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by Craig O'Connell

This is a transcontinental trip aboard Amtrak with three stopovers. Itinerary:

  • New Haven, CT to New York City via Northeast Direct
  • New York City to Chicago via the Lake Shore Ltd.
  • Chicago to Essex, Montana via the Empire Builder

    First stopover - Essex, Montana (Glacier National Park)

  • Essex, Montana to Portland, Oregon via the Empire Builder
  • Portland, Oregon to Santa Barbara, CA via the Coast Starlight

    Second stopover - Santa Barbara, CA

  • Santa Barbara, CA to L.A. via the San Diegan
  • L.A. to Chicago via the Desert Wind

    Third stopover - Chicago, IL

  • Chicago to Washington, D.C. via the Capitol Ltd.
  • Washington, D.C. to New Haven via Northeast Direct

    This 7,980 mile transcontinental journey through the bloodlines of America originates from Union Station in New Haven, Connecticut on Tuesday, August 13, 1996.

    Leaving New Haven via the tunnel in the tastefully restored Union Station.
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    My wife, Ann, my twelve year old daughter, Chlo, and I board Amtrak's newly designated Northeast Direct train #173. The train is full and we are burdened with baggage which we choose to carry with us. Suitcases are too heavy to lift onto the overhead racks so we slowly make our way through the train from one car to another desperately seeking adjacent seating and, more importantly, a space for our luggage. Within minutes Amtrak adds two more coaches and our burdens are relieved.

    The train is 30 minutes late out of New Haven. Sometime before departure the conductor announces the reason--a new radio is being replaced in the engine. The notification is a courtesy that conductors on Amtrak would be wise to heed.

    We depart at 3:20 p.m. The assistant conductor takes our tickets and fills us in on the luggage arangements in New York's Penn Station, the first connecting stop on our itinerary. She kindly forewarns us that the Metropolitan Lounge at Penn Station does not compare with its counterparts in D.C. and Chicago..."just a large wide open space with seating." Metropolitan Lounges are set aside for first class passengers, those holding either sleeping car tickets or upgrades to club car seating.

    We arrive at Penn Station, an edifice in a state of decline, congestion and shameful remuddling that belies its once glorious past. Fortunately for us, the assistant conductor was wrong. Amtrak's Metropolitan Lounge is every bit as plush and comfy as we had hoped. While we await our next train we relax with coffee, juice, muffins, magazines and newspapers.

    The call is made for our next connection, train #49, the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago. The former New York Central System had a Lake Shore Limited as early as 1897 but its crack train along this route from the Big Apple to Chicago via Albany-Buffalo was the Twentieth Century Limited. Possibly the most famous passenger train in America, the Twentieth Century Limited offered premier service to Chicago in sixteen hours flat. The Twentieth Century Ltd.'s obit was sadly written in 1967.

    The consist on Amtrak's #49 Lake Shore Limited today is one baggage car, a 10-4 sleeper, 3 coaches, a lounge, the diner, 2 Viewliner sleepers, the crew car and a CSX Observation car on the end, all being hauled by two F-40 diesel locomotives, the reliable powerhouse of Amtrak's eastern fleet.

    We're psyched because this will be our first trip on Amtrak's spanking new, state of the art Viewliner equipment.

    A Viewliner deluxe bedroom.
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    Our sleeper is #4901 known as the "Northern View." Our attendant is Bertha Garrett. Her warm smile and gracious air is every bit as captivating as the Viewliner itself. She runs through the Viewliner's gadgetry and orients us to the deluxe sleeper we've booked straight through to the windy city.

    The Viewliner is modern and high tech with a light, glossy, putty-colored interior. The room is outfitted with a stainless steel sink with a cold water tap & Dixie cups, mirrors, a cabinet for hand towels, trash compartment, bench seats, a fold-down table, glass door, climate controls, toilet, shower, video monitor and a radio with three music channels. Billie Holiday sings "Lover Man" while Ella croons "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby." The soft jazz standards are THE perfect touch to this traveler's delight along the scenic Hudson River.

    Dinner is in the dining car through Croton-Harmon to Rhinecliff with Bob of New Rochelle. Since we are riding as three and the table seating is for four we are always seated with another traveling alone. The dining car waiter was a comedian of sorts; very entertaining. I had Herb's chicken. As the waiter explains it, Herb created this chicken with barbecue sauce recipe and expired only two weeks before it was published in the menu. Mashed potatoes, gravy and green beans complete the dish. Ann, meanwhile goes for the swordfish while Chlo enjoys a grilled American cheese sandwich.

    Back to our deluxe bedroom where we encounter difficulty opening the door. No problem. Bertha arrives and patiently instructs us on how to make do, while noting the minor malfunction for the record. She also brings us a disposable Amtrak camera and a photo album. It seems that Amtrak is having a photo contest and encourages its clientele aboard the train to take photos of the new Viewliner to submit for entry by September 1. Chlo is psyched about this. She wants to win! The camera is just one of the many complimentary "gifts" that Amtrak offers to its first class customers. There will be many more keepsakes as we make our transcontinental journey.

    By this time it's dark outside so there is little benefit to gazing out the window. Ms. Garrett takes down the beds. Two prime features of the new Viewliner deluxe bedroom is that one can sit upright in the upper bunk and, unlike the Superliner sleepers, the top bunk resident gets his/her own window. The sleeping accomodations are pre-arranged. Chlo gets the upper bunk to herself while Ann and I share the lower. Before tucking in for the night the ladies watch a Robert Redford movie on the in-room video monitor while I camp out in the lounge car. There I meet Antonio, a bright, pensive young student from the Cape Verde Islands. Now living with his mom and sister in Boston, Antonio is taking the Lake Shore to Lake Forest University in Chicago. Antonio is just one of many students who rely upon Amtrak to make their way to and from college. We spent two hours sipping beers and chatting about trains, travel, literature, existentialist philosophy and world music. By midnight I decided to retire back to the room.

    Wednesday, August 14, 1996

    We awaken the next morning, Wednesday, August 14th, in Cleveland. Start the day off right with a complete breakfast of coffee, o.j., pancakes and oatmeal. Ann chose the grits, hash browns, o.j. and coffee while Chlo opted for Raisin Bran, hash browns, o.j. and milk.

