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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If you come to a fork in the road, take it

Yep, that brilliant piece of travel advice came from none other than Yogi Berra.  I’m kind of a quote fan so I thought I’d share a few words of wit and wisdom about travel that I’ve stumbled over in my recent armchair travels.   Enjoy!

1.  “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”   unknown

2.  “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware” –  Martin Buber

3.  “When preparing to travel, lay out all of your clothes and all of your money.  Then take half the clothes and twice the money”  Susan Heller

4.  “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.”  Susan Sontage

5.  “If at some point you don’t ask yourself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ then you’re not doing it right.”  Roland Gau

6.  “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.  Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”  Helen Keller

7.  “I travel light.  I think the most important thing is to be in a good mood and enjoy life, wherever you are.”  Diane von Furstenberg

8.  “Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.”   Lawrence Block

9.  “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a cash advance.”

10.  “Don’t be a tourist.  Plan less.  Go slowly.  I traveled in the most inefficient way possible and it took me exactly where I wanted to go.”  National Geographic’s Andrew Evans on his 40 day, 40 bus journey from Washington D.C. to Antartica

11.  “Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”  Gustave Flaubert

12.  “Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey.”  Fitzhugh Mullan

13.  “The great difference between voyages rests not with the ships, but with the people you meet on them.”  Amelia E. Barr

14.  “Just shut up and get in the car.”  Nancy M. Thompson to Leslie H. Sims

15.  “If you look like your passport photo, you are too ill to travel.  Will Kommen

What’s your favorite travel quote?  I’ll add it to my list.

Five Fun Things to do before I Die ~

Or twenty or one hundred …whatever.  What I’m really talking about and what I have been thinking about for quite a while is creating a bucket list.  Maybe part of the reason I haven’t taken any action on what I believe is a really good idea is because I don’t like the name.  Bucket List just doesn’t do it for me.  Nor does the the expression “kick the bucket”. I’ve tried thinking of other names – Life List, To Do List, Before I Die, It’s Now or Never.  Ok, I’m not doing any better.  So I realized I need to just get past the name and get on with the pondering, dreaming, and creating of my very own list of things I’ve always wants to do while I still can.

For some people (me), that’s not as easy as it sounds.  It’s easier to say, “Oh, I don’t know.”  or pull out a few standard issue ideas like “I want to travel.”   So, how do you get started on something like this.?  How about with a quiet place, a comfy chair, a glass of wine, a notepad and a nice pen.  And then?  Well, according to the wikihow-Make Your Bucket List, you just start asking questions and see what comes up.  If you keep asking long enough, I’m sure lots of interesting and long buried “I’ve always wanted to” ideas will begin to pop into your mind.  Write them down.  No judgement allowed here.  It’s not too big, too expensive, too crazy or even too small.  It’s just an idea that tickles your fancy.  A glimmer.  But that’s often how things start.  Then they have to bubble.  It’s amazing, but you start to see these places or things everywhere you look.  Then one day, you think. OK.  I’m going to make this happen.  And you do.  That’s how so many things have happened for me.   So far it’s always been random.  One day an idea pops into my head – I want to start an organization for women, or wouldn’t it be fun to live in San Miguel this winter, or most recently, I want to challenge myself and walk the Camino de Santiago.  Once the idea has lodged, look out because something’s gonna happen!  But, I’ve never had a plan or made a list and had the visual satisfaction of taking a big marker and crossing things OFF the list.  Been there!  Done that!  Now that I have more free time, I also know time is running out.  I want to make sure I have all the adventures and experiences my mind can conjure up and I think the Bucket List is one way to make that happen.

Walking the Great Wall of China – on the List

Geocache? On the list!

Fortunately, when I turned to the internet for insight and a little guidance, I found no less than six bucket-list websites where you can compile your own bucket list and share it with all your friends, family and the rest of the world.  Bucketlist.org users have posted nearly 16,000 lists containing over 300,000 items, ranging from climbing a volcano to learning to play the oboe.  For more inspiration you might check out Lifed.com’s list of 225 Things.  The other fun thing to do on these sites is make a mental list of ALL the amazing things that others hope to do that you have already done.    Watch out.  It can be addicting.

So, what are my Five Things?  They will probably change as I keep honing my Bucket List but so far ~  1.  Live in small town in France (or Italy) for six months.  2.  Learn to play golf well enough to play for fun with my hubby and join a ladies team (hit and giggle golf is ok).  3.  Attend a TED talk.  4.  Visit every National Park in the United States.  5.  Win the Lottery and start the Nancy M Thompson Charitable Foundation.

“Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming… “WOW – What a Ride!”  (anonymous)

What’s on your Bucket List?

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.

Hicksville Here We Come ~

I’ve been taking a couple of mini vacation trips with my backpack, my rollie and my lovely family.  I love summer!

Until I’m back to regular posts, here’s another fun and unique travel option that was sent to me recently from my very LA hipster niece.  She knows all the cute and quirky places to stay in California and this is certainly one to add to the travel list.  If you’re traveling in Southern California, you might want to spend a night (or two) in Hicksville.Hicksville is a  “motel” resort with lodging comprised of themed trailers with names like The Fifi, The Pioneer, The Integratrailor, and The Sweet.  It’s located in Joshua Tree, but you won’t see an address on their website.  That’s because you can’t drive by…you only get the address after your reservation has been confirmed.  It’s the ultimate secret getaway.  But wait, it gets better – the whole place, including the swimming pool, runs on solar power.  Their amenities include the pool, a Tipi with a firepit, horseshoes, darts, table tennis, archery and of course a bar.  All the comforts of home.  Well, that probably depends on where you call home, but it would definitely be a great stay for a night or two of fun in the outdoors and under the stars in the California desert. These folks really “circled the wagons” in style.

Thanks Melissa!

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?

Reflections on Water

I love being by the water.   It soothes my soul.  My bio-rhythms seem to slow to keep time with the rhythm of the waves.   My favorite childhood memories are of summers spent at our summer cottage on Balsam Lake.  In the lake, on the lake or lying on the dock by the lake.  I spent so much time in the water I’m surprised I didn’t grow gills.  My skin did turn prune-like on a regular basis however.   So it’s not a surprise that I see many water-related destinations in our future adventures.

A few years ago, my hubby and I went on a midnight canoe trip on Mt. Bachelor.   We slid across the lake guided by the light of the moon.  The only sounds were our paddles pushing through the water and the night song of the forest around us.  It was truly an awe-and-then-some experience.  Living in the Pacific Northwest we are truly blessed – ocean beaches and bays, rivers, lakes, streams, ponds – all right in our own backyard.  Before we set sail for parts unknown on the other side of the globe, and I even now, as I’m lusting after rivers in Egypt or Bulgari, we’ll keep on exploring and enjoying the natural bounty we have so close to home.

Floating and fly fishing on the south fork of the Flathead River in Glacier Park.

Fifteen minutes from our house and we’re canoeing on the Tualatin River.

Early morning sun salutation on the inlet – Wheeler, OR

Off  the beaten path near Steamboat Inn in Southern Oregon.

What’s your favorite water destination?  I’d love to check it out and maybe add it to our travel adventures bucket list.