Monday, April 24, 2017

STILL Talking Amtrak Trip: Part Three

For the past 3 days, every time I wake up (in the morning or from a nap) (yes, I am still exhausted from the trip), I'm confused. I'm looking out the window and thinking, "Huh, things aren't moving out there. We must be at a stop." And then I roll over and think, "Hey! There's a green wall over there! This is my bedroom! Why is it on a train?" Also, the bed is rocking.

This is a little scary. I can see it happening once, but 3 or 4 times?

Donner Lake, in the Sierra Nevadas
Speaking of things rocking, let's talk about California. We got off the train in Emeryville (which is on the other side of the Bay Bridge, which is not the Golden Gate Bridge, and who knew there were so many bridges?); but, unlike all the smart travelers who immediately boarded a special Amtrak bus for San Francisco, Susie and I pulled our luggage about a mile (shades of the Chicago death march, I know) to our AirBnB, because it was so much cheaper to stay in Emeryville than in the big city.

No one was there. So we stood outside while I phoned and texted and Susie marveled at the "weird" plants on the West Coast, and no one responded, so we pulled our suitcases back toward the hotels near the Bay Bridge (because, why? I had never heard of Uber?), which turned out to be further than the train station, and there were all sorts of weird detours for pedestrians (Powell Street, WTH?) until we staggered into one of the hotels I managed to pull up on my phone.

There was no room at the inn, essentially. Only, while I was standing at the desk being told that, the floor was rocking up and down beneath me. Earthquake? I glanced around to see if anyone was running for doorways. No, everyone seemed calm. Maybe they were used to this?

Puzzled, I led Susie back outside and we sat down on a bench while I called all the hotels which we could see from where we were sitting. The bench was rocking, too. I could only stop the rocking by pacing back and forth, which was sort of hard after dragging suitcases for over 2 miles. I finally found a reasonably priced room at a decent hotel. "We just have to walk over there," I told Susie, pointing at the sort-of-distant tower. She looked at me doubtfully. "It will be easy," I insisted. "Look, Maps says it's only a third of a mile!"

Have I mentioned it was now evening rush hour, at the eastern end of the Bay Bridge? Don't anyone be asking me to plan your trips, is what I'm saying.

Proof that we made it to SF eventually...
In short, we spent close to 2 hours wandering around Emeryville (read, NOT San Francisco) with suitcases in tow, looking for a place to stay, while our fellow train passengers rode in comfort all the way into the city and were dropped off near their hotels. We eventually did make it to our hotel room and collapsed. And of course the room was moving as soon as I stood still.

Reader, I Googled it. It had a name! What a relief! But still freaky.

Susie and I dined not-so-elegantly on microwave popcorn and Nestle Crunch ice cream bars that evening, because that was the only affordable food in the hotel. Again, professional trip planner is probably not going to be one of my future careers. But here is the joy of traveling with an 11-year-old: Susie didn't mind. She was too enamored with the large bathroom and the real bed to care much. Also, I think she was relieved we weren't sleeping outside somewhere, huddled together under our luggage. Frankly? So was I.

I'm realizing I skipped right over Salt Lake City here, with its two yarn stores and majestic mountains and awesome food. That's okay, I'll get back to it.





Saturday, April 22, 2017

Train Trip, Part The Second

I'll tell the truth - I am regretting my decision a week ago to wait until the end of the trip to blog about it. Because, really, I am seriously overwhelmed now. But, boy, was I tired, plus it was harder to experience the trip if I was constantly processing it via writing about it, if that makes any sense. So I decided to experience it and THEN write about it.

Beautiful, right? No idea where it is. Utah, maybe?
Naturally, the entire trip I had a list of travel tips running through my head, alongside amusing anecdotes of people met along the way, all of which I jotted down on the notekeeping app on my phone, confident that I would turn it all into a brilliant recounting of my travels. Unfortunately, what this means is, I'm sitting here staring at cryptic notes such as "Scottish twins" and "Cheeseburger lady" and wondering what the hell I was talking about.

I bet this never happened to Mark Twain.

