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.

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Lost Our Virginity ~

Yup, as of this past weekend, the hubs and I are no longer home exchange virgins!  Finally… we found a match… and it was so good.  And so easy.  We are completely hooked.  Mr. Just-a-Backpack is already asking me to do it again.  In fact, he wants to do it any time, any place.  Oh, Baby!

I always get a buzz of excitement when an Inquiry from Home Exchange pops up in my email.   My first thought – Wow, somebody chose us!  What can I say, I have a strong need for people to like me.   That’s quickly followed by the thrill of opening the email to discover what new adventure awaits. And finally, there’s the reality of can we make this one work.  Or in some cases, do we even want to.  Sorry, but the week in Minneapolis didn’t seem worth the cost of two plane tickets.

Anyhow, back to this particular exchange.  A few weeks ago we received an inquiry from Dawn and Ram, a lovely couple who live in Toledo, Oregon (a few miles inland from the Port of Newport).  They were interested in snuggling Mr. Ricky in exchange for our feeding “the girls” – their 12 chickens, and gathering eggs.  Could we work out an exchange weekend?  We could and YES we would!  So, a match was hatched.  We emailed back and forth, exchanged information, made a plan and Voila! at 9:30 on Saturday morning we were off on an adventure.  We left flowers on the table, snacks in the refrigerator, wine on the counter and Mr. Ricky waiting to meet some new friends.  We found a beautiful custom-built, art-filled home on seven acres owned by an artist and a wildlife ranger.

A notebook on the counter gave us detailed instructions for everything we needed to know about their home, right down to the names and descriptions of the chickens “Ginny – Big and brown with white speckles”.  We settled in to enjoy one of the most relaxing and peaceful mini-getaways in a very long time.   That first evening, as we were sipping wine on the big, comfy couches overlooking the pond, hubs looks over and says “Do you hear that?”  I said, “Yes.  Nothing!  What a lovely sound.”

The next day (after feeding the girls and gathering the eggs) we explored the tiny mill town of Toledo, strolled the streets of Newport, barked back at the noisy sea lions, walked out to the fishing docks, ducked into shops, crossed the big bridge to escape the rain for a few hours in the Oregon Coast Aquarium and stuffed ourselves at one of the best seafood restaurants on the Oregon coast – Local Ocean Seafood.

By early evening we were completely tuckered out and headed back to our Toledo retreat to enjoy all the comforts of “home”.  So much nicer than watching TV sitting on the bed in a hotel room.  We put our feet up, pulled out a blanket, turned on the fireplace and snuggled on the couch with a glass of Pinot and a wee bit of chocolate.  We also discovered Netflix and the guilty pleasure of watching How I Met Your Mother.  All-in-all, it was a perfectly wonderful experience and we cannot wait to do it again.

Parked my rollie in this lovely bedroom.

Thank you Ram and Dawn for making our first home exchange such a wonderful experience.  We hope you enjoyed your stay in our home as much as we loved staying in yours.  Mr. Ricky says “hi” and please come back to visit any time.

If you’ve been considering home exchange for future travels, I suggest you go for it.

Now, I’m off to find home exchange number two…

Booked it Danno!

I am so excited I can hardly contain myself!   If I’m dreaming, please do not pinch me.

I have been thinking about walking the Camino de Santiago for a while now.  But, in my heart, I knew I was way past that stage in my life where I wanted to walk all day and then sleep on the ground or in a hostel with the smelly, partying masses of young folk. Not to mention carrying all my belongings on my back. Don’t get me wrong – I love young people.  I used to be one.  Truly, some of my best friends are young.  And, I still like a good party!   I do not think of myself as old and crotchety, no matter what my kids might tell you.  But, when it comes to SLEEP.  Now that’s a different matter entirely.  Let it be known here that I am not nice (and might even be considered cranky if not downright crotchety) when I don’t get my full eight hours – preferably in comfort and relative silence.  So, I wasn’t sure how to make this particular dream a reality.  It was definitely a conundrum.

