We're home now - for less than 24 hours - and already dreaming of the next trip. After all, we have 75,000 points in the Guest Rewards kitty! Lakeshore? Cardinal? Oh, please; can we just go west again?
The last five days of the trip were so wildly different that it is difficult to believe it was all part of the same journey. But that's America, right? A wildly diverse landscape and a joyous variety of people.
We did indeed make it to Pike Place Market before leaving Seattle. What a wonderful place! I have to say that the trip DOWN yet another of Seattle's hills from Enterprise's garage at 3rd and Stewart was probably the scariest part of the entire trip, especially the last block down Stewart. There's a little shop there called "The Purple Store" that I really wanted to visit but if I had let go of the handles of the wheelchair Bill would have been on display with the fish in the market stalls below!
So we contented ourselves with a few hours just wandering through the Market. I took a picture of the "original" Starbucks store but didn't stand in line there. Yes, hard to believe. But we did have our mochas at the 1st and Pike store up the street featuring a charm and historic touches all its own.
And if I was all agog at seeing the original Starbucks, how about Bill and "Metzger Maps?" Okay, so they don't know how to spell but still. We were actually returning the rental car when Bill mentioned that there's a shop called Metsker Maps "somewhere around here." He didn't know where and I probably said something helpful like "Duh."
Anyway, as we were leaving Starbucks, I got on the Google and discovered that the shop was actually about 500 feet from where we were standing.
What a wonderful place! Now Portland's Powell's Books is amazing - overwhelming really - because of its sheer size. Metsker Maps, however, is just the right size and crammed full of neat stuff. I think I touched nearly everything in the store while Bill talked with the owner, John. Who is not actually a Metsker. He bought the store a few years ago and kept the name. And seems to do a nice business which was quite encouraging.
Bill took pictures of peppers and fish and flowers and lots of people. We headed back to the station through Pioneer Square where Bill took pictures of streetcars and freight trains, and I took pictures of Bill taking pictures of streetcars ...
And then all too soon we were on the Empire Builder, north along Puget Sound in the setting sun, and eventually turning east. The Builder really MOVES (a fact belied by occurrences a few days later) as you might be able to tell from the photos I attempted to take as we finally said good bye to the mountains of northwest Washington and flattened out heading into eastern Washington and northern Idaho (which I missed to sleep).
The morning brought us to glorious Montana where the larches and pines competed with the blue of the sky for whose color would shine brightest.
We were told that the larches are particularly spectacular this year - in fact, we heard over and over again that this October was the most beautiful in years. Silly me, I thought October would be the perfect time to plan a visit, stupidly relying on the fact that here in Pennsylvania October is so pretty normally. Not so, it would seem, in the PNW - where October usually signals the beginning of wet and cold. You could not have shown that by us! This view of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River and those larches, pines, and mountains were the "everyday view" along the road leading into the Izaak Walton Inn. Saw a bald eagle fly upriver here with the whitest head I have ever seen. She (I am sure of it because of the size) perched herself in one of those pines and it was truly stunning through binoculars - but, alas, beyond the range of my phone camera.
As for the Izaak Walton, I was a bit disappointed. Not in the Inn, or the surroundings, or (heaven knows) the food - which is out of this world good. But its accessibility is sorely lacking - a fact that should have been made more clear on their website. Our room had no grab bars in the bathroom, a deep and inaccessible tub, and even the bathroom across the hall (allegedly for the public and therefore equipped with a few grab bars) was deficient. Worse, the "lift" to enter the hotel was a portable one so every time Bill wanted to go outside we had to bug the front desk folks to go out with him and set it up. I asked repeatedly if they could just leave it there and I would help him but oh, the liability. It's just a poor system and so unfortunately I wound up wishing we had only booked one night.
For those travelers without mobility issues, don't hesitate to book the Izaak Walton. Be prepared for train noise; it is along the tracks of the BNSF locomotive shops (or something more technically correct and I am SURE Bill will correct me) and locomotives often idle all night. We are told that in the summer when the windows are open, it can be annoying if you are not a member of the train loving public (and you know who you are).
