It was tense. The Queen of Hearts was face up, next to the Ten of Diamonds. The Queen won, of course. Then the three of hearts against the five of diamonds. The five won. Back and forth it went, one win to me, the next to my opponent. When we both laid down a seven, it was all out war — that easy-peasy kids’ card game? I looked across the table and made my best child-like battle face, and like High Noon, but with playing cards instead of pistols. We placed three cards face down, the last one face up — the higher card takes all.
There we were, my bestest friend and me, in the empty dining room of the Holiday Inn in Sedona awaiting the 9 p.m. start of a star-gazing tour. With a few hours to kill after dinner in town and watching the setting sun turn the red rocks to yellow, orange, and purple, what else would two gals, born and bred in Brooklyn do but whip out the playing cards for some serious games of Spit and War. Outside, as the hours passed, the sky grew darker and darker, eventually almost full black, ideal for viewing Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, and the Milky Way. We had arrived in Sedona, Arizona after a most unique cross-country Amtrak train ride, starting at Penn Station, west to Chicago, south to Flagstaff where we off-boarded for a side trip to Sedona and Grand Canyon. One would think that was enough, but we were only just beginning. We’d get back on Amtrak in Flagstaff for the final leg to Los Angeles. After two days, pick up a rental car to bring us along the Mojave Desert to our final destination – Las Vegas – where, like Mount Everest climbers reaching the summit, we’d symbolically stab our poles into the ground just outside the Luxor Hotel & Casino.
Amtrak Rail Map, Union Station, Chicago
We set aside two weeks out of our lives, and away from our jobs to complete this bucket list journey; we gave enough notice at work, to our families, saved up for the expenses, and planned every day as best we could. It was to be a celebration of many things: birthdays, friendship, and shared interests. It was Alicia and me, two moms who met when our kids were in kindergarten, over 20 years ago, our similar temperaments, easy-going attitudes, a rich sense of adventure created a friendship that deepened over time, and when this cross-country trip started to form in my mind years before our milestone birthdays, there was only one person I’d have along with me. And to my delight, she not only agreed, but let me take the lead in the planning. The trip morphed from an RV trek to a train ride, clear across the country, from one coast to the other, with Amtrak doing the driving. It was the best part of the trip, I think, because rather than keeping up with GPS maps, driving a big rig, and having to check-in at campgrounds which may be delightful if we had wanted a true RV experience, but nah. We went the other way and as newbies to the cross-country rail experience, another benefit was added: watching state after state pass by the train car’s panoramic windows.
Here’s the rundown of our three Amtrak train rides:
Penn Station to Chicago (3 p.m. to 10 a.m. the next morning) – We had a roomette: two bunk beds, sitting area, small toilet, and sink. It was smooth, occasionally jerky on turns, so much so that Alicia had to strap herself into the top bunk for sleeping, which provided a lot of laughs on that first night. Most of the time, the gentle rocking motion of the train was enjoyable. Using the airplane-sized toilet was like a Lucy and Ethel episode.
Chicago to Flagstaff (3 p.m. to 8 p.m. the next day) – We had to take a coach seat because of an Amtrak issue. Though described as luxurious first-class airplane seats, the term “luxurious” lost its appeal a few hours into the 30-hour ride. The lights were turned off around 9 p.m., and announcements made to quiet down for the night, but that had no effect on one traveler who carried on a lengthy video chat, and a cranky toddler behind me who kicked the seat. Yes, kicked the seat. How we missed our private roomette from the night before.
Flagstaff to Los Angeles (8 p.m. to 8 a.m. the next morning) – We were thrilled to be back in our roomette again, even for the night ride to L.A. Not much to see on this blissfully quiet and “kick free” ride.
MJ (left) and Alicia celebrate milestone birthdays at the Grand Canyon, AZ
First Stop: Grand Canyon
Once we entered the National Park, we drove along the main route to the south rim parking. Though I’d been here before, this visit was just as fabulous as the first. The awesomeness of that first view stopped us in our tracks. I don’t think either of spoke. We began walking along the trail to the right as there was little point in choosing one path over another. Though there was a north rim to hike, and a south rim, it was just as easy to take the road we were already on. That was how we travelled, very much of the same mind, so little discussion was ever needed as to which way to go and how long to spend.
Along the Canyon hike, we passed tourists speaking in a variety of accents, with the level of sound so quiet, it was as if we’d been instructed to use our indoor voices. It was as peaceful a place as I’ve ever enjoyed and with water and snacks in our backpacks, we could’ve gone on like this for hours. The setting sun, and some storm clouds approaching, gave us the idea that we should return to the car for the drive to the hotel, The Red Feather Lodge, located just outside the park. But before we left, a crowd collected under a large rock formation to photograph a squirrel who’d climbed to the top and gnawed away on a snack. How sweet for the world to stop and watch this joyful bit of nature.