I firmly believe that there is always a way and a brilliant solution came to me in the form of an article written by a woman who had completed what I like to call the “relatively civilized, not too hard but still challenging, with support if and when you need it” version of walking the Camino.   Marly Tours was our answer!  This discovery made it all seem do-able.  All we needed was a little time, a moderate amount of money and good walking shoes.  As it turned out, I mentioned our idea to a few friends and now we are a party of six.  Hubs, me, my sis and three women friends.  It’s a big year too – my 65th birthday, my sister’s “something that ends in a zero” birthday, hubs and my 10th anniversary.  Definitely a year worth marking in a big way.  We’ll  walk about 10-12 miles a day at our own pace  and meet up along the way. Then we’ll gather together every evening for wine, dinner and story-telling before bed.  We’ll be a small group of no more than 14 Pilgrims + our Marly “wranglers” who will make sure we don’t get lost, carry our luggage, provide snacks, first aid and sag wagon support if needed.

So… we’re off.  Well not until next September.  Exactly twelve months from this week.    Call me a light weight, call me soft, call me old, but do not call me between September 17 and 24, because I won’t be home.  I’ll be in Spain, crossing one more item off my bucket list – walking at least a small portion of the Camino de Santiago.

Staying in small hotels like this…Sleeping in a comfy bed like this…Walking along roads and paths like this…Now, I just need to find a home exchange so we can stay an extra week to explore the rest of Spain.  I’m working on that too.

Somtimes it really is about the destination ~

“Life is a journey, not a destination.

So said Ralph Waldo Emerson.   I wholeheartedly agree with this idea, but I’m pretty sure Ralph never spent the night in one of these truly unique destination hotels or he just might have changed his tune.  Sometimes the destination is worth the journey…especially when you are sleeping with the birds 40 feet above the ground or under a star-filled sky in the Utah desert in a trailer that could have been used by Harrison Ford while on location for Indiana Jones.

What’s not to love about the Shooting Star Drive-In & Airstream Park.  This place is a baby boomer paradise!  Owner Mark Gudenas, married his three passions – Drive-ins, shooting movies and Airstream trailers to create this unique vacation spot near Escalante, Utah.  Mark’s mission is “to provide our guests with a fun, unique and luxuriously comfortable vacation experience in one of the most scenic places in the world”.   The campground boasts eight custom designed and luxuriously equipped airstream trailers that pose as Hollywood star’s dressing trailers.   With names like “Ann’s Cabana” The Kid’s Hideout, Cary’s Cabin and The Duke, you’ve got some very interesting options for a fun night or two.   At dusk you can just slip into a 1964 red Cadillac convertible, one of the many great convertibles provided for your movie-viewing pleasure at the Shooting Star Drive-in.  Pass the popcorn!

Next stop?  How about a night in a tree house?  No kidding.  And there several right here in my own Pacific NW backyard, but the Treehouse Treesort caught my attention a while back.   If you’re looking for back to nature at it’s most quirky, here it is.  This place is loaded with very rustic charm and comes with a great story of one man’s ingenuity, perseverance and love of trees.  It’s definitely a backpack only place.  One of the cabins circles a Douglas Fir 47 feet off the ground.  You have to walk a swing bridge to get to your room and use a pulley system to deliver your luggage.  It’s not for the feint of heart or those with a fear of heights, but it would be a great adventure next summer when my granddaughter comes to visit again. (hint!).

First of all, who wouldn’t want to visit a town called Nice?  Add to that, the opportunity to sleep in a lovingly restored antique railroad caboose and I’m pretty sure we will have to add the Featherbed Railroad Bed & Breakfast Resort to our travel bucket list.  Located on Clear Lake in (yes) Nice, CA, each of the nine cabooses has a different theme.  You can spend the night in La Loose Caboose, Orient Express, Lover’s Caboose or perhaps the Easy Rider which boasts motorcycle handlebars on the headboard and a fringed-leather easy chair.  The grounds are lovely, there is a dock and lake access, feather beds, and a gathering spot in the historic Main Station that’s “a comfortable place to sit and watch nothing happen”.