Why is "Mark Twain" the only travel writer I can come up with at this point? My brain is completely addled. The trip, which I envisioned as being a super-easy jaunt across the country by rail, actually required quite a bit of energy. I am tapped out. I went to bed early last night (my bed! My beautiful bed!) and headed out to yoga this morning, where it turned out that a 2-week train ride can really mess with your balance. I came home and slept 2 more hours.

This all supports my "I'm not 20-something anymore" discovery that I talked about earlier.

Oh, my Lord, stop gabbing and write already. How about a list?

Train Travel Tips


1. Comfort

Luckily, Susie and I were smart enough to bring blankets - some lightweight down throws that pack down small - but what we also needed were a couple of those goofy-looking U-shaped neck pillows whose purpose I never understood before. All the cool travelers had them. We didn't, so we settled for bunching up our sweatshirts and stuffing those under our heads. This didn't work well. So buy the weird-looking pillows - you'll be glad you did.

2. Irritation

Not a hospitable environment...
Apparently, there is an Amtrak rule that there must be one weird guy who ALWAYS sits in a corner of the sightseer lounge and talks loudly enough that you know WAY too much about his life. Every single train, this happened. It's enough to make you (well, me, anyway) start hating humanity. The first train, it was the guitar guy. The second train (the one from Salt Lake to San Francisco), we had a guy who reminded me of the obnoxious up-and-comer on Scrooged - you know, the one after Bill Murray's job? The one who says, "There's no I in T-E-A-M" in an irritating voice? In addition, he was remarkably self-centered - he believed (in a car FULL of people using earbuds) that there was no problem setting up a small speaker to listen to his music with.

We didn't have to ride with him long to realize he had obvious personality issues - to the extent that, if there had been a sudden train breakdown high in the snowy Sierra Nevadas, he would have been the first passenger to freak out and try to get rid of all the old people - you know, in order to make the food last. And I would definitely have been one of those old people, particularly after I told him to use earbuds so I could hear the train's Park Service ranger give his spiel. The one about the Donner Party, ironically enough...

The regular coach cars had their issues, too. Mostly - MOSTLY - people talked in undertones, so all you would hear was a low murmur all around. Because that's what people DO in public, unless they are unsocialized cretins who have never been told by anyone that they are obnoxious individuals who should never consort with other human beings.

I mean, not to put too fine a point on it or anything...

In our coach from Seattle to Spokane, the entire car had to listen to someone of this ilk discuss finances with his seatmate, then endure his talking LOUDLY on his cellphone to some other victim. The entire car was thinking, "Dear Lord, please let this guy fall asleep. Please, please..." Which he finally did, around 10:00, and we all drew a sigh of relief - until he started snoring. I mean, these were Richter-scale snores. If his seat ticket hadn't indicated that he would be getting off in a couple of hours, there may have occurred a scene reminiscent of the Orient Express.

Suitable for knitting AND garrotting, I'd bet...
This is what extended train travel can do to you, people - it can turn you into someone who wonders how effective a murder weapon her 47" circular knitting needles would be.

3. Food

These taste heavenly on a train.
As noted here before, it took only a day and a half for Susie and I to become heartily sick of granola bars and dried fruit. For some reason, train travel makes you crave fresh food. So, on our second morning, we threw our budget out the window and took breakfast in the dining car (omelettes - yum!). On the train, they seat you with strangers, so they can keep all the tables full. That day we were seated with 2 gentlemen who hailed from Scotland, who happened to be twins, which made me feel as if we were about to be part of a weird Monty Python skit.

I literally couldn't understand what one of them was saying, so thick was his brogue. His brother, who had lived 20 years in England, was more intelligible, to my American ears anyway. I asked them how they were enjoying Brexit (politics at breakfast - what a great idea!) and he said, "Not so much - but you folks aren't doing much better here." So we got along, is what I'm saying, and it wasn't nearly as awkward as you might think dining with perfect strangers at a tiny table would be.

We did this again on our last morning, because we had been living on cheese and crackers for over 24 hours at that point, and sat with an older couple from Indiana. No, Wisconsin, they got on the train in Indiana. No, wait, Michigan - Michigan is above Indiana.

