03 July 2009

My First Trip to Mexico

In 1996 I made my first trip to Mexico. It was a business trip and because I had recently been in the hospital and since my doctor advised me not to fly I took an Amtrak train called the "Eagle" from Chicago to San Antonio, Texas, and then a Greyhound bus to McAllen. In McAllen, a Mexican friend of mine named Federico met me in McAllen and drove me down to Monterrey. The following is a little report that I made on my trip. I am including it here on this blog because I just came across it in an old computer file and I am afraid that I will lose it again if I don't entrust it to Google.

The trip began well enough. A friend drove me to Chicago's Union Station on Friday, October 11th and we arrived there in plenty of time. My train was scheduled to leave at 6:30pm from Gate "D", Track 21 on the south concourse. It actually got away at 6:37 which isn't bad at all. Prior to departure, however, we were all huddled in a rather close and shabby waiting room and before the train was even called there was a semi-stampede to line up at the gate. A security man came by to warn everyone about pick-pockets and to keep a close eye on their belongings. He said that not all the people in line were there to take the train and some had other things in mind. This gave me an uneasy feeling to say the least and I quickly moved my wallet to an inside pocket. I began to wonder that if they knew about this problem and it was serious then why didn't they do something more positive about it like catch all the crooks and throw them in jail.

Since I had made reservations for "Deluxe" accommodations I waited for the herd to clear the gate and made my way to car number 2130, a bi-level sleeper. I climbed the narrow twisting stairwell to compartment "B" which was to be my home for the next 30 hours or so. It was at this point that I became somewhat disenchanted. It wasn't long after I got settled in that I experienced a mental flashback to my early youth. It was the time that I had put my pet frog in a shoe box and carted his sorry butt around all day in the back of a coaster wagon. I guess I finally understand the old saying, "what goes around, comes around".

We pulled out of the station and through the south Chicago Loop over the remnants of the old "River of Steel", past the ghosts of Dearborn Station, and over the various and sundry criss-cross of rails on our way to Joliet. The car attendant made what sounded like a humorous speech over the PA system but I couldn't understand most of it on account the sound quality was so bad. I looked around my cubbyhole to take stock and see what the $914 dollar round trip fare had bought. Well, to name a few things, it bought me an empty paper cup dispenser, an empty toilet paper roll, and a full trash bin. I guess that's to be expected these days no matter where you go or how you get there. As we headed roughly south by west I just sat there through the bump and grind, bump and grind, rock and roll, clickety-clack, boom-boom, ka-chunk, thump-thump, bang-bang, etcetera and wondered to myself, "What have I done?".

It took me awhile to get over my initial disappointment. At first I felt like a marble in an empty tin can and I thought to myself that if this was "Deluxe" accommodations then the least that they could do would be to use a lower case "d" in Deluxe. I tried to imagine what the design engineer of my compartment might have been like. I imagined a cheerful guy with a flat top haircut, horn rim glasses, pipe, short sleeve white shirt with skinny black tie, plastic pocket protector full of pens and pencils, slide rule by his side, black pants, white socks, and penny loafers. I pictured him as an avid reader of Mechanics' Illustrated and I'm sure that in 1959 or whenever he designed it my compartment represented his vision of the future. Well, the future is here in that respect but I'm afraid that his vision of it didn't match up with my expectations on a timely basis. I won't go into picky details, after all this was supposed to be an adventure and as it turned out an adventure it surely was.

Well, as you can tell in the beginning I was pretty negative and I was beginning to think that maybe the Texas Eagle was about ready for Jack Kevorkian. Fortunately, things got a little better at dinner time. I made the 7:30pm seating in the dining car and was seated with three other total strangers but we all quickly became friends. That's the best thing that I can say about long distance travel by train. It is more of a "voyage" than a trip. After dinner which I would rate about a "5" or a "6" on a scale form 1 to 10 I made my way back to my compartment. I must add at this time that all of the Amtrak employees that I encountered on the train were very professional and friendly and always helpful. I sat for awhile collecting my thoughts and stared out the window at the traffic on Interstate 55 which paralleled the tracks and about 10:pm I decided to call it a day and turn in. I wrestled with the bed for awhile and then gave up and asked the attendant to help me which he promptly did.

I didn't think that I would fall asleep at all the way we were being knocked about. Up till now the only way to move around was to stagger like a drunken sailor. As I relaxed a bit sleep finally overcame the struggle until about midnight as the train began to slow down for St. Louis. I woke up in time to see the St. Louis Arch appear phantom-like out of the gloom as we slid around the back side of Busch Stadium and up to the prefabricated metal shack that St. Louis Amtrak calls home. We dropped off a few of our newly made friends and took on a few new strangers and we soon slipped out of town into the night south by southwest steady as she goes...

