005, this train sped all the way from Los Angeles to Orlando in Florida. It might again, depending on cash and Congress, but for now, the most easterly station is New Orleans and, for sleeper ticket-holders, the journey begins in a private waiting room called the Magnolia Room.
This under-lit lounge is rather like the rest of New Orleans: down-at-heel charm, wafting strains of jazz and an intermittent aroma of something disconcertingly damp. But America's Great Divide echoes still. Magnolia Room guests can watch lesser ticket-holders through one-way mirrors facing the general waiting area; and when boarding begins, Magnolians are ushered on first, striding like reluctant celebrities through the sea of other passengers.
We climb inside the train, scoot along the upper deck to find our roomette (the cheapest of the sleepers), slide the door firmly shut and take a deep breath. Which is about all you can do. More "ette" than "room", our sleeping quarters have two facing armchairs (which presumably convert into bunk beds) but beyond that, there is barely enough space in which to sneeze. That said, if you're not the size of the average American, two can squeeze into a single chair. This proves to be handy for watching movies on the laptop after dark.
At 11.55am, the Sunset begins to move. A perky woman's voice, one of the on-board attendants, rings out across the intercom. Apparently, footwear is important on this "rock and roll" ride: "You need to wear your shoes, and your children's shoes, at all times." That could be tricky.
We edge beyond the city, pastwounded homes seemingly still waiting for their post-Katrina makeovers and a lonely row of clothes hung out to dry on a bridge's iron girder.
There's a knock on the door. It's George from the diner, wanting to know when we'll have lunch (meals are included in our sleeper tickets). Another announcement: we're crossing the Mississippi River on the Huey P. Long Bridge, which at 6.7 kilometres is aptly named. Soon, there's nothing beyond the windows but lush, damp bayou. It is beautiful, relaxing and silent. Until another announcement. It's George, chanting sing-song style: "Lunch in the diner; lunch in the diner."
George's diner is "open seating", which means the waiters decide with whom you'll sit. Our lunching partner is a woman taking her two grandchildren from their home in New Orleans to her home in Los Angeles. The baby, who is travelling in her arms in the "coach" recliner seats, gurgles happily on her lap. The three-year-old is gobbling deep-fried bits of something chicken-y and trying to spot boats and cowboys in the bayou.
An unspoken question hangs in the air: "Because my daughter's got herself into a 'situation'," the grandmother volunteers. "It's going to be a long trip."
After lunch, we wander to the observation car and find some seats. On my right, a teenager is deep into his Game Boy. On my left, a man has started telling some newly made friends what turns into a three-hour story about his car crash in 1981. A chap in a towelling hat checks whether a nearby table is free. Whipping out a bottle of disinfectant, he sprays every surface, including the chairs, before rubbing the area dry with paper towels and settling down for a game of solitaire.
Outside, the swampland is punctuated by crumbling houses and signs on poles announcing "Jesus is the answer". We pause at New Iberia ("unlimited mortgages", a tattered poster claims unconvincingly) to pick up and drop off more passengers.
By 5pm, we're in rice-paddy territory and Lake Charles, the last Louisiana stop before we hit the Texas border. A thirtysomething woman boards, leaving behind her crying daughter with what might be her grandparents. An hour or so later, we're in the Lone Star State.
Our dinner companion is a deferential gentleman in suit trousers and a carefully pressed white shirt. When supper's done, he starts to speak. He is retired; he lived in Atlanta before moving to Los Angeles 32 years ago and he's now on his way home from a visit. His first train arrived at New Orleans about 8.30 last night and he slept in the city bus shelter, where the police wouldn't let him use the comfortable chairs because they were apparently too close to the door. He didn't want to cause any trouble, he says. In fact, he usually walks away if he sees a police officer; says he's heard of too many unprovoked shootings of black people like himself and he has no intention of becoming another statistic.
Smiling gently, he says goodnight and wanders back into the belly of the train.
We retire to our snug sleeping quarters after dark. The landscape is withering aswe watch and by the next morning Texan desert is unspooling into the distance.
Breakfast is eaten against a beautiful orange backdrop peppered with cacti, jack rabbits and US patrol cars making sure everyone stays on their own side of the nearby Mexican border.  
We dine with Jessica, the woman we saw last night saying goodbye to her daughter. Her husband has begun his second stint in the army, she says, and she's off to set up the family home near El Paso.
She joined the US Air Force because she didn't want to work in Walmart like all her friends but she quit after two tours. The 9/11 bombings resulted in a flood of recruits who wanted to "kill them all", she grimaces. Now those people are in charge and she doesn't want to return. By 9.09am, near the Del Rio stop, there's nothing but Mexico on the left-hand side of the train. In the observation carriage, a retired electrician from Seattle admits he's addicted to this journey - it's the 10th consecutive year he has ridden the Sunset.
Talk turns to the hunting huts on stilts appearing on the US side of the Sunset.
"I don't know about that lifestyle," says the electrician. "Those folk hide in there with a beer in one hand and a gun in the other, all ready to shoot Bambi. They probably think I'm mad. I'd rather be on my dirt bike."
An hour later, we're looking through heat haze at the Rio Grande, steep-sided canyons, the Pecos River and the parched, fantastically desolate Chihuahuan Desert.
Inside, a storm is on the way. "Little towns out here, they don't have Greyhound bus; they don't have taxi cabs," says an attendant's steely voice over the intercom. "They don't have much of anything. So if you get put off for smoking on the train, you will be out here until someone you know drives past and picks you up."
Twenty minutes later, the voice is back: "If you are caught smoking on the train, the next stop will be your last and that would be a shame because at Amtrak, we do like people to get to their final destination."
Black birds of prey soar high above the Sunset's sheer, glass windows. The rock formations are almost white now as the train cuts through dry gorges covered in gargoyle-like formations.
The cacti are so big they seem to be turning into triffids. In the distance, the Glass Mountains - more than 1800 metres high - are pricking the blue sky.
"This is cool," says a twentysomething man with a missing tooth and a T-shirt saying: "You've been a bad girl. Go to my room". He marvels at the mountains. "I've looked at pictures of this all my life. I never thought I'd really see it."
Lunch is with Russell and David, who are on their way home from an occupational therapy conference. Russell supports the proposed healthcare reforms.
His mother moved from New Zealand to the US when she fell in love with his father, who died after a protracted illness. She had to sell their house to cover the medical expenses. David thinks Obama will be assassinated.
"There's so much hatred permeating this country right now," he says. "It's a frightening time here. It is just so polarised."
We pass through an electrical thunderstorm and stop at El Paso. For non-smokers, its main point of interest is as the place where the US and Mexico meet. For nicotine addicts, it's the last smoking stop for almost six hours.
As the train pulls east to New Mexico, a group of African-American men and women start a raucous game of cards in the observation car. A redhead man with "Aryan" tattooed down his left arm sits scowling at them.
We head into the restaurant car to dine with two tax accountants from Oregon who reveal that whichever way you travel on the Sunset, Arizona is crossed at night in total darkness. After dinner, the card game is still on; as is the scowling match. When the train pauses unexpectedly, half the card players and the Aryan try to jump off for a smoke. All are unceremoniously shoved back on the train. They return, laughing ruefully, and suddenly it looks as though the Aryan might join the card game. The moment passes but so does his scowl and the tension that has been brewing.
That night, our roomette seems larger somehow. We wake at sunrise with the train carving through a slow-moving, sculptural wind farm stretching across the red Californian desert. As we pull into Los Angeles, I realise my faith in American travel is restored. In fact, I would happily take every long-distance train there is in this country.
Sure, it's not all bells and whistles, especially when travelling on the cheap, but it's a chance to closely observe the landscape, on an epic and personal scale.
Who could not be on board with that?
Helen O'Neill travelled courtesy of Amtrak.
Getting there The Sunset Limited runs three times a week, leaving New Orleans for Los Angeles at 11.55am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and departing Los Angeles for New Orleans at 2.30pm on Sundays,Wednesdays and Fridays.
There are three classes of service: coach, roomettes and bedrooms. One-way fares between New Orleans and Los Angeles cost from $US133 ($145) a person in coach class; from $US369 (single) and $US502 (couple) in a roomette; and from $US645 (single) and $US778 (couple) in bedrooms, which have a private toilet and shower. Sleeper tickets include all meals in the dining car. One child aged under two travels free of charge with an adult; two- to 15-year-olds travel half price.
Pack essential items into small, carry-on bags as larger luggage may be stowed elsewhere on the train.
Amtrak operates routes between more than 500 destinations across the US and journeys can be broken up and customised. Other long-distance routes include the Southwest Chief, between Los Angeles and Chicago; and the Cardinal, from Chicago to New York.


