Sunday, February 20, 2011

Missouri to Chicago, Illinois...

Day 17, Feb 19th

Eight hours sleep, woohoo. Yep, slept right thru from 11pm until we were awoken when the announcements started as we approached Kansas City, Missouri just after 7am. Right thru except I had to get up to visit the bathroom at 4am. This involves climbing down from the top bunk, not easy, putting on some trackies by opening the door and hanging my bare backside into the corridor and hoping to hell the curtains don't come apart at the velcro as I bend down to put them on, going to the bathroom and climbing back into bed. All up about a 15 minute

That said, I slept pretty well, so I'm pretty happy at this point. Breakfast was French Toast for Diane and a cheese and egg toasted sandwich on sourdough for me. Juice and coffee complemented it nicely. Both Diane and I showered after breakfast because we wanted to get to the dining car before all the passengers who got on at Kansas City decided they needed breakfast.

Today we travelled thru the state of Missouri in the morning, before crossing into Iowa. The stay in Iowa was brief, crossing the mighty Mississippi River before lunch and entering Illinois, arriving in Chicago about 15 minutes early at 3pm. A few pics of the scenery include a line of cars stopped at the crossing because the train was way too long for the platform. Those cars at the front were waiting well over 5 minutes. Even Jan wouldn't be happy...

Most of the scenery was same old, same old, miles upon miles of fields which had been freshly ploughed, most lightly covered in snow and ready for the spring planting and sowing which will begin in a few weeks. We crossed the Missouri River mid-morning which was just like crossing the Yarra except 10 times bigger. Apparently it is affectionately known as ‘Big Muddy’ in these parts, very fitting as the water was quite heavily silted. After passing thru Marceline, which the conductor announced was the birthplace and childhood home of Walt Disney, we crossed a smallish river into Iowa. A brief stop at Fort Madison saw us continue east towards the crossing of the Mississippi. Just before crossing the Mississippi the train travels adjacent to the river for a short time whilst the conductor gives a short narrative of the history of the area. We passed a big barge which had been converted into a casino, but I believe the conductor said it is no longer operational...

The bridge used to cross the river is an old double span, double deck bridge where the trains cross on the lower level and cars cross above on another level. It is the world’s longest such bridge. The river itself was full of ice and quite frozen on the shoreline, ice reaching out into the reduced stream of water flowing down the centre of the river. The river also marked the border of Iowa and Illinois, which would be the final state visited by the Southwest Chief.

Lunch was served early due to the mid afternoon arrival into Chicago. Diane was resting and opted out of lunch, so I made my way up to the dining car for the final time. I had lunch with an African American couple who had just completed a 10 day cruise with friends out of San Diego and were travelling back to their home in Chicago. We got to talking about cruises and discovered we’d both done similar cruises to Alaska and the glaciers out of Seattle. He relayed a funny story about when they were at Glacier Bay, his wife was using a camcorder they had just purchased and were still getting used to, when a giant piece of glacier broke away and fell into the water. To their delight, she had recorded everything at exactly the right moment and was quite excited about this footage. On their way home, they stopped into visit their son and family. The grandkids wanted to play chasings around the house with poppy, so Nanna got the camcorder out. At this stage I knew what was coming and said “This story has a bad ending, I can tell” Of course Nanna got the chase around the house perfectly, but had recorded it over the top of the ‘one in a million’ glacier

After lunch I went back to the roomette. Originally I was going to go to the lounge car because I had not stepped foot in that car the whole trip, but our SCA Cindy had come up to the dining car to get something. She asked where Diane was and I said she decided to give lunch a miss and rest in the room. Cindy came back with a bag of chips and a cup of hot water for Diane to make a cuppa. I took them back to the room and couldn’t be bothered going back, so I stayed in our room until it was time to gather our things for the arrival into Chicago.

Impressions of our first train leg?

Great!! I don’t think I was ever bored the whole way over. Obviously if you are a fidget bum and need to be doing something all the time, it may be a trial, but if relaxing, reading a book, watching the scenery or doing something on the laptop can keep u occupied and happy, it is a great alternative mode of travel. If they ever manage to get wifi on the trains, it will have the lot. The staff were excellent and it will be interesting to see if the other crews we travel with meet their standard. It will be a tough ask, the bar has been set very high.

We arrived at Union Station Chicago early and were met by a red cap who transferred us to the First Class Lounge (think Qantas Club). From there we checked our luggage into temporary storage so we could wander outside into chilly Chicago to look around and get some dinner. I tried to log onto the allegedly free wifi service in the lounge, but was having no luck even finding the network. I enquired at the desk and was informed it sometimes just goes in and out. I grabbed the laptop and went to the Macca’s outlet upstairs where I could logon, but my battery level was low and there were no power outlets. Soon enough, I was out of battery and that was that. I took the laptop back down and re-checked it.

We had quite a few hours to kill before we were due to board our train. It didn’t leave until 9:30pm, but boarding for sleeping passengers was 8pm because there was wine and cheese tasting in the dining car. This was in lieu of obviously not serving dinner at such a late hour. We headed out of the station and were immediately hit by the cold. I wasn’t exactly dressed for very cold conditions, but I can handle it unless it is extremely cold and windy (think Niagara 2008). The temperature was -13 on a display screen near the station, but with little wind, it didn’t seem anywhere near that cold. The Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower, is only a block from the station, so we decided to take a look at it and go to the observation deck before grabbing a bite and heading back to the train. When we got to the ‘Skydeck’ entrance we were informed that it was a 2½ hour wait. We abandoned that idea and decided to head straight to a Giordano’s which was across the road...

