A Travellerspoint blog

Over the Donner Pass, On to the West Coast

Last Day on the California Zephyr

View North America 2022 Train Trip on Bob Brink's travel map.

My second night's sleep on the Zephyr was better than the first. As promised by the conductor, the track was smoother, plus I was quite tired from my lack of sleep the night before and all the activity of our day going through the Rocky Mountains. I woke up happy. I never had a great sleep on any of the trains, but I always woke up in a good mood. A sleeper train is a great place to get a bad night’s sleep.

I was one of the first into breakfast and was seated with a retired military couple and my neighbour and new friend, Jeanne. I chose the omelette which came with a biscuit. That biscuit and the accompanying toast called out for some jam or jelly. Every little restaurant or diner in the US would have some strawberry or blueberry jam, maybe even peach. Amtrak gave us one choice, grape jelly. Jeanne asked for decaffeinated coffee. No, they did not have any left. “What about hot chocolate?” No, no hot chocolate.

We were close to Reno, Nevada. The reflection of the early morning sun off the desert was beautiful.

We had a very quick glimpse of Reno.


Apparently you could see the Reno hotels from the right side of the train, but I was in my room getting ready to jump out for a little walk. Then the train plunged into the below ground station, so there was not much to see from there.

It was a quick stop. We soon began our climb over the Sierra Nevada via the Donner Pass, from Reno at 4,400 feet (1,300 m) to over 7,000 feet (2,100 m) at the pass.

Since the river was on the right side of the train for much of the climb, I needed to take advantage of Jeanne’s hospitality. I repeated what I had done the day before, bouncing back and forth between our rooms, hitting my head on the upper bunk in her car almost every time. Had her room not been an option, I would have been scrambling to find views out the other side of the train, from the stairway or the lounge.

We discussed our travel itineraries and discovered that we would end up on the same Coastal Starlight train going north towards Portland and Seattle. I was spending my two nights in San Francisco before boarding the Starlight across the bay in Emeryville. Jeanne was getting off in Sacramento, spending a couple of nights there and then boarding the Starlight to go as far as Portland. After her visit there she would take the Empire Builder to Chicago and then return to Denver on the first leg of the Zephyr.

We made a quick stop in Truckee at an elevation of 5,817 feet, about half way to the pass.

After another 20 minutes of climb from Truckee we passed Donner Lake, named after an ill-fated party of 87 California immigrants who were stranded by early snowstorms in the winter of 1846-47. Only 48 survived. They were subsequently accused of cannibalism.


We then passed through a series of snow sheds. We were not worried about snow on this beautiful October day, but in January 1952 the Southern Pacific Railroad’s City of San Francisco streamliner with 222 passengers and crew were stranded for three days by a blizzard.


Here is another preview of my future award winning travel documentary.

It was time for our last Zephyr lunch. I enjoyed the salad. My conclusion after six meals on the Zephyr was that most meals where okay, above my “Airplane” standard, but not by much. As I previously noted, my first two meals, the salmon on the first night and the French Toast the following morning, were disappointing.

For this last meal Jeanne and I sat with the first person of our sleeper contingent who did not want to talk. He never said a word to us or even acknowledged that we had sat down. Was it general shyness? Jeanne thought it was language. But a smile or nod would have been nice. One thing about required sharing of tables is that it can be quite awkward being seated across from an individual or couple who appear uninterested in interacting in any way with people sitting right across from them.

The slope from here down to Colfax is the steepest on the Zephyr’s route. There we had another quick stop. Most of the stops on the Zephyr were to drop off or pick up passengers only. We were told to remain on board. When we were allowed off at other stops, the conductors made it clear that the train would not wait for anyone foolish enough to wander away.


We were now finished with the mountain views. The scenery on the trip over the Sierra Nevada was quite beautiful but did not compare to the day over the Rocky Mountains. It was not as spectacular nor as sustained.

The last couple of hours took us through the farmlands of Central California. Although a different kind of agriculture than the Midwest farms at the start of our California Zephyr trip, it seemed appropriate to be ending our cross America trip by passing through another major US agricultural area.


Then it was a more scenic finish along the waters of San Pablo Bay and San Francisco Bay.


Our passenger numbers got smaller with each stop. Jeanne got out at Sacramento. Many passengers disembarked at other Bay area stops, especially Richmond, a terminus on BART (Bar Area Rapid Transit). The staff were busy. They needed to get the rooms ready for the return trip.

After all I had read about the train probably being late, we arrived at 4:30, 30 minutes early. The last station is Emeryville, a small city next to Oakland and just north of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The San Francisco Bay area trains have always stopped on the east side of the bay and had passengers bussed (or the 19th century equivalent) into San Francisco for the final leg of their journeys.


We looked for the bus stop. There were no signs. The Amtrak staff directed us away from their staff bus stop. We thought they meant for us to leave the covered area, so we all moved as a group out of the station area. That did not seem right, so the group went back in. It was a bit of déjà vu, walking with a group back and forth, lost or looking for something at an airport or train station. When had this happened before? Maybe Halifax Airport? Or perhaps it was Midway Airport in Chicago? Yes, it seemed to be a repeating scenario on this trip. The bus had arrived and was parked right where we had been standing a few minutes earlier. The Amtrak folks had watched us go but did not seem concerned enough to stop us. They could have just told us it was right there, but they did not bother. The bus is free for Zephyr passengers.

The bus took us across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. We would have had a great view, but it was quite hazy. I hoped that the skies would be better the next day.


The San Francisco side bus stop is just that, a sign next to a plaza with sculptures.


I had loved my first nights sleeping on trains but wondered how would I feel when it came time to get back on another train. But that would be in two days. For now I had some sightseeing to do in San Francisco.

Posted by Bob Brink 21:59 Archived in USA Tagged trains california amtrak Comments (0)

Through the Rocky Mountains on the California Zephyr

Signature Views

View North America 2022 Train Trip on Bob Brink's travel map.

October 17, 2022

How would today go? Today was the first of my two big days on my train tour, days that should provide amazing scenery, the most important days for the trains to be on time and the weather good. We were going west through the Rocky Mountains.

