Going Home

San Luis Obispo, CA to Los Angeles, CA to Chicago, IL

San Luis Obispo, CA

Despite getting to bed late, I woke up right before my alarm went off at 5 AM. It was still dark, but it would be light enough to ride by the time I left. I quickly showered (my last opportunity for a few days) and packed up my laptop. The motel office didn't open until 7:00, so I had to leave my keycard in the room and call them later. I carried my bike downstairs, then mounted my rear panniers (the fronts were stuffed inside them). The short ride to the station in my running shoes wasn't bad, considering that I had clipless pedals. Of course, my left cleat hadn't worked properly since I trudged through the sand at Morro Bay, so it was no great loss. My bike felt funny with all the weight on the back tire, though. I thought I was going to do a wheelie.

It was cloudy for the first time in the two weeks I'd been in California. In fact, this was the first overcast day since the brief afternoon shower in Prescott, AZ. I wanted to stop at nearby Sunrise Donuts, but I didn't want to cut it too close so I skipped breakfast. Since I arrived at the station ten minutes before boarding (which began ten minutes before departure), it turned out that I would have had enough time after all. I had to settle for a Pepsi at the station instead--a liquid breakfast, just like when I was riding. At the station, I met a woman with a mountain bike who was also waiting to board. I asked her how this bike routine worked, but she said it was her first time, too. It turned out not to be so difficult.

The Pacific Surfliner

The Pacific Surfliner was a fine modern train. First, I was able to hang up my bike on a rack. It was free, whereas on Illinois Amtrak trains it costs $10 extra to use roll-on service. The down side was that unlike on Illinois trains, the bike spots were not reserved. However, since SLO was the first stop it wasn't a problem for me.  I left my bike behind to go upstairs where the best views would be. Although it would have been relatively easy for someone to take my bike off the rack and walk off the train (with me watching helplessly from the upstairs window), I shrugged it off--I had insurance, and it wouldn't have been nearly as catastrophic at the end of the trip as at the beginning. Besides, 99% of thieves would rather steal a mountain bike than a bike like mine. The bathrooms were big and handicapped-accessible. Every pair of seats had an electrical outlet. I found a seat and set about unpacking and plugging in my laptop. This was sweet! I would have six hours to alternate looking out the window and writing my reports. Ironically, it was at the end of my tour that I finally transcribed my handwritten account of the first days of my trip into the computer. It was always on my list of things to do, but writing the current reports was more important. It was fascinating to see how my perceptions have changed from one end of the country to the other. It was especially interesting to see how my interpretation of difficulty had changed--the difficulties that I had on the first day were utterly trivial matters compared to some of the challenges that I encountered later. It was hard to transcribe without doing too much rewriting. This experience made me look forward to looking back at my reports for the first few weeks of my trip. By the time I reached California, the entire Southeast was fuzzy in my mind at best. The other thing I did with my computer was to follow the train's route using Microsoft Streets & Trips. The man seated behind me was talking to his wife on the platform via cell phone as she waved goodbye.

Riding along, watching the scenery pass by, it was a natural time for reflection. One thing that I wouldn't miss was the challenge of getting an Internet connection through motel phone systems. Mobile computing has certainly come a long way, but sometimes it could be tricky. I eventually compiled a mental checklist of things to try, and for the last month of the trip the only thing that kept me offline was the absence of a telephone line. Motel 6 was surprisingly exemplary for Internet access. Most of the Motel 6's had a separate phone jack in every room for a modem, and connection speeds were around 50Kbps, the high end for a 56K modem and impressive considering the extra routing that motel phones usually have. However, many other motels couldn't provide a connection any better than 24Kbps. This was especially frustrating in towns where I had to use EarthLink's 800 number, which charged eight cents per minute, or $4.80 per hour.

On the train, the song " Restless" kept going through my head:

I walked up to the window and I said, " Gimme a ticket please"

He said, " Where to, mister?"

I said, " That's all right by me."

I'm just restless, I got to get on out of town

Take me where the livin's easy, that's where I'll be found.

