Sunset Limited: Maricopa, AZ to San Antonio, TX

Okay, I need to get better about writing blog posts immediately because I’m still two days behind, and I’m already getting blurry about key details.  (Lots of drinking in Austin will do that!)

So let’s get caught up to speed.  When I left off at the last post, we were just leaving Maricopa, Arizona.  I had trouble sleeping, so after talking to a nice gentleman in the lounge car, I made my way back to my seat to try to get some sleep.  Sleeping in two coach seats isn’t that easy, and I stayed awake for some unknown amount of time, but probably conked out at about 3:30am.  When I woke back up, it was light out and we were stopped in Tucson.  Still groggy from sleep deprivation, I hopped off the train to stretch my legs and hang out with the smokers.


I forgot this gentleman’s name, but he was on his way to Lake Charles or Lafayette. He shared with me his frustration about how far behind schedule we were, but I made an attempt to explain how I was taking it in stride, since we were both going to miss what we were hoping to do when we got to our respective destinations.

“I’m going to miss a funeral!” he said.

I immediately felt very very bad, since all I was going to miss was a party in Austin.


Here are our crewmembers, Jerry and Kevin.  I began to feel really bad for them, the passengers were all very frustrated with the situation and they had to bear the brunt of the complaints.

The stop in Tucson took a bit longer than anticipated, as we gained another locomotive.  We had one locomotive pulling the train all night between our breakdown near the Salton Sea and now.  Jerry told me that Amtrak paid $20,000 to “borrow” a locomotive from Union Pacific to pull the train.


After a short break, it felt good to be moving again.  Here, I practice my through-the-window skills.  While I was doing taking this shot, another passenger asked me how I eliminated the reflections.

“Right now, I’m leaving them in…  I think it looks cool.”

I think she immediately wrote me off as a photographer after that comment.

For this shot, I do think it looks cool.


This is “Curls”, or so was the nickname that Jerry gave him.  Here, he’s eating his fingers.  I noticed him doing a lot of that.


This is Prewitt. (His last name, he never gave me his first name)  I probably talked with him for hours.  He accidentally got into the salvage industry in the 70’s and 80’s and grew his company into a massive business.  He started with a pickup truck, and after six months, bought an 18-wheeler with cash.  20 years later, he said he sold the business to Target. He’s retired now, but says he has plans to move to California soon and relax.  He also shared with me is hope to buy outright one of the many abandoned ghost towns in Texas and preserve it for people who want to live off the grid for short periods of time.  I hope I’m not giving away a super secret business model here.  I got his phone number…  I’m going to follow up with him at some point and see how that’s working out for him.


At some point, we entered New Mexico.  That’s the New Mexico landscape out the window.


I shot this photo out of the back of the last car.  It looks like the kind of scene that model railroads are made out of.  I never imagined a real railroad would have switchbacks and bridges like this.  Saying a real railroad looks like a model of a railroad seems like saying that a person looks like a portrait of themselves, which is a bit backwards.  Sometimes though, you find these completely idealized versions of something that actually exists, and yet somehow that’s weird.


The landscape out of the windows was absolutely beautiful, but the endlessness of it all wound up being a bit dull after awhile.


Here, it changed a bit.  Still endless, but a little bit greener.

As we reached the far southeastern edge of New Mexico, we started hugging the US-Mexico border.


Somehow, I expected the fence to be bigger and more threatening.  I had envisioned something more akin to the Isreal-Palestine border, or maybe the Berlin Wall. I think what struck me the most was how the landscape is exactly the same on both sides.


When we started getting closer to Juarez, the contrast between the two sides of the fence became much stronger, almost depressingly so.


The train tracks ran through a steep set of rolling hills along the border, cut almost perpendicular to the features of the terrain.  We’d to through a canyon carved into the hillside for a few hundred yards, with the canyon not much wider than the train.  Out the window on both sides, all you could see was a shear rock face.  After we emerged, we’d be high up on a berm for a few hundred more yards before we went back into another railroad canyon.


This continued for miles.  From the tops of the berms, we could see far into Juarez, with the border fence only a few feet from the tracks.  Occasionally, the fence would have a sign on it with a Homeland Security seal and the words “United States-Mexico Border” on it.


