Sunday, July 22, 2007

More Pictures of the Trip

I have posted two new galleries of photos from the trip. And, I have one more set to go.

Remember, if you want to read the entries in chronological order, you have to start at the bottom and work your way up!


Monday, July 09, 2007

Would I Do it Again? – Part I

Another 24 hours have gone by, so I best answer this question before other things interfere with my thinking.

The honest answer is yes maybe, I would do this again. But, if some things did not change or changed for the worse, I am not sure I would do it again. Here are the plusses and minuses.


  1. I got to see my sister.

  2. I got to see some incredibly beautiful parts of the country that cannot be seen any other way.

  3. I met some truly interesting, dare I say fascinating people.

  4. I got some great photos and videos,

  5. Relatively little, if any, “jet” lag.

  6. The amenities of traveling by train are far better than those in the air. They are better food, better service, more space, and places to stretch one’s legs.

  7. No anxiety. No sitting on runway for nine hours.

  8. Generally very good service from the Amtrak staff, and in some cases, excellent service.


  1. It was very expensive.

  2. This might partially because I waited so long to book the trip, and took the trip in summer, Amtrak’s busy season.

  3. It took a long time. I was actually on the train longer than my visit in OR.

  4. It was not possible to stop and spend more time in some of the locations along the way – at least not the way I booked the trip. This is possible, but I would have to see what the difference in pricing would be.

  5. “Sleeping” in the roomette is tight and bumpy. One does not really get a good sleep on the train.

  6. Restroom facilities on the train leave something to be desired.

  7. Dependable scheduling; we were off time more than we were on-time.

  8. Meeting “problem” people.

  9. Amtrak Elbow and Amtrak Legs.

Things I would do differently:

  1. Try to find a better fare by considering travel at a different time.

  2. Consider making some stops for several days along the way.

  3. Consider more time and the end destination.

  4. Consider moving up to a full size room instead of the roomette.

  5. Consider an alternate route so I can see more of the country. Several travelers I spoke to too the Zephyr to California, then took a train to Seattle and then Empire Builder back to Chicago.

  6. Bring less clothing and more pillows.

  7. Travel with others – but don’t try to share a room.

  8. Try the trip at a different time of the year.

The Final Chapter – July 8, 2007

SpongeBob Squarepants enjoying the ride on the Lake Shore Limited
I slept like the proverbial log last night at Bob’s. It was much warmer and more humid from what I have been sleeping in for the past two weeks, but I was so tired I think I could have slept through a nuclear attack.

I came out of a deep sleep at 9:55 am and climbed out of bed at 10:00. I still have my Amtrak legs, but they do not seem as bad as the day I arrived in Portland. I think my vestibular system is so overloaded it has closed down completely.

We have a leisurely morning of breakfast and conversation and then I load the car and head the last 80 miles to Augusta.

I’ve started the process of reviewing the hundreds of photos and video images that I collected on the last leg of the journey and many of them are great. I learned a few things about how to take better pictures after reviewing the set from the westbound leg, so I hope that I have more keepers in this set. One thing I also learned was that trying to take “stills” at 80 mph in a moving train is just about impossible, particularly when there is stuff moving in the foreground. It was okay for the long landscapes out in the prairies, but once we were back in the lands of trees, I stuck primarily with videos.

So, I will have to edit the videos and link some together and start posting them in chronological segments on YouTube. Stay tuned!

As for final reflections, I think I will try to decompress a bit more and then provide a post script. My head is still literally spinning, so I think I need some time to readjust and reflect.

The question most asked so far – and I expect to be asked many times in the days ahead – is whether I would do it again. And I don’t have a clear answer yet.
Perhaps the most positive part of the return voyage was a perception of time moving quickly. In fact, the last two days flew by and even the long stretches of flat countryside seemed to be flashing past more quickly. It could be the fact that I was “moving against the sun” on the return and kept losing time as we changed time zones. But maybe it is just that familiar perception of time moving too quickly when you don’t want something to end. We’ll sort that out and have sometime more to say soon.

South Station

tired puppy
Despite the late start, delays along the way, and my impatience, the Lake Shore Limited arrives in Boston South Station only 15 minutes late from its scheduled 9:45 pm arrival time. Once again the Amtrak folks have squeezed the proverbial rabbit out of the hat with this one. We had been over an hour late at one point, and somehow – mysteriously – we are almost on time. One of the passengers comments that if it arrives anytime with 12 hours of its intended arrival time, Amtrak considers it a good day.

While we make the last few miles from Framingham, I hear the people behind me talking and sounding confused about South Station, North Station and Back Bay. I enquire and learn they too are from Maine – Presque Isle, Maine. I thought I had won the prize that day for the longest trip. But theirs from LA, through the southwest, up to Chicago and then to Boston beat mine; and they still had a 10 hour drive ahead of them.

They were on their way to a hotel for the night, a bus ride to Portland at 8:00 am and then the long drive home. I kinda wished I had introduced myself earlier it might have been fun chatting with them more. But I was in a bit of a foul mood as I was expecting the train to be as much as two hours late and worried about my friend Bob having to wait for me.

I grabbed my bags from the platform and headed out to Atlantic Ave and met Bob. We were back at his house in Wells by midnight and after a beer and a little time to decompress, it was bed and dreamland for this tired puppy.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Final Stretch – I hope

Rain Man
This has always been the worse part of the journey. Not because it comes at the end when your butt is so numb you can’t feel it, but because this run is notorious in its lateness. The only other time I made this journey, we left the Albany station about two hours late, rolled down the track about 10 miles and then came to a stop. On that day it was snowing and actually quite pretty. I remembered again that line from the James Taylor song – “the Berkshires seem dreamlike…” And, indeed they were – for about 15 minutes. After 45 it was not fun and I started to calculate just how late we would arrive in Boston and whether there would be any buses left for me to take to Portland.

On the way out here 11 days ago, you will recall we were over an hour late getting to Albany and had to back up twice to let freight come through.

This time I am prepared for a long and arduous final press to Boston. And now at 6:20 we are over an hour late, have already stopped twice and backed up once.

When I got on the train there was lots of chatter as people, apparently unfamiliar with this line, were excitedly waiting for the journey to begin. When we made the first unscheduled stop, I announce, “and so it begins.” Now, having been on this train for over two hours and having not made our first stop in Pittsfield, the mood is, shall we say, more subdued.

