Train Trip Diary: Empire Builder, Milwaukee-Portland


Monday, May 15 2017, got on the train for Portland, the Empire Builder. My sister Pati dropped me off at the station. (The train goes from Chicago to either Seattle or Portland, your choice, what they do is split the train in Spokane, WA, some of it going to Seattle and some of it going to, you guessed it, Portland OR.)

Everything was “preferential” from the line that was just for sleeping car passengers, to my dining car ticket when I got on the train, to the car attendant (David) introducing himself as soon as we rolled out past Miller Brewery (which I used to stare out at from classes in high school for 4 years a long time ago — the sign on the top rotates, although not smoothly, at least back then, there were multiple long gaps).

The sleeper accommodation had two wide seats which face each other, individual overhead lighting options for reading and also for room illumination. The windows had curtains. There was a very narrow closet where you could hang jackets or shirts or something thin like that. There were a couple of “steps” near the door which could be used as a table or a place to put a suitcase (that’s what I used them for) or as the way to get to the top berth once it was lowered. Since I wasn’t sharing the roomette, the top berth was not used.

David turned down the cushions and made up the bed that night after diiner. I also figured out how to make the seats lie flat during the day, if I wanted to lie down and take a nap or something. Honestly, once you’ve gone roomette you never want to go back to coach. I’m sure I will though, I won’t always be able to get such a deal and the normal retail price of these private rooms is very high.

The train left Milwaukee close to 4 pm so there wasn’t much of anything to see during daylight Monday except for rural Wisconsin, which is, as a matter of fact, very pretty, especially as you go further west and there’s some hill and rock formation type landscape near the Mississippi River. We stopped for a longer period of time in Minneapolis/St. Paul and I got out to walk the platform. I was able to sleep a bit, though not extensively even flat on my back in the sleeper car, but when I awoke we were firmly in North Dakota. I believe I slept through the stop at Fargo, North Dakota (which is right on the Minnesota border, anyway).

Tuesday, May 16. – States were North Dakota and Montana. Both are big states. Montana, interestingly, is almost all flat until we got to the far northwest of that state, which is then the Rockies and Glacier National Park. (We arrived in Glacier around dinnertime, which was AWESOME – see pix and videos.)

So basically the ride through the northern plains was uneventful. I was surprised there were so many ponds and little lakes in North Dakota. Wondered if they are always there, or if that was the result of recent snowmelt.

It’s not nearly as barren as say, Nebraska. Lots more variety in ND as far as trees and other landscapes go. Same thing with plains in Montana. So with North Dakota, I’ve been to my 49th state. Alaska, I’m coming for ya.

I got to Portland on Wednesday (train takes 2 days) via another gorgeous route – this one along the Columbia River from Spokane to Portland. The Empire Builder train splits in Spokane – some of the cars going to Seattle, the other half the train going to points in Southern Washington state before ending in DT Portland and Union Station there.

Mostly the scenery on my side of the train (the right side, or the northern facing side) was of rock formations along the river gorge. It was early morning and breakfast time, a crisp sunny morning, not a cloud in the sky. Really pretty (and you see, I have pictures).

The mundane things: finding the Car Rental place while traversing the blocks of the sketchy and the homeless—sometimes one and the same. Once I got there it was pretty simple, and remembering how to get to John’s place was no big deal (don’t know why I thought it would be).

So here’s the truth about his place out there: It’s not in Portland. It’s in the Portland area, but it’s rural Washington state, the fringes and I mean woodsy fringes of Camas, Washington, which is a little town on the Columbia River. But John lives no where near the town, it’s miles away along a 2 lane blacktop in the woods with no shoulder (where the speed limit is 50 mph).

And no matter what he says, it really does take more like 45 minutes to get to Portland (because of the traffic, not the distance) not 20 like he sometimes says when he talks about it. It’s a beautiful place to visit and I love it, but it’s not in Portland.

The next day (Thursday) we DID go to Portland to sightsee, to the Pittock Mansion, an old place left over from one of Portland’s founding families. A fun tour of a very nice old house, something that I think both John and I enjoyed.

