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.

WHY AMTRAK?

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)

WASHINGTON DC to SOUTH BEND

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

Considering how small the upper bunk was, and how much rocking and rolling went on throughout the night, I slept pretty well. I woke just before the sun came over the horizon. With farmland stretching in every direction, I knew we were in the Midwest.

This was taken just east of Waterloo. Good Morning Indiana!

Sunrise in Waterloo, Indiana

SOUTH BEND (ELKHART), INDIANA – RV Capital of the World

The South Bend Amtrak station, like most of the smaller train stations here in the US,  is located in a depressed part of the city, with pretty much nothing to offer in the way of public transportation, lodging and other basic services. In fact, when the station is closed, I bet it’s like a ghost town over there. Either that, or someplace you don’t want to be after dark.

Enterprise Rental Car picked us up with the SUV we rented for two days, which was convenient. We drove back to the office for paperwork, and Steve and I plotted a route to Elkhart and vicinity. There were several manufacturing facilities we wanted to visit, and we couldn’t check into the hotel until 3pm anyway, so we hit the ground running… or rather, driving.  The countryside was beautiful and it was nice to have the wind in my hair after being on a closed-up train for so long.

This part of Indiana is Amish Country.  Instead of traveling by highway, we opted to take the longer, slower route – driving mostly country roads. I noticed that many of the lovely country homes and farm houses had wash hanging in the yard. A gentle breeze brought beautiful movement. I later read that historically, Monday is wash day in Amish communities. A warm feeling of nostalgia stayed with me most of the day, as I remembered hanging wash with my mom when I was a little girl, and even hanging wash as a young mother myself.

We located the local Jayco dealer and spent about 30 minutes chatting with him about the particular model we liked that was made by their company. He didn’t have one for us to walk through, as all of his trailers were in a warehouse waiting to be taken to an RV show. But he did schedule us for a factory tour the following day.

That afternoon we had a factory tour with Grand Design, which I wrote about earlier.  It lasted several hours, and left me feeling lightheaded and hungry. We found a nearby chain restaurant for dinner and then drove back to South Bend and our hotel (Microtel Inn & Suites). Exhausted, and happy for a real bed, it was an early night.

The next morning we checked out the complimentary hot breakfast. There wasn’t much to choose from, as we were late getting downstairs,  but the coffee and bagel and cream cheese were enough to carry us to lunch. We drove back out to the Elkhart area again to do our Jayco factory tour. They had to delay the tour several hours, but they did have the model we were interested in – along with several other models and floorplans – in a display yard at the factory. So Steve and I walked through them all – even the models we knew we weren’t interested in. It’s absolutely amazing just how much detail goes into these campers now – no matter what price range you are in. The Jayco model that made our top two list was nice, but after walking through the Grand Design trailer, our minds were made up. Sorry Jayco.

We grabbed a bite to eat, toured the Jayco Factory (not as nicely done as the Grand Design tour), and went back to our hotel to pack for our departure the next morning.

I only took a few photos while we were in the South Bend area. I would like to go back someday and check out Amish Country and the quilt gardens.

Amish community near Elkhart Wash Day in the Amish community near Elkhart Traffic Delay near Elkhart

The downtown area of Elkhart:

Driving in Elkhart, Indiana

SOUTH BEND to CHICAGO

The next morning (Wednesday), Steve and I went to the Amtrak station and checked in for our short commuter trip (less than an hour) to Chicago. We checked our big bags and then drove back to Enterprise to drop off our rental car.  One of the sales agents then drove us back to the train station, which was very nice of them.

Because we were traveling coach, we were directed to a car which was already filled with passengers. We couldn’t sit together, but since it was such a short trip, it was no big deal. The lady I was seated next to was in her early 70s. She was returning to northern WI after visiting her sister in NJ. We chatted about the east coast (she lived in Trenton NJ for some time) which made the trip pass quickly.

We took advantage of the ClubAcela lounge when we arrived in Chicago and waited for the Empire Builder to arrive.