As it turned out, we almost felt like we had booked into the Hotel California. We could check out any time we liked but leaving? Another story entirely! The Empire Builder (for the uninitiated among our readers) is a two-part train when it begins its trip from the west. One leg goes from Seattle to Spokane (the one we took); the second from Portland to Spokane. Somewhere, somehow, on Saturday night before we were to leave Essex on the following morning the Portland leg of our eastbound Builder got caught up in a "grain train incident" (whether a derailment or simply the inevitable problems that occur because freight gets a priority in most cases over passenger service). The poor folks who got on in Seattle sat in Spokane for four hours waiting for Portland to arrive, and we sat in Essex watching the train status website show an arrival for us grow later and longer. We were supposed to leave at 8:50 AM; we left at 2:30 PM.
Despite assurances that we "could make up some of that time" and that we might still make it to Chicago in time to catch the 6:40 PM Capitol Limited back to Cumberland, the delay just grew longer. At one point we were sitting - somewhere in North Dakota or Minnesota (who can tell? with apologies to those, I am sure, perfectly delightful flat states) - while another freight rumbled past us and decided that the dispatchers had simply decided that this particular run of the Builder was completely hopeless and there was no point in even trying to get us to Chicago on Sunday. We actually watched TWO westbound Builders pass us at various times!
Truly, though, the day's (and night's) travel was not difficult and there were rewards, like crossing the Mississippi four (I think) times.
In the end, the sacrificial lambs that were the riders of this particular run of the Builder arrived in Chicago at about 10:45 PM, some seven hours late, four hours after the Capitol Limited had departed with Room H of Car 3001 quite empty.
Not to worry, however, Amtrak is all OVER this problem. Those of us who missed connections were directed to a lounge staffed by three efficient members of Passenger Services who handed us each two taxi vouchers (to and from our home for the night), two $10 food coupons for restaurants at Union Station the next day (which turned out to be worthless but the gesture was kind), and a reservation for the Swissotel along East Upper Wacker Drive.
Granted, we were tired. But certainly less stressed that I would ever have expected. At some point along the way, the fact that we would be staying overnight in Chicago had become inevitable and since I happen to love Chicago I was prepared to be quite happy about it. What I didn't expect was that the Swissotel would be so incredible.
I feared that finding an accessible room would be a glitch but Keenan, the newly-promoted night manager, is a "this is not a problem in the least" kind of guy and because he "liked our attitude," he did us an extra favor and put us in an accessible room on the 27th floor of the hotel overlooking the city. We walked in and our jaws dropped.
Yes, that's the Chicago River right there.
Yes, I love Chicago. It is just a stunner of a city built as it is right to its river's edge. I always feel as though I can "manage" the place. It's wonderfully walkable and while I imagine winter is a bear (da Bears), any time we've been there - even just driving through - it's felt like those Big Shoulders would be a good place to rest your head.
Certainly the Swissotel is!
We had to wait until 6:30 to catch the Capitol, so we took advantage of another glorious October day and did a Chicago Architecture Foundation boat tour. I had done a walking tour with them a few years ago, and highly recommend either boat or foot. The Foundation is in a new building on Wacker near the hotel and I wish we had had more time as I would have loved to go and tour the exhibits as well.
As we all know, travel is not without its challenges. The occasional train delays, lost reservations, rude or unhelpful people, and just plain stupid error adds to the magic - when you're in the right frame of mind. Or it can cause stress and a big ol' bad mood and that was the brief upshot of the final part of the journey. Because unfortunately in all the detail of making sure all those people who missed their connections got new connections, Amtrak forgot one important detail. Bill can't walk.
So they very nicely booked us into a family bedroom on the Capitol for our return. That's great; it's a big beautiful room just down the hall from the accessible room. Under normal circumstances that would be a treat. It's that "just down the hall" thing. The "hall" is a very narrow five feet from the entry vestibule on the train. It's narrow to accommodate the stairs that most passengers climb to reach their roomettes on the second floor of the sleeping cars. And it's that narrowness that makes getting a wheelchair down there impossible.
I did a lot of explaining, sometimes calmly and sometimes with tears to go along with it, to Amtrak personnel why this wasn't going to work. At last, it became apparent that they weren't going to do anything (not even make an announcement on the Metropolitan Lounge public address system asking folks holding the accessible reservations to come to the front desk so that we might see if someone would swap with us) and so I said, "Well, I hope you have two big strong guys who can carry Bill to the room."
