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Trip of a Lifetime on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief



LOS ANGELES TO CHICAGO:The author took the middle route starting in Fullerton and on to Chicago in three days.


November 19, 2022

By Laurie Hanson, Contributing Writer

After three years planning and 30 years promise-keeping, a 3,000 mile cross country trek by train this fall became my dream of a lifetime come true.

It was exactly three years ago that a great nephew and first grandson were born in Virginia. Shortly thereafter during the pandemic, his baby sister was born and lent itself to a strong motivation to travel coast-to-coast, going the distance to be with them. After surviving a case of COVID-19, a twin brother’s esophageal cancer and my own endometrial cancer, it was time to make this journey. Routing through Chicago on Amtrak, a stop to see beloved cousins and an elderly uncle, to touch base in my parents’ hometown seemed appropriate, too.  

With longing to quench my deep thirst to see wide open spaces, I fulfilled my heart’s desire while passing through deserts, mountains, prairielands, and forests as I crossed rivers great and small. Unlike any other time in my life, I now saw our land’s greatness and fragility, determined to love it unlike ever before, leaving a legacy to pass along to the next generations to come. 

As I breathed in and soaked up the lands I passed through, I felt myself becoming very nostalgic and philosophical, overwhelmed by an ardent desire to protect and fight for our country. With our nation presently encountering divisive times as in the days of President Abraham Lincoln, who was tasked with bringing it together after the Civil War and slavery, I found myself longing to end our political strife. If only everyone could see this great land as one nation under God, maybe we could put an end to our differences and truly come together.

Now with our country under threat of nuclear war with Russia over Ukraine, in a world where we all experienced a plague of Biblical proportions with COVID-19 and subsequent economic strife, I realized just how precarious and uncertain the times we live in are now. But it is with great hope that we ultimately can embrace our common plight as one country in a world where we all can aim to protect Mother Earth and purposely save our planet before it’s too late. 

These gleaned takeaways came while seeing America’s lands as I reveled in its expansive beauty while onboard Amtrak trains for three days from Fullerton, California to Lynchburg, Virginia. It gave me new meaning and purpose to pass along a legacy of love to my great baby niece and nephew who I was meeting for the very first time.

While on this epic journey, sleep was elusive due to excitement I could hardly contain. I did not want to miss a thing passing by my windows. I was glad to have a roomette with comfortable seating and accommodations with meals included. For part of the journey, Amtrak chefs prepared made to order meals included for all passengers in reserved sleeping quarters. Flexible dining allowed them to eat from the comfort of their rooms or in the dining car, Amtrak’s response to the coronavirus. They also adopted new cleaning measures and upgrades in bedding accommodations, too. I traveled in comfort for two days onboard the Southwest Chief to Chicago, transferred to the Capitol Limited bound for another one-night ride into Washington D.C., then boarded another train for about four hours into Lynchburg. I had never been east of Chicago really and was traveling into uncharted territories.

Though dinning alone, I meet others onboard with stops along the way that proved to be a positive and pleasant experience between passengers and Amtrak staff alike. I once again saw the best in human nature like before the pandemic. Many passengers were traveling for the first time since the pandemic and welcomed the company of others. All enjoyed being onboard and several embarked on their journeys to see loved ones like me, traveling in an unconventional way given our jet set age. Collectively, we pondered history and how our ancestors experienced and crossed the expanse of the continental United States long ago. 

By night, the trains would travel on upwards to 90 miles an hour through remote parts, forever blowing their diesel horns at rural crossings. The faithful horns soon became a comfort to me, drowned out while I was gently rocked asleep onboard. Motion was ever-present, but I acquired “sea legs,” in both sleeping and waking moments. While passengers moved onboard to dining or observation cars or the café, we literally had to get a grip in order to successfully navigate the constant motion of the train, something which comes with the territory. 

Upon departure in Fullerton at 6:30 p.m., I ate a chef prepared dinner of flatiron steak, mashed potatoes, and vegetables while watching the night sky and city silhouettes pass by in the darkness of night. At one point, our train seemed to be chasing a three-quarter moon with Orion’s belt and Jupiter in view. I would wake up in New Mexico, a place called “The Land of Enchantment,” for good reason. We passed through flash flood desert terrain, on up to pine mountain forests and through vast expansive plains with storm clouds in the distance. New Mexico soon became one of the most memorable states I would ever see on this journey. 


