June 21, 2016

April Travels – Part Four – The Pacific Northwest

Filed under: Outside AK — Susan Stevenson @ 6:13 pm

Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you. ~ Frank Lloyd Wright


So, when I left off in my last blog entry, we were heading up the Historic Columbia River Highway on our way to Moses Lake, Washington – home to our dear friends Randy and Celeste. Randy and Celeste lived in Alaska for about 30 years, and moved to Moses Lake nearly a decade ago.  Their choice to leave AK didn’t come easy.  There were a few factors involved – one being that they (especially Celeste) are avid gardeners and the short growing season here in Interior Alaska was quite frustrating for them. Especially as we are limited on the crops we can plant here. Steve and I hadn’t seen them since they left Alaska, and since Moses Lake is only about 275 miles from Portland, we just had to include them in our travels. We are so thankful for their hospitality in putting us up for a couple of nights.  What a wonderful couple of days we had with not only cherished friends, but amazing people!

The Historic Columbia River Highway, 30 miles east of Portland, is the oldest scenic highway in the United States. It was constructed between 1913 and 1922, in Multnomah, Hood River and Wasco counties. The highway is divided into three zones: the waterfall zone extends from Troutdale to the Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks; the Columbia River zone extends from Cascade Locks to Hood River; the high plateau zone extends from Hood River to The Dalles. Not all of the historic highway is open to motor vehicle traffic (repairing it was abandoned during construction of Interstate 84). However, these portions of the road are open to foot and bicycle traffic and make up The Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail.

Perhaps the highway is better known because you can view and access many waterfalls along the way. Fed by glaciers and swollen by snowmelt and winter rains, the waterfalls plunge from sheer cliffs, hidden slot canyons and rock grottos rimmed by massive trees and moss. Many of these waterfalls are accessible year-round.

We made really good time getting to Moses Lake, even with a few stops along the way. Unfortunately we didn’t do any hiking (which was our initial intent), but we did stop to enjoy some of the waterfalls and the beautiful overlook at Vista House.

The well-recognized Multnomah Falls was even more beautiful in person than it is in photographs. At 611 feet tall, I highly recommend you go a few hundred feet up the trail, for a spectacular view from Benson Bridge. This gives you a closer look at both the top tier of the falls (542 feet!) and a vertigo inducing view of the lower tier (69ft).  Be prepared for mist on the bridge.


Vista House
Vista House at Crown Point
Latourell Falls Mossy Trees
Historic Columbia River Hwy


Multnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge OR

This is a view of the upper tier from the bridge:
Multnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge OR

        Looking down from the bridge to the base of the falls:
Multnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge OR

Another view of the falls from the trail:
Multnomah Falls, Columbia River Gorge OR


May 29, 2016

April Travels – Part Three – Seeing the Country by Rail

Filed under: Outside AK — Susan Stevenson @ 12:18 am

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

~Robert Louis Stevenson~

When Steve and I began planning this trip, our focus was Elkhart, Indiana (South Bend area). You may wonder why someone would choose South Bend as a vacation stop-over. Elkhart happens to be the “RV Capital of the World”.  And we’re in the market for a new camper to serve us during these retirement years.

We have been researching RVs for several years now and have had many discussions about the type of RV we would like. The first decision for us (as we still planned to tow) was “travel trailer vs. fifth wheel?”.  We currently tow a travel trailer. It attaches to a bumper hitch on Steve’s truck. The bed of Steve’s truck, which is protected by a bed cap, offers additional storage for camp necessities.  The bed of Steve’s truck (with cap) also doubles as a shelter when our travels take us off road and we are truck camping.

Fifth wheel trailers attach to the tow vehicle with a special hitch that is mounted in the bed of the towing vehicle. While 5th wheels do offer extras you won’t find in a travel trailer,  they also weigh more – usually quite a bit more. Steve’s new truck, while heavy duty, doesn’t have the greatest fuel efficiency when towing. Therefore, the lighter the trailer the better. We don’t want a big chunk of our travel budget to go to fuel. So travel trailer it is.

We also want our new rig to be rated four-season, or to have what manufacturers are calling an “arctic package”. This will enable us to camp in the fall in New England or the spring in Wisconsin – or anywhere else we want, within reason.  After extensive research, we narrowed the manufacturers down to Grand Design and Jayco, as both carry four-season travel trailers that suit our needs. We made appointments with both companies to do a factory tour while we were in town.