By the way, among those on today’s train is the real Rain Man and his brother. Rain Man only looks a little like Dustin Hoffman (same costume and mannerisms) but brother is definitely no Tom Cruise. The conversations are identical to the movie and I am wondering if I am seeing some of Dustin’s research in real life. Remember Rain Man would not take an airplane. I hope to God we don’t miss Jeopardy.

Sixteen Years on the Erie Canal

The run from Buffalo to Albany is essential uneventful. There a couple of slow spots, but we manage to get in to Rensselaer only about 35 minutes late. Again, I think they figure some wiggle room in the time between some stops because at one point we were close to ninety minutes late.

I am on the north side of the car on this run and this has afforded me a better view of Lake Erie, such as it is, and some other sights I have not seen before. Most notable is a large lake (Onondaga) to the north of Syracuse. We also cross the West Canada Creek in Herkimer which runs into the Mohawk River/Erie Canal at this point. On the other hand, I miss seeing the “falls’ in Little Falls which I recall is rather nice.

I shoot some video of the LSL crossing the Hudson, this time I am pointing the camera up river. We then crawl into the station and the mad shuffle begins.

Despite my better judgment, I rush to get off the platform and up the escalator and down the second escalator to the Boston-bound train. But when I get to the top of the escalator, it is a lot more of hurry up and wait. In their wisdom, Amtrak waits to board this train until the eastbound 48 train is in the station. When we finally board, we wait some more.

Shuffle Off

the beautiful old Buffalo train station - left in ruins

I remember coming through Buffalo, New York in the early morning in my last return from Chicago on the LSL. I think they purposefully do this either late at night or early in the morning because it is so sad.

Buffalo, which once had an active manufacturing base and had capitalized on its location at the confluence of the Erie Canal and Lake Erie, has clearly seen better times. In a previous blog, I noted the diminished quality of many of the stations on the Amtrak route. As we approached the new station for Buffalo – which is actually located in the eastern suburb of Depew – we pass the stately old Buffalo station with the remains of its grand entrance, and tall clock-tower building. Most of the windows are broken out, and graffiti has ruined the rest. It is simplythe current Amtrak station for Buffalo in suburb of Depew pathetic.

It's A Grand Old Name

After my mad dash of uploads in the Metro Lounge in Union Station, I headed down to the Lake Shore Limited (LSL) around 9:15. Amtrak changed the schedule recently and the train now leaves at 10:00 pm instead of 7:00 pm. So to placate the passengers riding sleepers, they allow boarding at 8:00 pm and invite them to a wine and cheese party.

So, at 9-something, I board the eastbound LSL, stowed my stuff and head to the dining car where I am met by this red-haired lady who spoke with a bit of a brogue. I am seated with a couple from New York City who are returning from a trip to Milwaukee having attended a concert with Jon Bon Jovi. They currently live in the West Village (West Greenwich Village for you non-New York types) and this has been their first trip by train. We share war stories of NY and I regale them with my stories of Old Brooklyn.

The Village People tell me the red-haired lady is also from NY so I call out to her to find out where.

“Sunnyside,” she says.

“Where in Sunnyside,” I ask.

“Forty-turd street,” she says, her Irish now more apparent.

“Oh, my gawd, 43-09 47th Ave…?” I babble.

“You live on 43rd St.” says she.

“No, but my grandmother lived at 43-09 47th Ave.”

“That’s right up the block!”

The Village People are very impressed. “This happens to me all the time,” I tell them.

“We used to go to the White Castle, down on the corner. And you remind me of a woman who used to work there. Her name was Rose.”

“I live right across the street,” says she. “I remember, Rose. She worked there a long time ago. She’s not there any more.”

“I think she’s be about a hundred now,” I joke.

“Small world,” say the Village People.

We finish our drinks and tell the red-haired lady we will get out of her hair now. She says something about needing to get ready for breakfast.

As we pull out of the station, I tell the Village People to look out the right side and back towards the tail end of the city to see the lights of Chicago. I return to roomette eight to sleep, perchance to dream.

When I awaken we are sitting in Cleveland station. I look out and see the wind turbine making free money off of the Lake Erie breezes. I think of the red-haired lady in the dining car and realize I did not get her name.

I finally get up and it is either 6:30 or 7:30 am. I cannot remember if I reset my watch. I go looking for some coffee, but the pot in my sleeper car is apparently dead. Jose, our sleeping car attendant who looks like Biff Henderson, is nowhere to be found. So, I pull on some decent clothing and go searching for the dining car.

I am again greeted by the red-haired lady. “The Irishman is here,” she says, a tone of Irish sarcasm in her voice. She directs me to an open seat in her section.


“Please, God love ya…” I say in my best Irish. I believe I am making a new friend.

As the red-haired lady brings me my first cup, I notice her name tag; Mary - of course.

I have the French Toast and chat with a man from San Antonio and his seven year old daughter. They are heading for Utica, NY, his hometown. This is the little girl’s first trip there. We talk about snow, Maine, trains and travel; the girl tells me she has four dogs and a cat. The man has not been there in years. I wonder if he will be surprised.

The San Antonians finish and leave, and I nurse the second cup hot java. As I am about to leave, Mary reappears with a coffee-to-go. Mary can apparently read my mind. I leave her a five buck tip and tell her I’ll see her at lunch. Now I know I have made a new friend. “Tank you, love,” she says as I shuffle back to the sleeper.

Is it a coincidence that we are riding along the shores of Lake Erie? I don’t think so.


I have already blogged a brief description of our arrival into the Windy City – here are the details I left out.

Arrival in Chicago was delayed by “road work” and our encounter with the fuel leak in Havre. When we got to Milwaukee only ninety minutes late, I thought maybe we could make up that time with the “wiggle room” Amtrak leaves at the end of the schedule. But the Chicago Metra trains had their way with us and after cruising south at top speed for the first 30 miles, we came to a dead stop. Then we basically crept into Union Station apparently following two of the Metra as they made their rush hour returns to the city. This is another example of where America needs to make a decision about rail. Either we have an efficient passenger rail system, or we don’t. This half-way business is a lot of crap.

