SXSW by way of the Texas Eagle

1950’s ticket for the Texas Eagle

It takes twenty-eight hours to travel between Chicago and Austin aboard the Texas Eagle, and in that time, I fell in love. With train travel in the United States, that is. The gentle rocking, the horn steadily blaring through the night, the rushing countryside and quick peek at cities and towns, the extended leg room, the atmosphere conducive to writing, the delicious food and trading stories with passengers: these experiences are unlike any I’ve had on a plane, car or bus. Factor in the historical significance, and I have to wonder why I previously dismissed commuting long distance by rail in North America.

I didn’t think I was going to make it to SXSW last week — I was originally planning on road-tripping with my mate but he pulled out at the last minute — and the train became the solution to my logistical problem for a fourth the price of airfare. (Reason #1 to take the train to SXSW : the price!)  I quickly became charmed by the idea of using a culturally significant technology hundreds of years old — older than the car or plane — to get to a festival devoted to celebrating new technology.

Springfield, Ill. seen from the train

My Amtrak ticket was purchased on Wednesday night (by my mate), I boarded the Texas Eagle Thursday afternoon and arrived in Austin 6:30pm on Friday.  Along the way, I watched the snowy landscape change to Southern brush, and rode through 25 cities and countless towns, urban areas that literally built themselves around the railroad tracks that pass through them.

Reason #2 to take the train to SXSW : the history! 

A hundred years ago, the Texas Eagle was actually called the Sunshine Special until it was renamed in 1948 by the Missouri Pacific Railroad (MoPac), one of the first railroads west of the Mississippi. Spurred by the California gold rush, MoPac began officially in 1851 with a five mile track between St Louis and Cheltenham City, a project that took a year to complete. Expansions continued despite interruptions caused by the Civil War. By the late 1870’s MoPac was taken over by railroad developer Jay Gould, who in 1880 connected it to the Texas and Pacific Railway, allowing passengers to commute from St. Louis to Dallas (see this 1903 MoPac railway map). Around the same time, Gould acquired control of the rail lines operating from Chicago to St Louis, allowing passengers to commute from Chicago, Illinois all the way down to San Antonio, Texas all before the 1900’s.

Dining car on the Texas Eagle, circa the 1950’s

The Missouri Pacific Railroad is no more, and there is nothing on the current Texas Eagle to indicate its rich history, except for its name and the rail road the train operates on. The tracks have long been replaced and so have the train cars. Even the 1950’s Dining cars, a missed opportunity given Mad Men’s popularity, if you ask me.

Speaking of eating on the train, I am not kidding about the food being delicious.

Reason #3 to take the train to SXSW: the food! 

Amtrak actually employs chefs to make their food, and it shows. Here is their menu. If you travel in a roomette (small room with a bed), your meals are included. I was Coach, which means they were not.

On both evenings, I ordered the Amtrak Signature Steak (medium rare) and everything about it was juicy and fantastic. The mashed potatoes perfectly seasoned. The cheesecake was …. just all right, but still better than airplane food.

Texas Eagle menu cover, 2014

I also ordered a glass of red wine the first night, a half bottle of wine the second. Total price for this dinner meal is comparable to a fancy restaurant ($45) but for those looking for something cheaper, the snack bar offers microwave-able sandwiches and food items. I opted to get a full meal from the Dining car, because how often do you get a well-cooked meal on a train? (For breakfast on the return trip, I ordered the Classic Railroad French Toast, which again, did not disappoint.)

If you want the whole train shebang and have the means, you really need to have a meal in the Dining car. It is an experience: unless you are traveling in a group of four, the dining staff will seat you with strangers at a booth. If you haven’t already struck up a conversation with strangers sitting in the Lounge or Observation car (or near you in Coach), you most definitely will in the Dining car.

Reason #4 to take the train to SXSW: the people! 

On the way back to Chicago, I was seated with an elderly couple clad in cowboy hats, the wife the chatty one, the husband the quiet nodding and smiling type. We were joined by a mid-30’s male who upon seating, the wife in a cowboy hat insisted he introduce himself as that was the way things were done around here.  The wait staff nodded, because, yes that was indeed the way of the train. The Dining car is just as much for eating as it is for conversation. And some of those conversations may lead to genuine friendship. No promises, but it happened to me.

That first night on the Texas Eagle, I hung out with the three people the dining car attendees sat me with, including a man that filled a large Dasani water bottle with vodka. He shared this with me and another woman from our dining table, a woman named Angie I now text because we became actual friends after getting wasted together (I’d share the picture of her I took for my phone contact info here, but no, because privacy.)  Angie endeared me to her immediately by also wearing sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt, and I joked it’s the best “leave me alone/don’t hit on me” outfit. The  three of us spent hours talking in the Observation car — they teased me over taking too long to transcribe a 30-minute interview — and we shared stories about our jobs, families and various life experiences. By 2AM, we were joined by a woman who couldn’t sleep and a man with neck tattoos who had 5 children with 3 different women. He’s a busy man, in more ways than one.

