The Sunset Limited (5)

Saturday December 28

The sound of rain pouring on the tarp covering the hotel courtyard awakens us in time for an early departure.  We ask the cab driver to wait while I go shopping for provisions at a huge supermarket near the Amtrak station. Jan learns that she’s an immigrant from Ethiopia, has come here from L.A., has a degree in Social Work from USC and has another job working with neglected kids.

We line up in the terminal under an interesting mural starkly portraying the violent history of the city as rain continues to dump.




All the roomettes between New Orleans and Tucson were sold out when we bought tickets, so we’re spending the first 36 hours of the trip in coach and providing our own food. The seats are no less comfortable than those in the roomette. We read and doze and eat rare Humboldt Fog cheese and Kavli crackers.  Approaching  Houston at sunset we have drinks in the observation car before proceeding to the diner, where we share a table with a couple from Lafayette Louisiana on the way to the Rose Bowl parade in California.  He’s a crawfish farmer and broker and she’s a hospice nurse for children.  It’s hard to understand the explanations of his trade through his Cajun accent but not his affection for guns and fantasies of shooting intruders. She shows pictures of abandoned children with whom she’s bonded before they died.

After dinner, the coach is dark and quiet, the passengers sedated by the rocking movement. Jan struggles to find a position allowing her to straighten out. The leg rest is broken and needs to be supported by the suitcase I bring upstairs. It turns out our seats are closer to the ones in front of us than those on either side. I search the train looking for alternate empty seats without success.  The conductor appears and lets us know the passengers directly behind us are getting off in five minutes and we can take theirs. The rest of the night is easy.

December 29 2013

After another full day and night traversing Texas we cross back into New Mexico at El Paso.  I chat with a retired geologist returning to California. Another day of reading–Jan’s on her third Donna Tartt novel on the Kindle and I’m studying the New Orleans atlas and The Bible in Shakespeare–writing, looking out the window and watching the little blue dot cross the desert in satellite view on the iphone. At nightfall we reach the Tucson station in the center of downtown and cross the street to the Congress Hotel, another railroad district historic building now decorated with lights and mylar fringe and posters advertising an upcoming public New Year’s Eve party with an “I love New York” theme.  The staff are young, urbane and jolly, the food–albacore salade nicoise and “Queer Burger”–excellent and reasonable.

A short cab ride takes us to our accommodation, La Posada del Valle, a Bed and Breakfast across the street from the University of Arizona Medical Center.  This is the review I submitted to Trip Advisor:

I chose this place for a two night stay enroute between New Orleans and Los Angeles by train. At the suggestion on the website I phoned and spoke to Janos the manager who was personable and helpful and promised to help my wife and me with transportation while here. He told us he wouldnt be available for our late night arrival but gave us the door combination. The view through the window when we pulled up looked most welcoming, and coming inside nearly floored us. The historic old adobe was decorated with unique flair and exuberance, filled with beautiful and beautifully arranged furnishings, informative books and maps and magazines about Tucson and surroundings, and homey atmosphere. Our room with private bath was spacious and filled with treasures. The bed and bathtub were unusually comfortable. Breakfast the next two mornings was custom prepared by an amiable housekeeper/cook with fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, and baked goods. There was no room for lunch later in the day. Our host showed up during the first breakfast, welcomed us, shared stories and then drove us across town to a car rental place. After we left this morning he emailed us the bill, which seemed astoundingly reasonable. When can we come back?





December 30 2013

We share the breakfast room with a couple our age who live in Seattle.  They’ve been here for four days to hike in the desert.  Not surprisingly we have some experiences in common.  Both were in the Berkeley FSM 1965 sit-in that Jan joined as a freshman at Stanford.  He got a PhD in English, taught for several years at Whitman College in Washington and then decided voluntarily to give up his tenure-track job and partner with a friend to start a social work consulting firm, from which he has now retired. He still conducts workshops in organizational development.  She got a degree in social work at Berkeley but after several years in the field switched to a career as paralegal.  Their daughter got a PhD from Yale, but was so outraged by the treatment of graduate student TA’s trying to organize that she’s become a full time union organizer of clerical and maintenance staff.

Janos shows up to welcome us and take us in his new Mercedes to the car rental place.  We learn that he and has wife run another B and B, that she is a retired Wall Street banker and Harvard MBA who loves to decorate, that he was manager of a high end restaurant in New York, that they have travelled to fifty countries, and came to Tucson to slow down and enjoy the atmosphere. But at age 70, he’s more than ready to retire from the hospitality business.

We drive west in the radiant winter light to the outskirts of the city and up a tightly winding road to a pass in Tucson Mountain Park amidst a forest of familiar yet still bizarre-looking Saguaro cacti.



On the other side of the pass, an immense valley spreads before us harboring “Old Tucson,” a theme park built on the site of the movie studio location for hundreds of Western films.


