Road trips might be a rite of passage in the USA but it’s the railroad that built the nation, pushing the frontier all the way west across the continent. And no train plays a more important part in the story of American expansion than the legendary Sunset Limited.
Inaugurated in 1894, this transcontinental route is the oldest continuously running train service in America. It’s the railroad equivalent of Route 66 – an epic east-west journey. Yet most Americans don’t even know it exists. Though it wasn’t the first route to complete the coast-to-coast link, the Sunset Limited was the fastest, slashing the journey time to just four days and, arguably, marking the USA’s emergence as a modern nation. From wooded creek to city skyline to cactus-studded desert, it’s like watching the pages of a geography textbook flicker past the train window. And just as it has for the last century, the journey begins on the muddy banks of the Mississippi, set to a soundtrack of jazz.
New Orleans, Louisiana
A downpour has just cracked above the French Quarter. Rain streams from the gutters but the bad weather hasn’t dampened spirits, and a crowd has gathered as Dancing Man begins his show. Clad in a white shirt and razor-creased trousers, a black-and-gold sash slung across his chest, he shimmies across the street, following the beat set by a musician in a jaunty top hat and feather boa. He beckons the crowd to join in, and before long, Dancing Man’s show has become a full-blown street party.
‘That’s how things roll in New Orleans,’ he explains, strolling past the clapboard houses along Royal Street. ‘We say “laissez les bons temps rouler” – let the good times roll. That’s what life here’s about.’
Dancing Man – aka Darryl Young – has become something of a legend in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Born and bred in the 9th Ward, one of the city’s poorest areas, and trained as a chef, since the storm he’s embraced a new career as a dance leader, inspired by the old New Orleans tradition of the Second Line – the informal procession that forms behind the first line of mourners and musicians during a traditional funeral, as the coffin travels from church to cemetery.
‘The Second Line is the spirit of New Orleans,’ Darryl says. ‘Even in sadness, we make things joyful. When life gets hard, we just party harder, baby!’ he says, sashaying all the way to Frenchmen Street, where the city’s most famous jazz joints are located – legendary names like the Spotted Cat, Snug Harbor and the Blue Nile. It’s early evening, but the entertainment’s already in full swing. Jazz and blues drift out from bar doorways and on a street-corner a brass band is blasting out When The Saints Go Marching In. Darryl can’t resist gliding into the throng of onlookers and soon has everyone jigging and hopping to the beat. It’s a reassuring sight: Katrina may have flattened neighbourhoods, but it could never snuff the city’s zest for life.
The party will continue into the small hours but for passengers on the Sunset Limited, tomorrow means an early start. The next morning at 9am, the train hauls out of New Orleans’ Union Passenger Terminal, clattering past the curves of the Superdome, crossing the 4.35-mile Huey P Long Bridge and heading west towards Louisiana’s backwaters. City streets fade into creeks and bayous. Old oaks lean over the water, and willow trees droop along the mud-banks, festooned with curtains of moss. Herons strut in the shallows, and somewhere in the murky water, alligators lurk.
Inside the viewing car, passenger Travis Siewers has settled in for the trip. A veteran traveller, he takes the train whenever he can. ‘People have forgotten how to travel,’ he says, watching bayous pass the carriage’s windows. ‘They catch a plane across the world in a few hours, and never stop to think about how deeply weird that is. On the train, you’re a participant in the journey; you feel every bump of the tracks. It’s the purest way to travel.’
As the afternoon rattles along and the Sunset Limited crosses into Texas, the swamps dry up and the desert begins. Oak trees turn into mesquite bushes, willows become cactus. The high-rises of Houston come and go. Dry plains and rocky hills fill the train windows, and a green skyline turns tangerine. Night falls and everyone beds down in their bunks, lulled to sleep by the steady rhythm of the tracks. Overhead, stars spangle the sky.
