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Transcontinental: a seven state journey Chicago to San Francisco by rail

Transcontinental: a seven state journey Chicago to San Francisco by rail

Old Jul 1, 2022, 12:48 pm
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Join Date: Dec 2011
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Posts: 476
Transcontinental: a seven state journey Chicago to San Francisco by rail



January 1st, 2022 - snow swirls forcefully in the air as I step onto the Grand Ave bridge and cross the Chicago River. My footprints are the first to be left in the fresh powder, having encountered no other pedestrians - and few drivers - in a quarter hour of hiking.

My trail leads much further back than the El station; today’s travels began some 4000 miles away. Already, then, I have flown further this year than the previous two combined: a deliberate act, seeking to mark the new year by putting some literal as well as emotional distance on 2021.

This trip is very much about the journey, not the destination - ahead of me stretches some 2400 miles of rail travel, taking in seven states. But almost as soon as I reach the apogee of my orbit, I’ll turn tail and loop back: erasing a week’s slow progress across America with a few hours of flight, placing myself once more in the windy city before the long arc home.

But all that is to come. I grab a video, resettle the pack on my shoulders, and press on through the snow.

~
How to possibly cover the changes since I last wrote to you all? An account of the impact of recent years - or select months, even - on just aviation would already take a more gifted chronicler than me. Much of that 2018 trip has already become history - BA's 747s grounded then scrapped, Norwegian’s long haul arm folded entirely - but it is hard when living through a historic moment to see it for what it is. After all, no-one writing in 1916 called it the first world war. If you're revisiting this in 2032, I can't know if this account is a glimpse into how travel briefly changed during the COVID pandemic, or was altered forever by the first of many. Maybe this whole medical drama will prove to be a footnote in a yet more shocking story of climate disruption - that readers thirty years from now will marvel at how I didn’t see the forest fires and severe temperatures I discussed last time as routine, rather than extreme (yet continued to hop on fossil-fuelled planes).

If the grand narrative arc eludes me, perhaps you will forgive a few personal updates. My travel writing has always been intended as just that, rather than anything autobiographical, but talk about anything for over a decade and inevitably a sketch of a life will begin to form. Or rather, a series of sketches, as circumstances evolve - whether driven by career moves, relationship changes, new interests, updated priorities or self-discoveries.

All of which is a lengthy way of getting to a point, which is that another now-historical aspect of that previous trip report is my marriage. It ended somewhat abruptly early in 2021, and although things remain amicable, I am back to my earlier life of solo travel.

Sometimes history repeats itself - and so I found my way back to BA in 2019. At the time the difficult bit was negotiating for a 95% remote arrangement, so that I could remain in Bristol. Little could I imagine that a year later I would be sharing my tips on WFH and work / life balance with hundreds of suddenly locked-down colleagues; nor that the pandemic would keep me out of Waterside for longer than the break between my two stints of employment there. I survived the wave of redundancies that took nearly 10,000 people out of the business, including nearly a third of my department. But by the end of the furlough scheme I had spent 20 weeks on the bench, ranging from an initial 2 and half month stretch to the uncertainty of three- or four-day weeks, decided a few days before each affected month.

Through all this, I lost three relatives - one directly to COVID, the others to conditions that might have been better treated without the strain on the NHS. My first hotel stay of 2021 was legal only because it was for a funeral, which had to follow strict social distance rules; the previous one, I was not even able to attend.

Along the way, I naturally sought distractions. I became particularly interested in architectural history, completing two ten-week courses from the University of Oxford with an emphasis on western modernism. And whilst I often couldn’t venture beyond Bristol, let alone the UK, I could daydream about it. Having become intrigued by the world of ‘systematic’ travel, I spent a lengthy Dutch quarantine transcribing my existing records into the NomadMania site. Whilst I’d wager my country count is tiny compared to most here, this gamified approach to the world appeals deeply to some core part of my mathematician brain.

Both of these would prove influential when, bookings stalled by the third UK lockdown, BA launched some attractive business class fares to the US. The best deals would require deferring travel for almost a year, but this was arguably a benefit: surely the pandemic would be resolved by then? From my studies, Chicago had placed high on my architectural shopping list; but its central position in the Amtrak network also set travel-geek wheels in motion.

Inspired by my previous journeys, I wanted to tackle the entirety of a long-distance service, but with a number of stops along the way. My initial thought was to meander back to the Pacific Northwest via the Empire Builder, so that I could revisit the Columbia River Gorge. But a chance youtube recommendation for a coast to coast trip immediately sold me on a winter run of the California Zephyr. Taking over 50 hours to not quite reach San Francisco, this is the longest-distance option with daily departures - meaning I could build a hop-on, hop-off itinerary with 24 hour visits in each state en route.

After many hours of timetables, maps and spreadsheets, I had designed myself a two week adventure. There then followed many months of uncertainty as to whether it could/would/should actually take place… As the various events mentioned above unfolded, I began to cling to it as a sort of totem: both something to look forward to, and a barometer for whether 2022 would be an improvement on 2021. Although the US travel ban was lifted in November, entry was still conditional on a negative test shortly before departure… and then along came Omicron. After getting a booster in mid-December, I largely retreated from the world, spending Christmas alone rather than risk infection. My personal groundhog day would therefore be New Year’s Eve - only then would I finally know whether I was clear to fly, or had COVID and would instead be remaining in isolation.

The rules permitted a lateral flow self-test rather than full PCR, which kept costs and complexity down. Having gagged my way through a year of monthly throat swabs in the name of government research, I was pleased to find the Qured kit was nasal only. Unlike the UK, the US government (not unreasonably) requires that this test be supervised, although a video link is fine. I’m sure with a bit of sleight of hand someone acting in bad faith could manufacture a negative result regardless of their status, but it’s a bit harder to look someone in the eye and misbehave in this way.

I had a few technical hiccups that in the moment felt like they could derail the whole endeavour even though I tested negative: my supervisor couldn’t see a video feed from my phone (although I could see her), so I had to swap last minute to my work laptop; you are required to upload the results photo in a particular ten minute window, which lead to two of the most agonising minutes of my life as their website spun its wheels instead of processing my file; and verifly wouldn’t accept the resulting digital certificate, so I had to manually transcribe the details. Despite all this, I was still first to hit the online check-in, bagging the coveted Seq 001 and - more importantly - trading my middle seat for a much better option without the steep 94 selection fee.

So - as you probably surmised from the opening paragraph, if not the existence of this report - I’d be going to America! Let’s not dwell too much on the less-than-glamorous positioning from Bristol to London - an overheated national express coach; new year’s eve at a premier inn; two McDonalds’ visits in less than 12 hours - and instead make a proper start (a mere 1500 words in) at the airport.

Here’s what’s coming up:(As usual, I've gone for an exhaustive chronological approach here on Flyertalk, whereas on my own blog I have a series of shorter thematic posts, plus more extensive photo galleries. That version can be found here.)
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Last edited by TheFlyingDoctor; Jul 16, 2022 at 2:44 pm Reason: Link update
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Old Jul 1, 2022, 12:58 pm
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LHR - ORD, BA Club World

A pair of 777s thundering off the runway - first a Turkish freighter, then a BA service - set the mood nicely as I waited for a local bus, wearing the first of the many, many masks I’ll need for this trip (I packed a crate of 50 disposables which I hope will suffice). This being my usual stop for three years of commuting, I took care not to board a bus to Slough (always good life advice) and was soon conveyed the short - but frustratingly unwalkable - distance to Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

Having jumped through Verifly’s hoops, the check-in experience was a fairly swift 7 minutes from joining the queue to being rid of my hefty backpack (its endless array of straps and toggles bundled up as best I could to avoid a baggage system snarl up). Thanks to fast track, security wasn’t too bad either - however, the galleries south lounge was another story. A walkthrough reveals that there’s not a seat to be had; even if there were, at-seat ordering (a post-COVID improvement on the buffet of old) would be hindered by the wifi being out of action.

