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ON THE ROAD AGAIN: On The Run From Old Man Winter

ON THE ROAD AGAIN: On The Run From Old Man Winter

Old Jan 18, 17, 5:08 pm
FlyerTalk Evangelist
Original Poster
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Airlines Million Miler, United Airlines Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond Level
Posts: 10,144
ON THE ROAD AGAIN: On The Run From Old Man Winter

Most people, when asked their impression of winter in Alaska, envision lots of snow and sub-zero temperatures. Fair enough, but keep in mind that Alaska’s a big state – twice the size of Texas, as a matter of fact – and as such it’s affected by a variety of winter weather. Were you in Adak out on the far Aleutians, winter weather might mean rain and temperatures in the 40s. Over in Valdez (about 1300 air miles east-northeast of Adak) it might translate to over 200” of snow in a single month. Meanwhile, up in Barrow on Alaska’s North Slope, the total annual precipitation is only about 5 inches per year. There’s plenty of cold air but not a lot of snow. By contrast, Ketchikan, the wettest city in America, gets well over 200” of rain per year.

I live in the taiga forest outside of Fairbanks, Alaska – a community of 40000+ inhabitants located in Alaska’s Interior, i.e. the area north of the Alaska Range and South of the Brooks Range. Alaska’s Interior – with a capital “I” – is generally regarded as the coldest part of the state in the winter and the hottest during the summer. Fairbanks has the greatest temperature differential of any city on earth with summer highs routinely climbing into the 80s and occasionally even the 90s. The coldest temperature I’ve ever personally experienced in Fairbanks is -63°F.

You don’t believe me? You think maybe ‘ol Seat 2A is pulling your leg? Check out these windows into our winter and summer weather…

A Cold Weekend in the Interior

A Hot Weekend in the Kantishna

Communities to the north of us, such as Barrow up on the North Slope (North of the Brooks Range), rarely get as cold in the winter as we do down here in the Interior but - because of their northern latitudes - they tend to stay colder longer. In the month of May spring has definitely sprung down in Fairbanks (Lat. 65°N) with temperatures often climbing into the 70s whereas up in North Slope communities like Deadhorse or Barrow (Lat. 73°N) it’s not unusual to see high temperatures in the 40s.

Whether you believe in climate change or not, the past few winters in Fairbanks have been warmer than usual. Last winter, the thermometer at Fairbanks International Airport never dropped below -29°F. As for snowfall, we totaled about 60” but the vast majority of that fell in late September and early spring. During the middle of winter, we totaled less than 3”. In the month of January we set a new record with just .06” inches of total precipitation. December and February were only fractionally snowier.

The point I’m making is that you can’t generalize with Alaska weather. And while we tend to be dry and cold here in the Fairbanks area, that was about to change in a big way.

* * *  * * *  * * *

Alright then, let’s skip to the present. It’s 10:30am on December 29th and the NBC affiliate (KBCF) is interrupting Kathy Lee and Hoda with broadcast warnings every 30 minutes or so about a major winter storm heading our way. We’ve known about this storm for a while now as it’s been mentioned over the past three or four days as it swept across Siberia and the Bering Sea before slamming into Alaska’s west coast.

Most winter storms coming out of Siberia and the Arctic tend to bring more cold air than moisture due to the fact that everything – including the ocean – is frozen out there. There’s not much moisture to pick up. This storm is different in that it merged with a mass of warm air being pushed up from the Pacific. The result is a system packing heavy snow and strong, gusty winds but not particularly cold temperatures.

Initial reports projected snowfall depths of up to 15” in the Fairbanks area. This is not particularly troubling. We’ve got a good community plow cooperative out here for our back roads while the main arteries, such as Alaska Highway 3, get first priority from DOT. Additionally I’ve got a good truck with 4-wheel drive, so I’m not all that worried about getting around.

Of greater concern to me are reports of winds with gusts in the 30-60mph range. Winds like that can cause trees to topple into power lines resulting in power outages that might last for a day or more. Should that happen I’m usually not in bad shape as I’ve put together a good emergency supply of food, water, lights, battery powered radio, etc. However, when the power goes out, my Toyo heater also goes out. I’ve got an indoor-safe propane heater that I can hook up to a 5 gal. propane tank if need be. I always have an extra one filled and ready to go out on my porch. The only problem at present is that my recent spinal fusion surgery currently has me restricted to lifting no more than 12lbs. No problem. My heater also runs on portable propane canisters. I’ll just head into town and pick up a few of those at Fred Meyers.

Uh oh. Quite a few other people were evidently also thinking the same thing. As of yesterday afternoon the shelves at Freddie’s were barren of canisters. The same was true down at Sportsman’s Warehouse, Walmart and the other sporting goods stores in town. I made a mental note to pick up a few of those next week. Then again, storms of this intensity hit so rarely around here that by the time the next one hits, I should be cleared to once again heft a full 40lb propane canister. In the meantime, what I really need to finally do this summer build an add-on to securely store and operate a back-up generator. I’ve had my eye on a nice little Honda model for about a year now. I really should have made that happen by now.

I am by nature an independent and self-sufficient guy, so my very last instinct is to prevail upon my neighbors for their assistance. Being the good people they are, I’ve no doubt they would gladly provide it. I just hate to ask unless I’m all out of options.

Which I’m not because I’m also a guy who has banked almost a million miles in my Alaska Airlines account as well as quite a few thousand points in my Amtrak Guest Rewards account. I’ve also got a voucher good for $470.00 toward future Amtrak travel. There’s nothing ever stopping me from the ability to go anywhere at any time.

Finally, I’m a guy who’s always up for a trip somewhere. I particularly like spur of the moment, seat of the pants travel, especially when I know I’ll only be gone a few days. Being single and unattached, I am beholden to no one. Here we’ve got a big storm coming into town… why not get outta town for awhile?

* * *  * * *  * * *

The more I thought on it, the more alluring the idea of getting out of town and avoiding this storm became. Okay, okay – so I’d only thought about it for two or three minutes but like I said, I’m always up for a trip somewhere. All I really need to be thinking about is where I’m gonna go.

So I fired up my trusty old laptop and set to investigating the possibilities. Some of you may recall that last February – on all of about ten hours advance notice – I up and flew to Australia in order to celebrate flying my five millionth mile in style - style being per my interpretation best enjoyed whilst seated in a First Class Suite aboard an Emirates A380. I gave no consideration to traveling that far today however.

As I pondered the possibilities, regular television news bulletins warned of the impending tempest. With no real advance notice, buying a ticket would be out of the question, especially since this is still the Christmas travel season and most all of the cheap seats – be they revenue or award seats - have already been sold. The only way I’d be getting out of town would be by burning some of my hard earned miles and hopefully not too many of them.

Though my original plan was to head down to Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, it was thwarted by a lack of affordable availability into Las Vegas or San Diego. Ultimately I ended up booking a one way 20000 mile award to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In retrospect, I don’t quite remember how exactly I settled on Milwaukee because once you jump to 20000 miles, a lot more opportunities open up. A good friend of mine who lives 160 miles west of Milwaukee in Galena, Illinois called the other night. Maybe that was it. Then again, maybe it was the chance to finally fly upon Skywest’s ERJ-175 on what is possibly the longest flight operated by the ERJ-175 in the U.S. I’ve no doubt the opportunity to ride one of Amtrak’s long distance trains from Chicago to the west coast factored into this decision. Perhaps the biggest factor influencing my decision was that time was a wasting and wherever I was gonna go I had to come up with something quick. Heck, I hadn’t even packed yet.

So – Milwaukee it was. Once I got myself booked on the 2:25pm departure out of Fairbanks (By now it was a little past 12:30pm) it was time to check Amtrak’s availability for a train to the West Coast. I should note here that the option of flying back to Fairbanks from Milwaukee was always available as a fall back position. The train just sounded like more fun. Ideally my preference would have been to book a room aboard the California Zephyr. Unfortunately, a lot of other people had similar preferences that they’d already acted upon, the result being that the only available roomettes aboard the Zephyr were pricing out at over $1000.00 one way to the coast.

Awright then, how ‘bout the Empire Builder straight to Seattle? Yes!!! There, on January 1st, was a single roomette for just $426.00. Book it, Danno! After working out the details of my voucher with an Amtrak agent over the phone, I was good to go. Milwaukee, here I come!

From Milwaukee I’d rent a car and speed off to visit my friend in Galena, Illinois – 160 miles yonder toward the Iowa border. I’d never been there before and the idea of showing up unannounced and unexpected for New Year’s Eve sounded exciting. Knowing that my friend lived in a small apartment in town with very limited space, I booked myself a hotel room and finally a rental car from Milwaukee.

