A ride on Amtrak's long-distance sunset

Four days on a 'track less taken' teach about community

As the Sunset Limited pulls into the Orlando train station, Amtrak attendant Guy Hancock steps off, looks over our tickets, and welcomes us with his big grin and trademark drawling phrase: "My-yyy buddy."

We board this train with questions. What kind of person takes a four-day train ride to Los Angeles? Why? And above all: Can this really be enjoyable?

Cash-strapped Amtrak is threatening to cut 18 long-distance routes should federal funding not increase substantially this year. From among the endangered trains, a photographer and I have chosen the Sunset Limited because it is the longest route, the only to go coast-to-coast, and it loses the most money.

After Guy's disarming welcome, he shows us to our cabins. "Where are the beds?" we ask when we see our Superliner Standard Bedroom. Closet-like, the room fits two face-to-face seats – and not much else. Guy demonstrates how the seats fold down to create a bottom bunk, and pulls down the stow-away top bunk.

That night I discover that the top bunk is adventure, not comfort. You can't just "hit the hay." Getting up there requires a few spelunking moves, as the ceiling, bed, and walls create a snug shelf. Once under the covers, the safety belt that hooks from bed to ceiling feels superfluous. Despite a loud jolt or two, sleep comes quickly with the help of the train's gentle rocking and distant whistle.

When I wake up, I savor my curiosity for a few minutes before wiggling down off the bunk. Unexpected delays caused by freight trains are almost a given, meaning that we could be anywhere. I see gray dawn over water and guess we are on the Gulf Coast.

The shower and the bathroom compartments have the same Lilliputian charm as our room. But, surprisingly, the train does not feel cramped like an airplane because of the freedom to climb staircases, traverse corridors, and open doors to other cars. We have a whole "house" to explore, and next stop is the dining car for breakfast.

"Like a turkey running through the corn, gobble, gobble, gobble," says Guy as we head off.

Iced-tea ease

"I'm going to eat my way to L.A.," says Percy Newbery, a retiree from Spofford, N.H. When we see the menu, we understand why. Will it be eggs, pancakes, or French toast? Later in the day, we are tempted by regional fare like Cajun chicken, grilled catfish, ribs, sandwiches, as well as soups and salad.

A steward matches up strangers to fill the four-person booths, providing a welcome excuse to socialize and shed any unhealthy obsessions with privacy.

Attention to detail is impressive. White tablecloths, silverware, and fresh flowers welcome diners to table three times a day. And before long, our servers Dee Stollar and Pattie Golyer remember our names and whether we prefer iced tea or milk.

The price of meals is included for passengers with sleeper tickets. Coach passengers have to pay, and since prices are high, few opt to eat in the dining car except for breakfast. The price difference between coach and sleeper tickets is considerable. On our trip, the one-way fare was $169 each. Our standard sleeper cabin for two cost an extra $507.

But complicating details have long been driven from mind. Between small talk, sips of iced tea, and streaming views of the verdant South, I settle into a relaxation deeper than I usually achieve on vacation. No fussing with maps, or scouting around for food and lodging.

A dormitory on wheels

Texas. You either love it or hate it – and the guy in the cabin across from ours definitely hates it.

Over the course of the two days it takes to cross the barren state, we keep our doors open and chat across the hallway about his personal Texas hang-ups. From time to time, another hall-mate, Phil Carta of Ocala, Fla. drops by with headphones dangling from his ears to tell us the latest engineer talk he has overheard on his radio scanner. And Guy checks up on us, bringing piles of white towels and his good-natured teasing.

The Sunset Limited begins to feel like a college dorm – filled with gray-haired alumni. The sleeper train attracts an older crowd, mainly retired folks with time. One woman says that her children joke that they will just put her on Amtrak instead of a nursing home.

"You get to meet a lot of people from different parts of the country... and you can converse with them," says Bill Bates, a middle-aged man who wears a baseball cap and holds a sketch pad. He is an artist returning to Carmel, Calif. from a seasonal job with his wife and young daughter. "On a plane, you are stuck in one seat and you are talking to the person next to you or maybe across the aisle. On a train, you can move around quite a bit, especially in the observation car [where] it's like a community after awhile."

In the sunny observation car, I immediately notice that no one is gassing on a cell-phone, tapping on a laptop, or flipping pages of a book. Instead, I hear community noise: the strumming of an acoustic guitar and extended conversation. Time isn't something to be killed on the train.

Train values

I rise before the sun on the last day of the trip and head to the observation deck. A full moon is setting over California's Salton Sea and the sun begins to rise over the Chocolate Mountains. Dee is up preparing the last breakfast. The only other soul in the car, Steve Grut from Hamilton, New Zealand, comes over to chat.

It is day four and I'm not the least bit eager for the journey to be over. Discussing with Steve this miracle of time, he says, "Trains don't suit the American lifestyle, do they?" With little vacation time and hectic lifestyles, he says, Americans generally "want to get to places quickly."

America is now a nation of jet-setters, a phrase once reserved for coast dwellers living the fast life. But jumping long distances on airlines, cell-phones, and the Internet creates blindspots. I recently flew from Boston to Seattle to attend a wedding, where I caught up with friends living a short drive away in Massachusetts. We hadn't seen each other in years.

Train buffs are holdouts of a front-porch culture. They know their attendant's first name, and they welcome passing time with strangers at dinner. By focusing on local scenes, like families waving at the train from their pickups, train passengers take a different measure of America.

* Additional reporting by Stuart S. Cox Jr. and Tim Rauschenberger.

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