Journey of a lifetime with Amtrak’s Southwest Chief

LOS ANGELES TO CHICAGO:The author took the middle route from Fullerton to Chicago in three days.

November 19, 2022

By Laurie Hanson, co-author

After three years of planning and 30 years of delivering on promises, a 3,000-mile cross-country hike by train became my lifelong dream come true this fall.

Exactly three years ago, a great-nephew and a first grandson were born in Virginia. Shortly after, during the pandemic, his little sister was born and provided a powerful motivation to travel from coast to coast and cover the distance to be with them. After surviving a case of COVID-19, a twin brother’s esophageal cancer, and my own endometrial cancer, it was time to embark on this journey. The route through Chicago on Amtrak, a stop to see beloved cousins ​​and an elderly uncle to visit my parents’ hometown, also seemed appropriate.

Longing to quench my deep thirst to see vast expanses, I fulfilled my heart’s desire as I drove through deserts, mountains, prairies, and forests, crossing rivers large and small. Unlike any other time in my life, I now saw the size and fragility of our country, determined to love it like never before and leave a legacy to pass on to the next generations.

As I breathed in and soaked up the lands I traversed, I felt myself becoming very nostalgic and philosophical, overwhelmed by a burning desire to protect and fight for our country. As our nation currently faces divisive times, as in the days of President Abraham Lincoln, charged with bringing them together after the Civil War and slavery, I long to end our political strife. If only everyone could see this great country as one nation under God, maybe we could end our differences and truly come together.

Now, with our country threatened by nuclear war with Russia over Ukraine, in a world where we have all experienced a plague of biblical proportions with COVID-19 and subsequent economic turmoil, I have come to realize how precarious and uncertain the times are in which we live now. But there is great hope that we can ultimately embrace our common plight as one country in a world where we can all aim to protect Mother Earth and purposely save our planet before it’s too late.

These collected takeaways came as I saw America’s land as I reveled in its sprawling beauty for three days aboard Amtrak trains from Fullerton, California, to Lynchburg, Virginia. It gave me new meaning and purpose to pass on a legacy of love to my amazing little niece and nephew whom I met for the very first time.

On this epic journey, sleep was elusive due to the excitement I could barely contain. I didn’t want to miss anything that passed my windows. I was happy to have a roomette with comfortable seating and accommodations with meals included. For a portion of the trip, Amtrak cooks will prepare cooked-to-order meals that are included for all passengers in reserved dormitories. Flexible eating allowed them to eat off the comfort of their rooms or in the dining car, Amtrak’s response to the coronavirus. They have also introduced new cleaning measures and upgrades in bed accommodation. I traveled comfortably to Chicago aboard the Southwest Chief for two days, transferred to the Capitol Limited for another overnight trip to Washington DC, and then boarded another train for about four hours to Lynchburg. I had never really been east of Chicago and was traveling into uncharted territory.

Although I dine alone, I meet others on board with stops along the way, which has proven to be a positive and enjoyable experience for both passengers and Amtrak employees. I have once again seen the best in human nature as before the pandemic. Traveling for the first time since the pandemic, many passengers welcomed the company of others. Everyone enjoyed being on board and some headed out to see loved ones like me, traveling in unconventional ways given our jet set age. Together we reflected on history and how our ancestors long ago experienced and traversed the vastness of the continental United States.

At night, the trains would travel at up to 90 miles per hour through remote areas, blowing their diesel horns non-stop at rural junctions. The trusty horns soon became a comfort to me, drowning out as I was gently rocked to sleep on board. Movement was ubiquitous, but I got “sea legs” both when I was asleep and awake. As passengers boarded dining or observation cars or the café, we literally had to get a grip on ourselves to successfully control the constant movement of the train, which is part of the territory.

Departing Fullerton at 6:30 PM, I ate a chef-prepared dinner of flatiron steak, mashed potatoes, and vegetables while watching the night sky and the silhouettes of cities drifting by in the dark of night. At one point our train appeared to be tracking a gibbous moon with Orion’s belt and Jupiter in view. I woke up in New Mexico, a place called The Land of Enchantment, for a reason. We drove through desert terrain with flash floods, up into pine forests and across wide plains with storm clouds in the distance. New Mexico soon became one of the most memorable states I would ever see on this trip.