Returning the car to Milwaukee on the New Year’s Day, I’d then board Amtrak’s Empire Builder for the 2,120 mile ride across America’s northern plains, Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest to Seattle. Upon arrival at Seattle’s King Street Station, I’d hoof it on over to SeaTac and catch the first available flight home.

Awright then! I quickly tossed two days’ worth of clothes and a few essentials into a suitcase, ever mindful of weight restrictions and the fact that I could do laundry at hotels enroute. Then I emptied the slop bucket under my sink, set the Toyo’s thermostat to 58° and headed out to my waiting truck.

December 29, 2016
Alaska Airlines Fairbanks to Anchorage 225p – 325p 737-800 Coach Class
Alaska Airlines Anchorage to Seattle 555p – 1021p 737-800 Coach Class

Snow had already started to fall by the time I set out for the airport. On the roadway in front of me the snow swirled in ever changing patterns as I sped along. It was actually a very pretty moment as the falling snow in combination with my speed caused the snow to blow all about me as I sped along. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of regret at my decision to leave. I do love a good storm, all the more so while comfortably ensconced in a nice warm cabin. There was no certainty that the winds projected to accompany this storm would cause power outages in my region - just a higher than normal probability that they would. Adding up all the various ingredients affecting life at the moment, my love a good trip won out over my love of a good storm. There was no turning back now.

I parked over at Pike’s Landing, a hotel not far from the airport. With a rate of only $5.75 per day, it’s considerably less expensive than parking at the airport where the least expensive remote parking lot costs $13.00 per day.

One of the nicest things about Fairbanks International Airport is that it’s a small airport. Under normal travel circumstances there’s generally no need to show up the recommended two hours in advance of departure. If I had bags to check – I might show up maybe an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes ahead of time. On the other hand, as a single traveler with a roll-a-bord, a preprinted boarding pass and TSA Pre, arriving just 45 minutes ahead of departure is fine.

Waiting at the gate was Alaska’s colorful Hawaii liveried airplane, its warm bright colors in vivid contrast to the cold white and grey day outside. Of all the planes to fly out of town aboard on a snowy day, this one seemed quite fitting.

Alaska’s Hawaii Jet
Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines

As you might imagine, having booked my seats at the last minute during this busy holiday travel period meant that the selection of seats still available to me was less than ideal. To wit, I considered myself lucky to get a window seat way back in row 31, one row from the rear bulkhead. As I slowly made my way back through row after row of seats packed with all manner of humanity, the stark differences between how I usually fly and how most everyone else almost always flies really struck home.

As a long time top tier elite member of Alaska’s Mileage Plan, I almost always get upgraded. On those rare occasions that I don’t, my ability to reserve quality main cabin seating at the time of booking means I’m almost always on the aisle at the bulkhead or in the reclining exit row. While I’ve spent many a flight sat in cramped economy class seating aboard other airlines, it just feels a lot different to be doing so on Alaska. It’s like walking into your own home and sleeping in the guest room.

Trudging onward, I noticed that my window seat at 31F was taken by another passenger. No problem, I’d prefer an aisle anyway. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Also standing at row 31 was a flight attendant who asked me if I’d be willing to sit in the middle seat due to a prisoner transport situation where the guard needed the aisle seat. The flight was sold out, so it’s not like there was really a choice. To sweeten the deal, she offered to give me a free picnic box or cheese plate. Alright. It was only a 45 minute flight down to Anchorage anyway. As for the guy sat in my assigned window seat, let’s just say he didn’t look overly aware of life around him. With such a short flight ahead, I decided it’d be better to leave him be.

On the short flight down to Anchorage, I nibbled on fine cheese and crackers while window seatmate looked on hungrily. This cheese could’ve been yours, pal, but not now. Check your boarding pass next time.

In Anchorage life returned to some semblance of normalcy as I repaired to the comfortable confines of the newly renamed Alaska Lounge. Known for years as The Boardroom, a quick scan of the guests on any given day would’ve suggested a group dressed more in keeping with a trip to a hockey game than a corporate business function. The Alaska Lounge seems much more appropriate.

On the flight down to Seattle I was fortunate to score a much better seat at 9D. The aircraft – a 737-800 – had been reconfigured with Alaska’s new Preferred Plus seating - a small premium coach seating zone highlighted by an extra 3-4” of seat pitch added to Alaska’s already generous 32” main cabin pitch. This was my first experience with the new seating and I must say it was a considerable upgrade over my previous digs back at row 31.

Flight time down to Seattle was projected at three hours and twenty minutes; more than enough time for a leisurely drink or two and a tasty Tom Douglas inspired meal. As a Super Duper Diamond Encrusted Kryptonite Level (MVP Gold 75K) flyer in Alaska’s Mileage Plan, I was also treated to a complimentary Digi-Player as well as a free drink. Jack Daniels on the rocks, please. Make it a double!

Do other U.S. airlines offer hot lunch and dinner entrees to passengers in Economy class? On American, Delta and United I’ve seen a variety of sandwiches, wraps, salads and picnic packs offered but never a hot meal. On Alaska hot meals have been part of the coach offerings for years and let me tell you – on a long flight through a cold night, that hot meal is really appreciated. It adds a large measure of civility and class to an otherwise basic flight in a coach seat. Of course Alaska’s fine Flight Attendants contribute their own highly regarded warmth and graciousness to the service, but those hot meals are a very welcome addition as well.

Back in late 2014, Alaska partnered with award winning Seattle chef Tom Douglas to provide quality hot meals on its flights departing to or from Alaska’s home base of Seattle. Douglas is a three time James Beard Award winner and happily accepted the challenge of showcasing his culinary talents in the troposphere. Unfortunately, Douglas’ creations appear to be limited to Economy Class offerings, but that just means that if you must deign to travel behind the curtain, the experience will be that much nicer aboard Alaska Airlines. Nice enough in fact that on a couple of occasions I’ve swapped out my First Class meal for a bowl of whatever Chef Douglas has come up with for the Economy section.

Tonight’s offering was Tom Douglas’ Miso Chicken. Normally offered on flights to Hawaii, it was a welcome addition to Alaska’s domestic offerings. Here’s a photo beneath which is a description of the meal as transcribed from Alaska’s website:

Tom Douglas’ Miso Chicken
Sliced grilled chicken glazed in a luscious sauce flavored with ginger, pineapple and red miso. Highlighted by tangy sesame carrots atop a bed of ginger garlic fried brown rice.

Costing just $8.00, this dish was both tasty and filling. More information of Alaska’s inflight meal service can be found RIGHT HERE.

Thanks to an expedient tailwind, our arrival in Seattle was about fifteen minutes early. Now it was time to have a little fun. My neighbor was flying in from Boston this evening and making a connection to the late Fairbanks departure. We spoke just yesterday as she’d called with concerns about the impending storm. At that point, I had no idea I was leaving town and consequently, she had no expectation of meeting me in the airport.

I watched from a discreet distance as she emerged from the jetway, checked for her connecting flight on the airport flight display and then headed down the escalator to the inter-terminal train. I was able to board the train right behind her and quickly turn around. I was standing right in front of her and watched with glee as her facial expressions – which I could clearly see reflected in the train car’s window glass – registered increasing levels of curiosity and surprise. As she tried to move to one side to get a better view of me, I also moved and blocked her view. Then she tried the other side. Again, I moved with her. We went through this back and forth a couple of times before I finally turned around and gave her a big hug. Life’s more fun with the occasional surprise.

I rode with her over to the North Satellite, then continued on to the main terminal where I caught a van to my hotel for the night. $58.00 all-in scored me a nice quiet room over at the Day’s Inn up on 190th. I’ve stayed often at this hotel and while it’s not in the same strata as the Hilton and Starwood type properties favored by most FlyerTalkers, it’s always delivered exactly what I’m looking for – a clean, quiet and affordable room to sleep in overnight.

I went to bed shortly after arriving. Upon arising in the morning, I showered and caught the van back to the airport. Why pay two to three times as much as I did for last night’s room when all I’m going to be doing is sleeping most of my stay away? After all, it’s hard to enjoy the fine lobby, restaurant and furnishings of that $140.00+/nt. Hotel when you’re asleep!

December 30, 2016
Alaska Airlines Seattle to Milwaukee 910a – 312p ERJ-175 First Class ~ Operated by SkyWest

My flight to Milwaukee this morning was aboard Alaska’s new regional jet, the Brazilian built Embraer 175. I have flown this aircraft in the livery of all the other major US airlines and really enjoy the extra space and larger windows. Compared to Bombardier’s CRJ series jets – which Alaska Horizon also flies (CRJ-700), I find the 175/190 family of jets far superior. Thankfully, the powers that be at Alaska’s headquarters here in Seattle evidently agree as Alaska’s regional affiliate Horizon Air recently placed an order for an additional 30 of the -175 variant.

