Maureen and I left Chicago on Amtrak’s Empire Builder train at 2:18 PM on August 3rd from Union Station. The train left 3 minutes later than advertised but I was impressed. We were traveling 2210 miles from Chicago to Seattle. It is supposed to take 43 hours. The train stops in a number of stations, usually only for a few minutes. Only 9% of the passengers getting on supposedly go the entire distance. Because of Covid, masks were required on the train except when eating and drinking. If the private sleeping coach door was closed, masks weren’t required.
Our accommodations are small but adequate. We have a bedroom berth on the upper level of the car. We have a couch that turns into a bed at night. Across from the couch is a sink with running water and a single seat by the window. Behind the sink is a very small bathroom which also serves as a very small shower. Storage space is limited. We really need to cut down on our packing.
We traveled through areas of houses and businesses as we traveled through Chicago’s northern suburbs to Milwaukee. As we traveled further north, we traveled along forest preserves in Cook and Lake County. We passed by Lake County’s Middle Fork Savanna Forest Preserve with colorful wetlands, prairie and savanna. Great egrets were common in the wetlands that were made colorful with blooming pink blooming hibiscus flowers. Unfortunately, there were also patches of the colorful invasive non-native purple loosestrife in some wetlands. The prairies had pink joe pye weed and yellow sunflowers blooming. We were pleasantly surprised by the wild areas we were seeing.
In Wisconsin on our way to Milwaukee the scenery was a mix of development and crop fields. The crop fields were mostly corn and soybeans but we also some fields of cabbages. We met east bound Empire Builder south of Milwaukee as it traveled to Chicago. In Milwaukee the trained slowed to a crawl into the downtown area and train station. We had a brief stop and then our train continued, now proceeding in a western direction to the west coast. We passed the Miller’s brewery leaving downtown Milwaukee.
We passed small towns, farm fields of corn and small farmsteads with colorful red barns. We also passed by nice large wetland complexes with the usual great egrets. We saw many sandhill cranes feeding in harvested wheat fields.
After a quick stop at Columbus/Madison Wisconsin, we continued west. I was impressed with the amount of open land west of Madison, many wetlands, prairies, woodlands and pastures. It was great to see that it wasn’t all in crops. As the sun was getting low in the sky we crossed and traveled along the Mississippi River for some miles and finally into Minneapolis, when it was dark, for another brief stop. Maureen started painting soon after we left Chicago.
The meals were good but not gourmet. The service in the dining car was great. It’s communal dining so we sat with other people. It was interesting meeting fellow travelers on the train. The dining car is only for the sleeping car passengers. The coach passengers can buy fast-food type meals from the lounge car. The train consisted of a baggage car, sleeper cars, a dining car, an observation car/lounge car and coach cars.
Our first stop on day 2 was Minot, North Dakota. We slept through Minnesota and found ourselves in North Dakota. I showered in the tiny shower and we ate breakfast (full meal with eggs, bacon, potatoes and croissant, and coffee of course!). The stop in Minot is a long one – usually about an hour. The train is refueled and a new engineering crew takes over. Even though it was raining lightly we got off to briefly stretch our legs.
We enjoyed seeing the small towns and farms with many out buildings. Riding the train you see it all pass by – the beautiful landscapes and also many abandoned houses and farms and even a few old deteriorating yet interesting churches. Abandoned farm equipment, cars and trucks were common. It must have been hard making a living there.
We traveled through the rest of North Dakota into Montana. The landscape we were traveling in was constantly changing. We’d travel through hilly areas with wheat fields or hay fields as far as the eye could see. We were traveling through the prairie pothole regions and passed many large wetlands.
We amused ourselves looking out the window, sometimes playing cards, reading and Maureen sketched and painted a bit. We got 3 meals on the train, breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Eventually we got to Glacier National Park. There are two stops, East Glacier and West Glacier. Quite a few people got off at East Glacier to visit the park. The scenery – mountains, forests and streams were beautiful but it was dusk. The Empire Builder goes through Glacier National Park but it was getting dark and unfortunately we didn’t get to see much of the park. Perhaps the east bound Empire Builder goes through during the day.
Because of the delta version of Covid getting so bad, Amtrak stopped the communal dining. We ended up getting our last dinner delivered to our sleeping room.
