Riding the Rails – Adventures in American Train Travel

Someday the hubs and I will buy a Eurail Pass and travel wherever the trains take us.  Someday, we’ll enjoy the comfortable, efficient, reliable train service that travelers in many countries take foregranted.   Someday can’t come soon enough.   My train travel experience has been limited to riding Amtrak on both the east and west coasts and I have to admit that it’s been a mixed bag on service and efficiency and it’s always a lesson in the fine art of patience.  Obviously this is a lesson I still need to learn as it keeps repeating itself – I’m writing this post on the train as we sit in the station…waiting, waiting, waiting to depart.  Breathe.  Relax.  Ha!   So, since I’ve got about three hours to kill, I thought it might be fun to share a few of my Amtrak experiences and apply my own very unscientific rating system.

Portland Union Station - photo from the Amtrak Website

Portland Union Station – photo from the Amtrak Website

Way back in the day, I lived in Los Angeles and we took the train for fun – a day at the San Diego zoo or brunch in Santa Barbara.  In those days riding the train usually included a group of friends and copious amounts of alcohol.  We were not worried about arrival times because it meant more time to party en-route.   Rating ~ I’ll give it a B with a twist. (lemon of course)

In 1987 I moved my family from Los Angeles to Portland.  We loaded our car into the moving van with all our other worldly goods and the kids and I headed toward our new life on the Coast Starlight.  I envisioned an overnight adventure.   Reality?  We slept in a postage stamp size room with pull down bunks and spent many hours eating bad food in the club car while I pointed out passing forests, fields and cows to my less-than-thrilled children.  They were more interested in hanging out in that space between cars trying to freak mom out.   Where are your drinking buddies when you really need them?  Rating ~ Only a C+.   Two adults traveling alone and it might have gotten an A.  Sorry kids!

I’ve also taken the Amtrak commuter between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. – on time and no frills, molded plastic seats and a snack bar, but it got us where we needed to go with no delays with no fuss.  This was definitely a B.  Boring, but it worked.  The station in D.C. is stunning and worth a visit if you have a chance.

My experience on the Empire Builder was another story entirely.   This route is supposed to be one of the “crown jewels” in the Amtrak system.  You can board in Seattle or Portland and travel all the way to Chicago.  Our plan was to get on in Portland and get off in Whitefish, Montana for a five-day mini-vacation fishing on the Flathead River and sightseeing in Glacier National Park.  Ever thrifty, I convinced myself and the hubs that we didn’t need to spend the additional money for a sleeping compartment.  It was summer, we could board at 5:30pm, enjoy a leisurely dinner, drink a little wine and watch the world go by until it got so dark we could no longer see out the window.  A short sleep in the comfy recliner seats and we’d wake up in Montana.Empire Builder - Spectacular Scenery Oh yes, I had a very romantic vision of how it would  play out.  Amtrak wanted no part of my romantic dreaming.  We arrived at Union Station in downtown Portland to find a paper sign at the check-in counter – No Train Today.  No train.   No warning.  Nothing anyone could do about it.  And, frankly, no one at Amtrak who seemed to care.  “Would we like to cancel or would we like to return the next day at Noon, take the train to Seattle and pick up the Empire Builder there?”  Pick one or get out of the line.  Out of options, we chose the latter and showed up at Noon ready to try again on Day 2.  We lined up with the herd to get our seat assignments and board the train.  Off at last!   Not so fast, Nancy.   We sat on that train for almost an hour, knees to knees with two strangers, in seats that faced each other.  Nothing moved, including the air in our compartment.  I don’t sit well so I decided to explore the train and find the club car.   After what seemed like an endless wait, we were advised there were mechanical problems with our train.  We all gathered our belongings and moved like lemmings to train number two.  We finally pulled out of the Portland station about 90 minutes late, but at least we were moving.  I wasn’t into all the knee touching and since I now knew where we could relax with a frosty beverage, I grabbed the hubs and we claimed a table in the dining car for the duration of our trip.  A bag of chips and a Bloody Mary and we were MUCH happier.  Which was a very good thing because there was trouble on the tracks.  A derailment the previous day caused serious stoppage and delays along the way and our 3 hour trip turned into over 5 hours on the train.   We pulled into IMG_0981Seattle after 6pm.  The Empire Builder had been waiting for us for over two hours.  We scrambled aboard, found our seats, and had a  moment of silent gratitude that these seats had leg room and reclined.  A blanket and a pillow and we’d be set for sleeping.  But wait, we’re on Amtrak, so of course “there’s more”.  The conductor (a young woman) and the steward (a rather rotund gentleman who shall remain in my brain forever as Mr. Crankypants) stood conversing across the aisle.  I thought that perhaps like the airlines, they might have a blanket and pillow so I asked “Excuse me, I was wondering if you had blankets?”  Apparently I was interrupting a very important conversation as Ms. Conductor turned, glared at me, hand on hip and replied:  “We’re a little busy here.” and turned back to her conversation with Crankypants.  You cannot make this kind of bad customer service up folks.  She silenced me…not usually an easy feat.