Alpine and Fort Davis, Texas
It’s 10.38am the next morning when the Sunset Limited creaks into Alpine, an old stagecoach town that’s less than a day’s journey from New Orleans, but feels like a different world; 150 years ago, this corner of Texas marked the gateway to the Wild West. The town grew as a service stop for settlers and freight-wagons travelling along the old San Antonio–El Paso road. It was a notoriously perilous route and many never made it: war parties of Apache, Comanche and Kiowa exacted a heavy toll, while bandits and mountain lions accounted for several more.
Opposite the train station, a series of murals recounts the area’s history. In one corner, a Native American warrior stalks the hills on horseback; around him, Mexican troubadours serenade a señorita and cowboys run a moonlit cattle drive, while a black locomotive looms from the distance, its iron wheels churning white steam.
The depictions are a favourite landmark for conductor Gerry Ontiveros, who often works the stretch of track between San Antonio and El Paso. ‘The paintings are like old friends,’ he says. ‘The railroad has been here since 1882, and it’s nice to think you’re part of all that history.’
Twenty-five miles northwest of Alpine, the old garrison of Fort Davis provides a more tangible reminder of the area’s fractious past before the railway came, bringing with it a small measure of safety for travellers. From 1854 to 1891, six companies of the US 8th Infantry were stationed here, charged with guarding the El Paso road against Native American raids.
Now a National Historic Site, many of its buildings still stand, including the barracks, general store and governor’s house. Marooned in an extra-terrestrial landscape of rocky canyons, red hills and weirdly shaped agave flowers, the soldiers stationed here must have felt as though they had been posted to the far side of the moon.
Even today, Fort Davis feels a long way from anywhere, but these days, its isolation is a blessing. The town’s remote location means minimal light pollution – ideal for stargazing. At the McDonald Observatory just outside town, three of America’s most powerful telescopes scan the skies, researching topics from stellar spectroscopy to interplanetary physics.
Thanks to its regular ‘star parties’, the observatory is also one of the few places where ordinary folk can peer through a million-dollar telescope into interstellar space. Several nights a week, the observatory opens its doors to the public, and astronomers point out the coloured dots of Jupiter and Mars, the fuzzy Crab Nebula and the white points of Sirius and Arcturus. One by one, visitors gaze through the powerful telescopes, gasping at the endless ocean of constellations overhead.
Two days later, the skies have returned to china-blue as the train rolls out of Alpine with a long honk of its horn. Yellow hills rumple the horizon, their slopes scarred by rains and baked iron-hard by the Texan sun. Telephone wires and cattle fences zip by. Occasionally, a trailer park or a gas station flashes past. Emptiness is everywhere. The sun climbs higher, and the land bleaches from sand-yellow to salt-white.
Two hundred miles west near El Paso, the railroad passes within a few hundred feet of the Mexican border as it crosses the Rio Grande. A century ago, this was the main route followed by prospectors on their way to California’s goldfields.
Today, it’s a flashpoint for border troubles; gunboats patrol the banks, looking for drug traffickers and illegal immigrants. Dusty yellow banks line either side of the waterway, and to the south, across the Mexican border, the grey sprawl of the city of Ciudad Juárez blurs into barren desert. The gold prospectors and gunslingers have faded into history but, a century on, this remains a wild frontier.
It’s 6.45pm when the Sunset Limited arrives in Tucson and there’s just enough time to make it out to the desert to see the sun go down. Out on the White Stallion Ranch, Laura True and her horse Lobo are watching the show over a sea of prickly pears and saguaro cactuses. Dust-devil whirlwinds dance across the ground and a rumble of thunder signals a distant storm. As the sun melts below the horizon, Laura steers Lobo’s reins towards home, where a cowboy’s supper is waiting: fried potatoes and beef brisket cooked slow over a hickory-wood fire.
With her Stetson and leather chaps, Laura looks like an all-American cowgirl, but she’s actually an Englishwoman, hailing from rural Gloucestershire. She came here as a volunteer 20 years ago, fell in love with the lifestyle (and ranch-owner Russell True, now her husband) and today runs the family business. She follows in a long tradition of ‘dude ranchers’ stretching back to the 19th century, when wealthy city-folk paid cowboys to teach them to wield a lasso, rope a steer and ride Western-style. It’s an experience as seductive as ever: each year, hundreds of guests visit the ranch for backcountry cookouts and twilight trail-rides.