Alaska Horizon’s ERJ-175s are operated by regional partner SkyWest. Most of the SkyWest aircraft have been retrofitted with Alaska’s new Preferred Plus seating configuration, so when I checked in online last night I was thankful to score a window seat at 8A. I was really looking forward to checking out the comfort and approximately 38” of seat pitch on this – my first flight aboard Alaska’s version of this jet.

Even though I’d checked in online last night, I didn’t have access to a printer so when I arrived at the airport this morning I stopped off at a kiosk to print out my boarding pass. Imagine then my surprise and delight to discover that I’d been upgraded to seat 2A! To quote sports casting legend Marv Albert: “Yesss!!!”

Most Alaska Horizon flights – including the jets – depart from the commuter area over on the C Concourse. Alaska’s Boardroo- er, Alaska Lounge is located just around the corner, only a short walk from these gates. As such, I decided to stop in there for coffee and a yogurt. I usually always take a seat over at the work stations on the far side of the lounge. They’re a great place to recharge my laptop and the view of the tarmac is impressive.

The view from the Alaska Lounge

While I was in the lounge, I took a moment to check out the weather situation back home. Here’s a screen shot of the warning posted for Fairbanks on December 30th:

Fairbanks Weather Alert

Alright then, let’s go to Milwaukee! One of the nice things about the commuter gates is that boarding requires you to walk out onto the tarmac to access your aircraft. In these modern times, I suspect most people prefer boarding by jetway but for an old timer like myself, there’s nothing like walking out to your aircraft and seeing the entire airplane up close to appreciate what a large and magnificent machine it truly is. Even my Embraer jet, wearing Alaska’s beautiful new livery, looked positively radiant under the early morning sun.

Meet Alaska’s Embraer 175

Alaska’s Embraer 175 – Up Close

The First Class cabin aboard Alaska’s ERJ-175s is comprised of 12 seats configured in four rows of 2-1 seating. “A” seats are all single while “C&D” seats are paired. The seats are upholstered in dark blue leather – or is it naugahyde? – and they’re not particularly comfortable. In terms of width, they’re fine – on par with Fokker 100 or DC-9 First Class seats. Unfortunately they’re lacking in padding and for a six footer like me, another inch or two of legroom might also be appreciated. That said, this is a regional jet and I am sitting up here by virtue of a complimentary upgrade, so suck it up Bucko! This is as good as it’s gonna get for this flight.

The load was light today with only 9 of the 12 seats occupied. You mean to tell me that amongst the 40-50 people spread around the main cabin, there’s not a single MVP that could’ve also upgraded? Are these folks all Delta fliers? Milwaukee is Delta country, but then at present this flight represents the only nonstop or even direct service into Milwaukee from Seattle.

And what’s this about Delta country? Gosh, that sounds strange to say. I mean, for most of my formative years, Milwaukee’s Mitchell Field was primarily associated with Northwest red tails and North Central Airlines duck tails. The Delta widget wasn’t even seen at MKE until 1989 and then in very limited quantities. It wasn’t until Delta’s comparatively recent 2008 takeover of Northwest (which had taken over Republic which had been formed from the merger of North Central, Southern and Hughes Airwest) that one could truly call Milwaukee “Delta Country”

Anyway, had I known in advance that this flight was so lightly loaded up front, I would have tried to score a seat on the 2-seat side where the odds are I might have been able to stretch out a bit more with an empty seat beside me. As it were, I thought the seating on the single “A” seat side was pretty tight.

The view from Seat 2A

As we dispensed with the safety talk and made our way out to the runway, my seat quality reverie continued. I remember back in the mid-seventies, before the introduction of the lighter materials that eventually evolved into today’s Slimline seats, that Eastern and Continental Airlines offered very comfortable, nicely padded seats aboard their DC-9s. There was none of this faux leather stuff, either. The seats were nicely upholstered in pleasingly colorful fabrics and felt marvelously welcoming to sit down in. Today most U.S. airlines would have us believe that these leather covered seats are easier to clean but with all the flying I did back in the seventies, I don’t ever recall the old fabric seats ever looking dirty.

And what about a bit more padding? I get it that lighter weight seats save money but how much more would it cost to put say… 16 more ounces of foam cushioning into those seat backs and seat bottoms? Over a 12 seat cabin that would account for a mere 12 more pounds, and as fat as many Americans are getting these days, what’s another 12 pounds amongst passengers?

Soon we were poised at the head of the long south to north runway. The pilot throttled up his twin General Electric CF34-8E power plants and now, assisted by nearly 29000 lbf of static thrust, we roared down the runway and verily leapt into the skies above Seattle.

We were about twenty-five minutes into the flight and leveled off comfortably at 36000’ when service began with a presentation of hot towels. It’s interesting that the hot towel presentation has become such an integral part of premium class airline service in the U.S. Properly known as Oshibori towels, they’re a Japanese tradition that was introduced to the troposphere by Northwest Airlines on its Stratocruiser flights between the US and the Orient back in the 1950s. Later, the service was made available to Northwest passengers flying in First Class aboard the airline’s Regal Imperial and Royal Aloha services within the U.S.

The schedule indicates we’re to be served a breakfast on this flight. With a projected flight time of three hours and six minutes, we should have more than enough time for a leisurely service and a full sized breakfast. Leisurely flight time notwithstanding, I think the real question here is whether we have enough aircraft to support a full sized breakfast. Or even more to the point, is there enough galley space on this jet to stock a decent breakfast?

Judging from inflight service reports I’ve read here at Flyertalk over the past year, Skywest’s inflight catering is not overly impressive. But then, why should it be? The airline is – for all intents and purposes – a regional airline. Most of the routes it flies are less than 800 miles in length and/or in markets where there’s no competition. As such, I was just hoping that we’d be served something a bit more substantial than a breakfast sandwich.

And so we were. But just barely. Today’s offering was a Breakfast Quesadilla. It was served with a decent fruit bowl and accompanied by two small ramekins filled with guacamole and salsa. Check it out:

Breakfast Over America – a la SkyWest

The quesadilla was about a 5” wide wedge filled with scrambled eggs, cheese and veggie bits. Truth be told, I thought it tasted pretty good and if I could be said to have any real complaint with this meal, it would be that I wish there were a bit more of it, like maybe a couple of 4” wedges. And offer hotter salsa too, not that bland picante sauce that would only be considered flavorful in, like, the Canadian Arctic.

Out my substantial window, thick cloud cover blanketed almost our entire route. It wasn’t until we were in the earliest stages of our initial descent into Milwaukee that the skies began to clear up a bit. I had just reclined my seat to sit back and take it all in when the dreaded pre-arrival instructions rang out. “All seat backs must be returned to the full upright position…” Quietly of course, I’m thinking Alright, alright already! I swear, Alaska - and evidently its affiliates, as well - start this process earlier than any other airline I know of. I mean, we’re still twenty minutes away from touching down… Still, it is a federal offense to disobey a command from a member of the flight crew, and as such one question I’d hate to have to answer upon my arrival at the Big House would be “What’re you in for, pal?” “Um… well, uh...”

The stiff tailwind pushing us across the country resulted in a flight time of three hours and two minutes, which translated into an arrival into Milwaukee that was fifteen minutes early. We taxied briskly up to or gate and parked right between an American ERJ-175 and a Delta CRJ-900. All of the aircraft were clean and shiny and, illuminated in the late afternoon sun I thought we made quite the good looking triumvirate.


Anybody who writes off the American Midwest as “fly over” country clearly hasn’t taken the time to drive through southwest Wisconsin, much less most of the rest of Wisconsin. For that matter the entire upper Mississippi Valley comprises some of the most beautiful landscape to be found anywhere on the continent. The town of Galena, located in the northwest corner of Illinois, is surely one of the most picturesque and quaint downtowns anywhere in the country.

This is where I drove to

Southwest Wisconsin
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Southwest Wisconsin
Scott Sinklier/AgStock Images/Corbis

Downtown Galena, Illinois

Be you an American citizen or a visitor from overseas, I heartily recommend a visit to this part of the country. In particular, I’d recommend getting off the interstate highways and onto the smaller state and federal highways. If you can read a map, our roads are generally well marked and you’ll be rewarded with seeing and enjoying what I like to call real, down home Americana, the America that still embodies everything that has always made America great as opposed to life in the fast lanes where much of the country currently yearns to be great again.