Considering it unlikely that a widebody flight will actually board from the main terminal, I take a stroll through the underground tunnel as far as Terminal 5B. There, all is calm: in its lounge, I pick a corner where I could choose any of 18 different seats, and set about summoning a free lunch. The menu (as with decor back in T5A) is still festive in theme, so I opt for the turkey and ham pie. Full marks for speedy delivery, just four minutes after ordering, although I’d have preferred to wait a little longer and have got more than just a spoon by way of cutlery… a low-slung table adds to the difficulty grade, but fortunately there is no one around to judge my performance. Physical challenges aside, this is a tasty (but presumably temporary) addition to the menu.


In what would become a regular ritual whenever I could scrounge up some wifi, I made a first investigation into two items: the weather, and the status of any California Zephyr trains making the long trip west. The two are invariably linked, and neither seemed conducive to smooth travels: snow was guaranteed to fall and keep falling on Chicago and its airports, whilst the most recent Train 5, the December 30th departure, was some 2h25 behind schedule when last spotted in Elko, Nevada.

I order the cake of the day to keep my spirits up, then begin the trek (once more by tunnel) to gate C66. Boarding must have kicked off as I made my way under the apron; by the time I reach the gate, the notion of a priority lane has long since been lost. Getting tangled up with the SSSS crowd hinders me further, to the extent that they’re calling group 7 by the time I reach the front. Still, my main motivation for boarding promptly is to try and get a clearer shot of the cabin, but I’m sure you’ve all seen many a Club World cabin by now.

I’d have hustled a bit harder had the new Club Suite been waiting beyond the jet-bridge: back when I originally booked, an A350 was assigned, which would have guaranteed this new product. A schedule change swapped that out for first a 787, then later a 777; depending on the exact aircraft, either of these could have worked out, but alas, today would not be the day. Here’s what we’d be flying:

BA297
Dep: LHR London Heathrow Terminal 5 14:45 1st January 2022 (local time)
Arr: ORD O’Hare International (Chicago) 17:35 1st January 2022 (local time)
Flight duration: 8 hours 50 minutes
Seat: 16K Cabin: Club World (Business)
Operated by: British Airways (G-STBG Boeing 777-336ER)

With 7 rows of 8, I think the 777-300’s Club World section is the largest uninterrupted stretch of such seats in the BA fleet. Some spots are clearly superior to others, so I think I did well to snag 16K at check-in. Facing backwards in the last row, it doesn’t matter as much how busy the cabin is, and it’s a rare example of a window seat with direct aisle access (ordinarily, you’d need to hop over the occupant of the J seat). A similar arrangement is how I got my first taste of Club World, and I’ve favoured it ever since - strange to think that this may be my last time flying backwards!


Home for the next nine hours or so

I note that the bedding seems comfortable before stashing it in the overhead for later, and am soon supplied with both bottled water and today’s menu. The options for the main service are a little bit too middle class for me - I’m a somewhat fussy and simplistic eater, and the Cornish pasty “light meal” sounds more like my speed.


Of these, my pick would be the chicken curry, but a downside of this back-of-cabin seat is that these have run out before I get to order, so I go for the vegan cottage pie.

With all aboard by 14:45, we pushback five minutes later and don’t have too long of a commute to the runway. Sunset views from this seat are pretty great, albeit mostly wing!


Looking the other way could be a tad awkward, as neither my seatmate nor I have managed to get the privacy screen to stay in place. Fortunately he has constructed one of his own, all but disappearing through a combination of face mask and eye mask. The former is compulsory even when sleeping, a feat I have not yet attempted but he seems to be coping fine with.

Around 15:20 we overfly Wales, which means I am finally making westward progress on this trip. It’s nearly an hour and a half - well into the Atlantic - before dinner arrives here in the final row. Not that 16:45 is in any way late for a dinner service, but the smell of other people’s curry has been working up an appetite. The meal was good considering that the venn diagram of vegan, airline, tasty could well be disjoint circles. Not too lentil-y for this unsophisticated diner, and the mash is particularly impressive for dairy-free. Dessert, of course, is the highlight.


I thought I was a veteran of that three-in-one roll, and carefully located the portion which had been ruined by the addition of olives. This savoury bullet dodged, I cheerfully bite into another section, only to find I have been defeated again: a licorice flavour that I can’t distinguish between aniseed and fennel. Nor do I need to, given my hatred of both. For those wondering, the final third contained dried tomatoes - not bad, but not necessary either, in my opinion. For those who weren’t wondering, well, too late: you’re nearing a hundred words in to a discussion of some flying bread, and I can’t guarantee the rest of this document will be any more compelling. Consider yourself warned, and let’s move on.

The IFE system is quite sluggish, and the selection feels slimmer than in the past. But I haven’t been to a cinema since pre-pandemic times, so there’s still plenty of novelty to be found. I try to inch a step closer to Marvel completionism, and tick off Shang Chi from the ever-growing list: enjoyable, but definitely an airplane sort of film. After that, I settle down for a couple of hours of not-quite-sleep; at least the rest will do me some good.

At ten to ten, as we approach Lake Michigan, we pick up our first turbulence (and illuminated seat belt sign) of the flight. From my wing-side spot, I am able to witness its remarkable flex over the next 20 minutes or so. The cabin lights are then brought up and the second meal service is run out:


After that, we get the 200 miles / 40 minutes to landing announcement from the Captain, and so I set about re-packing all my possessions into portable config. Conveniently, I wrap this up just as a second patch of bumpy air necessitates the reintroduction of the seatbelt requirement. Perhaps this is the edge of the snow storm, which is expected to intensify but not to add more than few minutes of hold.

Sure enough, we land at O’hare at 23:42, with a brief glimpse of deep snow before the windows white out with the current fall. A lengthy drive to the gate is followed by a further delay as we await a Marshall: reference points for guiding the plane onto stand are obscured by snow. We are finally out a few minutes after midnight… except now I have to reframe the time as 18:09. Immigration is fine; priority baggage works in the sense that mine is one of the first to arrive, but as always should not be parsed as “fast baggage”, with 20 minutes elapsing before anything appeared.

Only much later would I learn that this has been a relatively successful turn of events - with 4 inches of snow this afternoon, over 850 flights to or from O’Hare simply didn’t happen (with another 250 scrubbed at Midway). Another casualty is the transit system; herded into a cold tent (which at least keeps the snow off), it’s half an hour before I reach a blue line “L” train via bus.

It takes a long time to trundle downtown, which gives me a lot of time - too much time - to ponder the idiosyncrasies of the city’s iconic elevated rail system. I find the network needlessly confusing. Why have a Montrose and Rosemont on the same line? Surely ‘Chicago’ is a useless name that could apply to any stop? And, what’s this, Grand is on the blue line? Google had directed me there - the nearest station to my hotel - by overshooting to Washington, then backtracking on the red line. But I don’t particularly trust its algorithms - asked for public transport directions from ORD, it feigned ignorance of the airport’s own station and suggested first driving to Rosemont. So I assumed this was another glitch and - lacking GPS, mobile signal or, to be honest, some common sense - I disembark there.

Amusingly, I manage to help another passenger get their bearings and set of east before realising my mistake. There are (at least) two Grand stations, named for the road they both stand on. But whilst the red line Grand is some 400m from the hotel, I’m well over a mile out. Probably a half hour walk in good conditions - but I am carrying 20% of my bodyweight in a top-heavy backpack, and setting the first footprints in deep snow as more gathers around me. A smart person would concede their error, and return to the station. My brain still operating in a time zone where it’s past 2am, I stubbornly hike the whole thing. A bracing introduction to the windy city, then, but in its way, beautiful. I have no regrets when 15 minutes later I reach the Grand Ave bridge and cross the river - which, you may recall, is where we came in.
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Last edited by TheFlyingDoctor; Jul 1, 2022 at 1:02 pm Reason: try to centre images
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Old Jul 1, 2022, 5:16 pm
  #3  
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Join Date: Dec 2011
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Posts: 476
The Intercontinental Magnificent Mile


I have long wanted the maths to work out on Intercontinental’s Ambassador program, which has a simple qualification system of “give us $200”. In exchange, you receive a free night at any of their properties - but only if it’s the second of a two night weekend stay. An additional incentive was offered for sign ups last summer: stay at an IC, Kimpton or Regent and you’d get a voucher for a night at any IHG property priced up to 40,000 points. Both the qualifying and redemption stays had to be completed in fairly narrow time windows, which with COVID would be a gamble. But I took the plunge and put in a night at the Kimpton Manchester Clocktower (to visit Concorde Alpha Charlie, my sixth); and saved enough on a visit to Madrid later in the year to almost completely cover the membership cost.

