Washington Post’s Amtrak Empire Builder captures journey

One of my favorite long-distance trips on Amtrak was on the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder and writer of the Washington Post has captured the spirit and adventure of this unique way to travel.

She and her family took the two-night trip from Chicago to Portland in May and had a great time. Not only did the kids have a very unique experience, but she and her husband enjoyed settling into the routine that only long-distance train travel affords.

One thing I would have suggested to her… a stopover at Glaicer Park, Mont., as I did. The Glacier Park Lodge is a true treasure in a park that’s unlike anything anywhere.

Hope you enjoy the story.

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Taking the rails to the LA Auto Show

As you know, I’m a part-time automotive writer and live in San Diego, so I’m lucky to be able to attend the media days at the Los Angeles Auto Show, one of the big six auto shows in the world.

To get to the 2015 show, which runs through Nov. 29 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, would you believe I never rode in an automobile?

That’s right. I live within walking distance of the historic San Diego Santa Fe Depot, the southern terminus of Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, which I took to the historic Los Angeles Union Station.

If you’ve never been on a train, consider taking the Surfliner if you live or visit Southern California; it’s a fantastic day trip. Some day I’ll add up the miles, but along the route from San Diego to LA, it runs right on the sand, or mostly within view of the Pacific Ocean from San Diego to south of San Juan Capistrano. It’s one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. I’ve included a couple of photos of sunset

The sun sets over the Pacific, viewed from my window on Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner, near Carlsbad, Calif.
The sun sets over the Pacific, viewed from my window on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, near Carlsbad, Calif.

In LA, I then took the subway two stops from Union Station to Metro Center, transferred to the Expo Line light rail for one stop and there’s the convention center, Staples Center arena and LA Live entertainment mall.

It takes a little more than three hours, longer than a perfect drive, but what trip through Orange County to downtown LA doesn’t include some stop and go? Plus, I had time to doze, snack, walk around and just look at the view. On the way back, I even watched an original Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from 1972 on YouTube, with a young Joan Rivers as guest and the original commercials. You can’t beat Johnny. Yes, Amtrak has wifi.

The Audi stand at the Los Angeles Auto Show is on one side of the hall; look through to other brands.
The Audi stand at the Los Angeles Auto Show is on one side of the hall; look through to other brands.

As for the car show, if you’re a car person, it’s overwhelming. It’s much larger than the local car shows in major cities and it’s different. Because it’s a major show, the car companies are much more involved, bringing all the newest cars, concepts and other goodies.

Porsche has its own room at the Los Angeles Auto Show. As it should.
Porsche has its own room at the Los Angeles Auto Show. As it should.

Here’s a great view of the auto show from the Detroit Free Press.

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What’s a trip like on Amtrak? Here’s a great video

Back in January, I took my fourth long-distance trip on Amtrak. It was my second trip on the Southwest Chief to visit a friend who lives in Santa Fe, NM. It’s an overnight trip and I get a Superliner Roomette, which gives me my own little compartment, that seats and sleeps two, plus my meals.

For one handy low price that, at least in the winter, was cheaper than driving if you include meals, gas and an overnight stop. I can walk to the train station in San Diego, so that means my vacation really starts when I lock my front door. Pretty cool.

From San Diego, I take the Pacific Surfliner to Los Angeles, then catch the Southwest Chief to Santa Fe (it goes on to Chicago). From my front door, it takes about 24 hours to get there.

I get a lot of questions about riding on Amtrak and what sleeping is all about; this is a great video that explains all of it. With summer here, hop a train if you can. It’s a great experience.

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From the Starlight Trip: Breathtaking Vistas through the Siskious, Cascades in Oregon

From my Starlight trip, a blog entry I wrote but didn’t post. Enjoy…

Around Mt. Shasta, Feb. 10

After a decent night’s sleep, those of us on the Coast Starlight today awoke to blue skies as we looped around Mt. Shasta. The big rock is covered with snow and glistened in the morning sun. I popped into the dining car to enjoy an early breakfast (not one of Amtrak’s best) while we twisted through the forest. No snow on the ground where the train goes, but still a beautiful ride around the curves.

After negotiating the curves, the train’s next stop is in Klamath Falls, a dusty burg that’s one of hundreds of railroad towns around the country. Not much here, but it’s good to see that the old Southern Pacific depot is still functioning — positively a beehive when our train came in. Not only were folks leaving the Starlight, the ticket window was busy getting passengers their northbound seats for the day-long trip to Portland or beyond.

