Tuesday, November 20, 2018

West to Seattle Aboard the Empire Builder

The train left Chicago on time headed north before turning west sometime during the night. Read about the ride from Memphis to Chicago here. While my husband napped I pressed my face against the window of our sleeper car to catch glimpse after glimpse of idyllic farms flashing by. Red barns with stone foundations. Windmills. Authentic farmhouses not "farmhouse style" wannabe mid-century ranch houses. The scenery was plucked from every vintage children's book about life on a farm. I was enchanted.

Our steward (ess?) Erika came by to introduce herself and give us all the information about meals, bed set-up, etc. She offered to bring us meals in our room if we didn't want to eat with anyone else. Just so you know table sharing is classic train procedure. I mean it's how Eva Marie Saint meets Cary Grant in North by Norwest! We did eat in our room the first night but it was a lot of trouble finding room to put all the plates and glasses on our tiny table, so after that we went to the dining car.

I stepped off the train in Milwaukee so I could say I'd been to Wisconsin.

The thing about traveling by rail is that you see the backside of cities. The original and oldest parts before highways made every landscape everywhere about Walmart and Home Depot.

After dinner, we played cards, something we never do at home, mainly because we don't know any card games. We worked at poker which doesn't make much sense without betting, but resorted to kid games like War and Crazy Eights. It got dark early so far north so we called in a night around 9:00. It felt luxurious to have our own sink.

The oddest thing about the sleeper car is that the toilet and shower are a combo. When I first checked this out I thought "I won't be taking a shower in there." But I did. Four times. The first time while we were rambling through rural Wisconsin I disrobed and asked my husband if he thought we should close the curtains. "What? We're in the middle of nowhere." Just as I was stepping into the shower we passed a crossing with several pick up trucks stopped at the crossing. After dark with our room all lit up all I could do was hope the train was moving fast enough for me to be a blur. Otherwise, I can only hope no one was scarred for life. 

Then while I was in the shower the train lurched to one side and the door flew open while I screamed and grabbed it with my hand...the same one I was holding the shower head with spraying water everywhere. I'm sure the other travelers wondered what all the shrieking and laughing was about. I was personally rewriting The Girl on the Train as a slapstick comedy. 

Guess who's in the top bunk again. But I got a ladder this time!

I slept surprisingly well and we had breakfast with a German man who'd been living in Wisconsin for four decades. Over our meal of pancakes and bacon, he told us about his work promoting insects as food. He'd been around the world speaking on the topic and had written a paper with a title so scholarly I still couldn't remember it after asking him to repeat it three times. Something about edible insects and industry in Tanzania. It was all fascinating but I couldn't help but notice how much he was enjoying the eggs and toast.

 The landscape droned on through North Dakota in brown and blue. Mile after mile we looked for trees or any kind of break in the landscape.

Farms were far between and the lives of the people living on them seemed isolated and depressing. I imagined that the antidepressant medications and alcohol consumption rates were high. While ND isn't in the top ten for depression it is indeed ranked as the drunkest state with the most alcohol-related driving deaths.

It looks pretty in these pictures and at some points, I was startled by the stark beauty. The ability to see so far and so much sky certainly had a nagging appeal. But but when we saw any sign of civilization it was so far from anything. It was all so Lonesome Dove but mostly just looked lonesome.

I was told later by a fellow traveler that while people from east of the Mississippi think this looks desolate that folks from here feel a bit claustrophobic in landscapes hemmed in by trees. People are fascinating, aren't they? 

   To us it was vast and bleak even on a sunny day.

As we traveled farther west we began to see not just isolated farms but abandoned ones. Collapsing barns and houses where people had plainly just packed up one day and left. I filled my time looking out the window imagining what happened to them. Check out all the pics of abandoned ND houses on Google. In one field a couple of miles from anything resembling a structure sat a Model T rusting away. It's a strange thing to see modern ruins. We passed a ghost town where there was a street of buildings without one patch of paint to be found. I thought about the wind howling through those lonely buildings in winter. Snow falling through the cracks. My imagination swirled.

Inside the train, we struck up conversations, Train travel forces connection. We ate lunch with a quiet man and dinner with a chatty man who was a retired librarian and his wife, a doctor in Missoula. He had the answers to many of our questions. The government had given people land to get them to move here and some of them had made it for a time but it was too harsh and hard to make a go of it. That's what had happened at those abandoned houses we saw. People gave up and moved on. While this wasn't the area affected by the Dust Bowl it was obvious that the Depression was what finally drove people out.

At one stop, border patrol agents strolled through the train asking people how they were enjoying their trip. Just as the sun began to set we saw the mountains in the distance. We'd be going through Glacier National Park overnight. That's the one thing I'd recommend about this trip. Fly to Seattle and do it in the opposite direction. But I have to confess I gained a more complete understanding of just how vast this country is on this journey.

We bedded down the second night winding through the mountains and on the second floor of the sleeper car in the top bunk I felt every twist and turn. I had an apprehensive moment where I realized that if the train derailed upside down I'd be in the worst situation. I talked myself down off that fearful ledge and fell asleep dreaming of mountain streams and misty landscapes.

The next day: Seattle!

Happy travels, Y'all!


