The Southwest Chief arrived right on time in Lamy and the van was there to pick me up for the half-hour drive to Santa Fe and my hotel.
My friend Janet lives just a few blocks from the old Plaza and within a few hours of my arrival, she’s taking me on a driving and walking tour. We cruised around the historic buildings, including the state capital, Palace of the Governors and the narrow streets of old Santa Fe.
We walked through the historic La Fonda Hotel, built by the Fred Harvey company for the Santa Fe Railroad back in the day, then up to Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi, where there was a service going on. We walked up the old covered sidewalks. It was wonderful in the chill, night air. I didn’t take my camera along; hey, I was on vacation and I’m a professional photographer, among other things.
The galleries looked beautiful but will have to wait until another visit, as will visiting the open-air Indian crafts market that lives under the arcades near the cathedral.
Janet lives in a century-old adobe duplex in a neighborhood near downtown that’s under revival. When I visited she was still remodeling her unit and living in the downstairs second unit. A beautiful, unique home.
Also visited with her friend, Alan, who lives nearby in a restored adobe. He’s on the board of the Santa Fe Opera and took us on Tuesday night to a great dialogue with the Opera’s Eric Moore, the production technical director. It was fascinating hearing how they build and manage the sets in the repertory format the opera uses each summer.
Back in 2000, I took one of Amtrak’s tour packages, the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, with a stopover for a few days at the historic Glacier Park Lodge in East Glacier, Mont.
In 2010, wanting a bit of a rest, I decided to again take the train a long distance, this time from San Diego to Santa Fe, NM, via Los Angeles and Lamy, NM on the Southwest Chief.
Both times, I had a roomette, an extra-cost compartment that also includes all meals. This trip was much more enjoyable than the first one as I could actually get some sleep. In fact, on the eastbound trip, it turned out I got too much sleep.
Amtrak’s long-distance trains aren’t anything like the short line Pacific Surfliner from San Diego to Los Angeles and points north. At least in the west, they’re all two-level cars, with most of the seating upstairs. The ride can be bouncy at times, as they go through switches and junctions, but when they’re on the high-speed (90 mph at times) main lines, they’re smooth and quiet.
I booked a roomette, two facing chairs that combine into a fairly comfortable single bed. If two are traveling, there’s an upper berth that folds down from the ceiling. Like everything else on the train, there’s very little room to stand up when the bed’s folded out and the door is closed, but it is a private compartment.
Decor is spartan and identical to my 2000 trip, but it looked like there had been some recent refurbishment. Upholstery was in good shape and the little curtains on the windows and doors looked new. Down the hall is a bathroom that was kept clean by the car’s attendant and downstairs was a shower. You haven’t lived until you’ve taken a shower on a train.
Sleeping is another thing. Friends have heard the story about how I couldn’t sleep on the train, even though, as with the Santa Fe trip, I had a roomette.
No problem this time. I wouldn’t call it my best night ever sleeping, but I did get enough. An hour or two at a time before the ruble-woosh of a passing train or something else woke me up. Probably as good as I’d have done in a motel along I-40. The single bed was in good shape and comfortable. Big enough for my 6-1 frame.
It was a New Moon, so the stars were bright enough to be seen through the heavily tinted train windows. I kept my curtains open and could see them twinkling; even though we were traveling as fast as 90mph, I’d expect the stars to pretty much stay where they are. However, the track curves and wanders a bit, so they sort of spin and twist at times. Well, you’d have to be there.
The food was better this time as well. About an hour before meals, one of the dining car attendants comes by and gets your reservation. The diner experience is one of the great things about riding on a train. Amtrak’s diners are high above the rails in cars where the roof is almost all glass. Tables for four still go by the old railroad tradition of filling each table before moving on to another, which means can mean you’ll be dining with new friends.
The big attraction is the scenery, which glides by as you dine. Eastbound, the Los Angeles freeways and backyards were visible in the gloamin; westbound the New Mexico plains faded away.
Amtrak sets a nice table, but hardly a five-star restaurant. Unlike the airlines, you’ll have real flatware but plastic dishes (Amtrak says it recycles). As I mentioned, sleeper passengers have meals included in their fare; spend the money for at least one diner meal if you’re in a coach. Eastbound, they had a flatiron steak on the menu, which was tender and cooked just the way I liked it. The crispy skin on the baked potato invited me to finish the whole thing, which I did. Scampi was the special westbound and it was equally good. I saved room for the lemon sorbet dessert eastbound, opting for chocolate ice cream westbound. There was also baked chicken, a vegetarian pasta, seafood… not a huge menu, but a good variety. A rather Spartan salad started the meal, with an assortment of dressings in plastic packs; not exactly gourmet, but good for the train. Check out the menu.
Timing is everything when you’re talking about meals on the train. Eastbound, I was able to get dinner (following departure at 6:45 p.m. from LA), and with arrival in Lamy not until 2 p.m., I also got breakfast and lunch. Westbound, we didn’t leave Lamy until 2:30 and with arrival at LA around 7:45 (early!), food is served from 5-6 a.m. I decided to sleep and pay for breakfast later (it ended up being on the Pacific Surfliner on the way to San Diego).