Before the train was even out of the station, I went to inquire about dinner.  Naturally, we ended up eating very late.  The dining car looked quite elegant – white linen and all.  The food left everything to be desired and when your half-bottle of wine comes dressed in its own little satin tuxedo, you can be pretty sure it’s Swill’s Second Cousin.  Our table companions were part of a large group of Japanese tourists.  We nodded and smiled, but witty dinner conversation was not on the agenda that evening.   Our server, quite possibly a Denny’s retiree, wore her tuxedo vest over a white shirt and sported a large band of jangling keys around her left bicep.  That this woman was over-worked and over-whelmed was obvious.  But worse, this woman was rude to the Japanese group who had an obvious challenge with our language – to the point of making faces behind their back.   If there were a three strikes law on travel, Amtrak was already over the limit on this trip.

Let’s just say it was very, very long and sleepless night for Nancy who sat freezing in her Artic air-conditioned recliner seat, because it turned out there were no blankets, noisy passengers walked the train all night long and Mr. Crankypants patrolled the aisles yelling at people who were not sitting in their assigned seats.  Of course, hubby slept like a baby.  When the train finally pulled into the tiny Whitefish station and I stumbled, blurry-eyed and exhausted onto the platform, I felt like I had survived some sort of horror movie.  And, because we were now officially more than 24 hours behind our scheduled arrival time, we had less than one hour to find our rental car, drive to our B&B, splash a little cold water on our faces, meet our fishing guide and spend the next 5 hours on the Flathead River in an inflatable raft in 100 degree heat. Hubby (well rested from his long nap on the train) was perched high up in the front, fly rod in hand, master of all he surveyed, while I bounced around in the back nodding off and trying to keep from falling asleep and falling overboard.   Amtrak, I have waited a long time to share this story publicly.  You almost ruined my vacation and you killed my romantic fantasy of train travel.  For this, I’m giving you a D- Amtrak.  Consider yourself lucky.

IMG_0947My most recent excursions have been simple jaunts from Portland to Tacoma or Portland to Seattle.  Mostly pleasant, often inexpensive (last weekend I paid $58 round trip) and usually on time.   The scenery is beautiful and the conversation in the Bistro Car is always lively and interesting.  When you get bored, you can just plug in and tune out. On a trip this summer, the train was packed with hundreds of riders (mostly men) and their bicycles who were heading from Portland for the STP (Seattle to Portland) bike ride.  The celebrating began before we left the station.  That was a very fun trip!  Just like the old days in L.A.  Rating ~  Not too bad Amtrak. I’ll give you a B. I love the fact that you have wi-fi and I can bring my laptop and work.  I always get a Bloody Mary and a bag of chips.  It’s a tradition now.

So – Amtrak.  It’s definitely a love/hate relationship with most folks and a long way from the trains that criss-cross Europe, the bullet trains in Japan or the glory trains like the Orient Express or the Royal Scotsman.  I’m holding on to my romantic train fantasy a while longer – just not with Amtrak.


Don’t you just love it? ~

It really tickles me when a lovely moment of serendipity strikes. You never know when you go out the door for a bite of lunch who you might meet.  Well, that moment of serendipity struck today when I slipped down to Nordstrom Cafe for a quick mid-day break from the office.  It was noon and the place was packed.  I ordered my half salad – chicken/apple/walnut/feta – yum! and had to squeeze myself into a tiny table along the wall between two other tables.  I settled in, put on my reading glasses and pulled out my current lunch time companion – 65 Things to do When You Retire. It’s a compilation of essays from people like Jimmy Carter and Gloria Steinem and many lesser known but still very interesting and inspiring folks.  They are true stories of people in retirement who found meaningful new opportunities.  It’s sort of a user’s manual for making the most of your retirement.   A few moments later, the lovely woman on my left (I believe her name was Carol) tapped my arm and asked “May I take a look at your book?  I’ve just retired.”   “Of course” I said and I passed the book over to her table.  I then took the opportunity to introduce myself and share my newly acquired knowledge about retirement and traveling on the cheap. Carol was interested, excited and open to all of the possibilities and adventures ahead.  I told her about the backpack and rollie plan and how I had come to be a blogger.  I learned about her career as a teacher and her recent trip through Spain, Italy and France with her daughter who was sitting across the table.  We chatted for quite a while about home exchange, house sitting opportunities and even WWOOFing.   She was a sponge for information and I was thrilled that I had lots of ideas to share!

