When you think about traveling the broad expanse of flat country from San Antonio to El Paso, you probably imagine getting into a car. But some people choose to make the journey on Amtrak’s Sunset Limited instead.
The train is not a fast way to get where you’re going, but it can be a very interesting one, filled with the stories of those who ride the rails because they love to, or because they don’t have another choice.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Why did you want to write about the trains, specifically the Sunset Limited?
Sasha Von Oldershausen: Well, I have a really close attachment to the train – one that’s attached to my relationship to Texas, I think. I had moved out to far West Texas back in 2014 for a job as a local newspaper reporter. And I was from New York City and was a really bad driver, so I needed to find out another way to get there.
You’re used to trains; I guess it would make sense. I don’t reckon you were expecting that the train wouldn’t run too often through West Texas. I mean, where in Texas can you even go by train?
Yeah, there are just a few stops. The Sunset Limited train makes seven. It traverses pretty much the expanse of the state. And I think those stops are Beaumont, Houston, San Antonio, Del Rio, Sanderson, Alpine and El Paso. So I was getting off at Alpine.
What are the trains traveling through Texas like?
Well, they’re long. They take a really long time. It’s not a place where you can expect to get from point A to point B efficiently. But with that wealth of time, you often end up just lingering in the space and encountering a lot of people. And I really became enamored with that way of traveling, just having the opportunity to sit and watch people as they, you know, made their passage.
So when you travel on the train, do you just get a standard coach seat, or do you travel in style? How do you do it?
Well, most of my life, I definitely wasn’t traveling in style. All I could afford was the coach seat. But for this assignment with Texas Monthly, I was given the opportunity to take the sleeper car, which was just such a joy. It really makes the 16 hours from Austin to Alpine seem that much shorter. So that’s a seven-hour drive [or] a 16-hour train ride.
So tell us about that sleeper car. That’s got to make up for some of that time lost.
It’s no Darjeeling Limited, but it definitely feels like luxury when you’ve been riding coach for so long. So they have these, like, fold-out cots, if you will; it’s seats that turn into a mattress. And there’s hands-on service – they’ll turn down the bed for you; you get fresh linens. And it’s a really small space, but it feels so quaint and cozy. It’s like the perfect place to curl up with a book.
You have your own window, depending on what kind of sleeper car you get. You can even get your own bathroom, which for me is the biggest prohibiting factor in taking the train. The bathrooms really grossed me out. But when you’re in the sleeper car, you’re sharing the bathroom with fewer people. So it does make the experience less onerous.
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Are there a lot of people riding the train these days?
I think – I mean, I haven’t noticed any difference in the number of passengers in the years that I’ve been taking it. I think there’s often a good number of people taking the train.
And some folks have a fear of flying. I met one woman who had just had a surgery and couldn’t fly, and so she had to take the train. For others, you know, a coach ticket is like 40 bucks. So getting across the country, it can just be a much more affordable solution.
Can you tell us about some of the folks you met riding the Sunset Limited?
Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s not just the people I’ve met, but just overheard conversations as well. I once overheard a conversation a woman was having on the phone about some close relative who had recently incurred some sort of burn injury, and she was on her way to the hospital. And that was just so deeply moving to witness.
And then I’ve just encountered so many people in that cafe car, you know, a guy who just really wanted to show me the gunshot wounds on his torso. I ended up having dinner with him in the dining car. And more recently, I encountered a guy on the cafe cart who pulled out a box, a tattoo box, and started tattooing his own knuckles on the train before a conductor intervened and told him he couldn’t do that there.
Wow. I know that a lot of people romanticize the experience of train travel, and watching the scenery go by. That kick in for you?
Yeah. I mean, it certainly is beautiful. From Austin, if you’re traveling to Alpine, you get on the train later in the evening. And so you can miss a lot of it in those dark hours. But when you wake up and you get that pale desert light as you’re coming into far West Texas, it’s just so incredibly stunning.
And there’s an observation car that’s just made up of windows. And it’s a really wonderful way to just watch the scenery pass.
What are some of the things that you can see from the train?
Well, one landmark is the Pecos River, and you cross over this railroad bridge. If it’s early enough – and the train schedule will vary based on freight traffic, which often causes delays, so you don’t always get the opportunity to see it – but once in a while the conductor will come on the train and announce that we’re about to cross the Pecos River. And it just spans across – it’s really quite a sight.
I would imagine it would give you a real sense of the scale of the state in a way that maybe being behind the wheel doesn’t?
Yeah, absolutely. And I think it also just affords you this luxury of slowing down, which in our fast-paced world is such a rarity.
I think I know the answer to this one, but when you travel, would you prefer one over the other, coach versus sleeper?
Now that I’ve tasted the sleeper car, I don’t know that I can never go back to coach, but I’m not sure that my wallet will permit it. I didn’t mention that on the sleeper car you have meals included as well, and that’s in the dining car, which is a much more sort of rarefied experience. You get like tablecloths and porcelain, and the meals are actually really, really good.
So at the end of the day, would you recommend the train for a trip to West Texas? Or easier just to get there, best to just to get there?
Always and forever recommending the train. You know, driving is its own kind of romance, but the train is something altogether different.