The problems with passenger rail apparently were created when the national highway system and then air travel became the predominant way Americans moved about the country. The freight trains then took over the rail and only kept track they met their needs.

When Amtrak was established something like 30 years ago, they tried to co-exist with the freights. But in many cases, the freights own the track and their rules give priority to freight traffic over passengers. This is grossly evident on the Albany to Boston run where the track is now owned by CSX and a 200 mile run often takes 6-7 hours. If any other transportation system was run this poorly the consumers would be up in arms. Wait, check that. The airline industry in now just as bad and people put up with it. Ugh.

Anyway, we finally made it to Chicago where I was met by Cousin Ralph and had a wonderful, albeit brief visit. We have started initial planning for a family adventure next summer.

Thank you Cousin Ralph for a wonderful dinner and visit!

Friday, July 06, 2007

Just more photos

Editor's Notes - II

I am adding these last few entries from the Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago's Union Station. The Red Caps have been kind enough to re-boot the wireless router so I can get better connectivity. The Lounge is relatively empty as the folks with sleepers on the Lake Shore Limited were able to board at 8:00 PM. So, this is a quick update with little in the way of links and photos. I will re-edit them when I get home in two days and post.

But I have taken the time to update these blog entries for my fan club to be able to follow the progress across the country. Unfortunately, I have not had the time to take all of the most recent photos off of the camera and put them in the blog. I have some great clips including the adding of the final coach car in St. Paul this morning and the Empire Builder's return to Chicago.

This evening, we arrived in Chicago about two hours late. We apparently lost time during the night due to "track repair" and this put us out of sequence with other traffic. So we were fairly late coming into the Windy City at about 6:20.

Cousin Ralph met me at the station and took me to a wonderful restaurant down in the Loop and got me back in time to post these entries. I could easily spend hours here doing this and checking e-mail. But I will go to the train now and update the rest in about 48 hours.


Last Day on the Empire Builder

We are now in Wisconsin speeding toward the City of Beer. I retook pictures of the Wisconsin Dells and the Mississippi River from LaCrosse to Red Wing to make up for the set that somehow got lost. Unfortunately, at this time of day, the light is not as dramatic and, although still beautiful, the pictures are not as nice as the ones taken last week.

In St. Paul we picked up another coach car and an abundance of new passengers. Along the way I continue to be amazed by the numbers of people who board and exit the train in all these little and big towns. I wonder if Amtrak may in fact be the only public transportation in some of these locales. In any case, it is clear the Empire Builder is more than a way of getting from coast to coast.

I skipped the dining car lunch again today and enjoy another Hebrew National hot dog in the club car.

Where the Deer, the Antelope and the Train Buffs Play

Yesterday morning, early, as we were making our way to Whitefish I was overjoyed to see so many deer out grazing in the small meadows adjacent to the track. I started counting and was up to six deer before we hit Whitefish. I was impressed by the size and good coloring of the animals assured this was a great place for deer to live.

The “deer” on the other side of the Rockies did not look so healthy, or so I thought. As we passed Browning on the way to Cut Bank, I noticed quite a few more creatures that were lighter in color and smaller in size.

At lunch, the guy that looked like Jimmy Carter suggested the “deer” I had been counting might actually be antelope. Indeed, we passed one at that very moment and it was confirmed that these creatures with the “fuzzy horns” were antelope.

So the count is all mixed up, but by dusk I was up to 16 creatures.

Throughout the trip there have been other kinds of “wildlife” along the rails. These are the “train buffs” who appear in all shapes and sizes and venture out whenever the Empire Builder comes to town. I’m sure “train buff” is an offensive term to them – similar to calling Star Trek fans “trekkies instead of the preferred “trekers.” Perhaps the correct term is “railroad enthusiasts,” so I will refer to them as RE’s.

The RE’s are everywhere, small towns, and large cities, at stations and at crossroads. Some come with cameras, some come with small children, and some come solo. But they are out there all the time. We just left Minneapolis/St.Paul and I saw a guy pulled over by the side of a busy highway, clicking away. In Albany on the way out, there was an entire video crew made up of college kids who were making a documentary. I offered my services for an interview, but was declined. In East Glacier there was an Asian man who had set up a large expensive camera and tripod on the platform and was wildly clicking away as the train pulled out of the station.

And, at literally hundreds of smaller stations and crossing gates along the route, cars could be seen filled RE’s anxious to see the train.

When we were kids at Point O’Woods, the New Haven Railroad passed nearby. At a place we called Little Beach, the rails sat on an elevated causeway next to the beach. This open area gave us the opportunity to see the train coming from a distance and jump up in time to wave.

Even though they still had passenger trains in those days, we mostly were interested in waving to the engineer – who in my mind always waved back. And he always blew his horn as he passed. We thought he was blowing it just for us, but as I got older, I realized the engineer was blowing the horn because of an unguarded crossing on that stretch of track.

Several years ago I was lucky enough to ride the high speed Acela train from Boston to Washington. I was most excited at the opportunity to pass Little Beach on this trip but was disappointed by the fact that at 100+ mph – the speed the Acela makes on that run – Little Beach was nothing more than a blur. I’m not sure the engineer blew his horn, but I am sure that any little kid standing on the beach would still be waving; even if we couldn’t see him.


Stanley must be the golfing capital of the North Dakota. As we cross into ND from Montana we are now in the western most section of the Central Time Zone. Similar to the coast of Oregon, the sun sets here very late. I think it was close to 10:00 pm when we made our stop in Stanley just under two hours late. The sun was just setting and when we left the station we passed a rather splendid looking golf course adjacent to the rail. There teeing up were two guys and another foursome could be seen on the adjacent hole. I’m not sure if I was impressed by the fact that there were so many people out golfing at dusk as much as the fact that they were golfing at almost ten o’clock at night. Those farmers!

Did I tell you there was a golf course at the Lodge in East Glacier?

The Woman Who Came to Dinner

I met some nice people at the wine tasting this afternoon. One was a teacher from Orlando, FL who looks like a young version of my friend Betty J. The other couple are from a small town in north central PA – I think they said Wellsboro. I had never heard of it. They indicated it was north of Williamstown and is known for its Victorian houses. Three years ago they purchased one of these old Victorians which they are now restoring. They travel a great deal on Amtrak and have seen a lot of changes. They tell us that the Empire Builder is trying to win back business by improving service, but apparently it is still a far cry from the golden days. They have gotten on in Albany so we will be seeing a lot of each other.

