Train Adventure ~ Days 6 & 7


On day 6 we woke up in Grand Junction at my great aunt and uncle’s house. The night we arrived several of our extended family members who live in the area joined us for a really fun dinner. We have a really big family, and these are some of our favorite family members whom we don’t get to see enough of, so it was an extra-special visit!

From a practical standpoint, this was also a great break in our trip because we were able to replenish our supply of snacks. Also, Grandma decided the bag she originally brought was undersized, so she bought a bigger one. Corbin realized he left his light jacket at home too. I’m sure you can guess what major national discount store we hit to find all of these things… 🙂

One other great thing that happened in Grand Junction was that I found some of awesome rail guidebooks in the gift shop of the Grand Junction train station! We bought all they had in stock for the trains we would be traveling on for the rest of our trip. I so wish I could have found these before we started this journey! These books really enhanced the rest of our trip. Amtrak does have rail guides that give a little bit of info about some of the stops, but these books go so much deeper! They give some pictures, little local histories and stories, population, best spots for photo opportunities… and so much more. They are perfect for what we are trying to accomplish on this trip. The best part is that you don’t have to rely on having a wifi connection, or stare at your phone or iPad to read about the towns you pass through. We were able to take notes on the pages, highlight towns as we passed them, and keep up with how much longer it would be till another “fresh air stop.”

I know I keep going on and on about the views on this trip, but folks, America is amazing. That’s just all there is to it. Every day there were so many different landscapes that your brain just has trouble understanding them. These two days were some of the most amazing ones we witnessed on this trip. The California Zephyr is notoriously late, but it is also said to be the most scenic stretch of rail in America. I’m going to have to agree with the assessment that it is the most scenic. As far as the lateness, while we arrived to Grand Junction three hours behind schedule, the next time we boarded the Zephyr we arrived to Chicago about an hour early. So our experience was mixed.

We spent a pretty restless night in coach seats again on Day 6, but we had plenty of time for napping and lounging on Day 7 before we arrived in Chicago at about 1:30pm. We walked over to The Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), and went up on the Sky Deck to see a gorgeous birds-eye view of Chicago. It amazed us to see that Lake Michigan was iced over! Corbin bravely went out on the glassed in ledge.

After visiting Chicago for just a few hours, we went back to the train station to have a quick dinner before boarding the Lake Shore Limited that night at 9pm. I’m happy to report that I have now eaten a real Chicago hotdog. The next section of the trip between Chicago and Boston would take us about 24-hours so we decided to upgrade to the sleeping cars again for this leg.


Train Adventure ~ Days 4 & 5

day 4

After a short, but very restful, night’s sleep in our hotel in Emeryville, we hopped on the California Zephyr the next morning feeling refreshed and ready to roll. This leg of our trip took a full 24-hours. Grand Junction is our next stop. We will be laying over there for a day to visit family.

As we passed through central California, the train filled up with people headed to Reno to visit the casinos. They were a friendly and fun group of people. In the afternoon we started seeing a little bit of snow in some of the ski resort areas which really excited Corbin. Unfortunately his little Texas toes didn’t get to touch any snow because all of the “fresh air stops” were in snowless areas.

We started to experience our first train delays on this leg too. All of the power would periodically go off, and our train would just stop. The conductor never really explained what was happening in depth, but at one point outside of Truckee we were sitting on the tracks in the middle of the woods for over an hour so that some things could be checked out. The attendants were great and did everything they could to assuage the frustrations of the passengers. The problems continued all throughout the night too. At one point we were over three hours late, but the conductor made a little bit of that time up, and we only arrived in Grand Junction about 2 hours behind schedule.

We also experienced our first night of sleeping in the coach seats. I am surprised to report that sleeping in coach was very much more comfortable than I expected. We packed our sleeping bag liners for warmth and compactness, which worked really well. I’m a light sleeper, so I was up off-and-on all night, but I did feel pretty rested in the morning. Honestly, sleeping in coach wasn’t my favorite thing, but on a trip like this, it is really the best option unless you are a Rockefeller. If we were going all the way from Emeryville to Chicago, paying for the sleeping car accommodations would be well worth it. Since we are breaking our time on the California Zephyr in half, we would essentially have to pay double for the sleeper car so it really isn’t feasible.