And last on this list, but certainly not least – here’s your chance to sleep in an  airplane – comfortably.   In 2009, some wild and crazy folks opened Hotel Arlanda, a hotel/hostel in a 747 jumbo jet that is parked at the Arlanda Airport in Stockholm, Sweden.   There are 27 rooms, flat screen TV, internet, bathroom/showers down the hall (let’s hope they’re bigger than the standard airplane bathrooms) and a lounge.  For the real enthusiast, they offer you the chance to “sleep like a pilot”.  The cockpit has been converted into a deluxe suite where you can lie in bed and watch the air traffic over the Arlanda airport.  You might need noise cancelling headphones if you actually wanted to sleep, but it would be fun.

Ok, now I’m worried.  Do the pilots really sleep up there?  Is that why they lock the door?  So they can turn down the beds and turn in for the night?  Makes you wonder doesn’t it?

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.

Trains, Ferries and a Pedicab ~

I’m sitting on the Amtrak waiting to pull out of Union Station in downtown Seattle.  Car 9.  Seat 2.  Seems like the perfect time to reflect on a near perfect weekend getaway.  Seattle is only three hours from Portland, but I find taking the train is so relaxing, especially when I’m traveling solo and a dear friend is picking me up at the end of the line.

I still romanticize riding the rails and, frankly, Amtrak is a world (or two) away from the glory days of train travel.  These days, taking the train is pretty much like taking the Greyhound bus only the passengers aren’t as interesting and generally, they smell better.   All things considered, the train is still a great way to go.  It’s even better when you get to ride the ferry back and forth from Seattle to Pt. Townsend.  What’s not to love about a state who’s ferry system is designated as part of the State Highway System?  I love that!  Thousands of people commute daily from the many surrounding islands into Seattle.  Hundreds of them in their cars.

Seattle Skyline from the ferry

So, what does the perfect girls’ weekend look like when the friend you’re visiting lives in a small town in the Pacific Northwest?  Something like this…

Spending time in the Rick Steve’s Travel Store and trying on his famous backpack and rollie all-in-one!  I’m a huge fan of Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door travel.

Sipping hand crafted fermented cider at the  Finn River Cidery.

Learning the art and science of home canning and making my first batch of dilly green beans for Sunday morning Bloody Marys.  Yum!

Stopping at quaint little towns like this one ~

Drinking a few “Painkillers” – the official drink of the British Virgin Islands – and feeling rather pain free myself by the end of the evening.

Eating my body weight in fresh caught crab at dinner – my first ever Crab Louie.  What rock was I living under that I missed this delicious treat all these year?

Cheering on the strong and the brave at the Hadlock Days Keg Toss at the Valley Tavern.

Hanging with good friends ~ Hours and hours of girl talk time.  Laughing ourselves silly.   

And, we certainly ended our weekend adventure in style … with not a cab in sight to take us from Pike Place Market to the Ferry Terminal (my friend) and the train station (me) we jumped into a four wheel/dune buggy style pedicab and our lovely driver Candy wheeled us away – wind in our hair, cars everywhere and two middle aged wild women laughing like crazy fools caught up in the sheer joy of the moment.  Just the way I like it!

Doors of Mexico ~

In oneself lies the whole world and if you know how to look and learn, the door is there and the key is in your hand. Nobody on earth can give you either the key or the door to open, except yourself.    Jiddu Krisnamurti

I am fascinated by doors, especially old wooden ones.  They are true works of art and function.  They keep you warm. They keep you safe.  They hide secrets.  They open wide to welcome friends and strangers.  On my visits to San Miguel, Guanajuato and the small towns in between, I’ve spent many happy hours studying and photographing doors – and making up my own stories about what was going on behind them.

I’m no professional photographer and my camera is a tiny point and shoot, but nevertheless, I hope you find these doors as beautiful and interesting as I did.

Entering the Art Instituto of course!

rich gringo doors

The door knockers were works of metal art.

Striking for sure, but somehow so wrong.

Who stole the doors?