Originally published 21 July 2021

I am sitting on a train to New York in a full-sized bedroom, neither of which I booked.  You may be wondering how I got here.  Well, you see, it all started in Sandpoint, Idaho…

Previously, on GARRT:

“….we were stopped in a siding just outside Sandpoint, ID. As it turns out, we had been sitting there for about two-and-a-half hours (it would be three before were moving again) due to a disabled freight train on single track ahead of us…”

“We are now almost four hours delayed as we zip across North Dakota. For some reason, the app expects us to make up about three hours of time between here and Chicago, arriving only 45 minutes late. We’ll see how true that turns out to be…”

Which brings us up to this morning.  I woke up in time for breakfast and reprized the omelet meal I had yesterday.  My companions at both breakfast and lunch were Katherine and Jon—no relation to my parents—a United Church of Christ minister and an electrical engineer.  I remember that they were lovely company, but I can’t remember for the life of me what we discussed.  We had made up maybe half an hour overnight but were still quite behind schedule.  I settled down in my room as we wound our way through Minnesota.

The make-or-break moment came at Minneapolis/St. Paul which is built into the schedule as a final buffer before Chicago.  My connection was two hours, forty five minutes.  Arriving in St. Paul we were three hours and two minutes behind.  Leaving the Twin Cities we had cut it down to two hours and fifteen minutes.  Victory.

And then we had another station stop, and our delay increased.

Another station, another couple minutes added to the delay.

A smoke stop added five whole minutes.

I watched as station by station we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory until we arrived in Milwaukee.  In the Brewery City our conductor told us that because we were now operating in Chicago’s metro area during rush hour, we should expect even more delays since Metra gets priority.

As if to put a final button on the reality that I would not be making my connection, minutes after crossing into Illinois, the train’s emergency brakes engaged and we were left stopped in the middle of a highway grade crossing.  In short, one of the train’s safety systems tripped the brakes automatically (I have theories as to why, and none of them are the “for no apparent reason” we were told by the conductor) and required a manual reset before we could move again.  My sympathies to those driving on IL State Route 22, but also lol @those who decided to 4×4 over the median to complete a u-turn.

Transiting through the switch yard coming into Chicago, a superliner train passed us going the other way.  It was the Capital Limited, the train I was meant to be on.  We arrived almost exactly at 7:00pm; only twenty minutes after my train departed, three hours and five minutes late.

Next comes the blur and banality of bureaucracy.  I went inside, stood in a line, was handed a new ticket and a partial refund, and directed to the Metropolitan (sleeper passenger) Lounge.  I was rebooked for a later train going a different route but that would nonetheless put me in Newark tomorrow evening.  All I had left to do was two hours to kill in my least favorite city in America (possibly the world, I haven’t actually traveled much internationally).  Did you know that there are no restaurants open at 8:00pm on a Tuesday night within two blocks of Union Station?  Yet another reason Chicago is the worst.

Returning to the lounge unfulfilled I had a dinner of two rice crispy treats and a cup of tea.  My train was called and most everyone still in the lounge at 9:00pm went out to the track.

And that’s how I find myself on the Lakeshore Limited (Train 48) in the Accessible Bedroom.  It is absolutely palatial in here.  I have my own private bathroom (with shower), slightly-larger-than-twin sized bed, luggage rack, and windows on both sides.  I am beyond pleased with my accommodations. 

We should be arriving in New York at about 6:30, giving me around 3.5 hours to futz and putter in NYC.  Not quite enough time for a show, sadly.  At least I have tickets to the Spokane productions for this year.

I even had the pleasure of having a last drink with Mr. Freelance Gay, who is also on this train on his way to visit his parents.  We compared notes on the Metropolitan Lounge, breaking up, and vulnerable fish populations to be protected by responsible catch-and-release fly fishing.