I know, I know… sightseeing around small town America… (yawn) Not when you can be touring the great cities of Europe, relaxing on a beach along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or enjoying a safari in southern Africa. Still, for any of you that might consider broadening your horizons right here in the good old U S of A, might I recommend a couple of good books:

BLUE HIGHWAYS by William Least Heat Moon

GREAT PLAINS by Ian Frazier

THE LOST CONTINENT – Travels in small town America

Everywhere I’ve driven in my old Mazda truck
This is just that one vehicle which I drove for 21 years.
I’ve driven over many more roads in my other vehicles

Last edited by Seat 2A; Jan 24, 17 at 10:31 am
Seat 2A is online now  
Old Jan 18, 17, 5:11 pm
FlyerTalk Evangelist
Original Poster
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Airlines Million Miler, United Airlines Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond Level
Posts: 10,144
January 1, 2017
Amtrak Empire Builder ~ First Class ~ Milwaukee to Seattle
Car 731 Room 11 ~ 342p – 1030a +2

Alright then, today we’re boarding Amtrak’s famous Empire Builder for the 2120 mile ride across the northern plains, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest Cascades to Seattle, Washington. The Empire Builder is the most popular long-distance train in the Amtrak system. It carries an average of about 500000 riders per year from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest via Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and Idaho. The line splits at Spokane, Washington with half of the train continuing on across the Cascade Mountains to Seattle, Washington while the other half heads southwest down the Columbia River to Portland, Oregon.

Route of The Empire Builder

The train is named for James J. Hill, the president and founder of the Great Northern Railway. Hill reorganized several failing railroads into the Great Northern and then extended the line to the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s. He provided discounted transport to immigrants looking to move into the northern plains states and then arranged for education on how to grow wheat and vegetables in the tough northern climate. Over the years towns and farms sprung up along the line and as more and more crops came to harvest, his railroad was there to provide transport to the big city markets. In the process he became known as "The Empire Builder". The train that honors him was inaugurated by the Great Northern in 1929 and quickly displaced the Oriental Limited as the railroad's premier train.

* * *  * * *  * * *

After turning in my rental car at the Milwaukee Airport, I caught the parking shuttle out to Amtrak’s Milwaukee Airport Station. That’s right. Amtrak operates a station at the airport. As airport train stations go, it’s actually quite nice with a spacious and well heated waiting room, vending machines and toilet facilities. The station is, however, unmanned and as such, only the local service Hiawatha stops there to pick up passengers.

The Hiawatha comes into view

A single P42 locomotive powers the northbound Hiawatha

From the airport it’s a short 12 minute ride into downtown Milwaukee and the much larger Milwaukee Intermodal Station. This is a good looking modern facility that serves not only Amtrak but also a variety of long distance intercity bus lines as well as the local Milwaukee County Transit System. With just over an hour to wait until the arrival of the westbound Empire Builder, I decided to avail myself of a late lunch at the station’s small counter service restaurant. A variety of items were available ranging from Middle Eastern specialties to a nice selection of soups to a full on Chicago Style Hot Dog, complete with that soylent green relish and those zesty sport peppers. I opted for a large bowl of lentil soup and a handful of crackers before taking a seat at a table and setting to work on this report.

About ten minutes before train time an announcement was made instructing passengers to form into two lines at the wide double doors leading to the tracks. The line for sleeping car passengers included only myself and an Australian couple with two teenaged children in tow. Another twenty or so people waited to board the coach cars.

We all heard more than saw the arrival of the Empire Builder. The two giant P42DC locomotives heading up our train combine to provide the power of over 8,000 horses. Though not as noisy as that many horses, the locomotives still put out an impressive din as they powered by.

A conductor entered the station and set to inspecting our tickets. Sleeping car passengers were checked first and I was instructed to turn right down the platform and make my way down to the second sleeper, car 731.

Car 731 – The George M. Pullman

The double decker bi-level cars towered above as I made my way down to my car. Ah – there it is! Waiting at the door was my car attendant Floyd. Noting my cervical collar and moderate limp, he quickly relieved me of my roll-a-bord, stowed it on the spacious shelves in the lower level foyer, and then showed me to my roomette.

The hallway to my roomette on the lower level

“Is this your first time riding with us?” Floyd asked.
“Oh no – I’ve logged nearly a couple hundred thousand miles with Amtrak over the years.”
“That many?! Maybe you ought to be giving me a tour of the car!” he laughed.

I took an immediate liking to Floyd. Like many of his fellow car attendants (though not all…) he was a happy, outgoing guy who seemed to enjoy his life and his work. People like Floyd are always a treat to work with regardless of the job they do and I had every confidence that any time spent in my sleeper would be time well spent.

Amtrak’s bi-level Superliner Sleepers offer 14 Roomettes, 5 Deluxe bedrooms, 1 Family bedroom and one Handicapped bedroom. Four roomettes along with the Family and Handicapped bedrooms are located downstairs. The roomettes measure 3’6” by 6’6” and are accessed via a sliding glass door. During the day they comprise two wide opposite facing seats that fold together to become a bed at night. Above them is a fold-down upper berth. Other amenities include four separate lights, an electrical outlet, a tall mirror, a fold out table, a small open closet with hangers and a thermostat which I immediately turned to its lowest level. Best of all, each compartment has its own huge window, approximately 2½’ X 5’, through which to view the passing scenery. Toilet and shower facilities are down the hall. For a single traveler, I think these roomettes are quite sufficient and comfortable which is a good thing because they would be my home for the next four nights. At the top of the stairway is the service area for each car. In the morning, juice and coffee are available from this area.

Amtrak’s Bi-Level Superliner Roomette

On each seat was a large fluffy pillow. On the center console where the table is stored were two bottles of water and a variety of pamphlets about the train. There was a route guide, a timetable, a safety card much like you’d see aboard an airliner and a brochure describing the train and its various services and attractions.

Amtrak’s Bi-Level Superliner Roomette

Although most people are excited about the prospect of a seat or bedroom high on the upper level of Amtrak’s Superliner fleet, I specifically choose a lower level room for two reasons. First, the downstairs rooms are quieter because there is much less foot traffic passing by your door. All the inter-car traffic is upstairs. Secondly, as the train speeds down the tracks its motion can occasionally make straight-line walking a challenge, causing some people to ricochet their way down the narrow hallways, bouncing off walls and doors with equal abandon. One sleeping car passenger complained that her arms were bruised after just one afternoon on the train. Riding in the lower level of the car results in much less tilt motion than is experienced on the upper levels. Like a fulcrum point on a seesaw, the ride is smoother the lower you are.

The Empire Builder began its 2210 mile journey 90 miles back down the tracks in Chicago, Ill. With only about 20 of us boarding at Milwaukee, our station stop was relatively short. I had just enough time to step off the train for a quick photo of the impressive 6th Avenue bridge to the north of us when the “All Aboard” call was made.

This is no time to tarry. When that call rings out, it’s time to get on the train NOW. A couple of smokers hurridly sucked at the last of their cigarettes before grinding them out and stepping back aboard the train. I was happy to see that they didn’t just toss them on the ground as so many smokers still do. With all of us safely onboard, Floyd shut the large Dutch door and headed upstairs to attend to a call button that had rung out. The engineer powered up his locomotives and ever so smoothly we began to glide north through the Milwaukee suburbs and soon - out into the countryside.

6th Avenue Viaduct as seen from Milwaukee Station

Sunset under the 6th Avenue Viaduct

Miller Park – Home of the Milwaukee Brewers
It looks a lot nicer from the other side, especially during baseball season

As for me, it was time to unpack and settle in to my new home. Travel time from Milwaukee to Seattle is scheduled for almost 45 hours. This is a far cry from driving out to the airport, boarding a plane and then spending the next three and a half hours amidst a sea of homogenous dark blue seats. Consider the differences, if you will... On an airplane you’re surrounded by a multitude of often indifferent fellow passengers, most of whom are plugged in and tuned out to the people and the world around them. It is oh so easy to adopt a similar approach as you slip on your noise cancelling headphones and get lost in your favorite album, a new movie or a work related project. Outside your row’s window, on which the shade is probably drawn, the varied tapestry of the planet glides by 40000’ below, a height so lofty that rural splendor such as I experienced while driving through Wisconsin this morning is reduced to little more than a bland greenish-grey palate. Fly-over country. Time flies... You get up and step out into the aisle to allow the guy at the window to head back to the lav. It’s the only time you’ll likely get up during the entire flight. Eventually the plane lands at Seattle and it’s over. You’ve arrived.

As one who’s logged 5 million miles aboard over 5300 flights, I’m well familiar with the scenario I’ve described above. And yet, I still love flying. I’ve always loved flying but then I grew up in an era when jet air travel – indeed travel itself – was still a novelty. Most people were genuinely excited just to be going somewhere, be it a plane, a train, a bus or a boat. Amongst many the act of traveling anywhere far away was looked at as a special event, one so special that it warranted dressing up for the occasion.