I chose the 5:00 pm dinner reservation which is listed as 6:00 pm because we are supposed to be in Central Time by then. I meet a couple from Mississippi and am looking forward to a leisurely dinner getting to know these people. But guess who shows up and ruins it.

Mrs. Landingham again dominates the conversation with all of her worldly knowledge and her insatiable need to impress the Mississippi folk. They are a sweet couple who are making their first trip. I think it must be their first trip out of Mississippi and the poor things clearly suffer from a poor education. The wife does most of the talking and is in awe of pretty much everything she has seen on the trip. I feel good that they are out there doing things, but Mrs. L is starting to embarrass them. There is a conversational thread that centers on the settlement of various ethnic groups in Arizona where Mrs. L lives. She notes that “Basques have settled there” and the Mississippi people think she is talking about “bass.” It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so cruel, particularly when she asks the woman if she ever reads.

We can’t get to Minneapolis fast enough. Mrs. Landingham is getting off there. If not, I’m throwing her off.

Hello SpongeBob

I spoke with Mary while waiting in Havre. She is doing good and following my progress back across the country on her map. She took time this morning to view all of the photos and video I left on her computer. She thinks the videos are great. I told her I plan to edit them together when I get home. Perhaps it will be a PBS documentary.

Good news and Bad News

The announcement was just made that Mr. Amtrak Mechanic has successfully fixed the leak and we will soon be on our way; emphasis “soon.” The announcer says something about having trouble starting the same engine. I joke that we may have to all get out and push. There is something about things coming in threes and this is the third things.

The bad news – we’re now one hour late.

Mrs. Landingham Strikes Again

I told you earlier about the old biddy who I had breakfast with and how she liked to tell tales about her trying experiences riding the rails. Well about an hour ago we arrived in Havre, MT a little ahead of schedule. I was in the dining car enjoying the conversation with three seniors, two of whom are retired teachers, and one that could be Jimmy Carter’s twin, when the train arrived in Havre. I noted that we were schedule to arrive around 1:15 and would have a half hour here at this coaling station.

When I noticed the freight train to our left leaving in our direction about 10 minutes before we were scheduled to leave, I remarked that I hoped we didn’t get behind him. Round of laughs. But when the time for our departure came and went, my antenna went up.

I heard the ominous announcement as I was heading back to my sleeper car. Apparently we have sprung a leak somewhere in the fuel system and have to wait for repairs. Carl our able attendant indicated it was supposed to be a half hour and now it’s up to an hour. That was a half hour ago and we are still gracing Havre with our presence. I probed Carl for more information with carefully scripted questions to get a sense of how serious this all might be. He made some comment about cars, planes and buses. I hope he is kidding.

As I reenter the sleeper, I see Mrs. Landingham heading for the shower.


There are not enough superlatives to describe the magnitude of Glacier National Park. I’ll spare you the travelogue description but just say that waking up and eating breakfast on the Empire Builder in the Flathead region is something everyone must do at least once.

It is clearer today than last Thursday when we came west through here. I am on the same side of the train so I am seeing the same terrain, yet it looks completely different. Presently, we are between Essex and East Glacier and still climbing. A stark brown ridge is to the west gathering the direct angle of the morning sun and above. The contrail of an eastbound jet is visible in contrast to the deep blue sky.

Early this morning I woke when the train made an extended stop in Libby, MT. It was 5:30 MT – 4:30 Pacific Time - and the bright sky was already starting to fill the sleeper. We appear to be exactly on time. I felt the train pull in and stop in Spokane sometime past 1:00 am. When the power was turned off to hook us up to the Seattle train, the sudden quiet lulled me to sleep. So, I am operating on only about four hours of sleep and they were not my “beauty sleep.”

It always takes me a night or so to get used to a new bed, and despite the fact that I haven’t lost my Amtrak Legs, I did not find sleep easy to come by.

The most exciting thing to happen today – so far – was the ride through what I believe is the Flathead Tunnel. For a few moments I thought we were accidentally transported to the NYC Subway tracks. I climbed to the upper deck to get my morning java and decided to occupy my rear window perch for a few minutes while I sucked down the warm juice. I had just arrived on station when the lights went out. I thought it was a bit odd when I suddenly saw a lighted sign with the number 19 on it and the evidence of a ventilation tunnel and what appeared to be an emergency exit. These numbered signs continued to appear once every 50 seconds. So, by the time we got to sign number 16, I knew this was going to be a long time under the ground. Indeed this was a two-cupper as I was able to return to the coffee pot and suck down a second cup, all the while underground. In all we were probably only in the tunnel for about 15 minutes though it seems a lot longer. I can only imagine the confusion of the passengers who awaken at that time, looking out and seeing the stark blackness.

Despite the early hour, I decide it is a good idea to get to the dining car now. You will recall that the leg from Portland to Spokane is sans dining car, so I took this opportunity to check out the new chow house.

Fortunately, there are not too many early diners and I join two people. The first is a woman who I shall call Mrs. Landingham, because she reminds me of the character on The West Wing who played the President’s secretary. She has a bit of that matter-of-fact style of personality and the same pixie haircut. She boarded in Pasco last night and looks like she will be a handful. When she boarded, she made sure Carl the attendant knew she was to have an extra blanket in her sleeper. I also heard her tell him that she wanted her feet facing the front of the train in case we crashed. After she boarded, the head conductor came down to tell Carl the same thing. Mrs. Landingham has apparently been rather vocal about her needs.

Our other breakfast guest was a Coastie on his way from Seattle to Camp Lejeune, NC. I thought by his appearance that he was a Marine as he was sporting a cap that said Port Townsend covering his tight crew cut. But he corrected me and explained he was on his way to Lejeune for advanced “tactical boat driving.” Sounds like fun.

Coastie is riding in coach and talked about how he will be making this trip again in a few months with the rest of his family. I am shocked to learn he has four kids; he looks about 20 years old; must be all that fresh air.

