My Amtrak Vacation, Chicago to Los Angeles (South West Chief and California Zephyr), 1997

31st May 1997

We went on this vacation 20 years ago. The hand written details of my observations of this trip were misplaced all these years. I recently found it again and am posting it since it is a trip down the memory lane. Among other details, it is interesting to note the price of entry tickets and cab and bus fares 20 years ago.

Here in the USA, the vacation for schools starts by the end of May or by the 15th of June. Therefore, most plan their vacation in summer between June and August which is the best season for the travel. We decided to travel to Los Angles by AMTRAK train; it was novel idea for all of us.

Day 1

“AMTRAK” had announced a summer travel package deal so we booked our tickets in May 1997 by calling AMTRAK customer service and sending money by check. It was a package tour to California. We had asked for additional travel to San Jose as we wanted to see San Francisco. The package included our stay at hotels and tour by bus besides travel by train. The actual tickets were sent to us by the CS representative about 8 to 10 days in advance by courier. Detailed instructions along with the tickets and our passes for lodging in the hotels en route were received by us. We started our journey on 31st of May 1997 from Union Station, Chicago. Just like flights, there is check-in time for trains also. We had to report 40 minutes before the departure time of 05.10pm. There are different platforms for different routes. Here nobody says platforms but track. We stood in the queue and got our entry to the track from where our train was to start. The trains here are provided with A/C Coaches. There are sleeping cars having sleepers; super sleepers and deluxe sleeper, and the charges are based as per the type of sleeper. I observed that people with families generally travel by coaches. When we entered the train we saw the coach which was really beautiful and just like a plane. There were two seats on each side which were very comfortable. You could relax during day and at night by reclining your seats. Lights for reading for both seats were on top of it along with call button for the attendant. The train was fantastic. It had two levels. You have to get in from the lower level leaving your luggage there in the space provided for and then go to upper level by the staircase towards your seats. The door was opened only by the attendant at the stations who was allowing passengers to get in after checking their tickets and giving them seat numbers. He was helping the elderly to get in with the help of a step- stool as the platforms are not high. The interesting thing noted by me was that whenever passengers entered they were given seat #’s by the attendant at the station stop. When the train departs, he takes those #’s and puts a slip above the seat which indicates your destination. Then the conductor comes and collects the portion of the ticket. If somebody has no ticket because of non-availability of the ticket agent at the station or if it is short journey, the ticket is issued by the conductor inside the train without any penalty. But generally the tickets are issued by the travel agents in the town for long distance and your seat is confirmed. There was a separate dining car. For breakfast, lunch and dinner, slips were issued by the dining car staff with specific timings and numbers. These numbers were announced and passengers were asked to come to the dining car as per the availability of tables. This was possible only because a public address system was provided for the entire train. The chief conductor used to give us information about the next station stop, requesting passengers to be ready along with their luggage. En route, he also used to give information about the village / town with its importance. It was surprising to see an additional facility for site seeing, a lounge car. Seats were provided on both sides of the lounge car. From here you could view the spectacular scenery along the route through the panoramic glass windows on the upper level of cars.

Day 2

At about 2pm the next day, June 1st, we reached ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico Station. Here we had to adjust our watches 1 hour back as we were now in the mountain time zone – (central, pacific, eastern and mountain). The train stopped here for about 40 minutes. We were told that this city is a site of the annual hot air balloon festival. There is a reservation of Tiwa Indians here. They put stalls on the platforms on the arrival of trains. They were selling Native Indian Crafts and Jewelry. They were also selling ice cream and cold drinks. We purchased ice creams as it was very hot. Our destination was Los Angles, but we also wanted to visit the Grand Canyon, therefore our first halt was Flagstaff in Arizona. We boarded the train at Chicago Union Station at 05.10pm on May 31st, 97 and reached Flag Staff Station, Arizona at 09.20pm on June 1st, 97 covering a journey of 28 hours. However it was a pleasant journey. During the journey was passed through States of IA, MO, KS, CO, NM. We traveled over the wide Mississippi river on a 3347 foot long bridge. It was really fantastic. As mentioned earlier, we wanted to visit Grand Canyon before reaching LA, so we got off at Flagstaff Station. From here, tourists get bus connections to the Grand Canyon. Amtrak had made our arrangements to stay at 'Holiday Inn' for two nights from June 1st to 3rd. From the station, Holiday Inn was contacted and the management was kind enough to send a car to pick us up from the Station. We came to the Inn and on showing the papers given by Amtrak, we got our room which was very nice.