CHICAGO TO PORTLAND, OREGON

It was a nice surprise to discover our roomette was in the last car of the train. I enjoyed having the extra view of the beautiful countryside out the back window. Our attendant helped us settle in, pointed out the complimentary coffee, juice and water, and took our dinner reservation. We chose 6:30pm again.

The menu doesn’t change from train to train. Some told us that it doesn’t change from year to year either. It was a rather limited menu too, so if you’re a picky eater (as I can be), that can be challenging.  I ate the same dinner every night we were on a train: marinated skirt steak, a baked potato and whatever the mixed veggies were. It came with bread, a salad and a drink. Oh, and desert too – vanilla ice cream in a cup. You can find the menu on their website.

We met some interesting people on our travels. We met a retired government worker (female, in her 70s) who once worked in a top-secret capacity. We met a couple of men who have been traveling by Amtrak for years – just for fun. We met a young girl who was going home after her 10 year college reunion.  There was a 30-something year old woman with four kids under age 5 who was traveling on business. She traveled often and her husband was Mr Mom. There was a 30-something year old guy who worked in the oil fields in Minot, ND, for several weeks at a time, who was on his way home to his family. And then there was our neighbor across the aisle. This middle-aged man was a ‘between jobs’ chemist who immediately began complaining that he smelled chemicals in our car and since he was super sensitive, he hoped he wouldn’t break out in welts. He never stopped talking. So much so, that we were forced to close our door and curtains so he’d stop interrupting our quiet time.  He found new friends the second day.

Our attendant pulled down the upper bunk, and readied our room for sleep, while we were at dinner. We had an after-dinner cocktail in our room, sitting across from each other on the bottom bunk. We were somewhere near Winona MN when the sun went down. We’d been seeing nothing but farmland for hours.

I climbed up into the top bunk. Sleep came easy for both of us.

Scenery between Chicago and central Wisconsin:

Leaving Chicago Painted Water Tower Steve on train
Milwaukee Milwaukee, WI Shot from the back window - somewhere in WI
Wisconsin Farmland Columbus WI - there's an Amtrak station here

Two hours later I was jolted awake by the severe rocking of the train. Being the last car was like being the last person on a human whip. At times I thought we would jump the tracks. I reached for the straps attached to my bunk and hooked them into the ceiling – raising the protective net that would keep me from being flung from my bunk in the middle of the night.

I lay there awake as I rolled back and forth. At times, I held onto the straps to stabilize myself. I started feeling hot. There was no air coming out of our vent. With the door pulled closed and the curtains drawn, the air was still and warm. Steve woke when he heard me moving around above. He was also hot. We opened our roomette door but kept the curtains pulled for privacy.  I looked down the hall, and several others had their doors open too. The open space beneath the curtains was just about wide enough to let fresh air circulate. Steve went back to sleep. I lay there for 30 mins, 45 mins, an hour. I couldn’t cool off. Motion sickness was just below the surface, just waiting to make a miserable night even worse. The ceiling – a mere 15″ above my head – felt like it was getting lower with each passing minute. And then the restless leg stuff started. I had to escape.

I took my tablet and my fleece jacket and walked several cars forward, to coach seating. There were plenty of open seats. I settled into one, covered myself with my jacket (it was chilly up there), and read for a short time before dozing off. I woke a few hours later, just before daybreak. When I got to our car, I could see the beauty of a new day unfolding behind us.

Day 2: Good Morning North Dakota! (Somewhere near Rugby)

Good morning North Dakota - Sunrise Day 2 - Amtrak Observation Car

Good morning North Dakota - Sunrise Day 2 - Amtrak Observation Car

We went to breakfast around 8am. I had a cheese omelet, which came with home fries, a side of bacon and toast. We also had juice and coffee (breakfast is included in roomette fares). We chatted with our meal partners; a very quiet man who didn’t say much at all, and the 30-something oil worker who just came aboard in Minot.