See? Train travel is excellent for learning geography.

These people were dedicated train travelers. I met quite a few of that type on the trip, actually, and it is interesting to note that they all paid the extra money for the roomettes. I would mention that we were traveling coach, and they would say, "Oh, yes, we traveled coach - ONCE." I would like to be rich enough one day to be one of these people.

Was this category about food or people? I'm terrible at staying on topic.

4. Conductors

She earned these.
People, if you are on a train, conductors are gods. They hold all power. You DO NOT want to irritate them. We had one conductor from Seattle to St. Paul who felt sorry for me (I told you I looked haggard) and said, "Grab those 2 empty seats tonight - I won't let anyone else sit there." And I was able to lie horizontally and actually get some sleep. That lady earned herself a pair of homemade fingerless mitts, I'll tell you.

But woe to the people they don't like. One conductor regaled us with the story of a roomette-dweller who buzzed her at 2:30 in the morning because he wanted a cheeseburger. "A cheeseburger!" she said. "I told him, I said, 'Don't you be asking me for no cheeseburger in the middle of the night!' and then I turned off my buzzer so he couldn't bother me. I said, 'You buzz me again, I'll have you meet my 2 brothers - Smith and Wesson!" At this point the other conductor was practically falling on the floor, laughing. "Girl," he said. "You go too far!" And she said, "Hey, I'm very assertive. People think I'm being rude."

We loved that woman.


Okay, enough about the train. Tomorrow (or Monday), we'll talk about the places we visited, once I can decipher some more of these notes. I mean, if anyone is even still reading this...




Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Train Trip, Part The First

Whew! It took me 10 minutes just to figure out how to use this keyboard and sign into my blog on this IPad. Maybe not quite as hard as attempting to record the entire trip on pieces of birch bark, but still...and forget about pictures - I can't figure out how to get them from my camera to my IPad.

Hey, Lewis and Clark didn't know how to do that, either.

So, we made it to Salt Lake City. You know, a few months ago, when I read that 20-something's blog post about how easy it was to cross the USA by rail, I never once stopped to consider the fact that I myself am not 20-something. Or that, unlike this devil-may-care traveler with his RailPass, I would have an 11-year-old daughter in tow.

I mean, I'm betting that blogger didn't spend half an hour at one of his stops attempting to contact Amtrak about a lost stuffed elephant, you know?

That guy managed to travel light. My toiletry bag alone weighs 5 pounds, what with the shampoo and conditioner and the moisturizer and make-up - in short, all the accoutrements required to keep my appearance from frightening perfect strangers on the train. So, when we stopped for our layover in Chicago, it was sort of a big deal when we learned that the lockers at the station had been torn out the week before. You see, the original plan had been to leave our 4 bags at the station and meander through downtown Chicago, checking out the Lake Shore, a yarn shop, and of course a Chicago pizza place.

With 2 rolling suitcases and 2 backpacks in tow, this meander turned into something closer to the Bataan Death March. We made it down to the lakefront (I sensibly jettisoned the yarn shop plans), but it wasn't a stellar experience. The way back was, of course, even worse. By the time we reached the station, my legs were shaking.

I believe it was at this point that the refrain "I am no longer 20-something" began running through my head.

It became my constant companion. Turns out, in your 50's? It's no longer so easy to sleep sitting up in a train, even with a reclining seat back and a nifty leg rest. Also, those fluorescent lights in the teeny-tiny bathrooms are not kind to a middle-aged person's face. I'm telling you, there is not enough make-up IN THE WORLD to fix what I saw there. And not sleeping for two nights didn't really help matters. Haggard would be the kindest way to describe it.

Also, applying mascara on a moving train requires a special kind of skill set, I'll tell you that right now.

Still, there were fun parts. There was the lounge car on each train, with the huge windows and swivel seats, where you could sit and watch the scenery. We saw the Midwest, and let me just say right here that Iowa wins the prize for rocking that Americana vibe. I mean, we rode past the farmer on his tractor and the children playing ball and the miles of rolling fields and all the cute little houses and wondered if this were an Amtrak version of The Truman Show, all set up near the tracks for our viewing pleasure.

