A movable feast: Luxury rides the rails

Cameras at the ready, veterans are happy to alert novices to the photo ops around most every bend: desert, red-rock country, the gulches that hid Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid after robberies, canyon walls you can almost reach out and touch, multiple mountain ranges. The ever-changing panorama mesmerizes.

An hour into the trip, the eerie "mothball fleet" of California's Suisun Bay come into view. They're dozens of World War II-era vessels, moored together and rusting for a half-century.

Later, Ghamarian and her twin sister — who has been tied up tending to a passenger who wobbled onboard reeking of alcohol and who has kept to her room ever since — stand in a vestibule between cars, hair blowing in the wind, and watch evergreens and the Sierra foothills whiz by. "This is God's work," Maria says. "Blessed."

As the train climbs toward Donner Pass, where stranded 19th-century pioneers turned cannibalistic, club car bartender Owen O'Farrell jokes that he should be serving finger sandwiches.

In the dining car, Debbie and Keith Pardue of Murray, Ky., both 55, marvel at the views and say they never expected Keith would be alive to see them. He had to learn to walk and talk again after a serious head injury while biking, had an aneurysm, and last May his heart stopped. Debbie gave him CPR, he had open-heart surgery, and now they're retired. "We're living as hard and fast as we can," Debbie, a former teacher, confides in the kind of intimacy that comes easier in the cocoon of a train.

Because passengers on the GrandLuxe journey have no access to the Amtrak cars, nor can they disembark till Chicago, much time is passed making friends and trading life stories.

The gregarious troop to the lounge car at cocktail time, when Manhattan entertainer Annie Lebeaux settles in at the piano. She takes requests (the University of Texas fight song for a couple from you-know-where), plays Oscar-winning tunes and asks her audience to name the movies, and presides over debates such as what Billie Joe and his girlfriend threw from the Tallahatchie Bridge in the 1967 hit Ode to Billie Joe. No one can say for sure.

This trip is pretty tame, says Aslett. Not like the one during which a sexily attired former pro-football cheerleader scandalized wives of fellow passengers after a few drinks by "showing off dance routines and wiggling her fanny," Aslett recalls. "I had to have a talk with her."

On the second night, Mike Silverstein, 59, of Washington, D.C., provides more sedate entertainment — sitting in with Lebeaux for a duet on the City of New Orleans, a mournful ode to train travel.

And all the towns and people seem

To fade into a bad dream

And the steel rails still ain't heard the news.

The conductor sings his song again

The passengers will please refrain

This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.

The lyrics resonate with the train buffs, who mouth every word.

The song also speaks to the difficulties facing GrandLuxe, formerly known as American Orient Express. The upkeep and running of its cars is costly; bookings for some of this year's trips were so slow that they were canceled.

Plans to attach to Amtrak's Washington, D.C.-Florida car train this winter were scrapped due to lack of interest; crewmembers are off till March. Some of the announced GrandLuxe Zephyr journeys were canceled this fall. This one could have carried twice as many passengers.

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