My daytime Coach seat mate on the way to Austin I dubbed my “travel mom,” and  she gifted me some ibuprofen for my Dasani hang-over. She complimented my cellphone photograph of the state capital building in Springfield (above), and vowed to take one with similar composition on her way back. She was very proud of her son, a master welder, who she was going to visit in Iowa.

one of many “art for assholes” SXSW pics

En route to Chicago, I sat next to  another senior citizen, a Native American named Thundering Waters traveling to meet his brother for their annual fishing trip.  He had good taste in turquoise rings (of which he wore many) and told me of the dream that named him. I shared my similar dream achieved also through days of fasting and dehydration (but not intentional) from that time I was in India last year. Thundering Waters and I bonded over anger at Andrew Jackson still being on the $20 dollar bill, the middle finger that is Mount Rushmore and his discomfort of young predominantly white hipsters appropriating Native American imagery for their art, clothing and jewelry. I showed him pictures I took at SXSW of what I like to affectionately call “art for assholes” and he shared images of his website-less friend Richard Branson (not the British investor) whose two painting –one of a group of crows, the other of a medicine man — I’m still thinking about days later.

Thundering Waters also helped identify the name of the black and white birds of prey I kept seeing. They would fly in groups above the Texan landscape and could either be the  the zone-tailed hawk, the turkey vulture, or the Mexican eagle known as the Caracara.

Which brings me to reason #5 to take the train to SXSW: the sightseeing!

View from the Observation car

 True, the landscape from Chicago to Austin is flat and full of woodlands but staring out the window still yields exciting results. Or maybe I am easy to please. Besides the birds of prey in Texas, red-tailed hawks hung out on stumps and trees by the tracks. I spotted a large group of deer in the woods. Once you got further south, especially Texas, there are herds of cattle, sheep, goats and horses chilling out on ranches. As for architecture, the Texas Eagle route is a crash course in middle and southern American cities (including St Louis and Dallas) and towns. Smaller skyscrapers the shape of diamonds, St Louis’ Gateway Arch, bridges that looked like modern art, young males skate-boarding in a makeshift skate park, graffiti: there was always something to see.  Some of the smaller towns we passed in Texas were caricatures of themselves, resembling movie sets on a Western feature enough that I questioned if this was indeed real life and not a dream. The poverty that stretched along the rail road was also a bit shocking, especially the condition of houses seen in state capital cities like Springfield, Illinois or in Texas near new condo developments.  (Here’s a PDF with quick factoids of the towns and cities on the route, one I wish I read before embarking)

Reason #6 to take the train: the time for contemplation, reading, writing

Amtrak announced their writer’s residency program this month after a writer tweeted about it, prompting CNN to ask “who knew so many writers did their best work on trains?” I didn’t know this, but after riding on one for more than a day, I totally buy it. I managed some writing for my own book (more than five years in the making now, oh god why is not finished yet) and got some work done besides transcribing an old interview. Alexander Chee told  CNN about his own residency and experiences, “there’s a mix of anonymity and rootlessness to being on a train that makes you feel you could be anyone, anywhere — which turns out to be excellent ground for writing fiction.” I wouldn’t describe it in this way as I haven’t written fiction in a while, I’d say in my case it’s more the partial isolation of the train is friendly enough to help you focus and decompress, but not enough to make you bored, tired or lonely.  The Texas Eagle doesn’t have wifi access, so perhaps that also helps to disconnect.

view of the setting sun from my Coach seat

The major con!

Sleeping in Coach is not that comfortable, even if you’re drunk. Sure, it’s more comfortable than sleeping on a plane or on a bus — the seats lean back and a bottom portion of the seat comes up underneath your legs to make a semi-bed — but you’re still not going to get a good night’s rest.  Even if you end up getting two seats for yourself, like every overnight rider (myself included) did, it’s still not the same as sleeping in an actual bed. Next time I do a day-plus train trip , I’ll be sure to bring a pillow. Or if I go with my mate, we’d get a sleeper (because sex on a train).  Folks in First Class (aka sleepers, roomettes) also get access to a shower.

If I go back to SXSW next year, I will definitely travel by train. Maybe I can convince fellow Chicagoans heading to Austin to ride with me, and it could turn into some community-oriented fun time like the recent Indie Train Jam. We could  talk about everything we’ve learned and heard at the conference and festival, the people we met and the things we saw, or catch up on our writing.

Consider this post a toast to two awesome train rides between Chicago and Austin and to future rides with friends both new and old.

wine



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