North of Klamath Falls the train hugs the edge of Crater Lake. It’s a spectacular view… is that Mt. Hood to the west? Probably not, but there were lots of snow-covered peaks around.

There are several tunnels, some featuring snow sheds on either end. The most spectacular part of the trip that kept me glued to the window. Watch the video.

Once the train descends, it’s the rolling farmland of agricultural Oregon. The train skirts the huge Diamond Lake, which framed snowcapped mountains. Towns along the way are small and smaller — Chemult, Eugene, Albany — before the capitol, Salem, and the big city, Portland.

One of those train things… we were stuck on a siding for about 40 minutes waiting for a freight train to pass (after all, they own the tracks) which put us behind schedule. But the engineer cranked up the two engines hauling us and the conductor cut the time we sat in Portland, so we arrived in Seattle 25 minutes early. That’s right… early.

Food in the diner was not gourmet, but was not bad. The breakfast was a bit cold, but lunch (a burger) and dinner (baked chicken) were today in the diner. I opted for the diner with its larger selection, rather than the Parlour Car that’s a bit fancier. A nice thing is that the fare is served on glassware (Corelle) rather than the high grade plastic that they used on the Southwest Chief last year.

The staff was motivated and friendly, making two of my three recent trips with decent folks; the bad was the trip back from Santa Fe last year.

My hotel was just a couple of blocks from Seattle’s King Street station; I ignored advice and walked over in the cold.

Overall, a great experience. Not for everybody but easier than driving and more interesting than on a plane. I’m looking forward to my trip back down the coast next week.

Lincoln MKT and a Trip Around Washington

Ah, Washington state. The Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges, Mt. Rainier, trendy Seattle. At least that’s what they put on the travel posters.

1958 DeSoto
1958 DeSoto moored at the LeMay Museum.

It’s also home to gritty seaports, as for all its beauty, the working Seattle waterfront is, well, a working waterfront. And the busy port at Tacoma is no different.  Inland, about half the state might be more comfortable in Kansas or Iowa with its rolling plains. The big difference comes in the wild rivers that transverse the state, creating gorges that break up the amber waves of grain.

A recent trip took me to Seattle, with a trek cross-state to Clarkston and Walla Walla to visit my nieces. Getting me there was a 2011 Lincoln MKT, the middle child in Lincoln’s SUV lineup.

Leaving Seattle on a rainy morning, my first stop was to be the LeMay Auto Museum, still at the former Marymount Military Academy, about eight miles south of where the guy at my hotel said it would be, next to the Tacoma Dome.

There’s nothing like getting cold into a new car, especially one with as much technology as the MKT. I slide in behind the wheel, jump on Interstate 5 south and throw on the cruise control for what I thought would be about 40 minutes down the freeway.

The first surprise was when a row of red lights and gongs went off. This was my first experience with adaptive speed control. If you’re not familiar with it, these vehicles are radar equipped and not only slow the car down if there’s traffic, but warn you of vehicles on the side, in blind spots, and if you get too close to the car in front. A nice feature but a surprise if you’re not familiar with it.

Headed to Leavenworth.
Headed to Leavenworth.

Turns out the LeMay Museum is building a new location in next to the Tacoma dome; turns out my directions were just a little premature. Until the building is done sometime in the next year or so, the collection remains where Harold and Nancy LeMay left it, at a former military school about nine miles away. Oddly, the GPS system in the Lincoln wouldn’t take the address of the Marymount facility, so I had to use the navigation system in my smart phone.

It’s advertised as the largest collection in the country, and well worth the trip. It’s a car lover’s fantasy land, with several buildings covering acres literally stacked with cars. But what were my docent and his fellow volunteers looking at? The MKT.

Plains in central Washington.
Plains in central Washington.

With its bold grille reminiscent of the 1930s Lincoln Zephyr (some might call it slotted snowplow), the MKT cuts quite a profile. The guys wanted to see the EcoBoost V-6 and wondered about the gas mileage (EPA 16/21; I got 22 on the trip computer for my mostly freeway/highway country driving). They loved the power foldup of the third row seat and interior leather. Retired car guys in their 60s; Lincoln’s target market. I’m sure the folks in Dearborn hope to get them out of their Lexus.

From there, it was up Highway 18 and a two-hour drive, after dark and through “light showers,” to Cle Elum, a town just a few exits past the pass.

To me, the road was a mess. Wet, dirty (sand and gunk from previous below-freezing nights; when I went through it was in the 40s) but the Lincoln had no problem. It was here I first noticed the turbo kicking in; when it’s time to get around a semi, V-8-like power comes on with just a deeper press of the gas pedal.