I was a bit disappointed that we passed over the Great Salt Lake while it was still dark out, but due to the delays, we were able to catch a lovely sunrise over Salt Lake City. We took so many pictures of Utah and Colorado… it was just too much beauty to capture. One of the most shocking things for our Texas brains was seeing all of the frozen rivers!



Train Adventure ~ Day 3

Day 3

I wish I could post every picture we took today. I whittled it down as much as possible. The beauty of the coast of California completely blew my mind. Our day began at 5am when our train arrived into Union Station in Los Angeles over an hour early. We were overjoyed to have the extra time to spend in Los Angeles before we had to catch the Coast Starlight for the trip up the coast to San Francisco. Our plan was to catch the Red Line on LA’s subway system, travel down into Hollywood to see the Hollywood sign, and return back to Union Station by 10am to catch our connection. Unfortunately that didn’t work out so well. We missed our stop on the subway, and then were separated from Grandma and Doris Marie who were left standing on the subway platform when the doors closed while we were inside. That experience scared all of us because if we would have been separated we might not have been able to find each other in time for our connecting train. We decided to head back to Union Station and explore that area instead.

That adventure turned out to be a huge blessing because we were able to check out Olvera Street which happens to be the oldest street in Los Angeles! We were there before all of the little shops opened, but we were able to see some of the famous murals, and read a bit about the history of the area. We also saw the oldest standing residence in Los Angeles from 1818, the Avila Adobe. Despite California’s drought, this whole area was lush with some amazing trees, and flowers of all kinds. It’s definitely a place I would like to visit again – next time during business hours!

Once we boarded the Coast Starlight at 10am, we caught our first glimpses of the pacific ocean. The train hugged the coast almost all day. It was truly sublime just kicking back and watching the waves roll in and people enjoying the beach. I really enjoyed passing through so many fruit and vegetable farming areas to see field after field of produce being harvested. It truly lived up to the description as “The Country’s Salad Bowl.”

Despite all of the beauty we saw today, we saw some other things that were a little bit disturbing. There were so many homeless people living along the train tracks. Often they were even right behind the back fences behind people’s homes! I’m sure many of them were actually people who had come into the country illegally looking for work in those produce fields we saw. Whether they were there due to California’s hard-hit economic times, or illegal immigration, it opened up a dialogue to discuss with Corbin some of the realities that people endure which we don’t usually see. I ended this day feeling deeply blessed and humbled.

We arrived in Emeryville at 9:30pm tonight. Our hotel was just across from the train station, so we walked over there and crashed for the night. Tomorrow we will be headed east. Our next stop will be Grand Junction, Colorado!

Here’s Corbin’s post about this day. In case you are interested.

Train Adventure ~ Day 2

day 2

We were the first people sitting in the dining car for breakfast this morning. The food (pancakes and strawberries) was great again. After breakfast we visited the observation car for a little while, but it was a pretty hazy sunrise so we decided to go back to our roomette to enjoy the scenery from there. Corbin’s photography classes are really paying off on this trip so far! We adjusted the shutter speed as high as our dlsr camera will allow. Right now it’s 3:48pm and I’m laying in the top bunk of our roomette downloading the pictures, and typing this etc. There are just too many great pictures to count! We are supposed to go down to the dining car at 5pm for dinner, but I can’t imagine eating another bite right now. We had some really good hamburgers for lunch. It seems like all we do is eat and sit!

We are having so much fun though. It’s indescribably relaxing to just sit and visit while the world rushes past the windows. Today’s highlights were Alpine Texas (Big Bend), and El Paso so far. At this point in our day, our next stop where we are allowed to detrain for a little while will be in Tucson. I’m hoping to find a geocache while we are there since I believe we will be able to get off of the train for an hour.
As we passed through west Texas, we were amazed by the changing geography. We spent quite a bit of time listening to the podcasts and trying to figure out which geological features we were seeing. As we rode along the border between Texas and Mexico, it was amazing to see the stark contrast of the appearance of the Mexico side in Juarez vs. the US side in El Paso. There were so many border patrol trucks! Looking down from the second story of the train we could actually see footprints in the sand where people just routinely walk across the border despite the patrols. I can’t even imagine what this area looks like at night with all of the activity we saw during the day!
One last thing… so far it seems that we have packed everything we need without overpacking. I’m glad I spent so much time reading all of the Amtrak forums for suggestions about what to bring on board. So far everything has been spot on! Time will tell if this feeling will hold up.
To check out Corbin’s perspective of today and yesterday, check out his blog.

