By Rick & Sandi Griffin & McKenna, on January 14, 2015

Cross country train travel

Having a Bucket List without travel is like making s’mores without a campfire. Sure, the goodies can be made in a microwave and they still will taste great, but somehow they aren’t quite as satisfying. We consider travel a delectable treat, the metaphoric s’mores of our collective bucket lists. To stretch the metaphor, the journey is the campfire that transforms an ordinary trip into an adventure.

With this in mind, Sandi and I recently met in Chicago to embark on an odyssey of a lifetime: a cross-country train trip from Chicago to Los Angeles aboard Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. Neither of us ever will forget the experience.

The adventure began before we even boarded the train. We arrived at Union Station about three hours before the Southwest Chief was scheduled to leave the station, so we checked our luggage in Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge and ventured out to find some Chicago-style pizza (which, by the way, also was on our bucket lists). We found a nearby local pizza chain, where we devoured a delicious-but-doughy specimen. To be honest, we both prefer New York-style to Chicago-style, but we were happy to dig in.

On the way back to Union Station we passed Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower. My calculations indicated that we had enough time before boarding the train to visit the famed Skydeck of what was once the world’s tallest building. Sandi’s calculations indicated that I had enough time to check myself into an insane asylum if I thought she was going with me. Did I mention that Sandi doesn’t like heights? Anyway, I went it alone and took in some spectacular views of Chicago.

Sandi also has a fear of public restrooms, so her accommodations on the Southwest Chief included a private bedroom complete with a sink, shower, and toilet. My home for the trip was a “roomette,” which included two comfortable seats that could be folded down into a bed, and a couple of electrical outlets so I could keep my electronics charged. Best of all, my roomette was right next to the dining car!


As soon as we departed Union Station, I knew I was going to enjoy train travel. There were no announcements telling me to shut down my electronics, fasten my seatbelt, or return my seat and tray table to a full upright and locked position. Airplanes only have small portholes for windows that never seem to quite line up with my seat; my window on the train stretched the entire length of my roomette. I loved the ever-changing views as the scenery transformed from city, to suburbs, to farmland, to countryside.

I met Sandi in the dining car for dinner. Had we been on an airplane we would have been served pretzels and food in a box. Instead, we enjoyed a steak dinner and watched a spectacular sunset as we crossed the Mississippi River near Fort Madison, Iowa. Next time, I’ll know to bring my camera with me to dinner.

When I returned to my roomette, the cabin steward had converted the seats into a bed. I fell asleep with my curtains open watching a full moon and a gazillion stars illuminate America’s heartland. The gentle swaying and low rumble of the train rolling down the tracks made for an exceptionally good night’s slumber.

By the time I met Sandi in the dining car for breakfast we were over desert terrain somewhere in Colorado. I was amazed at the amount of wildlife we were able to see. In the short time it took me to down an omelet, roasted potatoes, and grits, I saw prairie dogs, antelopes, mountain goats, and elk!

Viewfinder Tip: Train delays are inevitable. Download Amtrak’s app for up-to-the-minute arrival and departure information.

After breakfast I took my laptop to the glass topped observation car, which proved to be quite an inspirational work environment. Fortunately we had 3G signals for most of the trip, so we were able to share photos of our journey with Twitter and Facebook friends as we rolled along.

The Southwest Chief made several stops in small towns along the way, to allow passengers to board or leave the train. After a few rail maintenance delays just before dusk, we reached Albuquerque, where we disembarked the train for the first time in more than 24 hours. We planned to spend the night and catch the westbound Southwest Chief the next evening as we had more adventures planned.

Detour in Albuquerque

Food was our first order of business in Albuquerque, and Sadie’s of New Mexico proved to be most satisfying. I dare say that it might well have been the best Mexican food and margaritas we ever have had. As a Foursquare Mayor of a Mexican restaurant in Stockbridge, Georgia, I speak with authority!

After dinner we checked into the historic Hotel Andaluz. This was the fourth hotel built by Conrad Hilton, and was the hotel where he and Zsa Zsa Gabor spent their honeymoon. This time I got the better room; Sandi’s room was on the third floor, while my room was a suite, and was on floor No. 9.


Our adventures began before daylight the next morning as we headed to the Rainbow Ryders launch site for a little hot-air ballooning. I particularly was excited to check this off my Bucket List, as my two previous attempts at hot-air ballooning were cancelled due to weather. Sandi was kind enough ride with the chase vehicle and take pictures from the ground while I rode with the wind. From the sky, the scenery was incredible, the sailing was smooth, and, with the exception of the occasional roar of burners when the pilot needed to gain altitude, the ride was unbelievably quiet and peaceful.

Eating at a diner on Route 66 was another experience we wanted to have, so, after the balloon ride, we headed back into town and enjoyed a breakfast of corned beef hash, fried eggs, and hash browns with grilled jalapeño at Lindy’s Diner.

We decided to walk off breakfast in Old Town Albuquerque, where we found plenty to do. We visited a rattlesnake museum, explored artisan shops, and met The Candy Lady, who sold us a bag of “blue sky,” the candy that doubled as high-quality crystal meth in the “Breaking Bad” television series.

At the recommendation of locals, we headed to Albuquerque’s hip Nob Hill district to grab a bite eat at Bistronomy, a beer and burger joint that offers 34 different New Mexico microbrews and a BYOB (Build Your Own Burger) menu option. Since we had a train to catch, we ordered our food to go; I can’t remember exactly what I put on my burger creation, but I do remember remember wishing that I had ordered two.

Back on the train

About five hours after boarding the Southwest Chief in Albuquerque, we arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona, where we disembarked for the second time. We spent the night at the Hilton Garden Inn. I don’t know what kind of view Sandi had from her room. I had a view of the parking lot, but I told her that I had a beautiful view of the Flagstaff skyline, which I don’t even think was visible from the hotel. I had to let her think that karma was still at work for her getting the bedroom on the train.

In the morning, we took the hotel shuttle to the airport, rented a car and took a scenic drive through desert mountains to the beautiful town of Sedona, Arizona. I had been to Sedona a couple of times before but Sandi wanted to experience it for herself.


After breakfast in town, we drove to the Airport Mesa for some of the most incredible views of Sedona’s spectacular rock formations. Then we hiked the trails around Bell Rock, where we encountered a tour group meditating at a vortex near the base of the bell-shaped rock formation.

We visited Sedona’s beautiful Chapel of the Holy Cross, a place of worship that is actually built into the rock on the side of a mountain. We stopped at the Son Silver West Galleries, where amongst the vast collection of art, pottery, and outdoor decor, we saw what I can only describe as a quirky wood carving of an alien needing to use the restroom. Definitely not something you see every day.

Finally we ventured out to Cathedral Rock and began hiking the up a trail there. After about a half-mile, just before the going became really steep, we saw what appeared to be a group of older folks doing naked yoga about 100 yards away. At that point, Sandi suggested we head back before it got dark. Besides, Sandi was pretty sure that encountering nude senior citizens stretching in the downward dog position would totally destroy the her zen.

We made it back to Flagstaff in time to return the rental car, grab a bite to eat, and board the Southwest Chief again. I fell asleep in my roomette almost as soon as the train began moving. By the time I woke up, the train was just about an hour away from Los Angeles, where we disembarked for the final time.

As much as I love to fly, I dreaded my 5-hour flight back to Atlanta. Between the relaxed pace and the on-board food, I definitely could get used to train travel. In fact, I’m adding two more train trips to my Bucket List: the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul, and the Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles. Hopefully, on those journeys, I’ll be the one with the better room.

Where would you like to travel by train?