On Saturday morning I awoke shortly after 6:am feeling curiously refreshed and some of my discomfort and apprehension about the trip began to fade. I was actually starting to enjoy myself a little bit, especially when we hit Little Rock, Arkansas. As we approached North Little Rock it was like being in freight car and locomotive heaven. We went right past the hump yard and I saw every imaginable type of freight car and at least one of each of just about every kind of locomotive on the Union Pacific roster. It was quite a sight. The only trouble was that it passed by too quickly and we were once again plodding through the Arkansas countryside. About 10:am or so we passed through Hope, Arkansas and everyone rushed to the left hand side of the train to get a good look at you-know-who's boyhood home. It's a wonder that the poor train didn't tip over. I guess that made us all honorary friends of Bill. One can only hope that Bill is truly a friend of ours.

About 11:am as we approached Texarkana I began to notice a very sharp contrast between the rail traffic that I was used to seeing in the Midwest and the traffic that I saw in and around East Texas. Back home the traffic is heavy into grain cars, paper cars, coal cars, auto parts cars, automobile rack cars, and trailer and container-on-flat cars.. Around Texarkana there are mainly two types of cars, tank cars, and plastic pellet cars. Oh yes, there are a few lumber cars also but not as many as the other two types I mentioned. The whole area seems to revolve around the petroleum and plastics industries.

At lunch there was another pleasant interlude in the dining car and I can't tell you much about what happened right after that because I took a little snooze. I awoke again about 2:30pm as we were stopped in a little town called Mineola. The train stopped right in the middle of a street fair. All sorts of people were milling about and looking like they were having fun. I wished that I could get off the train and join them. As we approached Dallas (25 minutes early) I stood with my head out in the corridor to hear what the attendant was trying to say on the intercom. Apparently there was this lady named "Pinky" who for years and years would come out and wave every time a train would pass. She died a few years ago but her daughter, also named Pinky, adopted her mother's tradition and supposedly waved at all the trains from then on. The attendant had us in suspense as we approached Pinky's pink little house but as it flashed by we discovered that, alas, Pinky was a no-show. So much for tradition. Dallas turned out to be a non-event. We parked in front of the almost deserted station for about a half an hour and as we got underway again the dining car steward came by to take reservations for the dinner seating. "Hey Buddy", I told him, "Put me down for the six o'clock. By then I'll be hungry enough to eat the locomotive!".

We only went a short way and then had to stop again to give Fort Worth equal time. I figured that at this rate we'd never get to San Antonio. We backed into the Fort Worth station which took some jockeying around. I did get a chance to wave at some railfans. You could tell they were railfans quite easily. They were sunburned and stooped over from carrying all that camera and video equipment...that and their silly grins. I hope they got a picture of my train because I hadn't had a chance to get one yet. At one point I asked the car attendant if I could have a list of the "consist" including built dates and other particulars. You would have thought that I had asked for the secret formula for Coca-Cola or something. He said that he had been working the train for 13 years and to his recollection he had never been given that information. Somehow I believed him. The train shed at Fort Worth wasn't much to look at. Just some wooden posts with "Y" style cross arms between the tracks with pitched gable roofs made from corrugated tin. Pretty shabby looking to say the least, especially the parts that were covered with pigeon guano. This was mainly on the water and electric pipes that hung from the rafters. In a bi-level you get a birds' eye view. We pulled out of Fort Worth about 5:pm on the last and final leg of the outbound journey. It was time to start remembering the Alamo.

About 5:30 we passed through Cleburne and I thought back to the many times that I had visited the Cleburne Shops of the Santa Fe Railroad. Those days are long gone now and fading fast from memory. I still remember two important things about Cleburne though, nice town and nice people. We made a short stop at McGregor, Texas about 6:50 to let somebody off and then headed due south with a beautiful sunset on our right hand side. No sooner had we gotten under way again we slowed down and stopped at Temple, Texas for about 20 minutes. This was definitely not an express train. I imagined that a slow boat to China might be a little faster. I decided that there was nothing I could do but go with the flow and took another snooze. As I was drifting off to dreamland to the muffled sound of the diesel horn. It seemed to me like the engineer blew the horn an awful lot. I had always thought that two longs, a short, and another long meant an approaching crossing. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to his (or her) horn blowing though. It seemed almost random. I don't know...maybe it was just because the engineer was horny.

About 11:30pm an announcement was made that we were approaching San Antonio, our final destination. A hush of anticipation descended on the passengers who searched about to gather their personal belongings (and maybe some of Amtrak's too). The engineer teased us as the train slowly picked its way through the outskirts of town at a snail's pace. Finally, at the appointed time we pulled up to the station. The door opened and the herd spilled out into the night air and marched down the track to the quaint old station building like ants at a picnic. It seemed more like a "happening" than the end of a journey. I finally got a chance to see the entire train and it posed for me in all its glory with the reflected lights of the street lamps gleaming off the sleek shiny cars like beams of light from the crown jewels. It reminded me of a giant space ship and that is what it really is...a space ship that connects two universes. One universe is called Illinois and the other is called Texas.