    Got off at Toledo's newly refurbished station to meet up with an online buddy who I had never seen before. Tom works for Conrail and greeted me upon arrival, offering some rail literature for my leisure reading. The station stop was brief so I had to board the train shortly but it was sure nice putting a face on a guy you've been chatting with online for over a year.

    To my sheer enjoyment the jazz music channel is just turning out some of my favorite standards including "Autumn In New York," "Mood Indigo" sung by Nina Simone, "Caravan," "Easy Street" by Lady Day, "Lullaby of Birdland," "Stormy Weather," "I Loves You Porgy," "Black Is The Color of My True Love's Hair" and more!

    Preparing for our arrival into Chicago's busy Union Station our audio channel is playing "I Get A Kick Out Of You." The lyrics are apropos--"...I get no kick from airplanes. High altitudes with some guy in the sky is nothing that I like to do..."

    18 1/2 hours out of New York City and we're in Chicago on time. Our layover in Chicago is a brief two and a half hours, less if you consider boarding time. Once again Amtrak's first class Metropolitan Lounge provides a moment's respite to refresh ourselves and stretch our legs.

    At 2:30 p.m. boarding is announced for Amtrak train #7, the westbound Empire Builder. The Empire Builder was to the Great Northern Railroad what The Twentieth Century Limited was to the New York Central System. Named after the wealthy rail baron James J. Hill, the Builder became the first post WWII transcontinental streamliner making the run from Chicago to Seattle in 45 hours. Today Amtrak's Empire Builder will traverse much of the same territory as its namesake.

    Making our way past the long consist we locate our sleeping car #2710. There we are greeted by the attendant who assists us to our new home on wheels known as Family Bedroom #15. The family bedrooms can sleep as many as 5 or 6 and are located at the end of the car on the lower level of this bilevel equipment. One advantage is that, being at the end of the car, you have windows on both sides of your room. A disadvantage is that you are located approximately over the wheels of the train so you tend to feel the motion a bit more.

    An interior view of the Family BR on the Empire Builder.
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    On our table is a vase of red and white carnations over a linen spread and a complimentary bottle of Covey Run Chardonnay and two "Empire Builder" wine goblets with green stems. Two packaged spreads of nuts, wheat wafers and confections of apple and apricot with walnuts complete the tasty offerings awaiting first class customers.

    The customary PA announcements are made including word that this train is filled to capacity. The dining car steward will be coming around to take our reservation times for dinner so stay in your rooms until then. Such and such is the menu for tonight. Little children should not be unaccompanied. All passengers need to have footwear when walking through the train...etc...

    We go for the early dinner. Ann has the prime rib with horseradish, tender and cooked to perfection, along with a salad with one of the best ranch dressings she's tasted and carrots, rice, coffee and apple pie. Chlo orders the chicken nuggets, a kid's dish which is "just okay." She finds the salad with ranch dressing along with rice, peas, apple pie and iced tea more to her liking. My choice for this evening is vegetarian lasagna, salad with Italian dressing, carrots which were not cooked well, a Pepsi and apple pie.

    The staff on this dining car seems hurried and overworked. Seated with us is a woman from Staten Island, New York who is traveling from Chicago to Seattle to visit her daughter. She's meeting her husband who is flying out. She doesn't do airplanes so Amtrak works for her. One item of interest is that she was surprised when we tipped the waiter the standard 15% gratuity. She, like many Amtrak travelers, didn't realize that tipping in the dining car was customary. This can be confusing for some travelers riding first class. Since the cost of their meals is included in their fare they never receive a bill and by the time the meal is completed they've either forgotten the cost of the dinner on the menu or don't realize that you tip on trains. Meanwhile Wisconsin's farm country passes by our windows as we dine and chat.

    Upon our return to the room our beds are brought down for the night by Jesse Jones, our attendant. With a family bedroom you get lots of bed and seating space. The toilet, washroom and shower facilities are at the other end of the hall and shared with the occupants in the smaller "economy rooms" in the car. Two fold down tables, a small closet and mirror complete the amenities. As night falls we engage in a few games of cards and some leisurely reading. I've selected the book "Montana, 1948" by Larry Watson to get into the mood for spending a few leisurely days in the Big Sky State.

    Thursday, March 15, 1996.

    We awaken at sunrise over the North Dakota plains, west of Fargo. I check the timetable and it appears that we are running one and one-half hours late on BNSF (Burlington Northern-Sante Fe) track which began west of the Twin Cities. Prior to that we were on CP Rail (Canadian Pacific), formerly Soo Line, formerly Milwaukee Road. Except for most of the Northeast Corridor Amtrak does not own the track it operates on and is at the behest of freight roads, some more or less cooperative than others in giving passenger through trains greater priority.

    We enjoy a nother hearty Amtrak breakfast in the dining car as we pass through the most fertile farm soil I've seen, rich black and freshly tilled. Today I select the buttermilk pancakes, fresh fruit plate of grapes, orange slices, strawberries, apple slices, along with o.j. and coffee. Chlo has the bread basket of apple corn bread, biscuit, bagel and cream cheese with o.j. Ann enjoys the grits with two eggs over easy, hash browns, whole wheat toast and coffee.

    Dining with us this morning is a 60ish year old woman from Newark, New Jersey who is traveling coach heading out to college in Shelby, Montana where she'll pursue her bachelor's degree. She has a smoker's cough and it's rather unappealing to listen to her wheezing and hacking during our breakfast. What redeems her with us is that she shares our enthusiasm for the Atlanta Braves baseball team and so conversation comes easy. She doesn't fly and "always takes the train wherever she goes."

    Back to the room. We're now ten minutes outside of Minot, North Dakota where we are supposed to change over into coach seating. The conductor, however, says that no one is booked for the sleeper through to East Glacier, Montana and there is absolutely no seating available in the coach. He advises us to stay put until he notifies us otherwise. Meanwhile I take a shower and pleasantly the water is hot and plentiful. No need to keep pushing the water button every thirty seconds to get more water; just turn the lever.

    Our stop in Minot for refueling and crew changes allows us a chance to get off the train and stretch our legs along the platform, despite the scorching 95 degree heat. Our attendant is concerned about our quarters. He needs to clean the room so it is ready for the next occupants. The word on the platform among the passengers is that this train is overbooked and that no coach space is available. That would account for why we remain in our family bedroom. As we chat on the platform there is a BNSF freight, a long string of trailers and doublestacks, passing through on the outside track of this double mainline.

