In early 2000, I spent a two weeks in Korea, preaching and visiting friends and my parents (my father’s company had assigned him to a Korean factory making power plants near Pusan). I preached at a couple of churches, one of which had nearly 2000 in attendance at one service, which is the largest congregation to which I’ve preached. This tells of my last day in the country, as I took the train up the Korean peninsula to Seoul and then caught a plane for San Francisco.
Morning train to Seoul
It’s still dark when I board the morning express in Masan, heading toward Seoul. This far south, in this port and industrial city, the weather is chilly and wet but not really cold. I find my seat, stow my two bags overhead (a backpack and a suit bag) and push my jacket up against the window as a pillow. A pretty Korean woman sits next to me. She looks to be in her mid-20s and wears a dress and heels. We smile but when I speak, she shakes her head and says, “No English.”
Shortly afterwards, a whistle blows. The train jerks and my journey begins. I lay my jacket against the window, and my head upon it, alternating my time between looking and reading a book on Korean history and culture. Outside, fog mysteriously shrouds the streets lights.
Dark clouds hid the sunrise; all is gray. As we rush north toward Taegu City, we pass through many rural villages that seem the anti-thesis of Korea’s modern cities. Instead of concrete high-rise apartments, rural homes appear to have changed little over the past century. Most have small courtyards, protected by a high concrete walls. The house sits inside the courtyard, built out from the side of one of the walls. Smoke puffs from the clay pipes above these humble adobes. They use either coal, charcoal or wood fires to heat and to cook. All around the villages are fields for rice or vegetables, onions and cabbage and peppers. At Taegu, the woman next to me gets off.
After pulling out of Taegu, the train heads in a northwestwardly direction to Taejon City. This is mountainous country, but the hills are old and worn, like the Appalachians, not rugged and young like the Rockies. With the trees bare of leaves, I can make out the large nests of magpies.
Dotting the hills in the rural areas are many mounts representing burial sites. They place coffins on the ground. Stones and dirt are piled up around it. The government banned this practice because it takes up too much land in a country where land is precious. However, I’m told some people still bury their dead in this manner. Only today, they do it at night, in order not to attract attention.
Here, snow covers the ground. The roads are icy. At a crossing, just beyond the railroad gate, catch a glimpse of two cars in the ditch and a wrecker working to pull one back onto the highway. Along this section, we pass Yongdong. Near here, during a hasty retreat during the Korean War, scared American soldiers opened fire on civilians, killing many, in a tragedy of the war. Although I am not sure exactly where the site is at, I think about as it’s been in the news recently.
From Taejon, the train races north toward Seoul, traveling through a highly populated area that’s mostly industrial and suburban. High-rise apartments dot the landscape and there are many factories. The train pulls into the station at Seoul a few minutes early. I retrieve my bags and head up an escalator to the main station, worried how I’ll be able to find my ride with so many people. There, at the top of the escalator, I’m pleasantly surprised to see Chanrank and Chang waiting for me. They suggest we stop and have lunch at a café across from the college where Chanrank teaches.
Chop Head Hill
After lunch, as we have four hours before I need to be at the airport; Chang asks if I still want to visit Chop Head Hill. When I had arrived in Korea two weeks early, I had asked Chanrank and her husband about this place. I immediately worried that I had insulted them, but her husband told me more about the place. As he was required to be at the university where he taught this day, Chang came along to take us there. Yes,” I said. I would like an to visit the site.
The three of us seemed to be an odd pair to tour this site scared to Korean Catholics. Like me, Chanrak is Presbyterian. Chang is Buddhist. We wind through the narrow streets north of the Han River in Chang’s car till we finally arrive at the the infamous bluff overlooking the river.
For years, this hill was the site for executions, where the heads of the condemned rolled down into the river. One of the artifacts is a round stone, looking somewhat like a millstone, which was used in the beheadings. The condemned had a rope tied around his or her necks. The rope ran through the hole in the middle of the stone. One of the executors would pull the head of the condemn through the stone while the other used an ax to remove the head from the body.
In the middle of the 1860s, the French tried to gain a foothold in Korea. Sending a gunboat up the Han River, they shelled Seoul. The emperor, seeking a way to cleanse his country of the foreign devils, ask his shaman what to do. They suggested the execution of all Christians in Korea.
Catholic massacre in 1866
In 1866, the Korean emperor ordered the extermination of Korean Christians. At the time, almost all Korean Christians were Catholics. Priest from China converted most of these Christians. Members of churches were bound in chains and dragged across the nation to this place, where they were executed by beheading.
After a decade of tension, in the late 1870s, the French and Korea signed a treaty that guaranteed religious freedom for Korean citizens. In the aftermath of this treaty, Protestants missionaries—especially Presbyterians and Methodist—flooded into the country. In all of Asia, only the Philippines have more Christians than Korea. About 40% of the population claim to be Christian, half of which are Presbyterian. Another 40% of the population is Buddhist. On the hundred anniversary of the martyrdoms, the Catholic Church built a shrine in the honor of the martyrs. Known today as Chou Du San Martyrs’ Shrine or it’s English equivalent, “Chop Head Hill.”