Train Adventure ~ Day 1

day 1

Today is the day! We are finally headed to the train station to start our trip.

Feb 22nd – Depart from Houston – We arrived at the Amtrak station in Houston at around 6pm for the Sunset Limited. The train arrived a few minutes early, so we were able to board the train almost immediately! Corbin enjoyed exploring our roomettes, the sleeper car, and the rest of the train before the train ever even left the station! We finally heard the conductor yell, “All Aboard” and the train pulled out of the station on time at 6:55pm. (I love that the conductors actually do yell this. And they even wear the funny little conductor outfits.)

Just after we departed, we were immediately shuffled down to the dining car for dinner. To ensure efficient service, Amtrak requires reservations for dinner, and usually lunch. Since we are a party of four, we all get to sit together. If your group has an odd-number, someone will be sitting with other people. The dining car crew was amazing, and the food was really good.

When we went back to our roomettes for the evening, our sleeper car attendant came around to change our rooms from day-time mode to night-time mode. Corbin found this totally fascinating because he had a whole new set of levers and knobs with which to tinker. He immediately said he was tired, and needed to go to bed. It was only 8pm so he was soon back up and bouncing around again. My grandma and her sister’s roomette was just across the hall from ours, so he alternated between the two. On this first night, they taught him to play spades and some other card games.

On this first night we didn’t sleep much as we were still learning to regulate the temperature in our roomettes, and get used to the noises and movements of the train. One of the things I was most worried about was motion sickness. I get car sick easily, but the train is a whole other story. I didn’t get sick once on this whole trip! As a matter of fact, I found the motions and sounds of the train quite relaxing. It was very quiet and peaceful with the lights out in the roomette watching the night go by outside the train.


Corbin, Chase, Grandma, and Doris Marie saying goodbye before we boarded the train.


A view of Grandma & Doris Marie’s room across the hall from ours.

ImageHere’s a (kinda rough) panoramic view from my seat in the roomette.

Dining Car


Corbin demonstrating the belts that keep you from falling off the top bunks.


Corbin “sleeping”. I actually ended up sleeping on the top bunk for several hours because he finally passed out on the bottom bunk at some point during the night when he finished hanging out and playing cards with Grandma and Doris.

5 more wake-ups to go!

With just 5 days to go before we leave for our trip, I spent most of the day today in the doctor’s office! Fortunately it’s just a head-cold. It’s funny though, because Grandma has been going for check-ups and miscellaneous immunizations for the past month. Now I’m the one who get’s sick just before it’s time to go. Anyway, I’m very grateful that I got sick now instead of while we are on the trip! Below is an overview of our itinerary for the curious. Obviously, this is subject to change based on weather delays etc. I will be posting updates here as we go along. (One more thing – my grandma and her sister are coming along with me and Corbin. I think that changed between my last update, and this one.)

Feb 22ndDepart from Houston to Los Angeles – We have sleeper cars for this portion of the trip, so our dining car meals are included in the cost of our rooms. So pretty much we will be just sitting, eating, and getting used to the train for the first two days. We have downloaded Amtrak’s Trails & Rails podcasts that will give us some history of a lot of the little towns we will be passing through as we go along. I’ve read that at some points a historian may board the train and give live presentations in the observation car.

Feb 24thArrive Los Angeles – Our train is scheduled to arrive at 5am, but I’m told it could be earlier or later than that. We have planned to hop on a city bus and ride down to see the Hollywood sign. Depending on how much time we have left – we are planning to have breakfast at Nick’s Cafe. We will then catch the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to San Francisco at 10am. The rest of this day we will be on the Coast Starlight which travels along the California coast for a good bit of the way. At about 9:45pm we will arrive at San Francisco (Emeryville really) where we will spend the night.