    After boarding about 40 new passengers, we pull out at 11:18 a.m., one hour and 14 minutes behind schedule. The train has two dining cars. One is the main diner and the other is their unique "Glacier Park Grill" or Ranch Car which serves a menu of light fare for lunch and dinner. The Superliner lounge is filled with smoke. Smoking is allowed on both levels, much to our chagrin. It seems that Amtrak is slow to implement health conscious non-smoking policies on some of its long distance trains.

    Back in our family bedroom #15, Chlo and Ann engage in a lively game of Yahtzee, which Chlo wins hands down. Later I beat her twice. We get the lunch call as we enter mountain time and set the watches back yet another hour.

    Seated with us today is a 54 year old woman traveling from her current residence in Minneapolis, Minnesota to a family wedding back home in Whitefish, Montana. Sporting a t-shirt with the map of Montana she is taciturn and promises to make luncheon conversation a challenging experience. It is said back east that folks from Big Sky Country are quiet and reserved and initially this lady seems to fit the bill. Drinking a Budwiser with her meal, she slowly begins to loosen her tongue, blurting out bits and pieces of personal unsolicited information, of which the main topic is beer. On her second Bud she's even more loquacious as she reveals that Miller Lite is her favorite but her husband, back in Minneapolis, prefers Pabst Blue Ribbon instead. This makes for fewer conflicts on the domestic front. She's decided to make the trek out to Whitefish because her sister has enticed her to the family wedding with the offer of an entire keg of Miller. Hubby would be proud of her not having this first beer of the day until noon. Her grocery bill, she goes on, is just $200 a month and she shops only once a month, which doesn't include Taco Bell and Dominoes Pizza, her two favorite places to dine. "But what about milk?" inquires Chlo, who, meanwhile is dining on minestrone soup, salad, and iced tea with a twist of lemon. The Bud sounded too good to pass up and, besides, I wanted to be congenial, so I ordered one too along with my chicken salad. Ann was a bit more adventurous by ordering the hot beef sandwich smothered in horseradish along with taco chips and hot sauce. When the waiter returned for our dessert order our seating companion requested a third beer and we decided to pass altogether and retreat back to our family room.

    At 4:30 p.m. the train comes to a complete stop in Dotson, Montana, just west of the station stop at Malta. Trouble ahead on BN tracks as the two mainlines become one. The crossover ahead has a kink in the rail and federal regulations prohibit further travel. Burlington Northern maintenance of way personnel are called in to replace the rail. Jesse calls me aside and confides that the BN personnel are saying that it will be a two hour delay. He detrains along with the conductor to find out more. Passengers are not allowed off the train because we are not located at a platform. Meanwhile folks congregate near our room at the lower level where a dutch door-like window can be opened for a better view. Peering out the window reveals the sweltering heat. Clearly heat rail expansion is the cause of our delay. When Jesse returns he decides that it is time to hold a party and distributes a bottle of wine to each room in his sleeper.

    Prior to dinner we spend time in the Glacier Park Grill playing 500 rummy. Ann kept "going out" early thus penalizing Chlo and I for holding so many cards. The heat in the Grill car became a bit oppressive so we returned to our comfortable family bedroom where the conductor has allowed us to remain. More 500 rummy as Ann continues to trounce her opponents handily.

    Dinner starts promptly at 5:30 p.m. but we choose a 7:30 seating. At 7:00 we're called to the dining car. The dining car steward on this train prides himself on being ahead of time so as not to keep hungry folks waiting. For dinner Ann has the prime rib with horseradish, oven brown potatoes, sugar snap peas, fruit, cheese and coffee. Chlo once again goes for the "just okay" chicken nuggets, this time with a Pepsi and the last available dish of ice cream for dessert. I try the vegetable lasagna, mashed potatoes, peas, coffee and apple pie.

    During dinner the conductor announces that the rail has been replaced but needs to be tested. BN freights, there are 40 a day passing through here, will get priority. Passengers are warned not to detrain and step off onto the tracks because of imminent danger from passing freights. He also indicates that the delay will take another two hours and thanks us for our patience.

    Seated with us at dinner is a young man traveling to Portland, Oregon. He's been home in Massachusetts to visit his parents after traveling the country and having quit his job six weeks ago as a room service attendant at a prestigious hotel. Listening to him one begins to wonder if the true nature of that trip home was financially motivated. He then displays his napkin folding techniques as if he was doing oragami. His return to Portland will allow him to complete his final semester of undergraduate work which has taken the better part of ten years, much to the chagrin of his dad. Throughout his decade of college stints he's become somewhat of a world traveler, working odd jobs from time to time. As he puts it, "I guess I should complete something in my life."

    We finally get the green signal up ahead at 9:15 p.m., roughly five hours later. Ann has artfully weaved a stylish "wrap" in Chlo's hair while I've been asleep since 8:00, not to awaken until midnight. Jesse arrives and apologizes for the disturbance but needs to make the preparations for our room. We've already occupied it 14 hours longer than expected but it would have been vacant anyway and there was no coach space available. He helps us with our things and we move one car forward to a combination coach/crew car at the head of the train behind the two F-40s. Once seated comfortably in our new quarters I slip Jesse a handsome tip. He has been very gracious and helpful throughout a difficult day.

    So today we've left the fertile flat plains of North Dakota with its patches of sunflowers radiantly bathed in bright sunshine that highlights its spectacular yellow hues in contrast to the rich black soil. We've passed the expanses of wheat fields, farmhouses and grain elevators en route to Montana. Montana, at least the portion we're in that borders Canada to the south and North Dakota to the west, is farm and ranch country. None seems prosperous. The terrain is rocky, the unpaved gravelly roads dusty and bluish sagebrush and buffalo grass dot the arid landscape with its rundown shacks still standing in spite of themselves as a weathered palette and testimonial to this hardened countryside. Someone must be making a living out here. There are cattle farms, to be sure, amongst the hilly ravines, gullies and creeks that knife in and around the railroad tracks.