Giordano’s is a large restaurant chain in Chicago which specialises in ‘Deep Dish Pizza’. It takes between 30 and 40 minutes to actually cook the pizza, so the procedure is to order straight away any pizza you may want, even if you don’t have a table ready. Even though the restaurant is across 3 shopfronts and it was barely 5pm, the place was still packed, so we went to the bar to have a drink whilst we waited for a table. The waitress came and got us from the bar after about 20 minutes and we went to our table. Diane ordered a clam chowder soup and some calamari and I just stuck with my order, a small ‘deep dish’ with pepperoni, jalapenos and anchovies. It came soon enough and all I can say is, you better like mozzarella cheese and tomato paste...

As you’d expect, I didn’t let it beat me. How could I come back to Australia and admit I couldn’t polish off a small pizza? Of course, same as everybody usually does, I did leave behind a few of the crusts...

We made our way back to the station and the sanctuary of The Lounge, whereupon we grabbed our bags and sat down at around 6:40pm to await boarding. I found a power point and started to recharge the lappy. I then tried the wifi again and it was there, strong signal and all. This gave me an opportunity to upload photos and videos to my blog and cut and paste into the blog what I had written onto a word document as I crossed the country with no internet access. To my surprise, the wifi connection and upload speed was very good and allowed me to upload all the pics I wanted and the video of the train.

At 8pm, they announced they were boarding sleeping car passengers onto the 48/448. We grabbed a ‘red cap’ who loaded us onto the cart. When he drove onto the platform he told me that the train was much longer than normal and had been setup differently to normal. This train is a dual train which splits towards the end of the trip. Those going to New York are on the 48, those to Boston are on the 448, but it is the same train for ¾ of the journey. Even though our sleeping car, Car 4820 was the first car after the 2 engines and the baggage car, he drove to the other end of the train because that is where our car is normally hooked up. He was checking people along the way making sure they were in sleeping cars 4811 or 4812 because they were NY bound. Along the way we picked up one elderly lady who was walking the wrong way. She was a regular commuter between Chicago and Boston and just went to where she always goes.

Now this train in this configuration is extremely long. Firstly two engines, then the baggage car, then us in the Boston bound sleeper. The next 5 carriages are coach, then 2 lounge cars followed by the dining car. After the dining car comes the NY bound part of the train. There are another x amount of coach carriages followed by the 2 NY bound sleepers. Under normal circumstances, as with the Southwest Chief, all the sleepers are on one side of the dining and lounge cars and coach is on the other. Coach passengers are not allowed to enter the sleepers and the SCA soon moves on anybody who attempts to enter the area. This is everything to do with security, you leave laptops, cameras etc in your sleeper when you go to the dining car, but you cannot lock your door unless you are actually inside the sleeper. That’s what makes this trains configuration unique, because they run with one dining car in the middle. Because the coach passengers don’t go thru the sleepers, the sleeping passengers have to walk thru all the coach cars. Because the train is fully booked as it’s a long weekend in America for President’s Day on Monday, there are extra carriages. So for us to go to the dining car for wine and cheese or for our meals this trip, it is a walk of 8 carriages!!! That is a fair walk thru slim corridors when the train is rocking and rolling.

We decided to give the wine and cheese a miss, as did all bar one couple on our entire sleeper from what I could gather. We’ll have a better handle on the ‘Journey to the Centre of the Train’ after breakfast tomorrow morning.

We asked Bill, our SCA for this trip to give us an hour after leaving Chicago before making up our beds for the night so we could sit and watch the lights and sights as we rolled out of Chicago and out thru the suburbs. We settled into our roomette and it soon became apparent that the single deck Viewliner sleeper roomette we were now on was quite different from the Superliner sleeper roomette we travelled over on. For starters, one seat is much smaller than the other because there is a toilet and basin in the roomette. The seat next to the toilet is noticeably not as wide to accommodate it. Now to be honest, I cannot imagine how anybody would actually think a toilet in a room for two would ever be a good idea. And a small, very ‘intimate’ room at that!! Diane and I have agreed that #2’s are definitely out and we will do each other the courtesy of using the public restroom which is in the next carriage. I spoke to a few people about the subject and we were all of the same opinion that it was just not nice. Even if I was staying in a roomette alone, which many people do, I still doubt I’d be happy stinking up my roomette when I can stink up the public restroom and get the hell out of there!! There are considerably more ventilation options in the Viewliners, lots of different vents and outlets that you can open and close. I guess with the crapper in the room they need all the ventilation options they can get. The upper bunk appears much roomier and better designed in the Viewliner, being wider at the top end to allow you to rollover with ease. There is also a window just for the top bunk which lets you look out whilst in bed. Obviously I’ll know more in the morning after a nights sleep.

That’s all for today, hopefully I can get this edition up online when we get to Boston tomorrow night, the 20th.


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