We drove through miles and miles of flat Nebraska fields in the dark, with the full moon shining down on them the whole time. The sun rose and gave us light just in time to see the Rockies looming in the distance, snow-capped and magnificent. We jumped out of the train in Denver at 8 AM and ran into the (perfectly gorgeous) station, looking for some fresh food to buy for the rest of the day (we were going to be riding until 11 PM). Quite honestly, it turned out that our plan to subsist on granola bars and dried fruit while on the train itself was a VERY BAD IDEA.

I swear, I can't even look at a granola bar without gagging right now.

So there you have it - the first part of our trip, the good and the bad. There's more, but this post is too long as it is.



Saturday, April 08, 2017

Packing Is Hard

Harder to do than it looks
Well, 15 minutes to leave for the train station. I've spent the last 5 hours packing. Yeah, I don't know why, either. I mean, the knitting did take a bit - looking for the right size needles, choosing the yarn - and I had to make sure everything fit and I wanted to arrange my clothes so I wouldn't have to go into my main suitcase until Salt Lake City, but 5 hours? If I had been with Lewis and Clark, they would never have managed to leave St. Louis.

Anyway, I've bought a keyboard for my IPad (oooh, fancy!) so I can blog at you during our trip. And hopefully I will leave this cough behind me at home, because seriously, someone on that train tonight might just kill me if I make the racket that I did last night. But have Robitussin, will travel - that's me. I'm so darn plucky.

Westward, ho!






Thursday, April 06, 2017

Lentil Expiation

You know which part of a cold I love? The part where you think you're getting better, but then the inside of your mouth and your tongue get covered in cold sores. Because, hey, why enjoy a good meal if you can be in constant pain instead, right?

So, yeah, I've been busy kvetching and also running around trying to get ready for this train trip. I am hauling along a veritable pharmacy of OTC medications, so I don't have to spend the one day I have in any particular city hunting for the local CVS.

These were complicated.
Oh, and then yesterday I was reading the Food section of our newspaper and I saw a lentils-and-rice recipe that I decided to try. Which might make sense, except I've never met a vegetarian lentil recipe that I've liked, so I have no idea why I thought this time might be any different. Or why I thought I had the time to mess around with a recipe that instructs the cook to let the sliced onions air dry for an hour before frying them in half a cup of oil. OR... well, you get the picture.

It didn't taste too bad, really. But it was still lentils and rice, and I don't see any of my vegetarians begging to eat it again today. The bright side is that I can spend the next 4 months or so resting on my laurels, as it were. You see, I usually feel guilty (because that's a whole lot of fun) about not trying new recipes. But now I can dispense with the remorse over my disinterest in new cuisines; instead, I can recall this unfortunate foray into fancy-cooked onions and smile contentedly at the thought of my culinary derring-do.

It's like a short-term vaccination against guilt, that's what it is.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Failed Housetraining

In case anyone thought my fears of what would happen to this house during my 2-week absence were exaggerated, I conducted an experiment: I assiduously refrained from reminding the children to take care of the kids' bathroom trash over the weekend. Please bear in mind that, contrary to appearances, I have spent the better part of 25 years instructing my children on the fine art of emptying a trash can. Apparently, my life's work has come to naught.

A few days ago...

Last night

And, yes, I will break down and make sure all trash cans are empty before I leave. Alas, my hopes are not high for after that point in time. Apres moi, le deluge...


And, some prettier pictures - I managed to join my friends for one day of their yarn crawl yesterday (but only AFTER getting up at 6:30 on a Sunday morning to fetch 4 dozen doughnuts for the stalwarts who showed up to deliver the last loads of mulch that day):


My usual awesome photography

2 skeins of fingering yarn - perfect for knitting some simple garter stitch shawlettes/scarves on the train. That and a couple of sock projects should keep me busy, I'm thinking. But check out the name on the one to the right: "Machete Shoppe." I don't know what's weirder, the word "machete" being used in a yarn brand name or the word "machete" being paired with the cutesy "pe" version of "shop." I picture sales clerks dressed as scary clowns. And you?




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