The schedule had us arriving in Denver after breakfast and then climbing up and over the mountains through the rest of the day. But would the train be delayed? I had read about trains being held up by track work or mechanical breakdowns (which did not have to be the Zephyr but could be a freight train blocking the tracks). Delays could mean that we would pass through the best sections in the dark. And the weather could be an issue as the scenery could be obscured by clouds, rain, or snow.

The train was really rocking and bouncing last night. It was also quite noisy. Our transition car was quite close to the engine which made the train horn quite loud. There was also a loud rattling, which I figured out was the door latch. I finally unlocked the door to stop that noise. The unlocked door would not stay closed, but there still was a curtain covering the entrance. At supper my dinner companion had said that he preferred sleeping with his head going forward, so at one point I even tried that. I did get back to sleep; my very strange dreams told me so. I had set my alarm so that I could be up and have breakfast before Denver, but I was awake long before the music was to start.

Breakfast was to start at 7. Unlike lunch and supper, there were no bookings for breakfast. I arrived at what I thought was only 5 minutes early and was asked to leave, so I went on to the lounge car. I assumed I would be back in the dining car in a couple of minutes. I read my book for awhile and wondered why it was taking so long for breakfast to begin; trains can be delayed, but breakfast? Then it finally dawned on me, I had woken up in Nebraska, but we were now in Colorado. It was a different time zone. I stayed in the lounge until the Colorado 7 am and then walked back into the dining room.

I was seated with a charming woman who had also been waiting in the lounge. It was time to try the Amtrak Signature Railroad French Toast which turned out to be a major disappointment. I am not sure when Amtrak changed from metal cutlery to plastic for some meals, whether this was a longer-term cost cutting or a Covid thing, but I could not cut my signature toast with my plastic knife. Had the French Toast been made with a bit more milk and egg a real knife might not have been necessary. I gave up after two pieces. But I will make a slight correction to my post from yesterday, our waitress was quite pleasant and was smiling. Some Amtrak employees can smile.

My breakfast signature dish did not look too bad when I first saw it.


The sun was coming up as we finished. The breakfast might not have been a great success, but there were no clouds, and we were on time.


We were able to leave the train in Denver. I took some photographs of Denver Union Station. The station’s main structure was built after the original station burned down in 1894. The central portion was finished in 1914.
I went inside and quickly took a video and some photos. With renovations finished in 2014, the station now houses a hotel, shops, and restaurants. A latte sounded good, but it would have been too rushed.


Denver passengers were lining up.

So I quickly got back on board and went straight to the lounge car. The train left on schedule. The weather and timing had everything set up for a great day. We had an informal tour guide in the car, a man who had taken the train many times in the past. He told us that it was best to be sitting on the right side of the train for the climb into the Rockies. I was happy to hear that since I was already sitting on that side.

It was a long climb through the foothills and up the eastern slopes.

There were big curves. The reflection is bad on this one, but it shows the big curve as we began our ascent.


The lounge car had the advantage of windows on both sides, but I encountered many challenges taking photographs and videos from there. The windows were quite dirty. In a week I would learn that Via Rail cleans the windows of their dome cars. Amtrak did not, so sometimes my camera wanted to focus on the dirt rather than the outside subjects. What was really missing was a window to show ahead so I could see what was coming (like tunnels). The Via dome cars had windows at the front and back.

The best way to eliminate the reflection was to get as close to the window as possible, but the seats in the Zephyr lounge were set back. Had I been alone I would have just kneeled down next to the windows. I ended up with a lot of footage of the reflection of the father and son sitting next to me. I have done a bit of cleanup on my photos but have left most in. it would take weeks to get them cleaned up.

We began our big climb.


There were tunnels, so many tunnels, officially 33. I did not count them but will take their word for it. They would come without warning, one second a great view, the next a plunge into darkness.

We were working our way up from Denver’s 5,280 feet (1,600 m), heading for the biggest and most famous of the tunnels. The mountains had been a great barrier to the early railroaders wishing to build a direct route to California. There were no low passes through the mountains going directly west from Denver. A route was built through the 11,600 foot (3,500 m) Rollins Pass, but the grade and winter weather made that uneconomic. A tunnel was required to take the trains over the Continental Divide. As the American Society of Engineers puts it, the Moffat Tunnel is "the highest and lowest holing in history." The tunnel cut through the Rockies at 9,200 feet (2,800 m), 2,800 feet (850 m) below the surface. The 6.2 mile (10 km) long tunnel was opened in 1928 after 4 years of construction.

The tunnel is ventilated by big fans, but they operate after the trains exit. In order to avoid bringing our train’s diesel fumes into the cars, we were told to not change cars during the 10 minutes that it took to pass through.

We saw a moose. A woman spotted it and called out. I turned and snapped.


Here is a short video showing the climb.

Fraser-Winter Park is the first stop after the tunnel. In the winter there is a train from Denver to Winter Park for skiers. We had a chance to walk around for a few minutes.

ZOE_2872.jpg ZOE_2868.jpg

I had a nice chat with one of the conductors. We discussed the bouncing around last night. Dave told me that the tracks in Iowa are really bad, but the ride should be much smoother for the rest of the trip. He was unhappy about the cancellation of the car which I had mentioned in my last post. He cannot understand why the train is not longer, said that the engines could pull twice as many cars and Amtrak is selling out the ones that they are operating.

We discussed my upcoming Via Rail trip. He said that the trip across the Canadian prairies is great when the wheat is up and blowing in the wind. He was not too sure how interesting it will be at this time. He said that the Ocean train out of Halifax used to have the absolute best lounge car. Unfortunately, as I noted in a previous post, there is no longer a lounge car on the Ocean.

He told me that the best views of the canyons this afternoon would be from the left side of the train, my room side. He also advised me to book the last sitting for dinner so that I would not miss the last of the great scenery.


I went back to my room to get ready for the canyons. Conductor Dave walked past and complimented me on my Newfoundland Railway cap. I asked him to take my photo.


We were delayed a bit due to track maintenance but were soon on our way. The train first followed the Fraser River, a short tributary of the Colorado.