    In our coach Ann and Chlo sleep while I finish reading "Montana, 1948." My inflatable neck pillow purchased from Mauris Emeka, author of "Amtraking," turns out to come in handy now. Finally train #7 pulls into Essex, Montana at 4 a.m., nearly 8 hours behind schedule. As we detrain I am immediately struck by three things. One is a tall, statuesque mountain man who waits to board this westbound train. He carries hiking gear on his back and sports a beard that would be the envy of Roald Dahl's Mr. Twit or one of the Smith Brothers of cough drop fame. Mountain man stands erect, staring straight ahead without seeming to move a muscle. The second observation is that when you step off the train there is simply no platform. One is, instead, greeted by the hard roadbed ballast that crunches underfoot. Indeed, this is a land far removed from the more urban depots that I'm familiar with. The final observation, and one that is unmistakable at this hour, is the vast expanse of starlit sky. There is simply no question why Montana is known as "Big Sky Country."

    Friday, August 16, 1996 -- Essex, Montana

    So now it's Friday, August 16th. A jovial employee from the Izaak Walton Inn greets us, loads our baggage onto a van and takes us the one quarter mile up the path to our hotel room #14. As we settle in and fall off to sleep we are greeted by the sounds of a Burlington Northern helper engine as it blasts its horn outside our window. In tow are a couple of boxcars and gondolas. A freight switching operation is underway. "Is that the garbage truck?" mumbles Ann as she drifts off to sleep.

    The Izaak Walton Inn, Essex, Montana.
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    We awaken at 8:00 a.m. and head down one flight for breakfast to the Inn's dining room. Most of the foods are specially prepared homemade recipes, many featuring fresh huckleberries now in season. Dining at the I.W.I is one of the special treats of staying here. I savor their whole wheat huckleberry pancakes with freshly brewed Boyd's coffee while three freights and the eastbound Empire Builder pass outside our window.

    The dining room, like all of the Inn, has a railroadiana motif, with particular emphasis, understandably, on the Great Northern. There's even a shelf of O gauge Lionel Great Northern model trains on display in the dining room. Throughout the Inn there are showcases of Great Northern memorabilia. The Inn is rustic, but modern, tasteful and reasonably priced. Our room on the second floor is trackside and small but comfortable. Great Northern etched glass transoms adorn the walls of the bathroom. The shower is spacious but not like home. There is a futon bed for Chlo and a double bed for Ann and I. The mattress is on the soft side, not to my liking but it will do. Steam heat radiators provide warmth in colder weather but we're in the mid-eighties. Skies are sunny and nights are comfortable and pleasant.

    The Inn has two front porch swings that we all love. Chlo says she could swing there all day long. The large porch overlooks the double mainline and BNSF yards with mountains for a backdrop. There are "ladder tracks" for a BNSF service facility here. Jordan snowplows are set out on the tracks awaiting wintry weather. Two to four Burlington Northern helper engines are stationed just outside the Inn and await their duty, assisting BNSF freights over the continental divide and through the Marias Pass.

    A view from the porch of the Izaak Walton Inn.
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    Before noon we rent a Ford Taurus from the Inn and head out through Glacier National Park. The Inn is strategically located between the entrances to East and West Glacier. We make our way along the "Going To The Sun Road," the name of which becomes readily apparent as we climb over the continental divide on narrow winding "switchbacks" on the mountainside precipice. We make a few stops along the way as there are plenty of "Kodak moments" awaiting us and I desperately need relief from a severe case of a switchback-driver's bare knuckle syndrome! Two very popular and scenic locations along the route are McDonald's Lake and St. Mary's Lake. Just past McDonald's Lake we stop to hike along the "Trail of the Cedars." The entire trip around the park, including stops for hiking and gathering snowballs from the high elevations, takes us six hours.

    Back at the Inn we sit out on the porch recliner with a pot of coffee, watching the freights go by and awaiting dinner. The dinner special tonight is chicken marsala over penne pasta with peas and carrots. That's my choice and Ann's and it's every bit as delicious as our waiter, Mark, promises. Chlo opted for the salad with a raspberry vinagrette dressing.

    Saturday, August 17, 1996

    Another delicious breakfast starts out the day. We book out today so we have to get all of our belongings in order for the 11 a.m. checkout. The rest of the morning is spent leisurely camping out on the porch swings, drinking coffee, playing ping pong in the game room, haki-sak in the lot and photographing the sites.

    We head out shortly after noon to West Glacier and hike from the "Trail of the Cedars" up to Avalance Lake. The hike up is a brisk 45 minutes but well worth it. I can't think of a more peaceful and beautiful location for an afternoon picnic. This is yet another "Kodak moment." The hike back takes us 35 minutes past the winding river with its rapids and mini waterfalls. It seems that everywhere we go in Glacier we meet many friendly people. The name "International Peace Park" suits this location well. Finally we head back to the Inn stopping only at "Goat Lick" but there are no goats licking salt from the rocks.

    Lake Avalance at Glacier National Park.
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    Back at the Inn we spend more leisurely time on the porch reading and having coffee and then playing ping pong in the game room before heading out to board our westbound train #27 to Portland. We've thoroughly enjoyed our short stay at the Izaak Walton Inn and talk fondly about returning some day.

    The Empire Builder arrives at 9:25 p.m, about one hour behind schedule. We're immediately greeted by Gregory, our sleeping car attendant and we inquire about dinner. Gregory indicates that the dining car has just closed. Had the train been on time we would have been seated for dinner. He directs us to the Chief of On Board Services to get some food from the lounge car. As it turns out the Chief of On Board Services is a fan of Friends of Amtrak and greets me warmly. We're graciously treated to a light fare of sandwiches from the Lounge car and retreat to our room because the Glacier Park Grill is smoke filled.

    No complimentary bottles of wine or goblets await us in the family bedroom of this train headed for Portland, Oregon. But it's only an overnight ride and who needs wine at this hour. In Spokane, Washington at 2:55 a.m. our section of the train will be disconnected and head to Portland while the rest of the Empire Builder goes on to Seattle with the diner included. The overnight ride is punctuated by the intermediate horn blasts for the many grade crossings and the clickety-clack of the rail that resonates in my sleep.

    Sunday, August 18, 1996

    I'm up at 5:30 a.m. with sunrise. Breakfast, sans diner, is in the lounge car and is to begin at 6:00 sharp. Nevertheless it is a half-hour late getting started and the hurried attendant fails to inform me of the choices of a packaged meal that are set aside for first class customers. Cold cereal, coffee, juice and muffins do nicely, however. Ann and Chlo arrive about 30 minutes later.

