Night Train

You don't have to be an enlightened sensualist to realize that railroad trains are romantic. The train is a streamlined fist of American steel and spirit that has punched its way across this nation in movies, paintings, photographs, songs, stories and real life. Trains brought the coasts together. Trains begat industry. Without trains, this paper would not exist, as nobody would be living here to read it.

When other vehicles are in action, it's really no big deal. What do buses do? They crawl along. And planes? Maybe roar a bit. But trains--trains do things, by God: Their whistles give a mournful cry, they rumble through the night, their brakes squeal, they belch smoke, they clickety-clack into the distance, they have engineers who actually wave at you as they pass and they have a guy who's leaned out of a side door and yelled all aboard!! for about 150 years.

With planes and buses, it's all letters and numbers. Flight number 1221 leaving gate C5 at 1:40. It's hard to feel you're about to be carried off into a world of adventurous travel as you brush the crumbs off seat 13B on flight 1221 and make sure you have $2.75 for a vodka 7.

But the trains--the Coast Starlight, the Texas Eagle, the Southwest Chief, the Desert Wind, the California Zephyr, the Pioneer, the Empire Builder--these are names that pull their weight in poetry alone.

And let us not forget the Sunset Limited. Though Phoenicians might as well, for Amtrak can no longer afford to keep the track linking Tucson, Phoenix and Yuma in operation ($25.7 million for necessary improvements, $2.5 million a year to keep it up).

Determined Los Angeles-bound souls can still take a bus to Tucson on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:25 p.m., wait half an hour, then get on the Limited and get off in L.A. 12 hours later. The price is still the same, $94, but for $30 you can get on the Greyhound and get to L.A. in half the time. Or for $69, the friendly, two-packets-of-peanuts skies of Southwest will have you there in an hour.

But as of 9:05 p.m., Sunday, June 2, there was still a reason to walk under the arches of Union Station in downtown Phoenix, cross the tile floor by the blocklong oak benches that have held a million en route rear ends and hand over $94 to the man behind the ticket window who, according to his coffee cup, was named Frank.

All of this I did, and Frank handed me a ticket on the Sunset Limited to Los Angeles, a ticket to experience the rich batch of whatever that nine hours on the last train out of Phoenix had to offer. Romance, excitement, nostalgia, clickety-clack. It was a one-way ticket, of course. The thing wasn't coming back.

The heat just hangs there under the yellow lights on the platform at the station. The sun has set, and we wait for the Limited. Who are we? Media people scuttle around, perky, yuppie-looking newscastresses followed by professionally bored cameramen. Pentax-wielding train fanatics are here to record the historic moment. Old-timers. Young families. Very few, it seems, actually have tickets to ride.

Then, down the tracks a piece, you can hear that mournful cry. Everybody gets his camera ready, and the mighty silver beast pulls in! The brakes squeal. This is the last time this'll ever happen--it's the last time for everything. The train stops, passengers get off while other people take pictures of each other pretending to get off.

One lady says "This is soooo stupid!" as her husband videotapes her faking an arrival. Families run up and pose in front of the engine, snap shots. A little girl hands a teddy bear in a Casey Jones outfit to a conductor for him to autograph. The place is dripping with a weird, cinematic sentiment as I grab an Amtrak employee to find out where I can board. I take the opportunity to ask her if this has been an emotion-packed trip for her.

With the brisk walk of the professional who is not packed with emotion, she leads me toward the rear of the train.

"It's crowded in front, but go down here and look for Ruth. She'll find you a seat. She used to be a flight attendant."

With that in mind, I take one last glance at the platform before I step on board. Then I step on board.

But I don't find Ruth, so I head upstairs to the second level of this car. Nearly all the seats are taken. There is one next to a fat man hoiking up phlegm, but I move on. There is another next to a couple of old guys who are talking train travel, saying, "Buses. All they think about nowadays is buses." I take this seat, and behind me a baby starts crying. I decide to move and go back downstairs thinking about the nine hours left until Los Angeles appears.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap