The Sunset Limited Train

All aboard for a trans-continental adventure on America’s oldest railway, beginning in the bars of the Big Easy and ending on the beaches of the City of Angels.

This story was originally published in the October 2016 issue of Lonely Planet Traveller magazine.

Into the sunset

Road trips might be a rite of passage, but the only really authentic way to explore America is by train. The car is king in the fifty states, but it’s the railroad that built the nation, paving the path of manifest destiny and pushing the frontier west – and no train plays a more important part in the story of American expansion than the legendary Sunset Limited.

Inaugurated in 1894, this historic transcontinental route is the oldest continuously running train service in America. It’s the railroad equivalent of Route 66: an epic, east-west, coast-to-coast journey, from the bayous of Louisiana across the hills of Texas and the deserts of Arizona all the way to L.A’s Pacific shore. If Jack Kerouac had written On The Rails, rather than On The Road, he would have set it on the Sunset Limited. And most Americans don’t even know it exists.

Though it wasn’t the first route to complete the coast-to-coast link (that honour belongs to the Pacific Railroad, finished in 1869), the Sunset Limited was the fastest, slashing the cross-country journey time to just four days. It was the holy grail for American progress: a high-speed, non-stop link between the coasts via the rich plantations of the southern states. It revolutionised passenger and freight traffic and, arguably, marked America’s emergence as a modern nation.

Amazingly, it’s still in service more than a century later. And just as it has for the last 122 years, the journey begins on the muddy banks of the Mississippi, and is set to a soundtrack of jazz.

New Orleans, Louisiana – Mile 0

A downpour has just cracked above the French Quarter. Rain is streaming from the gutters, but the bad weather hasn’t dampened spirits, and a crowd has gathered as Dancing Man begins his show. Clad in white shirt and razor-creased trousers, a black-and-gold sash slung across his chest, he shimmies his way across the street, following the beat set by a musician in a jaunty top hat and feather boa. He beckons the crowd to join in, and before long, Dancing Man’s show has become a full-blown street party.

‘That’s how things roll in New Orleans,’ he explains, strolling past the clapboard houses along Royal St. ‘We even have a saying for it – ‘laissez les bons temps rouler’, let the good times roll. That’s what life here’s about.’

Dancing Man – aka Darryl Young – has become a legend in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Born and bred in the 9th Ward, one of the city’s poorest areas, and trained as a chef, since the storm he’s embraced a new career as a dance leader, inspired by the old New Orleans tradition of the ‘second line’ – the informal procession that forms behind the ‘first line’ of mourners and musicians during a funeral as the coffin travels from church to cemetery.

‘The second line is the spirit of New Orleans,’ Darryl says. ‘Even in sadness, we make things joyful. When life gets hard, we just party harder, baby!’ he says, sashaying all the way to Frenchmen St, where the city’s most famous jazz joints are located – legendary names like The Spotted Cat, Snug Harbor and The Blue Nile. It’s early evening, but the entertainment’s already in full swing. Jazz and blues drifts out from bar doorways, and on a street-corner, a brass band is blasting out Oh When The Saints to a crowd of onlookers. Darryl can’t resist and glides into the throng, and soon has everyone jigging and hopping to the beat. It’s a reassuring sight: Katrina may have flattened neighbourhoods, but it could never snuff out the city’s zest for life.

The party will continue into the small hours, but for passengers on the Sunset Limited, tomorrow means an early start. The next morning at 9am the train hauls itself out of New Orleans’ Union Passenger Terminal, its horn blasting out across the Mississippi. It clatters west past the curves of the Superdome, crosses the 4.5-mile Huey P. Long bridge and rolls into Louisiana’s backwaters. City streets fade into creeks and bayous. Old oaks lean over the water, and willow trees droop along the mud-banks, festooned with curtains of moss. Herons strut in the shallows, and somewhere in the murky water, alligators lurk.

Inside the viewing car, Travis Siewers has settled down for the trip. A veteran traveller, he takes the train whenever he can. ‘People have forgotten how to travel,’ he says, watching bayous blur past the carriage’s windows. ‘They catch a plane across the world in a few hours, and never stop to think about how deeply weird that is. On the train, you’re a participant in the journey; you feel every jolt of the cars, every bump of the tracks. It’s the purest way to travel.’