    I'm seated with a very alert and sociable octogenarian from California named Dorthea, aka "Granny." Man can she talk up a storm. At 81 Granny has not been on a train since 1943 and she's already loving this experience, except for the fact that she froze last night and desperately needs a blanket. I contact the proper staff and see that her needs are met. She goes on to show me her business card. Granny is a certified expert in parliamentary law, working as a consultant and speaking to convention gatherings. There are no flies on this lady!

    From her economy bedroom down the hall from us in the sleeping car Granny acts as a tour guide as our train follows the Columbia River through Washington, passing picturesque, snow capped Mt. Hood in the distance. All along our route to Portland train #27 hugs the shore of the Columbia River Gorge.

    We arrive in Portland at 11:15 a.m., still only one hour behind schedule and three hours before our connection on the southbound Coast Starlight is scheduled to depart. I quickly case out this tastefully restored century old station and discover that there is a small but very comfortable and classy metropolitan lounge, which we immediately retire to. While Ann locates Granny I strike up a conversation with the Metro Lounge's attendant who's interested in my Friends of Amtrak effort. He's congenial and very helpful, providing me with a map of the surrounds and directing me to a few points of interest not far from the station.

    After two cups of the complimentary freshly brewed Irish Cream coffee I set out for downtown Portland. My sojourn turns out to be more like a walk back in time when I happen upon the Portland Saturday Market on Sunday. Bustling with street musicians, ethnic food concessions and vendors peddling an assortment of diverse wares including art, photography, antiques, jewelry, wood crafts, incense, clothing and even services such as hair wrapping and massage, the Saturday Market is like a 60s "happening" well worth the fun and certainly the short walk from Union Station. From this perspective Portland seems to be a progressive city with free bus transportation and light rail transit on overhead catenary.

    Back at the station the Coast Starlight, train #11, arrives early from Seattle. With our boarding pass from the Metropolitan Lounge in hand we quickly stow or baggage in the family bedroom and head to the dining car for lunch. Unfortunately lunch is finished but the dining car steward is accomodating and offers to sign for whatever we want from the lounge! The Coast Starlight is Amtrak's permier train. Its motto is "The Customer Is Always Right And We Can Prove It." The dining car steward just did.

    This train is outfitted with newer Superliner II equipment. The colors are like the Viewliner, putty and mauve with blue floor carpeting. Toilets flush by lowering the seat and showers flow by a simple turn of the handle. And, to my delight, it is completely non-smoking! The service is first class and the seating is comfortable and plush. Even the dining car has an air of laughter and less of the hurried tension that seemed too commonplace on the Empire Builder. However, one can hardly fault the Builder crew since this diner appears to have more staff.

    The Coast Starlight dining car.
    Click on the thumbnail image to download / view the larger image.

    But our favorite hangout on this train is the Pacific Parlor Car. A brainstorm of the innovative people at Amtrak West, the Pacific Parlor Car is unique to the Coast Starlight. It is a refurbished Heritage diner available to first class patrons only. The Pacific Parlor car is staffed from morning till night and provides refreshments such as coffee, tea, juice, and soft drinks, all courtesy of Amtrak. During the afternoons there are wine and campagne tastings served with trays of fresh fruit (melons, grapes, oranges and berries), cheese and crackers.

    Amtrak's Pacific Parlor Car on the Coast Starlight.
    Click on the thumbnail image to download / view the larger image.

    This is where we play our games of 500 Rummy and double solitaire. During our trip the Pacific Parlor Car even featured its own magician. Known only as an Amtrak entertainer the man performed feats of magic with a sleight of hand that had everyone mystified. Ann was solicited as his assistant to cut the ropes during his Monday show. Of course the ropes that are cut then reappear as uncut. He was also a jokester of sorts. Two of our favorites were rather gross but funny just the same: 1. You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose but you can't pick your friend's nose, and 2. What's the difference between broccoli and boogers? Answer--kids won't eat broccoli.

    Amtrak entertainer/magician on the Coast Starlight.
    Click on the thumbnail image to download / view the larger image.

    The Pacific Parlor Car also featured some fine jazz & blues music on Sunday evening, including some of the attendant's personal favorites by John Coltrane, Etta James and Eddie Harris. The attendant is Tom Anderson and he has been around Amtrak since 1974. He spent many years in management working in the Catering Department, but came back on board as an LSA in the early 90's. Tom is a blues enthusiast and plays them on his own stereo which he brings to work with him. These west coast trainman all seem to bring something unique to their positions.

    The trip time on the Coast Starlight was 28 hours from Portland to Santa Barbara, California, our next stop. One scenic highlight of this trip was the route through the Cascades along precarious ridges and elevated trestles overlooking deep valleys and ravines. I filmed this portion of the trip with the camcorder while murmuring "Oh my God" as I looked down into the abyss below.

    Following Sunday's champagne tasting in the Pacific Parlor Car we took the 7:30 dining car seating. Chlo and I had the Portobello Vegetarian Steak with ratatouille and vegetables. Ann had the tenderloin steak cooked medium rare with potatoes. Salads came with meals including a choice of two or three dressings. Apple pie rounded out the dessert.

    It is customary for Amtrak sleeping car attendants to leave chocolate sweets on all pillows when they make up the rooms for the night. But on the Coast Starlight even the sweets are special. Not one or two but four Ghiradelli chocolate mint squares are placed on each bed both nights. And while the disposable camera was our gift for riding first class on the Lake Shore Limited and the fine etched glass green stem wine goblets on the Empire Builder, our freebies on the Coast Starlight are plastic travel coffee mugs with the Starlight's own logo in color.

    Monday evening, August 19, 1996 -- Santa Barbara, California

    For us one of the treats of riding Amtrak is the experience of meeting new and different people. Our dinner companion on Monday evening is a young man returning to his home in Santa Barbara. He is gregarious and provides helpful tips and tidbits of information for our three day stay there. When we finally detrain in Santa Barbara he even calls a yellow cab for us from his cell phone. Meanwhile I photograph the Southern RR private railcar that has been at the end of our departing Amtrak train.

    The cab takes us to our motel, the Cabrillo Inn on Cabrillo Boulevard, by 7:00 p.m. The motel is comfortable and reasonably priced, one I would easily recommend to anyone visiting the area. The evening is warm and sunny, just as the travel brochures had promised. After checking into our room, Chlo takes a dip in the outdoor heated pool while Ann and I walk the beachside street surveying the lay of the land. The night is warm and the smell of saltwater is in the air. A good night for sleeping comfortably with the window open.

