Monday, July 22, 2019

The Traveling Hillbilly's Summer Sabbatical 2.0

As some of you know, a couple of years ago, I decided to take the summer off, give myself time to relax, recharge and take the time to think about what would be next.  The  sabbatical ended sooner than expected due to a great career opportunity.    Fast forward a couple of years, and the opportunity for summer sabbatical 2.0 has presented itself.

It started with a cross country train journey.    I'm home for a couple of weeks and then it's off to New Mexico to enjoy  the peace, the views and the lack of humidity.    I'm ready to escape this heat and looking forward to cool 60 degree temps at night.

The hounds are quickly adapting to having someone at home to respond to their every wish.  They are enjoying have someone at their service all day.

However, the Traveling Hillbilly is quickly learning there is a need to create some structure.  It is amazing how quickly the day goes by.  If I'm not careful, I can let the day get away without accomplishing much of anything.   Now the point of taking time off is to allow myself some time to relax and recharge, but it needs to be balanced with getting some of those long over due tasks off the to do list!  The biggest fear is the to do list will continue to grow even longer!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Traveling Hillbilly's final thoughts on the train adventure

If you are not in a hurry, enjoy the scenery America has to offer and are okay with a slower pace, then I recommend taking a train for an upcoming trip.  

Benefits of train travel
  • Don't have to worry about traffic
  • It allows you to see some truly beautiful parts of the country
  • You can have a beer or glass of wine while enjoying the scenery, can't do that on a road trip
  • Opportunity to meet some really  interesting people
  • The movement/rocking on the train can help you sleep like a baby
  • It's a relaxing way to travel, you won't come back from your vacation needing another vacation

Negatives of train travel
  • Rooms are small, bathrooms are no bigger than a plane bathroom, the sleepers aren't much bigger than a lie flat seat in first class on a plane
  • Takes more time to get to your destination - in most instances it would be much quicker to get to your destination by plane and/or car.
  • It ain't always a cheaper option, and if you get a sleeper room, it costs even more
  • Possible motion sickness - while it can be a smooth and comforting ride, it can also be bumpy and jarring. 
  • At times it can feel like bad turbulence on a plane, but without the seat belts or warning to stay in your seats.
  • Less flexibility - unlike airlines there aren't multiple options a day for departure times, so you'll most likely need to have some sort of plan laid out in advance

The Traveling Hillbilly's recommendation on train travel
  • If you're planning a major road trip, include part  of it by train, especially for scenic routes like Glacier National Park, Oregon, the California Coast.  
  • You probably don't want to spend 4 or 5 straight days on the train.  Make plans to get off for a night or two along your way.
  • Depending on the length of time you have, consider buying a multi-week/month long pass that allows you to get off and on as you wish.  However, please note you will still need to make reservations for each train you take and you can run the risk of a train being sold out during especially busy times.  
All in all the Traveling Hillbilly enjoyed this train adventure.   Despite a few hiccups along the way, it was a fun and relaxing way to see parts of the country I had never seen.

The final leg of the journey

Today is the last day on the train.   I'm excited for the ride along the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles.    This last day should be a truly scenic ride.  Hopefully the marine layer will go away soon and open up to bright blue skies.

While it will be nice to sleep in a real bed and take a real shower tonight in my hotel, I will miss the rythem of the train, the stunning scenery and the leisurely pace.

I'll be back in LA for a few days catching up with friends and checking up on a few things.  I know the minute I'm sitting in traffic trying to go somewhere, I'll long for the stress free pace of train life. 

The Traveling Hillbilly is Officially Full!

You should not go hungry on the train.  They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and there is also a snack bar where you can grab light snacks, drinks etc.   As soon as you've come back to your room from one meal, they are coming by asking what time you want to have the next.  My friend and I feel like we booked a cruise with all these constant feedings.

I know I mentioned this in an earlier post, but for those who book sleeping cars all your meals are included, you only have to pay for alcohol and any other snacks.   Aside from breakfast, I don't think we've gone to any meals where we were actually hungry!   We're usually still full from the prior meal.

There are options, not a ton of variety, but a little something for everyone.  For the most part, it's hot food.   For lunch there's a burger, veggie burger, salad and a couple of other hot items.  For dinner, there's pasta, chicken, steak, salmon, or the sea and land combo.  So again, not a huge amount of choice, but enough for most anyone to find something.   They also have a few dessert options, cheesecake, chocolate turtle cake, vanilla pudding, and flourless chocolate tart.   Now the menus may vary by train route or season, but these were the main options on both the Empire Builder and the Coast Starlight trains we took.

We never ended a day hungry!