Feb 25th – Depart San Francisco (Emeryville) We board the California Zephyr at 9am. We spend the rest of this day going through Sacramento, Reno, and Salt Lake City, before sleeping on the train that night.

Feb 26th – Arrive Grand Junction, Colorado We are due to arrive here at 10am. Some of our family lives in Grand Junction, and they have agreed to pick us up at the train station. That night we will be sleeping at their house. In addition to visiting our family, we are planning to go to the grocery store to stock up on snacks, wash our clothes etc. As of today, the weather forecast shows a 60% chance of snow that day. Corbin is super giddy about the potential to actually see real live snow!

Feb 27th – Depart Grand Junction, Colorado Our journey continues this morning at 10:23am. Apparently the Trails & Rail’s program has a really good on-board presentation from Grand Junction, Colorado to Denver, Colorado.

Feb 28th – Arrive Chicago – We will be on the California Zephyr until we arrive in Chicago at 2:50pm the next day, however I’m told that we should expect a lot of delays between Grand Junction and Chicago. I’ve been tracking it every night just to see how it’s looking, and I’m seeing delays of 5 or 6 hours every night! The plan is to spend a few hours seeing Chicago, and then get on another train tonight at 9pm. I guess we will just have to see how far behind our train arrives into Chicago to see how much time we will get to spend there.

March 1st – Arrive Boston – Depending on what happens in Chicago, we should arrive in Boston tonight at 9pm. I doubt we will have much time to do anything tonight except find our hotel.

March 2nd – Explore Boston – We have so much planned for this day, it would take a whole post just to type it all. I promise to give a full account of what shenanigans we manage to get into there!

March 3rd – Crazy Day! – Today we will leave Boston at 6am, arrive in New York City at 10am, walk from Penn Station to Central Park through Times Square, eat some New York pizza, walk back down through Broadway to Penn Station, and board another train at 5pm. At 6pm we arrive in Philadelphia where we will hop off the train to see the Liberty Bell and eat an authentic Philly cheesesteak for dinner, then depart again at 10:45pm. Finally we will arrive to Washington DC at 12:30am, find our hotel and crash. To review, in 1 day we will wake up in Boston, lunch in New York City, dinner in Philadelphia, and then go to bed in Washington DC. It makes me tired just explaining that!

March 4th – Explore Washington DC – Today, once we become conscious, we are going to see Washington DC. Well, as much of it as we humanly can. We may have worn Grandma and her sister out yesterday, so Corbin and I might be on our own on this day. I doubt it though. Even at 80 my grandma can run circles around us! Everyone says that you can’t see Washington DC in one day. We will really be here for two days, but I know we will still miss a lot. I don’t feel like we will be disappointed. I’m sure it’s going to be way more than we can even absorb anyway.

March 5th – Depart Washington DC – We will be boarding the train headed south today at 6:30pm. I’m sure we will be ready to sleep, and I’m sure we will have a nice restful evening on the train after the past few day’s activity.

March 6th – Arrive Atlanta – Our train makes it to Atlanta at 8:13am. Once we arrive we are going to spend the day touring downtown Atlanta. Our hotel is just across the street from The World of Coca-Cola and a lot of the other Atlanta attractions so we are planning to rest and tour intermittently throughout the day. Of course we will have to enjoy some Chicken and Waffles while we are there too.

March 7th – Arrive New Orleans – We depart Atlanta at 8am and arrive in New Orleans at 7pm, so this will be a good day to catch up on school, work, etc. as we travel. Along with naps. I expect there will be lots of naps… Some of our friends have recommended some good restaurants for once we arrive in New Orleans, so hopefully we are on time and able to have a good dinner once we arrive. This will be the weekend after Mardi Gras so hopefully everyone will be too tired to be partying too hard in the French Quarter. We may chicken out, hopefully we are feeling adventurous by then.

March 8th – HOME!!!! – Isn’t it funny that I’m so excited to even be typing this – and we haven’t even set foot on the train yet? I know we will be completely ready to be home though. We are scheduled to arrive at 7:30pm back to Houston.

There is still so much to be done! I hate packing. I’ll post later in the week about what we are packing etc. I also still have to plan and prepare all of David’s meals for while I’m gone! Oh AND I still have to finish up the last week of my master gardener training! Yikes!!!!!