Thank you to Red Feather Lodge – half an hour outside Grand Canyon was a perfect location for our one-night stayover. It was centrally located and near one of the best steakhouses we’d eaten in (Big E), and a fabulous breakfast place (Foodies). The staff was especially helpful with recommendations. And, after the train ride and hike, a dip in the hot tub was the perfect ending to an eventful day.
The author wants to give a shout out to Arizona Safari Jeep Tours for a terrific Sedona Vortex tour. Sedona, AZ (Photo by Alicia D’Amico)
Second Stop: Sedona
Having lived in and around New York City my whole life, Sedona is as opposite as you can get, kind of like how I envision the planet Mars. The red rocks are magnificent, and so eye-catching from wherever we were in town, and their creation, as explained by our tour guide, Joe of Arizona Safari Jeep Tours, made my head spin. There were eight of us scheduled for a 10 a.m. jeep vortex tour. The weather was hot, probably mid-90’s, but skies were clear all around. Rather than take us on a tour of the popular seven vortex sites, he chose two which were off the beaten path and not on the tourist maps. This gave us the quiet we needed to feel for the “cosmic forces of swirling energy” that defines a vortex. We took turns holding copper rods which swirled on their own power as we stepped across the red dirt. Joe told stories of the early peoples, how the red rocks were formed, where to get the best sunset views before returning us back to town for group pictures and bottles of cold water.
We took a side trip to Jerome, Arizona, a nearby mining town built on a cliff – another recommendation by our tour guide. It’s a draw for bikers, tattoo artists, ghost hunters, and tourists with its quirky shops and views. The temperature noted on our car’s dashboard read 113. The drive was a mix of flat desert, but then a winding, hairpin drive up the mountain to where the town sat. The mountain views were beautiful, and I took photos from my passenger seat since Alicia kept her eyes peeled on the road. With no parking available in town since a biker event was in high gear, we chose a slow drive along main street to enjoy the activity. On the way back to Sedona, with some time to spare, we saw a sign in Clarkdale that read “Tuzigoot National Monument.” We’re both interested in learning more about the native peoples to these areas, so without hesitation, made the detour. With the temperatures still near 100, we kept in the shade, refilled our water bottles, and after cooling off in the park office’s AC, took the short walk to the monument. We saw the ruin of an early Pueblo, or North American Indian settlement and an example of their adobe home. It was situated high on a ridge, overlooking the Verde River, and we learned the term “Tuzigoot” is Apache for “crooked water.” The Pueblo structure was built around 1200 AD and with much of it still standing strong is testament to their building skills. Once inside the darkened structure, it was noticeably cooler, at least by 10 to 15 degrees. Ancient AC.
Thank you to the Sedona Vortex Jeep Tours – for a delightful two-hour tour of two very unique Vortex spots, not on the tourist map, but in a quieter part of town, very serene, and magical. Our host, Joe, was informative, entertaining, and really knew his stuff. Best of all, his respect for the land and its history was evident.
Third Stop: Los Angeles
The arrival in L.A. signaled the conclusion of the cross-country portion of the trip and where I ceremoniously dipped my toes into the Pacific. Our hotel was a gleaming, modern Hollywood-perfect hotel with dizzying exterior elevators, situated in the Financial District of L.A. It was also where we had the most delicious dinner either of us had, ever. Drago Centro was just a block or two away and chosen because we were hungry enough to stop at the first place we found. After the first bite of the Lo Spaghetto with its cheese and pepper sauce, we both glanced at each other and were like, “OMG.” Since we were completely high from carb overload, we opted for the high-powered dessert: Alicia chose the Cannolo (filled with ricotta, pistachio cream, and some kind of gelato), and for me, there was no question: Tiramisu – the best I’ve ever had. The waiter enjoyed each return to our table because we were completely out of our minds with delight. It was worth every penny, and we made sure to let the manager know as we left.
Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Los Angeles
There are so many places to visit in L.A., we kept to two that were near our hotel, and were of shared interest. The Academy Museum was a treasure trove of Hollywood history, memorabilia and exhibitions on directors, hair and makeup artists, casting directors, experts, and so much more. With any museum, I need to focus on one area or else I get overwhelmed, and the one exhibit we both chose was dedicated to the 50th Anniversary of The Godfather. Display after display on the making of what is considered a masterpiece included props, scripts, equipment, and costumes. It was here that I was able to pose for a picture as I pointed to the infamous HOLLYWOOD sign visible from the windows. If you squint really hard, you’ll see it.