Yongdo Full Gospel Church
As we still had two hours before we had to be at the airport, we swung by the Yongdo Full Gospel Church. An independent Pentecostal Church with roots in the Assembly of God, they claim to be the largest congregation in the world with 750,000 members. We quickly tour the church. Chang, a Buddhist, seems especially proud of the idea that his country has the world largest church. The sanctuary looks a look like a basketball area and seats nearly 20,000. Although large, I’m left to wonder where everyone worships. Even with their five worship services on Sunday, they would only be able to have 20% of their members member’s present.
After visiting the church, we rush to the airport. After checking bags, we have time for a cup of tea before I have to go through security. I shake Chang’s hand and hug Chanrank, then head through security. In an hour, I’m flying east and sleeping the night away on a Singapore Air flight to San Francisco.
This is another “recycled blog post” from an old blog from my journey from Indonesia to Europe taken during a sabbatical in 2011. I am concentrating on my travel blogs (mostly by train) instead of the others where I was visiting tourist sights. Here I make my way from Malaysia to Thailand.
Question: What is the largest train station ever built that never had train tracks? (answer at the end of my story)
With mixed feelings, I leave Penang behind. I have enjoyed my time here. After a couple of weeks of constant movement around Indonesia and Malaysia, it was nice to slow down for several days. The Hutton Lodge provided excellent accommodations and having Mahen, a blogger friend who lives in Georgetown, Penang, as a guide was a special treat.
Before leaving Georgetown, I spend the morning at Mahen’s clinic where I was able to see first-hand the work they do with children and young adults with cerebral palsy. I got to play with the children and watch as they work to teach a trade to the older children.
By late morning, it was time to head to the ferry. The train was scheduled for 2:20 PM, but the woman who sold me the ticket suggested I be on the ferry to cross the bay by noon. As it turned out, there was only a few minute wait for the ferry and then crossing took only 30 minutes. Once on the other side, I walked by the train station and made sure I knew where I needed to be at, then crossed the tracks and found a place for lunch. There, I talked to one of the few Americans I’d seen on the trip, a recent MBA graduate from Harvard who was traveling in Southeast Asia for a month. We chatted as we at, then we explored some old train equipment, including two old steam trains, in a park by the tracks. Coming back to the train station at 2 PM, a woman working for the Malaysian tourism asks me a bunch of questions about their tourist advertisements and what I liked about Malaysia.
I’m shocked, when the “International” begins to load, that there are only had two cars, both second class sleepers. Even with just two cars, the train is less than half full. I’m alone in my seats, which turns into two single beds at night, with a canvas covering that provides some privacy. Sitting across the aisle as we wait to pull out of the station are two women, sisters, from Penang who were heading north for a wedding. One of them now lives in Hong Kong. We begin talking, but then the conductor informs them they are in the wrong seats and makes them move into the other car. Then, an older Indian couple boarded the train and sat in their compartment. In the seats behind me, an Australian man sits alone and we strike up a conversation.
For much of the afternoon, as we head toward the Thai border, Malaysia work on upgrading their rail system (with plans that the north/south line to be fully double-tracked and electrified) is evident. New trestles are being built, tracks laid and electrical lines strung. These tracks are also a lot smoother than those tracks on Malaysia’s “Jungle Train.”
At the Thai border, we have to leave the train to clear customs. The cars continue on, but the rather plain looking Malaysian engine is replaced with a colorful Thai engine. The staff also changes. Instead of the Malay staff, we now have Thai attendants. All of them wear fancy uniforms with enough stars to create a small galaxy. A car to prepare food is also added. We check out of Malaysia, go through a gate and have our passports stamped for Thailand. The train moves forward a hundred feet or so, into Thailand, where we re-board. As we step into the car, a Thai attendant greets us with cart selling bottles of Singha beer. As a Muslim country, there had been no beer on trains in Malaysia. But now we’re in Thailand, beer is readily available.
After leaving the border, I join Allen, the man from Australia, and two Japanese men who are sitting across the aisle from Allen. We take turns buying large bottles of beer and pouring them into glasses, serving each other. The Japanese speak only broken English, but we are able to communicate. When they take orders for dinner, we all have pork, which was unavailable in Malaysia, it being a Muslim country. I have pork with noodles with oyster sauce, which was delicious.
Allen and I talk through much of the evening. An Australian, he retired to Tasmania. Most of his life was spent in the military. He’d joined the British army as soon as he was eligible (his mother signed for him at 16). He was originally from Great Britain, just south of Scotland. After seeing action in Yemen and in Malaysia in the mid-1960s, he transferred to the Australian army where he spent most of his military career. He even spent a year in the United States, in the late 60s, training American Non-Commissioned Officers for jungle warfare. He served three tours in Vietnam as well as in Malaysia (there was an undeclared war between Malaysia and Indonesia on Borneo in the 60s and 70s). He’s well-read and we discussed books (we’d read many of the same), theology, government and health care, world politics, our families and the weather (it was a 23 hour train ride). Allen takes off for a few months every winter (remember, he lives in the southern hemisphere) and travels in Southeast Asia.