Day 3

We decided to go see Grand Canyon on the 3rd. Therefore we traveled to Flag Staff downtown on the 2nd in a trolley bus operated by Nava Hopi Tours, which goes around the towns right from 0800 am to 0430 pm. The ticket for this bus was $4 per person for the entire day. There are about 5 to 6 important places to be seen here. We visited two museums. One of the museums was Arizona Historical Society Pioneer Museum which was very interesting. The audio recordings and information of the community’s history was very educational. The other Museum was the Museum of Northern Arizona. There were a lot of paintings done by native Indians and also a dinosaur exhibit. There was a small nature trail outside. We had our lunch here while we waited for the bus. The bus arrives every hour and accordingly you have to plan your sightseeing to different places. We had also planned to see Riordan Mansion State Historic Park of Arizona. It is a very big area. The tour begins at the mansion pathway. We noticed the large ponderosa pine known for its vanilla or butterscotch like fragrance. There is also a ceramic Katsina tile hidden under the stone archway. According to the Hopi tradition, this Katsina tile helped protect the house. The bird bath fountain was constructed of a native volcanic rock. Several animal images were hand carved onto the stone surface. The importance of this place is Riordan Mansion. This house has been maintained as a State Historic Park by the Conserving Natural Cultural and recreation resources, Arizona. For the maintenance $4 is charged per person as the entry fee. The tourist guide explained the entire facility, amenities then provided by the Riordan brothers who had built this 40 room house for their families in 1904. We missed one bus as we took a lot of time at the Riordan mansion enjoying the exhibits and the tour. Thus we had to wait for the last bus trip. Then we came back to Holiday Inn.

Day 4

The next day, June 3rd, we took a tour of Grand Canyon in a bus arranged by Amtrak. The bus visits different hotels where the Amtrak tourists stay. In some countries, tourist who travel with the organizers of the tours are generally accommodated in one hotel but here they are provided accommodation in different hotels. Some tourists visited Grand Canyon on the 2nd as well. Our bus was taken to the main depot of Nava- Hopi Tours Inc. that operate GrayLine of Flagstaff since 1928. The driver / guide was humorous and jovial. He introduced himself saying that he is a Native Indian from Sun tribe and that there are 3 more tribes such as Water, Earth and Bull. As the bus was moving on, he was describing the area. There were lot of dwarf trees on both sides. After that there was a hilly area, home to many native Indians. There were vast lands also which were cultivated by the Natives. The main crop was corn. As there is scanty rainfall, more vegetation is not possible. The tribes also raise cattle, sheep from which they get the milk and meat. I asked him if the habits and customs of all the different tribes were the same to which he replied no, that the customs were different.

Our first stop for twenty minutes was at a place where the natives had set up shops and were selling T-shirt’s, hats, pants, earrings, necklace, shoes etc. Many tourists including us purchased some souvenirs here. From there we went to Grand Canyon Park. The area of Arizona is full of Pine and Aspen trees . On the way we saw the Kolb Studio which was home and business to the Kolb brothers. They were the pioneer photographers at Grand Canyon. The book store and the auditorium are open to the public and art exhibits are frequently on display in the auditorium. From the top we saw terrific rocks some very high and some low surrounded by Colorado river. In addition there were trees all around. Different types of rocks have been formed due to flow of the river. There are several view-points at various heights and each point has a different view. Really it is a wonder of the nature. Then we visited another 4 to 5 points from where we saw the beautiful scenery of Grand Canyon. One of the points was the Yavapai Observation station. It had temporary exhibits of the fossils records of Grand Canyon. A panorama of the Grand Canyon was visible through the windows. Our last stop was at Imax theatre. In U.S.A. people say a movie for cinema. The driver/guide had collected money in advance from the tourist who wanted to see the movie. The ticket was $ 7.50 per person. Almost all had paid the money. The movie was for 45 minutes. The theater was very beautiful, having a very big and wide screen, and special effects with a capacity of about 800 people. After that we returned to the hotel and had our meal at Denny’s which was close to our hotel. After having some rest in the hotel we left at about 08.30pm on the 3rd as we had to get on the train to Los Angeles from Flagstaff Station at 09.30pm. The transport was arranged free of cost by the hotel. Here the stations en route are small. We waited in the waiting room. There were only two clerks at the station, who were issuing tickets and also booking luggage. They were also giving information about train timings and the expected arrival of train etc. There were only about 10 to 15 passengers for this train.