    A view from the deck of the Cabrillo Inn.
    Click on the thumbnail image to download / view the larger image.

    Tuesday, August 20, 1996

    The motel serves a complimentary continental breakfast of coffee, juice, muffins and bagels so we dine on the upper level deck first thing Tuesday morning. The breakfast is adequate, good coffee and juices, so this will be suitable for our three night stay here.

    At 8:00 I call Avis and hike down Cabrillo Blvd. and alongside the Southern Pacific tracks to pick up our car rental. I'm offered a Lincoln Town Car for subcompact prices since no other rental vehicles are available at the moment. No problem. It's huge and comfortable but negotiates turns like a yacht. Chlo and Ann have made their way to the Fess Parker Red Lion Inn to rent a three wheel double racer bike and then head off along the bike paths parallel to the beach. I took my turn at maneuvering my "boat," driving down the road apiece to the village of Montecito where I locate yet another spectacular beach just opposite the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, ala "lifestyles of the rich and famous." A short drive away along Hot Springs Road I find an adobe structure church called Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I then head back, pick up Ann and Chlo as they return the bike rental, and take them on the same scenic drive. This time we take the opportunity to photograph the unique church built in 1936.

    Today turns out to be sunny, balmy and delightful, a perfect day to spend at the beach. East Beach is just across the street from our hotel and includes a snack bar and facilities for changing and washing up. Ann and Chlo play a few games of haki sak, utilizing the ubiquitous volley ball nets. We stop long enough for lunch at the East Beach Grill and then back for more games, reading and soaking up the California sunshine. Despite the fact that this is southern California the Pacific Ocean seems much colder than the waters of the Atlantic back home in New England.

    Late afternoon flavored coffee is enjoyed at a cozy Montecito cafe. The coffee is savored along with a game of Yahtzee won by Chlo, despite the fact that each of us scored a "yahtzee" in that one game. Chlo's streak was hot! If she needed a three or a six she could roll it almost at will.

    Back to the hotel for some pool time and more haki-sak. Then we head into town for dinner at Pascucci's (not sure if that is the correct spelling) a bistro along the Paseo Nuevo on State Street. The pizza is as good as anything back home and that is a high compliment if you know anything about New Haven's apizza. Along the Paseo of mall style shopping, a far cry from your basic sterile suburban mall architecture, we browse and window shop through the many fine stores ultimately winding up at Barnes & Noble before heading back to our hotel to call it a day.

    Wednesday, August 21, 1996

    This day turns out to be just as beautiful, sunny and pleasant as one could wish for. We start the morning with light breakfast fare on the Cabrillo Inn deck and then rent a quadricycle for a ride along Cabrillo Blvd. Chlo controls the steering and does a remarkably creditable job while Ann and I provide the horsepower. This is followed by a short drive up into the hills to view the Santa Barbara Mission and then back down to the coast for a visit to the Santa Barbara Zoo. Here we spend time admiring and photographing the cooperative giraffes and playful monkeys as well as the newest resident, a handsome 460 pound silverback lowland gorilla named Max. This rather progressive zoo has also set up a full sized replica of a cabin at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund's Karisoke Research Center in the mountains of Rwanda. Before leaving we stop at their gift shop where Chlo purchases a large poster of a cute macaque holding a snowball. The gift shop is very accomodating and will forward the poster via U.P.S.

    More time is spent at the beach, often referred to as the "Riviera of the U.S." The title is fitting as we encounter many foreign travelers here including a large number of Scandinavian women. As a resort this area is not overdeveloped. No high rises. The architecture is tasteful and blends into the semi-tropical flavor. But the water, once again, is numbing and one needs the retreat of the hotel pool to feel refreshed.

    This evening is spent in Montecito where we enjoy more fine Italian cuisine at Palazzios. The dinner is filling and cooked with just the right combination of sauce and herbs. Finally it's time to pack up and get a good night's rest for the trip out first thing in the morning.

    Thursday, August 22, 1996--Leave Santa Barbara, CA

    We awaken at 5:00 a.m., jump in our clothes, swallow some o.j. and last night's dinner rolls and head out. I drop off Ann & Chlo at the railroad station, leave the car at the rental agency and hoof it back to the station, which, to my surprise, is open at this hour. Our train, a San Diegan commuter, has been spotted on a siding not far from our hotel. We board at 5:50 a.m. for our southbound trip to L.A. to catch connecting train #36, the Desert Wind to Chicago. The "Sandy Eggan," as it is known in local Amtrak parlance, makes its way south through the dense fog and darkness. By 6:30 a.m. dawn has broken. When the fog finally breaks the trackside scenery is nowhere near as spectacular as the beauty we experienced in Santa Barbara.

    Detraining from the San Diegan Amfleet in L.A. with heavy suitcases dragging I whack my knee climbing down the steps. I hobble into Union Station where a passing red cap notices my grimacing expression and offers to help. I ask for ice and he arrives minutes later with a supervisor. Once again I request ice and she delivers in a hot second. She talks to me about what happened, offers any and all services and allows that I can fill out an accident report if I so choose. I decline. Ice will do much better than any paperwork. And after about an hour of rest, ice and elevation the knee seems to be on the mend.

    L.A.'s Union Station is classic southwestern Spanish architecture and is a perfect location for more than a few photos, both interior and exterior. Since the station is a bit warm and stuffy we head outdoors to the sunny, colorful gardens where Ann and Chlo engage in yet another game of haki-sak. Inside I lounge with a cafe au lait and a 7 grain bagel from the Union Cafe.

    Train #36, the Desert Wind, boards a bit late and there are plenty of opportunities for taking photos as we depart Union Station along Sante Fe rail (now BNSF). Our family room is spartan compared with the other trains we've been on. There is a vase of flowers on a white face cloth and a guest directory guide. None of the linens, route guides, timetables and free goodies that we've grown accustomed to.

    One of our first stops is San Bernardino, CA at 12:30 p.m. We stand outside the train momentarily and the heat is an oppresive 95 degrees. As we head northeast the terrain becomes increasingly desert-like with arid soil, cactus, sand and dust. How does anyone live out here? About the only signs of life are Union Pacific rail workers. At Barstow, CA the temperature climbs to 102 degrees. I get off long enough to photograph the station and a few rail cars.