And off we went to the platform.
Fortunately for everyone concerned, the car attendant we would have had was Perry, who was our attendant going out to Chicago. He was delighted to see us again but said, "Wait. Why did they put you in that room? You can't get in there." I explained to him what had happened and he said, "Not a problem" and summoned Michael, a fellow attendant. It seems they have another accessible bedroom that doesn't get used. It is on the other end of the car from the staff lounge, which is essentially a family bedroom that has been emptied of its furnishings and a few booths put in for the attendants to use. They leave the accessible room empty in case of emergency and, I suspect, to afford the attendants a little bit of privacy AWAY from us pesky passengers! And who can blame them?!
But into that room we went. Blessings upon Michael and Perry of the Capitol Limited. If you are ever lucky enough to travel the Capitol and have either of these gentlemen as your sleeping car attendant please tell them Pam and Bill send their kindest regards.
And so we are back. Glad of it, I suppose. They say there's no place like home and for me, home is where the cat is. Many thanks to Ed Quigley for taking care of the house and said cat, Howard Emerick for chauffeuring us to and from Cumberland (and, I suspect, delaying his annual southern migration to pick us up), to all of the wonderful Amtrak, Enterprise Car Rental, hotel, and restaurant people all across the US who showed us the very best of what adventure means, and to the great people who shared the train rides (Frank and Priscilla, Super Zoe and her grandpa, the "people from St. Louis").
We cannot WAIT to do it again!
Yesterday we took a day to lie low. Bill has been going non-stop with barely a nap for two solid weeks and all of you who know him know that is something completely unheard of. So he was pretty tired and welcomed the opportunity to just tour the inside of his eyelids. So I did a little of what I like to do - walking and thrift shopping. Hey. I scored a pair of $120 Not Your Daughter's Jeans for $1.79. Thank you, Seattle! I followed up with a visit to Magnuson Park along Lake Washington and enjoyed a brief stroll along the Burke-Gilman Trail. Originally begun in 1978 with the first 12 miles of trail on the (as Bill likes to say) "earthly remains" of the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway, the Burke-Gilman Trail is certainly one of the grand-daddies of the rail-trail movement.
Dinner at Duke's Seafood & Chowder in nearby Green Lake was delicious - for the first time, I was really tempted to photograph my food but it just couldn't capture the flavor. Blackened salmon over pumpkin ravioli with some pine nuts and creamy cheese sauce. So many flavors you would have thought would go to war with each other. They did not!
Today dawned another blue and gold beauty so we decided the only thing to do was complete the Perfect Vacation Trifecta - get in a bike ride to go with the train ride and boat ride. Luckily for us - and thousands of other people - the Outdoors for All Foundation has a cycle center at Magnuson Park where we were able to rent a handcycle for Bill and a TerraTrike tadpole for me. We didn't go far but we enjoyed the beautiful paved sunny surface immensely.
While we knew we would have to get home and get things cleaned and packed up, we couldn't resist the opportunity to spent a little while along the lakefront at the Magnuson Cafe & Brewery. I sipped a snappy little pilsner, munched on some of the best french fries I've had in a long time, and a big ol' black bean burger; Bill enjoyed some rosemary tomato soup and a BLT. Before we left, we crashed the party of the lovely trio of Elizabeth, Hope, and Viveca and shared a lot of laughs. I could move to Seattle and go hiking with them; although they are quite intrepid, scrambling over rocks and climbing fire towers. I might be too old, ladies, but the photographs of the Fremont Lookout Trail at Mount Rainier looked gorgeous. We were so close on Sunday!
Tomorrow we'll head downtown for the next leg of travel. Maybe we'll actually make it to Pike Place Market? But, NO, not up that Space Needle. We catch the Empire Builder at 4:30 PM and will arrive at Izaak Walton Inn Thursday morning. We'll be there for two nights and then it's back on the Builder for the closing of our circle into Chicago. Sobbing all the way.
There is no cell service at the Izaak Walton; wifi will probably be sketchy. So we will observe radio silence for a while. Depending on my state of mind, I may post again before we return home next Monday. No guarantees!
Thanks for reading,
I know it's been a few days but it's taken a bit of time to get our bearings. I never ever realized Seattle is as big as it is. I love a city, heaven knows, but I think Emerald City might be just a hair too much. And, no. I am not going up in the Space Needle.