Knocking down the $535 asking price for a weekend here in Chicago to $311 can thus be seen as a real saving, rather than just an elaborate partial pre-payment. But even $155/night is a bit steep for me, so the good news is my newly acquired status also guarantees an upgrade. I’d booked a King Grand room - Grand here should be understood as the road name, rather than an adjective, and places you in the 1960s North tower. Which I’m sure is pleasant enough, but I had my eye on the rather more historic South tower, a baffling combination of architectural styles originally built in the 1920s as an Athletics club.


You’ll need an executive room for that, but I lucked out with a double upgrade to one with a city view. Room 2106 proved particularly generous within this category - as well as a trio of windows on the front facade, it also has north and south facing ones thanks to the way the tower is stepped. There appear to be 14 rooms of this configuration, and floor 21 is as high as they go. Admittedly, it does mean that a lot of the square footage is effectively hallway, but there’s no shortage of space!


Room 2106, South Tower

Check-in was a lengthy process, not least because I was originally assigned 1906 but found it still clearly in use (thankfully a realisation I made by finding personal effects, rather than actual persons) so had to return to request something a little more exclusive. Ambassador status is also good for 4pm checkout, some free bottles of water and a $20 dining credit, each of which was proactively offered. Plus the free night certificate has to be sorted out by the property (until then, I wasn’t actually sure how much I’d save, but I’m pleased to report that all the taxes/fees for the second night get waived, as well as the room rate); the COVID rules would soon be tightening; and the hotel had quite a few features to go through!

Thus it was 3:30am by my body clock when I finally deadbolted the door behind me and shrugged off the pack. I waved the camera around briefly for some interior shots before messing up the place, spent a surprising amount of time figuring out how to get all the lights off simultaneously (the bedside switches didn’t work, I later realise), then finally called it a day.











Trip thus far, by the numbers:
Masks: 5
McDonalds: 2
Miles flown: 3953
Avios earnt: 5930
Tier points earnt: 140
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Old Jul 1, 2022, 5:27 pm
  #4  
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Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: EXT
Posts: 476
Chicago, the City of Architecture

Through the magic of jetlag I wake up around 6am local time. After catching up with goings-on in the UK, I doze for an hour or so before daylight begins to creep in. By now fully awake, I’m keen to get out and explore on a rare non-travel day… but also cognizant of Google’s “-4C, feels like -11C” assessment of the weather. I figure the best plan is to have an indoor attraction in reserve for once I or the camera seize up from the cold. It’s only a short stroll to the Chicago Architecture Center, with various notable buildings en-route, so that becomes my plan.

Given it won’t open til 10, there’s plenty of time for a leisurely shower and breakfast. Chicago’s COVID regulations require masks indoors, but this hasn’t entirely shut down dining, and the on-site restaurant is still operating. With that $20 Ambassador credit unlikely to cover the buffet, I peruse the menu, and settle on an ‘$18’ omelette. This is enormous, and tastes good too. During the meal, the bill arrives, which offers up my first round of that classic American game “guess how much the final price resembles that on the menu”. On this occasion we have $3.42 as a service charge - not to be confused with a tip, which you are invited to write in - plus another $2.33 in tax.

Back up in my room, I can’t help notice that some of the snowflakes passing the window are going up - clearly it’s breezy out there. Undaunted, I layer up into my best impression of an arctic explorer (having prepared long in advance by cultivating a beard that could collect icicles) and finally venture out.

No architectural slouch itself, the Intercontinental also neighbours some landmark properties. The Tribune tower is literally next door, and the Wrigley Building not much further. Ignoring Trump’s offering, next on my shopping list were the Marina City towers, impressively abstract against a white-out sky. Unfortunately, those previously soaring snowflakes were by now intent on finding their way to ground via my camera lens and upturned face, so as planned I took shelter at the CAC.


The Wrigley building, Intercontinental and Tribune tower


Marina City in the snow

The Chicago Architecture Center is a wonderful space which wisely recognises the giants across the river and frames them through enormous windows. They clearly have some permanent artifacts, but rework their interpretation depending on the upstairs gallery’s temporary exhibit. For my visit, that was a celebration of Helmut Jahn; not a name I recognised, although it turns out I had deliberately sought out one of his works - the Sony Centre in Berlin - many years ago. Sometimes confusingly described as the eighth of the Chicago Seven, he was also responsible for various projects here in the city. With a career spanning Miesian modernism, postmodernism, and high-tech, there was plenty I could connect to my studies, and I find much to enjoy in his approach.



Downstairs, meanwhile, covers more social history, and offers a film as backdrop to an enormous interactive model of the city. This proves a great way to get my bearings for further exploration, as well as to recalibrate my sense of scale, given last night’s grand screwup. Whilst the venue might be a little less than neutral, their characterisation of Chicago as “the city of architecture” is a not unreasonable claim.


By the time I’m done, the snow clouds have finally given way to a first hint of blue skies. So as to waste none of the light, I sweep through the hotel’s lobby Starbucks for takeout lunch, load some extra gadgetry into my daypack, and set off on a tour of the many sites I’d pinned to a google map over the last six months.

Despite devoting the rest of the day, I can only make a modest dent in these: the Aqua tower; the Jay Prizker Pavillion, Maggie Daley and Millenium parks; and as many entries from the tentative UNESCO world heritage list of Early Chicago Skyscrapers as I could find! Somehow in my enthusiasm for these I completely forgot about the Bean, reaching it only after sundown, by which point temperatures had plunged to an attention-getting -7. Still, I consider myself lucky with the weather - this city’s palette really suits a blue skies and snowy ground combo! If you’d like to peruse some more of my photos, I have put together a gallery here.







Folks back home have encouraged me to try a Chicago deep dish pizza - and warned me to leave plenty of time between lunch and dinner for what will be an epic battle. Despite this, it takes me rather longer than planned thanks to the twin challenges of COVID regs and US-centric web forms. The first I have to abandon as they insist on a vehicle registration - tricky, when planning to collect on foot - whilst the second assumes my phone number has 9 digits and my zip code 5. I fill in as much as I can for the former, move to Beverly Hills for the latter, and hope for the best.

During the wait, I also attended to the first of what would be six check-in emails from Amtrak, requiring a declaration of COVID-free status in the 24 hours before boarding each train. Despite a lack of roaming phone service, I diligently found a way to complete each of these, but they were never once mentioned at a station or aboard a train. Of course (and much like verifly), I can’t tell if that’s because I had jumped through the hoops, or they’re irrelevant in practice.

Thirty minutes later than planned, I am able to claim my prize:



In summary… Tastes good. Structurally impressive. Cannot be finished in a sitting, despite ordering the smallest and being very hungry. Historically controversial: this is from Pizzeria Uno, who claim to be the original inventors, but this is disputed. Most importantly, however, clearly not a pizza: cheese _under_ the sauce? I will accept ‘pie’ as a description. And I’d eat it again.

Indeed, that’s how I kick off Monday, with the last third of the pizza / pie serving as breakfast around 7am: I will need to adjust my sleep pattern (and perhaps the quality of my diet) going forward… still, this prompt start allows one more architectural treat before making my way to the station.



Impressive in its own right, the catchily-named 875 North Michigan Avenue - better known as the John Hancock Center - also features a lofty observation deck, 360 Chicago. I pick this in preference to the even taller Willis Tower and various other remaining items on my shortlist mostly on the basis that it’s the nearest and although the snow has stopped, temperatures are still punishingly low outside.

Back home COVID rules seem to be loosening, with rumours that pre-departure testing (for which I must carefully transport a kit thousands of miles) may be dropped. But today marks the beginning of a stricter phase in Chicago, with a vaccine mandate coming into effect for venues such as restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions - like 360. This was a stage that the UK never got to, but the NHS does offer an app which easily proves my status. Well, it proves someone’s status - I also have to carry around my passport to prove that someone is me.

