The sun is setting and the viewing carriage is aglow with a ghostly light coming off the Chihuahuan Desert. Sitting beneath the curved windows it feels like I'm riding a comet through a burning sky, the clouds and desert ablaze as we scorch into the night. When lightning cleaves the heavens wine is shared, glasses raised and voices silenced, everyone spellbound by the unexpected light show.
While some trains are built for speed and others for luxury Amtrak's Sunset Limited is neither. Rather, it offers the curious traveller something more elusive, the opportunity to dip in and out of some of the most diverse and remote parts of the southern United States; crossing deserts, stopping at borderlands, skirting national parks and visiting music and art communities.
The entire five-state, 3216-kilometre journey between Los Angeles and New Orleans can be done in 48 hours. Or, do as I did and spend 10 days breaking the journey into three manageable legs and finishing in Houston.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA TO ALPINE, TEXAS – OVERNIGHT, SUPERLINER BEDROOM
"You don't need to queue," says the attendant when he notices my ticket for a Superliner bedroom. "You're a VIP and can go straight to the lounge."
And that's why, when time and schedules permit, I'll take a train over a plane any day. Apart from the lack of queues and security checks, there's the convenience of boarding from a downtown location, less stress, more luggage allowance (with virtually no chance of losing it), and good old-fashioned charm.
It's 9.30 pm when I'm shown to my room on the upper floor, where the bed has been made up, covers turned down, and towels and water bottles set out. Under the glow of the nightlight it's as cosy as the inside of a tent, with the bonus of a private shower, toilet stall and ample space for luggage. During the day the bed converts to a lounge chair, with large picture windows to enjoy the view.
Before our 10pm departure I take a walk through the carriages. Apart from those dedicated to coach seating there's a dining carriage (all meals are included with sleepers), observation lounge and a cafe car.
After a good night's sleep (thanks to jetlag and a late nightcap) I wake on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, where the landscape is soft and the sky takes over. Pushing further east we stop at small stations, lonely outposts tethered to the tracks, before rumbling into El Paso by mid-afternoon.
I spend the remainder of the afternoon in my cabin watching the ever-changing slide show – people on horseback riding through waves of yellow grass, craggy mountains clutching at clouds, timber cabins buckling under the weight of a domed sky.
In the evening I share my dining table with three single travellers, all train devotees who prefer the slow track to the fast pace of other means of travel. The dinner menu has a good selection including Black Angus steak paired with crab, seared Norwegian salmon with wild rice pilaf, thyme roasted chicken breast and butternut squash risotto. Together with a choice of desserts, bread and salad the three-course meal is adequate – more family-style than fine dining – but the sense of location is unbeatable.
Twenty-two hours after leaving Los Angeles we pull into Alpine, a ranch town and gateway to the 324,000-hectare Big Bend National Park, where the Rio Grande makes its way around the Chisos Mountains.
After a night at the Gage Hotel in Marathon I hit the road early, the sky a paint box of pinks and mauves. I've allowed three days to self-drive this little-visited corner of Texas, and while the park wins me over with its wildlife and walking trails, it's the tiny ghost town of Terlingua I fall for.
A magnet for drifters and dreamers, this long-abandoned mining town is revered across Texas (by those in-the-know) as an alternative music mecca drawing musicians from Austin and Dallas. Cloaked in rubble, pockmarked by abandoned mine shafts and strewn with derelict cars the otherworldly landscape is Fury Road meets Beyond Thunderdome – just with a better sound track.
After settling into to my adobe-style cabin I take a shortcut through the cemetery to the historic Starlight Hotel where an impromptu concert is well under way on the wide porch. "We come here to get away from the traffic jams and nonsense of Austin," says John "Woody" Wood, sipping a beer between sets. Later that night a man in a kilt plays bagpipes in the car park. "Music just happens in Terlingua," says Woody. "Last night an opera singer showed up."
ALPINE, TEXAS TO SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS – OVERNIGHT, SUPERLINER ROOMETTE
It's 9pm when I board the train for the 10-hour overnight trip to San Antonio. My roomette has already been prepared for the night with a good-sized single bed, reading light, temperature control and… not much else. The closest loo is at the end of the corridor. There's no space for my luggage and if I had a cat I wouldn't be able to swing it. But a night on a train has a rhythm of its own and arrive in San Antonio fresh and ready to explore the wide sweep of river that runs through the city.
Part of the World Heritage-listed San Antonio Missions National Historic Park, the river has benefited recently from a $US258 million restoration project. While a fleet of electric, eco-friendly barges plies the waterways, I've signed up for a morning kayaking tour.
Over the next three days I visit the Alamo, once the scene of the infamous battle during Texas' war for independence from Mexico, spend hours inside world-class museums such as the Witte and the Briscoe, and eat Flintstone-sized Texan ribs on a daily basis. All too soon the train blows through again and I'm on my way to Houston.
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS TO HOUSTON, TEXAS – DAY, COACH SEAT
It's a short, five-hour hop to Houston, so I travel by coach seat rather than sleeper. The chair reclines and with the adjustable footrest it is a comfortable option. Given that Houston is the fourth most populous city in the United States, with associated traffic jams and eight-lane highways, it is a pleasure to arrive by rail.
From Houston, it's another nine hours to New Orleans, slipping out of Texas and into Louisiana. But for me the Big Easy will have to wait for another trip; I'm leaving the train in Houston with a one-track mind – to visit the Space Centre Houston.
With 2019 gearing up for the 50-year-anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing there's plenty of new exhibits, as well as permanent exhibitions such as the Astronaut Gallery, historic Mission Control and Building 9 where research and development into Mission to Mars is well under way. Catching a glimpse of the future, after arriving on tracks from the past is a fitting end to fabulous journey.
United Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles. See unitedairlines.com
Amtrak's Sunset Limited train connects Los Angeles with New Orleans, stopping at numerous cities including Alpine; Seats with reservations start at $195 and upgrades to a superliner roomette starts from $390 per person. See railplus.com.au or call 1300 555 003
Marathon's Gage Hotel is a renovated Texan beauty from the 1920s. Rooms start from $US240 per night. See gagehotel.com
Kerry van der Jagt travelled as a guest of United Airlines, Rail Plus, Texas Tourism and Visit Big Bend.