As the train was moving slowly, a teenager was coming back from the cafe car . Looking out the window, he said, " Dude, this is so cool! It's like I'm walking with the trees!" It took awhile for the landlocked Pacific Surfliner to live up to its name. Not until we entered Vandenberg Air Force Base did we finally get a good look at the ocean. I also saw a sign warning of " Unexploded Shells." They weren't talking about seashells. The sun came out for an hour or two while we were on the coast so I got to take a few good pictures. When we came to Goleta, all I could think of was a Camper Van Beethoven song: " Baby don't you go, don't you go to Goleta."

There was no smoking on the train, so smokers stepped off the train onto the platform at many stops to get their nicotine fixes. The platform smokers got in trouble at Goleta. Apparently, when the conductor called " All aboard," somebody wasn't done with his or her cigarette and hit the emergency door opener. When everyone was back on the train, the irate conductor announced that there would be no more smoking breaks on the platforms before Los Angeles. Since the train would switch crews there, he had no control over the L.A. to San Diego part of the route.

Another guy with a laptop got on at Santa Barbara. The Pacific Surfliner didn't show movies, so he brought his own to watch with the laptop's DVD player--Slap Shot, the 1977 Paul Newman hockey movie. As we paralleled the Ventura Freeway, I thought of the song " Ventura Highway." I hate that song! I hoped that after we passed the town of Ventura, I'd be able to think of a different one. It occurred to me that Southern California was one of the most written-about areas in the country, if not the world. Ventura marked the end of the oceanside portion of my train ride.

An older man kept walking up and down the aisles. I wondered if he was lost, or maybe he didn't even have a seat. Maybe he was getting his exercise walking up and down the entire train. Weird.

In Simi Valley the conductor had a change of heart and allowed the smokers to take a break on the platform. I was disappointed because I didn't like the stink when those people came back upstairs. Of course, on other trains they had smoking cars, and I didn't like that either.

The mountains around Santa Susana were rugged but pretty. Then we went through a long  tunnel followed by two  short ones. When  we came out, we were in Los Angeles. Now Randy   Newman's " I Love L.A." played in my head. However, it would be awhile before we reached Union Station.

As we approached Burbank, the old guy was still walking around. The woman who had put her mountain bike next to mine on the rack got off there. I was disappointed to see her ride away from the station on the sidewalk. Aargh! I hate sidewalk riders!

We got to Los Angeles a few minutes early, around noon. As in Washington, it was a long walk on the platform to the actual station. However, this time I had my bike to carry my load for me. 

Click here to see photos taken on the Pacific Surfliner.

Los Angeles, CA

The first order of business in L.A. was to get my bike packed for the Southwest Chief. A ticket agent directed me to what looked like a loading dock. The person working there wasn't as helpful as the man in Chicago who had prepared the bike box for me, but she was all right. In about 15  minutes, my bike was on its way. Now I had to carry the panniers myself instead of rolling them along on the bike.

I was pretty hungry by the time I got to L.A., so I went to a bagel shop in Union Station. I had a pizza bagel and a ham & cheese bagel. Since I was still in California, I had to tell them to leave off the mayonnaise and the sprouts. It was $2 for a small cup of Pepsi, but I made up for it with three free refills. My panniers were easier to manage than they had been at the start of my trip, but they were still pretty awkward and heavy. Consequently, I didn't venture far, even though I had six hours to kill before the Southwest Chief began boarding. Had this been the beginning of my trip, I might have been more anxious to do some sightseeing, but after eleven weeks of traveling, I was content to relax.

I read a plaque about Union Station. Built in 1939 by the Santa Fe, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads, it has become known as the " Last of the Great Stations" to be built in the U.S. Shortly after it was built, the City of Los Angeles decided on a sprawling growth strategy (of course, they didn't call it that, but that was the end result) with multiple centers rather than a single downtown like most cities. This strategy practically rendered the new station obsolete. While there were a number of Metrolink commuter trains, L.A. didn't have nearly as many  commuters as Chicago and Washington had in their Union Stations.

After a brief tour of the station, I ended up on a park bench in a pleasant, sunny plaza outside the station. There wasn't much people watching, especially mid-day, so I read my books instead.

A woman came up to me asking for money to get to Fresno. Asking wasn't unusual (in Chicago, it happens all the time), but her gimmick was--she said she had just been released from prison. She waved a pink slip of paper at me, which apparently was her release. Hmm, my friend Jerry lived in Fresno. Maybe I should have given her his address and phone number as a thank-you for sending me down " blood alley!"