My bus trip from San Antonio to McAllen and then the journey by car to Monterrey, Mexico and back are subjects for another story. Suffice to say that the adventures were plentiful and sufficient to fill a good sized notebook. For now I'll just stick to the Amtrak story. My return trip was supposed to depart San Antonio at 7:am on Sunday, October 27th. I arrived in San Antonio the night before and since there was a time change from Daylight Savings time scheduled for 2:am Sunday morning I called Amtrak to check on the schedule. The person that I talked to on the other end didn't seem to know anything about the time change and told me not to worry about it. You guessed it...that's about the time that I began to worry. As expected, I arrived at the station one hour prior to the scheduled departure time of 7:am and found everything in a state of disarray. After much shuffling around the train was finally ready to depart about 8:45. From this I learned that time changes and train schedules are apparently not compatible.

The trip from San Antonio to Dallas was uneventful except that the stops along the way were much shorter in duration in order to make up the time. The equipment was a little newer than the outbound trip and a little more comfortable but only slightly so. We entered a fairly severe storm en route to Dallas but that didn't seem to slow us down much and as darkness fell I made my way to the dining car to make some new friends. As I was eating my dinner it suddenly dawned on me that of all of the people in the dining car there were only three of us who were under sixty years of age and all three of us were pushing fifty. It looked like an AARP get together. So much for the bridge to the future idea.

After another night of bump and grind, bump and grind, clatter, creak, and groan I woke at dawn just in time to see the DeSoto, Missouri Union Pacific freight car repair shop slide by. I knew then that we were nearing St. Louis. After a rather long service stop in St. Louis we were off and running again trying to make up for lost time but by now we were very late. We finally pulled into the Chicago station about 2:15pm which is over an hour late. By then I could hardly wait to get off and this time I was right at the front of the herd and into the first taxi in the line. I had been gone seventeen days all together and it seemed more like a month.

In retrospect what can I say about Amtrak and the Texas Eagle. Well, it was an interesting experience but one which I am not eager to repeat anytime soon. I don't think that Amtrak can keep this thing going much longer without more appeal to mainstream America. If you are a student with limited funds or if you are retired and have plenty of time it can be a nice adventure but if you are a businessman like me or a family with small children I definitely don't recommend it. It turns out that the Amtrak employees are the best thing about Amtrak but it is easy to see that they are struggling against the tide. They really make the difference between the status quo and failure. Isn't that the way it always is though. It's people who make the difference. Let's hope that they can hold on, at least for a little while anyway.

Texas Eagle 2009 update: The Amtrak Texas Eagle is still alive and well and makes twenty-six stops between Chicago and San Antonio, on the 1,308-mile daily segment of its route.


Steve Cotton said...

I am glad you id not lose this journal entry, Bob. Isn't it great to go back and find things you have written?

Tancho said...

Ahh..the train trip. In my other life as a film cameraman, ( before video ) I was doing a documentary on Amtrak. May of 1972 to be exact, your post brings back memories of the trip. The train cars with broken AC, the almost diner food quality, the bar car closed for drinks on Sunday as we passed various dry states. Crossing the old Miss, the Shaffer pen factory on it's banks. IT was an adventure, that still brings back fond memories. The things we were able to do, now would not be allowed for "safety" reasons.
I am considering maybe making another trip somewhere, just to remember of the good and bad of the experience.
Great experience even the bad ones....

Bob Mrotek said...

Yeah, sometimes it's nice to get reacquainted with yourself :)

"Come on and ride this train,
Come on and ride this train,
Cross the rivers, valleys, reservations
Mountains and Plains,
Come on and ride this train".
Let's do Copper Canyon :)

1st Mate said...

That was DeLuxi?! It sounds like a train in Mexico, with its lack of maintenance and amenities (no toilet paper?). I felt claustrophobia coming on, reading about your compartment. Let's hope they've upgraded the Eagle a little since 1996.

YayaOrchid said...

I can hardly wait to read the tidbits on your trip from SA to Mcallen and points south. Must be quite a doozy!

Alice said...

You gave me a flashback to my early youth but going in the other direction. In 1985, my mom, brothers, and I rode the Texas Eagle from Fort Worth to Chicago to visit grandma. We sat straight up--not deluxe--for 24 hours. And I'll never forget the trip because I left my beloved Transformers toy in the front pocket and never got it back! :(

Mexico Cooks! said...

I'm a lifelong train lover. In 1980, I rode the train (and not in a sleeper, either) from Chicago, IL, to Spokane, WA. In 1984, I rode the train from San Diego, CA to Montreal, Quebec--with a 12-hour delay outside Salt Lake City due to flooding on the tracks from the Great Salt Lake!

In early 1982, I rode the train from Nogales, Sonora, to Guadalajara, Jalisco. It was one of the best trips--in its way--of my life.

Three cheers for rail travel! Three cheers for Bob's story!


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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.