This done, and my wallet lightened by $30, I am launched up 94 storeys in a mere 40s, the elevator a minor thrill ride with a surprising amount of sway and whistling wind towards the top!


View south from 360 Chicago

As the name implies, the deck offers views in all directions through its floor to ceiling windows, which I enjoy seeing at scale after yesterday’s miniature preview at the architecture center. There is also an additional attraction, Tilt, in which you can be levered out from the edge of the building at increasingly alarming angles. It’s $8 extra for 30s of excitement - although at full tilt, I doubt I could have coped with much longer. In this time they manage to snap two photos (as well as one pre… flight?), which would make a nice souvenir. Unfortunately, this is America, so they’re not included in the fee. A bundle with some green-screen shots taken when you enter the tower is an equally pulse-raising $40, so here’s a shot of some strangers trying it instead:


Tilt at 360 Chicago


Between various info panels, the views, and Tilt, it’s about an hour before I make my way back down. I am unable to resist the siren call of the lobby Starbucks, which has taken an interesting approach to the new COVID rules: rather than check vaccination status, they have instead taken out their seating and become takeaway only. Somehow managing to eat my ‘Impossible breakfast’ whilst wearing gloves, I return one last time to the Intercontinental to pack up and move on.

Last edited by TheFlyingDoctor; Jul 1, 2022 at 5:30 pm Reason: slowly being driven mad by whitespace handling
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Old Jul 2, 2022, 9:54 am
  #5  
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Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: EXT
Posts: 476
Chicago - Mount Pleasant

Scheduled departure: CHI Chicago (Union Station), IL 2pm CST Monday, January 3rd 2022
Scheduled arrival: MTP Mount Pleasant, IA 5:59pm CST Monday, January 3rd 2022
Scheduled Duration: 3h59
Class: Coach seat

A bus runs directly from a stop opposite the Intercontinental to Chicagos Union station, which almost couldnt be simpler. I say almost, as Googles stop names dont actually match those announced. Fortunately, the building is unmistakable, so I hop out nearby.


As literally eye-catching as the exterior was, its the interior of the Great Hall that truly dazzles:




The enormous christmas tree is decorated with logos from railroads and routes mostly long since out of operation and sadly, this remarkable space is largely irrelevant to the actual business of train travel these days. Instead, the action takes place in a modern maze-like underground complex. Swinging past McDonalds for lunch (again, takeout only due to COVID), I locate the gate area for Amtrak long distance services. I naively assumed that tickets would be processed here, but its literally just a holding pen to collect everyone in place until the boarding call. It wouldnt be particularly impressive at the best of times, but compared to what the great hall its particularly uninspiring:


Although much of my journey would be in sleeper car accommodation - which would grant access to the fancy-looking Metropolitan lounge - for this mere four hour first leg I figured coach would be fine. This was firmly reinforced when I took a look at fares; anything resembling a bed started at $237 one-way just to Mount Pleasant, whilst the coach fare was a far more sensible $42.

Unfortunately I would be missing out on the lounge for a while: like various other services, our planned 2pm departure time is already showing a delay. I pass the time making questionable assumptions about which train certain people were waiting for, but sure enough woman who makes drink last 45 minutes to avoid putting mask on, man who still doesnt get that masks should cover your nose and entire family who dont even have masks were all waiting for the Texas Eagle rather than the California Zephyr. No-nonsense staff refuse to let them board in such a state when their train set does arrive, dishing out warnings and masks as needed. Mercifully also joining them are two small children with toys that make one - but only one - sound effect at the (regular) press of a button. A hazard I had not considered, but which would surely lead to madness on a 50 hour journey.


A rather quiet call for boarding is finally made at 14:35; as one of the first to transition from milling about to actual queue, I am aboard 15 minutes later. A series of announcements follows, from which I learn: this is a completely sold-out train; someones luggage is still on the platform, and we will leave without it; shoes and a mask are required at all times; and the observation car is the car in the middle with all the windows.

This is a double-decker superliner train, and on boarding I am fortunate to be assigned an upper deck window seat in the front row. The seat itself is comfortable and spacious, and even has some recline. Positioned up-front, I have no one to recline into me, but this is a relatively busy spot - its only possible to move between cars on this level, and just ahead of me is the observation car.


That is open to all passengers on a first come, first served basis, offering two more types of seating. Some face sideways for maximum sightseeing:


Whilst others are arranged around tables, which are more convenient for eating or conversation:


Not quite an hour late, we finally depart, rolling out onto snow-covered tracks with the sun already sinking. We are soon free of the city and into first suburban, and then rural territory. Whilst not a particularly scenic stretch by the standards of this route, Im excited to be ticking off the initial miles of this transcontinental epic, and the frozen fields reinforce the sense of adventure . Back at Union Station, Id found a huge map which conveyed for the first time the scale I was I was embarking on:


Our first stop, Napierville, is reached at 15:35, and my seatmate takes the opportunity to relocate to the observation car, thus doubling my space on this busy train. Over the next hour or so the light fades, and so some of the most memorable scenes defied photography: the last remnants of sunset through trees; a tiny grandma curled up in blankets beneath a seat check ticket that declares OMA; a field of wind turbines, the red flash of warning beacons perfectly synchronised on each.


Departing Chicago


Rural Illinois

At 6pm we reach Galesburg, the first fresh air break for the truly hardy. Or the truly addicted - this term also serves as euphemistic cover for smokers seeking a fix. For a while now the dining car has been making calls, but in an unexpected COVID twist, coach passengers such as myself are no longer allowed to join a sitting. Between this subliminal advertising, and the fact I should have (just) arrived at Mount Pleasant by now, I figure a trip to the cafe is justified. This is located in the observation car, and available to all - except, having loaded stock at Galesburg, it is temporarily closed when I wander down.

I try again at 6:45, securing a celebratory hotdog ($6, microwaved) just in time for the crossing of the Mississippi, last seen a decade ago and almost a thousand miles away down in New Orleans. This puts me in my second state of the trip, Iowa; its first station, Burlington, is just past the river, and Mount Pleasant should be less than half an hour further down the line.

Indeed, we arrive at 7:21, just a handful of passengers hopping out onto the north side of the tracks, a small station building obscured by the train:


Trip thus far, by the numbers:
Masks: 10 (+5)
McDonalds: 3 (+1)
Starbucks 2
Miles by rail: 233
Time on trains: 4h21
Train-related delays: 1h22
States: 2 (+1)
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Old Jul 2, 2022, 10:03 am
  #6  
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Mount Pleasant, Iowa

Although I had quickly committed to the idea of making a break of journey in each state on this trip, it took longer to decide where exactly to de-train. The Zephyr makes five stops in Iowa, although neither Des Moines or Iowa city feature on the route. But part of my motivation for this project was to try and sample American life beyond the megacities I generally fly in and out of. So I couldnt resist the contrast of going from Chicagos skyscraping architecture to Mount Pleasant, Iowa; a decidedly rural settlement of less than 10,000 people.

Almost none of them seem to be braving the cold, with tonights scene-setting mile long walk to my accommodation even more eerily quiet than Saturdays. Obviously Im the only one mad enough to be out on foot, but it also takes fifteen minutes before another car passes me. This is probably for the best - residential sidewalks are often lost beneath calf-deep powder, so I switch to strolling down the middle of the road.

As with my inadvertent wander along Grand, none of this should be taken as a complaint - crunching through fresh snow will, I hope, never lose its appeal. Patches of thin ice pose more of a challenge, especially given my top-heavy backpack, but I take it slow and steady and reach my overnight stop after half an hour or so. One final hurdle separates me from it - four relatively busy lanes of traffic for which there is a pedestrian crossing, but it doesnt actually work.

Keeping with my small town America theme, I have booked myself a motel for the night; and whilst its not in the classic drive-up, exterior corridor style that word conjures up for me, this Super 8 is definitely a change of pace from the Intercontinental!


Super 8 Mount Pleasant (the next day)

I think its safe to say they do not get many British tourists here, so it takes a while to check me in. Turns out the non-functioning crossing is due to a recent power outage courtesy of a snowstorm. This has also done a number on their IT, so they can no longer issue keycards. I am escorted to my room, but I wont be able to leave it without either propping the door open, or going for help. So Im quite glad I dont have evening plans - and had paid the $4 upgrade to a king with its own bathroom.