Times certainly have changed as worldwide deregulation has allowed air travel to become accessible to everyone. Those lower fares came at a price though. Where once airlines competed against one another based upon speed, comfort and service; they now compete primarily with low fares and frequency of flights. For many of us, flying around North America and Europe these days has become a homogenized, bland experience devoid of any individuality or flair.

Not that anybody’s complaining, mind you. Times change. People adjust. Attitudes evolve. It is what it is... Hey, would you mind switching your seat so my wife and I can sit together? Sorry, I’m in the middle one there three rows back. OMG! Is that guy really clipping his toenails and putting his bare feet up on the bulkhead?! Uh… that’s a therapy dog? Like I said – times have changed.

While I still enjoy air travel - especially international premium class air travel – at the heart of it I’ve always enjoyed just going somewhere. Robert Louis Stevenson put it best back in 1879 with this now famous quote from his book “Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes”:

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.

As a child I was fascinated by rivers and rural roads. Where did they go to? What’s it look like on the other side of that mountain? I grew up backpacking, horseback riding and climbing in the Colorado Rockies so a lot of my early “travels” were spent up close and on foot out in the country and into the wilderness.

Seeing the land close up
Climbing Mt. Maude in Washington's Cascades

You can just make out our tents on the grassy area next to Lower Ice Lake
That was a helluva climb to get up to that campsite from the valley below

Looking down the valley below from our campsite

In my college years, I hitch-hiked all over Colorado and the West. Once I got to the point where I could afford travel overseas, I eschewed the popular and populated places like Europe and headed for the undeveloped regions of Australia, the South Pacific and South America. I’m sure glad I did, too, because I can tell you on considerable authority that places like Tahiti, the far north of Australia’s Queensland or New Zealand’s South Island were waaaaaay different in 1981 than the busy places they’ve become today.

Rail and road travel have always been an integral part of my travels, primarily because I’ve always been into earth’s natural beauty. Rolling across the countryside at 70 mph is a great way to see it and trains in particular are nice because I can do so from the comfort of a chair in the lounge car, a seat in the diner or stretched out on my bed in my roomette.

So what’s the point to all this extraneous commentary? It’s simple, really. Train travel requires a different mindset. You have to be willing to slow down and enjoy travel for a large part of what it is – the act of getting from one point to another. The great affair is to move. That said, it’s not all about sitting there and watching the world go by. As an added bonus, you’ll be sharing the experience with a couple hundred fellow travelers. You’ll get to hear their stories and share yours over cocktails and dinner in the communal dining car, or perhaps over a few beers and a game of cards in the lounge car. Or maybe just a friendly chat with your neighbor in the room across the hall. To that end, a long trip across the country by train is truly what you make of it.

* * *  * * *  * * *

Last edited by Seat 2A; Jan 22, 17 at 1:06 pm
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Old Jan 18, 17, 5:13 pm
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As the last of Milwaukee’s suburbs rolled past and behind us, the setting sun disappeared over the low hills out my large window. Ahead lay some of the prettiest trackside scenery in the Midwest. We’ll roll past lakes, marshes and rolling farmland before reaching Wisconsin Dells and the mighty Mississippi.

Unfortunately, today happens to be the twelfth shortest day of the year. With the sun having set shortly after our departure from Milwaukee, a lot of beautiful scenery was going by unseen in the darkness.

Like I said however, there’s more to a train ride than just the scenery. Consider for a moment just what a passenger train is. Aside from the two locomotives heading up our train, today’s consist included ten cars. Following is a listing of them with each car’s ultimate destination in parenthesis:

Baggage car (Seattle)
Transitional Crew Sleeper (Seattle)
Sleeper (Seattle)
Sleeper (Seattle)
Diner (Seattle)
Coach (Seattle)
Coach (Seattle)
Sightseer Lounge/Café (Portland)
Coach/Baggage (Portland)
Sleeper (Portland)

Amtrak Superliner Coach Seating
The coaches offer spacious 20” wide seating on par with some international airline business classes in terms of seat pitch.

Amtrak Superliner Sightseer Lounge Seating
The Sightseer Lounge offers convivial couch and buffet style seating surrounded by near floor to ceiling windows
A café on the lower level offers light meals, snacks and a variety of drinks including beer and alcohol

Amtrak Superliner Dining Car
The Dining Car offers good filling meals – nothing gourmet, but decent nonetheless.
It’s a great place to meet your fellow travelers

All this in addition to the sleepers – your home away from home – which I’ve discussed earlier. So you see – a train isn’t just a bunch of seats. It’s more like a place that’s going somewhere. Want a break from that book you’ve been reading? Head on back to the lounge car café for a snack and a drink. Fancy a hot breakfast to start your day? The diner’s only a short walk away. Want to take in the surrounding scenery while surrounded by it? A seat in the glass topped lounge car is a great place to watch the world go by. Then again, if all you really want is a nice comfy place to get into a good book, the spacious coach seats or your bedroom are just the place.

Shortly after our departure from Milwaukee, Floyd stopped by to see what time I’d like to eat. Due to its popularity, dinner on most Amtrak trains is by reservation only with a variety of seatings ranging from as early as 5:00pm to as late as 8:00pm. Having recently polished off a big bowl of lentil soup back in Milwaukee, I opted for the latest possible seating – that being 7:00pm on tonight’s train. Seatings are announced over the train’s PA system, so all you have to be is hungry and ready to go.

It was about 6:00pm when I made my way back to the lounge car. A Jack Daniels and a bag of almonds sounded like a good appetizer for the steak dinner I knew I’d be ordering later. Returning to the upper level, I found a couple of empty tables at the far end of the car. Perfect.

Looking around, I took in a sampling of my fellow passengers. This time of year, many rail travelers tend to be retired but tonight we had a surprisingly youthful contingent onboard. Across from me sat a family of Amish travelers, the men and boys all dressed in blue shirts with suspenders while the women all wore plain but pretty dresses and bonnets. At the table ahead of me, a college aged girl tapped away at her laptop while swaying to the beat of whatever melody flowed through her headphones. Two tables up a group of thirty-somethings were engaged in a game of cards and boisterous conversation. On the other end of the car were a sprinkling of passengers spread out in seats and couches facing the large almost floor to ceiling windows. Being as it was dark outside there wasn’t much to see except for the occasional lights of a farm house or the flashing lights of a railroad crossing but even those were mildly entertaining as we flashed by at 79 mph. I had brought along a copy of that morning’s USA Today and sitting here all by myself, now seemed like a good time to catch up on the news of the day. After all, you know what they say… If it’s in USA Today, It Must Be True!

It’s worth noting here that while opportunities abound to meet and/or interact with your fellow passengers on a trip of this length, the dining car is the only place where - due to the communal nature of its seating – you have no choice but to meet your fellow travelers. In the lounge car, each visit unfolds differently. Sometimes, like tonight, the people around you are all engaged in their own activities and doing just fine, thank you. Other times you’ll end up sitting down next to someone and something comes up that sparks conversation and there you go. Mind you, I’m speaking in the context of a solo passenger here. Traveling with others, you tend to make your own party.

Me – I’m easy either way. More so than most people, I’m totally comfortable doing stuff all by myself. As such, I certainly don’t feel put out to be sitting here all alone with my copy of USA Today. This double Jack Daniels is warming me up nicely and soon enough I’ll be sharing a dinner table with who only knows? And I’m fine with that, too. Those of you who have read any of my past trip reports may recall that for the past thirty years I’ve worked in Denali National Park. Although I own a place just down the road, I rent it out and prefer to spend the summer in employee housing with 250 other people and my roommate, a 72 year old ex-Marine we call “Texas Lee”. We all work together, eat together, drink together, play together… It’s like adult summer camp. Add to that every morning I host 48 of America’s most tenacious travelers on my 8 hour run out to Eielson Visitor Center and back. I provide a lot of information along the way and during the rest stops there’s a lot of interaction with my passengers. So – I’m totally down with sharing a table in the diner with complete strangers every bit as much as I am with sitting here all by myself with a double Jack Daniels and a newspaper for company.

Not everybody is comfortable with situations like this. I know of a few otherwise very nice people who, when it comes to social interaction, are, for lack of a nicer phrase, just plain needy. They wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they were sitting alone in a lounge car type setting surrounded by others doing stuff not inclusive of them. People like this should probably not travel alone – at least on anything more than an airplane flight. And, for the most part, they generally don’t.