Friday was an aborted day trip to Seattle. Bad planning on my part. I figured I could just get a round trip ticket with my pass with no problem, similar to the Hiawatha and the MKE-CHI route, but the Amtrak Cascades is different. Unfortunately, the return trip was sold out so I just drove back after a little breakfast from the Safeway (!) that was less that stellar. (NOTE to readers – this is the section of Amtrak that was hit with the derailment in December, 2017, near Tacoma WA)

I was a bit disappointed that my little side trip to Seattle didn’t work out so I decided to drive to Mt. St. Helens. That was about a 1.5 hour trip from John’s. I didn’t go to the furthest viewing point as it would have been more driving but it was beautiful and the best part was that it wasn’t crowded. Just a very peaceful day to be by myself. So now basically both times I’ve been to Mt. St. Helens the summit was shrouded in clouds. I guess I’ll have to keep trying.

When I got back John’s his nephews (actually his grand nephews) were there, an 11-year-old and an 8-year-old, names were Bodie and Rylo. Great kids, inquisitive and respectful. Behaved well. John adores them and I could see why, they were absolutely delightful.

We all ate dinner together. John made meatloaf and some corn and probably something else. Don’t remember. There were brownies under one of those pedestal cake plates. I asked if they were regular brownies or if they were “special” brownies. John seemed aghast that I would think he would “poison” me but I had to make sure, I mean really, the last thing I wanted to do was to eat something with pot in it.

Saturday, May 20, was a day in Portland. This was the day I saw old friend George Brown. We met at Pioneer Heritage Square, all of which seems rather sinister (maybe the heritage part) in the wake of the white supremacist murders on the Max train, which happened later in the week that I was there.

Anyway, we had lunch at a place called Jake’s, downtown, it was very nice, kind of cloth napkin nice. We walked all over, saw two different Saturday festivals, like a farmers market and then a craft fair, both were interesting and very popular. Even if Portland is much smaller than SF or LA it still seems like a really big city to me. We spent probably most of the afternoon together and then went our separate ways. It was so great to see George again, someone I originally met in 1983. Again I had no problem finding my way back to John’s in Camas.

Saturday was my last night there at John’s—don’t remember what we did but maybe that was the night we watched the Bernie Madoff movie (with Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer). The next morning was mainly packing up and leaving —stopping at the Safeway to buy made sandwiches for the Coast Starlight which was a 30 hour journey down the coast. Next: Back home to Los Angeles.

Train Trip Diary: Amtrak Cardinal and Hiawatha


The next day I left Philadelphia at the crack of dawn. My Lyft ride overcharged and I actually complained and got a refund! (First and only time I’ve done that.) It was ridiculous, they had a Sunday morning surge yet there was no traffic, like the streets were empty no traffic. I have to credit Lyft, they were very decent and prompt about addressing it and I got the refund right away.

The overnight train I took that day was the Amtrak Cardinal to Chicago – which goes from New York to Chicago via a southerly route through Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana (though I got on the train in Philly).

Mainly took this train because I wanted to see some of West Virginia, which is one of the two states this trip (the other one being North Dakota) that I’d never been to. And it was lovely, what I could see from the train, most of the state through daylight hours. Lots of farms, small towns, small mountains covered in forest, river valleys. Actually, through most of the time in West Virginia, the train route hugs a river (the New River) through the valley it makes. Gorgeous.

Dusk came concurrently with the entry into Ohio, where the train followed the Ohio River to Cincinnati, then turned inland from there up to Indianapolis and had a layover of sorts, including a servicing of the train. It then arrived in Chicago Union Station in the morning and I was able to make the late morning train to Milwaukee, arriving there around noon.

Most of my time in Milwaukee was visiting family, and not on any trains. Although, one of the days I went down to Chicago on the Hiawatha:

The morning train gets you there about 12:30 and I took the last train home, which left Chicago’s Union Station about 8 pm (so gets back to Milwaukee at 9:30).

I went to the Art Institute, which is a pleasant walk down Adams Street toward the Lake and it’s right there, it’s one straight shot, basically. The day was very bright and sunny, a bit crisp, but even that warmed up considerably.

I hadn’t been to the Art Institute in likely a decade, so I did a survey of their collection, from seeing some of the American masters like Whistler and Hopper as well as the fantastic European impressionist collection they have there. I love the Art Institute, it really inspires me. All art museums, really, but the better ones are just amazing.