The afternoon shadows eventually made my park bench a bit chilly for sitting, so I went inside. Union Station had grand, sturdy  waiting room chairs of wood with padded seats. A crowd was gathering, and almost all of these people were waiting for the Southwest Chief. Finally, they told us to line up. Amtrak had an inefficient seating  system in L.A. I had to go to a counter to get my train car assignment, then get in line to board. On the platform, we waited in line at each car to get a seat assignment. In Chicago, this was all handled on the platform as we boarded.

The Southwest Chief

We boarded early for our 6:45 departure, but we left very late. They were holding us in the station, waiting for additional rail cars full of mail and Amtrak Express packages.  About 30 minutes after we were supposed to leave, a passenger complained that she was bored. I thought, " Get used to it!" The chief (yes, the Southwest Chief had a " chief'," but not an Indian chief) announced that switch problems were responsible for the delay. We didn't even move until three hours after we were supposed to leave, and then it was just to change tracks to hook up to the other cars. We were there so long that the night's movie, The Count of Monte Cristo, started before we left the station. When I fell asleep around 10:00, we were still sitting in L.A.

When I woke up at 1:45, we weren't moving, but we had progressed to the San Bernardino station. Later I talked to a woman who had boarded there. She said that Amtrak had not informed customers about the delay, so she had been waiting on the platform for four hours. She added that the station was in an " iffy" neighborhood, which made her nervous because the station was unstaffed--no ticket agent and no security guard. We started moving fifteen minutes later, but we were running four hours behind schedule. I looked out the window for awhile then fell asleep again before we ascended Cajon Pass.

I awoke at 5:45 as the sun came up. Once again we were at a dead stop, this time out in the desert. I saw a cluster of buildings, but I couldn't figure out what town it was. This frustrated me because I had cycled through this area just two weeks ago. The Southwest Chief ran on the BNSF tracks that had paralleled my route between Ash Fork, AZ and Barstow, CA, so I expected many familiar sights.  I was only mildly irritated about the train running so late, but I knew it was a lot worse for the poor folks waiting at the other stations to get on. Many stations were unstaffed, so there was no one to tell them what was going on. We were supposed to be in Needles at 1:18 AM, but now it would be closer to 7:00, which meant that people were waiting literally all night for the train to show up. When we finally started moving again, I figured out that the town was Goffs. I recognized the town's welcome sign (I wasn't close enough to read it, but I remembered photographing it) and the ranch on the edge of town. As we rolled into Needles half an hour later, I saw the Best Chalet Inn where I had stayed and the Chevron where I had stocked up on fluids before my ride across the desert. A sign at the Needles station said " Evacuation Staging Area." The passengers must have been happy to evacuate that station after waiting six hours!

I ate breakfast in the dining car--French toast, a side of bacon and orange juice. The bacon and O.J. were good. The French toast was okay, but it was a little too crisp and a bit greasy. It cost $10.25 plus tip, perhaps twice what it would cost at a normal restaurant. In Amtrak dining cars, people sit in booths of four. As a solitary traveler, this gave me the opportunity to meet people. One of my older dining partners asked me a peculiar question: " Did the police hassle you a lot?" Why on earth would the police hassle me a lot? I thought for a moment, and I couldn't even recall a single encounter with police on my entire trip, good or bad. I wondered what he thought I was doing that would raise the ire of the police. Very strange. He and the others at my table seemed to express mild interest in my trip, but at this point in my travels it was easy to tell those who  were just being polite from those who were genuinely interested.

As we came into Kingman, I saw the Motel 6 where I had stayed for two nights. I wished I was there so I could get a good night's sleep, and I yearned for another great meal at the Calico Restaurant next door. This train experience was giving me very strange sensations--it was like replaying my trip in reverse. After we left Kingman, I saw the tiny town of Hackberry, then Crozier Canyon. Although I wanted to see Seligman and Ash Fork from the rails, my body had other plans and I fell asleep. When I awoke, I spent several confused minutes trying to get my bearings, looking for something familiar outside. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that we were beyond the part where I had paralleled the tracks, somewhere between Ash Fork and Williams.