Allen has a lot to say about Vietnam and his experiences there. He’s critical of American forces (noting that our military is more disciplined now than then). Then, he confessed that most Australians in Vietnam didn’t like working with American units. The Australian units had jungle warfare experiences in Malaysia, and were more prepared for Vietnam. He told of once incident on his last tour in 1971. His squad had been in an ambush position for a day, waiting. He said that in the jungle it was hard to hear and to see very far and that his troops knew to wait till an enemy force was all in the killing zone (set up between two machine guns, before opening fire. If the enemy unit was too large (more than 18 men), they’d let it pass, but if smaller, they’d attack. A unit came into their trap, talking loudly. In the jungle, they couldn’t make out the words or even the language. It was assumed, because of where they were at, it was a Vietcong (VC) unit. He was also critical of the VC, saying they were no more disciplined than American soldiers. As the leader, it was his job to detonate the claymore mines as a signal for everyone to open fire. But seconds before he blew the mines, one of his machine gunners yelled, “Hold the fucking fire.” He was shocked, but the machine gunner was in position to have a good look of the last soldiers in the unit, a 6 ½ foot tall African-American. He could have been basketball player, as his head stuck up over the grass. The machine gunner realized this wasn’t a VC unit at all, and his yell saved 13 American lives.
As bad as Vietnam was, he said it didn’t compare to his short stint in Yemen with the British army early in his career. His time there makes him feel for the soldiers in Afghanistan, who are fighting a determined enemy who believes they’re on God’s side.
At about ten o’clock, the train attendant lowers our beds. We all head off to sleep. Across from me, the Indian couple who, especially for their age, are having a good time. The canvas covers over the sleeping areas don’t dampen the sound. Sometime in the night. after the Indian couple quiet down, , I feel the train bumping around and in the morning, there are no longer just two passenger cars, but a dozen or so. The morning also brings a different view as the mosques and minarets of Malaysia have been replaced with colorful Buddhist temples and chimneys for crematoriums of Thailand. The tracks are not as smooth as they were in Malaysia, showing their age as we pass over them.
I join Allen and the two Japanese for breakfast. For 100 baht, I get some fruit, coffee, juice and a ham sandwich. While we eat, we whisper about what must have been going on in the Indian couple’s compartment. Everyone heard them. No one is sure of their age, but we all are impressed. As we approach Bangkok, the stations become closer together and towns are larger. We pass over canal after canal, making our way on toward the city’s center, pulling into the station just a few minutes late.
At Hau Lampong, the Bangkok main train station, I say our goodbyes to my Japanese friends and Allen and I depart ways. Then I realize I am not sure where I’m going and can’t believe that I didn’t write down directions to Sam’s Lodge, where I have reservations. I find an internet café and log into my gmail account to get the directions—which are rather easy: just find the subway, go four stops and get off at Sukhumvit, leave the subway at exit three, walk to the corner and take a left… I stop to eat lunch and am at the hotel by 2 PM, where I drop my luggage off and set out to explore around Bangkok.
Answer: The majestic Georgetown train station on the island of Penang never had a train make it’s way to the station. The trains always ran through Butterworth, on the Malaysian mainland. But the British did a wonderful job in designing this building on the Georgetown waterfront:
This post is from an older blog of mine from when I was on a Sabbatical and traveled overland trip from Southeast Asia to Europe. As much as possible, I traveled by trains.
We pull out of Singapore’s Tangong Pager Railway Station right on time, promptly at 4:30 AM. As we board the train, a Malaysian official stamps our passports. The train slowly moves through the dark city that’s not yet ready to come to life, the coaches swaying back and forth on the tracks. In two more weeks, this train will cease to exist. Everything is dark. I think back to the day before when I visited the station to see it in daylight. It’s a grand station, like many built in the early 20th Century. It was still young and in its prime when the Japanese invaded. Yesterday, I spoke with an old Chinese man who had come to see the station one more time, while the trains were still running. He told me about being an older child when the Japanese forced all the Chinese into the station and several other places around the city. Then soldiers came and randomly selected people and forced them to march to the beach, where they were shot and left for the tides to claim.
I arrived by cab at the station around 3:30 A.M. It was still dark, but the front door was open. The great hall was dark, but people had already started to gather, so I found a seat on one of the wood benches and waited, trying to catch a bit more sleep. At 4 A.M. the lights come on and I notice the large murals of rural Malaya life that lines the walls. All this was build when Malaya was a British colony and Singapore was just another city. But as the British pulled out, Singapore established itself as a separate country. I buy a water bottle and some snacks from a vendor and then, once the gates to the tracks are open, head over and join the line. The Malaysian official by the gate wastes no time checking documents and asks no questions as he stamps our passports. We’re sent out into the humid heat of early morning. I walk down the platform, under the hanging railroad clock that no longer works, to the five waiting coaches. These cars are attached to a power car that’s billowing diesel fumes as it provides electricity and air conditioning for the coaches. As of yet, there are no locomotives. I hop aboard, seeking relief from the heat, and find my seat. A few minutes later, we’re jarred as the locomotive is coupled to the train. Shortly afterwards, we leave and weave our way through the city.