Like usual, I didn’t plan out exactly what I’d do after, so I did go to a Pret a Manger type place, (actually it wasn’t a type of place, it WAS that place) had a sandwich and charged my phone. Then I walked up Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, stopped to window shop at a Crate and Barrel, then went to Millenium Park to look around (and find a bathroom).

One of the houses our family lived in for a time in the 70s and 80s was being used as a “Breast Cancer Showhouse” this year and we got a little tour – excellent since I hadn’t been in this house since my parents sold in the mid 80s.

It was a place where you could find solitude even while in the midst of your 10-person family. I’m grateful we had that and will always consider myself lucky to have lived there for even the short time it was.

Other things that happened that day: 1) I finally found a low sleeper car fare for the Empire Builder trip to Portland, Oregon. It was $375 on top of what I’d already paid (for the pass). That includes meals, 4 full ones plus a boxed breakfast, plus free water and coffee (not insignificant, because a bottle of water or a cup of coffee on the train costs $2 a pop and I drink a lot of both) So for 2 nights I thought the $375 was a great deal. Next post: Empire Builder and Portland


Misc Virginia from Amtrak Cardinal

Arrive in Charlottesville, VA:

Along border with West Virginia, train climbing

Wilacre Park Back in Business


Yay, my local mountain loop (3 or so miles) is back in business after some improvements over last fall. What did they do? They built permanent bathrooms (no more portapotties!), resurfaced much of the trail and the parking lot, evened out much of the rutted trail, and built a little informative kiosk. Love being able to do a mountain hike close to where I live!

Train Trip Diary: Philadelphia and New York


I chose Philadelphia (May 5-6) as the stop because of all the large cities in the U.S., Philly is one that I’d never been to. Still, it was a very short trip, basically one day sightseeing in the rain since I spent the second day on a day trip to New York, and only slept in Philadelphia before leaving the following morning.

The AirBnB was on N. 3rd Street in Old City Philadelphia, just a couple of blocks, literally, from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

After settling into the lovely studio apartment (huge, btw: bigger than my entire apartment here square footage-wise; plus there was a lovely deck for use in back, which I could not use because it was pouring rain!) (see photo below)I had to decide on just a couple of things to do since I had merely one day to see the sights.

My choices were Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, The Philadelphia Art Museum, and the scary Eastern State Penitentiary (the exterior of that building only). I also walked to the Delaware River and out onto the Race Street Pier. This pier might also have been cruisy, or maybe I was just reading that into something that wasn’t there.  There were a couple of guys I thought might be cruising there, but did not pay much attention to it as I was out of my element and certainly not ready to act on anything there (most certainly not!). It was a working dock area previously,  now restaurants and lofts, art spaces, things like that, reminded me of the Embarcadero in SF, and it also has a massive, very impressive bridge (the Benjamin Franklin Bridge) over the river right there (to Camden, NJ).

My dinner restaurant was the Race Street Café, recommended by Dan, the AirBnB owner. It was a bar with food, but very good food. Being a Friday, at the time I went there was also some after work cocktail hour thing going on, but it was OK for me since the food arrived quickly. I did feel a bit odd being by myself at this happy hour location. Anyway.

Second Day was NYC — I took the Regional Amtrak and then the subway downtown to meet friends Wayne/Mark/Neil for lunch/brunch at French Roast on 11th and 6th.

Afterward, we all walked over to the new Whitney Museum and I toured it with Neil Greenberg, some of their Biennial Exhibit. We then walked the High Line but it was cold and windy down there, and Neil had to go home to take a nap before his performances later that night. I went uptown to Central Park and walked around and sat on a bench taking in the city (on Central Park West) for awhile. I walked back to Penn Station and took train back to Philly for the overnight.

Worthwhile to note that although Philly has a gayborhood, I did not get a chance to see it. I think it’s also part of the Center City area but I didn’t get over there. As opposed to my last trip like this at age 40 or so, when seeing it would have been the first priority. Now, not so much. Again, a time and energy thing. Maybe next time. As it was, I only got a rainy glimpse of the city and would have liked more.