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Re: Sunset Limited
« Reply #1 on: Dec 14th, 2009, 6:35pm »
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Sounds like they may have been running pretty well on tiome, which is somewhat unusual for the Sunset.
As far as firearms taining for kids is concerned - a lot of people think it is a good idea for a number of reasons. We Southerners (and especially Texians) think you Aussies are foolish for lack of sense considering some of the things you put up with, so i suppose it is only fair that you think we do some odd things.  
Travel in a bedroom is a LOT more comfortable for two (or even one) than the roomettes, which are notably (as mentioned) tight quarters.
I find it slightly curious that no mention (other than some of the scenery in the West and Del Rio and El Paso) of the Texas segment.
The Sunset isn't a bad train, but it needs to be daily, and to get the East Coast Extension started again, though where the cars for that can be found - I dunno. It does, as compared to almost anything else that goes to the West Coast, lack scenery.
Hope you do have your trip next year, Les - and make the Grand Canyon trip as well.

Posts: 3846
Re: Sunset Limited
« Reply #2 on: Dec 15th, 2009, 11:02pm »
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You got to love instant analysis and wide sweeping generalizations pontificated from a miniscule amount of observation.  I seriously doubt anybody forced they guy to come or forced him to stay, so if he hated it so much, why not go away quicker?  
Somebody should tell this guy the same thing I used to tell newcomers arriving in Taiwan during the years I worked there:
If you feel the urge to tell the people here how to run their country put your lips in firm contact with each other until the urge passes.  
A might say the same goes for wanting  to expound what is wrong with it.  
If you really don't like it here, the airlines operate flights in both directions, take one of the ones going out.  
There are plenty of us that like it here and would prefer not to offend the local population, nor have anyone else from our home country doing so.

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