I want to return briefly to the scenery of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  I noticed that the towns were all distinctly Michigan-esque, which I suppose it to say I realized today that Michigan-esque is actually just the way Midwest towns look.  Relatedly, the rolling, deciduous hills of WI and southern MN reminded me distinctly of rural Pennsylvania along the turnpike.  Why they didn’t call me back to Indiana (you know, where I literally taught in and about the outdoors), I do not know.

Lastly I also want to admire Union Station, Chicago.  It, truly, is a cathedral of infrastructure, a tabernacle of transportation.  The great hall is awe-inspiring and one almost craves to see it in its full hustle-and-bustle of rush hour.  Almost.  I am still an introvert.

And now it is time to turn out and enjoy my royal suite.  I have new great lakes and upstate New York to see in the morning.


Originally Published 26 July 2021

Today was (is) my only full on-the-train day.  I woke up far too short a time after I fell asleep while we were stopped in a siding just outside Sandpoint, ID.  As it turns out, we had been sitting there for about two-and-a-half hours (it would be three before were moving again) due to a disabled freight train on single track ahead of us.  Deciding there wasn’t really anything to do but get on with my day, I waited 40 minutes for the shower and went to breakfast.

After my three-egg omelet, potatoes, and croissant, I wandered to the observation lounge, decided my room was really just as good, returned to it, and hunkered down with my camera.  One benefit of the delay is it meant we got all of the Bitterroots and Glacier fully in the daytime.  The scenery was, as expected, spectacular, and really to say anything more on the subject would be a disservice to it.  I look forward to going through my photos from the good camera.

Lunch was timed nicely for me to enjoy the views in the dining car just as we were going through the central and eastern parts of the park.  My chicken Caesar was… well, a chicken Caesar, but at least it also came with dessert.  While my breakfast table-mates had been your standard upper-middle-class folks from Edmonds who were acceptable conversationalists, my lunch company was more interesting if less talkative.  It seemed to be a young lady, her Spanish-speaking grandmother, and her English-speaking boyfriend.  There was some across-the-table talk, more talk between her and her grandmother, and a lot of quietly eating together while looking at hills and valleys.

I tried the sightseer lounge again, again decided it just wasn’t better enough than my room to make me want to give up the ability to close my door on the world, and again sat a photographer’s vigil at my own seat.  Shortly after I determined we were definitely out of the mountains and into the “endless” portion of Montana (near Shelby), I set up the bed and went down for a nap.  I woke up a couple hours later as we were coming through Havre, MT, much refreshed and unable to tell the difference in scenery.  Just saying: adults like to be rocked to sleep too, we just have to get more creative about it.  The room was again reconfigured and I proceeded to watch the world go by.

My dinner reservation came and I was sat with a very traditional retired couple from Des Moines, IA and one of the fellows from dinner the night before.  This couple just could not understand how “young folks” (the other guy is probably in his late 30s) could take the time to do a trip like this; after all, hadn’t they worked their whole life so they could retire to things like long train journeys?  After disabusing them of their antiquated work-life notions and watching Mrs. Traditional order a well-done steak (this was the moment I truly knew I had nothing in common with her) then complain that it was both too tough and not done enough, Mr. Married Gay and I waited them out until they excused themselves.  Then we caught up, talked about the scenery, our cats, failed old relationships, and the like until, again by whatever strange magnetism had attracted us the first time, Mr. Freelance Gay showed up as well and joined us!  He came seeking refuge from his own dinner company who, upon learning he was from Portland, proceeded to tell him about how terrible the People’s Socialist Anarchy of the Willamette was.  They, after all, didn’t watch the lame-stream media and so knew all about the truth of the Antifa-riddled hellscape that used to be the Rose City.  We commiserated.  A wonderfully half-discreet conversation about the Cult of 45 ensued.  #AmtrakActivism.

Perhaps the most sublime part of today was that I had no great, deep thoughts.  There were no revelations, epiphanies, or ekphrastic moments.  I simply existed and enjoyed.  I listened to my audio book, I ate good food, I drank good wine, I saw pretty things.  It was peaceful.  And that was enough.

