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!
The Great Allegheny Passage Companion