After breakfast I did some reading, while watching the scenery move outside our window. Steve played on his Gameboy.  Every now and then I’d snap a photo. It was very relaxing.  Our complimentary lunch was a hamburger. I don’t remember much about that meal, so it must not have been anything extraordinary.

We chose a 6pm dinner seating, and started cocktail hour a little before. (You’re permitted to bring alcohol on board for your personal consumption if you book a room. You can not imbibe outside your room, however.) We moved through Glacier National Park as we dined. Our dinner mates were experienced Amtrak travelers who seemed to know the entire staff in the Dining Car. They mostly conversed amongst themselves, but did ask us a few questions about Alaska. I was OK with the lack of conversation. I preferred to watch the sunset.

The sun went down in a beautiful light painting of red, orange and yellow, and by the time we pulled into Whitefish, MT the moon had replaced it.

On that second night, Steve slept in the upper bunk, and I took the lower bed.  The ride was much smoother, thank goodness.

Central North Dakota to Glacier National Park, Montana:

Moon going down, central ND Horses, Cows and Ranches from Train Windows Relics from another time
Oil Drills, Minot ND North Dakota Countryside Cows in ND
Farmland from Train Leaving Shelby, ND Silos in Montana
Horses in Montana Looking West - Sun is going down. Approaching Rocky Mountains and Glacier Park. Montana Views
Near Glacier Park - Montana Rocky Mountains Montana Tunnel
Train Tracks and Tunnel Belton, MT Looking west, sun is further down

Sunset near East Glacier, MT:

Sunset and Freight Cars

Nightfall in Whitefish, Montana. Good night…

Dusk Over Whitefish MT

As most of us slept, the train pulled into Spokane WA.  The Empire Builder stops in Spokane on both its westbound and eastbound trips. On our westbound trip, the train split into two sections. One (the front portion) went to Seattle and the other (ours) went to Portland. On the reverse trip, two trains join up in Spokane and head to Chicago.  I slept through it, but Steve said he was awake (2am).

Day 3: Good Morning Washington & Oregon!

I woke just before the sun came over the horizon. We were traveling in the Columbia River Gorge on the Washington side. The scenery was absolutely stunning! All of the following photos were taken from the window on the final stretch into Portland.

The sun rises over the Columbia River about an hour east of The Dalles.

Sunrise in the Columbia River Gorge, Washington

Along along the Columbia River:

View of Columbia River from Train, Washington

Grape vines (mostly white grape) grow very well in this area.

Grape Vines, Columbia River Gorge, Washington

How exciting to see Mt Hood on the horizon!

Mt Hood from train, Washington

I love the church in the foreground with Mt Hood behind:

Mt Hood from train, Washington

More vineyard plantings:

New plantings

As we get closer to Portland, the sky darkens.

Columbia River, Washington Side

We were given a boxed breakfast because we lost the Dining Car when the train split in Spokane. I’m guessing the Seattle leg is busier. The box breakfast actually wasn’t too bad. I preferred it to the hot breakfast I had the day before to be honest. In the box was a ham and cheese croissant, a yogurt, and a piece of fruit. Coffee and juice were also available. We ate breakfast in our room, enjoying the gorgeous scenery outside our window.

As the train approached Portland, the sky darkened. By the time we arrived at Union Station, it was sprinkling rain. A cab took us to the airport, where we picked up our rental car. (Since we were flying out of Portland, we wanted the convenience.)

Forty minutes later we were outside of Portland, driving on the Historic Columbia River Highway in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Next: Oregon and Washington – and WATERFALLS!

(Part One – Philadelphia, Part Two – Washington DC )

9 Comments »

  1. Harpers Ferry is so charming. If you ever get back east and have time to explore that area of WV, do so!! I spent many days over in Harpers Ferry while living in Maryland, and even prior, since my ex-husband is from WV. I love how much history is around the DC/PA/MD/VA area and Harpers Ferry doesn’t disappoint! I’m hoping they’ll be able to restore those buildings that were destroyed by a fire last July.