When we awoke the next morning, we were in the State of Washington. We had passed through western Montana and Idaho in the dark. It would have been nice to see these areas. We were passing through lush forests with crystal-clear streams. We passed through many tunnels. The longest was the Cascade tunnel which is 7.8 miles long and passes under a portion of the Cascade Range of mountains. At Spokane Washington the train splits, our section going to Seattle and the other cars going to Portland, Oregon.
Eventually the train got to Everett which is on the coast of the Puget Sound. From here we traveled south along the shore to Seattle. It was low tide and many great blue herons and gulls were out looking for a meal. Finally after 2 nights/days, the train pulled into King Street Station in Seattle.
We enjoyed our trip on the train watching the countryside pass us by. We would want a little bigger sleeping berth next time or we’d bring less luggage. We probably should have stowed our large luggage in the lower-level storage rack and only brought what we really needed with us in sleeper room. We both agreed that we would never want to travel in the roomette (not much better than coach) or the coach where you no privacy. It was really nice having our own private shower and toilet. The communal ones get pretty messy. Overall we would consider taking the train again. We got great views from our private window but we also did spend some time in the observation portion of the lounge car. You can get great views from many windows of the observation car.
My final thoughts on the train are, if you’re okay with camping, try the train. If you don’t like camping, the train is not for you.
We left King Street Station, got our rental car and to went to our hotel in Seattle. We always stay at the Inn at the Market . We love the view from the rooms and the location. It’s right next to Pike Street Market and just down from the first Starbucks store. We dropped off our luggage and went exploring until our room was ready. Pike Street Market was really crowded so we didn’t stay long.
We headed down to the wharf but had to make the obligatory stop down Post Alley to the gum wall. The wall has expanded up and down the alley. It’s not as thick with gum as it used to be – I heard they cleaned it off, but the gum’s back. There were also more tourists at the wall than I ever remember.
We had lunch at The Crab Pot –we both had halibut fish and chips. Very good!
From there we went to another favorite spot – the aquarium. My favorite exhibit is the octopus tank. We really got lucky. The octopus, named Licorice, was very active moving about the tank. Usually the octopus is hiding in some corner. Licorice is a one and a half year old male that they plan to release next week. Being so active indicates that he is sexually mature and ready to mate. They have another octopus, Ink Jet, waiting in the wings to replace him. We finished the day with a meal at Cafe Campagne, a great French restaurant right next to our hotel and a favorite of ours.
Official Disclaimer – I’m finishing this blog at home. Wifi was horrible on this trip. Amtrak advertised they had wifi – well there might be some weak wifi at some of the stations along the route but that was about it. I’ve never experienced some terrible wifi. The wifi in Seattle was good but from there it went from back to worse to even worse than almost non-existent. Even when we had wifi it was so weak that I couldn’t upload anything.
We ordered breakfast from Bacco, another great restaurant, next to our hotel. The hotel staff told us to order it to take out because there would be a long line since it is so popular. It was packed when I picked up the food 15 minutes after they opened. The hotel staff told us that all of Seattle was much busier than usual –twice as many people as usual — and it had been that way since Covid restrictions had lifted. We loaded up the car and set off to La Grande, Oregon to visit Maureen’s childhood friend Sue and her husband Steve. Oregon seemed dry except for the irrigated valleys which were quite green. We passed by a former Army Depot with it’s earthen covered igloos which reminded me of where I used to work – Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. We noticed one small forest fire as we got closer to La Grande.
We enjoy staying with Sue and Steve, besides great friends and company they have a great house looking over the valley and visited by all sorts of wildlife. Steve had been up in Alaska about the same time we were, fishing for halibut. So – guess what? we had more halibut! What a treat.
Steve and Sue took us on a drive through Baker Valley where La Grande is located. The Oregon trail went through Baker Valley and within feet of Sue and Sue’s house. We drove to a high point, pulled out lawn chairs and enjoyed the view. We watched the fire suppression aircraft flying into and out of La Grande fighting the many forest fires in the West. The small fire we had seen yesterday on our drive in seemed to be out.
Maureen and I really enjoy relaxing with Sue and Steve, sitting on their patio watching the wildlife come to their yard. Mule deer are regular guests, coming to pluck plums and apples off the trees. My favorites were the covey of California quail that would come down several times a day to check out around the bird feeders. I also enjoyed the Anna’s hummingbirds and the Steller’s Jays.
In the afternoon we drove to the Wallowa Whitman National Forest and hiked around Grand Ronde Lake, a beautiful, secluded spot. We got lunch at the ski resort up there and sat outside, enjoying the food and taking in the incredible scenery. We stayed quite a while, enjoying each other’s company and the beautiful surroundings.