We went through the Fraser River Canyon. I clipped these from from my video.


We passed through Granby and then followed the Colorado River for the next 235 miles (378 km). The train passed through Byers Canyon, Gore Canyon, Dotsere Gorge, and Glenwood Canyon before the municipality of Glenwood Canyon. In between there were ranches and lots of anglers casting for the varieties of trout found in the Colorado River. I had heard about “Moon River”, that the people on the river (the ones with the fishing poles?), would moon the train. I saw no evidence of this, although it would have been easy to miss, since those moons would have been far away.

As Conductor Dave had advised, I had fantastic views in my room. But the south side of the train was also the sun side. The lighting was constantly changing with the movement of the train. Sometimes I could take things in front of us, but other times I would switch seats to take them towards the back. The dirt on the windows really showed at certain angles. I would literally be falling down as I bounced back and forth to get the best angles. I was loving every minute.

At times I wanted to shoot the other side of the train. I tried other windows in the car, such as the one over stairway. It was difficult to stand there as the train was rocking. I expected to be scolded by the staff, so did not stay long.


The views just got better. This is Gore Canyon.


We then went through an absolutely beautiful stretch with the blue sky and fall colors. The river was full of anglers but no moons in sight.


Then came Red Canyon.


After that, another flatter stretch, more beautiful views.


We reached Glenwood Canyon about the time of my lunch appointment in the Dining Car. I was ready for a change. Since Winter Park I had taken photographs and videos for over 2 hours. But I was not finished with my camera. I was lucky to get a window seat, facing forward, and continued to take photos and videos. It was also good timing since the north had now become the better side.

I was seated with the same couple who had I met at dinner the night before. We were all having the Monte Christo sandwich. He had been told to put grape jelly on his. I tried it. I would now put that into the category of tried that once, but not again. I mean the grape jelly part. The sandwich was not bad.

I was really getting great shots from the dining car.

We passed through Glenwood and Dotsero Canyons.

By this point I had been in the car for about 1.5 hours. Lunch was over. I nursed my coffee and decided to see how long I could stay. Not long, it turned out, as a minute later I was asked to leave. Perhaps you could go to the lounge? A few minutes later, the same waiter announced that he was going to take bookings for supper and that everyone had to be in their rooms. He specifically said that he would not take reservations from the lounge. That summed up Amtrak service for me, you must leave the dining room now, you must be in your room to make dinner reservations, we will not just ask lounge visitors to come to the dining room to make their reservations. Or how about just asking me when I wanted to eat supper while I was sitting there? That is what Via Rail would later do when I was travelling from Vancouver.

I went back to my room as instructed. I had a new neighbour. Apparently, the ladies had left the train in Denver and been replaced a more sociable woman named Jeanne. Pouch Cove just happened to be mentioned early in our conversation. I went to show her some photos and was surprised to realize that I did not have my phone. I checked my room and then had a few moments of panic. I raced back to the dining car. It was not there. I then checked the lounge and did not see it there. A kind attendant literally led me back to the lounge as if I was a small child. “Let’s just got back to the last place that you had it.” I had moved seats shortly before being summoned to my room for dinner reservations. My first time back I had checked the first seat. Now I looked at my second seat. There was my phone.

A few thoughts on sleeper train security. I had read a string of forum posts on the subject. The consensus was that theft was rare, that sleeper passengers had to spend a lot of money for their tickets so would not do so just to steal some second-hand items. The attendants know their passengers so only those people who belonged could be in the cars.

We could lock our rooms from the inside but not the outside. I had originally assumed that I would bring a pack with my camera and laptop as I moved around the train. But whether walking through the bouncy corridors, sitting in a lounge car or squeezed next to each other in the dining car, space is at a premium on trains. It would have been most uncomfortable to have a backpack with me all the time. I just left my things in my rooms on the various trains and never worried about it. A train is probably one of the best places to leave a phone. There was little chance that I was going to lose it.

Once reunited with my phone, I carried on my conversation with my new neighbour while I kept working away with my camera. She saw that I was trying to get shots from both sides of the train and said that since there were two seats, I could use her room as well. A small problem with that was that she had the top bunk down to hold her big suitcase. I kept banging my head every time I hopped into her room.


We passed through De Beque Canyon.

And then arrived in Grand Junction, the last stop in Colorado . There we were able get off the train for a few minutes.


We then crossed into Utah. I had a great view of Ruby Canyon.


Amtrak passengers have the option eating in their rooms, which was Jeanne’s plan for that evening’s meal. But after talking to me for awhile (and realizing that she could hear more about Newfoundland?), asked our attendant if she could instead go to the diner. Sure, he said, he would look after it. It seemed to be a minor issue. Regarding my own dinner reservation, as per the conductor’s advice I had wanted the second sitting, but only the first was available.

Thinking everything was arranged, we headed off to supper. The dining car was not busy. It never became busy during this first sitting. But the head waiter, my new not best friend from the earlier reservation issue, was not pleased. He scolded Jeanne, telling her that she must always book in advance. He was utterly rude. Had the car been busy we could have understood him being upset, but it was not, and his behavior would still not have been warranted. But we had no choice. It was the only restaurant available, so Jeanne said sorry and we sat down.

As planned, I ordered the Amtrak Signature Flat Iron Steak. It was not bad, certainly more deserving of the Signature designation than the Signature French Toast. There were still great views as we were now rolling through Utah, but I had decided to not bring my camera to the meal. I did take a couple of videos with my phone. You can see how empty the car was.

I guess I need to show your a photo of my steak?

After supper I went back to my little room and reviewed my videos and photos from the day. I had enjoyed a fantastic day trying to capture the stunning views while battling the moving train, changing sun conditions, and dirty windows. I ended up with an odd combination of good and bad. I had never had as many absolutely horrible photos from a day’s shooting. But I was pleasantly surprised by the number of good photos. I give most of credit to my latest camera that I bought last year for my next big trip, not knowing if and when it would ever happen. For anyone interested, it is a Nikon Z5, what I like to describe as the very low end of high-end technology, a mirrorless, full frame camera. And I do credit my own efforts as I raced from window to window, constantly bouncing off the walls, seats, and windows.