The lights are dim and I’m about to nod off, when we abruptly stop and the lights come on. We’re told to get off. It’s only been twenty minutes or so since we started and I’d forgotten about this stop. We’re at Woodlands, on the far side of the island at the causeway and we have to go through immigration. Starting July 1, 2011, this is where the train will begin as the tracks through Singapore will be removed and the land used for development. We’re told we can leave our luggage behind (I still take my daypack) and shuffle out onto the brightly lighted platform and lineup behind the yellow line waiting to meet with the official. I scan the crowds. There is only one other western couple that I pick out, a Brit and his wife who live in Singapore. They are in the line for Singapore residents. Our entry cards for Singapore are taken and our passports checked and stamped. We then circle back around and re-board. It’s interesting that Malaysia stamped our passports at the Singapore station, before we get to the border, and we’re officially “checked out of Singapore” here.
As soon as we’re onboard, the roar of the diesel is heard as we’re pulled across the causeway. The docks along the shoreline here light up the night air. We move slowly and shortly after reaching the mainland, we stop again, in Johor Bahru, Singapore’s sister city on the mainland. More people board the train.
In preparation for this trip, I had read Colonel Masanobu Tsuji’s account of the Malaya campaign in 1941—42. He was the staff office in charge of operations for the Japanese and after the war wrote an account of the Japanese planning and execution of this invasion in a book that was translated into English in the 1960s. Japan’s Greatest Victory: Britain’s Worst Defeat tells how the Japanese army was able to quickly move down the Malaya peninsula, using cheap Japanese bicycles on the excellent British roads, never allowing the much larger British force time to set up a defense line. When they reached Johor Bahru, the Japanese command set up offices in the Sultan’s Palace, an exposed position, but one that gave them the best view of the vast island that was their objective. From here, they directed their armies in their operations to break through Singapore’s defenses. Britain had felt that they could easily defend the island (just blow up the causeway), but their defenses were mostly on the seaward side. They were caught surprised by a fast moving Japanese army. Only when the Japanese got to this point was Britain able to slow their march, as they turn their big sea-facing guns around and used them to bombard the Japanese positions.
It’s raining as the train pulls out of Johor Bahru. I make myself comfortable, putting a pillow up against my window and fall asleep. I wake up an hour later, at Kluang. A crowd of people are boarding the train and a Malaysian man sits next to me and soon there are a dozen children crowding in around us. The man and his brother are traveling with their families and their kids range from about five to fourteen. The older children collaborate in translation and throughout the trip. Their father moves to another seat, allowing each of the children opportunity to sit a next to me. The older ones practice their English, the younger ones play silly games, always laughing and smiling. I show the pictures of my family. Wishing to have more photos, I pull out my netbook and show them photos on the computer. Other adults in the surrounding seats ahead of me turn around to see and all seem amazed at the photographs of my daughter skiing. Living near the equator, these children can’t imagine snow.
The train makes a long stop at Gemas, where they change engines. It’s just a small town and doesn’t appear on my Southeast Asia map. But it was an important town for the Japanese to capture in the Malaya campaign. The town is a railroad crossroads and securing the town cut Butterworth, Penang and Kula Lampur’s land connection to Singapore. There’s a lot of work going on the tracks here as KLM, the Malaysian Railroad, is building a doubled-track electric line all the way from the Thai border to Gemas. The Northeast Line (which I am riding) will continue to use diesel electric locomotives (I’m told the ones we’re currently using are built in India). The train consists only of coaches. There is no dining car and I’m glad I’d brought snacks along for the only food available to buy is in a cart that gets pushed around once during the trip and consist mostly of water, juice and chips.
Much of this land is filled with large plantations of palm oil or rubber trees. And then there is the jungle, places were the vegetation is so thick that one could easily get lost. When we travel through jungle areas, the greenery is so close that the windows become a psychedelic blur. The Japanese, when they moved down the peninsula in late ’41 and early 42, found that having a smaller force wasn’t necessarily bad as the battlefields were so narrow due to the jungles. Some of the vegetation looks like kudzu, the plant from Asia that has taken over areas of the American South. Old warehouses and buildings no longer in use are covered with the vines. The towns along the tracks are small, mere villages. There is no rice (Malaysian rice is mostly grown on the west side of the peninsula). Roofs here are mostly of rusty tin, which makes sense with Malaysia also being a large producer of the metal.
