Getting ready for bed in our roomette as we crossed the southeast corner of Colorado, I thought of all the movie stars of the ’30s and ‘4os who had gotten ready for bed riding over the same rails at the same time as I was. The Santa Fe Super Chief, predecessor of the Amtrak Southwest Chief, took the same route on the same schedule. Everyone in Hollywood went to New York sometime, and the Super Chief was the train of the stars and the would-be celebrities. Chapter two of Raymond Chandler’s Playback (1958) begins, “There was nothing to it. The Super Chief was on time, as it almost always is, and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket. She wasn’t carrying anything but a paperback which she dumped in the first trash can she came to.”
Above, the Super Chief of the 1950s in Northern New Mexico.
I have one bizarre memory of the train: A woman lying naked atop the covers in her lighted window for everyone to see as the train made its Pomona station stop at the beginning of its journey. Bystanders on the station platform politely looked away and laughed. Did she not realize everyone could see her? Was it intentional? I overheard a smiling conductor say someone had to talk to her, although he didn’t sound as though he felt up to it.
The ride is nothing like the high-speed trains of Europe and Asia, but therein lies its historic charm. If the train bumps and shakes, consider the tale of the couple who honeymooned on the legendary Super Chief and claimed they had achieved orgasm without any motion other than the train’s.
Above, an Amtrak postcard of the Southwest Chief as it “skirts the scenic red cliffs of New Mexico.”
Remember the Twilight Zone episode set in the lounge car of a train stopped somewhere in New Mexico on a snowy night? A boy saw a hand against the outside of the train window, but his grandfather didn’t believe him because the boy had a penchant for inventing stories. In the end, the train starts moving, and the hand slides down from the window as a man freezes to death (presumably). While Rod Sterling doesn’t name the train, odds are it was the Super Chief. For the story to work today, the boy and his grandfather would need to be sitting in the lower level of the lounge car, because today’s train is bi-level.
Above, my other half looking sleeoy-eyed on the upper level of the sightseer lounge car.