We had reservations at Timbeline Lodge at Mount Hood so Maureen and I drove through the Columbia Gorge along the Columbia River. Maureen saw big horn sheep on the cliffs. Bill was too busy driving to see them. This is a very beautiful drive with steep cliffs, large rolling grassland hills and of course, the Columbia River. We tried to go to Multnomah Falls but all the parking lots were full so we decided to go the fish hatchery at Bonneville Dam to see salmon going up the fish ladders around the dam. Wouldn’t you know it –they weren’t open, but Bill made a new friend, Bigfoot. We finally decided to just get to Mount Hood.
Timberline Lodge might be familiar, it was the lodge featured in the movie “The Shinning.” The entrance shot was Timberline although the interior was another lodge. This historic lodge is really at timberline, there are few trees growing above it on Mount Hood. The lodge is ornate, with rough hewed timber, ornate iron work and large, stone fire places. We hiked around the lodge, enjoyed a nice meal and watched the sun setting out behind the lodge.
We hiked around the lodge than took a longer hike around Lake Enid in Mount Hood National Forest.
Sue and Steve planned to meet us for a night at Mount Hood and we planned to meet at Trillium Lake in the National Forest. It seemed everyone had the same idea. The lake was full of kayakers, swimmers and sun bathers and all the parking lots were full. We finally decided to just meet at Timberline Lodge.
We hung around the lodge, sitting in Adirondack chairs viewing the mountain top, playing corn hole (throwing sand bags), talking, laughing and enjoying the day. We had dinner together in the lodge and later enjoyed the nice sun set and colorful skies.
We left Sue and Steve and headed to Napa, California. This was to be our big drive day, going from Mount Hood to Napa. The scenery was great, but when we got to southern Oregon and northern California the smoke from the forest fires was quite evident. The smell wasn’t too bad in the car, but was pretty bad outside. We stopped for gas and Maureen went into the store – she thought everyone must smoke (cigarettes) in the store, but when she got outside, she realized it was the same smell– smoke from fires.
We had a little mishap on our drive. Maureen kept feeling like something was pulling at her shirt sleeve, then she noticed a small face looking at her, some type of creature sitting on her shoulder. She yelled “there’s an animal in the car!!!”and “stop the car!!!” We were on the Interstate going at a good speed but I was able to eventually get over and pull off the road while Maureen yelled and freaked out. She immediately jumped out of the car. She thought it was a bat. I searched the car and couldn’t find anything. Maureen said there’s no way she’s getting back in that car, and then we both noticed a deer mouse running on the inside rear window deck. I was able to shoo it out of the car. We don’t know where it came from but it was quite an experience. Maureen was shaken up by the experience. We continued on, sans mouse, and finally got to Napa, checked into our hotel and recovered from our time with our extra little passenger. Sorry no picture of the little fellow.
We had a nice lunch in downtown Napa at Ristorante Allegria then planned to visit some wineries and sample some wine. Our first stop was the Robert Mondavi Winery, an old favorite of ours. We discovered though that Covid has changed how wineries are operating. You need reservations in advance for the wine tasting and you can’t wander around the grounds. They keep you close, in one room or one area. We were able to get a glass of wine and sit in an open area. We decided to forget about visiting more wineries – given Covid, plus been there, done that — and took a nice hike in a nature reserve.
We checked out of our Napa hotel and drove to Jack London State Park. Many years ago we had stayed at Jack London Lodge in the town of Glen Ellen. We visited the park and got re-acquainted with Jack London and his wife, and their incredible lives. Jack wrote over 50 books, two plays and then some. His wife was also very talented and went on to become a writer after Jack’s death at 40 years old. Jack was ahead of his time in terms of his ideas around organic farming. He introduced surfing in the United States. There’s a cottage to visit, a museum, his farm, and more –it’s well worth a stop. Many of us probably read some of Jack’s books when we were young. I’m thinking of getting re-acquainted with his writings.
We had lunch at the Jack London Pub which we had visited many years ago while staying at the Jack London lodge. We left Glen Ellen and traveled to Vallejo where we were going to visit Maureen’s niece Anita and her husband Destin.
We drove to Anita and Destin’s house and met up with Anita’s father, Maureen’s brother John and went out to eat in Vallejo. We also enjoyed walking around the Art festival going on in downtown Vallejo.