The whole experience was creepily reminiscent of the train ride at Disneyland, where detailed dioramas are divided by sheer rock walls as the train rolls by very slowly so the passengers can get a good view.  Behind the glass window in my air-conditioned coach car, I felt disconnected from the shockingly real scenes playing out below us.  Everything again felt like a hyper-idealized version of reality so perfect it almost seemed fake.  Fences with signs directly facing the train, border patrol cars milling about, and the occasional lookout tower to break up the landscape.  Just over the fence, people were going about their daily business in a completely different world.


Once we crossed over the Rio Grande into Texas, the first thing to greet us was the massive Asarco power plant in El Paso.  I immediately recalled an NPR piece I’d heard about it a few months ago.  (Click that link if you’ve got a few minutes and want to hear a fascinating piece about this behemoth)


The train literally rolled straight through the middle of the complex, which put this filthy and yet transfixing landscape right in front of the train.


As we continued on toward the El Paso train station, Juarez just over the fence became denser, but still looked eerily third-world compared to the boxy concrete warehouses surrounded by shiny trucks and bustling highway on the American side.


We pulled into the station at El Paso in the late afternoon and were allowed to stretch our legs.  Many of the passengers I had been chatting with got off, which was a bit of a sad moment as I’d been with them since Los Angeles.

Above is our train, being pulled by a Union Pacific locomotive.  Not a scene you see every day.


Here’s our Amtrak engineer piloting the rental locomotive.


As a gross generalization, I’d say that Texans are a very happy group of people.  Californians (myself included) tend to be more laid back, but I’m not sure that translates directly into proactive cheerfulness.


I just thought this looked cool.


As we pulled out of El Paso, I took a place at the window of the very last car.  I think what we’re looking at here is a gas station for locomotives.


Ever wondered how they throw out dumpsters?  Me too!  Apparently this is a dump for dumpsters.


This is a system used for loading tanker cars.  It’s the most intricate loading system I’ve ever seen, possibly because the liquid or gas in the tanker is under intense pressure.  I feel bad for the tanker car.


Just outside of El Paso is probably one of the largest refineries I’ve ever seen.  The tracks went right up to it, but most of the best views were blocked by an equally impressive yet obnoxious tangle of power lines.


After leaving the El Paso metropolitan area, we got back out into the open desert again and the sun started to set.  The golden colors were incredibly intense, almost as intense as some of LA’s sunsets during wildfire season.  I’m still not sure I want to know what kind of particulate matter is in the air.




We pulled into Del Rio later that evening and the typical crowd of smokers exited the train for their fix.


The conductor was shouting “All Aboard!” as the last few seconds of this 30-second exposure counted down.  I grabbed my tripod, jumped on the train, went back to my seat and passed out.

When I woke up, it was 4:30 in the morning and we had just arrived in San Antonio. We were seven and a half hours behind schedule.  I got off, moved my stuff to another car (that would be taken off and put on a Northbound Texas Eagle heading to Chicago by way of Austin), re-checked my bags, said my goodbyes to many of the friends I’d met on the Sunset Limited, and went back to my new seat.

A few hours later I woke up again.  Nicole was calling me to check in, and noticing that we were moving, I told her that I imagined that we were on schedule.

The train stopped, waited a few minutes, and we started moving backwards.  A block later, we were back at the San Antonio station.  I realized that they were shunting the cars around, moving them to the Texas Eagle.  I had no idea what time it was…  my computer was on California time and said 6am, but my phone said 8.  We were supposed to leave the station at 7:30, so I assumed that they were both wrong.  A voice over the PA soon announced that yes, we were indeed running late because the Sunset Limited was late.  Great.  I sank into my seat and watched San Antonio roll by, finally on the way to Austin.

I didn’t want to be on the train anymore.

2 Responses to “Sunset Limited: Maricopa, AZ to San Antonio, TX”

  • David Gunn Says:

    Car 1247 was built in 1953 by the Budd Company, in New Jersey, for the Santa Fe Railroad, car number 3502. When Amtrak was created in 1971, it inherited its equipment from its predecessor passenger railroads. That car is now 57 years old.

  • Hal Says:

    Wow David, your knowledge is impressive. Thank you for sharing what you know about Amtrak here. I forgot to thank you for your last posts, but I think I spent half an hour reading those Wikipedia pages.

    Do you work for Amtrak?