Depending on your age and preferences, the term “spring break” probably conjures one of the following images: piling into a car with friends/family and driving to the nearest warm-weather destination, or jetting off to a tropical beach for a week of fruity drinks and ocean views.
In planning our first-ever spring break away with the kids, I asked myself: what is the opposite of every spring break stereotype? I crossed some things off the list right away: no Florida, no beach towns, no Mexico. In other words, nothing that would be too crowded. And we definitely needed to keep it affordable. Then something that had been lurking in the back of my mind for a long time popped to the forefront again: train travel.
I’ve always wanted to take a train trip. Something about the old-fashioned nature of it, and the way it’s akin to a road trip without the burden of driving. Or maybe I read Murder on the Orient Express at a particularly impressionable age. Whatever the reason, I’ve always wanted to do it and never did. But my little dudes are prime train age now! That decided, the only thing left to figure out was where we'd be headed.
After an hour's worth of searching train routes and destinations, we had purchased two sleeper roomettes on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, starting in Chicago and ending up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a 24-hour trip each way. We followed that up with an inexpensive hotel room and a rental car for exploring, and our trip was booked. Now we just had to wait for Spring Break to arrive. Which it did, last week.
Spoiler Alert: It was wonderful.
Like all trips, it had its ups (seeing New Mexico from atop a two-mile-high mountain) and downs (Devon got carsick on a morning drive and painted himself and the back seat with half-digested pancakes and milk from the hotel's free breakfast). But the scenery was beautiful, the weather was great, and train was better than I expected.
Here's a day-by-day breakdown of our southwestern adventure:
The route of the Southwest Chief. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Day 1: Board train at Chicago’s Union Station
No idea what to expect as far as procedure and protocol. Very kind family members drop us off in downtown Chicago, and we make a beeline to check our bigger baggage, which, by necessity includes car seats for the boys. Baggage check takes all of 10 minutes, and no security line to slog through. Nothing to do but sit for two hours. The boys play. We all snack. Finally it's time to board.
After very little fuss we're in the tunnel, tracks lined up to our left and right. We walk along the length of the train platform, until an attendant directs us to the sleeper cars. We climb aboard and up a narrow, winding set of stairs to the upper level, Roomettes 5 and 6. Each has a wide window, and two facing seats each about the width of a twin bed, which slide together into the room’s bottom bunk. Stowed overhead is the top bunk, pulled down at bedtime. Surprisingly comfortable and roomy.
Visitors! The dining car steward to take our dinner reservation and the conductor to check our tickets.
Spend hours just looking out the window. Don't even want to pick up my book or jot writing notes (sorry Camp NaNoWriMo). Play with the kids, stretch out my legs, and watch the world go by. Fantastic.
Dining car is fun, the views amazing. Food (in all honesty) is not great, without much variety. Slight step up from airplane food (back when they used to serve it) but it's included in the price of our tickets. Angus burger with kettle chips was pretty OK. Sad breakfast quesadilla with cardboard-like tortilla was not. Only two kids choices: hot dog and mac and cheese. (Breakfast offered pancakes or eggs.) Won’t be feeding the kids mac and cheese again for a long time.
Fall asleep in Missouri, wake up on the far side of Kansas, at sunrise.
Crossing the Mississippi; Junior conductor; Party in # 6!
Day 2: Arrive in Albuquerque
Due to arrive in late afternoon. We play games, take naps, have Transformer battles, visit the dining car, and mostly, stare out the window.
Getting off the train is as easy as getting on. We grab our baggage and go get the rental car. Where we sit. For an hour. With antsy boys who are out of patience. No fun. “Car rental companies will be the death of me,” as my sister recently said.
Soon enough we make it to our hotel.
Starving, our first dinner stop is the 66 Diner, on the real-live Route 66. The boys get milkshakes, and we refuel for swimming in the hotel pool. All in all, a good day.
Good morning, Kansas!; Trinidad, Colorado; Milkshakes at the 66 Diner
Day 3: Exploring Albuquerque
We head down to Old Town Albuquerque, to look at old buildings and buy souvenirs and visit the American International Rattlesnake Museum. (At least it's not spiders.) We also stop in to see The Candy Lady. Claim to fame: making very-meth-like blue rock candy for Breaking Bad. Dark chocolate covered almond clusters are excellent.
Rhys complains of a stomach ache, so we go back to the hotel for R & R: rest and room service. He works through some travel-induced indigestion while we plan the afternoon.
Rhys back to usual giddy self. Head off to Hinkle Family Fun Center for mini golf and arcade games. I fail to instill a love of Skee-Ball in Devon. This is the boys’ favorite stop on the whole trip. I get a record seven (yes, really, you can ask Mike) holes-in-one on the golf course. Might as well stop playing mini golf now. I’ll never be able to match it.
