Amtrak DC to AZ

DC to Chicago on the Capitol Limited, Chicago to Flagstaff on the Southwest Chief

What could have been a four-hour flight, I chose to convert into a 53-hour train ride. Why not? For the first time since I was 14, I actually had the time.

My journey began by rushing through a rainy DC afternoon to catch the 4:05 pm Capitol Limited train. As anxiety provoking as driving through the nation's crowded capitol at rush hour was, it was even worse when I knew that I had to catch a train. Despite being heckled at the door for not having a tag on my bike, I boarded the train with a few minutes to spare.

Capitol Limited on the Potomac River

This was the same train I took last week to Cumberland, except this time I would ride it all the way to Chicago. Around Cumberland the sun began to set, and it was also the time that I began to grow drowsy. I recalled blurry images of illuminated bridges in Pittsburgh and a half-conscious glimpse of the Browns' football stadium in Cleveland.

I awoke in Indiana and all was flat. Flat, flat, flat. We passed through South Bend and then entered into Illinois. South Chicago never ceases to amaze me, there used to be so much industry and now there is so much junk. Everything is rusted, everything is forgotten. I saw the Willis (Sears if you're a purist) Tower in the distance and got butterflies. Man, I love Chicago.

Chicago View from Amtrak Capitol Limited

I hopped off the train at Union Station and hopped on to my bike. The breeze off of Lake Michigan, kind like the Midwest, summoned me. I rode a few blocks just to stick my hand in the Lake. I had to consummate my being there, and that seemed the right way.

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Dave met me at Union Station and brought homemade bagels. Possibly the best gift one could give a hungry cyclist. We talked about a lot of things, including our plans to open a bagel restaurant and food truck in DC (if you steal my idea I'll sue you, just kidding, I won't sue you, Dave will, he's going to be lawyer).

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I love Chicago. I think I need to visit sometime that isn't Spring so that I have a more realistic perception of this city. I've only ever visited Chi-town in the Spring or Summer, leading me to believe its the greatest place on Earth, but people swear to me that I'd feel different if I were there during the winter. Maybe I'll come one winter. Eh, maybe not.

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Next leg of the journey involved taking the Southwest Chief train to Flagstaff. We first passed through Central Illinois. Farms and grain elevators kept appearing out of nowhere as the train pressed forward. We crossed the Mississippi River before dark. I already knew this, but the Mississippi is massive. It just is. I overheard some guy, a middle-aged fellow with a bushy beard and Red Hot Chili Peppers shirt, raving on the phone as we forded the river. "Baby, baby, we're crossing the Mississippi River, we're crossing it right now...it's huge! It's the biggest river I've ever seen in my life!" He didn't care who overheard his conversation, his childish excitement radiated. It's refreshing to see that even in middle age one can still experience something for the first time.

Around dinnertime I chatted in the lounge car with a guy wearing camouflage and sitting before three empty cans of Budweiser. We talked about guns and stuff. He told me he was going to Hutchinson, Kansas, to which I replied, "Oh, Salt City! I've been there!"

I can't believe that I've ever been to Hutchinson, Kansas.

Illinois Plains on Southwest Chief

I fell asleep in Missouri, I awoke in Kansas City. Though it must have been after midnight, all I could think about was barbecue. Creative lighting on the city's largest buildings helped to distract my mind for a moment before it reverted to thinking of barbecue. Brunt ends. Brisket. Collard greens. Oh, no...

I awoke to a sunrise in Western Kansas. It was another serene morning in the Sunflower state where herds of cattle grazed beneath a pink-orange sky. My nostalgia poured over. All I could think of us were those early days in my relationship with Bessie when we were getting to know each other beneath the unrelenting glare of the Kansas sun. I sent Bessie an eager text, wishing that she and I could again be lost in those fields of wheat.

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We took a break in La Junta, Colorado. La Junta was a decently run down town of about 7,000 people, not much different from many of the poorly kempt towns I've seen in Eastern Colorado. The same guy who was excited about the Mississippi called out, "Where are we? Is this Denver?" The comparison of La Junta to Denver gave me a chuckle. The only thing that La Junta had in common with Denver was Colorado. Everything else was different. The bearded man was entertaining, everything he said was straight off the cuff. 

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Once the train was moving again, I got to talking to this guy Chris, a former military fellow who was on his way to LA to bike the Pacific Coast. In the middle of our conversation the snow-peaked Rockies came into view, causing me to stutter. There is nothing on Earth like the sensation of traversing 2,000 miles of plains to finally arrive at the Rocky Mountains. The route we followed almost exactly follow the route I took on my cross-country tour last year (Link to view map: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1GPRJjaKRbRf0BGMKHn-rhm0zwA0&usp=sharing).

Rocky Mountains on Southwest Chief
Rocky Mountains along Southwest Chief

Gazing at the Rocky Mountains, I became aware of why I so enjoyed riding trains. Amtrak turns the American countryside into cinema. It feels like the entire country exists for your viewing pleasure. From the comfort of your seat, and even more so from the lounge, you comfortably watch the country's countless sceneries flash before your eyes. Riding the rails to do a bike tour takes the experience to the next level. If while riding the train you are viewing the feature film, then while riding your bike you become the movie's main character.

Views from Southwest Chief

We hopped over to New Mexico. There were tangled bramble, water-less streams and mounds of Earth seeming formed by the hands of some cosmic child. I was confused by the numerous yellow-green mounds, each distinct in its feature but oddly equivalent in height. The density of purple sage bush waned and was soon replaced by rigid green orbs. These new green bushes appeared unwavering, as though they would only cede to an F5 tornado that would rip them from the Earth. All was still and dry, the mountains were in the distance.

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New Mexico Mountains Southwest Chief

I zoned out to finish my book, Into the Wild. We passed through Albuquerque then crossed over into Arizona. Arizona is weird because it is part of the Mountain Time Zone but it doesn't honor Daylight Savings Time. It's the only state the doesn't, besides Hawaii. The sun set, and we soon arrived in Flagstaff.

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The ride continued tomorrow.