The decor is brown; the heating loud; and the bathroom louder still. The wifi is seriously oldschool - advertised with the sort of hardware I last used as an undergrad - and correspondingly insecure. Every seat is a recliner; I am surprised by this each time. Either smoking was allowed in the recent past, or its been years since a deep clean. But hey, I wanted different!





~

Breakfast is only available until 9:30, but given my lingering jet lag this isnt an issue, and I make my way to the lobby around 8. There are plenty of continental options, and that wonderful US addition - a waffle iron. The tendency to plastic-wrap everything from foodstuffs to cutlery is useful for this scavenger, so I am able to pocket a few items for later. This done, I try to ask the guy on reception to open up my room, but instead he fetches me a tray of pastries. These are delicious, but not key-shaped. A cleaner lets me in.

I am struggling a bit with the smokiness of the room, so I decide to take a fresh air stroll. This also serves as a weather recce: the forecast is for positive temperatures all day here in Mount Pleasant, and even at this early hour I deem it manageable without my heaviest winter gear (much of this trip is spent optimising what to wear vs what to stash).


One of the Mount Pleasant water towers (and a massive Walmart distribution centre)

As for the political climate, a check online reveals that Iowa not only doesnt have a mask mandate, it banned local governments from introducing them. I also spot that back home, a COVID briefing has been scheduled for 5pm UK time. Thats 11am here, or precisely when I check out and unplug for potentially the next 12 hours. But watching a Boriscast from a motel car park is far from a holiday activity, so I figure I will catch up later.

Instead, my so-much-more-glamorous first destination is the Walmart across the road. Here I procure bottled water, a brick of chocolate, and some underwear. Backpacking logistics again: instead of carrying two weeks worth of clothes or dealing with laundry, Ive brought some old items which I will discard and replace along the way.

Thus restocked, I retrace my steps from last night - easier in daylight - and get my first glimpse at the station:


I press on to Central Park, which feels like a movie lot after Chicagos soaring solidity and exudes exactly the small scale America vibe I had hoped for. It also offers up a coffee shop, where from several appealing lunch options I opt for the triple cheese grilled sandwich. Top notch flavours, and it came with a side of wifi codes, so I am able to check on that briefing after all.

It seems it was a non-event, with no substantial policy change, just a promise of daily test availability for essential workers (which I am not). It is also claimed that there is a good chance of getting through with no further restrictions. But the travel industry has had many false restarts by now, so well need something rather more concrete than that before confidence returns.

Topping up my order with a lemon cranberry scone - again, just one of multiple temptations - I am able to linger for a while longer, but figure I shouldnt outstay my welcome.







Central Park Mount Pleasant (more photos)

Mount Pleasant only really has one tourist attraction as such - a variety of exhibits (and a multi-day annual event) maintained by the Midwest Old Settlers & Threshers Association. Its not clear which of their museums are actually open this time of year, but I decide to hike over anyway. Given the distance, my pack and varying attitudes to path shovelling, this is itself a good time sink, and lets me discover more of the city.

Unfortunately as the barns are not generally climate controlled, only the one attached to the offices (and hence receiving some heat) is deemed fit for a visit, although I am welcome to check it out free of charge. This is a good outcome for me: whilst I have a broad range of niche and geeky interests, even I have to draw the line somewhere, and farming equipment doesnt squeak across.


A notable traction engine

So for all I know this may be the best collection of traction engines in the world - but Im not even sure what one is. Fortunately, there are also some exhibits on social history, covering various industries of more interest to me: electricity, communications, photography all presented with an amusingly agricultural bent. For example, one sign explains the sort of things cameras have enabled us to capture over the years:


I am also able to fill in some of the Iowa-shaped gap in my knowledge of the US, via a handy timeline and overview of the state. TL;DR: farming.

Curiosity satisfied, I trek back to the square. A expedition west to an antiques store has to be abandoned once the snow reaches intractable depths, and a bar I had intended to settle in at pre-train turns out not to operate on Tuesdays. A pizza place is semi-open; the only patrons are friends of the owner. But there are still some slices left over from lunch at reasonable prices, and my pack / accent trigger a first conversation about my trip and Mount Pleasants claims to fame.

I also fit in a look around the campus of Iowa Wesleyan University - some of the finest buildings in the city, I suspect - before calling it a day and parking myself at the station well over an hour in advance of the scheduled 6pm departure.



Threshing fans aside, I doubt Mount Pleasant gets traffic that isnt for VFR or business purposes, and Im not about to declare it a tragically overlooked tourist gem. For my own odd reasons - my stop-in-every-state rule, coupled with a desire to see somewhere that operates at a very different pace to the cities Im used to - Im glad I stopped by. But if the Zephyr ran more frequently, I think I could have condensed my experience into a few hours without much detriment. However, on this occasion I would remain here a few hours more
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Old Jul 2, 2022, 10:09 am
  #7  
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Mount Pleasant - Omaha

Scheduled departure: MTP Mount Pleasant, IA 5:59pm CST Tuesday, January 4th 2022
Scheduled arrival: OMA Omaha, NE 10:55pm CST Tuesday, January 4th 2022
Scheduled Duration: 4h56
Class: Coach seat


The long view west

Like many Amtrak stations, Mount Pleasant feels faintly ecclesiastical - I think its the wooden pews. Still, it provides shelter from the elements and a clean bathroom. The ticket counter is no longer staffed, so youll need to have purchased in advance, but someone does work here. When I arrived he was busy shovelling snow, but later he steps in to offer an update on the Zephyrs ETA - which has slipped to 7:15pm.


Mount Pleasant station interior

Whilst there is only one passenger train per day in each direction, every now and again the level crossing barriers would drop, heralding a freight train. I will never get over the sheer scale of these in North America (my first exposure being in Canada); one of them takes fully two and a half minutes to roll through at considerable pace.


At 6pm - supposedly, departure time - I am still the only passenger present, but half an hour later I am joined by a large group of Amish (although apart from a small boy who bravely says hello before running away, they keep to themselves). 7:15 comes and goes, but our train does not. Ten minutes later, we are told to hope for 8pm - apparently there is heavy freight traffic across the river, and unfortunately this gets priority over Amtrak on any single-track stretches. Assuming we get away then, my best case for arrival in Omaha is 1am, but with no way to contact my hotel, I just have to assume theyll hold a room.

At eight we leave the station to cross the tracks, as once the train arrives it wont be possible to access any of the doors from this side. One more group - clearly better informed - turns up at this point, and a few minutes later, so does our ride. I get the impression I wasnt expected, but a seat is found for me anyway.

Actually, a pair: 53/54. I think I prefer these to my front-of-car spot yesterday: I have no less leg room, the passenger ahead never makes use of the recline, and theres a convenient tray table. All comfortable enough for another (relatively) short journey; and another bargain at $46.

Once were in motion, I make my way to the cafe car in search of tonights dinner. The menu is the same, but the setup is slightly different - you now get to pick your choice of sling-and-ding meal from the cupboards, and the cafe attendant puts it in (their description) the magic box for radiation therapy. I drop $6.50 on a serving of mac and cheese, which - assuming this has actual dairy content - makes today a five cheese day. No regrets.

Of the route itself, there is little to share, as we cross the fields of Iowa in often total darkness. Life on board is correspondingly uneventful - and from 10pm, quiet time is in effect, with no PA announcements. This makes it vital to be in your assigned seat, so that you can be found - and if needed, woken up - fifteen minutes before your indicated station.

Creston is the first such silent stop, at 22:45; despite there having been nothing to see for ages, some instinct causes me to look out the window just before our brief arrival departure. Perhaps I am already becoming attuned to the train and subconsciously detected its gentle deceleration.

I am briefly confused by an electronic sign which reads

CRESTON - THE CITY OF CRESTONS

Before it ticks over second half,

SNOW ORDINANCE IS IN EFFECT.