A little later in the morning, I’m standing by the open door at the end of the car. My seat mate from early in the morning is sitting in the open door, rolling what has to be the skinniest cigarette I’ve seen. He offers me one, but I decline. I’m making use of the open door to snap photographs without having to deal with dirty windows. Another man asks me where I was going and we begin to talk about my trip across Southeast Asia and China and on to Russia and Europe. It turns out that he’s done much of my planned trip by rail, including the trans-Siberian. We talk about trains and he tells me the best are in Iran. I laugh and acknowledge that I’ve heard good things about Iranian trains, but that Americans are not especially welcomed there. We talk, off and on for the rest of the trip, until his stop which was 30 minutes or so before mine. His name is Mahud. When he tells me that Detroit is his favorite place in America, I wonder if I should check his temperature and see if he’s feverish. But he goes on to say that there are many Muslims there. Although he’s not wearing any of the traditional religious garb (like the guys looking a lot like Bin Laden, in white robes and turbans), he’s a devout Muslim with a PhD in Islamic Studies from a Saudi school. We talk about religion and my travels. I also learn that his brother, who teaches Chemistry in KL (as people call Kula Lampur), has a doctorate from Ohio State…
Mahud’s wife is Chinese. I ask which part and he says “Canton.” Surprised, I told him that I thought most of the Chinese Muslims were in the western part of the country. “There are very many Chinese Muslims,“ he assures me, “more than any other country.” I question his statement, having always heard that Indonesia had the most Muslims. He then complains about Indonesia, saying that there, a man can be a Muslim with a Christian wife and a Buddhist son. In Malaysia, the state bans Muslims from converting to other faiths. When I question if the government should enforce one’s religion, he backs down and says only God can change what is in the heart. I agree. He also complains that in Malaysia, only ½ of the people are Muslim (another questionable fact). But when I prod him some, I get the impression he’s talking about those who take their faith seriously, not those who claim to be of the Islamic faith.
My conversation with Mahud isn’t limited to religion even though we do spent a lot of time discussing it. At times, he stops to point out sights along the way. Near Gua Musang, we pass the first of limestone hills that appear so prominently in Asian art. He points to the caves in the humpback hills. At Kemubu, he notes some of the highest points in Malaysia (at least on the mainland). There is a waterfall here that he wants me to see, but unfortunately clouds and haze now blur our view, making it difficult to see anything clearly. After Dabong, he notes that we’re on a part of the track where the sun will come up in the west (the track goes south for a bit here as it navigates the mountains).
Later in the afternoon, rain sets in and by the time the train arrives at Wakaf Bharu, the stop for Kota Bharu, it’s pouring. This city was the first in British Malaya to be attacked by the Japanese early on December 8, 1941. The attack happened only a few hours after Pearl Harbor was attacked, but being on the other side of the International Date Line, it was already December 8th. I get off with most of the remaining passengers that’s left on board. The train will continue on a few kilometers to Tumpat, near the Thailand border. The Jungle Train has been a magical experience. With few Westerners on board (I did get to talk with the two Brits after Mahud and the kids had departed), I’ve been able to make some new friends. Mahud had even given me directions to his house in case I want to stop by. I thanked him, but insisted I wasn’t going to be in East Malaysia long.
This was originally posted in my other blog and written in January 2012, shortly after making this trip.
The air is crisp and Orion has dropped into the western sky as we make our way into the Flagstaff train station. The waiting room is nearly filled with passengers and baggage awaiting the eastbound arrival of the Southwest Chief. It’s 5:15 AM and we’re fifteen minutes before the train is supposed to arrive. I’ve parked the rental car in the city lot across the tracks, placed the keys in the drop box and took a seat on the old wood benches. The train is running fifteen minutes late. Outside one of Warren Buffet’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains of containers race through town, on its way to Los Angeles and then to a ship to where ever. A few minutes later another train approaches from the west, heading east, with containers that probably originated somewhere in Asia, most-likely China. At 5:41, the time the train was to have departed Flagstaff, but we learn it’ll be another twenty minutes before it arrives.
At six, everyone begins collecting their luggage. The station agent instructs those in coaches to head to the right and those with sleeper car accommodations to go left. We make our way to the 430 car where an attendant takes our tickets, helps us aboard and directs us to our assigned berths. “The diner opens in 20 minutes,” we’re informed. At 6:10, the engineer blows his horn, signaling that it’s time to go. A few seconds later, the train begins to move into the darkness of the Southwest. In my compartment, I stare out into the dark sky as we leave the city. I nod off for a few seconds, but it’s hard to get back to sleep, so mostly I look out the window. To the southeast the sky is just a bit lighter and fewer of the stars can be seen. Slowly a thin red line is seen on the horizon and it gradually grows into a band of red. I make out the shape of what few trees grow in this country, the utility poles and lines of fence posts. As it becomes lighter, I notice I can tell the difference between the types of brush.
A little before 7 AM, I head to the dining car for breakfast. The train pulls into Winslow, stopping only for a minute to let off and pick up passengers. I’ve been through this town several times and have yet to see “a girl in a flatbed Ford.” The waitress, a young Hispanic woman with a bright smile, brings coffee and informs us of the day’s special. I decide to have the omelet made with three eggs, spinach, onions and tomatoes with a side of grits and cinnamon raisin toast. It’s a filling breakfast and the chef liberally sprinkled oregano on the omelet, giving it a nice spicy taste. While at breakfast, the sun breaks the horizon and its rays immediately light up the desert floor. Along the interstate, silver trailers pulled by semis reflect the light. Fence posts and utility poles cast long shadows. As the sun rises, the shadows are reeled in. We pass numerous freight trains, mostly hauling containers, but there’s one with piggy back trailers, and unit train of coal cars, another with closed hoppers hauling grain and another of tankers, hauling chemicals.