We are now almost four hours delayed as we zip across North Dakota.  For some reason, the app expects us to make up about three hours of time between here and Chicago, arriving only 45 minutes late.  We’ll see how true that turns out to be.  For now, enough to call it a night and set up my bed again; it’s dark, and there really wouldn’t be much to see anyway.  But I do get to be rocked to sleep again.


Originally published 25 July 2021

The Belltown Inn is perfectly comfortable and I slept remarkably well.  I even woke up well, which is unusual for me.  After the normal morning things and getting packed, I discovered that the place I had planned to have breakfast (Biscuit Bitch) was fresh out (as announced by their sign proclaiming “Bitch, we closed!”), so I set off for the station a little early.  Taking the RapidRide E line, as instructed by the almighty Google, proved challenging as King County Metro had most unkindly not informed our data-mining overlords of a detour, putting me a couple blocks out of position.  Mastering the traumatic flashbacks to a time when King County Metro did the same thing to me at the age of 16, I relied upon eleven years of wisdom, experience, and a much better smartphone to get me to the station.  I dropped off my bag and proceeded to wander.

My wander took me to Occidental and Pioneer Squares, an absolutely delightful gastropub where I had a good chat with the bartender, and then, as a moth drawn to flame, towards the water.  At the water, I gazed longingly at the ferry boats.  Ah, my ferries.  I have missed my ferries.  I’m writing my thesis on ferries, but not these ferries.  Other ferries.  Have I mentioned that I quite enjoy ferries?  My ferry fix sated, I decided to do something I haven’t done in years: I went to the Seattle Aquarium.

The fish were fishy.  The jellies were jelly-y.  The octopus was octopussy.  The otters and seals were mammally  The birds were rather avian, however.  My favorite part was the salmon stream because it brings home the concept of their life cycles and the necessity of healthy riparian areas better than most anything else, which makes my little environmental educator heart happy.  But that’s not what I want to dwell on.  I want to dwell on the spirally, spindly corals and intricately bizarre sea cucumber I saw.

Recently, I had the privilege of revisiting the Maryhill Museum of Art near Goldendale, WA.  One of their current pushes is for ekphrasis—art that inspires art.  Seeing these creatures, this was the concept that came to mind.  Nature is art.  Its art inspires my photography, where I but merely capture what has already been wrought.  Its art has inspired countless generations of poets and painters and knitters and dancers.  Looking and these creatures with an artist’s eye bordered on the transcendental for me today; I may find some time in the Dakotas to return to my memories of them and write.

Wandering back to the station involved taking too many stairs up to Pike Place Market, nope-ing the heck out of an intensely crowded tourist trap, and finding the Link to take back to King Street (try diverting the light rail, I DARE you Metro).  I bought some shnacks at Bartell Drug across the street, claimed my bag, and waited for the train.  I watched it roll in, the conductor come triumphantly through the door, and I couldn’t understand a word he said because of the echo.  Eventually, I got the gist of where sleeper passengers were supposed to go; I went there, I boarded, I lugged my suitcase up a very narrow flight of stairs, and I gazed upon my accommodations for the next three days.

My first impression is that the room was delightfully cozy.  It is absolutely perfect for one traveler and would probably be fine with someone else if you enjoy them quite a lot.  While there is room for a full-sized suitcase, I found it is much more comfortable to stash the clothes I’ll need for the trip in the closet and put the bag back downstairs.  I have really only to places for improvement: it would be nice to have a way to lock the door from the outside (for when you go to dinner, the bathroom, etc), and it would be nice to have more than one power outlet.  Come to think of it, there may be another in the stowed upper berth, but I haven’t examined it thoroughly.