Nevertheless, to catch everyone up. We did arrive in Seattle on ... Friday. Yes, it was Friday. A short jaunt up from Portland on the Cascades, Amtrak's "commuter service" between the two cities. We had a nice ride in business class with a good view of the Nisqually Reach Aquatic Reserve as we traveled. I saw an eagle, a seal, and the really astonishingly clean water of the Reserve before Tacoma.
Looks from the Washington Department of Transportation website that they might be working on a bypass around this area to eliminate conflicts with freight. We were lucky; this was one section of the trip where we encountered no delays at all.
And really the trip was bright and clear in spite of this photo. Some bridge somewhere.
The real fun definitely began when we got into King Street Station and wandered out into the city. I mean, really. We were complete and utter rubes. We shuffled our way to the Chinatown station for the Link Rail and then basically just stood there mystified by the whole chaotic scene. Mind you, it was right around lunchtime on a sunny Friday so there were people just everywhere. Eventually Bill asked a young transit cop to help us figure out how to buy a damned ticket. Then he practically had to take us by the hand and lead us to the elevator. Sad, really.
We eventually got to the station we needed and then trudged up the hill to Hertz for our rental car. That I arranged in August. Only to find a sign on the Hertz rental place in the Hilton that they were having "a system error" and we were to go to one five blocks away. The Hilton doorman said that actually no one's ever there. And, you guessed it, the whole shooting match was messed up. Hertz had no cars. Literally. A car rental company with "no inventory."
Michael, the poor sod left to contend with us, started calling every Hertz outlet in Seattle (as more customers came in from Hilton reservations) and eventually Enterprise as well. By then, I was on my cell making a reservation with Enterprise myself. Half an hour later, Will from Enterprise came to pick us up in a silver Nissan Rogue (that I now love). When we got back to the Enterprise office to do the paperwork, he strolled in and announced, "Got another Hertz rescue!"
NEVER rent from Hertz. The only reason I did on this trip was that Amtrak Guest Rewards was offering a bonus points promotion. They better refund my prepaid money or there will be blood.
Anyway, off we drove (with a few wrong turns) in the craziness that is a Seattle drive and made our way to The Bird's Perch, our AirBnB for the next five days. It's fine. Not quite the accessible paradise I hoped but good enough certainly. Actually, the only real complaint we have is that Bill has nowhere to sit. The couch is way too low and the only chairs are fragile little things. But the shower is lovely, there is a garage and a washer and dryer, and a gas fireplace.
And it's reasonably convenient for getting around, although yesterday our goal was to head down to catch the Bainbridge Island ferry, cross the Sound, and rendezvous with Bill's old friends Jeff and Denise Riley. They were coming down from Port Hadlock where they have lived for several years. We headed for the University of Washington Link station (Huskies were off losing to the Ducks in what must have been an exciting game) only to find there is no permitted parking at the station. Not even for poor helpless cripples on a Saturday when there's nothing going on. Kind of ridiculous.
So we decided we would just drive down to Seattle, park somewhere and take the ferry. Well, I plugged it into the old Google maps app and the next thing you know we are driving the Rogue onto the ferry. So a quick call to Jeff elicited the suggestion that we just drive over and pick them up and head up to Port Townsend for lunch instead.
Port Townsend is nothing short of spectacular. More Victorian architecture and cool little shops than one person can stand. I need to go back. All we did was eat and then drive around a bit but as usual we were out of time. Hey, I had to stop for coffee on the way up after that long arduous (okay, 35-minute) ferry ride.
Because, really, my OTHER complaint about our digs is a Keurig coffee machine. Ugh. Why would anyone have one of those things?
This morning Bill suggested - since I spent all day yesterday gasping every time we caught sight of Mount Baker or Mount Rainier - that instead of our original plan for the Pike Place Market today we head out to drive around Rainier. So we did. We never made it around, unfortunately. We got waylaid by the road up to Sunrise Lodge in the National Park (now closed for the season). It's a wow.
I wish we could have continued the loop to Paradise Inn (also closed for the season). Next time.
Does anyone doubt the need to care for these incredible public spaces? We spent $30 to drive up that highway to the Sunrise. Worth every damned cent.