Mrs. L had to have the last word in most of the conversation; I think I will be avoiding her. She did indicate that she travels frequently by Amtrak and proceeded to detail the various mishaps she’s had traveling by train. Now, I really want to stay away from her.

Just before 10:00 am we are in East Glacier and about to leave the park. The Lodge from this perspective is quite beautiful and I’m thinking this might be a great place for a vacation. Perhaps we should arrange for a SpongeBob and Patrick reunion here?

With my ears now popping we have passed Browning and are again descending to the high plains. Carl has just announced that there will be a wine and cheese tasting event at 3:00 pm and we need to sign up. I suspect the family of Amish/Mennonites that are in the sleeper across the aisle from me will take a pass on the wine. I only hope Mrs. L does too.

Passing Pasco

The Portland branch of the Empire Builder is rather empty. I chose this date to start my return to Maine based upon an expectation that not many people would want to travel on the 4th of July – I am apparently correct in my assumption.

After dinner, an interesting and delicious cold salad plate with slices of roast beef and a teriyaki glaze, complimented with a small fruit salad, biscuit and chocolate torte, I make my way to the observation lounge for more viewing. There are some beautiful scenes including a cascade (Bridal Veil?) across on the Oregon side of the river, but I can’t get the camera clicked fast enough to capture the beauty.

As was the case on our inbound trip, the change of vegetation color is dramatic. But unlike that trip, the river and the banks are now filled with people. On many of the small islands that appear to be nothing more than sand banks and eddies, dozens of boats have landed and their occupants taken over the beach to bath in the water and sun. There are many large fishing boats and dozens of personal watercraft buzzing around the river.

Along the shore line I notice numbers of trucks with campers that have found that special place for a 4th of July cookout and some fishing. Some of these camping spots are nothing more than a small grassy knoll between the rails and the water; I wonder how they found this spot and more importantly how they managed to get their vehicles perched on these narrow points of land.

With time, the sun gets lower and now moves from over our right shoulder to over our left. We have started to make the broad turn following the river as she moves north and then teases us briefly with a short western jog. I take my last look at Oregon and watch as the orange sky turns to many shades of purple and red. I calculate our position as just outside of Pasco, the place where five days ago we crossed the Columbia for the first time. I look to the south west and think of my sister now about 200 miles away.

The light on the horizon is fading fast as we make our way across the bridge into Pasco. The conductor had announced when we boarded that we might be able to see some fireworks in Pasco, but it is still not quite dark enough.

Pasco is one of the smokers’ stops so I take the opportunity to get out and stretch my legs. The air is still very hot, but feels good as I watch a small army of passengers head toward the train. The Pasco station is one of the newer ones on the line, but it sits near a neighborhood with some tired little houses and trailers. As we sit in the station taking on our new passengers, a few bottle rockets suddenly pop-up from that neighborhood. I think that these be the only fireworks I will see this 4th.

Within minutes of leaving Pasco we are back to dry open prairie land. I can make out the occasional farmhouse on the ridge off in the distance, the silhouette of an irrigation tower off to the north. We have turned north east and heading for high country.

Saying Goodbye to Mount Hood and Oregon

The Empire Builder picks up speed as it leaves Vancouver, WA. I vary my positions in the train trying to capture as much as I can. It is a stunning ride up the valley past hundreds, if not thousands of pleasure craft, their occupants enjoying everything the river can offer on this hot afternoon.

The sun starts to make her descent toward the Pacific and soon the shadows are growing longer. The hot air is crystal clear and, unlike our westbound arrival, we have clear views of Mount Hood as we ascend into the higher land. Passing Hood Valley, the mountain is resplendent in shape and size. I am now the closest as I will be on this trip. And as the miles stretch into hours Hood can still be seen but growing more distant and obscured as the cliffs of the Columbia Gorge steepen.

Somewhere past Wishram, WA, I lose sight of the mighty mountain altogether. I’m very, very sad.

Heading Home

The morning sun fills my room when I open the curtains at 7:50 am. I am getting acclimated to Pacific Time and waking at a time closer to my norm. I decide we need some real coffee this morning, not the stuff you make in the diminutive coffee pot they have placed in the room. It is the only part of the Homewood Suites that is less than satisfactory. I mean, if two or four people are staying in this suite how are you supposed to manage with a coffee pot that only make two cups?

I let Mary sleep in and fetch two BIG cups of coffee from the bottomless pot in the lobby. I also bring back the local paper, The Oregonian and read it cover to cover. Mary rises around 9:00, too late to get the free breakfast, and we decide to pack up and leave around 11:00.

Returning to Mary’s apartment, I spend the several hours doing laundry and watching the SpongeBob Squarepants Movie – first time for me, second for Mary. It is very silly and we laugh openly, most of the jokes would go over the head of a young child.

At 3:30 pm, Mary announces it’s time to leave. Sadly, we pack up the remaining pieces of my detritus stuffing everything into one of the three bags I am carrying.

We drive to Downtown Portland taking the scenic route over the mountain that Mary takes to work. This circuitous route takes us through a delightful park and winds through some hairy turns that would be a real challenge in bad weather. We soon descend into a series of pretty, affluent neighborhoods in Northwest Portland, past fancy restaurants and eventually to our destination, Union Station.

I am hoping to have some time to soak in the final minutes in Portland, but time is now moving too fast. I take some last minute photos of the station – a grand lady with a feel of the Old West and a fitting terminus for a train called The Empire Builder. I will have to research more information about Union Station when I get access on-line again. And I want to come back here and spend more time soaking in its history and warmth.

We go to the Metropolitan Lounge, the special area for those traveling First Class in the sleepers. The attendant announces that the train will boarding in a few minutes and I ask if there is time to buy some souvenirs in gift shop. Time is now in hyper speed and I am tense with the fear of missing the train even though I know I have 30 minutes left.

We drop the bags and then go to the gift shop for some final mementoes of Portland and Oregon; gifts for my neighbors who have been caring for my plants and a final present for Mary.

A few more photos, hugs and kisses and waves; I make the walk around to the train and look back one more time.

The Empire Builder leaves exactly on time. I am again in the last car although this time on the lower deck. I ask Carl, our attendant if it is okay to stand by the back window and take some photos as we leave the station. He says it is fine and I once again take my perch at the second best seat on the train.