And I have had to utilize the power of Adobe Lightroom in helping with the cleanup. I had to learn to compromise on the size of my crops, not worrying about standard sizes, just trying to eliminate glare, dirt, out of focus areas, and trees. And as I mentioned earlier, I have had to leave the dirty spots and glare on many of them so that I can finish this blog. Besides, I was capturing my experience.

Tony came early again to make my bed. I should have asked him if I could just do the bed myself, and if that was an issue, should probably have just figured it out and put it back up after he left and back down when I wanted to go to sleep. And for a bigger post trip thought, I already knew when I booked this trip that I should probably split up the Zephyr ride and stop for a day or two along the way. I now know that the place would be Grand Junction. From there you can both explore Colorado and also drive into Utah to see Arches National Park.

Yes, I would definitely take the Zephyr again, because at the end of the day, my frustrations with Amtrak were of little consequence. It had been a fabulous day rolling up and over the Rocky Mountains. I was a very happy camper. Rude Amtrak staff following their obsessive rules could not diminish that.

Of course I was still on this train for another night. We were told that breakfast would start at 6:30. I confirmed that this would be Pacific time. The next day was to be Nevada and Northern California and then I was going to be sleeping in a bed that was not bouncing, in my all time favorite city, San Francisco.

Posted by Bob Brink 21:07 Archived in USA Tagged trains amtrak united_states via_rail Comments (0)

The California Zephyr, Train 5, Welcome Aboard

Across the Middle of America

View North America 2022 Train Trip on Bob Brink's travel map.

October 16, 2022

The time had come for the big part of my train odyssey. I checked out of my giant hotel and began walking to Chicago’s Union Station. I had planned my trip carefully to make sure that my hotels were close to the train stations, so I was already familiar with this walk. Now I was excited to be actually doing it on this beautiful October Sunday. The streets were still quiet, such a change from the evening before. I could hear the clattering of my small bag as I rolled it along the sidewalk, the problems with its wheels now fixed.

The station was on the other side of the Chicago River. I worked my way north to take the closest bridge to the station. I stopped for a photo.


A tour boat was coming my way.

Then I was there. Before me was the iconic Chicago Union Station, opened in 1925. The station is Amtrak’s major Midwest hub with about 15 different named routes leaving there to all parts of the United States. The big ones go to New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. and my train, the California Zephyr, to the San Francisco Bay area.


I looked for the entrance to the great station. But what an anticlimax, the main entrance is across the road.

I went to the information desk and was directed to the coach waiting room. I knew there was something better so went back and asked about the lounge and was directed the other way. I decided to go see the main concourse first. It is a shame that most passengers might walk in the main entrance and down into the lounge without ever seeing this part.


The lounge is restricted to sleeper car passengers, so I had to show my boarding pass to enter. The first thing I saw was that the coffee machine was out of order. No lattes for me, not even a coffee.


I also checked out the food supply. It did not take long, only pretzels and chips. It was not impressive.


I was also not impressed with the downstairs seating. But I had expected that. My YouTube research had informed me that the best part of the lounge was upstairs.


I sat for awhile and then decided to take advantage of the fine assortment of free food downstairs. I went all out and grabbed two bags, pretzels and potato chips. You only live once.

We were asked to begin boarding at 1:20 for the 2 pm train. We were led as a group down the hall. It seemed a bit chaotic at first as we had to walk through the line of coach passengers leaving their lounge. We were then told to form three lines. I talked to the man behind me. He was from Iowa and was travelling with his mother, aged 81. They had been on a cruise out of New York City that had included New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. He had really liked Halifax. We speculated that we might have been there at the same time since there were several big cruise ships in Halifax the day that I left. His mother does not like to fly, so they took the train to New York and had returned on the New York to Chicago train and were connecting to this one to take them back to Iowa. His mother was going to join him after getting a ride to the train on a cart. He told me that about 10 years ago he had bought a train pass and travelled the Amtrak routes for 6 weeks. His knowledge would soon be quite useful to me.

The California Zephyr is Amtrak’s longest daily route at 2,438 miles (3,924 km). Before Amtrak was formed in 1971 there were three private trains running between Chicago and the East Bay with bus connections to San Francisco. The original Zephyr took a different route than the current version, taking a more northerly, less scenic but more historic way, the route of the original transcontinental train, a 1,911-mile line constructed between 1863 and 1869. The first California Zephyr was inaugurated in March 1949 during the brief post war heyday of long-distance train travel. Cars and planes would soon change that.

After standing for a few minutes, we were called into the track area for the actual boarding.


The cars on the Zephyr are called Superliners. They have two levels. The bottom level has larger bedrooms for families and an accessible unit as well as a large luggage area, several toilets, and a shower room.

It is a steep and narrow climb to the upper level.

The upper level has small roomettes and slightly larger bedrooms. All the upstairs rooms have large windows. Unlike my Via Rail Ocean train from Halifax, the small rooms are designed to be used by two passengers with facing seats but without toilets or basins. My Ocean room had the “step up” which took away head space. The large windows in this car really gave a sensation of space, but that would be gone if you were sharing the room when the upper bunk is lowered for sleeping. But I certainly had a much better first impression as I sat in my home for the next two days.

I was in the transition sleeper car. I had explained transition cars in my earlier post. These cars have different couplings to "transition" from one size or type of car to another. The Ocean transition car was mostly empty space. On this train the transition car came with bedrooms, toilets, and showers. Passengers shared the car with the staff who had their rooms at one end and also used the downstairs lounge. There was a toilet two doors outside my room which also had a shower, so although I did not have a toilet or basin in my room, I did not have far to go in the middle of the night.

Amtrak does not let you choose your assigned room. I had originally been assigned to a regular Superliner car but received a notice several days later that I had been moved to the transition sleeper. I would soon learn how lucky I was to have only been moved.

We were told to wait in our rooms as someone was coming to take our reservations for supper. I chose the 5:30 sitting since I had only eaten my pretzels and potato chips for lunch. I also had to choose my appetizer, for me it was the Mexican Soufflé.