Beautiful downtown Roslyn, Wash. No sign of Dr. Fleishman.
Beautiful downtown Roslyn, Wash. No sign of Dr. Fleishman.

In parts of the drive, I was once again using the cruise control, but it would mysteriously cut out. I later discovered that my left index finger rested on the wheel right next to the button that turns it off, and it was turning it off. Maybe Lincoln could have made the buttons smaller and given drivers the corner of the lower-left wheel, rather than putting the cruise shutoff just where my finger or knuckle would tap it. Oh well.

The next morning was clear but frosty, making the three-setting heated seats (oh yeah, and there are also three cooling settings) a necessary luxury. It was back on I-90 headed for Clarkson. The MKT gobbled up the 250 or so miles southeast to the lower righthand corner of Washington. This time, the built-in GPS system could find my niece’s address.

The route was anything but what most of us non-locals would expect in the Pacific Northwest. Rolling hills and plains, something looking more like Kansas than Northern Exposure. Arid expanses divided by great rivers. Vast wind farms generating electricity, as if the Northwest didn’t have enough already from all the hydroelectric dams.

Whether it was smooth freeways or twisting, two-lane rods, the MKT seemed to enjoy it all. Power was never a problem, especially when passing on two-lane roads. The EcoBoost V-6 performed as advertised… instant power and the feel of a V-8. I didn’t detect any turbo-lag, whine or anything else. A very nice effort by the Ford engineers.

After hangin’ with my nieces and their studs for a few days, it was back on the road to Seattle. After clear skies, things turned messy, with rain, slush and snow flying around.

A side trip up to Leavenworth, off of U.S. 2 east of Stevens Pass,  took us through some great, twisting and beautiful mountain roads. Back in territory that looks like the Northwest to us out-of-towners: tall trees, mountains covered with snow, twisting roads. One of my favorite street names on the whole trip, Blewett Cutoff Road, intersects with U.S. 2.

This was a great twisty road and the Lincoln took it well. I’ve read some complaints about the handling, but it seemed about comparable to other SUVs in the class. Shortly after, I tested the new-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee and it seemed about the same. These aren’t sports cars, but far more refined than in the old days.

Leavenworth has transformed itself over the last 50 years or so from a gritty mining town to, well, Bavaria. Cute buildings, usual touristy stores, bed and breakfasts. Bought some souvenirs, had a lousy lunch and left. Worth the drive but not really the stop… does that make sense?

I do plan to go back, though as I’d like to drive Stevens Pass sometime; just not in February.

Heading back to I-90 and Cle Elum for my last night out, I had to detour to Roslyn, where the old Northern Exposure show was shot. No, this wasn’t Cisily, Alaska, but it still looks pretty remote. Didn’t have time to look for Holling Vincoeur or Ed Chigliak. Living in a tourist spot like San Diego, I’m always sensitive to looking like a tourist, so I jumped out of the Lincoln, shot some photos and took off. Still, my “always look like a local” persona must have been working, because when I stopped into the local gas station, a couple of folks asked me for directions. Always loved that show and was thrilled to stop by; next time, I will have a burger at The Brick.

Overnight in Cle Elum (with a sign by the hotel room’s bathroom sink that said “please keep water running slowly due to freezing conditions”), snow mixed with rain continued. It wasn’t heavy enough to close or cause dangerous conditions on Snoqualmie Pass, which had been well sanded.

Back to the MKT’s “Adaptive Cruise Control and Collision Warning with Brake Support, and a Blind Spot Information System with Cross Traffic Alert system.” Not sure why, but in all the dirt, gravel, moisture and cold on I-90 over the Snoqualamie Pass, it quit. Once I got to the other side of the pass and it warmed up a bit, it started working again. Why? Don’t know.

All in all, I was impressed with the MKT. A very nice road car, comfortable and mostly up to the standards of luxury SUVs these days. The third row of seats is a bit of a waste except for small kids and I had questions about the cruise control.

However, it’s a smooth road vehicle with minimal amounts of normal SUV jiggle. The plethora of electric assists — opening and closing the rear hatch, folding up the middle seat on the passenger side for access to the back — make it an easy vehicle for folks who can’t, or don’t want to shove around doors and seats.

More plusses: Auxiliary headlights move with the steering wheel, helping to see around curves; the center-mounted refrigerator (although it was too far for me to reach back and pull out cold soda while driving); excellent audio system — powered by THX (it even does the THX logo that is in movie theaters, which sounds great in the car).