The factory tour made it easy for us to choose which company is going to get our business: Grand Design. We were very impressed with the way they did things, the quality of their workmanship and materials, and most especially that they do a 100+ point inspection on every single RV that comes off their line. (Jayco pulls RVs randomly to do a 20 point inspection)

While touring, we found out that the travel trailer model we chose to purchase is being tweaked a bit for the 2017 model. We had the opportunity to walk through a prototype of this new trailer and we were sold. We’re going to wait until the 2017 is available and then buy.  If you want to look at the original travel trailer we chose, there are photos HERE. (They make them so luxurious now!)  The updated floorplan rearranges the bathroom – closing off the door from the bedroom – and has an additional storage cabinet on that wall, bedroom side.  The new trailer specs also show a larger refrigerator and larger waste tanks – all much better for longer trips.


I don’t know why or when I suggested doing a train trip. I think it came up after we decided we’d like to visit Washington DC for the Cherry Blossom Festival. We were talking about taking Amtrak from Philadelphia to DC and I researched fares. Once I was on the Amtrak website, I fell down the rabbit hole…  The next thing I knew, I was pricing cross-country train trips in a sleeping car.  We didn’t purchase the tickets until nearly a month later unfortunately. By that time the price had increased several hundred dollars. (Book early and save money!) They release seats and roomettes in blocks. Once they sell out the first block,  they open the next up for sale – at a higher price… and so on. The later you book, the more expensive the tickets are.

I am not new to riding Amtrak, but this was my first extended trip with a roomette. Steve had never traveled by train. The price for basic coach tickets is comparable to (and sometimes less than)  super saver airline tickets. Of course traveling by train takes longer than going by air, so there’s that consideration. But both of us agree that traveling by train was much more enjoyable than traveling by air.  We also learned that a roomette is the size of a small closet and you’ll feel claustrophobic if you hang out in there for any length of time. Family size bedrooms are larger, and we’d consider booking one of them just for the space, depending on the extra cost. Family rooms also have their own bathroom – a small one, but convenient.

When you book a roomette or sleeping room, you are a First Class passenger. First Class travel includes all meals, a car attendant (makes up and turns down beds, cleans and maintains the bathrooms and shower rooms on the car, brings water or other refreshments if asked, etc.), free checked baggage, and access to more comfortable lounges – like airline boardrooms – found in stations all across the country. After seeing the prices on the menu in the dining car, the extra spent on a roomette is worth it. If you elect to travel coach (fairly comfortable, reclining chair), you’ll need to bring your own food on board or you’ll have to budget extra to cover meals.

Meals are served three times a day, and you choose the time you want to have dinner. Breakfast and lunch call is for a couple of hours and you go anytime. Be aware that there could be lines. Things run a little smoother at dinner, which is why you have to make a reservation.  Also, if there are less than four in your party, you will be dining with others. Every seat is filled at mealtime.  I enjoyed eating with and meeting new people each day, but if you’re not a particularly outgoing individual, I do believe you can have your meals served in your room.

Our rail travel was split into legs so that we could lay over in South Bend:

Washington DC to South Bend IN – Capitol Limited – Depart
4:05pm. Arrive in South Bend at 7:51am. (Roomette)

Two Days in South Bend

South Bend IN to Chicago, IL – Lake Shore Limited
Depart at 8:49 AM. Arrive in Chicago at 9:45am  (Coach Seat)

Chicago IL to Portland OR – Empire Builder
Depart at 2:15pm. Arrive Portland 10:20am (TWO days later – Roomette)


After checking out of our condo, rather than wrestle with all of our suitcases on the metro, we called a cab to take us to Union Station (Amtrak). It was money well spent to get us there stress-free. We checked in and were given access to the ClubAcela room, where we could stow our bags, enjoy free refreshments and snacks, freshen up, watch TV, and take advantage of free wifi.  When it was time to board, Steve asked for assistance, as our car was way at the back of the train, and we had two big suitcases and two small bags each. They drove us (and others) right to our sleeper car on a golf cart.

We knew the roomette was small, but until you are BOTH standing inside a 3’6″ x 6’6″ space, with a couple of carry on bags (camera/laptops), you truly have no idea just how much you better like the person you’re traveling with.  I wish I would have taken more photos of the actual sleeper room itself, but even my wide angle lens wasn’t wide enough! (You can find photos online)

I didn’t take many photos as the view out the window was mostly urban and industrial until we reached West Virginia. A couple of hours later, just before we crossed the border into western PA, night fell.  I pulled the short straw, so I climbed up into the pull-down bunk – a spacious 24″ of sleep comfort. I convinced myself it was cozy, rather than claustrophobic!