Before I realize it, the train has cut through the Petrified Forest National Park and is running along the Pesrco River as it makes its way to the New Mexico border. Although Interstate 40 parallels this section of track, it was originally Route 66, the highway made famous by Steinbeck in his Depression era novel, The Grapes of Wrath. When I was in school in Pittsburgh, I met a retired dentist who told me about his family’s trip out west in 1923. The man was in his 80s at the time I knew him, but was only about ten when his dad, who was a physician, decided to take off the entire summer. He packed up the family in a large car he described as looking like something off the Beverly Hillbillies set. As this was before road trips were popular and motels and service stations dotted the landscape; the family had to provide for themselves. They mostly camped at night and cooked their own food (carrying tents and a stove). He said that from the time they left Kansas City until they arrived in Los Angeles, the only paved roads were in towns. They had to serve as their own mechanics, too, often fixing half-dozen or so flats a day. As they boiled under the hot sun of the Southwest, they complained to their dad as to why they were driving while others were zooming past their car, riding comfortably in the sleek trains along the Atkinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Route.
The train I’m on was the descendant of the Santa Fe Super Chief, which was introduced in the 1930s. At its time, the Super Chief was luxury on rail, featuring all Pullman sleeper cars powered by diesel engines. This was the train of Hollywood Stars and would later give the framework for the movie “Silver Streak,” which although it used a different name, followed the Santa Fe’s route between LA and Chicago and featured the comic antics of the young Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.
We reach Gallup at 9 AM. From the sounds of the announcement, it sounds like the train crew is having problems with folks getting off the train to smoke and holding up operations. Gallup is just a quick stop to drop off and pick up passengers, but many have jumped onto the platform where they can legally smoke. The conductor wants to make up time and he tells people to only get off the train at scheduled stops. Since Amtrak went non-smoking twenty-some years ago, they have encouraged people who need to puff to take advantage of longer stops where they service the train. The next such stop is Albuquerque.
After Gallup, we climb. The wheels of the train squeak in the curves as they scrape against the side of the rails. To our north is a mesa that rises several hundred feet, the red Navajo sandstone is rich in the morning sun. To our south are lava fields, with the broken black rock only rising maybe fifty feet. Occasionally, in valley of sage is an ancient cottonwood, its huge trunk sprouting hundreds of scrawny limbs that twist every-which-way. This is Native American country. There are traditional southwest adobe housings along with many trailer and manufactured homes. Also, along what was once Route 66, are the ruins of motels and restaurants and trinket shops. For a hundred miles or so out of Gallup, the tracks parallel Interstate 40, alternating between being just north or south of the freeway. About fifty miles out of Albuquerque, the tracks drop to the southeast, before heading north along the upper waters of the Rio Grande. For the next three hundred miles, the tracks head north, paralleling Interstate 25.
During the morning, my daughter practices her violin and plays with the keyboard on her ipad to figure out the notes to a favorite song. I spend my time writing in a journal, looking out the window and reading Janisse Ray’s book, Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River. No one is in a hurry.
Our reservation for lunch in the dining car is at 12:30 PM. The nice thing about a sleeper is that all meals are included, which means I eat more than I should. I have a veggie burger, made out of black beans. It’s pretty good. Included are chips, ice tea and desert. I have a cup of raspberry sorbet.
We arrive in Albuquerque on-time, having made up nearly thirty minutes. Albuquerque is a long stop, nearly forty minutes, as the conductors and engineers change (the car attendants and dining car attendants remain the same the entire trip) and the train’s locomotives are fueled while the water tanks in the passenger cars are filled. During the stop here, I get out and walk up and down the tracks. On the edge of the tracks are Native American vendors selling jewelry and woven rugs and hats. We leave Albuquerque at 12:10, right on time. As we leave the city, the tracks take us through back yards that all seem to contain a wood-fired adobe beehive oven (something I’d always wanted). The houses all have satellite dishes. Some are traditional southwest looking homes, but many are not.
The Lamy station is the transfer point for those whose destination is Santa Fe. Ironically, although the famous town became the name of a railroad, the main line never made it to Santa Fe. The mountains were too steep to put the tracks into the town, so the town of Lamy was built. A short-line still branch off the mainline here, but those passengers desiring to get to Santa Fe, there is a bus. The train snakes through steep cuts in the pale orange sandstone as we leave Lamy. At times, the walls are so close to the tracks that if a window was open, one could reach out and touch the rock. Our progress is slow as the grade is steep as we move into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, climbing up the Glorieta Mesa. According to the timetable, it’ll take us nearly two hours to cover the 65 miles between Lamy and Las Vegas. The snow is also deeper, pinion and gamble oaks are now mixed in with the juniper. The late summer blooms on the rabbit brush is now brown.
Once we reach the Glorieta sidings, the track isn’t quite as steep and the train picks up speed. The westbound Southwest Chief passes us; it’ll be in LA tomorrow morning. I head to the lounge/observation car where I spend the afternoon, looking at the scenery (here I can see both sides of the tracks) while writing and talking to fellow passengers. We parallel Interstate 25; when the tracks are level we make good time and when they are steep, we slow down. Here, on top of the mesa, there are fewer cuts into the rocks and as the train snakes, we can see the engines up front and the coach cars on the back end.