GOING THROUGH NEW MEXICO Just one of the beautiful  views in the Land of Enchantment from the Southwest Chief  on the way to Chicago.


We traveled along the “Old Santa Fe” railroad route headed on into southern Colorado, up into Kansas, Missouri, eventually crossing the great Mississippi briefly near Iowa and on into rural Illinois then into Chicago. I saw a plethora of farmlands in Illinois which reminded me of my grandmother’s roots. She grew up on an Illinois farm run by her parents and several of my great aunts and uncles. It was eventually that she desired city life in Chicago, where she met my grandfather at a dance. He had immigrated to the United States from Italy at age of 17. Eventually, my aunt and mother were born in Chicago, meeting both their spouses there as they started their own families, each having five children. My father’s parents were from Chicago as well. Eventually after being in the Air Force, he met our mother on a blind date, saying right away he was going to marry her. My older brother and sister were born in Chicago, but eventually after relocating to California, my twin brother and I along with my youngest brother were born here.

After two nights on the train, I immediately boarded another overnighter to Washington, D.C. on my way to see my eldest nephew and his growing family. My great nephew, Ollie, was born just prior to the pandemic, and his sister, Opal, came into the world during it. I had never met them before, but felt it important, as they are now the future of our family. I arrived in Lynchburg on Ollie’s third birthday, and arrived to greet a babbling Opal, who is a year and four months old, just beginning to learn to talk. We celebrated Ollie’s birthday with his grandparents who drove in from Virginia Beach. The weather was gorgeous, just following Hurricane Ian which blew through the area only with short lasting rains just prior to Lynchburg. 



Tyler and Emily Hanson with their children Opal and Ollie.


Opal and Ollie’s parents and I would also drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway to see the mountains and trees turning in the brisk fall air. Along the way, I discovered how beautiful both West Virginia and Virginia are with rolling hills of forested lands, rivers and streams passing through while sunlight danced across their surfaces. Unlike drought riddled Southern California, everything east of Chicago going into Pennsylvania and on into the Virginias were vibrantly green. As the leaves were beginning to turn, I wondered what winter would bring to these parts, as a native Southern Californian who never saw snow except in the mountains up by Big Bear. 

After spending 5 wonderful days with my nephew’s family, greeting the great nephew and niece, it was time to board a train bound for Chicago to visit an elderly uncle and several cousins. 

As I pulled into Union Station in Chicago, I recognized this historic place from movies I had seen. I met my cousin on the vibrant city streets in front. What a gloriously historic train station it is with architecture reminiscent of the 1920’s and 30’s, when train travel was at its pinnacle. I would be the only member of our entire family to have traveled to both coasts via Amtrak, a wonderful way to see our lands. 

While in Chicago, all my cousins and some second cousins threw me a genuine Chicago pizza party, the first time I ever had the deep-dish version. While there, I reminisced with my second cousin, Ben, named after my grandfather, the Italian immigrant. The next day, my cousin, Linda, would take me on a tour of Chicago driving on Lakeshore Drive to see the turquoise waters of Lake Michigan. The morning after several of us went on a tour towards the city stopping by our mothers’ home and visiting their grade school. Further we went on to my father’s childhood home and the neighboring apartments he lived in as a newlywed where my eldest brother and sister resided before coming to California. For all intent purposes, both places looked a lot like what I remembered long ago as a small child. It was my way of touching my parents’ memories, both missed in our family but who are still with us in spirit. 

My trip of a lifetime was about passing on the torch to the next generation while honoring those who have gone before. Just like our magnificent lands of the United States, it is important we realize we have more in common, one country and land, together to preserve our lands and union’s heritage for generations to come. It is self-evident in the wondrous deserts, forests, mountains, valleys, rivers, and streams of our great lands. This journey impressed the importance family and our country’s legacy where love goes the distance on the trip of a lifetime.