Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Southwest Chief, Over and Over Again

I'm once again speeding east on the Southwest Chief, Amtrak's line running from Los Angeles to Chicago. My destination is Detroit, which can be reached from Chicago on a line called the Wolverine (grrr! Ferocious).
I can't remember how many times I've taken this train. Maybe this is my fifth ride in the last two years?
Perhaps my favorite part of train travel happens in the middle of the night, when I get awoken from my light sleep by a sudden lurch as the train stops. I look outside, and there sits some old brick town that has been slowly drying up since the demise of Route 66. This time I woke up at Needles, on the state line between California and Arizona, and beheld a massive ghostly complex sitting next to the tracks. I couldn't figure out if it was a ruin or some half finished parking garage with Doric columns as flourishes. It went on and on down the tracks, layer upon layer of colonnades.
Up top it read "El Garces," so I took advantage of my mobile phone and discovered that it is an old Harvey House that is being restored.
Fred Harvey built an empire on providing good meals and clean beds to rail travelers in that bygone age when enough Americans rode trains that it made sense to feed them something better than slop.
Now most of his hotels sit empty and decaying along the tracks, hopefully haunted by the hardworking eastern girls Harvey recruited and the travelers they served.
I just passed through Las Vegas, New Mexico in a thunderstorm and saw another Harvey House, the Castaneda. Its windows can't see for the boards covering them.
As I was leaving Union Station in LA I noticed that there will soon be a Subway Sandwiches franchise stinking up the place.
Fred Harvey, rise from your grave and comfort us weary travelers!