The call for 7:00 o’clock dinner reservations rang out at about 6:50pm. Awright! I’m ready to go. Making my way forward through the two Seattle coaches, I entered the dining car where, per instructions given over the PA, I waited at the entrance until I was greeted by the steward, a nice fellow named Jeremy, and led to an empty table. Soon I was joined by Frank, a single traveler up from the coaches, and Bob, a retired auto worker from Michigan who, like me, had a roomette in the sleepers.

Seating in Amtrak’s Dining Cars is booth style - two on each side, four to a table. Menus had already been set at each place and so, after introducing ourselves, we took a moment to consider the menu offerings

Amtrak Dining Car Place Setting and Menu

Amtrak Dining Car Ambiance

Our waiter was Richard, a 16 year Amtrak veteran with the past five of those having come in the dining car. He took a moment to explain the specials, starting with the “Healthy and Flavor Forward” entrée which tonight was the Chinese Rice Noodles with veggies with cashew sauce. The daily special was a stuffed chicken breast topped with a red sauce. For the life of me though, I can’t remember what it was stuffed with.

Not that it matters, because I knew coming in that I’d be ordering Amtrak’s flat iron steak. Bob also went with the steak while Frank opted for the hamburger, which is also available as a dinner option at about half the price of the dinner entrees. Bob and I had no concerns in that regard, for as sleeping car passengers our meals were included in the cost of our First Class fare.

“Would any of you care for a salad with your meal tonight?” Richard asked

“Oh, you betcha!” I said. Being as we’d soon be entering Minnesota and spending much of the day in North Dakota tomorrow, why not brush up on the local accent? Speaking of which, one table back and across from us sat the Australian family of four. Their pleasant Australian patois carried clearly up to our table and – from the sound of things – they were enjoying their time on the train.

A bread basket with heated rolls was delivered, followed by our salads and a basket of dressings. All of the dressings were from Paul Newman’s line, one of which – the Balsamic Vinaigrette – I use at home.

So it was just the three of us at our table on this night. Frank, who was traveling in the coach, was a carpenter from Batavia, New York (just outside of Buffalo, he explained) who was on his way to Whitefish to visit his brother and his family down in Kalispell. His specialty was restoring Victorian homes but as work was a bit slow this time of year, now was a good time of year to take a trip like this. That said, he’d only just decided to go last week but with holiday airfares being way too high (especially with less than two week’s advance notice) he’d kind of stumbled upon the train. He didn’t even know you could take a train to Montana from New York but he appreciated the savings (about $600.00) and was generally impressed with the ride so far. Even so, he was glad to be flying home as he was still trying to come to grips with the fact that he wouldn’t arrive into Whitefish until tomorrow night.

Bob worked on the Ford Motor Company assembly line building trucks until his retirement nine years ago. He and his wife lived in Niles, Michigan and were on their way to visit her sister in Great Falls, Montana. Actually, she was already there as she’d flown ahead last week.

“I know Niles!” I chipped in. “I spent a couple hours between trains there one afternoon. It’s got a really nice little train station.”

“It does, at that” replied Bob. “You’re one of the few people I’ve met outside of Michigan who knows where Niles is.”

“Well I never made it into town but I sure was impressed by that station. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore…”

The Niles, Michigan Railroad Station

Niles Station Waiting Room

Conversation flowed easily, interrupted only when Richard arrived with our dinners. A bottle of Steak Sauce was located for Bob, along with ketchup for Frank. Butter and sour cream were provided for the baked potatoes and we were good to go.

Amtrak Flatiron Steak

I’ve ordered a lot of steaks in Amtrak diners over the years and I’ve always been impressed with the ability of the collective chefs to consistently cook them just the way I like them – medium rare. They also do a great job with the baked potatoes which are almost always perfectly done – hot, soft and fluffy. No doubt they have a lot of experience as the steak is far and away the most popular item on the dinner menu.

In past reports, I’ve had a few people ask about the vegetarian options. Check out the menu I’ve highlighted with a link to above. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more vegetarian friendly menu on any public conveyance. So chow down with confidence, veg heads! Be it breakfast, lunch or dinner, you’ll have multiple tasty options.

It was about 8:00pm when Richard asked us to finish up and perhaps relocate to the lounge car. The crew wanted to eat dinner themselves before getting the dining car cleaned up and prepped for tomorrow morning’s breakfast service. On the upper level this meant getting all the tables set, condiments restocked and small service items like coffee and juice restocked and ready to go. After that, they could go to bed and return at 5:30am for another 16 hour day.

Bob, Frank and I all bid each other a good night and went our separate ways. Bob was in the 730 car, conveniently located right next to the diner. It was a first generation Superliner Sleeper that had not yet benefitted from a refurbishment at Amtrak’s Beech Grove shops. The topic of Amtrak’s Superliner fleet had come up in our dinner conversation. Aside from commuter operations, there are not very many long distance trains around the world that utilize bi-level cars. In fact, the only one that comes to mind is in Finland on the 660 mile Helsinki to Rovaniemi line.

When Amtrak took over operation of America’s intercity passenger rail system in May of 1971, it inherited a fleet of mostly older cars, many of them in need of refurbishment or even outright replacement. Amtrak’s single level Amfleet and bi-level Superliners were the first new equipment that Amtrak ever purchased.

The Superliners are modeled after the Santa Fe Railway’s old “Hi-Level” cars that served on the all coach El Capitan between Chicago and Los Angeles. I was fortunate to ride on a few of those old Hi-Level cars in the early 1970s. Per the Santa Fe’s configuration, I think they represented the finest coach accommodations on any train in the world. By far. The plush leather upholstered seats included full leg and foot rests and reclined to about 75°. They remain to this day the finest railroad seat I have ever sat in. By far.

The first of the new Superliners were delivered in 1978 and entered revenue service with this train – the Empire Builder. That means some of the oldest Superliners are approaching 40 years old. Over the past eight years the oldest of them have been cycling through Amtrak’s Beech Grove, Indiana shops for a refurbishment that for the sleepers includes attractive wooden paneling, much larger bathrooms and showers, new heating and air conditioning and enclosed wardrobes in the roomettes. My car, the 731, had benefitted from this refurbishment. Bob’s car had not. He was curious to see the differences so I took him back to my car for a brief tour.

The older cars are still perfectly good cars and every bit as comfortable as the refurbished ones. For me at least, the most beneficial improvement was to the bathrooms. The new ones are almost twice as large as the originals and have a much nicer sink and vanity area.

Bob was impressed. I told him I wouldn’t say anything if he were to sneak back and “borrow” our bathrooms. We bid each other goodnight and I returned to my roomette which Floyd had already configured for night time use. It was still reasonably early and I figured I would eventually make my way back to the lounge car. First however, I thought I’d pour myself a nice big glass of 10 Year Old Russell’s Reserve. I once shared a bottle of this with fellow FlyerTalkers violist and lily aboard the Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star. It goes down particularly well on the rails. So well in fact that as I lay stretched out perusing Amtrak’s impressive new onboard magazine “The National”, I became so comfortable that I decided to stay right where I was. Here’s a view of the Superliner’s lower level roomette bunk:

Amtrak Superliner Roomette Lower Bunk

Rolling through North Dakota and Montana

I awoke at just a few minutes after 7. Be it the bourbon or some pretty smooth rails, I’d slept pretty much nonstop through the night, so it was a good feeling to awake refreshed and ready to go this morning. And – for what it’s worth - I didn’t get drunk on that bourbon last night, just relaxed. I’m not much for drunkenness.

A quick peek out my window revealed low, snow covered plateaus cut with the occasional ravine. Row after row of telephone poles rose and fell as we rolled across the plains at what had to have been the maximum speed for Amtrak trains on this line – 79 mph.

Quickly throwing on a pair of jeans, I made my way up to the service center located at the top of the stairs. Coffee and orange juice is available there throughout the morning hours and – depending upon the car attendant – sometimes well into the afternoon. Coffee, please.

As I sat in the empty roomette across from mine savoring good hot coffee, I heard someone vacate the shower down the hall. Oh, yeah! I’ll take advantage of that! The baggage storage shelves were located just down the hall from my room, so I grabbed a clean shirt and underwear from my suitcase and then headed off to the shower.

Amtrak’s Spacious Superliner Shower

Alright then –let’s head on upstairs and go see what’s for breakfast!

As I mentioned earlier, due to its popularity dinner is generally the only meal where reservations are the standard. As such, when I arrived in the diner at about 8:00am it wasn’t even half full and I was sat at a table by myself. I was half expecting this and so I brought along a copy of yesterday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for company.

Richard was my waiter again, and he arrived bearing two sets of silverware and a couple of menus. Coffee and orange juice was delivered in short order after which I was informed of today’s breakfast special – a waffle with fresh fruit and scrambled eggs. Ahhh… I think I’ll stick with my usual - the veggie omelet with cheese.