Crossing the Cascades took place in daylight, which was a major reason I chose a summer trip (at least for the first time).  Anyone who has driven US-2 to Leavenworth knows it is one of the most scenic trips in Washington, and the ability to enjoy it with a full picture window and someone else driving is a true treat.  One of the few downsides of a roomette is that your view is limited to one side of the train; along the water it was slightly a bummer, but I have no complaints about the mountains.  Just before coming into Leavenworth I went back to the dining car for dinner.  Dinner on the train is a three-course, restaurant-style arrangement, and included in one’s sleeper fare.  Tonight was lobster crab cake followed by tortellini with chicken and pesto cream sauce followed by an absolutely decadent chocolate torte.  The breakfast and lunch menus look similarly excellent.

Amtrak, by some dark alchemy, managed to seat three solo-traveling gays together for dinner and it was (to coin a phrase) fabulous.  One of us was a married, Indian born software engineer who shared stories that compared train travel in the US against the subcontinent.  Another was a freelance graphic artist embarrassed by his trust fund who talked about how bizarre it is to see homophobia at home in Portland.  And then there was I, who could talk rail history and poverty policy with equal ease (because, for some reason, we talked about poverty reduction at one point).  The moment realized we all batted for the same team was beautiful: a happy burble of affected lisps and limp wrists before laughter and a return to our normal mannerisms.  They were delightful gentlemen with whom to dine.  We only got up from the table when we arrived at Wenatchee, our first “fresh air” (i.e. smoke) stop of the night.

The last haunting of sunlight and warm, Eastern Washingtonian air awaited at the station.  Sadly, the platform was not long enough for me to get a picture of the full train, but I did get from the baggage car down.  Now we’re back on board and rolling towards Spokane.  I’m still debating whether I want to stay up; there’s a train bridge I’d quite like to see.  Glacier NP should be starting around 7:30 tomorrow morning, which, coincidentally, is when breakfast starts.  I’m looking forward to my full day on the train, which I fully anticipate being even more magical than today.


Originally published 24 July 2021

A number of years ago, I set out on my Great American Road Trip (lovingly shortened to the beautiful sounding “GART”) in which I drove from Washington to Indiana (via Michigan) in late February in a determined little ’97 Civic.  This was the trip where my wiper fluid froze in Bismarck and didn’t thaw until March.  This was the trip where I decided to try pushing the pedals with my hands on some back road in Minnesota because I was bored.  This was also the trip where I drove triple digits for the first time—not while hand-peddling, for the record.

Tomorrow I set out on an even greater adventure, going fully coast-to-coast.  I can see Puget Sound—which is basically the Pacific; fight me—from my hotel’s roof garden as I write this.  By Wednesday evening, I will have seen the Atlantic.

Tomorrow I begin my GARRT: the Great American Railroad Trip.

I will be taking the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago, the Capital Limited from Chicago to DC, and the Acela from DC to Newark on my transcontinental journey.  Three nights in a sleeper car, eight meals on board, fifteen states and one federal district (that should be a state; again, fight me) await.

Today was Day Zero, the necessary puddle-jump from Spokane back across the mountains to Seattle so I can do the thing “properly” per my own definition.  I did, however, puddle jump in style as this was my first time ever in first class.  I crossed my legs.  It was the most amazing thing.  Do rich people constantly cross their legs on airplanes just because they can?  Or is it something only us coach-flyers realize is a luxury?  I digress.

The first class flight was, ironically, about as economical as coach.  My bag would have cost $30, first gets two bags free, and the ticket was about $30 more than just flying economy.  Win-win.  My seat-mate and I discussed how grass type Pokémon constantly get dished on undeservedly (#TeamTreecko).  We also admired how her very cute dress had pockets (!).  She was delightful.

I took the Link light rail and bus RapidRide from the airport to the hotel and thoroughly enjoyed being in the Seattle transit bubble.  I got Beecher’s Mac and Cheese, two gyros, took a nap, and vibed at a tiki bar.  It’s been a day, man.