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

North to Chicago: All Aboard the City of New Orleans


For over thirty years my husband and I have been riding the City of New Orleans from Memphis to New Orleans for football games, cruise departures, and long fun weekends in the Quarter. Last month we finally departed when it was time to go to sleep after catching the train north to Chicago instead of at the crack of dawn traveling southbound.

roomette car

We settled into our roomette which is a private space with a door and a couple of seats that the attendant comes by to magically turn into a couple of bunks complete with sheets, blankets, and a harness looking operation for the top bunk that is supposed to keep the person up there (me)from rolling out onto the floor during the rocking back and forth overnight. If you are claustrophobic fight hard to get the bottom bunk.

When I first got myself settled it felt a bit mildly distressing but I took a moment to think about how exciting and magical my 10-year-old self would have thought it was. Read my post about the strategy of reframing. I remembered how much fun it used to be to hide in small spaces as a kid. I fell asleep in no time and the worst part of the whole thing was having to climb down in the middle of the night to use the bathroom at the end of the hall.

I thought of all the old movies I've seen that had amusing train scenes. Scenes of folks sleeping in berths with just curtains for privacy and using the shared restroom.  I was glad I had some context to put this adventure into. My husband was less amused when I put my foot in his face in the dark at 2 A.M. 

When we woke up we headed to breakfast and were seated with a sweet older lady from the Chicago area. I propped my phone up while waiting for our food to catch a time-lapse of the passing Illinois countryside as the sun was coming up.


I jumped up from where I was sitting to get this pic at the Kankakee stop because it's in the song, The City of New Orleans.

All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulled out at Kankakee
And rolls along past houses, farms and fields...


Once we arrived in Chicago we packed up our stuff we stepped off the train and into Union Station.


chicago train station

chicago train station

We stopped dead in our tracks. What a palatial building! Memphis tore down its own beautiful marble train station to make way for a post office during some sad mid-century city planning debacle. NOLA's station is also a pretty sad affair. But this!

amtrak metropolitan lounge

Also, being in a sleeper car affords you entrance to the Metropolitan Lounge, where you can store your bags and grab a gourmet coffee and fancy oatmeal.

union station


union station

Yes. Fancy oatmeal is a thing. 

Since we had about four hours between trains I thought it might be worth trying to go to the Sky Deck at the former Sears Tower, now Willis Tower. Trip Advisor didn't give me much hope warning about  2-hour lines to buy tickets, more time in line for the elevator, and 40-minute lines to get time on one of the ledges. Since it was right around the corner we decided we'd just walk over and see what it looked like.

chicago landmark

It looked like no line. FYI a cloudy Wednesday morning is a really great time to try it. The elevator ruined me for all other elevators that take so long to go up like 4 floors. You are whisked up 103 floors in 60 seconds. There's even a fun video on the ride to show you all the world landmark heights you are passing as you go along.

willis tower

The doors open and there you are at what feels like the top of the world.

sky deck

We jumped in a line for the nearest ledge where the ledge assistants tell you that you only have 60 seconds on the ledge. There were maybe 20 people in the line but as there are a few ledges it went really quickly. What can I say? I love a good photo op. 

the ledge

I was looking forward to doing this but when it came time to take that first step, which looks to your ancient brain like you are stepping off a building, I balked. My husband held my hand since apparently the primitive part of his brain is broken and he jumped right out there.  My modern brain quickly adjusted to this new and weird information (don't trust your eyes) and then I didn't want to leave!

sky deck

Yes, it's surreal. 

sky deck

While we were on the ledge we noticed no one was behind us waiting. We got plenty of time to get all the picks we wanted. Okay, obviously that I wanted. It's like the ultimate photo booth! 

sky deck

 Everything about this trip just kept working out like the clouds parting for a glimpse of a beautiful blue sky over the city.

sky deck view

We still had time for martinis and sushi for lunch at a great place we happened upon on the way back to the station called Hot Woks Cool Sushi. Once again our timing was perfect! It was practically empty when we were seated and when we left there was a line out the door.


Next, we hit one of the many bars in the train station and chatted with the locals most of whom apparently were on their lunch hour. I guess the 3 martini lunch is alive and well in Chicago. I overheard my husband tell the guy next to him "Your train station is nice than our airport."

Embarrassing but true.

Also, everyone we met in Chicago was so nice! It felt, well... southern except things moved a little faster. 

We headed back to the lounge to grab our bags and get ready for the next part of our train adventure as I marked the Sky Deck off my impromptu bucket list.

What's on your bucket list? Also, how much of a trip do you plan ahead of time?

Happy travels, Y'all! 


Friday, November 9, 2018

Fall Break on the Alabama Coast

The answer is that there isn't anything much cuter than a baby at the beach. Though I'm partial to this particular baby and this particular beach. It was this kid's first trip to the beach and what with it being the first born child for them, grandchild for us, and first nephew for Uncle Snarky it was a bit of a production.

I documented our march to the Gulf. We were an attention-grabbing lot as it were but why had I not thought of banners, and a marching band, or at least a fanfare of trumpets to round out the scene? Either the baby was super adorable or we made a spectacle of ourselves because people put down their books and pointed and smiled.

"Oh, that's the first grandbaby for sure."

Thank goodness the kid likes the sand and the water. Personally, my entire goal at the beach is to prevent getting salt water in my eyes but it didn't bother him. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

I know I had more to say, but what was it?

Help me, Y'all. Instagram is rotting my brain.

#orangebeach #florabama #beachbaby #familyvacay #fallbreak

See what I mean. I've forgotten how to write with like actual words and what not. Hence, pictures!

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