Day 5

Next day on June 4th we reached L.A. station at 0830 am. This station is very big. Lots of trains leave from here. There are internal local trains also. From the station, Metro Plaza Hotel where we had accommodation reserved by Amtrak was contacted. Our stay in this hotel was for 2 days. After settling in the hotel we enquired about our pre-booked bus tour in CA. We were told that the bus service started at 08.00am which we had missed. So we had to go the next day. After freshening up a little we decided to visit LA on our own that afternoon. There was a mission hospital close to the train station. We were told that it was the site of the old railway station. Then we traveled in a bus to a beach. It took us nearly an hour and half to get there; but we could see a great portion of LA in this ride. From the bus stop, it took nearly 10 mins. to reach the beach which was very big. Although it was noon, it was a little cool because of the winds. There were a lot of shops on the boardwalk close to the shore and a lot of activity; we had a wonderful time. Then we returned to the hotel.

Day 6

Next day, the 5th the driver / guide came to the hotel in his van. There were a total of 7 tourists including us, the other were 2 couples from London. The guide was explaining the significance of buildings on both the sides which were very huge. He showed us the famous court building, then he took us to the spot where Oscar award ceremony is held each year. The main hall was not open, however the outer space was really beautiful. There were a lot of statues and fountains all over including the peace monument. At the time of the ceremony the entire area is red carpeted and looks totally different as seen on the T.V. From there, we headed to Hollywood. On the way, he showed us certain homes affected by earthquakes. One of the houses was very damaged and he mentioned that it was a result of 2-3 earthquakes and finally the owners abandoned the house. Then the important portion of our CA tour started. We entered Hollywood. There were several magnificent buildings around us including the houses of the rich and famous. There were a lot of very expensive restaurants here. The guide told us that a lot of movie stars visited these restaurants for certain delicacies. There were beautiful decorations everywhere and it was very attractive. He also showed us beautiful shops dealing in all types of goods. We saw jewelry shops also. The guide pointed out one of the shops from where Clark Gable had purchased his wedding ring for his bride. Further, he showed us a road called 'The walk' where the actors / actresses used to walk along this road in the olden days. However, nowadays they are not seen since most of them moved to Beverly Hills. We saw a hill which had surrounded Hollywood. There were bungalows on this hill. It was really a very beautiful site indeed. Then we got off at a very busy center. It was a very big Chinese theater. Outside there were footprints of famous actors / actresses / directors along with their names. Many tourists took photos of themselves standing on the footprints or putting their hands on the hand prints. Another important site we saw was the 'Star Walk' where each star indicated a name of a famous movie actor / actress. Then we saw Universal Studio from outside. We could see the entrance; it is a very huge studio with vast land outside.

From there we got back in the van and since it was lunch time, the driver took us to Farmers market where we had 1 hour for lunch. After lunch, we did some window shopping and then returned to the van at the specified time. Then we started for Beverly Hills. I am sure many may have seen the TV show “Beverly Hills 90210 “. The series was filmed here. This is really a beautiful place with a lot of trees. This area is full of Bungalows / Houses of Hollywood stars. All these houses were really beautiful with different architecture and huge fountains in well maintained lawns. Some of them were rebuilt. The guide said that there were 3 things which would indicate that we were in BH. They are the garbage boxes, water hydrants and post boxes. that all were a green color which was not found anywhere else. We were in this neighborhood for almost an hour. Then he showed us some less expensive houses and apartments where upcoming actors / actresses lived. This concluded our tour and since we had no plans for the rest of the evening, we asked him to drop us off at the Paramount Studio as we wanted to take a tour of the studio. Unfortunately, the last tour had just left 5 mins before we got there so we missed it. On our request, he arranged for a taxi for us. We thanked him and waited at the studio entrance. Surprisingly, the taxi came in less than 10 mins and we went back to LA. As I was sitting in the front seat, I noticed that the meter started at $ 1.90 and was adding 0.40 cents every mile. On the way we were able to see more of CA. The total fare was $13.70.