I run the video on the camera and capture the scene of Portland as it is disappearing in the view finder. As we start to cross the Willamette River my cell phone rings and it’s Mary. She is already home and we are both sad that our time together was all gone. She wants me to come back at Christmas; indeed she would like me to move permanently to Portland; an interesting proposition.

We make some small talk and I describe the ride as we continue across the Columbia into Vancouver. We say good bye again and I promise to call her again tomorrow. I’m very sad.

Last Night’s Ceremonies

We have a tradition in our family that on the last day of our summer vacation, we celebrate with the “last night’s ceremonies.” This goes way back to my time as a child when the family, Mom, Dad, and sisters Sigrid and Mary, would travel to a place called Point O’Woods (POW) near South Lyme, Connecticut. The annual vacation was almost always during the last two weeks of August and always at POW.

The last night ceremonies were not preplanned and generally consisted of a special cookout dinner and maybe a fire in the fireplace. In those days, the trip to the Connecticut shore from New York City was an arduous one. Schlepping three small kids was probably not a joy, and the 3-8 hour drive likely shortened both my parents’ lives.

To us, the summer vacation was a magical experience. There were new clothes to wear, new toys and activities and of course the beach which the whole family loved and where we spent many happy hours during the two week sojourn.

So it was not surprising when sister Mary suggested that we go out for a special dinner on my last night in Portland. We were to go to a restaurant called Macaroni Grill and be joined by one of Mary’s good friends and co-workers Kirsten.

The last day in Portland was rather low-keyed. Mary had a dentist appointment at 10:30 and while she was there, I brought her new Toyota in for its first oil change. Some how Mary has only accumulated 4,000 miles on an automobile she bought in December. My matching Toyota, which I purchased in August, already has about 18K on it.

Anyway, I found the “Expresso Lube” just up the block from the dentist office and pulled in. Now, I’ve been to a lot of “jiffy-lube” type places over the year, and the one back home that I have frequented the most is pretty nice, but this one was unbelievable. It probably does not come as a surprise to some of you – maybe you have figured it out from the name – but this lube place has an espresso bar in the waiting area. So while, Mary’s car was enjoying a oil change, John was enjoying a blueberry muffin and fine coffee. Also, unlike any lube place I’ve been to before, this one had a gift shop and free wi-fi.

After the oil change and Mary’s dental appointment, we had lunch and then headed down to Mary’s pool for a refreshing afternoon in the water. The temperature was in the high eighties, but the air out here is very dry, particularly in the afternoon. I know that old nugget about “dry heat,” but indeed it was still rather comfortable. We pretty much had the use of the pool to ourselves, although a few other residents of the development came and left.

At around three we left and I returned to my hotel for a quick shower and to get dressed for the special evening.

Returning at 4:30, Mary’s friend had already arrived and we were soon on our way to the Macaroni Grill. The restaurant is located in Hillsboro, a suburb of Portland, just west of Mary’s location. This a trendy area with lots of modern shops and restaurants located in small urban-like streets. The layout was described as “very California” with the whole area taking on the feel of a small town.

The Macaroni Grill was nice and the food was very good. The waiter, who looked about 12 years old, was a bit too attentive and seemed to hover in at all the wrong times. This is apparently a very busy place so perhaps they were trying to move us in an out swiftly before the onslaught. I think we finished dinner in less than an hour.

The ladies and I then went to Bed, Bath and Beyond so I could buy a travel pillow for the return voyage and when had some laughs at a party shop next door. But the real fun of the evening was yet to come.

When Mary was sick and in the hospital a few weeks ago, I filled up a goodie bag and mailed it to her to assist in her recovery. One of the “presents” was the SpongeBob Squarepants Monopoly Game. So this evening – in true last night’s ceremonies style - a wild and intense game of SBS Monopoly would take place with lots of inappropriate silliness, screaming and laughter ("Treasure Chest!!!!"). It is always good to end a vacation with lots of laughter.

For the past five nights I have been staying at the Homewood Suites near Mary’s house. This has been a very luxurious experience with a suite with two bedrooms, kitchen and living room. Mary has stocked the kitchen with food and drink and I have only put a small dent in the supplies. As part of my final night in Portland, Mary comes over to stays. It’s been a warm day – in many ways – and tomorrow, the 4th of July, is supposed to be very hot with temps in the 90s. Mary and I enjoy the comfort of the air conditioned space and not having to make beds in the morning.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Mountains, Lakes and Volcanoes

Monday we spent most of the day driving up into the mountains of southern Washington to visit a spot that Mary believes is the most beautiful in the world.

Lake Merwin is really a chain of man-made lakes located on the Lewis River east of Woodland, WA. The lakes were created by damning the river for the purpose of hydroelectricity production. The area is now owned by Pacific Power and the company maintains several access points to the lakes allowing boating, picnicking and some camping.

The region is south and west of the famed Mount St. Helens, the active volcano that “blew” in 1980 and caused significant death and destruction. I was last here in 1982, a short time after the eruption and at that time the ground was still littered with inches of dark grey ash and the fallen trees. Trees up to three feet in diameter were mowed down by the pyroclastic explosion. In 1982 we were only able to get within 30 miles of the epicenter, but the destruction even that far away was massive.

The area we are traveling this day is south and west of the blast zone, and although affected by the eruption, did not apparently see the devastation that occurred just to the north. I’ve posted some pictures of the Speelyai Bay Recreation Area which can do more than any words from me.

After Speelyai Bay, we continued east on Rt 503 toward Cougar. We stopped at Yale Lake to take some close up images of Mt. St. Helens which is snow-topped and partially obscured by clouds and a small steam vent. Yale Lake is stunning and reminds me of pictures I’ve seen of the Alps in Austria; I feel like yodeling.

Just before Cougar we see a road pointing toward Merrill Lake and decide a detour is in order. We find ourselves climbing quickly from the valley floor and read some ominous road signs about watching out for logging trucks. We are soon looking down on Yale Lake and surrounding countryside from an altitude that must be in the thousands of feet. This is a partially developed paved road, but there are no guardrails and it is quite spooky.

Soon the road turns more to the north and deep into a high growth forest. We start to wind down again and are rewarded with a sight of Merrill Lake. There are some camp sites in the area and a small boat launch. We watch as a father and son team of fishermen launch what looks like a dory. They tell us that this is the time of the year when a particular fly is abundant and the fishing is hot. There are several other small kayaks and canoes on the lake.