Outside, Ford stylists did a great job of not making this look like a Ford Flex, with which it shares some architecture. It’s longer and with that big, toothy grille on the front, lots of angles and curves, plus a duck tail on the back, nobody will mistake this for Ford’s Brick-O-Saurus.

If you’re in the market for a large or mid-sized luxury SUV, this is one to consider. The powertrain on this vehicle a technological leader and it saves gas. As a travel car, it does the job, especially at 22 mpg for something so big. I’d put it on my list. ⚙

Car Info

2011 Lincoln MKT

  • Type: Midsize sport-utility vehicle
  • Price: As tested $56,980; base, $49,200
  • Mileage: EPA, 16 city, 21 highway; trip computer, 22.
  • Website
Lincoln MKT
Boat-tailed aft hides Edge roots.


Route and Info

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Train 2011: One Rainy Day

Since this is finishing my first round-trip up the West Coast and I’m not a weatherman, I don’t know how fast or big storms are.All I can say is that it started raining and snowing on Monday in Cle Elum, Wash., and here it is Thursday on the train in Paso Robles, Calif., and it’s still going.

This morning while we were stopped in Sacramento, I stepped out for a few minutes. Rain, wind, cold. Kinda nice.

Rain in Sacramento.

Snow in Cle Elum.

Train 2011 — Rolling Along

After the bus trip to Portland, it’s been a nice ride down the west coast.

My dinner last night was a fine piece of halibut in the dining car. Dining on a train is a great experience; watching the world go by and the waiters managing to work from a tiny prep area and never spill anything while the train tosses about.

Train custom seats strangers together (that and a $5 tip brought Eve Marie Saint and Cary Grant together on the 20th Century Limited in North By Northwest) so I was at a table with another single guy, headed to Reno, and a couple headed to vacation in the Bay Area.

Amtrak does a decent job with dining car meals — better here on the Starlight than on the Southwest Chief I took last year.

After dinner it was back to the compartment for eerie nighttime views of snow-covered trees and frozen lakes. The storm covering the west coast had dumped more white stuff than was here last week.

Every once in awhile, the near full moon would pop through the clouds. The snow was everywhere: hanging from trees, clinging to the old telegraph wires running besides the tracks, covering the ground as virgin powder that would delight skiers.

But no ski areas here, no roads, no people, because over much of this route, it is alone. Quite a view as this traveler dozed off for the night.

Train 2011: Bus begins trip home

Who would guess that there’s rain in the Northwest. So a mudslide on the tracks between Kelso and Portland put all Portland-south passengers on buses. The train could get through, but they didn’t want passengers onboard through the mud.

Lunch (included for sleeper passengers like me) was a Subway box lunch.

With no stops (or mudslides) on the way, we made it to Portland an hour ahead of the train.

Now I’m in my roomette, downstairs, and hoping to move upstairs if possible. It’s a raw, rainy day in Portland; my compartment is nice and toasty.

I already have a 6:30 time in the diner.

There’s the whistle and off we go!

GPS Doesn’t Mean Guaranteed to Put you in the right Spot (sorry)

So a few things I learned about GPS on the train and when I got to Seattle. First, I left my trusty Garmin Nuvi at home, thinking I would rely on the GPS I expected to have in the car I would drive, plus the two (count ’em, two) GPS systems in my Android phone.

First the good news and bad news on the train. Here’s the good news: the Google Navigation system kept up with the moving train and the satellite image option let me see the terrain surrounding the rails — a neat feature. Sprint also kept up, but didn’t have the satellite photo feature. Google kept trying to put the train on a street, so the route jumped around a bit, but overall did a good job.

The bad news made me miss the Garmin unit, as it has a readout of the speed you’re traveling. When I took Amtrak over to Santa Fe, NM, last year, it was really cool to sit in my little roomette in the middle of the night, watching the stars go by, and having this little gizmo tell me the train was traveling at 90mph.

Arriving in Seattle at around 10 p.m. (the Starlight was right on time), I thought I’d walk from the King Street Station the couple of blocks to my hotel. I programmed in the address to Google Navigation (just selecting the address on Google Maps put it in the GPS) and followed the directions. Unfortunately, a three-block walk turned into a six block wander, as the direct way was on one-way streets going toward me. If I’d been in a car, it would have looped me around correctly, but there’s no “walking” selection, so I sort of found it on my own.

The next day was bright and clear, of course a rarity in Seattle. More on that next time.