PASS NEW MEXICO Just one of the beautiful ones A look into the Land of Enchantment from the Southwest Chief on the way to Chicago.

We rode along the “Old Santa Fe” railroad line into southern Colorado, up into Kansas, Missouri, finally briefly crossing the great Mississippi River near Iowa and on to rural Illinois and then Chicago. I saw an abundance of Illinois farmland that reminded me of my grandmother’s roots. She was raised on a farm in Illinois run by her parents and some of my great aunts and uncles. Eventually she wished for city life in Chicago, where she met my grandfather at a dance. He had immigrated to the United States from Italy at the age of 17. After all, my aunt and mother were born in Chicago and met both of their spouses there when they started their own families of five children each. My father’s parents were also from Chicago. Finally, after he was in the Air Force, he met our mother on a blind date and immediately said he would marry her. My older brother and older sister were born in Chicago, but eventually after I moved to California my twin brother and I along with my youngest brother were born here.

After two nights on the train, I immediately boarded another overnight train to Washington, DC, en route to visit my oldest nephew and his growing family. My grandnephew Ollie was born just before the pandemic and his sister Opal was born during the pandemic. I had never met them before but thought it was important as they are now the future of our family. I arrived in Lynchburg on Ollie’s third birthday and came to greet a chattering Opal who is one year and four months old and just beginning to learn to speak. We celebrated Ollie’s birthday with his grandparents who traveled from Virginia Beach. The weather was glorious, just after Hurricane Ian, which swept through the area just before Lynchburg with only short-lasting rains.

Tyler and Emily Hanson with their children, Opal and Ollie.

Opal and Ollie’s parents and I also drove down the Blue Ridge Parkway to see the mountains and trees sway in the crisp fall air. Along the way, I discovered how beautiful both West Virginia and Virginia are, with rolling hills of forested land, rivers and creeks running through them as sunlight dances across their surfaces. In contrast to southern California, which was hit by the drought, everything east from Chicago to Pennsylvania and on into the Virginias was bright green. As the leaves began to turn, I wondered what winter would bring to this area, as a native of Southern California who never saw snow except in the mountains up by Big Bear.

After spending 5 wonderful days with my nephew’s family and greeting the great-nephew and niece, it was time to hop on a train to Chicago to visit an elderly uncle and several cousins.

As I pulled into Chicago’s Union Station, I recognized this historic place from movies I had seen. I met my cousin on the vibrant city streets outside. What a magnificent historic train station, the architecture of which is reminiscent of the 1920s and 30s when train travel was at its peak. I would be the only member of our entire family to travel to both coasts on Amtrak, a wonderful way to see our country.

While I was in Chicago, all my cousins ​​​​and some second cousins ​​threw me a real Chicago pizza party, the first time I had the deep dish version. While there, I reminisced with my second cousin, Ben, named after my grandfather, the Italian immigrant. The next day, my cousin Linda took me on a tour of Chicago, driving up Lakeshore Drive to see the turquoise waters of Lake Michigan. The next morning some of us took a tour of town, stopped at our mother’s house and visited her elementary school. We continued to my father’s childhood home and neighboring apartments where he lived as a newlywed, where my eldest brother and sister lived before they came to California. In every way both places looked like how I remembered them as a little kid long ago. It was my way of touching on the memories of my parents who were both missed in our family but are still with us in spirit.

My journey of a lifetime has been about passing the torch to the next generation while honoring those who have gone before. Just like our great lands of the United States, it is important that we recognize that we have more in common, one country and one country, to preserve our country and the heritage of the Union for generations to come. It is self-evident in the wondrous deserts, forests, mountains, valleys, rivers and creeks of our great lands. This trip impressed on the importance of family and the legacy of our country where love bridges the distance in the journey of a lifetime.

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