The Sunset Limited, old movies, and the romance of train travel
Posted on March 22, 2016
It is the middle of the night at the Sunset Station in San Antonio and there is a slight chill in the air. I have just had a long celebratory meal and am trying to stay awake to board the Sunset Limited train at 2:45 am–find our sleeper car–and begin our train journey to LA’s Union station. I have always had a romance with the idea of train travel, and tonight I felt as though I was cast as a character in some old noir romance film. I have always assumed that this feeling of traveling by railcar was a universally shared part of the human condition, but may truly have come from my adoration of the romantic depictions I’ve come to know from old movies.
My adventure would begin on the Sunset Limited–which I found out is the oldest named train in the United States–constantly running since November 1894, and my anticipation of the adventure was palpable.
It may be simply the availability and popularity of train travel that made it such a part of media and our culture, but I think it also has to do with the majestic scale of trains–the steam they spit out–and their design. A journey becomes an experience because it is not rushed- our trip would only have us in LA for two days by car, the train trip would be four. There was a lot to love about this journey, and a few things that I wished were closer to my romantic notions, but I was determined to enjoy every minute of this four day adventure.
On the first leg I woke up somewhat startled to an surreal sunset somewhere in West Texas. Life was marked by a metronome-like rhythm of the train wheels, scheduled stops, sunrises and sunsets. The meals were times to visit with other passengers, for we were sat with different people for each meal of the journey.
I now realize there are a lot of reasons people ride trains today, not all of which were expected; fear of flying (or security), illnesses and poor health–but there were a few others who were on this journey for the romance of it. The staff mostly had been with Amtrack for more than 15 years, some much longer. There was a sense of freedom on the train, a sense that you are isolated from time and space and the rest of the world.
Arriving just before dawn the next day, Union station was empty, dark and dignified. Union station was built in the 1930’s and was partially designed by L.A. architects John B. and Donald D. Parkinson who built a lot of influential buildings in LA at the beginning of the century. So many styles come together in this station–Spanish Colonial Revival, modern, Moorish, art deco–and architecture that is historic, unique, captivating- and one could imagine a stage set for the portal to Hollywood.
The return trip though enjoyable brought a bit of sadness–knowing that each mile we traveled was taking me back to my regular life and away from not only my real trip but also my fantasies that surrounded it.
I recently became aware of other romantic train adventures; trains such as–the Golden Eagle Danube Express, which seeks to recreate the Orient Express and travels from Budapest to Tehran, the Hira Bingham, which transports customers from Cusco to Macchu Pichu; and the Blue Train through South Africa, among others. It seems the romance of train travel lives on, in life, in my imagination, and in movies.