    Time for lunch and the table setting here is consistent with all other Amtrak diners--white linen tablecloths, flowers, real china and silverware. For lunch Ann has the stir fry vegetables served over wild rice and a fruit and cheese plate for dessert. Chlo and I both opt for the fruit and salad plate with hot apple pie. We're climbing into the mountains now and the view is sensational from the diner. What other restaurant would afford such a view?

    Over the public address system they announce that souvenirs and beer are on sale in the lounge car, lower level. So I head down to purchase a Desert Wind cap and a Desert Wind travel mug mostly as momentos of a train that will soon be terminated by Amtrak. The train is now crawling up the steep grades and around horseshoe curves enabling a glimpse of the head end.

    After lunch I partake of the beer--George Killian's Irish Red lager. It's good, especially for only $1.50! Then more Yahtzee and Chlo rules. We pass through Vegas with its glitzy steel and glass structures seemingly rising out of nowhere in this vast, otherwise barren, desert. DEA agents with dogs board the train here and the Chief of On Board Services warns passengers not to wander off into slot machine heaven. The area beyond Vegas is even more interesting and it appears to be straight out of a western movie set. I almost expect to see a cowboy atop a painted pony riding out of the bluffs and across the desert prairie. It's hot out here in the Nevada desert and the room air conditioning provides welcome relief.

    A view from the window of the Desert Wind.
    Click on the thumbnail image to download / view the larger image.

    At dinner we're seated with a 50ish woman from St. Louis. She is pleasant, just a bit proper, and we discuss the merits of train travel and the impending Amtrak cutbacks. For dinner Chlo has the lemon chicken, rice and sugar snap peas. The rice with olives was quite delicious. She takes her iced tea and apple pie to go. Ann has prime rib, medium rare, with same rice, peas and apple pie to go. I went for what turned out to be an overcooked pasta dish with a Pepsi, coffee and apple pie.

    We get off at the next station stop in Caliente where the train stops to repair an air conditioning problem in one of the coaches. This affords us plenty of time to walk the platform and stretch our legs. It's cooler and the evening air is more pleasant. With the repairs completed we depart an hour and 20 minutes behind schedule.

    Friday, August 23, 1996

    Wake up time is abrupt as the voice over the PA announces loud and clear, "Good morning, good morning. Wake up and smell the coffee, wake up and smell the coffee. Breakfast is now being served in the dining car..." It's 7 a.m. mountain time but we've lost an hour with a time zone change overnight so my body feels like it's 6 a.m. We ultimately make it into the dining car where breakfast service is slow and there aren't enough coffee cups to serve the diners. Seated with us is a 20 year old lady from Germany who has spent the past year working in the German pavillion at EPCOT Center in Florida. Her mother joined her two weeks ago and now they are taking the train from L.A. to Denver. For breakfast Ann had the grits and toast with o.j. and coffee; Chlo had the Muesilix cereal with o.j. and I had oatmeal, pancakes, o.j. and coffee.

    Upon returning to the family bedroom I overhear a passenger asking a train attendant for a route guide. He politely replies that there are none available because Amtrak is going broke. "All the little things are disappearing and it's only a matter of time now," he adds in reference to the eventual termination of this particular train.

    One of the lighter and comedic elements on this train is the Chief of On Board Services who goes on the PA from time to time directing our attention to many of the passing sites such as the coal mines outside of Helper, Utah and the herd of 27 jack-a-lopes that crossed in front of the train back in Thompson, Utah. According to the Chief, Thompson has a population of about 34, 17 of whom have boarded this train and if you blink you'll be sure to miss it. He notes that the front of the train extends to the outer limits of town to the east and the end of the train extends to the its western boundaries. (Note that jack-a-lopes are fictitious animals that roam the west.)

    Another breathtaking view from the Desert Wind.
    Click on the thumbnail image to download / view the larger image.

    Back in the room more family time for double solitaire, reading and naps. We're now in Colorado by mid-day and there are signs of civilization and green vegetation once again. At Grand Junction we're allowed to get off the train and walk the platform. Since this is a completely non-smoking train Amtrak schedules platform stops where the nicotene addicted can get quick fix while the rest of us stretch our legs. When one is traveling 2,000 miles you take advantage of these opportunities. Grand Junction even has a model railroad shop at the station stop. This old mission style station is sorely in need of repairs and it doesn't take much imagination to envision its inherent beauty should it someday be restored. There's a bustling food stand beside the depot and Ann picks up a few fresh and juicy peaches.

    Lunch is at 1:30 and we are promptly seated by one of the more industrious waiters who appreciates our tips. The dining crew on this train appears more proper in sharp contrast to the staff on the Coast Starlight. Nonetheless, the level of service is top shelf. For lunch Chlo gets the beefburger while Ann and I go for the stir fried veggie and rice dish. We all take our apple pie and fresh fruit desserts to go.

    After lunch we arrive at Glenwood Springs, CO, now running about two and one-half hours late. As the train pulls into the station it is greeted by a few white water rafters giving the "Zephyr Salute," another term for "mooning" the train from the river. This is a resort community just outside of Aspen and its charm is evocative. We talk about even vacationing here one day to visit its natural hot springs and vapor caves. The stately Colorado Hotel, once the western quarters for the visiting Teddy Roosevelt, stands in the distance and appears most appealing to us. Glenwood Springs is another smoker's stop so we get out to stretch and once again are blessed with warm sunny weather and clear skies.

    A view from the train of Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
    Click on the thumbnail image to download / view the larger image.

    Leaving Glenwood Springs we head east through some of the more scenic stretches in the Amtrak system as the tracks follow the path of the Colorado River for about the next 230 miles. Denver is only 185 miles away but at this speed through the Rocky Mountains with two engines pulling 12 cars it will take us six hours and 20 minutes, which works out to an average spped of 30 m.p.h.

    During the afternoon our Chief of On Board Services arranged for a "talent show" and "Amtrak Quiz" of old TV trivia. Chlo attended both sessions, participating in the quiz with little success, no thanks to her parents.

