Somewhere between Palm Springs and Yuma, Ariz., I heard the train whistle blowing, a low-toned moan that roused me from sleep like a gentle alarm clock.
I parted the royal blue curtains that shielded the light from my tiny compartment aboard Amtrak's Sunset Limited Superliner and looked out as the rising sun gave substance and shape to the Sonoran Desert sands. It was a more welcoming sight than the night before: As I was rocked to sleep in compartment 5, the light from the window had illuminated the junkyards and bus yards of suburban Los Angeles.
The Sunset Limited was bound for Orlando, Fla., about three days and 2,764 miles away, but I was going only as far as Tucson on my first overnight ride on a U.S. train. My car-less trip took more than 12 hours and spanned 502 miles, which I could have covered in an hour's flight and for a quarter the price. But getting there, not being there, was the main point of this weekend journey.
I boarded Amtrak Train No. 2 on a Friday night in Los Angeles' impressive Art Deco Union Station, built in 1939. I stopped for a margarita at the Traxx bar before my husband kissed me goodbye, then waited among other passengers, who seemed better provisioned than I for a train journey, clutching pillows, blankets and bags of snacks. I had only my carry-on bag and a bottle of water. None of it, not even I, went through a security check before the boarding process began. (The Bush administration is considering the screening of Amtrak passengers and luggage at stations.)
The size of compartment 5 brought to mind a Japanese sleeping capsule. The standard sleeper measures 78 inches long and 42 inches wide. The bed, neatly made in white sheets and a royal blue blanket and only 28 inches wide, was a tight fit even for a slight, 5-foot-2 individual like me. Another bed pulled down from the ceiling, and I would imagine that two people would need the gymnastic limberness of Nadia Comaneci to navigate the space, including the climb into the upper bunk. With the bed made up, there wasn't room to execute a 360-degree turn, let alone stand comfortably.
Nevertheless, snug and warm in my cocoon, I fell asleep soon after the train pulled out at 10:40 p.m. In the dining car the next morning during breakfast, I learned I had slept right through a 3 1/2-hour delay caused by another late passenger train and freight traffic. (Freight trains often take priority over Amtrak passenger trains, and such a delay "happens a lot," my car steward said with a smile.) "It happens" was a sentiment shared by passengers in a lounge car, where I sat for a spell among an eclectic group of retirees, grandmothers coloring with their grandchildren and youths.
As the conductor laconically confirmed the delay over the train's public address system, he commented, "Based on this train's history, I seriously doubt we'll make any of that up." Two women next to me laughed. I heard no gnashing of teeth, no screams, no fits of temper.
It was then I learned the allure of traveling by train: It's more relaxed, and what prevails is an attitude of "we'll get there when we get there; meanwhile, let's enjoy the idle chitchat, counting arms on saguaros as we roll by." Spontaneous friendships sprang up among children, who invited one another to their compartments to play. Among adults, there was conversation and camaraderie.
An Orlando-bound couple invited me to compare their deluxe sleeper with my own minuscule space. Although still compact and efficient (with an attached toilet and shower stall), there's enough room to do a pirouette.
Summer siestaAlmost four hours past our scheduled arrival time of 8:40 a.m., we rolled into Tucson, passing acres of junkyards with rusted buses, cars and hulls of refrigerators. Why do cities present their worst sides to train travelers?
The detritus of our civilization gave way to the buildings of downtown Tucson, where I disembarked for a 24-hour tour of the city before flying home.
I dropped my bags at the Clarion Hotel & Suites Santa Rita, within walking distance of the train station, and set off on foot through the near-deserted streets of Tucson, where the noonday sun braised the ground.
My husband calls me a heat-seeking missile, and at first I relished the 100-degree warmth. But soon even I began to wilt. So I ducked into El Charro Café, just outside El Presidio, Tucson's historic core, to revive myself with lunch. There I made my first and best find in the city: tamales, the best I have ever tasted, which were fluffy and bursting with corn and green chilies.
I followed that with a cooling stop at the Tucson Museum of Art, whose varied collection includes pre-Columbian pottery as well as a piece by contemporary artist Jasper Johns. They are displayed in a series of buildings, some restored and reclaimed from the 19th century.
I spent the most time in the Goodman Pavilion of Western Art, which houses Southwest prints and paintings of Indians and landscapes familiar to us from the movies.
Despite these bright spots, I had picked a bad time to visit Tucson. During the July 4th holiday weekend, the streets, for the most part, were empty, and Saturday afternoon I saw no more than a dozen people out and about.
I wandered the Fourth Avenue shopping district Sunday morning, finding many closed doors. At Cafe Jinx, a sign summed it up: "Gone fishing until September. Have a nice summer."
I was about to follow suit. I stopped in for a late breakfast at Cup Café in the Hotel Congress, where bank robber John Dillinger stayed, then took a $1 bargain bus ride to the Tucson airport.
Before I left town, I heard the train whistle calling. Had I but money enough and time, I'd be on board again.
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Amtrak, (800) USA-RAIL (872-7245), http://www.amtrak.com . I paid $221.80 one way for a Superliner standard bedroom with shared bathrooms and showers. A deluxe bedroom is $505 for two.
Restricted one-way airfare from Tucson to Los Angeles begins at $49; nonstop service is offered on Southwest and United and connecting service (change of planes) on America West, Alaska, Delta and American.
WHERE TO STAY:
Clarion Hotel & Suites Santa Rita, 88 E. Broadway Blvd., Tucson, AZ 85701; (800) 252-7466 or (520) 622-4000, http://www.choicehotels.com . Part of a chain. Comfortable rooms, but mine showed some wear. Published rates for doubles start at $74, but I got a discounted rate of $57, excluding tax, from the Tucson visitors bureau website. (See below.)
WHERE TO EAT:
El Charro, 311 N. Court Ave.; (520) 622-1922, http://www.elcharrocafe.com . Serves Mexican fare. One of the oldest eateries in the city. It has several branches, and I ate in the original, just outside El Presidio. I loved the fresh corn tamales, which cost $7 for a platter. Entrees $6-$17.
Cup Café, in the Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St.; http://www.hotcong.com/cup/ . I had good blueberry pancakes for breakfast. Also serves lunch, dinner. Entrees $6-$9.
TO LEARN MORE:
Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau, 100 S. Church Ave., Tucson, AZ 85701; (800) 638-8350 or (520) 624-1817, http://www.visittucson.org .
— Vani RangacharCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times