We drive onward toward a less obtrusive attraction in the valley, The Desert Museum, which appeals both to theme park visitors and nature lovers.  The parking lot is almost full on this holiday occasion, but the crowds of multi-generational families add to my enjoyment of  exhibits of desert ecology, many of them hard to distinguish from the surrounding wilderness.


There are animal enclosures allowing close-up views of mountain lion, bear, wolf, and javelina, none of which have the downcast look of many captive animals.



as well as artfully designed shade structures and benches necessary for less temperate times of the year.



Cold symptoms are creeping up on Jan, so  I leave her resting in the hummingbird enclosure, head for the Desert Loop trail, and find myself surrounded by a dense crowd waiting for the “Raptor Free Flight” performance to begin. An amplified voice from nowhere warns us not to place children on shoulders because the birds will be flying fast and close to our heads. Suddenly two gorgeous hawks dive from aloft and alight on nearby snags.


These we are told are gray hawks.  As trainers hiding in the vegetation make chirping sounds and hold out gobbets of meat, the hawks criss-cross the crowd inches overhead and then disappear.  Next come two barn owls, soft and cuddly looking until one whizzes straight for me with its sharp beak agape.



Then we see two peregrine falcons, according to the speaker, the fastest animals alive, which have been clocked at 242 miles an hour, and finally a whole group of Harris Hawks that hunt as a family, working together to corral and trap their prey.


We meet as planned by the hummingbirds and drive back to our beautiful lodgings, rest,  then go for dinner to Downtown Kitchen, the restaurant recommended by our breakfast-mates.  Its publicity about celebrity chef and fresh local organic ingredients is not overblown.


December 31 2013

The festive meal served on the the last morning of our stay at La Posada del Valle is shadowed by the story of the other guest who is here from Scottsdale, not for vacation but because his wife has had to return to the medical center for treatment of ongoing complications attendant on the removal of her pancreas.  She’s a nurse who’s lost her job because of her affliction, their young kids have been cared for by friends at home, and he’s here on time off from his math teaching job at the Community College. I think of my friend Peter in Canada who has just passed through life-threatening complications after the removal of cancerous tumors from his kidney. I think of Steve, the old friend in his quadriplegic’s wheelchair with whom I roamed this neighborhood and the medical center across the street five years ago and who died soon thereafter. The young teacher tries to smile as he affirms hope that eventually his wife will recover.

We head for the train station to leave our baggage before returning the rental car, and it becomes clear that Jan’s cold is turning into something worse.  She agrees to go to a nearby urgent care clinic where she is diagnosed with a serious sinus infection and prescribed antibiotics by a doctor who recognizes her Rotary button and agrees to meet her next June in Australia at the convention they both plan to attend.  Another CVS around the corner dispenses the medications, the car is returned, and we have the rest of the day, slowly, to explore downtown Tucson, before reboarding our train.

The district has undergone major redevelopment, with hip new multi-use businesses and residences sprouting in the shells of renovated old buildings, with a multi-modal transportation center, with signage about the impending opening of SunLink, a four-mile  trolley system on newly laid track.



We pass through the elegant courtyard of the County Court and Administrative Office, fortunately preserved when the rest of this government center must have been demolished to make way for the surrounding ugly skyscrapers.



With heroic resilience braced by the new medication, Jan makes it to the museum, where we enjoy exhibits of early Latin-American and ancient Chinese artworks donated by local collectors and feel less positive about acquisitions of contemporary “Cowboy Art” and modern conceptual works centered on themes: “The Hand,” and “Scissors, Paper, Rock.” We are entranced by a work of borderland latino folk art called “Nacimiento” housed in an old adobe.


As the sharp shadows lengthen and the year draws towards its end we walk slowly back to the railroad station. Still nourished by breakfast,  instead of dinner we share a small thin-crusted pizza at the gourmet market and delicatessen on the platform. We talk to Joe and Ethan and Abel in Idaho and Claire and Lucas in California.


Across the street at the Congress Hotel a crane lifts a great ball of mirrors and the searchlights rehearse for the midnight extravaganza.

I run over there to buy a pint bottle and some mixer for our New Year’s Eve on the train. At 7:00 p.m. it arrives and we climb aboard the sleeping car and find our cozy compartment. Reminded of her name on the downtown bus station, I play some Linda Ronstadt songs on the little stereo and then the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds: “Let’s Go Away for Awhile,” “Dont Talk, Put Your Head on my Shoulder.” A beautiful young woman approaching the adjoining compartment grins at us and says, “Nice ambience.”

The train’s staff has organized a New Year’s Eve party, including champagne and games in the observation car starting at 10:30.  I’d like to take part, but, predictably, late night activities are beyond our capacity. We drop off to sleep in our berths and wake up refreshed in time for the 5:30 A.M. arrival in L.A., transfer to the Pacific Surfliner, and the final leg of our trip home.

For full-size and more pictures, click here


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