‘Deep down, everyone wants to be a cowboy – or cowgirl,’ Laura says, pouring herself a coffee from a pot on the camp stove. ‘It’s a universal fantasy. People say it’s like stepping onto a movie set here, and I know what they mean.’
The deserts around Tucson certainly look cinematic. Scorched red by the Arizonan sun and spiked by barrel cactuses and brittlebush, it’s the kind of landscape where you expect Road Runner to race around the corner at any minute, pursued by Wile E Coyote.
But if the setting looks familiar, it’s not surprising. Since the early days of cinema, Tucson has provided a backdrop for classic westerns, from Gunfight at the OK Corral to The Magnificent Seven. Many of them were filmed at Old Tucson, a film studio established in the 1930s, complete with purpose-built sets including a saloon, sheriff’s office, Spanish mission and a Civil War fort. It’s one of Tucson’s top attractions and several times a day actors stage shows in which varmints and heroes gun each other down in a hail of pistol cracks and cordite.
Thankfully, railroad robberies are no longer something the Sunset Limited’s passengers must concern themselves with. By the time the train leaves Tucson at 7.35pm sharp, they’re already settled in for supper in the dining car, watching Arizona’s desert roll past as they tuck into Caesar salads and southern-fried chicken. Most will fall asleep as the train clatters through Maricopa and Yuma and few will notice as the Sunset Limited slips into California two hours past midnight, thundering through Palm Springs, Ontario and Pomona towards the Pacific and journey’s end.
Los Angeles, California
Ironically, the Sunset Limited grinds into its last stop, LA’s Union Station, greeted not by dusk, but by the candy-pink light of dawn. Bleary-eyed and blinking, passengers stumble onto the platform at 5.35am, piling luggage onto carts and calling taxis on their cell phones. In the grand entrance hall, they join a stream of morning commuters passing under arched windows and Art Deco chandeliers into the blazing Californian sunshine.
Outside, it’s soon rush hour and, as usual, the freeways are tangled with automobiles. People lean on their horns, listening to the chatter of the drive-time DJs as they plot strategies to beat the tailbacks. Although the car is still king in LA, there’s another way to reach the beach these days. A new metro line, the Expo Line, makes it possible to travel from Union Station to Santa Monica entirely by public transport – something that hasn’t been the case since the 1950s, when the old Pacific Electric streetcar ran for the last time.
The morning commute isn’t something that bothers Nick Ostrogovich. He’s been surfing the swells at Santa Monica since 6am and is taking a breather before he conducts his first surf lesson of the day. ‘That’s the weird thing about LA,’ he says, sipping a latte as he watches rollerbladers cruise along the boardwalk. ‘Downtown it’s all traffic and noise, but on the beach, it’s more like a village.’
Just along the tideline, the Ferris wheel and rollercoasters on Santa Monica’s pier are quiet. By noon, they’ll be packed with sightseers, but for now, the only people around are a few fishermen casting their lines into the surf. Below them, Pacific breakers boom around the pier’s iron stanchions. Above them, a blistered sign reads ‘Santa Monica 66: End of the Trail’.
It’s the official end of America’s iconic road trip and also marks the final stop on my transcontinental train voyage across America. A few days ago I was standing on the broad banks of the Mississippi, watching steamboats and barges; today, I’m gazing out over the Pacific, watching gulls circle overhead.
But there’s no rest for the Sunset Limited. Back at Union Station, beds are being made, cutlery cleaned and windows polished for the return journey. Soon the nation’s oldest train service will hurtle back towards the other side of America – just as it has for the last 122 years.
This article appeared in the October 2016 edition of Lonely Planet Traveller Magazine. Oliver Berry travelled on the Sunset Limited (amtrak.com/sunset-limited-train) with support from Visit USA (visittheusa.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.