Lots of people got on at Flagstaff and filled all the remaining seats. A British guy in his twenties wearing a soccer jersey sat next to me. He and his friend were making a whirlwind tour of the U.S.A., mostly from one big city to another. He asked a few questions about my trip, but they seemed superficial or polite. Clearly he thought I was simply mad, so he had little interest in the details. Then he looked out the window and said, " Well, at least it's flat." Flat? Since we were within 50 miles of Jerome and Mingus Mountain at the time, I wanted to smack him!

When we stopped in Winslow, I got to see the magnificent old Fred Harvey House. After spending twenty hours on the train, I could appreciate what a welcome stop the Harvey House must have been for travelers 100 years ago. As we passed Holbrook, I saw that the legendary Wigwam Village motel on old Route 66 was still going strong. I slept in one of those concrete tepees when I drove Route 66 in 1990. I noticed one enhancement: there were classic cars parked in front of each tepee.

Train travel really messes up one's bodily cycle. I alternated reading, sleeping and eating throughout the day, never able to read or sleep  for more than a couple  hours at a time. When we crossed into New Mexico, I set my watch ahead an hour. Since Arizona doesn't do daylight saving time, it was the first time I had to change my watch since the windy day I rode into Springerville more than a month ago.

One feature of the Southwest Chief is a Native American guide that rides in the lounge car from Gallup to Albuquerque. Unfortunately, we missed out on that experience because we were so far behind schedule. I went to the glassy lounge car anyway to look at the beautiful  scenery. I got a bonus, too. There was a railgeek there with a scanner and a GPS. He told us all what was going on as he monitored the train's communications. Well, actually he was telling the two people sitting next to him, but I was eavesdropping. Come to think of it, so was he!

We got to Albuquerque seven hours late. There were a bunch of vendors set up in the station's parking lot selling Indian jewelry, burritos, T-shirts, postcards, pop, et cetera. The jewelry vendors simply had tables, but the burrito guy had a truck and the other vendor had a bus. Cheryl's bus store had been around for eleven years. I didn't buy any souvenirs, but I did get a bottle of Coca-Cola, a welcome change from Amtrak's Pepsi. There were more delays in Albuquerque, and we left another 30 minutes behind schedule.

Moving again, we learned that there could be even more delays in store for us. There had been flooding problems earlier in the week in Missouri, and if the water was too high we wouldn't be able to cross a certain bridge (I didn't catch which one). The alternative was to put us all on buses to get to Chicago. The sun set as we pondered this, and soon we were rolling northeast through the darkness toward Lamy.   This was surely fantastic mountainous scenery, but I missed it in the dark. A few people got off at the tiny Lamy station where a shuttle would take them to Santa Fe, about 20 miles away. I know other people missed connections because of the delays, so I don't know how long those people had to stand out there in the darkness waiting for the bus.

I soon fell asleep, beginning the second long night of my rail journey. While it would be inaccurate to say I slept " well," I did sleep through the night, about six hours. I still awoke before dawn. We had ridden into gray cloud cover overnight. The first town I saw was called Syracuse. A John Deere sign and a grain elevator told me that we had passed from the Southwest into the Midwest. I quickly noticed two differences between Kansas and the Southwest. The towns came much more frequently, and the rivers actually had water in them (imagine that!).

I had pancakes, bacon and orange juice for breakfast which cost $10.25, the same as yesterday. I sat with several older people, one of whom lived near Capitan, New Mexico (home of Smokey Bear, one may recall). He said they could tell who the locals were by how they said the name, which was " Cap-i-tan" as opposed to the Spanish pronunciation " Cahp-ee-tahn." I said I'd met a Hispanic man at the BBQ in Tinnie who said it that way. " I know him. He's from Texas," he scoffed. " He's only been there for six months!" He rattled off a few more " correct" mispronunciations such as Lamesa, Texas, which is said with a long " e." I retorted, " I didn't take five years of Spanish classes so I could say all those names 'wrong!'" A woman at the table, another New Mexican, added this about Texas: " The Spanish came along and named everything, but they didn't stick around long enough to tell people how to say it."