It was a lovely exchange with a truly lovely woman who, like so many of us, is excited and eager to get on with her new life.  Carol, it was a true pleasure to have met you.  I’m glad fate guided me to that tiny table in the middle.  You brought a spark of joy to my afternoon.  I hope we meet again somewhere out on the road.  I’ll be the one with the backpack and the rollie.

Total Failure? I think Not! ~

Back in the middle of August, after way too many months of procrastination and good intentions that never got me making any real progress, I watched a TED talk about doing something new for 31 days.  I decided to use this as my motivator to get myself back in the gym.   A place where everybody used to know my name and now all the faces were new.  I committed publicly in this blog post.

It’s been almost two months and well past the 31 days so I thought it would be fun (and humbling) for me to check in and let you know how it went down.  Some good.  Some not so much.  Oh, I started out full speed ahead.  Every afternoon after work I walked over to 24 Hr Fitness and right in through the big front door.  This was the piece that had been eluding my fitness routine for a while.  Walking IN the door.  I told myself it didn’t matter how long I stayed, I just had to go in and do something.  I went.  I stayed.  I worked out.  I loved it.  I loved myself for doing it!  All was good.  Day 1 was a success – days 2, 3 and on through 10 – all good.  Then I hit a bump in the road.   Work got in the way and I ran out of time.  Could I have gone at 7:30pm or 5:30am?  Yes.  Did it even cross my mind?  No it did not.  So, I missed a day.  But then I got right back to it.  The not so good news is that the rest of my 31 days went something like this… gym, gym, something else, gym, something else, gym, gym, and so on.  Adding them up, I did 20 days out of the 31 that I committed to.  I don’t pretend to know anything about baseball, but I’m pretty sure that’s not a very good batting average.

So, I missed the mark… a little.  I only beat myself up a tiny bit because the really good news is that I am still going to the gym regularly.  In fact, I’ve settled into a really good routine of Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons.  We’ve been doing 6-8 mile hikes on these lovely Fall weekends but, now that the rains are back, I’ll probably add one more day to the gym.  Or not.

All in all.  I’m calling it a success and I’m glad I took the challenge.  I ended up right where I hoped to be.  As the hubs says – I’m cranking weights and pounding it on the treadmill – at the gym.

Air BnB ~ Another Interesting Option

Here’s another lovely benefit of writing this blog – I hear from so many people who know WAY more about travel than I do and they offer great new ideas for me to check into.  How cool is that?  Very actually!   And that’s how I came to learn about Airbnb from Suzie, a lovely woman with a lot more travel miles on her rollie than the hubs and I have right now.

How about an art filled room in Giacomo’s stone house in Vinci, Italy?

I’d heard of this new player in travel accommodation but, frankly I thought it was sort of a step up from couch surfing and I’ve decided that’s probably not for us (at least right now).  Boy, was I wrong.  According to the founders (three young men in their late 20’s) it all started several years ago when these guys decided to buy some blow up mattresses and offer them (along with a tasty breakfast and local hospitality) to a few of young creative types who were attending a creative design conference in San Francisco where they lived.
Hence the original name Air Bed and Breakfast.  I am always tickled by creative ideas and love it when creativity + passion + vision + hard work = major success.

According to their website, it turns out that a whole lotta people were looking for places to stay where the “hospitality was genuine and the M&Ms didn’t cost $6.  The guests got insight into the city from a fresh, local perspective and an interesting place to stay at a very reasonable price.”  Bingo!   Airbnb took off and now offers diverse accommodations in over 26,000 cities and 192 countries around the world.

