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.

Coast Starlight in the Cascades.
Coast Starlight in the Cascades. Click for more on this 2011 trip.

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.

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 spent the rest of the day in the Warehouse District and waterfront, visiting the National World War II Museumand other spots in the area.

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.

It was a bit strange heading over I-10 into New Orleans. A couple of years back, I took this route a few times while working on the cleanup from Hurricane Katrina. Still a lot of traffic here, even in the middle of the day.

Oh, and by the way, before heading over to New Orleans, I got lost one more time in Baton Rouge. The nearest laundromat to my hotel was near LSU; I found it OK, but missed the turn to go back the same way. With the roads in that town going all whichaway, I wandered around a half hour before finding the freeway. And as you might know from my web site, I like driving around and discovering new things. After a half-hour, I did stop and ask for directions; ended up I was about a half-mile from I-10.

Back to the road into New Orleans. If you haven’t been there since the storm — or never been there — a bit of the layout of the town. East of the Causeway (the highway that crosses Lake Pontchartrain) is the City of New Orleans and where the damage started. So, once you get through the swampy area south of the lake and pass I-310 and the airport, it pretty much looks like it always has: ugly suburban sprawl.

West of the Causeway, back in late 2005 and early 2006 when I was helping on the cleanup, damage was visible from I-10.

On my return visit, some of the mess was still visible, but there has been a tremendous amount of cleanup. There’s still a long way to go… you can’t flood much of a major city for a month and shut off the power for weeks and expect everything to be cleaned up in a few weeks. But, there has been progress.

Next: Heading South

Another gentle, beautiful day cruising on the Natchez Trace. The southern portion of the Trace goes through the bayou country of Mississippi. The gentle hills that the Trace runs through up north have given way to a flatter, though still enjoyable, drive. The folks who designed the road created a route that has gentle curves, perfect for setting the car on autopilot at 50 mph (the speed limit) and just sitting back and enjoying the drive.

From Jackson, I headed south for the final 100 miles. There are still many spots to stop and get out to stretch and view the actual trace. Many trees still bare at the beginning of March, but no snow here.

The Trace was well worth the trip and the three days I took to cover the 450 miles gave me time to enjoy the ride and soak up the history. I recommend it.

For more information on the Trace, go to the official National Park web page.

Ending up in Natchez, I drove around the small town a bit, stopped in the Visitor Center on high ground above where the riverboat casino is docked on the Mississippi, but chose to continue on. I headed south on US 61 toward Baton Rouge, LA.

One detour… the ferry across the Mississippi River at St. Francisville, LA.

Louisiana still runs many car ferries around the state, most across the Mississippi River. Because it was a Sunday afternoon, there was a line of cars filled with families out for a weekend drive and the wait was about 30 minutes, but well worth it. I arrived just as the ferry was taking off for its run to the other side of the bank.

The “Big Muddy” Mississippi is pretty brown at this stage but very impressive. The ferry ride takes about 20 minutes and it’s free, so take it if you can. There were a few barges up river, hauling coal or sand or something… I could only see mounds of something as cargo; the barges were a half-mile or so upstream.

From here, I wound around through Point Coupee (any relation to “Al Coupee and the Sports of the Day… hya, folks” … a reference for you native San Diegans 50 or older), New Roads, Louisiana State Highway 1, US 190 and into Baton Rouge.

By the way, I’ve been to Baton Rouge several times and I always get lost. It’s one of those cities that seems to have had its streets diagramed by a Pickup Sticks game… dump a bunch of sticks on a map of the area, then draw the streets as they come up. Just part of its charm.

I treated myself to a steak dinner at Sullivans, an upscale steak chain. By the way… if you’re the hostess at Sullivan’s and reading this, just let me know when you want me to come back and do a photo session. And the meal was pretty good, too.

Next: On to New Orleans.

A great day on the Trace. My car was a snowdrift (white snow on a white car) but was quickly cleared. I did call the Visitor Center to see if the road was clear… it was. After checking out the beautiful snow scene around my hotel, I scraped off the car and headed out.

The Trace was beautiful with the dusting of snow. Like a Christmas tree lot full of flocked trees. Especially beautiful areas were around Tockshish, which was the midpoint on the original Trace between Natchez and Nashville.

I pulled off on US 82 and headed to Starkville, home of Mississippi State University, for lunch. Where I stopped, a the Bulldog Deli, which boasted that it was a “New York Style Deli” but didn’t have rye bread… gives you an idea of the rest of the experience. Did stop in my second Piggly Wiggly.

Back on the road, the bare oaks were mostly replaced by pines… I’ll have to check but I think these are Bob Villa’s favorite trees, Southern Yellow Pines.

Another disappointment — the visitor center and museum at Kosciusko was closed, even though I was there well before the posted 4 p.m. closing time. Maybe the volunteer didn’t make it because of the weather.