In the end, we will probably make the trip downtown (NOT up the Space Needle) before we leave on Wednesday afternoon. We shall see!
So the coastal cruise has concluded. Drat.
There aren't really words to describe how beautiful the drive on Highway 101 between Astoria and Tillamook was, and then a little side trip out to Oceanside and Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint (I love how they call them "viewpoints" here) sealed the deal. Oregon is paradise.
Seaside is a lovely little (gasp) seaside town with neat shops and an oceanfront boardwalk. Found the perfect house for a cool $2 million. Powerball is $318 million right now. Hmmmm.
We spent some time (and too much money) at Tillamook Creamery (OMG, the ice cream) and then headed out to Oceanside and the Cape Meares park for a last look at the Pacific. We wanted to check out Salem (the state capitol) last night before our return to Portland today but had another motel snafu. I don't really understand how someone can think they might substitute "another room" for the wheelchair accessible one (which was "broke") and think that would be okay. So it was back in the car and a drive north toward Portland instead. Had I known I would have just arranged another night on the coast. Sniff.
Still because we were heading north from Salem to Portland, we got to pay a little visit to Metzger, OR. You would have thought they'd have had a fanfare of some sort.
Now we are back in Portland. I told the guys at Enterprise car rental that I can't remember ever having more fun on one tank of gas. We have checked into the Inn at Northrup Station (which is absolutely fab). They really cannot be taking better care of us so ALL is forgiven and I'd stay here again in a heartbeat. Bill's having a birthday nap and then we are off to Powell's Books for the rest of the afternoon.
We will hardly have done Oregon justice; certainly will not have seen or done all that Portland offers. But our whistles are whetted for a return visit.
Tomorrow morning it's back to the station to hop the Cascades to Seattle.
Obligatory obscure Queen lyric. So adorable. Anyhoo. Astoria. Seaside. Cannon Beach. Arch Cape. Love this place. Nope. Not coming back. If someone will just bring me my Emma, I'm good.
One note from that wonderful coastal cruise - we probably laughed the hardest in St. Helens, a little town that has apparently made itself the Halloween capital of the state. Its miniature downtown (along the Columbia River) was completely devoted to Halloween - haunted houses, decorations, upcoming parties, There's all kinds of riverfront redevelopment happening as well, with a little park (for some reason fenced off at the moment) where you can apparently actually hang in hammocks along the river. We tried to get pictures but it was pouring POURING rain when we were there. Which was one main reason for our laughter. Because we came through right as school was letting out and the children of St. Helens were walking or riding their bikes home. In the rain. Umbrellas and/or raincoats. Unaccompanied by parents or being driven in cars. Horrors! Maybe it's just become a Pennsylvania phenomenon but we've grown confused (and not a little dismissive) of Kids Today whose parents have to drive them two blocks to school or - here in Somerset county - down the driveway to catch the school bus.
Okay, so we're fans.
Certainly the last couple of days have had their ups and downs. And not just because it was all about the mountains!
We made our escape from Denver on the Zephyr a bit late but arrived in Emeryville (outside Oakland) only three hours late. That would normally have cut our six hour layover waiting for the arrival of the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles for our trip north to Portland down to three - which would have been just fine. Sadly, a pedestrian fatality involving a freight train somewhere north of Oxnard brought all that to a halt. The Starlight went from seven minutes late out of LA to three hours late three stops later. And changed the arrival of the Starlight in Emeryville from 11:00 PM to 1:30 AM.
That just meant we had lots of time to stroll over to the Bay Street (pedestrian) mall a few blocks away. Dinner at P.F. Changs and a 7:30 viewing of "A Star is Born" (two thumbs up) are not a bad way to while away the time! Still it was a little wearing not to get on board until nearly 2:00 AM. Geo, our car attendant, had the beds waiting and we fell into a deep sleep nearly immediately.
The alteration in the schedule meant that we slept through Redding and I didn't see much of the damage from this summer's notorious Carr Fire. By the time I was up, we were past the worst of it. I did NOT sleep through Mount Shasta, though. Shasta is my favorite mountain - I just love the way she rises out of "nothing" and is just there in all her (this time of year even) snow-covered glory. And the Starlight circles her for several hours. I didn't get a lot of really great pictures - she's a tricky little minx. Whenever we were on the side where I would have had a clear shot, she kicked up clouds to shelter her from my lens.
