Ch 1: Winds of Change
March 15th, 1995, 10:05 AM CT, Chicago Union Station, Chicago IL
George and Jill said goodbye to Uncle Dave. They dragged George's carry-on with them, but Jill had no desire to go to the coach to pick up the few scraps of clothing her Aunt had allowed her to pick up from the Salvation Army bins. They were, at best, a bad memory for her.
She looked a little different, now. George had suggested she unbraid her hair, let it down, and said they would purchase a few things to mildly conceal her appearance in the shops in the station once they were done with what they had to do, since it was so time restrictive.
They walked up to the Ticket Desk and George looked around and picked a line that was not the least busy. Jill looked a tad confused, but George winked at her.
Jill looked around. This was sort of like Penn Station, except a little more elaborate. She figured they were very similar to airports, that way. A bit more elaborate, perhaps. But very similar in nature. And what's more, the place smelled. Not just smelled; REEKED of diesel fumes. She almost had trouble breathing. The people seemed to bustle, although not with the angry vigor so endemic to airports.
George finally got to the front of the line.
"Maggie, you're looking as good as ever," George smiled.
"And you, George, look older every day," she said, "Where's your old man?"
"I'm on my own this trip," he said, "Got into college early, on my way to L.A ... I walked into some trouble and an additional party and I want to take a different train. Can we move my Southwest Chief reservations to the Desert Wind?"
"You know it's about 9 hours slower and oft-" she started, "Hell, like I need to tell you this."
They both grinned.
"Let me check availability on the Wind for you..." She tapped on her computer, "There's coach seats, naturally, but only one sleeping compartment, and it's a family room. Also, it'll be ver-"
"Don't care, I'll take it."
"Ok, what's the passengers name?" Maggie asked.
"Mickey- er, Michelle Shipmen, er, adult" he stuttered.
"Alright. Just so you know, it'll cost you $1, -" Maggie tried to tell him
"No problem," George said, flipping his dad's credit card at her. He had no idea how he was going to explain this to his father, but he would have to do so soon. It didn't really matter, anyway. His dad would be able to understand his motives, he was sure, and money was not one of the pressing issues in his family.
Maggie quickly processed the transaction. She noticed that it was a credit card that was registered to John Caldwell, but she knew these people and didn't mind doing this for them. Most other people she would have questioned.
Maggie printed out the tickets and handed them to George.
"The Desert Wind leaves-" Maggie started.
"-at 3:05, same as the Zephyr," George finished for her, "Yes, I know."
With that, George walked toward the Metropolitan lounge, walked in, and handed his carry-on to the redcap, whom he knew. Normally, George would have to check in, but the Red Cap knew he was traveling first class and didn't bother to ask him for the tickets.
Then he went with Jill, and they bought some clothes for her at one of the stores in the station, a "Chicago: Windy City" t-shirt, a hat, and a pair of extremely weak reading glasses. "The glasses, the hat, the different shirt, and the different hair style should make you unrecognizable to people who don't know you," George pointed out.
"I guess so," she admitted, "how come this place is so boring? Why are buildings these days so-"
"Go change," George said, with a strange look on his face. I'll show her, he thought, smiling inwardly.
When she got back, he suggested they go to lunch.
"Do you know a good place for lunch?" Jill asked.
"I know the best pizza place in the world," he told her.
With that, they started walking up a long ramp. As they walked up it, Jill looked up.
She gasped. George smiled.
"Oh my god," she said, staring at the vaulted ceiling of the hallway.
"There's more," George said.
As they walked into the famous great hall of Chicago's beautiful Union Station, Jill was more and more awe-struck by the stunning grandeur of the building. The sky lights, the gilded Corinthian columns, the vaulted ceiling, the marble walls- it was all so beautiful. It looked like a great temple. A great temple dedicated to traveling.
It was a little dirty, but wow was it gorgeous.
She stared breathlessly at the exquisite grandiosity of the room. The whole building, while technically a Union Station, was in reality a monument to the ego of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the main builder of the station.
"Come on, let's go get lunch. It'll take a while and we don't have much time," he said.
They started to ascend the stairs when Jill almost tripped and fell.
"What the hell ... these stairs..." she gasped.
They were worn. They were worn to the point where you could notice it, the great marble slabs grooved. Nothing could ever do as good a job of showing just how many people had climbed the great stairs of Chicago's largest train station. The largest train station in the biggest railroad hub in the nation.
Located just west of the Chicago between Adams and Jackson streets, the Chicago Union Station was built in 1925. Although it has a glorious edifice above ground, most of the station is underground. Including approach and storage tracks, the station is gigantic, taking up nearly nine and a half city blocks. It was originally served by the Pennsylvania Railroad; the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad ("Burlington Route"); the Chicago and Alton Railroad ("The Alton"), and the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway ("The Milwaukee Road"). Its great room is still considered one of the most beautiful rooms in the world, with its statuary, grand balconies, and its 110 ft high vaulted ceiling.