Sunday, July 7, 2019

And things suddenly take a bad turn

We've had a great journey so far, but suddenly during the night my friend started to feel sick.   The train ride was quite rough during the night and we were tossed about significantly more than the previous evenings.   At times I would liken it to bad air turbulence.   Luckily for me, I had taken a Unisom and was sleeping fairly well, although not nearly as well as prior nights.   My friend wasn't so lucky.  Not sure if it was motion sickness or something he ate but wasn't doing well.

I've been sea sick before and know that it is absolutely miserable.   It's like you're hungover and someone continues to spin you around in circles.  Your nauseous, your head is spinning and there is nothing you can do, except suffer.

Hoping spending some time in Portland off the train will help.  Also hoping we can find some Dramamine, ginger or other treatments that might alleviate the symptoms.

Word of advice - turns out the last car of the train is always more bumpy than the other cars.   So if you are the type to get motion sick, you may want to ensure your room isn't so far back.  Not only was our upgraded room in the last car, it was the last room in the last car.  

Traveling Through Glacier National Park

The part of the journey the Traveling Hillbilly was most excited about was going through Montana and Glacier National Park.   And it did not dissapoint!  After a lot of green, primarily flat, scenery we were ready to see some mountains.   The only bummer was we were running a little behind schedule so we hit Glacier National Park just as we were sitting down to dinner and just as it started to rain.  

What amazing views we had during dinner, but the bright lights of the dining car often caused such a glare it was hard to get good pictures.  The pictures just wouldn't do it just anyway.  It is exactly what you would imagine Montana would look like.   Crystal clear streams, widen open spaces, followed by steep mountains.  The scenery was simply magnificent.   I would highly recommend taking the train for this part of a journey.  It is such a relaxing way to enjoy it's beauty.  


Suddenly it was 10p and was still somewhat light outside.  The rain had stopped and we got to see that stunning pink Montana sky.

So far my favorite part of the journey.

First 3 days on a Train

This will be the first day we'll be on the train for 24+ hours straight.   So far the time has passed quickly and we've been enjoying the leisurely pace of the trip.  Curious to see how the time passes on a full day ride.  We should have some pretty scenery to enjoy.   If not, I've got some books, TV shows and movies downloaded.  And my friend downloaded the new season of Stranger Things.

Initial Thoughts on the Train

Rooms - We decided to upgrade to a little bit larger room for this leg of the journey.    While our little roomette was okay for the first night's sleep, it was cramped quarters during the day.  Our new room has a larger sitting area during the day and a slightly larger bed on the bottom bunk.  The top bunk is the same small cramped space.   We are taking turns on who has to sleep on the top bunk!  We also have a bathroom/shower in the room.   However, you pretty much have to stand over or sit on the toilet to shower.  The communal shower in the sleeping cars has more space (even though it's small too).

Other Seating Options - Between the cafe car and the observation car, there are other options outside the room to enjoy the ride.  While they can get quite crowded, we have yet to not be able to find a seat.  There are both tables (seat four) and chairs in the observation car. The floor to ceiling windows allow for great viewing of the passing scenery.  However, the bright lights in the car, cause a lot of reflection on the glass, so not the best for picture taking.  Both cars offer the opportunity to chat with your fellow passengers.

Dining/Food - The food has been surprisingly good.  Now we're not talking 5 star dining, but it's better than expected.  There have been multiple options for dinner and breakfast and we've enjoyed the meals so far.  For passengers that book a sleeping room, main meals are included (except alcohol and snacks).  For coach class, you have to pay for dining and I would say the prices are high.  Kind of what you would expect if you ate a hotel restaurant.  Breakfast and lunch are first-come, first served, but for dinner, there are typically 3-4 seating times you can choose from.  Each table seats four, so if there are less than four in your group, you will be seated with other passengers.  But it's a great opportunity to hear about their travel adventure.

So far, the ride has been relaxing. I've slept very well both nights.  The sound of the train and the motion just rocks me to sleep.  Of course, the Unisom probably helps too! 

Chicago in 4 hours?

How much fun can the Traveling Hillbilly have in Chicago in just a few short hours?

We arrived in Chicago before 10am and had a few hours to kill before our 2:15 departure.   After getting ourselves "freshened up" and storing our luggage in the lounge, we headed out to explore the city.   First we took some time to admire the station.   Union Station in Chicago truly is beautiful.  It is just what you would imagine a train station would like like in the glory and romantic days of train travel.

I texted my niece and we agreed to meet at Pete's coffee, right near the station.  Over coffee it was decided to head over to the Willis building to check out the sky ledge.   Some of you know the Traveling Hillbilly is afraid of heights, so this is so not my thing.   But I figured I'd get beautiful views without having to walk a glass plank so was on board with the plan.   However, when we arrived, the line was outside the building and around the block and we were told it would be at least a 90 minute wait.  With only a few hours to explore, we opted out.  