So, of course I took myself for a little cruise on the airbnb site and found every imaginable kind of place to stay.   For $71 a night you can rent a lovely domed cave house in Cataluna, Spain from Eve.  Or, for $85 a night you can stay in this yurt in the trees near Ashland OR with Becky and Sidney as your hosts.  We could do this for a long weekend! Or maybe, a small apartment on an agriturismo farm owned by Francesco and his family.  They make sheep’s milk cheese.  You name it, someone is offering you the opportunity to stay in it – cabins, rustic retreats, repurposed buildings, yurts, castles, boats, lofts, apartments – the list is endless.  And, of course, you can always rent a bedroom in someone’s home, often with meals and lots of social interaction.   Brilliant idea!  Let’s get packing.

When you’ve gotta go ~

Whoever you are, wherever you travel, at some point – everybody’s gotta go.  Although until now my experience has been with western style flush toilets, I’m preparing for the day when nature calls and I am in the middle of a foreign city or driving through the countryside on the other side of the globe.  What the heck do I do then?   Well, like the girl scout I never was, I want to be prepared.  And, wouldn’t you know it, there are a surprising number of websites that come up when you google “toilets around the world” that have some very helpful information.   Here are a few interesting tidbits I found ~

Squat Toilets (also known as Turkish toilets) are pretty much a hole in the ground affair.  They come in varying degrees of sophistication.  Basically there is no sitting here, but there is a raised platform for your feet.  A very good thing if you happen to be wearing sandals!  These squat toilets are found throughout much of the world including China and other countries in Asia.  They are also common in many European countries as well, particularly when you get outside of the big cities where there are upscale hotels and restaurants.  I’m told these squats are actually much more hygienic that our standard American model.  One word of caution (and I read this several times) – be careful when you flush – they spray water all over the place.

Public Toilets – many of which are pay toilets.  In much of Europe these are space age boxes out on the sidewalk.  They have automatic doors which open when you put in the correct change.  Note to Self – Always carry change!   You’ve only got 15 minutes so don’t dilly-dally.  And do not even think about trying to jump in after another paying customer exits.  The toilet folds into the wall and the place is gassed with spray cleaners and deodorizers.  Then there is the hand washing – kind of like going through a car wash.  First water comes out, then soapy water, then more water, and then the dryer – all from the same spout.

Really Public Toilets

Many countries are not as hung up as we Americans on needing privacy while we pee.   It is not uncommon to see unisex toilets, toilets with no doors and toilets that are open to your head and feet.  This will take some getting used to.  I must admit that, except for the cat who always pushes his way through the door when I’m in there, I think of going to the bathroom as a solitary endeavor.

And, finally, because this is a truly crazy world we live in, here are pictures of some most unusual and wonderfully whacky toilets.  Makes you wonder about the minds of the folks who created them…

I’m not sure why all this creative energy seems to be focused on the urinals but that’s the way it was.  If you figure that out, please let me know.  And as my mother always said before we left the house – “Do you have to go?”  “No?  Well, maybe you should just try.”  Thanks mom!

What’s in a Gift?

Here’s an interesting thought.  If you are in the process of getting rid of most of your worldly goods, what the heck should people give you as a gift – say for Mother’s Day, or Christmas or your Birthday?   On Saturday, my son and his lovely girlfriend invited us over to celebrate Mother’s Day with a little tea and scone brunch in their back yard and a trip to the St. John’s Parade.   My son said something like, “We thought about getting you a gift, but couldn’t think of what you would need that fit in the backpack and rollie.”   They gave me this precious little bouquet of flowers from their garden – perfect!

I was intrigued by the question.   Really, what is the point in giving gifts to someone who’s in the middle of down-sizing and, at this stage in life, what could I possibly need?  Short answer – Nothing.  (Well, I still WANT a pair of UGG boots, but I don’t honestly NEED them).  There is nothing I need and what a great feeling that is.  I do not need more stuff, but I still want more experiences and adventures and good times with friends and family.  Makes gift giving very simple, doesn’t it?   Moments.  Memories.  I’ll always need those.  I think that’s why I carry my little camera everywhere.  I want to remember and savor the moments, the sights, the colors, the unusual in the every day, and I am one who tends to forget.  Just ask my sister…she remembers more of my early life than I do.  But I digress… that’s another post entirely.  The truth is I spent the better part of of the last 50 years in pursuit of stuff and now it holds little or no value beyond the practical.

I took a picture of my “kids” at the St. John’s Parade so I can remember this moment.  The sun was out.  The streets were crowded.  The air was warm – a perfect memory of a Mother’s Day well celebrated.  Oh, and the absolutely delicious home made hazelnut chocolate scones.  That is truly all I needed for a perfectly lovely Mother’s Day.  Life is sweet.  Thanks guys.