A few hours later, I was eavesdropping once again, this time on a man talking about how he was diagnosed bi-polar after a five-minute psychiatric evaluation. His prescription after this in-depth interview was for Depacote, which he described as " a pretty serious drug." He noticed a somewhat unwelcome change in himself after just seven days. When his prescription ran out after a month, he never took it again.

I also found out why we had been delayed at Albuquerque. DEA agents  had searched the train and questioned people. One young woman was interrogated and searched because she had baggy pants that could conceal drugs. So I guess racial profiling isn't allowed but clothing profiling is. I wondered whether they would want to look in my bike's seat tube. There was another guy arrested who had been smoking marijuana in the train's bathroom. No one ever said drug users were smart!

The Kansas fields went on and on. By mid-afternoon we reached Kansas City. I had an unpleasant experience there once, so I didn't bother stepping out for a few minutes of fresh air like many other passengers did. In Missouri, we paralleled the Missouri River for awhile, which was very pretty. When 4:30 PM came around and we were supposed to be in Chicago, we were somewhere near La Plata, Missouri. At least it turned out that we wouldn't have to detour on buses due to high water.

The guy who had been talking about Depacote earlier had been suggesting to the Amtrak staff that they should give us a free dinner since we were so late. He and others were also upset that no one would tell them anything about their travel alternatives since many were going to miss their connections in the hub of Chicago. Train personnel promised that Amtrak representatives would be boarding in Kansas City, but they changed that to Galesburg. After a few months of traveling at a relaxed pace of 50-70 miles a day, it was strange to come back to the " real world" of everybody being in such a hurry. Heck, considering that it was a two-day trip from L.A. to Chicago, even an extra eight hours didn't seem that bad. Then again, Chicago was the end of the line for me, and I had an unlimited " vacation" (i.e., no work) ahead of me.

The chief of the train announced that everyone would indeed be receiving a free dinner. Car by car, passengers were called forward to the dining car to pick up a plate of fried chicken, rice and vegetables with a cup of iced tea. I wasn't thrilled with the menu, but free was free. While iced tea wasn't my cup of, well, you know, I drank it because the cafe car was running out of drinks. They weren't stocked for all those extra passenger hours. I don't like fried chicken, but I ate most of the rest of the food. The guy who had been agitating for a free meal didn't eat his chicken either--he was a vegetarian. To his credit, the chief had the kitchen make him a fish plate.

We crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois as the twilight faded. I hadn't been in my home state for more than ten weeks, and now I would barely get to see it as we sped through the darkness. We passed within a couple miles of where I grew up, and then we were going through the western suburbs. We finally arrived in Chicago around 11:30 PM, seven hours late (I noticed earlier that the schedule was padded a bit--it allowed for two hours to cover the 30 miles from Naperville to Union Station, a trip that the Metra commuter trains make in 33 minutes). I went to the basement and  claimed my bicycle, then rolled out to the street where my wife was waiting in her car.

Click here to see photos taken on the Southwest Chief in Arizona.


When I got home I found out the answer to a question many people had asked. I thought it was silly that people I met along the way kept asking how much weight I had lost, as if I lugged a bathroom scale along in my panniers. The morning after I got home, I stepped onto the scale. Despite all the large pizzas and bacon cheeseburgers, I lost 30 pounds. However, although I lost several inches from my waist, I still couldn't pull up my old blue jeans--my legs were too thick to pull them up more than six inches above my knees. When one's butt doesn't fit it's bad, but I thought having legs so full of muscle that they wouldn't fit was kind of cool, even if it did make me a bit of a freak. I bought some loose-fitting jeans in my old waist size.

Living at home again wasn't as hard an adjustment as I expected. However, keeping up my cycling fitness was. I didn't become a couch potato, but my mileage slipped from over 320 per week on my trip (excluding extended stays in Roswell and Springerville) to under 100 at home. After traversing the country, it was so boring to ride on the same old streets. It was easy to ride so many miles when I was exploring and seeing new things, but Chicago and the suburbs were the same old thing all the time, with heavy traffic besides. I yearned to someday move to the Southwest where the skies are clearer, the roads are wider and the traffic is lighter.

Copyright 2002-2013 David Johnsen. All rights reserved.