Stop for the night: Jackson, Miss. Back tomorrow for the last 100 or so miles to Natchez.

After an overnight in Columbia, Tenn., and heavy rain all night, the weather broke and I decided to head south on the Trace. It was an overcast day, but just as enjoyable.

South from Columbia, the Trace continues to meander over the rolling hills of southern Tennessee. The history continues to be amazing, with frequent spots where visitors can see the actual trail, markers for historic sites in a few Indian mounds, ancient burial spots.

The trees in the adjacent forests are mostly bare… even more than usual. I stopped at a visitor center off the trace, in a very small town (I’ll get back to you on the name), and she said the trees were even more bare than usual this year. It seems that while the leaves die off in the fall, lots of them don’t usually fall off. So, my winter view through the trees is unusual, according to her. And we’ll have more from her later… wish I’d written down her name.

There was a little rain here and there, but not enough to mess things up. The wind did kick up whitecaps on the Tennessee River, which at Colberts Crossing is a half-mile wide. It seems one Mr. Colbert ran a ferry across here two centuries ago.

By the time I got into Tupolo, the snow was getting a bit heavier and I found a hotel for the night. That was around 4. By the time I went to dinner the snow was coming down harder and as I write this, about 8 p.m., the snow is starting to stick a little.

Folks say they don’t get much snow… in fact they don’t get any snow here. The ground is warm, though, and it doesn’t look like it will stick.

Still, I’ll call the Trace visitors center in the morning to see if the road is open and how it is before leaving. The lady at the other visitors center (again, I’ll get back to you on the name) told me the story of how she and her husband were slammed by a skidding van once on the Trace during a snowstorm. The van slid into them on the icy road. They were OK, but because cell phone service is iffy and the only patrols are the park rangers or other drivers, they had to wait for hours for help.

If I have to stay in Tupolo for two nights, well, it could be worse. Stay tuned.

A beautiful day greeted me as I began my trek down the Trace.

After recommendations by everyone I met in Nashville, I stopped in at Loveless Cafe, near the north end of the Trace Parkway, and had breakfast, even though it was lunch. And the biscuits are everything that everybody says they are.

One of those tourist-embarrassing moments: As I was leaving, I stopped at the hostess stand to ask where to buy postcards… One of the two women there turned out to be their famous biscuit maker, Carol Fay. She told me where to buy postcards… in the gift shop across the parking lot. I thanked her for the directions to the postcards but said nothing about how excellent the biscuits and breakfast were. Sorry, Carol. The food was excellent. (Note: Fay has since passed away.)

After my botched encounter with the celebrity chef, I picked up a couple of postcards and headed out on the road for the highlight of my trip.

The Trace was beautiful. A meandering, park road with plenty of places to stop along the way.

Not much traffic, so I was able to enjoy it. The overlooks and design of the road make it particularly enjoyable.

I stopped at a couple of spots where the actual Trace route crosses the parkway. It’s maintained as a hiking trail — which, of course, it was originally. I walked about a half-mile up the Trace; I’ll spare you all the inspiring words about sensing 500 years of humans using this trail; just use your imagination. It’s a beautiful place to hike, with the trees — even when bare — providing a nice canopy. Oak leafs crunched under my feet and the trace itself was worn down two feet or more from the surrounding terrain.

One of the highlights of the north end of the Trace is the Double Arch Bridge at mile 438, just west of Franklin (the mile markers run from south to north). As the name says, the bridge is has two beautiful arches and reminded me of the bridges on California’s SR-1 through the Big Sur area.

Exiting the Trace at SR-7, I got a hotel for the night in Columbia, Tenn. The weather was getting nasty.

Next: On to Mississippi.

Nissan Symrna factoryAfter doing nothing on day 2 except driving around Nashville in the rain and light snow, I headed out on Day 3 to the NissanPlant in Smyrna, Tenn. I was lucky enough to have a personal tour by the PR director, who took me around the mile-long plant that makes the Xterra, Frontier and Altima.

If you’re never been in an auto plant, put it on your list of things. This was the second tour I’ve taken (also been to Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant). Smyrna does everything from stamping sheet steel into body parts to final assembly.

Nothing says “auto factory” like stamping and body assembly. Stamping takes sheets of cold rolled steel and huge machine presses stamp the flat sheets into doors, fenders, structural pieces and roofs. The huge machine we watched is encased in an apartment sized building that reduces the noise, so all you hear is a muffled clank and feel the floor shaking.

At body assembly, sparks fly as robots put the pieces together into a carcass of a car… sort of the reverse of boning a chicken.

After, I went to Nissan’s HQ in downtown Nashville to meet with the press fleet and technology folks to talk about the future of GPS devices in cars.

All in all, a great day.