City lights from Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles
The Griffith Observatory was a short drive away and sits on the south-facing slope of Mount Hollywood. We could not have picked the worst time of day to visit – it was nearing sunset, on a clear night, which that alone would cause a mob scene, but as we saw vendors selling Van Morrison tee- shirts, it became apparent that a concert was also about to begin at the Greek Theatre, about halfway up the hill. Inch by inch, we drove up the mountain road, looking left and right for a parking spot which we didn’t get until at the very top. At this point, we agreed that this would be a quick visit since we weren’t sure what we’d face on the drive down. Crowds filled the observatory for the upcoming night show – teenagers, families, couples, a real mix of visitors – and out on the rooftop, a long line of tourists stood waiting for a glimpse through the powerful telescopes. We ended up taking in the views of the city lights, posing for a few pics, and headed back down. Maybe we spent a half hour.
Costume display, The Godfather, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Los Angeles
Thank you to the American Museum of Motion Pictures for a morning tour of their massive exhibits of costumes; videos of infamous Oscar speeches; props from iconic movies, like the Godfather I and II; and more. It’s a spectacular salute to the movies and a definite bucket list item for movie lovers.
Fourth Stop – Las Vegas
We arrived at the Luxor Hotel and Casino late in the day, and I think we both felt a bit deflated. We’d made sure to make the most of every day and kept the brakes on as much as we could, trying to slow down time. But it had to end at some point. That next final full day was spent having a fabulous breakfast, playing the slots/tables for a while, and then going our own ways for the afternoon: Alicia to the souvenir shops, and I went to the pool. We met back up for a big dinner, then walked outside, around the hotel, people-watched a bit before heading back to the gaming tables and the flight home the next morning. It was the first time I actually felt weary, like I’d been riding on adrenaline for two weeks, and the high was starting to fade. It was to be expected, a feeling like that cannot be sustained indefinitely. I compared the trip to a great story where you have three acts: the intro, the arc, and the resolution. The intro was our planning, the arc was the trip itself, and now we were at the resolution, or where the story comes to a complete and satisfying conclusion.
We had memorable interactions with folks along the way like the one that took place on the Luxor elevator, heading down to the casino. Entering the car, we said hello to the burly gentleman, with Alicia adding, “Ready to break the bank?” To which he replied, “I already did.” He shared that he’d just hit the jackpot at one of the machines at 6 a.m. that morning. “Can you believe it?” he said. “Nobody around and here I am with the bells and whistles going off.” We asked if we could touch his upper arm for luck, to which he obliged.
We were on the road for 15 days, with each one passing as smoothly as the one before it. Looking back, it not only went as planned, but better — and except for one short cloud burst, the weather was perfect for our outdoor exploring. We enjoyed excellent meals, good sleeps, timely connections, easy hotel check-ins and car rental returns. There were interesting people on the train, some who snored away in their coach seat or spoke greeting us, trying to guess where we were from based on our apparent New Yawk accent. There were retired couples, some in wheelchairs. There were young and old, from many walks of life sharing the ride with us. All were pleasant and friendly, and when lost, they gave us great directions; when we had questions, they gave us helpful answers. There were days we just laid at the pool to enjoy a quiet afternoon, and there were times we splurged on a fancy meal, or indulged in a dessert we’d never get back home.
We took turns driving, occasionally finding ourselves on roads with hairpin turns, or long stretches with nothing but dusty desert, with easy chatter along the way. With our Brooklyn upbringing, there’s so much to cover, and holed up in a car or train for hours, we had conversations about growing up in in the borough: the schools we went to, the games we played, the teenage years, marriages, having kids and on and on. Sometimes, like a Seinfeld episode, it was about nothing. It was a precious time to not only learn more about each other, but an opportunity to look back on our lives, where each of us started and where we are now.
One aspect of the trip which may be unique to most getaways is we had no problem going off on our own. There was such freedom knowing we weren’t joined at the hip, no pressure to feel we had to tag along with each other just because we were travelling together. No explanation is needed or hard feelings if one went one way, and the other went the other way. It’s why our friendship endures. I asked Alicia not long ago what she most remembers about it — if she could say it in a few words: “Being present,” she said without skipping a beat. “We stayed present in the moment.”
What a perfect takeaway.
Then I asked, “So, where to next?”
Top photo: View from Amtrak’s panoramic windows, somewhere in the Midwest
Photos by MJ Hanley-Goff