Merrill Lake is apparently one of the few lakes on Mt. St. Helens that was spared her violence. The lake was probably affected in some way, but looks clean and vibrant now.

We retrace our route down the winding forest road and to Rt 503. Now heading north we return to Woodland, the interstate and eventually to Portland. Mary is tired from the busy day and we have an early evening.

Comments welcome and Updates

Not sure why some of you have not been able to get your comments to post. They do need to be approved by me before they will appear. This prevents spam and bots from posting junk. So far every comment I have received have been posted.

BTW, I appear to have either lost one of my memory chips or have accidentally erased about 80 images including all those taken around Chicago and up through Wisconsin. I'll keep looking, but I'm not too hopeful.

The good news is that I am leaving tomorrow on my return to Maine. I will make sure I take pictures of the same stretch; although I lost some great images of sunset on the Mississippi near LaCrosse, WI that were quite spectacular.

I will also finish my blog entries of our road trip yesterday up to the base of Mount Saint Helens.

Stay tuned...


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Just Photos

Mary's pool - Portland
Mary at Lake Merwin - her favorite place in the world

I have enclosed a few pix from the trip so far. Use your mouse over the image to see tagging about the image.Mustard growing in North Dakota
Wells Station where the journey began
Mt. St. Helens up close

SpongeBob on The train

Mt. St. Helens in the distance

Monday, July 02, 2007

Fun and Games in Portland, OR

Sister MaryI haven’t seen my sister Mary for two years since she last traveled East and we spent 10 days traveling in Maritime Canada. So, my time here is pretty low-key with easy days and relaxing evenings. It’s time to just visit.

My body is still moving with the action of the train and last night when I woke at about 2:30 am, I was certain I was back on the Amtrak. I guess the Amtrak legs effect lasts more than 24 hours. I’ll probably get my land legs around 4:30 Wednesday when I am re-boarding the Empire Builder.

So far my sister and I have made the tour of beautiful downtown Portland including stops at Powell’s Books and Everyday Music. I have restocked reading materials and music for the ride home even though I didn’t really read that much on the train. But as I mentioned earlier, I did not have that much time to install music on my new Zen before leaving home, so I have added two classical and two new age albums to the set. One is George Winston’s “Plains” album. We’ll have to see if that makes North Dakota any more palatable on the return run.

One of the high points in Portland for any visitor is the world renowned International Rose Garden located in Washington Park. I have visited this place before – 23 years ago – but it is still magnificent. The weather on Saturday, the day of our visit, was perfect; temps in the mid 70s and clear blue skies. We packed a picnic lunch and enjoyed it on a bench surrounded by acres of fresh roses. I have included some photos.

I’m not sure if it is the weather, the longitude or just the locale, but the color and clarity seem particularly intense here. Perhaps it’s my polarized sun glasses? Has someone been spiking my food?

On Sunday, we have a lazy day of watching videos and doing laundry. In the evening we visit one of Mary’s friends over on the east side of Portland near where she used to live. Debbie is one of Mary’s oldest friends in Portland and they used to work together at the Oyster Bar downtown. Debbie and her mother Lois are also the head cookie chefs at the annual Christmas Cookie Extravaganza that results in the baking of over 3,000 cookies of all varieties and sizes. If you are on the short list you will get a batch for Christmas. Despite it being early July, I am rewarded with a tin of butterscotch chip cookies – yum!

Oyster Bar in Portland, ORDebbie’s husband Jeff is the barbeque chef for the evening and we dine in the backyard surrounded by friends and family. We find time and many things to laugh about; a nice relaxed ending to a nice relaxed day.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

SpongeBob Squarepants and Patrick Meet in Union Station

I am not able to get a Verizon Wireless signal (only roaming) until almost Vancouver, but sister Mary (alias SpongeBob) calls around 8:00 am and tells me (alias Patrick) the train is supposed to be coming in early at 10:05 am (scheduled for 10:45). I have now figured that one of the ways Amtrak is able to keep on schedule is by faking some of the numbers and adding some wiggle room. The long stops in Minneapolis, Fargo, Havre and Spokane can be shortened to make up for lost time and they add an extra 40 minute to the time it is supposed to take to get from Vancouver, WA to Portland, OR which is just across the river. When we get to Vancouver, the conductor announces we will be in Portland in 20 minutes, we arrive in 15 – customers are happier this way, I suppose.

Soon the skyline of Portland is in view. Coming through The Dalles and Hood River, the clouds had parted and the sun was blinding as it reflected off the wide Columbia. Coming into Portland, the sky was again overcast and we have be hit by a few showers. This throws my sense of direction all off so although I know I am looking at Portland, in my mind it is in the wrong place. After three and a half days of rocking back and forth, I think my brain may be a little frazzled.

But before I know it, Union Station is looming before me and we have reached our final destination.

Feeling a bit like a kid coming home from camp, I am torn between engaging my fellow travelers one last time to exchange some final pleasantries and a burning desire to get to meet my family. I say some final goodbyes and particularly thank Juice, our sleeping car attendant who really was a great addition to the trip.

As I drag my bags across the tracks in front of Union Station, I see my sister Mary waiting for me in front. Hugs and kisses, it’s like coming home.

Union Station in Portland, OR is one of the gems of the American rail system. Not quite restored, it retains many of the old accoutrements of its former glory, and has almost a museum feel to it. Many of the great stations have been modernized on the inside and retain that old glory in the larger spaces, but here in Portland, things look very much like the way they probably did a hundred years ago. When I leave in five day, I will have to take more pictures and explore the station more.

Sister Mary whisks me off in her new Toyota Camry Hybrid and we are soon on the freeway heading toward the Hilton Homestead Suites where I will have an apartment-sized room for the extent of my stay.

After a shower and shave, we head down to Elmer’s for a mid-day breakfast and chit chat. As I sit in the booth, the room is still moving. If I had just gotten off a boat, I would call it “sea legs.” In this case it’s Amtrak Legs!