    I loved reading about your train trip. I used to take the train from here in SC up to DC when I’d come down to visit my family and after 8 hours on a train (in coach) I was about to go completely bonkers. I get horrible motion sickness, so all of that rocking back and forth was terrible! It might not have been so boring had I had a travel companion but I was always alone. Either way, I think my days of Amtrak travel are over. lol

    [Reply]

    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Hi Lori and thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog entry. Sorry for the delay in responding. I would love to go back and check out Harpers Ferry more leisurely. It looked like a quaint little town from the window. There is so much of the US we hope to see once we start taking trips!

    When we were stationed at Fort Bragg, I used to ride Amtrak to Philadelphia to visit family a couple of times a year. It was a long ride (about 10-12 hours), but the seats were comfortable and I enjoyed watching the scenery go by. The first night on the Empire Builder, because we were the last car, the car was really rocking a lot. I was on the top bunk and DID get slight motion sickness! I had to get up and go into the Observation Car (even though it was night time), where it was not only cooler, but all the windows helped a little too.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Lori — June 1, 2016 @ 11:06 am

  2. Great post! We want to do the Empire builder to glacier sometime. I’ve driven out there but I think the train would be neat plus the kid would love it.

    FYI – pic #2 of silos are actually grain bins. Silos are the tall ones. (Just a farm girl nit picking LOL).

    [Reply]

    Heather Reply:

    arghhhh #9 🙂

    [Reply]

    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    Sorry for the delay in responding to your comment. Thank you for taking the time to write. I appreciate you correcting me on my identification of the barn structures. *grin* As you know – especially now – I am NOT a farm girl. I do, however, love barns and farms and farm buildings as subject matter.

    The Empire Builder was a nice trip through some really pretty parts of the country. We arrived in Glacier at sunset, so we didn’t get to see a lot of the mountains. I read that the reverse trip (Seattle/Portland – Chicago) puts you in Glacier early in the day for really scenic views. Of course the time of year would figure in too.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Heather Hansen — June 7, 2016 @ 10:25 am

  3. Love reading this. My sister has taken train trips west twice and enjoys it. I’m not sure if I would be bored. I think Larry would. I can’t wait to see your pictures of the Gorge!

    [Reply]

    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    The trip from Chicago to Portland was 46 hours, give or take. And it really didn’t feel super long and boring because we slept through some of it. If you’re sociable, it’s enjoyable to meet and chat with people from all over (even overseas). The sleeping roomette was VERY small. We’d probably book a family room just for a little more space next time – depending on the difference in cost. If you’re going to hang out in your room the entire time, it IS very tight. But if you’re going to spend time in the observation car or in the cafe socializing, the room is just fine for sleeping and a quiet, private place to just watch the scenery go by.

    [Reply]

    Comment by Connie — June 11, 2016 @ 5:02 pm

  4. We love Amtrak would travel no other way. have been cross country on the Empire Builder and looking forward to another trip. In August will be going to Buffalo and home to PA. via Amtrak. Love being treated like someone special. Relaxing if you have the time. Next time please contact me when you arrive in SB live close to Elkhart. Glad you enjoyed your trip. Enjoy your RV. Hugs Mary

    [Reply]

    Susan Stevenson Reply:

    We thoroughly enjoyed our trip on Amtrak. I love that the meals were included and that someone else was doing the driving. It was nice to be able to stretch out to sleep, although that top bunk is rather small. 🙂 We met some really neat people on board too. I’m glad we had the time to try traveling that way this time. I used to ride Amtrak several times a year from NC to PA, when we were stationed at Fort Bragg, NC. The trip to visit my family took about 10 hours. I traveled coach, but found it to be quite comfortable. Have a wonderful trip, Mary!

    We enjoyed our short visit to South Bend and Elkhart. I would like to return and see the Quilt Gardens someday. Maybe we’ll have time to do that when we pick up our new RV (we’re thinking we’re going to get it next spring).

    Enjoy the summer!

    [Reply]

    Comment by Mary Ashton — June 21, 2016 @ 7:09 pm

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