The Allure of the Sunset Limited: A Journey Through West Texas
The road to far West Texas is anything but straightforward. Whether you’re traveling from the east or the west, reaching this remote corner of the state is no easy feat. I discovered this myself during my time as a community reporter in the small border town of Presidio. Without a car, my options for travel were limited. But there was one option available to me – the Sunset Limited train.
The Sunset Limited has a romantic name that belies its current state. Its fleet of double-decker trains, known as Superliners, were mostly built in the 1980s and retain the angular aesthetic of that era. The interior of the train is dominated by sapphire blue. This route is the oldest named passenger route still operating in the U.S., dating back to 1894 as part of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Nowadays, it runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles, passing through Texas three times a week. Along the Texas stretch, it makes stops in Beaumont, Houston, San Antonio, Del Rio, Sanderson, Alpine, and El Paso. The entire journey covers a distance of 1,995 miles and takes about 48 hours one way, with nearly half of that time spent in Texas. It’s a reminder of just how sprawling and vast the state truly is.
The first time I took the Sunset Limited was in 2014 when I was embarking on my maiden voyage to West Texas. I flew from New York City to San Antonio with the plan of catching the train to Alpine. The journey would take almost eight hours, and I would arrive in Alpine by mid-morning the next day. With several hours to spare, I arrived at the downtown station early and sat in the waiting room, bathed in a buzzing white light. The shelves were filled with outdated pamphlets, and quarter machines offered candy that had turned as hard as gravel. As I struggled to stay awake, a young man named Blaze approached me and proudly showed off photos of his trucks as if they were his family.
When the train finally arrived, we shuffled outside, forming a slumped and motley queue. I found my assigned seat on the upper level of passenger car three and settled in by the window. The seats, although old, were relatively comfortable and actually reclined.
Sometime around dawn, I awoke to the soft murmur of a woman speaking into her phone across the aisle. She reassured the recipient of the call that everything would be alright, that the burns were only second-degree. We had left the strip malls and city grid of San Antonio behind and entered the vast desert, flanked by eroded hills on either side. The woman’s dark hair was held back by a faded magenta bandanna. She marveled at the beauty of the desert landscape, its colors and shapes. As the sun began to rise, the dust lifted, creating a veil of matter that refracted the first rays of light. An Exxon sign extended an arm of light into the twilight, and the sky turned pink like a wound.
Throughout my time in Presidio, I took the Sunset Limited numerous times, always encountering a new cast of characters. There was the man who proudly showed off his gunshot wounds and the machete in his bag, and the jaded young soldier on leave who played coy with a pretty runaway. On one occasion, an elderly man seated next to me covered me with his wool blanket while I slept.
Compared to other countries with high-speed rail systems, America’s rail network lags behind. In Texas, taking the train is often a choice based on cost or a fear of flying rather than convenience. But for me, the train offers a unique experience. I’m drawn to the stories of the people I meet onboard, the sense of shared space and time. Even now, living in Austin, I still choose to ride the Amtrak when traveling west. I consider it an indulgence, a deliberate decision to slow down and enjoy the journey. However, despite all my trips on the Sunset Limited, I had never experienced the ultimate form of rail travel – the sleeper car. It was time to give it a try.
On a spring night in Austin, I found myself waiting to board the Texas Eagle train, another Amtrak route that connects to the Sunset Limited in San Antonio. Due to freight traffic delays, the train was running late. But this time, I had booked a ticket for the sixteen-hour journey in a Roomette, Amtrak’s most basic sleeping accommodation. The Roomette offers a private space with two convertible bunk beds, access to a shared bathroom and shower, fresh linens, turndown service, and three meals in the dining car. The one-way ticket cost around $275, but in order to save time and money, I had purchased a return flight from El Paso.
Despite the delay, I was graciously seated for dinner even though the service had already concluded. I opted for the plant-based option – skewers of “kebab” served over spiced rice with chickpeas and roasted cauliflower. The meal was served on a paper plate covered in foil, and I enjoyed a glass of white wine in a plastic cup. When it came time for dessert, I couldn’t decide between a brownie and a butter cake, so the attendant brought me both.
Satisfied and ready for sleep, I retired to my room, closed the curtains to block out the darkness outside, and curled up in the bottom bunk. The bed had already been made for me, and after using the shared bathroom, I settled in with a book under the glow of the reading light. The rhythmic rocking and rumbling of the train lulled me into a peaceful slumber.
Sometime in the middle of the night, the Texas Eagle connected to the Sunset Limited in San Antonio, combining the two trains into one. I wasn’t fully aware of the mechanics of this process, but I was vaguely conscious of the trains shifting back and forth, creating raucous noises that seemed to mimic a dump truck in action. When I awoke again, eight hours later, sunlight was streaming through the curtain, and I felt surprisingly well-rested with only a slight ache in my back. Overnight, the dining car had transformed with real roses in bud vases, and the tables were set with glassware, porcelain plates, and silverware.
At breakfast, I was seated with a well-dressed gentleman with white hair and suspenders. He was a seasoned sleeper-car traveler and recommended the French toast. He spoke to me without making eye contact, gazing out at the desert landscape as it raced past. The French toast turned out to be the best I had ever tasted, accompanied by plump breakfast sausages.
Back in my sleeper car, I resumed reading my book but found myself distracted by a conversation happening outside my door. Curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to explore the cafe car, which was open to all passengers. At one end, I noticed an elderly woman wearing a face mask nodding as a Mennonite woman in a bonnet spoke to her in hushed tones. Nearby, a man with a long ponytail and tattoos covering his aging skin suddenly got up from his seat and left the car. When he returned, he had a big black box in hand, from which he pulled out a tattoo gun. He proceeded to tattoo letters onto the fingers of his left hand, and although I strained to read the word, it eluded me.
As we approached Langtry, the conductor announced over the loudspeaker that we were about to cross the Pecos High Bridge. He encouraged passengers to get their cameras ready for a view of the Pecos River. The train accelerated to about 80 miles per hour, and as we crossed the bridge, time seemed to slow down. The greasewoods and desert shrubs flashed by, but the river took center stage – grand, beautiful, and blue.
Sixteen hours after departing, we arrived in Alpine, the train blaring its horn to announce our arrival. I disembarked feeling refreshed rather than travel-weary. The same journey by car would have taken only about six and a half hours, but the true beauty of the train lies in the journey itself – the sense of kinship among strangers and the opportunity to slow down and savor the experience. As I stepped onto the platform, surrounded by crowds of people reuniting with loved ones or preparing for their onward journeys, I felt a sense of peace and fulfillment.
There are several ways to experience the Sunset Limited. The most affordable option is coach, where passengers can enjoy reclining seats and access to the observation and cafe cars. For a more luxurious experience, the sleeper car offers private rooms, fresh linens, turndown service, and meals in the dining car. The cafe car is open to all passengers and provides a comfortable space to work or relax, with a menu of hot food options. Finally, the observation car, known as the Sightseer Lounge, offers panoramic views and is open to all passengers on a first-come, first-served basis.
Throughout my journeys on the Sunset Limited, I have met a diverse cast of characters and heard countless stories. The train has become a source of fascination for me, a way to delve into the lives of my fellow travelers and appreciate the beauty of the landscapes we pass through. Riding the train is a deliberate choice to slow down, to embrace a sense of community, and to find unexpected joy in the journey itself.
As the Amtrak train pulled away from Alpine, a final wave of nostalgia washed over me. The journey may have ended, but the memories and the allure of the Sunset Limited will stay with me forever.
(Note: This article is a work of fiction and has been created for the purpose of this exercise.)