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Adventure & Travel Dream: Riding the Southwest Chief to Arizona

Warning, after reading this post you may be afraid to take a trip like this…but don’t let the challenges deter you from the adventure! It was truly a one of a kind trip that I wouldn’t change for a second!

While we’ve thought about taking a cross country train ride in the past when talking about our “bucket list” we’d never written it down until I re-created my dream list for the dream manager program here at work. And just a few short months after writing it down, I found myself, my three kids ages 13, 10, and 4 and my husband boarding a westbound train with 31 hours of butt time ahead of us.

My parents thought I was crazy. And we did listen to them slightly. The trip originally started out to include a 30+ hour train trip from Mendota, IL to Flagstaff, AZ arriving around 9:00 pm then transferring to a Greyhound buss that would get is unto Phoenix sometime in the 2:30 am range. We tweaked it to include a hotel the night we arrived in Flagstaff and a rental car to drive to Phoenix the following morning. (I’m so thankful we made that decision…you’ll learn why later in this post. :))

In typical “Heather Fashion” we were scrambling to pack at the last minute and left the house about 30 minutes past our goal. But thankfully my husband knows me well and had added a buffer to our schedule to account for my last minute frenzied search for our Discover card that we’d need for the car rental. We’ve not charged anything for over a year now, and I’d filed the cards away in case we needed them, and couldn’t find them since we moved the filing cabinet at Christmas time to make room for the tree. 🙂

We made it to Mendota about 45 minutes before our train was due to arrive. We had about 13 bags (including a car seat for my 4 year old son) for 5 people. Two were packed with snacks, juice boxes, beer and wine for the trip. (Mom’s got priorities you know!)

The clientele on the trin seemed to be a friendly mixture of baby boomers who loved to travel by train, young families like us, who opted for the $907 train fare instead of the $2100 airfare for a family of 5 to travel the week of spring break, and college kids/20 somethings

We decided to eat our first meal in the dining car and it was an amazing experience. We were eating dinner while crossing the Mississippi and had the most incredible view. We also got to watch the sun set from the dining car. Dinner was yummy, and we had nice conversations with the family sitting across from us. Again, I can’t say enough about how friendly the people we traveled with were!

When we went back to our seats we settled in, all of us tired from the long day of packing and traveling. Our seats reclined and I was so impressed with the roominess of the accommodations, even in our coach seats. Each seat had an outlet to plug in a laptop, cell phone, kindle or whatever. There were adjustable leg rests and foot rests and the train employees passed out pillows.

Sleep wasn’t as restful as it could have been, especially with a few stops throughout the night and the lights in the aisle, although dimmed, made it too bright for me to sleep deeply. I wish we’d brought a light blanket for each of us. But in the end we all slept some and the gentle rocking of the train was relaxing.

The train traveled through the boring flat states in the dark so when we woke up we were into Colorado. It was a foggy morning, and beautiful as the giant oak trees along the tracks were shadowed in the mist. As the sun rose and burned off the fog we could see the little agricultural towns passing by our window.

I had a surprise when I went down to the bathroom first thing that morning (my birthday) to discover I had developed a case of pink eye over night. In my quest to remember everything I had grabbed the pink eye drops from my son who had it a few weeks ago to bring just in case, and I must have contaminated myself at that time. (Of course it would be just my luck that I must have left them on the kitchen counter because we couldn’t find them in our bags anywhere.) I also had started to feel congested in my chest and short of breath that morning. Probably from being run down trying to get everything ready leading up to the trip.

Again we headed to the dining car for breakfast. It was as delicious as dinner had been and our only challenge was my son spilling his apple juice. The employees quickly moved us to a different table and we had a dry rest of our breakfast, watching the small towns pass by as we ate our food.

We then stopped by the lounge car for a while to enjoy more of the scenery before making it back to our seats. I was so self conscious of my gross, gooey, sticky eye and became annoying with the Purell hand sanitizer every time the kids touched my phone, held my hand or anything.

We got off the train in LaJunta, CO for a brief moment and discovered an absolutely brilliant Girl Scout who was pulling a wagon of cookies up and down the train platform selling them to the travelers. We bought three boxes for the trip.

A “cowboy” who was also a passenger on the train, commented to my son that he liked his red cowboy boots and then offered to take a family picture for us. He struggled a bit with the camera on my iPhone and while we did get a good photo that shows all our faces, I absolutely LOVED this one he took!.

The scenery thought the mountains in New Mexico was breathtaking…and not just because of my progressing bronchitis development which continued to get worse as the day went on.

I was worried sick because we were on our way to visit my husband’s mom who is in the middle of chemo treatments and has a compromised immune system. I kept thinking that if I rested, took my inhaler, and stayed vigilant with the hand sanitizer that I’d be okay by the next day. I ended up choosing to sit alone to keep from passing my cooties on to my family.

The passengers that boarded the train in Albuquerque left a little to be desired. It was definitely a more urban crowd, a little less friendly and a whole lot noisier. I was relieved to step off the train in Flagstaff, knowing a hot shower and a comfortable bed was waiting for me at the hotel.

I woke up the next morning with both eyes now infected with pink eye, and unable to breathe without coughing. Dayquil took the edge off, thankfully, but I ended up dropping my husband and kids off at my sister in law’s and heading to a Motel 6.

I don’t know what I was expecting with the motel, but YUCK there were “pubies” in the tub. I’m just not that kind of girl and after lugging all my crap up the stairs, coughing up a lung, and checking out the room, I asked for my money back. Ewww.

Just my luck, my phone was dead, and I didn’t bring a car charger with me, so I ended up driving around Phoenix looking for a hotel that didn’t look too resort-like and would fit my meager budget. I pulled into a Clarion which ended up being perfect.

From there I drove down to the doc in the box who prescribed me an inhaler, prednisone, cough drops, eye drops, and an antibiotic. Woo-wee…$146 bucks later thanks to the $50 copay and $96 in med’s I was on my way back to the hotel ready to drug up and sleep the trip away. I was feeling pretty sad, but the doctor, a very sweet woman who was also a mom of three, brought up the point that having a hotel room to myself was quite a luxury, even if I was sick, and to enjoy it!

I loved her perspective and had big plans of getting lots accomplished while I was there. In reality, I watched a few episodes of Friends, read a book, and slept the rest of the time.

I did end up getting to see my sweet mother-in-law, sister-in-law and her family for about half a day (outside) the afternoon before we left. They also celebrated my birthday with a yummy dinner and Texas sheet cake (a family favorite!)

The trip back was uneventful aside from the tremendous views out the window and a slight delay to cross the Mississippi due to barge traffic. (Who would have thought?)

Can’t wait to do it again and I’m proud to say that’s another dream checked off the list!

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About the Author: Linda Clevenger

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