“Would you like Swiss or Cheddar with that?”
“Potatoes or grits?”
“Hmm… Let’s go with grits today.”
“Bread? We have a choice between biscuit or croissant.”
“Care for any bacon or sausage with your omelet?”
“Do you still have the chicken sausage?”
“We do. It’s in patty form”
“That sounds good, I’ll go with that”

Vegetable Omelet with Grits & Chicken Sausage

I was halfway through my omelet when Jeremy arrived with a single table mate in tow. I was immediately struck by how remarkably similar she was to this lady in the movie Fargo. Do any of you remember that scene where a man and his wife come in to pick up a new car they'd ordered, only to be told that it’ll cost him an extra two hundred bucks for a coating of Tru-coat. The man is furious, sputtering mad. He'd specifically said he didn't want the Tru-coat when he'd ordered the car. His wife meanwhile sits at his side, clearly uncomfortable with the situation, and utters only a cautionary “Dear, please” when the man swears at Jerry Lundergaard.

What were the similarities? Appearances, demeanor, degree of discomfort, lack of dialogue. It was quickly apparent that this lady just wanted to be left alone to eat in peace. Had I pressed the conversation, I doubt she ever would have snarled at me but instead would have shrunk farther back into the booth, all the while looking even more uncomfortable.

Thankfully for both of us, I was able to finish up my meal quickly and leave her in peace. My timing was good, too, because we were just minutes from arriving into Minot when I excused myself from the table.

Minot is a service stop for the Empire Builder which means we spend a bit of extra time there while garbage is offloaded and things like ice, food and drinks are replenished. Most service stops are only fifteen minutes but the Empire Builder’s schedule called for a full half hour here in Minot. For me it was a great opportunity to get off and stretch my legs for a bit while looking for that morning’s newspaper. After all, it was Monday and I wanted to check out the previous day’s football scores.

Train Time In Minot

As you can see from the picture, it was a typical North Dakota winter day in Minot – that is to say overcast and snowing lightly with a temperature of 8°F. There was a slight wind blowing, too, so the wind chill had to have taken the ambient temperature down to a few degrees below zero. I didn’t spend much time admiring the view outside – just long enough to snap a trackside picture, purchase a copy of the Minot paper and hustle back on to the warmth of the train.

Comfortably Stretched Out In My Roomette

Comfortably stretched out in my roomette, I gave a thorough perusal to not only the sports section but the entire newspaper. Life in rural America is markedly different than that experienced in the big cities, and the local newspapers can be interesting and entertaining with opinion pieces that address aspects of rural life or the local view on the larger national scene. Whereas the big city paper might have a story on a murder or two that happened recently, out in rural America the most exciting thing in the police blotter might be that a hitch-hiker passing through town was stopped and questioned.

It was about 11 when I decided to relocate to the Sightseer Lounge Car. We had the whole day ahead of us and – if nothing else – the buffet tables in the lounge car provided a better and more comfortable setting to plug in my laptop and work from. Mind you, I could have done so from my roomette as well but it was still configured for nighttime use and even if it were in its daytime configuration, the small fold out table is really inadequate for anything more than drinks or possibly a game of cards between two.

The view upon entering the lounge

Having a lounge onboard a train is huge. We humans are social creatures and if you’re going to put us on a train for forty some-odd hours, it’s important to give us a place to mingle, to interact with our fellow travelers, to eat and drink or simply to get away from our seats or rooms for a while. As often as the lounge presents an opportunity to meet your fellow travelers, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a social experience. For some, the lounge car is a nice place to relax with a cup of coffee while watching the country roll by.

Now some people would scoff at the notion of North Dakota and eastern Montana being worthy of sightseeing, but I’ve always found an attractive desolation to the scenery. Even today, as grey and dreary a day as ever a high plains winter could produce, I found the landscape oddly calming, a multi-hued palette of whites and greys offset by the occasional brown or beige of a copse of trees or a field of winter wheat.

Settling in at an empty booth, I fired up my trusty laptop, set up Philip Aaberg’s wonderful album “
” on the Windows Media Player, and set to work on this report – pausing occasionally in a moment of admiration as the landscape did its thing. We had just departed Williston, ND and were just crossing into eastern Montana.

Look! Trees!

Rolling into Malta

First Montana Mountains

I shared my luncheon table with Sean, a college graduate with a major in philosophy. Like most philosophy majors, Sean was not making a living as a philosopher, or even a teacher of philosophy. Sean was a landscaper, working for his buddy in Chicago for the past year and a half. He was on his way to Spokane to visit his girlfriend who was a student at Eastern Washington University. When I asked about the difficulties of such a long distance relationship, Sean waxed philosophical.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder…”

When it came time to order, my enthusiasm for the spicy Black Bean and Chipotle Burger must’ve hit a nerve with Sean, because he decided to order it as well. He took his plain though whereas I fancied mine up with bacon and cheese into what I like to call a “Vegetarian Nightmare”.

My Vegetarian Nightmare

Our conversation continued (We had the table to ourselves) and it turns out Sean and I shared similar tastes in music. Unfortunately neither of us had any blank CDs on hand, much less even a thumb drive or mp3 player, or I would have turned him on to some great, little known jambands from over the past 25 years. He was familiar with archives.org yet surprisingly unfamiliar with livedownloads.com. He also turned me on to a couple of sites though as of this writing I can’t seem to remember it as it’s logged onto my other laptop.

It was in Havre, Montana that things started to go south. Havre is a major fuel and service stop, as well as a crew change point. We were running pretty much on time when we rolled into Havre. Unfortunately, our relief crew wasn’t. We’re talking locomotive crews here as the onboard personnel such as car attendants and dining car staff stay with the train throughout its journey. We sat in Havre for almost an hour and a half waiting on the new crew and from that commenced a cascading series of events that led to this train pulling into Spokane, Washington almost 8 hours late with the rest of the run to Seattle being scuttled.

To make a long story short (which means I’ll skip telling you about the excellent afternoon I had in the lounge car drinking whiskey and playing cribbage, or the second excellent steak dinner and company I enjoyed), when we pulled out of Havre an hour and a half late, things really didn’t look so bad. There’s a fudge factor in the schedule between Spokane and Seattle that would’ve allowed us to make up almost an hour. No worries. I’m good with that. Unfortunately, a freight train broke down a few miles in front of us and – with no way to get around it – we sat and waited until it was able to get moving again. That took up about three hours.

As if to pile insult onto injury, now that we were running over three hours late (regardless of why), we had to pull off on sidings and wait to let any on-time freight trains through. This went on throughout the evening and into the next morning. Here in America, most freight trains make money while most passenger trains don’t. While legislation has been passed to give Amtrak trains equal footing, there comes a time when depending upon the length of the delay, all bets are off.

When I went to bed on the second night, we were sitting on a siding somewhere east of Whitefish, Montana. When I awoke the next morning, I expected us to be somewhere around Wenatchee. That would put us into Seattle four or five hours late and if I was lucky, I might be able to utilize Alaska’s same day confirmed space change perk and book flights all the way home to Fairbanks tonight. Alas, it was not to be…


“Excuse me, but would you happen to know where we are?” I asked a couple who were helping themselves to coffee and orange juice at the service center upstairs.

“We’re a few miles outside of Sandpoint, Idaho” the man replied.
“We’ve been sitting here for about a half hour!” his wife chimed in.

Sandpoint? I glanced at my watch. Wow. We were running so late that there was no way we’d be arriving into Seattle until mid-evening, at best. So much for getting back home today. I wasn’t overly concerned, though. I generally never am. A lifetime of travel has included all manner of events that led to significant alteration of my original plans. If I’ve learned anything about dealing with the vicissitudes of travel over the years, it’s that there’s nothing to be gained by getting stressed out. Your old reality has suddenly been replaced by a new reality. Adjust and deal with it. It never hurts to bring a sense of adventure with you, either. On a positive note, I’d get to cross the Cascades by daylight. I’d heard the route is beautiful, so that was my silver lining. I’d figure out how to get home once I got a better fix on when we’d actually be arriving into Seattle.

It was in the middle of breakfast that an announcement was made informing us that the Empire Builder would be terminating in Spokane, Washington. Passengers traveling to points west of Spokane would be transported by chartered busses or vans that would be awaiting our arrival at the station in Spokane.

Well dang! I was really looking forward to that daylight crossing of the Cascades. On a positive note though, Spokane was well served by Alaska and Horizon Airlines. If I was lucky, I could perhaps add a Spokane to Seattle leg onto my already booked Seattle - Fairbanks flights. I got on the phone to Alaska.