Steve on the train in our roomette Me on the train in our roomette Somewhere in West Virginia

Harpers Ferry, West VA looks like a neat little place:

Harpers Ferry West Virginia


May 24, 2016

April Travels – Part Two – Washington DC

Filed under: Family,Interesting Things,Outside AK — Susan Stevenson @ 12:09 pm

In my last trip post, I wrote about the time that Steve and I spent in Philadelphia with my siblings and their families.  We visited from April 1st until the morning of April 12th. On that Tuesday morning, my SIL Diane took Steve and I to the Cornwell Heights Station near their home, where we took the SEPTA train to 30th Street Station in downtown Philly, and boarded Amtrak for Washington DC. We were looking forward to spending time in our nation’s capital with Mike, Patti, Steve & Dee.

I found a wonderful condo rental (using the VRBO website) in Arlington, VA –  which is a short metro commute from the National Mall and in a much less congested area. The condo was in walking distance to restaurants, taverns, and small convenience stores. Watching the sun set from the balcony was gorgeous every night. With 3BR/2BA, living room/dining area, full kitchen, fireplace, laundry facilities, and all the comforts of home, the cost to rent this unit was much less than booking three hotel rooms in DC.

Unfortunately, my brother Marc and his wife Denise couldn’t accompany the rest of us to Washington. The other four couldn’t join us until the next evening due to work schedules, so they all drove down in Mike’s SUV.


View from CondoView from CondoGetting from Washington DC’s Union Station to Arlington wasn’t as difficult as we worried, especially once we figured out the metro card machine. We were only carrying backpacks and small rolling suitcases, as my brothers were bringing our large bags with them, thank goodness. Especially as we arrived in Union Station in the middle of rush hour and faced very crowded (standing room only) trains.

After checking into the condo, we took a walk down the street looking for a quick bite to eat. When we came upon an iHop, the “breakfast for dinner” craving came upon me, so there we stopped.  We arrived back at our unit just before sunset. It was beautiful.


(Wednesday) After enjoying a breakfast burrito from the first floor cafe, Steve and I walked a couple of blocks to the train station, and hopped on the metro to the Smithsonian Castle, which is about the halfway point of the National Mall and Memorials area. Our visit to Washington was too late for the cherry blossoms, even though the Cherry Blossom Festival took place on our final day, but the tulips were absolutely stunning.  We picked up a map of all the Smithsonian museums so we could plan our days. We love that the museums are free!

We visited the  National Museum of the American Indian, which I found quite fascinating. I didn’t take many photos in there as it was quite dark, and it’s difficult to photograph through glass with lights reflecting on the display cases. There was also quite a bit of information to read along with the exhibits. We spent more than an hour there. My favorite part of the museum was the “Our Universes” gallery (level 4) which focuses on Native American beliefs and creation stories.

The Capitol is undergoing renovations, so there was scaffolding surrounding the lower part of the dome. We didn’t try to tour the Capitol, but we did walk as far as the reflecting pool in front of it before crossing the mall and starting down the other side toward the Washington Monument. It was a beautiful spring day with temps in the low 60s. The sun felt deliciously warm without being too hot. Steve and I occasionally stopped  to rest our legs in a shady spot under a tree or next to a fountain or garden. It was nice not to feel rushed or to have a strict itinerary. I was thankful for comfortable shoes though! We walked more than 5 miles that day – and that’s not including the miles we walked inside the buildings and at the monuments.

From the greenbelt at the National Mall, we walked all the way to the WW II Veterans Memorial, and then onward to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. We stopped at the Lincoln Memorial, and climbed the many steps to see Lincoln perched in his marble chair. Our last stop was the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I’ve visited the memorial a handful of times in my life and every single time I do, I cry. Seeing so many names on the wall, and all the messages and cards and flowers that are placed there regularly really touches me.
James Seals WW II Veteran, 100 yrs old, Survived Pearl HarborWhile we were at the World War II Memorial, we noticed that there were quite a few WW II veterans in attendance. With pride they wore their dress uniforms, meticulously decorated with the medals and ribbons earned for their military service. As we walked past them, we thanked them for their service.

We came upon a news crew interviewing 100 year old WW II veteran Colonel James Seals, who came to Washington DC on an Honor Flight. Colonel Seals is one of the last living survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, when more than 2,400 Americans were killed. At the time, Col. Seals was a Marine Corps private and had just arrived in HI a week earlier. He was on his way to breakfast when the attack happened. If he’d have been a few minutes earlier, he would have been killed too. Colonel Seals lives with his daughter in TN.