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Grandma Judy's Western Trip By Judy McFarland

Grandma Judy's Western Trip

By Judy McFarland, September, 2006

In mid-September I took my long-awaited western trip: MKE-CHI-LAX-PDX-SEA-MKE over a 2 week period. MKE-CHI: on the dependable if unexciting Hiawatha; service, arriving just after noon. I tried the new Quiet Car on the Hiawatha and found it a peaceful change from loud cellphone talkers.

CHI-LAX: Bedroom C on the SW Chief courtesy of AGR. As usual going up the stairs caused confusion of direction, and as we departed (on time) I realized that I was wrong in guessing which way we were headed and changed seats accordingly. As soon as we began to pick up speed, I kept hearing an annoying squeak that got worse when we lurched a little. I finally realized that the upper bunk above my head was bouncing up and down like on a bungee cord. When Fred Rogers (the car attendant) appeared, I told him I could NOT ride all the way to LAX with that infernal squeak and a bouncing bed right above my head. He tried stuffing pillows and other remedies, and we finally concluded that the only way to have peace and quiet was to put the bunk down. Fortunately I am not a tall person, but it was annoying to have the bunk right above my head for the next 2 days. The sleeper had new dark blue curtains, but was otherwise not refurbished. I tried to look for Mr Norman and his canine companion, but I wasn't sure which side of the train or exactly where, so I did not see him. This was my first experience with simplified dining - and my first (of many) encounters with the horrid green beans. The first night out I tried the salmon. It was OK - not exciting, but not too dried out. For breakfast both days I stuck with the continental since I have some diet restrictions due to recent surgery. I tried the Chicken Caesar Salad for lunch (OK but unremarkable) and the second night I tried the Beef Burgundy. Both entrees were too large for my needs, so I wasted a lot of food. I can't eat broccoli right now and I avoided those horrid beans so my diet wasn't too balanced. I noticed that they left a basket of salad dressing envelopes on the table and each envelope held enough dressing for 2-3 salads. If I couldn't find someone to share, I just didn;t have dressing. And unfortunately, no desserts on this trip. Our timekeeping was great - this was my first time on the SW Chief and I really enjoyed the scenery. There were only a few vendors on the platform in ABQ but many passengers were actively shopping. I was sorry to have it get dark so soon - that's the problem with traveling in September. There were about 40 people traveling with American by Rail to Flagstaff, all of them in sleepers, so the sleepers were full. I did not go down to the lounge car - bad knees and I could see out both sides, so no need. We arrived about 1/2 hour early into LAX.

LA Gold Line: My former college roommate Edie lives in Pasadena, and I was delighted for the chance to ride the Gold Line. What a beautiful train - clean, quiet, efficient way to travel. I lived in Pasadena 1964-1968 and would have loved to have had the trains like thay have now.

Surfliner to San Diego and back: Edie had to go to San Diego for a meeting, so we traveled the Surfliner Business Class to San Diego. We had facing seats overlooking the ocean both ways. We had packed a small lunch, but were delighted to be offered snack packs and wine (or soda or water) to supplement out lunch. An on-time arrival in San Diego was a bonus, and I enjoyed looking around the beautiful little station while Edie arranged for our rental car. Our return trip 2 days later was equally pleasant and timely.

LAX-PDX: Bedroom D (again AGR) in 1431 car was not on the ocean side - the first of 3 disappointments on this trip. No Pacific Parlor Car: instead a little Pathetic Parlor Closet set up in Room A of the 1430 sleeper. I took a picture of the rolls, fruit and cereal spread out on the seat with the attendant crammed in the far corner, but it did not come out good enough to post. Of the 3 sleepers, only mine had the bedrooms on the "wrong side", so when we stopped in SBA I went to the lounge car and discovered 2 ladies ready to give a "guided tour" as we traveled up the coast. It was all very pleasant except for an annoying drunk that kept up his own commentary, including indignation that it was going to take him 2 days to get to Seattle. Actually, it would take him even longer as he was escorted from the train in SLO. Car attendant Louie was efficient and pleasant. This was my first time on the Coast Starlight between LAX and EMY, and despite a warning call from Amtrak before I left home, we were almost on time into EMY. I went to bed and when I awoke we had managed to lose about 2.5 hours. So I did get to see Mount Shasta after all. The 3rd disappointment was the same simplified dining menu as on the Chief the previous week and the same icky green beans. The food was unremarkable. We did have wine tastings both days in the dining car. I did not go the second day, but on the first day thay had cheese platters and cracker baskets on one of the tables and came around with wine to pour into the one glass we had been given. Not too impressive. Our arrival in PDX was about 2 hours late. I took a taxi to the Mark Spencer and had an early dinner at Jake's.