As afternoon rattles into evening and the Sunset Limited crosses the border into Texas, the swamps dry up and the desert begins. Oak trees turn into mesquite bushes, willows become cactus. The high-rises of Houston race by. Dry plains and rocky hills fill the train windows, and a green skyline turns tangerine. Night falls, and everyone settles into their bunks, lulled to sleep by the steady rattle of the tracks and the canopy of stars streaking overhead.

Alpine & Fort Davis, Texas – Mile 959

It’s 10.38am the next morning when the Sunset Limited creaks into Alpine, an old stagecoach town that’s a day’s journey west from New Orleans, but feels like a different world. 150 years ago, this corner of Texas marked the edge of the frontier, and the gateway to the wild west. The town grew up as a service town for settlers, gold-prospectors and freight-wagons travelling along the old San Antonio-El Paso Road. It was a notoriously perilous route, and many of them never made it: marauding war-parties of Apache, Comanche and Kiowa exacted a heavy toll, while bandits and mountain lions accounted for many more.

Opposite the train station, a series of murals recounts the area’s past. In one corner, an Indian warrior stalks the hills on horseback; around him, Mexican troubadours serenade a señorita and cowboys run a moonlit cattle drive, while a black locomotive looms from the distance, its iron wheels churning white steam.

The paintings are a favourite landmark for conductor Gerry Ontiveros, who often works the stretch of track between San Antonio and El Paso. ‘The paintings are like old friends,’ he says. ‘The railroad has been here since 1882, and it’s nice to be think you’re part of all that history.’

25 miles northwest of Alpine, the old garrison of Fort Davis provides a more tangible reminder of the area’s fractious past. From 1854 to 1891, six companies of the 8th US Infantry were stationed here, charged with guarding the El Paso road against Indian raids. Now a national monument, many of its buildings are still standing, including the barracks, general store and governor’s house. Marooned in an extra-terrestrial landscape of rocky canyons, red hills and weirdly-shaped agave flowers, to the soldiers stationed here in the 1850s, it must have felt like they’d been posted to the far side of the moon.

Even today, Fort Davis feels like a long way from anywhere, but these days, its isolation is a blessing. The town’s remote location in the Chihuahuan Desert means minimal light pollution – ideal for star-gazing. At the McDonald State Observatory just outside town, three of America’s most powerful telescopes scan the skies, researching topics ranging from stellar spectroscopy to interplanetary physics.

Thanks to its regular ‘star parties’, the observatory is also one of the few places where ordinary folk can peer through a million-dollar telescope into interstellar space. Several nights a week, the observatory opens its doors to the public, and astronomers use laser pointers to pinpoint features in the star-spangled sky: the coloured dots of Jupiter and Mars, the fuzzy blur of the Crab Nebula, the white points of Sirius and Arcturus. One by one, the star-gazers gaze through the telescopes and gasp at the endless ocean of supernovas and constellations overhead.

Early the next morning, the skies have returned to china blue as the train rolls out of Alpine into the Chihuahuan Desert. Yellow hills rumple the horizon, their slopes scarred by rains and baked iron-hard by the Texan sun. Telephone wires and cattle fences zip by. Cacti spike the desert floor. Occasionally, a trailer park or a gas station flashes past. Emptiness is everywhere. The sun climbs higher, and the land bleaches from sand-yellow to salt-white.

Two hundred miles west near El Paso, the railroad passes within a few hundred feet of the Mexican border as it crosses the Rio Grande. A century ago, this was the main route followed by prospectors on their way to California’s gold-fields. Today, it’s a flash-point for border troubles, and gunboats patrol the banks, looking for drug traffickers and illegal immigrants. Dusty yellow banks line either side of the river, and to the south, across the Mexican border, the grey sprawl of the city of Ciudad Juárez fades into barren desert.

The gold-prospectors and gunslingers have all faded into history, but a century on, this remains a wild frontier.

Tucson, Arizona – Mile 1493

It’s late afternoon when the Sunset Limited arrives in Tucson, but there’s still just enough time to make it out into the desert to watch the sun go down.

Out on the White Stallion Ranch, twenty miles northwest of town, Laura True and her horse Lobo are watching the show over a sea of prickly pears and saguaro cacti. Dust-devils dance in the wind, and a grumble of thunder across the desert signals a distant storm. The sun melts below the horizon, and Laura steers Lobo’s reins towards home, where a cowboy’s supper of fried potatoes and beef brisket is waiting, cooked long and slow over a hickory-wood fire.