Questionable line wrapping and errant apostrophe aside, this is a reminder that I am in many ways woefully underprepared for all this. Even if I had reliable information on the weather (which I dont), I have no idea at which point I should abandon plans, or what actions I should take in response to inclement conditions. Such thoughts often belatedly occur to me in America, usually prompted by such a sign - I am equally in the dark with regards to forest fires, earthquakes, tornados, bears

I am also permanently underestimating the size of the country. I mean, I get that it looks big. I just dont realise how little progress is made in an hour. At some stage I had jotted down an announced arrival time in Omaha of 11:35. But comparing Creston with our - barely moved - GPS dot half an hour later, its clear that must have been a 12:35.

Midnight therefore passes, and a quarter of an hour later we cross the border into my third state in as many days. Once again, the state boundary is one of Americas great waterways, the Missouri. Having entered Nebraska down at Plattsmouth, we roughly track the river north the rest of the way to Omaha. At O dark thirty I am fighting to stay awake, but get the fifteen minute warning. Sure enough, we roll in at 00:44, just shy of two hours off schedule.


Arrived at Omaha

Trip thus far, by the numbers:
Masks: 13 (+3)
Miles by rail: 500 (+267)
Time on trains: 9h2 (+4h41)
Train-related delays: 3h16 (+1h54)
States: 3 (+1)
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Old Jul 2, 2022, 12:50 pm
  #8  
 
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Posts: 123
I was told by an Amtrak conductor that Amtrak does have priority - but only when running on their published timetable. Once an Amtrak train is delayed, they are at the mercy of the freight railroad dispatchers and thus late trains tend to become later.
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Last edited by twb3; Jul 2, 2022 at 11:41 pm
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Old Jul 2, 2022, 2:47 pm
  #9  
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Posts: 476
Originally Posted by twb3
I was told by an Amtrak conductor that Amtrak does have priority - but only when running on their published timetable. Once an Amtrak train is delayed, they are at the mercy of the fright railroad dispatchers and thus late trains tend to become later.
Ah, an interesting subtlety. Makes sense, but - as we'll see - it's pretty hard to keep on schedule for fifty hours in the winter. I also wonder how many passing places simply aren't big enough for freight trains, so the passenger services have to be the ones that park and wait? I was amazed how much of the route was single track.
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Old Jul 2, 2022, 2:56 pm
  #10  
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Omaha, Nebraska

A couple of twists and turns from Omahas Amtrak station puts me on South 10th street, and from there its a ten minute straight shot to tonights hotel. This is good, because I am largely on autopilot by this stage and it is staggeringly cold out. It takes a while for someone to appear to check me in, but by 1am I am in my room. Or rooms, as Ive opted for an Embassy Suites property, which includes a lounge and kitchen area too. Ever-thoughtful of you, my trip report readers, I wave the camera around before finally crashing out for the night.






Seven hours later, I am ready to face breakfast. As usual, I load up on hot offerings for the here and now, and loot a few more items for later. With those stashed in my room, I head to reception to see what Hilton gold can get me by way of late checkout. Clearly I wont be able to stretch this even close to tonights 11 pm Zephyr departure - especially if it once again turns out to be tomorrows 1 am departure. But I had hoped I could at least hold the room until late afternoon. Unfortunately, all they can offer is 2pm.



Atrium at breakfast

This will have some impact on my plans, but the far bigger issue is the weather. Or rather, the temperature, which had been steadily dropping as I made my way west from Chicago. By this morning in Omaha, it had plunged to -15C: and thats before you factor in wind-chill. With that, google advises it feels like -26.

Except I have no idea what that feels like. So, I try it; a 25 minute walk to the station and back to check when it opens (with only two trains a day, access at any hour of the day is too much to hope for). The walk there isnt too bad, and I briefly entertained the thought of sticking to some of my original plans across the city. But then I turned back, and thats when it hit me - literally, as I was now facing into the wind. My face just straight up hurts from a chill that seems to reach deep below skin into blood and bones. Equally unpleasant is each breath of frozen air, which triggers a cough from protesting lungs. My moustache solidifies with crystals of ice.

I therefore redesign my day to take in only the closest-by of sightseeing and dining options; and with the station not opening until 9:30pm, I have to hope I can loiter at the hotel well beyond checkout.

Todays main attraction, then, will be the Durham museum, which resides in the former Omaha Union Station. A national historic landmark in its own right, Id already been captivated by the exterior of this art deco masterpiece, which stands in stark contrast to its modern successor:



Today's Omaha station


and a glimpse at former glory


As the Durham Museum


Dedication

But stepping inside, the interior is even more impressive - Id have happily paid the $11 entry fee just to chip in to maintaining this:



Stunning interior


Just a shame they couldn't find a bigger flag

Realistically, this is for the best. As mentioned, current traffic cant even justify round-the-clock operation of the current box of a station - this grand building would presumably have long since fallen into disrepair without finding a new purpose.

So what to fill it with instead? Well, trains, of course! The shed you can see at track level houses a collection of luxury carriages from throughout the ages, as well as a locomotive and a huge model train railway that I can set in motion with a COVID-compliant elbow.



A Pullman car exterior


Inside a more recent lounge car


Menu from the City of San Francisco, a rival service to the original California Zephyr; keep this in mind when we take a look at the modern options!

The kind of people who will go out to (or volunteer at) a train museum on a far-below-freezing Wednesday afternoon are also the kind of people who I can happily chat with about my travels thus-far and upcoming, and so I spend a while doing just that. Lets gloss over the woman who compliments me on how well I speak English

There are also extensive permanent displays on social history; Worlds Fairs being another area of interest for me, I particularly enjoy a section on the Trans-Mississippi Exposition. Sadly, with the museum closing at 4, I simply dont have time for either of the temporary exhibits - but I do manage to fit in an ice cream sundae back in the station hall. Thoroughly recommended (the whole museum, not just the sundae).

Back at the hotel I pick a quiet spot off the lobby bar, and am pleased to find the wifi still considers me a friend (sometimes it will reset alongside your room keys, sometimes at midnight, and sometimes youll be able to reconnect a year later).

After yesterdays non-announcement, I find an unexpected flurry of UK COVID rules changes will be taking effect from 4am Friday. I will no longer need the pre-departure test Ive been carrying around; there will be no need to self isolate whilst waiting for the results of my arrival test; and a lateral flow test will suffice for that. So Im out of pocket to the tune of the PCR kit sitting on my shelf back at home, but thats the price of peace of mind I suppose. This also eliminates a nightmare scenario - of testing positive just before my flight and needing weeks of last minute quarantine accommodation in the US.

After a couple of hours I wander out for dinner - a forgettable American rendition of Italian - and briefly look around Downtown, which seems like a well-executed conversion of a former industrial district. I particularly enjoy the Imaginarium, which is 50% I remember that! and 50% what on earth is this? - the delights of competing fandoms, and pop cultural phenomena that dont always achieve international success. Returning to the hotel, a car load of young men advise that I get off the street, B****. Another US hazard for which I am unprepared - if I flip them off, is Nebraska the kind of state where they could have firearms?

To be fair, their advice, although crude, is sound - its far too cold to linger outside other than to dart from place to place. Returning to the Embassy Suites one last time, I settle into an even more secluded section of the atrium for several hours of podcasts, audiobooks and train-tracking.

By 10pm the Zephyr is running 1h20 late into Creston, although they hope to shave thirty minutes off that en route to Omaha. Still, that means an arrival of 11:45 at best, so theres no need to trade my comfortable corner for the station any time soon. I have to admit that yesterday these compounding delays were frustrating me - an unanticipated aspect of my hop-on, hop-off approach that had me questioning the whole project. But having just had a day in Omaha Id be sad to have missed, I am in a more positive frame of mind tonight.

Partly, this is because once I board, Ill be able to sleep, in the expectation of a free breakfast and great views the next morning. Yesterdays challenge was that I had to stay awake for 5+ hours, in coach, with nothing to see and an ill wind waiting.