PDX-SEA: the next morning I took a cab back to the station to catch the Cascade train to Seattle, Business Class. My reason for stopping in Portland was to try this regional service and to avoid a likely midnight or later arrival in Seattle, which had been the norm at the time I made the reservations. That extreme lateness didn't materialize, but I was happy for the chance to ride the Cascade train and was not disappointed. However, my cell phone disappeared somewhere in Portland (I think) and calls to the hotel, the restaurant, the cab companies and Amtrak were futile. A very nice gentleman in security at the Portland station let me use his cell phone to call Sprint and disable my number so no one could run up big charges. Fortunately I had a phone card with me and was able to let my kids know I was OK since I had promised to call them. Anyway, the Cascade train was another delight - if only our Hiawatha was running equipment like that! - and we were on time into Seattle on Saturday afternoon. I took a cab to the Pioneer Square Hotel and found it to be perfectly situated for my needs. I was able to walk (limping with my cane) to Ivar's Acres of Clams for an early dinner and could have taken a ferry ride if I were so inclined without having to use a cab. I found the hotel very pleasant and slept well.

SEA-MKE: Sunday morning after breakfast at the hotel I walked up to Pioneer Square and sat outside a Starbucks drinking coffee, reading my newspapers and watching people walking to the Seahawks game. After a lunch at a little Italian restaurant just north of the square, I sat for a while just watching people. Unfortunately there were a lot of panhandlers, but generally they left me alone. After a blueberry-oat bar at Starbucks, I walked back to the hotel and took a cab to the station. I got there really early since I was afraid of the traffic when the game let out. I found it hard to believe that in the 5 years since I had been in that station that the conveyor belt for the luggage still squeaked and squealed so much that I had to cover my ears. I was assisted to an early boarding of the Empire Builder and met Tashi, the car attendant. He was very polite, but quite new to his job and at times over the next 2 days seemed overwheled by all his tasks. I was in room 9 in the 0831 car and although I tried to figure out how to get on the north side of the train, I ended up on the south side again (for the 5th time!) since this sleeper was reversed from the 0830 car and the PDX sleeper. I give up trying to figure out how to get on the side I want - there's no way to be sure, although it did seem that the second sleeper was reversed from the first on all 3 trains. Tashi brought around little bottles of champagne and candied fruit snack to celebrate our departure. Since room 10 was empty, I was able to sit there to watch Puget Sound as we traveled north. No deluxe sleeper this time since I was paying, not AGR. Fortunately the menu was different from the other 2 trauns, but the horrid green beans were still following me. This menu had the famous "vegetarian ham" omelet, but it also had 5 dessert choices instead of 3 (including ice cream) and they used Corelle dishes with an Amtrack logo instead of styrofoam. So it seemed to be a cross between simplified dining and the "good old days". The sleepers were all newly refurbished. After rubbery fish on the Coast Starlight, I avoided the fish entree. Food was OK - nothing to write home about and not a good value for the prices charged in my opinion. There was an onboard service supervisor(?) actually the same guy that was on the Coast Starlight 2 days earlier and he walked through the train regularly chatting with passengers about accommodations, food, etc. I made one trip to the lounge/cafe car - with my bad knee I didn't want to do it twice since all the Seattle coaches were between it and the diner. I wanted to do some photography around the Izaak Walton Inn, but some of the windows were so dirty that I had to walk around looking for cleaner windows. I found a relatively clean one, but the sun was such that I couldn't take a picture anyway. More people can be accommodated in the table section of the car, but it certainly is not as comfortable as the old upholstered swivel seats. The wine tasting in the diner was well organized: each table was set with a plate of cheeses and crackers and 2 wine glasses per person. The person conducting the tasting (not sure who he was) did a good job of talking about the 4 wines and the 4 cheeses that we got to sample. He gave away the remaining wine to winners of trivia contests. We arrived in Milwaukee about 1 1/2 hours late after being held just across the river from LaCrosse, WI for an hour (we were told before leaving St Paul that we would have to wait there due to ongoing bridge work).

So it was another great trip - on-time performance was very good in my opinion, food not so hot. Fellow passengers generally genial, car attendants effficient and pleasant. Tashi had to be chased down in the AM to get the bed made up both days - as I said earlier he seemed a little overwhelmed. I have only one more trip scheduled: ALB-ROC on the Maple Leaf in business class on 11/17. I am flying (UGH) for the first time in 2 years to visit the relatives in upstate NY.


Grandma Judy here, "railing" about trains

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