Eastbound, I had the cheese omlette with a side of bacon for breakfast. Lunch was a choice of sandwiches, salads and burgers. I opted for the salad.
The staff was also better than I remember, with attentive attendants in my sleeping car in both directions, plus friendly folk in the diner and observation cars. Same goes for the staff that works the Pacific Surfliner from San Diego to LA, and the folks in LA who answered my questions.
The scenery wasn’t to be beat. If you check Amtrak’s national schedule, it shows where the train is in daylight, which on my legs were between roughly Flagstaff and Lamy headed east and Lamy to Gallup headed west. The best views are through the western part of New Mexico around the Continental Divide, Red Rock State Park and the Red Cliffs. Unfortunately, I was dozing in my roomette when headed west; I’d wake up, look out the window and think I was in a John Ford movie, then doze off again and the camera remained in the case. Headed east, I found myself a spot in the Observation Car with the camera and poof… the sun went down before we hit the real red stuff. Still, the view was pretty good.
Stations were interesting places. The Southwest Chief’s first stop is in Fullerton, Calif. As we pulled in, the windows started vibrating and music flowed through the car. Turns out a band was playing in the patio next to the bar/restaurant at the Fullerton station. As soon as we pulled out, the music faded. The restored Barstow station and former Harvey House hotel is an elaborate hulk in the dark at 10 p.m. Santa Fe’s station and the one in Lamy — two ends of the rail shuttle in the old days — are near twins and very similar to ones in Pratt and Kiowa, Kan. that I photographed back in 2002. The Santa Fe railroad built several similar stations. Albuquerque is an hour stop while they refuel and clean the train; there’s a new station there.
As for the folks on the train, a couple looked liked the Unibomber, while there were several who skipped their session with the psychiatrist and instead broadcast their problems to their unfortunate neighbors. Across the hall leaving LA was Mr. Train, who was giving tie-by-tie descriptions along the way to his roomette-mate and several other friends down the corridor. On the other hand, everybody was courteous and generally friendly, just hanging on until they reached their stop.
All in all, I think Amtrak is working hard and provides good value. If you have the guts to leave the car at home, it’s certainly an alternative to air. The scenery’s still there, as if you were driving, and the price was pretty good.
Update: Here’s a video I took northbound on the Coast Starlight in 2011. An experience not available in a car or plane.
The yell came from the other pump island at the gas station near the base of the San Bernardino Mountains.
“Going drifting in that thing?” asked a curious fortysomething who probably shouldn’t have even been thinking about drifting, being that he was refueling a Dodge Caravan. He was admiring the speeding-ticket red 2009 Nissan Z Nismo edition that was my ride for the week, all tricked out with ground effects and 306 horsepower under the hood.
“No drifting, but I am going up Rim of the World,” I said.
With his voice and facial expression drifting away, he replied only, “sweet.”
And so it went, heading up one of the most spectacular roads anywhere, and it’s just a couple of hours north of San Diego: the Rim of the World Highway.
According to the Rim of the World Historical Society, the road opened in 1915, a 101-mile loop from San Bernardino up and through the mountains. Today, it connects to the towns of Crestline, Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear, down to Redlands and back to San Bernardino.
For my trip, I took only the western end, from the valley up to Lake Arrowhead and back, with a loop around Lake Arrowhead and a look-see at Crestline, about a 61-mile round trip.
Rim of the World Highway is truly one of the great roads on the planet. If it was in the Alps, it would have been used for one of the obligatory car chase scenes in a James Bond movie.
The west end rises from San Bernardino, elevation 1,150 to the Crestline exit, at about 4,400 feet and is marked as a freeway. Two lanes in each direction, with, amazingly, mostly no barrier in the middle. It‘s banked like a NASCAR track in some spots, but I’d like to see Jimmy Johnson try it at 150 mph. It twists and turns; I lost count of how many, but the view from Google Earth showed at least 25 on this “freeway” stretch.
In many spots, builders created a shelf in the side of the mountain for the road. Most of the time, drivers are between a shear rock cliff going straight up, and the sky. Because of the banking, there isn’t always any land visible off the edge of the road.
Nothing for the faint of heart.
So, of course, it’s one of the great weekend drives around.
And it‘s an interesting mix of traffic. I was lucky enough to take it on a weekday in the fall, when traffic was light. Folks in pickups knew every curve — at least I assumed they knew every curve — because some were blowing past me in the Nismo, and I was going just a bit above the posted speed limit of 55 mph. Ever seen a slightly lifted Ford Ranger with big tires leaning on a curve? It’s scary.
I saw three CHP officers on this stretch during my trips up and down; their patrols are needed to keep speeds down, or at least call for the air ambulance if anything goes wrong.
The Crestline exit, SR-138, is a heart attack all its own and marks the end of the “freeway.” Sure, you‘ve managed to make it up the hill but the turnoff really made me think I was in some sort of old movie, where the late-model sedan flies off the side of the road, shattering the guardrail, then exploding on the side of the cliff.