    For dinner we are seated with a gentleman who is our contemporary age-wise and one of the 17 or so people who boarded in Thompson, Utah this morning. He turns out to be our most interesting dining companion yet. John has just come from spending the past six days traveling through the national parks of Utah and is on his way home to Chicago. John is animated and truly excited about his travels through Utah, including Reef, Bryce, Zion, Arches, and Canyonlands national parks. He stayed for awhile in Moab, Utah, traveling by car and on foot. John was especially interested in our tales so we talked for hours, ultimately exchanging e-mail addresses. For dinner we all had the prime rib steak with salad. Ann and Chlo had rice while I had the baked potato. More fresh fruit and apple pie rounded out our meals.

    By the time we arrive in Denver it's 9:40 p.m. and we're running two and one-half hours late due largely to speed restrictions involving heat expansion of the rail. On the track adjacent to ours is the Danish built "Flexliner," a self propelled train that has been on demonstration on the San Diegan corridor. I managed to photograph the train with a steady hand and only the light from above the tracks.

    Saturday, August 24, 1996

    We've turned off our intercom so as not to be awakened by the announcements for breakfast, thus affording us an opportunity to sleep a bit later. Today we load up on oatmeal, cereals, pancakes, toast, o.j. and coffee as we pass through Iowa around 9:00 a.m. Our waiter, for yet another meal, is the always affable E.W. Barnes. The climate of the dining car seems to have changed considerably this morning as the staff seems far more informal and relaxed. Mr. Barnes, looking sharp as a tack today, is mingling with the passengers that he's gotten to know, especially us, who he seems to have taken a liking to, probably because of our tipping, polite "thank yous" and friendly demeanor. E.W. Barnes is from North Carolina and he's worked for Amtrak for 18 years. Because of his seniority he is not as worried about the impending layoffs that might result from the discontinuation of this train. In his earlier days he even worked the northeast corridor trains through New Haven. Today he is especially garrulous and loves the Monk T-shirt that I'm sporting. Mr. Barnes represents the kind of high quality service from Amtrak employees that we have consistently encountered on this transcontinental journey.

    Despite the fact that this is a non-smoking train we spend most our our time in the family bedroom that we've grown quite fond of. We engage in another highly competitive game of Yahtzee and still another round of 500 rummy. I win both.

    Our lunch is at 1:30 and we are seated with a young Marine stationed in Barstow, CA and making his way back home to Brooklyn, New York via Amtrak. This is his first long distance train experience and, while not jumping for joy, he's definitely a satisfied customer.

    Meanwhile the ever imaginative Chief of On Board Services, Curtis Keaton, is arranging a wine tasting in the lounge car. What this train lacks in material amenities it more than makes up for thanks to the indefatigable energies of this one man. He is intelligent, witty, knowledgeable, resourceful and I thank him more than once.

    During the wine tasting we have the opportunity once again to chat with John, our dining car companion from the previous evening. John is ever engaging and provides us with more fascinating details of his trip through Utah. We could go on talking for hours I'm sure as this friendship begins to germinate and we swap childhood yarns. However, we are closing in on Chicago quickly; too quickly, and our Desert Wind experience is drawing to a close. John, to be sure, has thoroughly enjoyed his trip and is saddened that it's coming to a close. We, too, are experiencing the same sense of dismay with the end of this particular leg of our journey. For those who think train travel is nothing more than a boring way to get from one place to another they really haven't a clue, in my opinion, as to what they are really missing.

    The consist on this train was: two engines (1 F-40, 1 Genesis), 4 coaches, 3 sleepers (two, including ours, are Superliner I, the other is a Superliner II) 1 transition sleeper, 1 dining car, 1 sightseer lounge, 1 material handling car and 1 baggage car.

    Arrival in Chicago is 5:30, just one hour and 15 minutes late. It seems that we made up about 45 minutes since Omaha. We say our farewells to John, Barnes and Keaton and make our way out of the station.

    The Windy City skyline.
    Click on the thumbnail image to download / view the larger image.

    The taxi to the Conrad Hilton Hotel (now known as Hilton Hotel and Towers) on Michigan Avenue is a $4.90 ride. This hotel is stunning. Before detraining our sleeping car attendant filled us in on some of the details about this hotel. It seems that the lobby of this hotel was actually transported by Conrad Hilton from the luxury cruise ship Normandie. The hotel has a "presidential suite" that JFK would stay at that goes for a cool $5,000 a night. One of the highlights of the hotel is the roof top sundeck and pool off the 8th floor. There is also an athletic club with a lap lane.

    But what strikes us immediately is the presence of the Democratic National Convention here in Chicago and the fact that this hotel has been reserved for the California and Mississippi delegations. It is certainly a far cry from the 1968 convention or the days when there were two competing Misssissippi delegations. Back then the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party won official recognition and set the stage for defining a Democratic Party that was more committed to civil rights. It is refreshing to see the racial integration of this delegation here today. Also in the lobby alongside us is James Brady who will be a key speaker at this convention.

    Sunday, August 25, 1996--Chicago

    It turns out that the news media has staked out this hotel too, a fact that we confirm the next morning when we are greeted by TV cameras as we step out of the elevator into the lobby. Andy Rooney, along with an entourage from CBS News, are just outside the hotel interviewing passersby along Michigan Avenue. Closed circuit TV replays taped segments from the turbulent '68 convention.

    After spending a day in Chicago we head back home on our final leg of this nearly 8,000 mile journey. Train #30, The Capitol Limited, originates from the Windy City. The flagship of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Chicago trains, The Capitol Limited was the first all-Pullman train operating between Washington and Chicago. In 1937 it became the first train from the east coast to Chicago pulled by diesel locomotives. We depart the Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge and board car 3000, Family Room 15, another Superliner I sleeper where we are warmly greeted by the Amtrak attendants. The freebies on this train were laid out on our seating upon arrival--three travel kits of cosmetics in Amtrak zip pouches. Nice touch, Amtrak! This train also contained timetables, route guides, magazines but no flowers in the bedrooms. The Capitol Ltd. is on time all the way to D.C. The route is charming especially through the back country of western Maryland and West Virginia.

    We arrive the next day and make our rounds at D.C.'s spectacular Union Station, known for the remarkable restoration of its Beaux Arts architecture. After making a few purchases in some of its many fine shops and restaurants we quickly catch a northeast corridor train back home on Monday, August 26th, thus completing our two week transcontinental oddysey aboard Amtrak. This has proved quite an adventure, one that we would happily repeat again.

    Many thanks to the fine men and women who provided such a high level of service to my family and I during this transcontinental journey.



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