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Toward Sunset

The Sunset Limited, the oldest named train in the United States, runs 2000 miles from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Put into service in 1894, it was Southern Pacific’s premier train, offering both westbound and eastbound service in a little over 43 hours at a speed of just under 50 mph. The Sunset Limited is still operated by Amtrak today, albeit with less frequency and a great deal less style than it possessed in its heyday.

In 1950, The Sunset Limited became a “streamlilner,” a stainless-steel, diesel-powered connection of some 15+ cars that included a formal dining car, an informal grill/ lounge, overnight sleeping cars configured as full bedrooms, compartments or roomettes, and “chair cars” with reclining leg rest seats. All were operated by the famous Pullman Car Company, founded by George Pullman who had pioneered the development of the “sleeper berths.”  Before commercial airlines and an improved highway system offered more convenient alternatives, the sleek, streamlined  passenger trains of the 1950s were THE most elegant, THE most stylish, and THE most comfortable way to go long distances.

So that’s how we went, my mother and I, to California on our first big vacation in 1957. Not that we were wealthy or particularly sophisticated, you understand, but we were in need of an adventure and the newly-opened Disneyland beckoned.  Everyone, her friends and family in our small Texas town, told her it was “unseemly” for her to take off across the country alone with a little girl — she was recently widowed and I was only nine. They insisted she simply couldn’t do such a thing, but she said “Watch me.”

We boarded The Sunset Limited in San Antonio, where the romance of train travel began the moment we stepped into the beautiful Sunset Station (photo above). Built in Spanish Mission Revival Style in 1902, Sunset Station is no longer used as a terminal now, but it is on the National Register of Historic Places and is still rented for special events. Walking there today, I am struck by how small it is, considering that San Antonio was a major passenger hub in the 1950s, with trains not only going East to West, but North to Chicago and connecting up the East Coast. But back then, I had the perspective of a little girl who had not been on any big trips or spent time in any big cities. Like Harry Potter transported through a train-station portal, I walked into Sunset Station that June and fell in love with both.

We boarded about noon and were escorted to our private compartment. I was delighted. It had a large picture window with a fold-out table and banquette benches on either side so we could sit and watch the passing landscapes. These benches, our porter later explained, folded down and turned into beds. We also had our own tiny bathroom, a full-length mirror, and enough storage space for our carry-on “train cases.” As nice as these accommodations were, however, I was already visualizing the passenger-train mysteries I had read, and so could hardly wait to get out into the public cars to identify suspicious characters who might be plotting nefarious deeds!

We went to lunch in the club car, where I had my very first triple-decker club sandwich held together by frilly toothpicks. To this day, I never make a club sandwich without using frilly toothpicks and I never fail to smile at the memory. It took a little practice to get our “rail legs,” especially for my mother in her high heels, but we made it to the lounge where we played Go Fish with a deck of blue, Southern Pacific playing cards. (Actually, I think I still have them somewhere.)

That evening, of course we dressed up for dinner in the full-service dining car, its tables for four covered in white and set with fresh flowers and fine china. The steward seated us, handed us menus, and explained that our orders were to be written on small order cards. Choices were extensive: appetizers and salads, dinner entrées and specialty dishes, homemade desserts. Always a hearty eater, I decided on steak, the most expensive item on the menu at $2.75. Another lone passenger had been seated with us and he and my mother were talking quietly when the waiter set my meal down in front of me. “Oh my goodness!” the man suddenly exclaimed. “She’ll never eat all that.” And then it was my turn to say, “Watch me.”

As we headed toward sunset, we watched the land roll by, crossing the High Bridge of the Pecos River and rumbling toward El Paso; the next morning, we awoke in the desert of Arizona between Phoenix and Yuma, and then moved on into Southern California. Finally, after 30 hours and a dozen stops, we pulled into Union Station in Los Angeles. I was exhilarated, even though there hadn’t been a murder aboard!

The train trip alone was quite an adventure, but that was only the beginning of a magical week. Disneyland, with its jungle cruise, spinning tea cups and rocket to the moon, provided unimaginable thrills — and favors for my future Disney birthday parties. We stayed  at the grand Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, itself a sort of Fantasyland, promoting movie studios and glamorous stars with their footprints in concrete at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. I have a postcard from the famous Brown Derby Restaurant on Vine (no longer there) that my mother sent to my grandmother.  She wrote, “We had lunch here today and Stephanie got autographs from five movie stars!”

This great adventure of ours was 60 years ago, and my mother and I (she’s 93) still talk about it as “the trip of a lifetime.”  It was the first of many trips that instilled a passion and shaped a lifetime for me, but only because my mother dared to be bold, to show me that the world is a wonderful place with much to teach and little to fear.  In recent years when I was about to depart for Egypt — or China or Africa or Turkey or the UAE  —people would say, “What? Where? You can’t go there.”

Watch me.

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