I was now electronically cut off from the world. I did not have an American roaming plan for my phone. I had thought that I might just have to pay a high rate for calls and texts but found that it did not work at all. I had warned Po that this might happen, so she knew that there would be no communication until I reached my hotel in San Francisco. It also meant no checking of news headlines, probably a good thing.

I was free to roam after I made my dinner reservation and went to see the lounge car. It was not a long walk on what I soon learned was a very short train. We were just behind the baggage car, hence the need for us to be a transition car, then there was one sleeper car behind us, followed by the dining car, the lounge car and finally two coach cars.

I had to pass through the bedroom sleepers. In my area there was a middle corridor.

Then you had to swing to the outside.

All the cars were double decked, including the lounge car which had a café downstairs.

Here is a video of my first hour or so on the Zephyr including announcement of our first “Fresh Air, Smoke Stop.” Yes, that is what it is called. Then our welcome aboard to California Zephyr Train No. 5, a quick look at the lounge car and a look at what would be seemingly non-stop farmland with the sound of the train signal. Since we were so close to the front, the horn was quite loud, and it sounded constantly until we were in the mountains where there were few roads to cross. It could have been annoying, but I loved the sound, even when it kept me awake.

I went back to my room and looked across at the closed door and curtain of the room on the other side. It was still unoccupied. Perhaps I should not have been so bold, but I decided to open the door so that I could watch out of both sides of the train. Our attendant Tony came by. He stood there for a long time, just looking at the open door. I finally admitted that I had done it. He told me, “People steal pillows. Someone is going to occupy the room later. Just watch out for my pillows.” I promised that I would.

I had quickly learned that this train was going to be different than the Ocean. I could not imagine Guillaume being upset with anything a passenger had done. But he was young and obviously enjoying his job. I learned that Tony had over 20 years working for Amtrak. I never saw him smile. It was rare to see any of the Amtrak staff smile.

I watched the Midwest pass by.
We arrived at Galesburg, our fresh air/smoke stop. I got out for a quick stretch and to look at the train.
I talked to a woman going to San Francisco. Like me, she had been assigned to an upstairs 2-person room. But instead of being changed to another car, her reservation was just cancelled, even though she had booked her train ticket (along with flights) months before, certainly long before me. Amtrak had simply cancelled a sleeping car and did not offer her any alternatives. She had to phone Amtrak and plead for a place. They finally offered her the accessible room below us in the transition car. It was the same price and did come with a bathroom, but she thought the views would be better upstairs. She told me that there were other passengers who ended up in coach; some did not get on the train at all. I was quite lucky to have only been moved.

There was a coffee station at the end of our car. I checked to see if there was any coffee. Tony saw me and told me that it would only be filled the next morning at 6 am. That was fine, but later I saw that there was coffee at the station in the car behind us. I wondered why Tony did not just tell me that.

It was a bit early for my supper, so I went to the lounge car where I found my new friend from Iowa and his mother. He told me that we would soon cross the Mississippi. I had no idea that it was coming so soon. He said that the best view would be on the right side of the train. Then we were delayed by a freight train and it was now time for my dinner. I was ready to ask for a seat on the right side but was pleased to be given a perfect window seat to take my video.

You might get a choice of dinner times on Amtrak and Via Rail trains. When you arrive for your meal, you will be told where to sit. Couples and groups stay together, but singles get put where there is room. I really enjoyed this part since I love conversing with fellow travellers. Introverts might feel uncomfortable. On Amtrak they can have their meals brought to their rooms.

At this first meal, I was seated with a couple from Vancouver, Washington. He was retired Navy and had met his wife in Hawaii. She had moved there from the Philippines. They had always wanted to take this train so had flown the red eye the night before from Portland, checked out the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower and then went to Union Station to board. They were taking the train to the last stop at Emeryville, visiting family, and then flying home. This was their mini-vacation. You learn a lot about people on a train.

We were joined by a man who visits his daughter in the Bay area. He prefers the train to flying and has taken the train many times. He said that he found it easier to sleep if his head is going forward rather then the standard setup of feet first. I would test that method later that night.

I had the salmon and was not impressed. On a scale that compares food to airplane fare (for those us flying internationally or old enough to remember getting fed on domestic flights), this was basically that, airplane quality. I finished with the mousse cake which was good but really rich. And I had a glass of wine, my free Amtrak drink with the meal. I had decided that the next day I would be having two “Signature” dishes, as per the Amtrak menu, Signature French Toast for breakfast and the Signature Flat Iron Steak for supper.

This sounds so mundane to me as I put it into writing. I saw some farms, shared a meal, and got in trouble for opening a door. But I was really having fun. I enjoyed watching the world going past my window. I especially appreciated the size of everything as we crossed the American plains. The train is the perfect way to appreciate the size of the country. I was surprised at how quickly we were out of metro Chicago and into farmland, with big fields and windmills, broken up by the occasional small towns.


The train stopped in Ottumwa, Iowa. Fans of the “M*A*S*H” book, movie and television series will recognize it as the fictional home of the Radar O’Reilly character. But it is also the hometown of both the book’s author, Richard Hornberger, who wrote under the pseudonym Richard Hooker and Donald Shaffer, the inspiration for the Radar character. Shaffer, after a long career in the military and teaching, retired to Ottumwa where he lived for the last 30 years of his life before passing away just this past March. What I love about his story is that he became a world traveller and took his students on trips around the world, but the students also wanted to see Ottumwa.

I wanted to step down into Iowa. There was some issue with construction so that the train was needing to stop and then pull up. Tony said I could stay outside while that took place, but it was cold and I did not see Radar, so I got back in.

I returned to my room and alternated between reading my e-book on the building of the Canadian Railways and looking at my photographs. It was 8:45. Tony came by and said he wanted to set up my bed. I said it was quite early and asked if he could come back in an hour. I suspected (and later confirmed) that while I was quite comfortable sitting in my seat that it would not be so comfortable sitting in the folded down bed. But Tony said that he could wait no more than 30 minutes since he was going off duty. According to Amtrak, my bedtime was now 9:15.