We took a water taxi to the Navy Pier, walked around for a bit and then grabbed some lunch.     Boat trip along the water, a visit to the Navy Pier and a slice of pizza for lunch...a few hours well spent, but the best part was getting to spend some unexpected time with my niece.

The overnight to Chicago

We hopped on the  train so excited for our cross country ride.   We were on train car 5800, room 7, a room on the upper level.  The steward told us our beds had already been turned down for the night.   Wow, turn down service.  However,  I knew we might be in trouble when my friend opened the door to our room and said, "it's really small."  I peaked in and thought this isn't a room.  It's going be like sleeping in an MRI machine.  The "room" isn't much wider than the beds we'd be sleeping on. It isn't even standing room only, with the beds folded down, there is no room between the bed and the door.  We had both checked out the accomodations online and knew it would be small, but we both expected there to be more room than there was.  Oh well, we were only going to be sleeping anyway and it would convert to a nice sitting area once the beds get folded up in the morning.  

After a hot sweaty day, I grabbed a quick shower before we even departed the station.  My friend did the same and then he and I were off to the cafe lounge to grab a drink before we turned in for the night.   It was really dark, so not much to see but enjoyed it just the same.  It just felt good to be "clean."  

We headed back to our "room" and crawled into our beds.  I took a Unisom in the hopes of having a better sleep and avoid a potential panic attack about feeling claustorphobic in my MRI machine.  

I slept really well.  We have less than an hour before we arrive in Chicago, where I'm hoping to grab lunch with my niece before we start the next big leg of our journey!

The First Leg of the Journey

After spending a few days in beautiful but sweltering Chattanooga, we headed to Memphis.  We wanted to squeeze in the last tour of the day for Graceland, before taking an overnight train to Chicago.  This hillbilly spent a a few days in Memphis back when I was just a wee young thing but I've never been to Graceland.  

Graceland was beautiful and we learned many things about Elvis that neither of us knew, like the fact he had an "older" twin brother that was still born.  After visiting the grounds, we got to go onboard his planes.   Wow, he traveled in style!

We still had some time to kill since our train wasn't departing until 10:40p, so we did what a lot of tourist do and headed down to Bealle Street to check it out.   Kind of reminded me of New Orleans.   We stopped and had a great BBQ dinner at Pig, "Pork with An Attitude."

It was time to head to the airport to drop off the rental car and then taxi over to the train station.   We saw fireworks from all over on our way to the station, but arrived at the station just in time to catch the main fireworks show over  the river.   It was spectacular.   Wha an exciting way to end the first leg of the trip, or start the next leg!

Automobiles, Trains and Planes!

We are always in a hurry in this world.  Constantly trying to rush from one place to the next.   But we if we took the long way?   Would we enjoy the journey or just be anxious to get to our destination?   The Traveling Hillbilly decided to take advantage of some extended time off and planned an epic road trip with a friend.  A great way to test this theory out.

All Aboard!
I've never been to some of America's most popular and well known spots, so why not spend some time traveling through places I've never been like Montana and Wyoming?  As we started researching the "must" places to visit on our journey, we decided we needed to add a train trip, for a leg of our journey.   The train leg  then turned into, let's do a cross-country train trip!   We planned to take an overnight train from Memphis to Chicago.   After a little time in Chicago, we'll head across the country up through Wisconsin, Minneapolis, across North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Washington.  From Washington, we head down to California and take a train along the coast to Los Angeles.  We've both taken trains in and around Europe but never in the US.   We don't expect our US Amtrak experience to be on pare with some of the European trains, but we feel it will be more relaxing than traveling the roads.  While we couldn't squeeze Wyoming in, we will still get to see a lot of places we've yet to explore.  Let the adventure begin!

Next up....more food

After a long leisurely lunch at Pujol, we had a brief break to walk around the PLULANCO neighborhood.   Despite the fact we were all still full from lunch, it was time to head over for an evening street food tour.    We were all wondering how we were ever going to be able to enjoy the street foods of Mexico City after such a big lunch, but after our first street taco, those fears quickly vanished.     Suddenly we were all hungry again and had no trouble enjoying the taste of Mexico Cities nightly street vendor offerings.  
After a few stops, it was time to head to the oldest pup in Mexico City, located in the Chinatown neighborhood.  Women were not allowed in the pub until 1982.  There was basically a trough around the bar for men to spit and pee.  Of course it is no longer in use, now that women are classing up the joint. 
A few more stops to eat and then we ended the night with a mescal tasting.  Not sure I've developed a fine enough pallet to enjoy the subtleties of fine mescal varieties just yet but have a feeling there's more mescal in my future on this trip.
It was a long day, a late night but one filled with delicious food, great friends old and new, and good times!