I got kind of lucky. Yes, there was a confirmed saver award seat between Spokane and Seattle departing at 430pm. From there I could get to Anchorage on a 745pm departure arriving Anchorage just in time to barely meet the minimum connecting time for the last flight of the night up to Fairbanks. Unfortunately, that flight wasn’t just sold out – it was oversold! Still, the way I see it, if I can get to Anchorage in time, I’ve at least got a chance. And if it doesn’t work out, I can always Priceline a room at the Millennium for about $65.00. As such I confirmed a flight departing Anchorage at 100pm the next afternoon. One way or the other, everything was gonna work out fine.

It was about 930am when we finally eased into Spokane’s Union Station. The temperature was 4°F and it was snowing lightly. Floyd had my bag off loaded and waiting outside on the platform. I bid him farewell, bestowed upon him a nice tip. These days, I go $20.00/day for sleeper car attendants – pretty generous for a low maintenance guy like me, but then I’ve always given serious points for attitude as well as service. Tipping is not required on Amtrak and its employees are well paid but what the hey – it’s nice to see people who not only do a good job but whose enjoyment of their work makes every little interaction with them that much more enjoyable. Thank you, Floyd. Job well done! ^

Inside the station I heard a few passengers grousing “I will NEVER ride Amtrak again!” This delay wasn’t Amtrak’s fault and to put the blame entirely on it is unfair. That said, delays of this magnitude are frustrating and I’ve no doubt that some people were considerably inconvenienced. Any of you who’ve read any of my most recent trip reports know they’ve involved a lot of rail travel. I spent 19 nights on trains last year. So far as I recall, all of my Amtrak trains were either on time or early. Amtrak has made major strides in its on time performance over the years but even so, bad days still happen now and then. Regardless, travel by train is a great way to see this big, broad country of ours and should your train happen to run a few hours late like mine did on this trip, hopefully you can keep your chin up and remember your journey for all the beautiful country you saw and the interesting people you met along the way. After all, isn’t that the very essence of travel at its best?

* * *  * * *  * * *

Now, then… how to get to the airport? For a lot of people the answer is easy, especially if they’ve got a lot of luggage. Hire a cab. It’s quick and it’s convenient. It’s also expensive. As a solo traveler who’s perfected the art of traveling light, if I’ve got the time – and I usually do – why not look to the public transport option?

When I arrive in Chicago by train and need to get to either O’Hare or Midway, I can hire a cab for about $30.00 out to O’Hare or I can walk two blocks down to the Clinton St. Station and catch the Blue Line for $3.75. Depending upon the time of day and the traffic, I might even beat the cab. Here in Spokane, I once arrived by train on time (130am) and needed to get out to the airport for a morning flight. At that time of night there were no busses running, so I had no choice but to cough up about $25.00 for a taxi ride. Today however, it’s a different story and I know there’s bus service out to the airport.

The airport police have a desk in the station, so I stopped by to inquire about the bus. There’s no service here at the station but if you walk about 5 blocks down the street outside, you’ll come to the main terminal for the city transit buses. Great! Thanks!

Upon stepping outside and walking halfway to the end of the block, it became immediately apparent that I wouldn’t be walking down to the bus station. As I mentioned earlier, the temperature was 4°F and there was a slight breeze. I had only my shirt and a down vest for warmth. Additionally, it had snowed about 7” the night before and the sidewalks were covered in frozen slush and snow.

Back at the station, I hailed a cab. To the bus station, please. I apologized for the short fare and thankfully the driver took it in stride. “Any fare’s a good fare.” was his response. I gave him $5.00 for the ride and then hopped on the next bus to Spokane’s Geiger Field for $1.50.

With over four hours to wait until my flight to Seattle, I called the Ramada Inn at Spokane Airport. Ramada’s can be hit or miss but this one’s a definite hit. Indeed, it may be the finest Ramada Inn I have ever stayed at. It has an excellent bar and dining room and, upon hearing that I only wanted to come over for lunch, they were only too happy to send over a van.

It was about 2 by the time I returned to the airport. To make a long story even shorter, I lucked out and was able to snag a seat on an earlier flight to Seattle, and then, upon noting that a larger aircraft had been substituted for the previously oversold late night flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks, checked in at the Customer Service desk to see if I could get on it.

They did me one better. They booked me a seat on the nonstop to Fairbanks. Whoa! Thanks, Alaska! It’s hard to imagine an airline that takes better care of its top tier elite level flyers. I even got an aisle seat back at 29D. And then, as an added bonus, there were still bowls of Tom Douglas’ delicious Coconut Chicken dinners available by the time the cart made it back to me.

Tom Douglas’ Coconut Chicken

It was clear and 19°F when we touched down on time at Fairbanks International. A van was quickly dispatched from Pikes Landing where my truck was parked. True to the reports, it had snowed about 15” and, after getting my truck brushed off and started up, I needed to put it in 4 wheel drive to get out of my parking space.

The best part though was that I was home. As I sat sipping from a glass of Woodford Reserve and watching the Tonight Show, I couldn’t help but reflect for a moment on my good fortune. I’d had an excellent five day adventure that allowed me to avoid the various difficulties typically associated with riding out a major winter storm. Thanks to a little help from Spokane Transit and a lot of help and good will from Alaska Airlines, a potentially difficult final day had turned into a pretty darned good day as well. Am I blessed of late or what?

I certainly hope so because provided I continue to gain strength and don’t have any setbacks associated with my surgical recovery, my next trip report will cover 54000+ miles of train and plane travel around the world with extended stays in Bali and Fiji and travel aboard seventeen different airlines and two new aircraft types.

To any and all of you who took the time to actually read through this entire 13000+ word trip report, I thank you for your indulgence as well as your fortitude. I hope that despite the lack of international premium class travel, you found the time you invested in reading this report to be enjoyable.

Til next time…

Last edited by Seat 2A; Jan 26, 17 at 6:57 pm
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Old Jan 18, 17, 6:28 pm
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You make the Empire Builder sound like such a lovely experience. I've taken it from a rural Wisconsin stop (Columbus) to Chicago, and it seemed like a sad, forlorn line. Perhaps that's because it's the the last 90-120 minutes of the trip and they're winding everything down right about the time you get on.
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Old Jan 18, 17, 6:53 pm
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Thank you Seat 2A for another well written report.
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Old Jan 18, 17, 7:09 pm
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Originally Posted by LizGross144 View Post
You make the Empire Builder sound like such a lovely experience. I've taken it from a rural Wisconsin stop (Columbus) to Chicago, and it seemed like a sad, forlorn line. Perhaps that's because it's the the last 90-120 minutes of the trip and they're winding everything down right about the time you get on.
In July 2016 I took the Empire Builder (roomette) from Seattle to Chicago. It was a good trip and it arrived at CHI 15 minutes early.
And in July 2017 I may be in Milwaukee for 5 days.
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Old Jan 18, 17, 7:51 pm
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Originally Posted by phranktzi View Post
Thank you Seat 2A for another well written report.
^ I really need to do more train travel in the US. Only done Boston -New York on the Acela.

Great report.
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Old Jan 18, 17, 9:25 pm
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Originally Posted by Seat 2A View Post
To any and all of you who took the time to actually read through this entire 13000+ word trip report, I thank you for your indulgence as well as your fortitude. I hope that despite the lack of international premium class travel, you found the time you invested in reading this report to be enjoyable.

Til next time…

As someone who has been to Bali every year for the past 15 and loves reading your trip reports I cannot wait to read your report on my favorite place on Earth. For someone that loves interacting with people you are sure to have the time of your life, they do not make them any better than the Balinese.
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Old Jan 18, 17, 9:35 pm
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Excellent report, though I'd expect nothing less from you, Seat 2A! It was an excellent way pass the evening here in dusty South Texas. I think you've convinced me to take a trip on Amtrak one of these days
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Old Jan 19, 17, 9:39 am
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Nice! The vegetarian options are indeed above average^
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Old Jan 19, 17, 12:04 pm
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Your commentary below the Milwaukee Brewers Park photo was beautifully written.

There are some of us (including Millennials like myself) who still enjoy the experience of getting from Point A to B.
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Old Jan 19, 17, 1:50 pm
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Thanks for yet another well-written trip report, Seat 2A. It's always a pleasure to vicariously follow along on one of your journeys.
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Old Jan 19, 17, 2:23 pm
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Wonderful, as always, thank you Sir
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Old Jan 19, 17, 2:49 pm
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Yep, I read all 13,000 words. A lot of good detail and a lot of good reference info for potential trips. Thanks!
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Old Jan 19, 17, 10:31 pm
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Great TR - thank you! I also learned why Amtrak trains have to yield priority for cargo / freight trains.
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