They walked up the stairs to the street level, turned left on Jackson Street, and crossed the Chicago River. Soon, they came upon a pizzeria, "Giordano's." They were quickly seated and George immediately ordered a plain, large, stuffed pizza.
Jill looked at him and asked, "How long until the food arrives?"
"Around forty minutes," George said.
"What?!" she gasped.
"With these stuffed pizzas, it really does take that long," he explained, "Trust me, it's worth it."
"Ok, so where are we going and what train are we taking?" Jill asked.
"We're going to Los Angeles. There are three single-seat rides from Chicago to Los Angeles," George explained.
"The first one is the one I was going to use," he continued, "It is called the Southwest Chief and runs on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad its entire length. It's basically the same route that the famed Super Chief took. It is, by far the fastest. Santa Fe, despite some tousling in the early days of Amtrak, never gave up their premiere train. They keep their track maintained for fast service- up to 90 mph in places- and it's a fairly direct route. It basically runs Chicago-Kansas City-Dodge City-Albuquerque-Flag Staff-Los Angeles. So it takes about 41 hours.
"The second one is called the Desert Wind, which is actually just a section of the California Zephyr. It basically duplicates the route of Union Pacific's Super Chief competitor, the City of Los Angeles. It doesn't move over nearly as good a track, and it's a less direct route. It basically runs Chicago-Burlington-Omaha-Denver-Salt Lake City with the California Zephyr and then diverts from it to Las Vegas and then Los Angeles. It's longer, takes about 50 hours but because Union Pacific is not very friendly to Amtrak, the train is often quite late.
"The third one is the Texas Eagle and it's incredibly indirect. It sort of follows the route of the old Missouri Pacific Texas Eagle, but not entirely. It's general direction does. It goes Chicago-St. Louis-Little Rock-Dallas, where it splits into two sections. One goes on to Houston, while the other goes to Ft. Worth, Temple, and San Antonio. At San Antonio, it lays over for a night, then a section of it couples with the Sunset Limited, which proceeds to Tucson, Pheonix, and Los Angeles. It takes about 62 hours, in theory.
"However, because the Sunset Limited is coming all the way from Miami, Florida, and is running over CSX and Southern Pacific track, it's often extremely late. It runs 12 hours late with surprising regularity. So in reality, it takes us more like 70 hours. The second problem is that the Texas Eagle only runs three days a week and today is not one of them- we'd have to lay over. I'm not willing to risk that," he concluded.
"So which one are we taking?" she asked, playfully rolling her eyes and feigning boredom.
"The Desert Wind, he replied, "Because your parents heard me say we were taking the Chief, and because the Desert Wind leaves earlier, which reduces the chance of us running into people we don't want to run into."
The pizza arrived and was served to them, and Jill took her first bite.
"Wow. Ok, I figured you were kidding when you called this the best," she said, "But now I believe you."
Devouring the pizza in practically no time flat, they paid their bill and started to head back to Union Station. When they got back, they went down to the Metropolitan Lounge for first class sleeping car passengers. George quickly checked in and they sat on some comfortable chairs sipping complimentary sodas and eating complimentary snacks.
"Also, what's a family room?" she asked.
"Well, the trains operating in the West use a different kind of equipment than the ones operating in the East," he explained, "The sleeping car we were in is called a "Heritage 10-6", because it was inherited, in our case from Union Pacific, was converted to head-end power, and contained in its original form 10 roomettes and 6 double bedrooms. Although todays cars are actually 8-6-1's, since they have eight roomettes, six bedrooms, a shower, and a handicapped room.
"The cars operating on western routes are called Superliners for reasons you will understand when you see the train," he continued, "The sleeping cars on older trains were largely used by single business travelers. Amtrak designed and had the Superliners built. Amtrak is mostly used by vacationers, and as such, designed their sleeping cars differently.
"They have Deluxe Bedrooms, which are basically double bedrooms, Economy Bedrooms which are sort of like Slumbercoach rooms without a toilet, Accessible Bedrooms, which is an Economy Bedroom with a huge bathroom, and "Family Bedrooms", which have two full size bunk beds and two small bunk beds, and are intended to be used by two adults and two children. Bathrooms and a shower are located outside of the rooms for Economy and Family bedrooms. It has 14 Economy Bedrooms, five Deluxe Bedrooms, and one each of the Family and Accessible bedrooms."
"Oh. So it's designed for four people?" Jill asked nervously.
"Yes, but Amtrak doesn't book more than one paying customer group to a room," he told her, "Besides, the lower adult bed is huge and we can sleep in the same bed."
"Ok," she said, kissing him passionately on the lips, "I can't wait!"
"Look, I have to call my dad now. Fill him in a bit on what's happening," he said.
Jill looked nervous, but nodded her head.
How the hell WAS this going to work out, anyway?