Morning Has Broken – Passing Pasco

I slept the best this night and vaguely remember stopping in Spokane at about 3:00 am. What I remember was, there were a lot of lights and I reached over and pulled the drapes. The train also was disconnected here with the front of the train (including the dining car) heading to Seattle and the back of the train - including the club/observation car and me - going to Portland. This unlinkage resulted in about 30 minutes of complete silence. The electric is apparently turned off when the train disconnects and, in the newfound silence, I again returned to deep sleep.

At about 5:00 am – I think I was still in Mountain Time – I looked out the window and again saw nothing but flat open plains. For a moment I was startled and wondered if we had returned to Montana, but remembered that western Washington and Oregon is very dry and very flat.

Dozing on and off, I finally got out of bed at 6:30 MT – 5:30 PT. I got dressed and went in search for some coffee. The barrel was pretty empty and there was just a thick syrupy residue in the pot. I poured it anyway and added some bottled water cream and sugar figuring this might be all I’d get. I recalled our attendant Juice, indicated it was a long night for him with little sleep since they had to be awake when the train arrived in Spokane. The train was pretty quiet; I think it might have been me and the engineer who were the only ones awake. However, when I turned and walked down the hall I noticed a new face, a woman sitting in the first cabin. She must have boarded in Whitefish or Spokane. She was sitting up looking tired and annoyed.

Returning to my roomette I finished my coffee concoction and watched as the countryside began to accumulate indications of civilization. First a few houses, then garages and small businesses and eventually a town would appear. This next one looked a bit substantial since there was an airport, an airport large enough to have a radar tower which I could see spinning out on the plain. Minutes later we were in Pasco, the proverbial gateway to the Columbia River Gorge. I reset my watch to Pacific Time and was amazed that we were just about 10 minutes off scheduled.

The sky was overcast as we left the station and slowly made our way over a bridge and the Columbia. The river comes in from the northwest at this point and then makes a sharp turn to the south and then west and drops down into the land creating a rather spectacular gorge. I remember this location from my 1982 trip and know it will be spectacular – the camera is out and I am snapping away.

The gorge, I suppose, has been there for millennia. The sandy rocks that make up the shore line are brown and covered with wisps of yellow grass – it is very dry here in the high plateau. The refreshing and life-giving moisture of the Pacific has already been squeezed out of the air by the time it reaches this place, and the contrast of water and semi-arid plateau is remarkable. But I know the road ahead will be moist and beautiful.

At 7:00 am Juice is up and apologizing. Fresh coffee made, he starts to make up beds. Many of my compatriots have headed to the club car for their cold breakfast. The Amtrak folks warned us that since the dining car was going off to Seattle there would only be cold breakfast for us. So, I decided to skip it and continue my vigil for great scenery with Kodak in hand. I am not disappointed and take many shots of the river with its barges, dams and locks and the occasional bridge. At times the river disappears from view as we duck behind some rock formations and each time it reappears it gets prettier. Soon the vegetation has become more abundant and slightly greener and within a few hours it is lush and vibrant.

The train is routed down the north side of the gorge and you can see a small highway to our left. Across the river you can see semis and large vehicles heading down Interstate 84. We make some stops along the gorge and according to my calculations we are now about 20 minutes late.

Some of the most spectacular viewing is between The Dalles (Wishram, WA) and Portland. By now the train is surrounded by the lush green pines of the Pacific Northwest. We’re almost there.

Wine Tasting at 80 mph and Juice

Amtrak obviously likes to keep the folks in the sleeper cars happy. We are, after all the “First Class” passengers, and we are treated to some amenities that the coach passengers are not. One of these was a special event at 4:00 pm on the second day.

Somewhere in the middle of Montana the public address system announced that those passengers in the sleeping cars who have “signed up for the special event” should make their way to the dining car. The chatter in the hallway of the sleeping car is the same – “what event?”
Juice appears to tell us there is a wine and cheese tasting event set up just for us; he has signed us all up.

Like a class full of fifth graders we cheerfully make our way to the front of the train as though on a class outing. At the dining car where we are greeted by Jen – the dining car steward to directs us to our seats where we are presented with a platter full of various cheeses and cups to sip wine.

In classic form Jen announces the names and descriptions of each of four wines: a chardonnay, a chemin blanc, and merlot/cabernet blend and a shiraz. All are wonderful as are the selection of cheeses which include a gouda, two kinds of cheddar and a blue cheese. The wines are all from Washington and the cheeses are from Minnesota.

I am sitting with a couple from Chicago who are a few of doors down from me. We have said hello to each other throughout the trip but now get more familiar. He works for a rail company “on freights” and she is a teacher in Cicero. The other gentleman at our seat is a retired engineer from the Midwest who worked for Caterpillar. The couple across the way is also from the Midwest and he is a retired executive that worked for Lincoln/Mercury. We talk about wine, automobiles, trains and gas mileage.

After the sips of wine have been consumed, Jen has a quick raffle and I win the rest of the bottle of the Chemin Blanc which I gleefully take back to my room. Needless to say I am a wee bit tipsy after this and walking through the moving train is now all the more interesting.

Juice is our sleeping car attendant who has been skillfully taking care of us since leaving Chicago two days earlier. Unlike, Coco, the attendant on the sleeper from Albany to Chicago whom we never saw until the end of the trip, Juice is everpresent and magnificently attentive to the needs of the cranky passengers.

It is a long and tiring trip for these people. They are usually up at 6:00 am and don’t get a chance to rest until 10:30 pm. Since we are moving west, that is a long day. Juice does his job with respect and sincerity. A big man, I am guessing he may be in his early 30s, but he makes his way about the sleeping car with great agility. One minute he is dealing with ice and coffee, the next he is getting fresh towels for someone or making up a bed. All the time he is very congenial and respectful to the passengers.

In Whitefish, I learn that he has been doing this work for nine years and that, as an Amtrak employee, he takes what they give him, traveling a number of different routes and accepting different functions. Sometimes he is a bartender or the club car counter attendant. Sometimes he has to serve in the dining car. And sometimes he pulls sleeping car attendant duty. I think he might be ready for change, and he laments the fact that it is hard to have a family – like he does – when you are away for six days and then only have two days off. When we arrive in Portland, Juice will get to rest up at a hotel over night and be on the next Empire Builder heading east the next day.

Amtrak, if you are listening, give Juice a big raise!