Las Vegas, New Mexico isn’t as glitzy as its named counterpart in Nevada. But it’s an older town along the Santa Fe Trail. Next to the typical mission style train station Castendada, an old hotel and “Harvey House.” In the days before dining cars, the trains would stop here and the folks at the “Harvey House” were assigned the task of feeding the entire train as quickly as possible in order that they could get back on the road. Leaving Las Vegas at 3:15, the tracks carry us along high plateau, mostly grasslands with the occasional windmill and ranch house. The sun is now dropping in the southwestern sky as the magic hour approaches. In the winter, the sun seems to hang on a little longer and everything is bathed in soft light. The brown grass turns golden. Yesterday, at this time, we were driving across Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, through the polygamous towns of Hillsdale and Colorado City as we were heading to Flagstaff to catch the train. Canaan Mountain, in its various bands of colored sandstone, was beautiful in the low light. Today’s landscape isn’t quite as dramatic but it’s still beautiful as the sun casts warm hues across the plateau. The sun finally gives up and drops behind the mountains a few minutes before we arrive in Raton.
Raton is a longer stop and I get off the train and walk up and down the platform. It’s colder, now that the sun has set and we’re in higher elevation. In the summer, thousands of Boy Scouts get off here in order to visit the Philmont Scout Ranch, for a week or two of hiking in the Desert Mountains of the Southwest. I’m told that having a large scout group on the train can be a trying experience for the rest of the travelers, but we don’t have to worry about it as its winter. I’ve taken this route once before, during the summer of 1993, but since I had a sleeper, I was spared the experience as the scouts onboard were all in coach. When we leave Raton, we’re on some of the steepest track in the country. We’re five cars behind the locomotives, yet can hear them groan as they work hard to pull us up the grade. At times it seems we’re going no faster than I can walk. The track is so steep that a marble dropped on the floor would race to the back of the car. It takes nearly an hour to go from Raton, New Mexico to Trinidad, Colorado, a distance of only 24 miles. At the summit, the tracks are at 7588 feet, the highest point along the Santa Fe line. We rush through the Raton Tunnel and then begin our descent. But even the downhill is steep and curvy and the engineer maintains a slow descent. Its pitch dark by the time we reach Trinidad.
Our dinner reservations are at 6 PM and since we don’t have enough for a full table, we are seated with a solo traveler who introduces himself as “Dave, a hillbilly from West Virginia.” He’s quite a talker, telling about working in the coal mines as a kid and then leaving the state and doing various jobs around the country including working behind the scenes in the movies. He’d gotten on in Santa Fe and is heading back to his home country where he’s planning on retiring. For dinner, I have a chipotle beef tip with apricot sauce, roasted vegetables, rice and a salad. I’m not a big beef person, unless the meat has been spiced up some. This was delicious! After dinner, the train stopped in La Junita, Colorado. We’re fifteen minutes early. Since the engineers and conductors change here; we have nearly a 30 minute break. But it’s cold, 14 degrees, so after walking the length of the train a few times, I seek the shelter of the car, where our attendant is busy putting down the beds. I’d talked to him earlier today. He’s been an attendant for Amtrak for 35 years. He started working with them during the summer, when he was a grad student working on a photojournalism degree. He stayed with it, taking on average three six-day trips a month (a trip from LA to Chicago with a layover day and then back to LA is considered a 6 day trip).
Through this section, I have a good data signal and spend the next hour updating my facebook page and reading and commenting on blogs. We stop briefly in Lamar, to let off and receive passengers. As we leave, I put away my laptop and pull the covers over me. Outside, it’s cold and snowy. The stars are bright and Orion and his dog seem to be just outside my window. We pass a number of grain elevators and enter the Central Time Zone. It’s now 10:30 PM and I call it a night.
I sleep well, waking up only once, at 5:15 AM. We’re at Topeka, then. The station is on the other side of the train, and from my window I look out at a rather sizable rail yard. Freight trains are being assembled. The lights are so much that I can barely see the stars, but I pick out what I think are the two bright stars that make up the arrow in the archer’s bow, but then realize I shouldn’t be seeing that constellation this time of the year and that it must be Cygnus the Swan. As we begin to move out, I fall back asleep. At 7 AM, the announcer comes on and says we’re in Kansas City, a fifteen minute stop. I pull on a gym suit and walk outside for fresh air. When the engine whistles and the conductor calls “all aboard,” I jump back onboard and go to the diner for breakfast. This morning I take it easy, enjoying a bowl of steel cut oatmeal along with some fruit and toast and, of course, coffee. We’re seated with a woman from Royal Oak, Michigan, who has been visiting family in Kansas. She’ll be on the same train we’ll take out of Chicago, although she’ll have two and a half more hours of travel, arriving at her station at midnight (if the train is on time). As we eat, we cross the Missouri River. A unit train of grain hoppers passes us, heading west. There is no snow here in the Midwest, just brown fields and bare trees. The tracks cut through the northwest corner of Missouri and the southeast corner of Iowa, as we race along through farmland and wooded areas and the occasional town. Broom sledge, brown and dry, line the tracks thought much of this section. We stop in La Plata, Missouri. This is a small station and we have to make two stops, one to let off the sleeping car passengers and again to let off those riding in the coaches on the back end of the train. Over half of the passengers appear to be Amish in their traditional dress.