With her Stetson and leather chaps, Laura looks like the all-American cowgirl, but she’s actually an Englishwoman, hailing from rural Gloucestershire. She came out here as a volunteer twenty years ago, fell in love with the lifestyle (and the ranch-owner, Russell True, now her husband) and now runs the family business. She follows in a long tradition of ‘dude ranchers’ stretching back to the 19th century, when wealthy city-folk paid cowboys to teach them to wield a lasso, rope a steer and ride western-style. It’s an experience that seems as seductive as ever: every year, hundreds of guests visit the ranch to experience backcountry cookouts and twilight trail-rides.

‘Deep down, everyone wants to be a cowboy – or cowgirl,’ Laura says, pouring herself coffee from a pot on the camp-stove. ‘It’s a universal fantasy. People say it’s like stepping onto a movie set here, and I know what they mean.’

The deserts around Tucson certainly look cinematic. Scorched red by the Arizonan sun, spiked by barrel cacti and brittlebrush, it’s the kind of landscape where you expect Roadrunner to race around the corner any minute, pursued by Wile E. Coyote on a puttering Acme scooter.

But if the setting looks familiar, perhaps it’s not surprising. Since the early days of cinema, Tucson has provided a backdrop for classic westerns, from High Noon to Rio Bravo and Gunfight at the OK Corral. Many of them were filmed at Old Tucson, a film studio established in the 1930s, complete with purpose-built sets including a blacksmith, saloon, bordello, town hall, sheriff’s office and Spanish mission. It’s one of Tucson’s top attractions, and several times a day, actors stage Wild West-themed shows, in which varmints and heroes gun each other down in a hail of pistol cracks and cordite.

Thankfully, railroad robberies are no longer something the Sunset Limited’s passengers must concern themselves with. By the time the train leaves Tucson at 7.35pm sharp, they’re already settled for supper in the dining car, watching Arizona’s desert flicker past as they tuck into Caesar salads and southern-fried chicken. Most will be asleep as the train clatters through Maricopa and Yuma, and few will notice as the Sunset Limited slips into California two hours past midnight, thundering through Palm Springs, Ontario and Pomona towards the Pacific and journey’s end.

Los Angeles, California – Mile 1995

Ironically, the end of the line for the Sunset Limited is marked not by dusk, but by dawn. A candy-pink sky greets the train as it grinds into L.A.’s Union Station at 5.35am. Bleary-eyed and blinking, passengers stumble onto the platform, piling luggage onto carts and calling taxis on their cell-phones. In the grand entrance hall, they join a stream of morning commuters, passing under arched windows and art deco chandeliers into the blazing Californian sunshine.

Outside, it’s rush-hour, and as usual, the freeways are tangled with traffic. People lean on their car-horns, listening to the chatter of the drive-time deejays as they plot strategies to beat the tail-backs. But there’s another way to reach the beach: a new extension to the metro line runs all the way from Union Station to Santa Monica, something that hasn’t been the case since the 1950s, when the old Pacific Electric streetcar ran for the last time.

The morning commute isn’t something that’s bothering Nick Ostrogovich much today, though. He’s been surfing the swells at Santa Monica since 6am, and is taking a breather before he conducts his first surf lesson of the day.

‘That’s the weird thing about L.A.,’ he says, sipping a latte as he watches cyclists and roller-bladers cruise along the boardwalk. ‘Downtown it’s all traffic and noise, but on the beach, it’s a different world. It’s more like a village. Everyone knows each other. That’s why I like it.’

Just along the tide-line, the ferris wheels and rollercoasters on Santa Monica’s pier are quiet. By noon, they’ll be packed with sight-seers, but for now, the only people around are a few fishermen casting their lines into the surf. None of them even seem to notice a white road sign standing above the heads, its black-and-white paint bleached and blistered by the Californian sunshine.

‘Santa Monica 66,” it reads. “End of the Trail.”

It’s the official end of America’s iconic road trip, and also marks the final stop on my own transcontinental train trip right across America. Two days ago I was standing on the broad banks of the Mississippi, watching steamboats and barges glide along the river; today, I’m gazing out over the blue Pacific, watching gulls circle overhead and breakers boom around the pier.

But there’s no rest for the Sunset Limited. Back at Union Station, beds are being made, cutlery cleaned and windows polished for the return journey. Soon the nation’s oldest train service will hurtle back towards the other side of America – just as it has for the last 122 years.