I decided to take a shower and went first to the three piece bathroom on the top level. It had the shower but no place to change. I then went to the downstairs shower room. There was a pile of towels on the bench, leaving no place to sit, which I had learned was essential for changing when the train is in motion. I took a very fast shower while the train was stopped.

At some point in the evening two women had occupied the room across from me. I was confident that their pillows were still there. They were both wearing masks and stayed in their room most of the time. I happened to be getting back into my room just as one of them was returning from the toilet. I did get a response when I wished them good night. That was our only interaction. It would be much different with their replacement.

My room was quite hot but improved after Tony showed me how to turn down the heat. As anticipated, it was quite uncomfortable sitting up in the made up bed. The back rest was not designed for that. I put up with it for awhile but soon decided to get some sleep.

I was really looking forward to my trip through the Rockies the next day. I knew that I should get to breakfast before Denver so that I could get a place in the lounge before the new Denver passengers got on board.


Posted by Bob Brink 00:14 Archived in USA Tagged trains amtrak Comments (3)

Searching for Sculptures in Chicago

Almost Time for a Train

View North America 2022 Train Trip on Bob Brink's travel map.

October 15, 2022

It was a quick flight to Chicago’s Midway Airport.

We had been asked to check our carry-on bags at the bridge as we boarded. That is usually not a problem with Porter. But today was different. Instead of being placed outside the airplane doors, the bags were sent to the baggage carousels. This still should not have been a problem since there were only two carousels, separated by the washrooms. We moved as a group back and forth between the two. The lights would flash along with the beeping. Each time we spent about 10 minutes waiting and then would go back to the other side. Finally, the monitor showed that the bags would be on carousel 2. We all moved back there and waited until the bags finally came out, at carousel 1, of course. It took about 45 minutes. So much for carry-on only. I waited almost half as long as the entire flying time to get my bag.

I walked to the train that would take me downtown. I put in my credit card. The machine asked for a zip code. But as a Canadian resident, I have a postal code. I cancelled and put in cash. The machine informed me that I would not get change. I cancelled again and found the correct change in US money. I had my ticket.

There was a group next to me trying to buy four tickets. They were also lacking a zip code. They found a helper who bypassed that question and got their tickets. They had told the man that they were from Quebec. People from the rest of Canada would have said Canada. I asked the attendant what he did for people from Quebec. He told me to enter xo. It was too late for this time, but I will try to remember for future American purchases.

I walked with them to the train. The Quebecer asked me where I was from, having heard me asking the question in regards to someone from Quebec. He asked how long I was going to be in Chicago. He was not sure about my train trip plans but seemed less sure about someone actually living in Newfoundland.

I queried him about his trip. They were going to Green Bay, Wisconsin. I could only think of one reason why people from Quebec would be going to Green Bay. “Are you going to see a Green Bay Packers game?” Yes, they were. I was quite impressed. I got into the same car and sat beside them so that I could learn more.

A business connection had gotten the tickets. He is a life long Green Bay fan. We then talked about Newfoundland. I showed them a photograph of Zoe on our deck with the ocean in the background and invited them to stay at our vacation rental property. They seemed quite interested. That was the first of many Newfoundland tourism promotions that I carried out during my journey. I am not a Packers fan but did root for them the next day. Alas, my new friends came a long way to see a bad game. His team lost.

I got off the elevated train not far from my hotel, the Congress Plaza. I chose it because it is downtown and an easy walk to Chicago's Union Station. It is huge and seemed to be a big convention, big tour group hotel. There were lots of activities going on. One room was set up for East Asian dancing. Later the hotel would be full of young dancers. I was assigned to a smaller wing, perhaps where they put individual travellers. It seemed a bit quieter. There was a separate elevator which I never had to share.

I did a quick WhatsApp with my ladies and then went out to see Chicago’s sculptures. Po is doing her doctorate on public sculptures. Downtown Chicago is full of public art. I had a couple of “must see” (as expressed by Po) sculptures in Grant Park which was right across the street from my hotel. I took some photographs as I walked to my first assignment including this sculpture of Civil War General and Illinois politician, John Logan.


I first went south on my sculpture tour to see Agora by Magdalena Abakanowicz. It is a huge installation with 106 headless torsos made in cast-iron. They are 9 feet tall, although seemed even bigger to me.


The sculptures were allowed to rust, giving them a reddish colour. There were no visitors other the man walking past and some dogs and their human companions.


From there I went east across the rail tracks in order to walk inside the park as I headed back to the north.


It was a beautiful fall day, sunny and a bit cool with a breeze from Lake Michigan. I passed a couple of what I assumed to be wedding shoots.


I worked my way north, taking my time, enjoying the day and the people. There were probably some tourists, but most seemed to be Chicagoans out for a Saturday afternoon walk.

There was another sculpture, Bernar Venet's Disorder: 9 Uneven Angles. It was not on my list, but I took advantage of a break in traffic to take a couple of photographs.


My destination was Cloud Gate. That’s what my Google Maps told me. As I waited to cross the street a man asked, “Where is the Bean?” They were looking for a sculpture. I was amazed that people would be so excited about a sculpture. I thought there must be two sculptures up ahead. I could only see Cloud Gate on the map. I eventually figured out that the Bean and Cloud Gate were one and the same.

Some information on “The Bean”. It is 66 feet long and 33 feet high and weighs 110 tons. The sculpture was designed by British artist Anish Kapoor.

To me the official name seemed more appropriate as the reflections of the sky and skyline captured by the structure were so captivating. There was a big crowd around and under the sculpture, such a contrast from Agora.

I am not into selfies, at least the kind where you hold your phone out in front of your face. The only selfies on my blog were taken by using the timer on my camera, the old fashioned type of selfie. I watched as a young East Asian man took a photo of his friend. I asked him to take mine. I also took a selfie of my reflection.

From there I walked along Michigan towards my hotel. I thoroughly enjoyed the crowds and the energy. There was an Iranian protest on the park side competing for attention with street musicians on the west side.