As we approach Fort Madison, Iowa, along the Mississippi River, we pass the factory where they make the large electrical windmills. Hundreds of blades are stored around the buildings and some of them are on secured to flat rail cars, awaiting shipment. Fort Madison is a “smoke stop” and I get off to get some fresh air (there seems to be only one smoker in our car and he walks far away from the train to light up). I walk around a bit, but we are only stopped for a few minutes before the engineer blows the whistle and the “all aboard” call is made. It’s okay because they have already called the 11:45 AM dining reservations (it’s only 11:15). We’re about 10 minutes behind schedule, but all bets are on that we’ll make that back up as we race into Chicago. In the dining car, as we pull out of the station, the tracks parallel the Mississippi River. A paddle-wheeled riverboat is tied up at the docks and I pose to get a shot when we go by, but just before we get there a pair of orange, black and yellow Burlington Northern Santa Fe locomotives on the next track blocks my view. It’s a unit of cars filled with automobiles. Soon, the tracks make a right hand bend and we’re on the trestle over the Mississippi and into Illinois, the final state of our journey. This is farm country. The dirt is black and the fields of corn and soybeans are fallow in the winter. Along the edges of the fields are farm houses and barns.
For lunch, I have the chef’s special. I am not normally a big macaroni and cheese fan, but his mac and cheese includes cauliflower, corn, garlic and chipotle sauce. It was good and has a spicy bite to it. The meal is especially filling since it includes a salad and a dinner roll. When we leave, we say goodbye to the dining staff as they’ve treated us well this trip.
Our first stop in Illinois is Galesburg, a railroad town. Tracks merge here before heading into Chicago. At the station, many of the Amish get off the train along with a few other passengers. Next to the station is the Galesburg Rail Museum. Someday I need to make a stop here. On display is a Burlington Route steamer with a couple of Pullman cars. There have been a number of old steam locomotives on display in the various towns we’ve traveled through. In this part, they’re always the over-sized Burlington Route or CB&Q (Chicago, Burlington and Quincy) steamers designed for fast transportation across the plains. On the other side of Kansas City, they’re Atkinson, Topeka & Santa Fe locomotives, most of which are smaller and better on the curves. Riding through this country of farms and small cities, we see the backyard of America, filled with clothes lines and swing sets. Many of the streets that run out from the tracks have wooden two-storied box-shaped homes and are lined with trees. But it doesn’t quite look right as there is no snow on the ground, which is usual for January.
We pull into Chicago’s Union Station on time, at 3 PM. We’ve covered 1699 miles in 33 hours, having traveled through deserts and mountain, through reservations and many small towns and a few larger cities, crossed the great rivers and the rich farmland of America’s heartland!
With a three hour layover, we head to the Great Room. It’s still decorated for Christmas. We camp out on the wooden bench seats. As I finish reading Ray’s book, Drifting into Darien, a police officer stops to ask what I’m reading. I try to explain the book and he asks if it’s like the book they made into a movie with Brad Pitts about two boys and their father a Lutheran minister in Montana. “You mean, A River Runs Through It?” I ask. “That’s it,” he says. I correct him saying that the dad wasn’t Lutheran but Presbyterian and explain the differences between the books. Although I am enjoying Ray’s writing, it’s nothing like MacLean’s masterpiece. I tell him a bit about Ray and her writing about nature in the South. He acknowledges the number of great southern writers and notes the rising number of southern crime fiction authors. I admit I haven’t read much in that genre unless Carl Haaisen’s writing could be classified in the genre. I’m surprised that he knows Haaisen, and he asks if I’ve read Thomas Cook. I haven’t and he tells me about a crime fiction book Cook wrote that’s sent in Birmingham, during the days of Bull O’Conner. As we talk, he seems to know a lot about Cook and the setting and I ask if he knows Cook and he admits that he’s talked to him a number of times, saying that he plays in the crime fiction genre. When I ask if he’s published anything, he acknowledges that he’s shopping a novel, but has a non-fiction book in print titled Just the Facts: True Tales of Cops and Criminals.
At five, an hour before departure, we head into the crowded waiting room. I talk a bit with an Amish man who’s just travelled here from central Pennsylvania to see a couple families off to Mexico. At 5:30, the make the first call for the Wolverine, the train that’ll take us to Kalamazoo and home. We board, climbing up iced-over stairs. The train is crowded. We start slowly, going through the maze of tracks south of Chicago, before circling around the south shore of Lake Michigan. It’s a short trip, just two and a half hours (plus another hour due to the change of time zones). At Niles, I call my friends where I’d left my truck. They tell me they’ll be there at the station. It’ll be nice to be home as I hear it’s been snowing. At 9:30, right on time, the train stops in Kalamazoo and we carefully make our way down the icy steps. After a thirty minute drive, our trip will be over.