My wife Sandy and I recently took our first vacation together in a few years. Due to soaring air and cruise fares as well as persisting high gasoline prices, we elected to travel by train. Amtrak offered their USA Rail Pass for $499 each and we took them up on it.

The basic terms of this offer is that the traveler can take 10 separate rides, also known as segments, to anywhere Amtrak services within a period of 30 days. Seating is in coach cars and upgrading is not allowed. That means the overnight passenger has to sleep in a seat much like an airliner seat, but with more foot room and foot and leg rests.

We decided our top priority was to visit our son in Philadelphia and we would do whatever else we could do along the way to add to our unique holiday. From Tucson to Philadelphia would cost us only two segments each way if we took the southern route through New Orleans. That left us room for improvising.

Train Day One

We were novices, not knowing quite what to expect. Just seeing a conductor walk over to the boarding gate with his uniform and conductor’s hat was a novelty to us.

We left the station. We were still in Tucson with nothing to see, so I pulled out something to read. The window on our side, to my left, was in my peripheral view. I perceived motion there. At one point, I looked to my right and saw through the window across the aisle that there was absolutely no motion. I was shocked! I looked to my left and saw the same thing. I realized the reason I thought we were moving was there had been a train going the opposite direction on the tracks to our left. What an illusion!

After a few minutes, an announcement informed us of an A/C problem in the lounge car. We were not to use the lounge while they worked on it. Then, a few minutes after that they told us there was a problem with the engine. We hadn’t even left town yet! They stopped and corrected the engine problem within about five minutes. We were rolling toward the outskirts of Tucson.

While the ride and the scenery are a vital part of the experience, it’s the people who make it the most interesting. We were worried about the guy who sat directly across the aisle from us before we left the station. He had a horrible, high decibel cough we could hear in our imaginary attempt at sleep. Fortunately, he vacated the area almost immediately, never to be seen or heard again. He was replaced by a young woman with a daughter perhaps three or four years old. She was very well organized.

In front of us was a blonde dad of about 50, a dark-haired mom around the same age and their teenage son. They were on vacation, headed to San Antonio. A young, handsome man with dreadlocks and severely sagging pants was seated a few rows ahead of them.

A large woman from Los Angeles was part of the staff, assigning seats and helping out much as a flight attendant on a plane would. We didn’t see a lot of her, though. She was probably attending to a number of cars located in other worlds to our front and rear.

A fascinating fellow was the one who operated the cafe in the lower level under the lounge also known as the Observation car or Sightseeing car. The attendant who ran the cafe was a boisterous sort. I notice he rode a thin line on the edge between agitation and enthusiasm in his handling of customers. He will gladly give you a rundown of the food and drink choices he has to offer even though there’s a menu on the wall. He’ll make cheery recommendations if he senses you need it. But he had rules. He wanted no more than three customers in his little shop at a time. He could snap out commands to get back and wait until it’s your turn. And he’s constantly having to train people how to use their chip card on the processor. He has a well-rehearsed verbal tutorial which he delivers in an upbeat manner, but when the customer goes off track, the repetition of the instructions gets edgy. Also, Sandy found she could get the inside skinny on train life you don’t learn just anywhere. All in all, he’s a fun person to know.

As we rolled into El Paso, I saw the Rio Grande briefly. It was shallow and not very wide. It would rank as a creek in the East. The real attraction for the train passengers is the Burrito Lady. She is announced well ahead of our stop. She sells homemade burritos next to the rails and we’re encouraged to get some. She probably makes a couple hundred dollars in less than 15 minutes. She also has an air of mystery about her because she’s clothed from head to toe and masked. She’s exuberant and sweet, though. We’re in and out of her whirlwind before we know it. All aboard!

That first night, I headed downstairs to the bathroom to prepare myself for sleep. While in there, I heard a man out in the common area near the bathrooms. He screamed, either out of frustration or insanity. After a pause, he screamed again. He continued this up to five times. When I eventually exited the bathroom, I did so warily, not knowing what I might see. He was nowhere to be found. Maybe he opened one of the doors in that common area and leaped out into the void.

We learned there would be delays when we would encounter freight trains ahead. Amtrak has to give right of way to the freighters because they own the tracks. One time that first night, we were delayed for more than two hours because one of them ran out of fuel and had to have someone come out to refuel their engine! How does that even happen?

As we were drifting off in the dimly lit coach with our circle of fellow passengers, we were jarred by some alarmingly violent coughing and vomiting by our young mother neighbor. She had tried to make it to the bathrooms downstairs, but she emptied her gut right on the stairs. We were all up and trying to assist, but she just sat on the top step for fear of slipping during a lurch of the rocking train. The young man with the dreadlocks showed compassion and a bit of leadership. He found the attendant, who had the unfortunate duty of cleaning up the mess. When the mother’s daughter awoke and discovered her mother wasn’t there, she cried like a motherless child. It broke our hearts. Sandy and the other mom comforted her while letting her know her mommy was nearby.

Sandy decided to sleep in two open seats, allowing me to use our two seats. I still could manage only fitful, painful and interrupted sleep, but I spent about six hours laboring at it. It was a long night of Texas, but the Sunset Limited was bound for New Orleans.