Besides, if it was all easy, this would be a holiday, not an adventure, and the chase of (admittedly arbitrary and unimportant) goals would be a simple calculus of time and money expended. I dont just want to visit every state, I want to have a story to tell. And now I surely have a tale to tell of Omaha, Nebraska - the place so cold, my moustache froze
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Old Jul 2, 2022, 3:11 pm
  #11  
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Posts: 476
Omaha - Glenwood Springs

I eventually present myself at the station at 22:45, where the estimate is now just a few minutes shy of midnight. From there, Amtrak and I play a game: every time I check the departure board, they delay the arrival time by however long I waited to look, to a perpetual 15 minutes from now.

Omaha is busier than Mount Pleasant, with eight different groups leaping into action when the train finally arrives. At this stage we can finally gain access to the platform - but are ordered back inside. This is for entirely sensible reasons - staff dont want to check our tickets in the cold. Even the minutes walk along the platform leaves my hands raw from exposure, having neglected to replace my gloves once my papers were processed.

Scheduled departure: OMA Omaha, NE 11:05pm CST Wednesday, January 5th 2022
Scheduled arrival: GSC Glenwood Springs, CO 1:46pm MST Thursday, January 6th 2022
Scheduled Duration: 15h31
Class: Family Bedroom

Well cross a time zone during the night, but even accounting for that now, it is undeniably Thursday by the time I am settled. With a fifteen hour overnight run, I knew Id want to upgrade from coach to a sleeper. This came at a hefty price premium - $416 vs $84 - so when I spotted that for another $32 I could grab an entire family bedroom, I figured why not?

As superliner cars only connect on the higher level, its possible to have a full-width room at each end of the lower level. One of these is the accessible bedroom; the other is the family bedroom. What youre mostly buying is space; this room category still doesnt include a bathroom, shower or even a sink, which are instead shared with roomette passengers. Itll sleep four, but since Ive claimed the whole thing for myself, only the main bed was made up:




The only power socket I find is the one pictured, which couldnt support the weight of a mighty British 3 pin plug. So I have to hope that my phone holds out for a few more hours, else I will be cut entirely adrift from time. Sleeping sideways on the move will be a first, but theres a comfortable blanket and perfect darkness, plus I am exhausted, so I soon get the hang of it. There is a lot of motion, particularly when changing tracks; this neither rocks me to sleep, nor causes nausea, but I could imagine it going either way for others.

~

Around 7am some light creeps in, but on investigation it is artificial - Fort Morgan station, lost under snow and with heavy clouds threatening more. This means we are still off-schedule; with the 80 miles to Denver unlikely to be covered in the remaining fifteen minutes. Not that this particularly matters for now - my main interest is breakfast, and the kitchens operate by the timetable, not location, with service having started an hour ago.

Travel in any of the sleeping accommodation gets you free meals in the dining car, and my first is the three egg omelette with veggies (an all-or-nothing blend), potatoes and a croissant - had I been more awake, Id have included a side of bacon!


Amtrak breakfast

As mentioned, COVID capacity limits have banished coach passengers; the pandemic can also presumably be thanked for the plastic cutlery. The mask policy is strict - to be lowered between mouthfuls and then immediately replaced - a level of fussing which seems like a bigger contamination risk to me. But rules are rules and theyve removed a good number of people for not following them, so I do my best to avoid being thrown out into the snow.

We are scheduled to spend an hour at Denver, so I imagined we could trade some of that against accumulated delay. But in the event some complicated railroading - the Zephyr reverses in - and taking on new passengers and fresh supplies needs all that time.

Those joining sleeper car 531 in Denver are invited to a final breakfast sitting - for the rest of us, last call was an hour ago, but the wise have already made their way to the observation car. This is generally considered the best of the scenery, and today we are promised stellar views thanks to deep snow. There will be announcements of any known highlights, as well as any chance spottings of wildlife such as deer or elk. The trade off is severe risk to our schedule - yesterdays eastbound service into Denver was by their own admission a disaster, running fully 24 hours late. This I hadnt even imagined, and would throw my carefully crafted itinerary into disarray, so I can only hope that the weather strikes a balance between impressive and disruptive.

I am unable to secure a seat in the observation car, but no matter - the other benefit of the family bedroom is that its carriage-spanning width means a window on each side. Back in the sleeper car, I find that my room has not yet been switched to day mode. The attendant soon arrives to assist with this, but spends most of the time criticising the parenting skills of another passenger. In this and other encounters they seem permanently stressed, getting angry with the call bell, complaining about the job and repeatedly asserting that theyre just hanging in until retirement. Fortunately once the bed is packed away I wont have to trouble them again.




A little after 10 we start climbing switchbacks, a stationary freight train providing an anchor point as it swaps from one window to the other. Huge when we passed it, such is the scale of this landscape that even it is swallowed up; our own modest collection of carriages must look truly insignificant to anyone foolhardy enough to be outside. Mostly, thats elk - although the conductor also spots a mountain lion (bad news for the elk!).


Freight almost lost to snow

I chase the views from window to window, plunged occasionally into sudden darkness by tunnels: with the door to the rest of the car shut, the only illumination in my private room is the glow of an emergency exit sign. Of course, there are lights I could switch on, but wheres the magic in that? Snow generally mutes the palette of the world rolling by, but sometimes bare rock will provide an unexpected splash of colour. That is, for half an hour or so - as we climb, so the snow fall gets stronger. By 10:44 its hard to see even the nearest rockfaces; by 11 the windows start icing up!


The muted palette of a winter run through Colorado

I do eventually locate the lights for the Moffat tunnel, which takes ten minutes to pass through - although before this was blasted out of the mountains, it would have taken an hour to work around them. This also marks the highest point of the Zephyrs route, at 9270 feet above sea level. No travel between cars is allowed at this time, to keep diesel fumes at bay.

Fraser - Winter Park is advertised as cold, wet and ten minutes away - be sure you really want that cigarette! I brave it anyway, long enough to crunch satisfyingly through snow, wipe down one of my windows, and get some shots of our semi-frozen train.






At 11:39 we depart and my window is immediately streaked with fresh snow. Itll be half an hour to the next stop, Granby - but with only two passengers to depart, we are advised not to detrain unless we want to become the third! From here we join the Colorado river, which will be our companion all the way to Glenwood Springs (and later as far as the Utah border).

We see moose. Plural. (Mooses? Meese?). Such sightings are made easier by the half-speed running. Snow slide sensors alongside the track have triggered, but theres no-one else out here to call for maintenance. Instead, the process is to go slow, our well-trained crew keeping an eye open for any debris, which itll be their task to clear. Fortunately none is encountered, and we clear the warning zone without incident. No such luck for yesterdays eastbound train 6, which lost twelve hours to such battles.

At exactly midday, the dining car calls us for lunch. Social seating has been reduced but not entirely eliminated in response to COVID - a maximum of two parties per table, which today is myself and one other. I find myself chatting away with my companion for nearly an hour, although part of the delay is to build up appetite for dessert, which I didnt realise was included with lunch as well as dinner.


Dining car


Lunch

After lunch I relocate to the observation car, some colour returns to the landscape as a river emerges from underneath the ice and snow that had presumably obscured it until now. Conditions are less good on the rails: around 2pm we are brought to a halt by news of a frozen switch. Brad the conductor is pleased to announce that train 6 is nearer, and their crew is younger and fitter, hence better suited to the task of chiselling away ice and snow. Thus we should expect the delay to be minutes, not hours; and once they pass, we can then continue our progress.

At 2:33 - that is, quite some minutes later - we get an update that they are struggling, but if need be, we can take a manual alternative. Ten more minutes elapse, before good news: their first attempt at digging out the points is complete. The bad news? It didnt work. Brad tells us a little about our location, and the importance of sage brush. The sun comes out. I watch ice cold water glisten. There are worse places to be stuck.


Delayed at Bond

In the end, it takes a full hour before we get underway. I had found an excellent spot on the upper deck of a sleeper car to capture the eastbound Zephyr passing us only for another passenger to decide to pass me in the corridor as the train pulled up alongside. He even found time to remark that I have a nice camera, and that I could have got a good shot then. Yes. Yes, I could have.

Around 4pm, a signal wire instigates another go slow, and for good reason - a big rock is sitting in the middle of the track. Brad gets to work on removing it, achieving this in a mere two minutes. Amtrak 1, Rock 0, announces our jubilant saviour.