Can we really retire and is it possible to live on just your social security check, at least for the first five years?   Six months ago, I would have said “Absolutely no way – at least not in any way I’d call living!”  You hear all the sad stories of seniors who have to share kibble with fido at the end of the month or cut their meds in half to make them last.  Scares. The. Living. Hell. Out. Of. Me.   So, I said No!, No Way!  I’ll work till they kick me out or I drop over – whichever comes first.  Well, I’m starting to see the light and a glimmer of hope on the horizon.  Maybe, just maybe, I’ll call time on my own terms.  Wouldn’t that be lovely?

I’m a compulsive planner so, of course, I’m exploring all the options.   No stone unturned.  Over the next few posts I’ll share my findings and a few stories of the brave ones who are blazing the retirement trail for us and showing us how to make the most of our own Second Acts.

FIRST UP ~ WWOOFing (Worldwide Opportunities for Organic Farming)

I had heard of WWOOFers from my son and other young organic farmer folks we’ve met, but I never thought that OLD people could do it too.  So, when I stumbled on a story about  Patricia, a 60 year old California woman who went WWOOFing in Italy, I was definitely intrigued.  What might that look like for two aging city slickers like us?   We’d buff up and blister up for sure – but what an adventure.  We’d have amazing stories to tell.  Patricia’s initial concerns mirrored mine.  Her main worry was that WWOOFing was only for the young. She envisioned an army of bronzed young backpackers working in the fields (a lovely vision actually) and sleeping under the stars (oh, no, these tired bones would need a bed in a quiet comfortable spot).  A quick email to Bridget Matthews who runs the WWOOF Italia organization, and here’s her answer:  “Age is no problem, our oldest WWOOFer is 86 and we have just had two delightful 58-year-olds at our own farm.”   I’m thinking… we’ve got a few years until we hit 86… so, Why Not?

Here’s the deal.  You register with WWOOF in the country of your choice, look through their listings of registered farms and then connect directly with farms you find interesting to see what they have to offer and match it with what fits your own needs.  There will be hard work, lots of work. Outside.  In the dirt.  BUT, sometimes its 4 or 5 hours a day and sometimes its 8 hours 6 days a week.  You choose.  You can stay a week or two, a month or longer.   The program has been around since the early 70’s and was established as a cultural exchange and not intended to be just free labor.  There are WWOOF farms in 50 countries from Africa to Japan to Italy.  Accommodation varies from tents (no thanks) to camper vans to rooms in the owner’s house.  This is where having our own VW bus camper would be perfect.   You can harvest grapes or olives, herd goats, make cheese, feed chickens, build fences, tend organic gardens and so on.  One WOOF opportunity was at an organic farm B&B and part of the “work” was helping in the kitchen.  With my hubby’s cooking talents, he perked right up at that one.  Meals are communal, organic and in places like Italy, I’m told they often include wine!I see adventure here, the opportunity to test your mettle as they say, try something way out of your comfort zone and meet interesting people (mostly young) from all over the world.  And since the gym membership went out the window with the corporate paycheck, where would you get a better workout.

Here’s a tiny taste of the thousand opportunities I found all over the world:

Beekeeping in Piedmont, Italy

If you want to uncover the secrets of beekeeping, the Apicoltura Leida Barbara produces organic honey, queen bees and pollen as well as cultivating a small vegetable garden. WWOOFers stay in a private room with a bathroom. Food is mainly organic and vegetarians can be catered for. From April to August, volunteers are based in the mountains but spend autumn and winter back at the farm. English is spoken and the minimum stay is a week.


Sedlescombe organic wines, East Sussex, UK

Britain’s oldest organic vineyard now stretches across 23 acres in East Sussex, but began with just 2,000 plants in 1979. One of only four organic vineyards in the country, it has been developed by Roy Cooke and his family, who produce approximately 15,000 bottles of organic wine each year and have hosted WWOOFers for 25 years. Volunteers are generally independent, with use of internet, TV and sometimes a car. The minimum stay is a week and accommodation is in caravans with a communal meal with hosts Roy and Irma once a week. The busiest period is from Easter to November.

So many interesting opportunities – so little time.  Well let’s hope there is a LOT of time now that I’m discovering all of these fun and unique ways to spend it.  Maybe we’ll help lead the charge on retirees re-inventing themselves in a whole new way.  We’ll be SWOOFERs  (aka Senior WOOFERs).   I like it!