If I hadn't taken the train, I would have never learned how to say "Gunfight at the OK Corral" in Italian. Or had a Cajun explain how to boil crawfish. Or met a veteran flight attendant who'd rather travel by rail. I also wouldn't have gotten a refresher course in how varied this country is -- and how pleasant it is to ride through it, for a change, instead of flying over it.

My trip began as a whim. I wanted to go from Minnesota to New Mexico, to visit a friend in Las Cruces. I didn't want to fly this time, but any road trip -- by car or bus -- would take several days each way, and I only had two weeks to travel.

"You could take the train," my friend offered.

The train! Why hadn't I thought of it? It, too, would take several days, but it would be worth it to sit back in comfort and watch America roll by. I didn't know yet that America would be riding the train with me, or that the people I would meet would turn out to be the best part of the trip.

To get from Minneapolis-St. Paul to El Paso, I combined segments from three of Amtrak's long-distance passenger trains: The Empire Builder, Amtrak's most popular train, for the first leg of the trip to Chicago. Then the City of New Orleans for its full length, between Chicago and the Big Easy. And finally, heading due west, the Sunset Limited. That train runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles, but I got off in El Paso and rented a car for the drive to Las Cruces.

The planning tool on Amtrak's website told me that the combined segments would take 63 hours, spread over three days and two nights -- if we were on time. We weren't going to be, but I didn't know that when I boarded the Builder in St. Paul, just after dawn on a cool October morning. By the time I found out, I didn't care. I'd spent three days listening to life stories, had made new friends, eaten good meals and been rocked to sleep in a snug, warm roomette.

I expected my fellow passengers to be either hard-core train buffs or airplane phobics and that they'd all be on long-distance trips. That wasn't the case. I met only one true train buff -- a gray-haired man with a dozen railroad emblems pinned on his hat. And only two phobics. All the other passengers I met were ordinary folks, mostly on short trips, who chose the train because it was convenient, cheap and comfortable.

Typically, they explained the train's appeal by comparing it with flying: "You don't have to take your shoes off for security!" Or "These seats are bigger than in business class!" Or "You can move around. Eat. It's more fun."

John Stofford III, a 20-year flight attendant who could have flown from Chicago to his home in Louisiana, was riding the City of New Orleans instead. Flying "has become a less savory experience for most people," he said. Plus, the train is more personal -- and interesting, he added. "We came through cotton a while ago; did you see those giant bales?"

Then there was the matter of price, expressed best by two burly young electricians in T-shirts and baseball caps. They boarded the Sunset Limited in New Orleans, where, they said, there was still post-Katrina work to be had. They were brothers, going home to Houston.

"I can get home for $100 for a weekend," the older one said. "It'd cost me $200 if I flew."

They took a table in the lounge car, set up a laptop so they could listen to music, bought a couple beers and broke out the playing cards. "Can't do this in an airplane," the older brother said and grinned.


As the tracks led south, the landscape changed -- from the Mississippi bluffs of Minnesota and Wisconsin, to the flat fields of Illinois, to masses of jungle-like Southern greenery and finally to bayou country. From the lounge car on the Sunset Limited, as we headed west toward Lafayette, the unofficial capital of Cajun Louisiana, I began seeing squarish ponds beside the tracks, with unkempt stubble sticking up through shallow water.

Were they rice paddies? I asked a guy who had just come into the lounge car.

Naw, he drawled, glancing out the window, "'at's a crawfish farm!"

He wore dark glasses, jeans and an intimidating T-shirt ("I hear voices," it read, "and they don't like you."). He turned out to be charming and Cajun to the core: Elgin Ardouin, who grew up in a French-speaking Cajun family, was on his way from Houma, La., to Lake Charles to spend his 44th birthday with relatives.

"I'll tell ya how Cajuns eat crawfish," he said. Get a big metal pot of water. Set it over a fire outside until it boils, then dump in a sack of crawfish - "30, 40 of 'em." Throw in a fistful of seasonings. Then add anything you want -- potatoes, onions, carrots, corn. When it's all tender, dump the whole pot out onto a picnic table, and call everybody for the feast.

The idea made me regard all those bayou ditches with new respect. The conversation helped prove that Robert Louis Stevenson was right: On Amtrak, it truly is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.


No one I met was traveling more hopefully than a 60-something Italian guy with bleached-blond hair who gave his name simply as Antonio. He was a retired subway-train driver from Milan, now doing what he'd always dreamed of -- seeing the world, especially the American West.

On the Sunset Limited, he hung out in the lounge car, usually in one of the swivel armchairs beside a big window, chattering happily to anyone who happened by. His English was skimpy, but his enthusiasm was overwhelming.

His trip had a lot to do with his all-time favorite movie, an American western. He said its Italian title so fast that I couldn't guess at it. So he tried acting it out, charade-style. Dying? I guessed. Fighting? Killing? No, he said, frustrated.

He repeated the name a few more times, each time more slowly, until the last syllables finally clicked: "'sfida all' O.K. Korral." I wrote it down, he approved of the spelling, and the intercultural triumph made us both smile.

Antonio figured in the most exciting event of the trip. Just before dark on my last day aboard, the Sunset Limited made an unscheduled stop at Marathon, Texas, a small town known mainly for the Gage Hotel, a 1927 Western gem. The sun was setting behind low mountains, and the light on the old brick building -- and its storefront neighbors -- was lovely, golden and rich.

Up in the lounge car, though, nobody was admiring the architecture. We'd heard that a sick passenger needed to be taken off the train, but because the stop was unscheduled, we couldn't get out to check. So we were staring out the windows, swapping rumors and pointing our cameras at anything that moved on Marathon's wide main street; our tracks ran right down the middle.

Soon a white pickup truck pulled up to the crossing, and a husky guy in a tan uniform got out, adjusted his white cowboy hat -- no kidding -- and ambled toward us. The sign on his truck read "County Sheriff."

Antonio about went nuts. This was straight out of his American dream: "Always," he crowed, "always, I want see sheriff!"

An ambulance followed, several EMTs boarded the train with a stretcher, came out with a groggy-looking young guy and sped off with him to Alpine, Texas, the nearest town with a hospital.

And that was that. Everything on board went back to normal, and even Antonio quieted down. Then, so smoothly you could hardly notice, the Limited began to roll again, picking up speed as it headed, appropriately, into the sunset.

Catherine Watson is a former Star Tribune travel writer and editor. Her newest book, "Home on the Road" (Syren, 2007), is a collection of her travel essays.