After the bus trip to Portland, it’s been a nice ride down the west coast.

My dinner last night was a fine piece of halibut in the dining car. Dining on a train is a great experience; watching the world go by and the waiters managing to work from a tiny prep area and never spill anything while the train tosses about.

Train custom seats strangers together (that and a $5 tip brought Eve Marie Saint and Cary Grant together on the 20th Century Limited in North By Northwest) so I was at a table with another single guy, headed to Reno, and a couple headed to vacation in the Bay Area.

Amtrak does a decent job with dining car meals — better here on the Starlight than on the Southwest Chief I took last year.

After dinner it was back to the compartment for eerie nighttime views of snow-covered trees and frozen lakes. The storm covering the west coast had dumped more white stuff than was here last week.

Every once in awhile, the near full moon would pop through the clouds. The snow was everywhere: hanging from trees, clinging to the old telegraph wires running besides the tracks, covering the ground as virgin powder that would delight skiers.

But no ski areas here, no roads, no people, because over much of this route, it is alone. Quite a view as this traveler dozed off for the night.

So a few things I learned about GPS on the train and when I got to Seattle. First, I left my trusty Garmin Nuvi at home, thinking I would rely on the GPS I expected to have in the car I would drive, plus the two (count ’em, two) GPS systems in my Android phone.

First the good news and bad news on the train. Here’s the good news: the Google Navigation system kept up with the moving train and the satellite image option let me see the terrain surrounding the rails — a neat feature. Sprint also kept up, but didn’t have the satellite photo feature. Google kept trying to put the train on a street, so the route jumped around a bit, but overall did a good job.

The bad news made me miss the Garmin unit, as it has a readout of the speed you’re traveling. When I took Amtrak over to Santa Fe, NM, last year, it was really cool to sit in my little roomette in the middle of the night, watching the stars go by, and having this little gizmo tell me the train was traveling at 90mph.

Arriving in Seattle at around 10 p.m. (the Starlight was right on time), I thought I’d walk from the King Street Station the couple of blocks to my hotel. I programmed in the address to Google Navigation (just selecting the address on Google Maps put it in the GPS) and followed the directions. Unfortunately, a three-block walk turned into a six block wander, as the direct way was on one-way streets going toward me. If I’d been in a car, it would have looped me around correctly, but there’s no “walking” selection, so I sort of found it on my own.

The next day was bright and clear, of course a rarity in Seattle. More on that next time.

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.

San Clemente Pier.
San Clemente Pier.

After several attempts, I’m off to Santa Fe, NM, to visit my friend, the author Janet Lowe. Wanting to get some rest, avoid airports and try something different, I opted for the overnight trip on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

Leaving San Diego on the Pacific Surfliner, its a bit more than two traffic-free hours to the classic Los Angeles Union Station. After less than an hour’s layover, I’m in my roomette for the overnight to Lamy, NM on the Southwest Chief.

Funny thing about Amtrak, or rather what most folks think about it. We hear of the delays, derailments and downsides, its budget problems and complaints about public subsidies. Of course, freeways and airports — and now US auto makers — are far bigger pigs at the public trough than the trains. When I was talking about taking this trip, friends and acquaintances generally would snort about Amtrak being a waste of money, or say “what a neat idea” and then sort about it being a waste of money.

Plain fact is that transportation systems have always been supported by some sort of tax money, whether it was the land grants from the feds that got the railroads built, the airports constructed with either military or federal dollars, or the state and federal bucks that built — and are now trying to patch potholes from coast to coast on — the interstate highway system. Get over it.

Santa Fe depot in San Diego.
Santa Fe depot in San Diego.

For their landgrants, the railroads built everything, including stations. The trip starts off at our beautiful Santa Fe Depot, near the bay in downtown San Diego.

My mid-day train on the Pacific Surfliner is about half-full, with folks embarking and debarking along the route. A few years ago, Amtrak renamed and upgraded the equipment, and along the years since the ’71 takeover from Santa Fe has changed the name from the San Diegan to Pacific Surfliner. It now goes as far as San Luis Obispo once a day but the other trips end at Santa Barbara. A cafe car has snacks but it’s best to bring your own ($2.50 for a bottle of water).

The tracks still hug the coast to past San Clemente and the afternoon sunset can be spectacular. Through the heavily tinted windows, the San Clemente pier (the train stops there) is a beautiful, California vista.

Inside, the cars are similar to other commuter lines that Amtrak offers around the country. This route is the busiest outside of the Northeast corridor… a big traffic drop, but still the easiest way to get from downtown-to-downtown, Los Angeles to San Diego.

It seems that the trip through the LA passenger yards takes the longest of the trip, but it was good to see some investment on the part of Amtrak. Newish looking shops, wash facilities and activity in the old roundhouse. It’s a hub for the rail system, with three long-distance trains a day either starting or ending here. We pass the Mission Tower and go up the incline to what’s been called the “Last of the Great Stations,” the last huge passenger train station built before WWII and the decline of passenger traffic that came after.

The hour’s layover gave me just enough time to wander the halls of the station, which was fairly busy for a Saturday evening. Now as hub for LA’s subway, local and regional transit systems, there was a decent crowd at the Traxx restaurant and about three-fourths of the waiting room seats were filled. A couple, just married probably minutes earlier, were having their wedding photos taken by one of the fountains in the plaza. I thought they were models. I don’t know much about wedding gowns, but this one looked spectacular, as did the bride. Can’t tell you much about the groom. As I was wandering around the front of the building a few minutes later, their limo went by with the new Mr. and Mrs. screaming out of the back window. Happy life to them.

The call went out at 6:25 for the Southwest Chief, Track 11, and off I went for the overnight to Santa Fe. More to come.

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.

Explore San Diego County's backroads, beaches, mountains and deserts with Joyride Guru® and award-winning author Jack Brandais. Make them your San Diego day trip.