A full-on freeway interchange, the Crestline exit’s bridges soar into space, twisting and climbing about 100 feet to connect with SR-138. A few more twists, and it’s downtown Crestline. Returning to the Rim of the World Highway, the onramp circles around and probably infects first-timers with vertigo, if they didn’t succumb on the way up.
Heading east from the Crestline exit, Rim of the World narrows to a more traditional mountain byway: one lane in each direction, speeds drop closer to the posted limit and there are rest areas with spectacular views (on a clear day, which it wasn’t when I visited). This is in the San Bernardino National Forest; parking in some areas requires a Forest Service Adventure Pass, which can now be purchased online.
The Nismo was well up to the task, more than her driver on this sunny day. The abundant horsepower running through the six forward gears, the super-responsive steering and sticky tires were up to James Bond standards. I’ve done this road in the Miata, with a third the horsepower but 1,000 pounds lighter, and it’s just as fun.
My dad must have had blast in our old ’64 Pontiac Catalina, hauling us up and down this hill back in the mid-1960s, when we spent a few summer vacations at Lake Arrowhead.
At 5,162 feet, the lake is just 23 hair-raising miles up Rim of the World from San Bernardino. A mountain resort that’s been welcoming families since the 1920s; the village has since been rebuilt and today is home to not only the usual restaurants and shops, but also a small outlet center.
The clear, blue lake, surrounded by pine forests and exclusive homes, reminds visitors that this area was to Los Angeles what the Catskills were to New York… except on a much smaller scale. Everyone from celebs to factory workers would head up to the cool mountains in the summer, escaping toasty LA.
Today, there are a lot of full time residents and folks who have really big second homes. There are plenty of lodging options. Ski areas are further over in more middle class Big Bear, but if you’re looking for a great mountain weekend, check out Arrowhead.
Coming back down the mountain was another thrill. With the challenge of heeding the “Watch Downhill Speed” signs and the feeling of less control, I was happy to reach North Sierra Way in San Bernardino, and the end of the Rim of the World Highway. If you’re up for the challenge, take it easy and be careful. Let James Bond and the bad guys pass.⚙
Route and Info
From November 2008
Challenging, particularly driveup Rim of the World Highway. Mountain roads throughout.
61 miles from Interstate 215 and State Route 259 exit. Note: The former SR-30 is still shown on some maps; it has been renumbered in sections as SR-259 and SR-210. Interchange is about 93 miles north of central San Diego.
From central San Diego, take I-15 north.
Exit at I-215 north in Temecula. Note construction and wandering path of I-215 through Moreno Valley, Riverside and San Bernardino.
Exit at SR-259 north in San Bernardino.
Continue onto SR-210 east.Exit North Waterman Avenue (SR-18).
Turn left onto North Waterman Avenue; follow signs toward “Mountain Resorts.”
Left at SR-173 to Lake Arrowhead Village.
Loop around the lake from Lake Arrowhead Village:Exit village to Lakes Edge Road (SR-189). Turn right.
Right at North Bay Road in Blue Jay.
Right at SR-173 and return to Lake Arrowhead Village.
I hooked up with my college buddy Cole Warner, an editor at the Times-Picayune, for breakfast. He and his family are doing much better than when I left them in February 2006. Their house was a few blocks from a levee break and they’d moved what was left over to Baton Rouge.
Cole looked much better… they’d moved back into the house in December and things were getting back to normal, as much as they can in New Orleans.
I highly recommend the museum, as it takes visitors from the beginnings of the conflict in the early 1930s through a bit of the post-War period. It also, pretty equally, covers both the Pacific and European theaters.
For lunch, I wandered over to the Riverwalk Marketplace. When I left in 2006, there were two cruise ships anchored behind it, and very few shops were open. The two cruise ships were filled with police, firefighters, municipal workers and their families, refugees in their own town.
The mall is about three-quarters open… probably what it was before the storm. The rest of the Riverwalk (the site of the 1984 World’s Fair) seemed to be restored.
Back in late 2005 and 2006, I spent a couple of months in New Orleans helping, I hope, on the cleanup from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While there, I never got down to the tip of Louisiana, through Plaquemains Parrish. I spent the day cruising down Highway 23 to the southernmost point of Louisiana.
As sad as it is, this area looks like the hurricanes hit just a few months ago. Lots of trailers, damaged buildings and not a lot of people. A few places have recovered, mainly those that service the shipping and oil industries that use this as a jumping off point.
The couple of schools along the way looked rebuilt, but the hospital in Pt. Sulfur, along with a couple of community centers, are damaged and closed. Two fire stations looked open, with their rigs parked in the engine bays, but the buildings around them were heavily damaged.
A friend later told me that this area had pretty much been depopulated.
Then there it was, past the little town of Venice, the road ended at a sign that said “Southernmost Point of Louisiana.” Can’t see the gulf from there because it’s not the end; the shipping channel continues for a few more miles. It’s just as far as I could drive.
On the way back, I took the ferry across the Mississippi River at Point a la Hache, then heading back into New Orleans.