Dinner at the Owl Café. Mom and Dad’s turn to get milkshakes for dessert. The neon is cool. Devon seems to like it OK, but later on he will pipe up from the backseat of the car: “I don’t understand what was so fantastic about that owl restaurant.”
Killing it at mini golf; Cool bros in Old Town; Owl Cafe at night (I think it's pretty fantastic)
Day 4: Driving to Roswell
Not our best day. Devon throws up in the car an hour outside the city, on a long, lonely stretch of highway. We clean him up and keep driving. Thankfully, an isolated incident. We stop at the next available gas station to wash and dry out his pants. He refuses our offers to stop somewhere to buy new ones, because he's wearing his favorites.
Lunch at an outer space-themed cowboy bar/BBQ joint/pub, an interesting combination. Visit to the International UFO Museum and Research Center, where Devon is scared of the spaceship diorama and Rhys is concerned about the alien autopsy display.
“His spaceship crash, Mommy. The alien hit his head. He sick.”
Other than that, there's not much to Roswell. We play spot-the-alien on the drive through town, and walk around the slightly sad downtown.
I hand Devon a barf bag (which thankfully goes unused) and we get back on the road to ABQ.
Sign over a Roswell gift shop; Bathroom door at Farley's; Downtown Roswell with aesthetically cooperative clouds
Day 5: The Turquoise Trail
Final day trip is devoted to a scenic drive that hugs the Sandia Mountains and connects Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
We start out after breakfast (no milk for Devon) driving to the top of the Sandia Crest. View from two miles up is gorgeous, 360 degrees of desert and mountain and city.
Back down at the bottom we stop at the Tinkertown Museum, a hand-crafted collection of miniatures that animate at the touch of a button, as well as other vintage paraphernalia collected into a ramshackle compound as folksy and charming as the two ladies that greeted us.
We drive onward, along the mountains and the desert mining towns that once thrived there. Now tourist towns with shops and restaurants, linked by a 2-lane highway with beautiful views.
For lunch we stop at the Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid (pronounced MA-drid, with a short a sound, I learn from our waitress) where I enjoy the Mad Chile Burger, marking the fifth and final time I eat green chiles on this trip. My digestive system needs a break.
A goal of mine is to return from the trip with a new piece of turquoise jewelry, and after lunch I pop into a shop or two (all the kids will tolerate) hoping to fall in love. I do, with a beautifully crafted cuff bracelet set with three sky-blue stones. Proprietress lets me try it on. A perfect fit. She tells me the stones are from Cerrillos, the next town over, and that they are rare because the mine had been closed for years. (Uh-oh.) I ask her how much it is (always a bad sign when the price is not displayed). She tells me $1200. Gulp. I slip it off my wrist carefully and thank her for letting me try it on.
We drive on northward, through more tiny towns and isolated homes and beautiful scenery. At the end of the trail, the boys are antsy and want out of the car. We take the interstate back south, hoping to grab some dinner and get some pool time in.
We choose Cocina Azul for dinner, a small place close to our hotel. This is the best food of the trip and the only meal photo I take. Mike and I have fish tacos, Rhys dives face-first into his crunchy beef taco, and Devon enjoys a quesadilla. The only meal where we all come away totally happy and satisfied with what we ordered. Victory! Off to swim until bedtime.
Sandia Crest Panorama
Tinkertown residents; 2-mile-high selfie; Fish tacos
Days 5 & 6: The trip home
Boarding the train is once again smooth and easy. Devon is eager for some space, since he's been sharing a bed with Rhys for the last few days. He and I retire to our room, Mike and Rhys to another down the hall.
Dining car has a new menu for the ride home! But not for the kids. More mac and cheese for Devon. Rhys branches out to the hot dog.
Getting sick of using the airplane-esque tiny bathroom. One of the only downsides to train travel, IMO. I don't even attempt the shower.
Am lulled into a trance by the passing scenery. I could sit here for hours—I do sit here for hours—looking out the window, pointing out things to the kids. Am a little sad when the train pulls into Union Station.
On the jaunt back to Madison I wonder about the next time I’ll be able to travel by train. I have fantasies now of booking a ticket for just me, getting on the train in some smaller town (to avoid the hassle of downtown Chicago), having a roomette all to myself, riding the train out to Seattle, down the California coast (popping out in between routes for a good meal) and back across the Midwest home, staring out the window, getting ideas, and writing for days. Who needs writer’s retreats? I'll just get on the train! I don’t know if it will ever happen, but a girl can dream.
My view from the window, train shadow included; Kansas City stop; Sunset on Day 5
This was most definitely the scenic route (Colorado)