I went back to my hotel for a quick rest, a mistake as it turned out, as the local restaurants had quickly filled up in the late afternoon. I wanted to find a place that was not packed, or at least had a place for a single diner, hopefully in a back corner. But all I saw were lines and packed establishments. My only choice would seem to be sitting at a bar. I considered a fast-food supper.

Earlier I had looked into the restaurant in the hotel. It seemed dark and dingy. Google gave a rather mediocre rating. But I was getting quite tired and hungry. I first went into the adjoining bar room and found an empty place at the bar. I sat for awhile thinking that the bartender might notice me. He seemed to be quite old and did not move quickly. I gave up after about 10 minutes and went to the restaurant side. The manager told me that they had a seafood chowder that evening and led me to an empty table. There were many empty tables. I think that all the empty tables on Michigan Avenue were at this restaurant.

My waitress came over to take my order. I asked for a beer. She came back a few minutes later with a bottle and then thought to ask me if I might like a glass. I told her I did. She came back with a frosted glass. That was better. Later when I ordered a second beer it came with a fresh frosted glass. When in doubt about an American restaurant, I usually order something basic, so I asked for a hamburger. When prompted with “Is that all?”, I decided to start with the chowder.

This is from my WhatsApp message to Po:

“Have ended in restaurant in hotel. Every place was packed. This place is so sad. That is why it is not busy. Love the sculptures. Still waiting for burger. Soup was barely warm. Weird place. It is all about the journey.”

I was almost laughing out loud at that point. This part of the journey cost me almost $50 US, a lot for a meal that featured a rather unexceptional burger. My journey could have used a memorable great meal, instead this would turn out to be my worst meal of the trip.

The hotel lobby was lively with lots of young people. The room with the East Asian dancers was busy. I walked back to the corner with my private elevator. I had it to myself. It had been a great day, but I was content to finish it in my room. The next day my real train adventure would begin.

October 16, 2022

I had a good sleep in my big hotel bed but woke to find an alarming WhatsApp message from Po. Zoe had chewed on two pairs of my underwear, or I should say, two more pairs.


Zoe does not like to be left alone. A few months ago, she showed us her unhappiness when she went to the upstairs bathroom and knocked over our dirty clothes basket and picked out a couple pairs of my underpants for a bit of chewing. It took a second incident, but we learned to check that the door is shut before we leave her alone. This time Po had left the laundry basket next to the washer in our downstairs bathroom. Zoe can open the sliding door with her nose if the door is not completely shut. It is always my underwear, not Po’s, so I take it that Zoe loves me more.

Since I did not trust the place in my hotel, I went to the restaurant in the Travel Lodge around the corner for breakfast, a latte and omelette. I had a few hours until I would check out and walk to the train station. I carried on with my art tour. I began walking and photographing, lots of art, lots of sculptures and some buildings and EL trains.


The first big piece on my morning tour was Alexander Calder’s 53-foot, red Flamingo. It was unveiled in 1974.

My next stop was at The Four Seasons, a mosaic done by Marc Chagall.

I was on my way to a giant sculpture by Picasso, officially untitled but known as The Picasso. It is over 50 feet tall and was given to Chicago in 1967.

Across the street is a sculpture by Joan Miró, Chicago. It is made of steel, wire mesh, concrete, bronze, and ceramic tile and was unveiled in 1981.

There were three women walking around the sculpture. I asked one what she thought about it. She said that it must have been done by a woman. I told her she was correct but that was all I knew about it. (I later found out that Joan Miró was actually a man.) She then told me that I had to do two things before I left Chicago. One was to go to the Chicago Cultural Center. Then I must go back to Cloud Gate because I had not gone underneath the sculpture. She was insistent. I had to promise.

Fortunately, I had the time, and neither was far away. I walked first to the Cultural Centre and arrived just as the doors were opening. The building was completed in 1897 and was Chicago’s first central public library. It was designed to impress, especially the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany dome. Yes, it is impressive.


I then went back to The Bean. As the lady had said, it was really interesting from below.


I had been a busy photographer that morning. It was time to get back to the hotel, pack my bag and check out. I passed the Crown Fountain on my way. I have since read that the tower shows video images of Chicagoans spouting jets of water from their "pouting lips". I knew nothing about it. It looked interesting so I did quick videos of both sides, but did not know that I should wait until water came out of his mouth. Would I have waited? Did I really want to see him spit? Probably not at that point, since I had a train to catch. It was almost time to get rolling to California.


Posted by Bob Brink 14:03 Archived in USA Tagged trains sculptures chicago amtrak Comments (0)

Perhaps What We Remember is Not Real Anymore

Or Maybe This Blog Should be Called Searching for Lattes and Croissants?

View North America 2022 Train Trip on Bob Brink's travel map.

October 14, 2022

It was still raining when I woke up. There would be no quick Montreal outing. I did a WhatsApp with my ladies. Zoe still ignores my face and voice on the little screen. But we keep trying.

I had a quick walk to breakfast, out the door, down the stairs and immediately up the stairs to the house next door. The breakfast was quite good, French Toast as a starter, eggs benedict as the main. I still kind of wished that I was at a little café having a latte (only coffee here) and a croissant. I hoped that I might pass a bakery or café before getting to the train station.

I have to admit that I was scoping out the other guests to see if I could spot my neighbours. The couples at breakfast seemed a bit mature and none were acting like they have started a late life romance. I would have been impressed if one of the couples was them. I suspected that my neighbours were still sleeping.

The rain was over by the time I was ready to take the short walk to the train station. As I walked, I saw a nice smooth path next to the sidewalk. I moved into there but soon realized that I was in the bike lane. We do not have these things in Pouch Cove. Of course, we do not have sidewalks either.

Montreal Central Station or Gare Centrale de Montréal, is not a particularly historic station. It was designed in the 1920’s and not finished until 1943. The train between the cities is historic. It was run by the Grand Trunk Railway, once the largest railway system in the world. The first train from Montreal that made it as far as Brockville was in 1855. A bridge over the Don River allowed the train close to downtown Toronto in 1857.