Yeah, there's a big snow-covered mountain back there.
We arrived in Portland at about 7:00 PM instead of 3:00 PM. In the rain. But we only had a few blocks to go to the Portland streetcar that would drop us right in front of our hotel. Easy as pie. Except I managed to get us on the wrong streetcar (which travels at about a walking pace) and we wound up going the wrong direction. By the time we got ourselves turned around it was 8:00 when we arrived. And I was in meltdown. Thankfully, Bill was all over it. Calmed me down and got us back on track. Literally.
Only to discover that they had lost our reservation. The one I made in February. Uh. Not happy.
The desk clerk found us a room "right around the corner" so off we went. Through a residential neighborhood with awful sidewalks. In the rain. Me dragging the world's largest orange suitcase and Bill trying to navigate with his new motor. We made it. At 9:00.
When the substitute hotel told us that the rate for our second night would increase to $200 we decided that we were over Portland. Having intended to take a day on the Oregon coast and return on Thursday for Bill's birthday, we opted instead to bug out of town a day early and go to the Pacific. Reservations made in Astoria; car rental modified; good-bye Rose City.
Portland's a beautiful place and the mess-ups are not going to color my perception of it. My walk to the car rental place took me through great neighborhoods (can there really be a coffee shop on every corner? Why, yes, there can - and they are not Starbucks either) and the people are very friendly (even as they are apologizing for sending you out in the rain).
The drive out here to Astoria was gorgeous, even in the rain. We had the most spectacular dinner last night at the Silver Salmon Grille (if ever you find yourself here, do not hesitate - go there). Have the spinach and smoked salmon salad.
And the manager at the hotel that messed up our first reservation in Portland is comping us a stay on our return to Portland on Thursday night.
For now, it's off to enjoy the coast - which some of you know has been the part of the trip I have been looking forward to most. As I look out the window here in Astoria, I see the sky has turned blue and I think the forecast might be wrong.
We arrived safely in Denver yesterday morning - late. In fact, the Capitol was late into Chicago as well. We have no complaints about it really. The ride was generally comfortable even in the upper bunk where I spend my nights. In fact, I slept like a baby both nights on the train.
I admit I was a little surprised to find myself suffering a slight case of altitude sickness when we landed. I had a really awful headache and was actually dizzy a bit walking to our home away from home (Hostel Fish: www.hostelfish.com/). A lot of water and an Aleve and I was ready to rock. So last night we dined at Rio Grande in LoDo (that's Lower Downtown to us hip Denverites) with Bill Beagle and Susan Davies, friends of long-standing, who relocated to Colorado Springs from Pittsburgh (by way of Cleveland) several years ago. Susan is Executive Director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition (www.trailsandopenspaces.org/) so three cheers for her!
Today we took Denver's rapid transit train out to the airport just for the ride. Highlight for me were prairie dogs and a coyote strolling through the open spaces between Denver and its insane airport. It was enough for us to ride out, scout it out, and turn around and come back. Bill's taken a couple billion pictures which we will post at some point.
For now, we are plotting which of Denver's 17,000 restaurants to select for our last night. Tomorrow it's two days of travel with the trip over the Rockies to the end of the California Zephyr line in Emeryville, CA. Then after a six-hour layover (depending on delays, of course) we will hop on the Coast Starlight for the trip north to Portland. Opening our hearts to new adventures!
So several years ago a good friend told us that he had taken a big ol' train trip out west and the train fare hadn't cost him a dime. Well, not a direct dime.
All he'd had to do was get an Amtrak Guest Rewards credit card and his normal credit card purchases earned him points, exchangeable for Amtrak dollars. Or pennies. Or meters.
Next day, I signed up. And charged everything.
The years went by and we would say to ourselves, "This is the year we take the Empire Builder. This is the year for the California Zephyr. This is the year ..."
When 2018 dawned, we said it again. But this time we meant it. Of course, it means a delay to the completion of The Great Allegheny Passage Companion, but there you are. As Bill has taken to saying, "This book's been a month late for five years now." We'll get there!
But for anyone who'd like to follow along with Ol' Crippled Willie and the Trail Goddess as we set off to see America, this is the place to do it. See you in October!