Although well behind schedule - which I dont particularly mind, given the scenery - we are finally closing in on my destination. We swing around Dotsero and join the I70 highway for todays final canyon, the last of the days light reaching only the tops of its walls. The crew needs to make haste to Grand Junction lest they time out, incurring further delays; Brad concedes that things have been kinda tough, battling snow melt from a recent blizzard.


Last of the sun at Dotsero

We arrive at Glenwood Springs with the sunset, several hours late - about half of that spent waiting at Omaha, the rest collected en route. By the sounds of things, this counts as success for a winter attempt at this leg. I at least have no complaints, my earlier frustrations from Mount Pleasant and Omaha having evaporated somewhere amongst the mountains of Colorado.

Trip thus far, by the numbers:
Masks: 18 (+5)
Miles by rail: 1223 (+723)
Time on trains: 26h24 (+17h22)
Train-related delays: 6h27 (+3h11)
States: 4 (+1)
Amtrak hotdogs: 2 (+1)


The Zephyr at Glenwood Springs
TheFlyingDoctor is offline  
Old Jul 2, 2022, 9:07 pm
  #12  
 
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Great trip report, and your writing is wonderful. I can't help but read your posts in the voice of Julie Andrews as Lady Whistledown.

I took the Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville during a snowy February a few years ago, and it was breathtaking. We did not stop en-route, and 55 hours (only 3 total hours of delay, a miracle!) was a lengthy ride in a roomette.
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Old Jul 3, 2022, 6:37 am
  #13  
 
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Loving your TR and the way you are writing it too.

Its nice seeing bits of America outside the big cities, so thank you for the route you chose!
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Old Jul 3, 2022, 1:33 pm
  #14  
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Originally Posted by boat stuck
Great trip report, and your writing is wonderful. I can't help but read your posts in the voice of Julie Andrews as Lady Whistledown.

I took the Zephyr from Chicago to Emeryville during a snowy February a few years ago, and it was breathtaking. We did not stop en-route, and 55 hours (only 3 total hours of delay, a miracle!) was a lengthy ride in a roomette.
Thank you! However, you should be thinking more Jason Statham than Julie Andrews for the accent (although do please imagine Statham as Lady Whistledown, as that would be fantastic).

I previously did the Coast Starlight non-stop from Seattle to Los Angeles in a roomette, which is 36 hours - but somehow the extra night makes the Zephyr seem like so much more of a commitment!


Originally Posted by nequine
Loving your TR and the way you are writing it too.

Its nice seeing bits of America outside the big cities, so thank you for the route you chose!
Well, I figure my travels can't compare with some of the more spectacular contributions here, with their first class flights or Maldivian villas, so I have to go niche! I suspect this is the first (and last?) time Mount Pleasant will be featured in the forum...
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Old Jul 3, 2022, 1:51 pm
  #15  
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Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Our late arrival means that I can head straight for my accommodation, and it’s not hard to get my bearings. On the other side of the Colorado river from the station the pools are steaming away; and beyond the resort is the associated Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge.

I’ll be here for 48 hours, figuring the half-way point of my journey is a good time to recharge. At near enough $200 a night, this is the most extravagant stay of the trip; but that does include three days of access to the pools, which are otherwise hilariously expensive. It would also be more reasonable with company; the ‘basic’ room comes with two double beds which are obviously wasted on me:




The pools operate year round, whatever the weather, from 9 til 9, and had I arrived a bit earlier I’d probably have dived straight in. Instead, I was in search of dinner, and was thrilled to find a Nepalese restaurant, Masala & Curry. This was probably the culinary highlight of my time in America; as a Brit I’m used to easy availability of Indian food and had been missing it until now!

A day spent doing nothing can be surprisingly tiring, and so I retired at an embarrassingly early hour and slept for eleven hours straight. So far, so good for the recharge plan.

~

Breakfast is included in the room rate, and exclusively available to lodge guests at the poolside grill (although it will accept other customers at other times). There are hot options, and a buffet - I tackle both, pairing a sausage / egg / cheese ‘croissant’ (more of a muffin) with hash browns, cereal, yoghurt. As you may have predicted by now, I also purloin a few sweet items for later…

Today’s weather is the best I’ve had so far, with temperatures merely freezing and the clouds clearing. Too full for a swim, I instead set out to find a spot from which to get some drone footage of an arriving or departing Zephyr. Without much of a plan, and picking my way carefully through the deep snow, I locate a perfect view where the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers meet. I wander back via the aptly-named Two Rivers Park, and check out the train tracker. For once, delays are working in my favour - the eastbound service is expected to be an hour and a quarter late, which means I can fit in a dip in the pool (after getting the all-clear from a lateral flow test).


Roaring Fork river

Not a natural swimmer, I nonetheless happily spend a full hour in the water. The ‘big’ pool is the world’s largest mineral hot springs pool, with a capacity of over a million gallons. What this means in practice is that - on a quiet Friday morning, at least - you can float contentedly with no real awareness of anyone else. Brilliant blue skies mostly fill my view, with snow covered mountains completing the picture; open to the air, gentle waves lap across the water as steam lazily curls off of the surface and scatters rays of sunlight. Bliss.


Also available is the ‘therapeutic’ pool - smaller, but running at 40C compared to the big pool’s 32. A limit of 5-10 minute sessions is recommended, which is certainly all I could handle - but it’s worth trying at least once as it makes the other pool all the more refreshing!

Thus rejuvenated, I head back to the rivers for my date with the Zephyr, which I think goes rather well



To my surprise, it is still sitting at the station when I return twenty minutes later. I’m joined at a nearby pierogi truck by a couple of passengers, who’ve been advised they’ll be going nowhere soon on account of rock falls in the Glenwood Canyon. At least they can pick up non-train food and explore this delightful city during their several hours of delay. The westbound train’s fate is even worse, presumably parking somewhere in the wilderness before eventually rolling in some seven and half hours late.


An eastbound California Zephyr at Glenwood Springs

~

Making an early start on Saturday, I discover the weather has taken another nosedive: from lows of -9C overnight, it might technically climb out past freezing, but there’s also a 90% chance of snow and the ‘real feel’ is -3 on my way to breakfast.

Nonetheless I am one of the first to put in an appearance when the pool opens at 9. I make more use of the therapeutic pool this time, watching as first raindrops forming ripples on the surface, then later snowflakes drift down and flash to steam. Those which reach the water, at least - plenty settle on my shoulders, creating a remarkable contrast between exposed and submerged skin.

It being the weekend and earlier in the day, there are a lot more families, and at least one influencer couple. Makeup, earrings and cute bobble hat carefully kept out of the water, she perfects a fifteen second routine of wade-and-turn-with-playful-splash as he films, equally careful to avoid drowning an expensive phone. I hope they remembered to enjoy the experience afterwards - and that they didn’t get a grave-pale, questionably-bearded train geek photobombing their work.

By checkout snow is falling thick and fast, with conditions worse further west. A winter storm warning is in effect for Grand Junction: “freezing rain during late morning resulting in a thin glaze of ice”, which sounds unhelpful for railroading. Interestingly, both trains are due to reach Glenwood Springs at the same time, which means I must be careful not to accidentally board the wrong one and backtrack…

I make a regrettable lunch choice at the poolside grill, the cheesy chips being coated in some luminous plastic that has only a passing resemblance to a dairy product. Oh well, I believe arctic explorers need a tonne of calories to survive the cold, and I did a full couple of widths of the pool earlier, so surely this is earnt. I chase it with a strawberry smoothie - no less calorific, but maybe fruit will heroically enter battle on behalf of my arteries?

My pack stashed at reception, I decide to walk off this excess with a proper circuit of Two Rivers park, which I only sampled yesterday. Conditions had improved over lunch, but I still seem to be the only person out there who doesn’t have a dog they needed to walk.


Snowclouds roll back into Glenwood Springs

I consider one last lap of the city, but it’s clear I’ve seen all I’m going to see on this trip and I’m starting to feel the cold. So I just retrieve my possessions and settle in at the station, arriving at precisely the scheduled departure time (which is to say, probably at least an hour early).

Last edited by TheFlyingDoctor; Jul 3, 2022 at 1:54 pm Reason: attempting to include video
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