I arrived about 40 minutes before my departure time. I thought there would be a café. There was not. I went into a small store. They had croissants wrapped in cellophane. I bought one. It was not exactly the warm croissant in the basket experience that I had envisioned. Po texted, “Perhaps what we remember is not real anymore.” Maybe I need a trip to Paris.


The line for boarding the train was quite long, so different from the Halifax boarding. And there were several Toronto bound trains that day. But then trains are a very competitive option on trips of this length. They are not just for train aficionados. There was a band playing (not sure why) but I was too far back to see them. They were gone by the time I got to the front.


I had booked an economy seat for the trip. I had contemplated booking a first-class seat for old times sake like when I took the train for business 15 years ago, but really did not think that I needed a meal and free alcohol during the middle of the day. Then the price jumped, making the price almost double the $99 senior fare. Certainly a free meal, drinks, and a little extra space was not worth that much.

The economy seats were quite comfortable, with lots of leg room, like first or business class on airplanes. Seats are assigned. Mine was rear facing, not my preference, but I had no one next to me. Most seats appeared to be occupied.

The train was on time and fast. This relatively short inter-city train between Montreal and Toronto, although still Via Rail, seemed like it was run by a different business than the Ocean. As I wrote yesterday, I am not optimistic about the Halifax to Montreal train. These trains on the corridor between Montreal and Windsor will likely continue and possibly thrive.

There are no dining or lounge cars on these trains. Food and drink were offered from carts, just like on planes. The seats were high so that you did not look at your fellow passengers. It was not a social experience.


I was spending the night with Toronto friends, or actually Toronto-Pouch Cove friends. Mary Pat and Dennis spend several weeks each summer at their Pouch Cove house and then return for the rest of the year to Toronto. They live near the Danforth GO station. GO is the regional bus and train service in the Toronto urban area and shares train lines with Via, the lines which are owned by the rail freight companies. My Via train would go past the station but not stop. Mary Pat suggested that instead of going into Toronto’s Union station and doubling back to Danforth, that I get off at the Oshawa station, the first or last station, depending on your direction, of the GO Lakeshore line.

Since I had lots of time to fill on the five-hour trip, I bought my ticket online. The instructions stated that it would take five minutes for my e-ticket to activate. I assumed that meant up to five minutes. Instead, there was a timer which took five minutes. That was a lot of data and required me to wait instead of walking to a machine and simply buying a ticket. Buying an e-ticket might be advantageous at a busy time but was a waste at a slow time.

An advantage of getting the GO train in Oshawa was that the next train was waiting so I could get right on (after waiting for my ticket to activate, although I would have been okay to board right away since no one ever checked my ticket).

I was a Toronto resident for about 15 years and watched the trains go by on the Lakeshore West route but had never actually ridden in one. I was impressed. The cars are double deck. I lugged my suitcase up the stairs to sit on top for a better view.

The rail line runs along Lake Ontario. It was a pleasant 45 minutes to the Danforth station. Mary Pat texted me exact instructions to get to their apartment. We all did a quick WhatsApp with Po and Zoe. Everyone wanted to see Zoe. Zoe visits Mary Pat and Dennis everyday when they are in Pouch Cove. Zoe has Po taking her out four times a day to the back yard. She wants to go down the road where I take her, but Po does not dare as she will likely encounter other dogs. Zoe is a big girl and does not like other dogs, too much for Po to handle.

We had a great Thai meal that night before I went to bed on their fold out couch. There was a great wall of Newfoundland art and photographs, including a photo of mine.

October 15, 2022

After a better sleep on the foldout coach than I had on a moving train, I enjoyed a couple of croissants that May Pat had bought for me after hearing about my difficulties in acquiring croissants in Montreal. The coffee and an actual Globe and Mail newspaper made a great compliment, although I had little time to read.


I had a plane to catch so we headed to the airport. My stay included a free limo ride (Toyota Matrix). We dropped Dennis off at the market (much bigger than St. John’s Farmers’ Market) and were quickly at Toronto’s downtown island airport, officially Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. The ride would have been much different on a weekday, or on this weekend, the next day. The Toronto Marathon was scheduled for Sunday, October 16. Thousands of runners would have been running down the Lakeshore. It might have been difficult to get across to the airport.

I was let out at the entrance and had two options for getting across to the island. There is a ferry that crosses in a few minutes. I had used that one in the past, but there is also a tunnel which was added later. There is no wait, and it is a short walk going under the water. You can see how close the airport is to downtown.

I passed through security into the international departures. I went looking for my customary latte before flying. But the coffee outlet did not serve lattes! Some of my many (?) readers (there must be a few of you) might wonder why I am always writing about lattes. Well, I like them. That is how I drink my coffee; the milk seems to help keep my stomach from getting upset from straight black coffee. Maybe I should rename my blog from “Searching for Magical Moments” to “Searching for Lattes” or even “Searching for Lattes and Croissants”? Except that I do not need to search for lattes at home. I just go to my kitchen and make my own. Come visit, I will serve you a latte. I would give you a croissant as well, but Costco switched from a few dozen in a box to a few hundred. Po did not let me buy a huge freezer just to store croissants. Also, do you know what people in Pouch Cove would think if my freezer was full of croissants rather than moose and cod?

Anyway, I could have had one at Pearson International, but that would have meant a lot longer trip to the airport and a lot more people. I was still happy that I had chosen Porter Airlines. It also would mean a smaller airport at the other end.

It was a full flight, so they encouraged us to check our carry-on bags at the end of the bridge rather than putting them into the overhead bins. It is usually quite quick to collect the bags at the end of Porter flights since the bags are always waiting at the bridge or beside the stairs. They did tell us that we would need to pick them up from a conveyor in Chicago. Later I learned that I should have carried my bag onto the plane.

I always enjoy the takeoff from Billy Bishop. It is such a different experience than taking off in a jet from Pearson.

My next post will start with my landing in Chicago. Soon after my train adventure will really be getting underway with seven nights on trains, starting with Amtrak's iconic Zephyr to the San Francisco area.

Posted by Bob Brink 11:37 Archived in Canada Tagged trains via_rail Comments (2)

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