Day 7

As our next stop was San Jose, which was not on the same route, we boarded another train the next day, 6th in the morning at 0920 am and reached San Jose at 0620 pm the same evening. We had asked Amtrak for a stay here for four days but this stay was at our own cost.

Day 8

The next day was Saturday, June 7th. We visited a place which was called a Vista point. It was on high level surrounded by trees. There was a deep valley in front. It was really a beautiful place from where we could watch the sunrise and sunset. Then we started for San Francisco which was a 3 hour drive. It is really a nice city. The construction was quiet different. I was told that this cosmopolitan cultural center is the home to world famous restaurants, galleries and shops. Then we proceeded further to the famous Golden Gate Bridge which is very big and built on a large river. There were a lot of tourist. Some were jogging as the weather was good. Below the bridge there was a Spanish fort. Then we went to the Bay area. There are Ferry Services between the East bay and San Francisco. We purchased tickets for SF Pier 39 called Almeda / Oak Land Ferry which was to start at 2 pm. The fare was $ 13 per person but $ 9 for Senior Citizens. This trip was for an hour and half. Therefore we decided to have lunch as there was ample time in between. There were lot of restaurants around. While we were standing in the line I saw one person taking photos of the tourists. I was wondering as to how he was doing at free of charge. When we came back however, I found out that the charge was $10 for group photo. But it was optional. The driver of the ferry was working as guide also. He was telling us about the importance of the surrounding places. We could have a glimpse of San Francisco. It included Embarcadero center, Union Square, the Financial district and the San Francisco shopping centers. He also pointed out an old Fort converted into prison and also some hilly places where Native Indians used to stay. While returning we visited a place where the road was very high having a curve and slope on the other side. It was a joy to drive. Then we went to see the Monterey beach. We saw on the way Sand dunes on both the sides. It was called Sand Drive. Astonishingly, some bushes had grown up on Sand Hills. It is beyond our imagination as to what nature can do. There were many spots on the beach from where we enjoyed the sea. While returning we drove through 17 Miles Street. It was a very scenic drive with very expensive houses. It was a wonderful drive about 2/3 hrs. From there we returned to San Jose. We spent the next 2 days visiting with our friends and relatives.

Day 11

On June 10th we left San Jose at 0620 a.m. by train and arrived at Sacramento which is the Capital of California, at 9.50 a.m. I was told that this was the western terminus pony express in 1860. It was also the starting point for the central pacific railroad in 1863. We may call it a Junction as we had to catch another train to return to Chicago as we were traveling by another route. Our connecting train was at 01.20pm so we had to wait at the station for 3 hrs. We took a trolly ride and were able to see down town Sacramento. The general appearance around the station was maintained to resemble Sacramento as it must have looked 100 yrs ago. The station itself was the historic land mark as it depicted from the paintings of the trains and atmosphere in the olden days. It is home of the California state railroad, one of the nation’s most impressive displays of railroad equipment. Return journey by Amtrak was on California Zephyr (desert wind). It is the most beautiful train trip in all of North America through the heart of the rocky mountains. It was a journey of 55 hrs. involving 2 nights. However, it was not tedious. We spent a lot of time in the lounge to enjoy and see the view of Pacific Ocean and Colorado river, different trees and hills. The guide was asking through micro phones to look out for deer, bison and also inform others if we happened to spot one. We were lucky to see them. We also saw a rare golden eagle sitting on a railway pole. The entire journey was the most wonderful experience during our stay in USA. With the grace of God we returned safely back to Chicago.