Train Trip Diary: Miami and the Silver Meteor


When I left NOLA, I took a one-way Southwest flight to Ft. Lauderdale. I would’ve taken the train, the extension of the Amtrak Sunset Limited, but service post-Katrina still hasn’t resumed east of New Orleans. I know they’ve repaired the tracks and have made test runs; perhaps in 2018 service will return? (This was the only portion of this around-the-country trip not done on trains.)

My friend Paul Lamb picked me up at FLL. Since his two brothers from New Jersey were also arriving that afternoon, we went to lunch in the area, in the gayborhood part of Fort Lauderdale. I was there before, in the 90s, but at night so it was different. It didn’t really seem very gay during the day, it seemed yuppie-ish/boomer. As so many bland things do. Still, the food was good!

We then picked up Paul’s older brother (was it Joe?) who is the guardian of Tim, his brother of around 50, who has Down’s Syndrome. Joe typically drops Tim off with Paul for a week or so a couple times a year and then has a little Florida vacation while Paul cares for Tim. So we dropped Joe at his hotel and took Tim (and myself!) back to Paul’s home in Miami Shores, a close-in suburb just northwest of Miami Beach.

The first night, we had dinner there. He made it. Do I remember what it was? I don’t think I do. Whatever it was, it was edible and probably quite good. Both Paul and my friend John in Washington are good cooks.

The second day in Miami, I went for a walk around Miami Shores in the morning, to a Starbucks which was about two blocks away. I have pictures. There was a nice little park along the way (see below). It was a pleasant and quiet walk, nice neighborhood for that. Once back, we hung out and then went to the beach (Miami Beach) for awhile. We didn’t stay long, I went in the water briefly, the other two did not. It was a more subdued kind of beach experience. Paul was very attentive to his brother, constantly rubbing Tim with sunblock, and to my recollection, Tim seemed happy just to sit there, though they did walk along the beach and I have pictures of that, too.

That night we went to a generic Italian (name escapes me) but really nice restaurant to celebrate Tim’s belated birthday. Paul also insisted on paying for that, which was so nice. The food was good, not fantastic but certainly passable. I was scheduled to leave the next morning but Paul wanted to give me shirts and pants. None of the pants fit, but I took four shirts and a pale blue cashmere sweater. It was like Christmas! We have close to the same coloring and he has exquisite taste.

The Silver Meteor – This is the train that went from Miami to Philadelphia (it actually goes all the way to Boston, I just got off in Philly). Most of the first day was through flat inland Florida, not terribly interesting, mostly flat land, farm land, some lakes, some ocean view but not even much of that. Once out of the Sunshine State, the train did stop in some interesting other places like Savannah and Charleston, but either the stations were not in the city center or it was already dark so there wasn’t much to see. Note – both for this trip and the previous one (The Crescent, which I took from NYC to NOLA a few years ago) the Carolinas portion of the trip was after dark – so still have not seen much of either of those two states from the train (though on my road trip back in ’96 I drove through both states and stayed overnight in each).

The Silver Meteor then goes through Virginia to D.C. First city I remember after dawn (it was a rainy day) was Richmond. Then it took a great (though stormy!) route along the Chesapeake Bay up to Washington, then into Maryland and Delaware (Baltimore and Wilmington) before heading into Philadelphia, where I arrived about 9:30 am.

Train Trip Diary #2: New Orleans


Train trip continues – first leg of my monthly pass was Los Angeles-New Orleans, where I got off the Sunset Limited. My sister and brother-in-law (Kate and Dave) picked me up at the station.

Here’s the train near dusk entering Morgan City, Louisiana:

Most of the days there were filled with family catching up. They live in the Uptown neighborhood, about a block from the Mississippi River levee, in a very quiet little corner of NOLA that Dave has called a “quiet small Southern town.”

I have to agree. Love being there, I love the quiet and the pace. So so different from Los Angeles. And everywhere the divine decadence of the old city collapsing, almost: the streets are unbelievably uneven with potholes everywhere; the sidewalks are cracked and chipped or non-existent. The songs of cicadas rise and fall as you walk, the Spanish Moss hangs from the trees and often buildings sport saplings or other plants from their own facade cracks.

Here’s me walking to coffee in Uptown:

I’ve been there often enough now to have pretty much seen most of the tourist spots and now my favorite activity is just to walk and absorb the city: its people, architecture, culture — which of course includes music, and I was there for Jazz Fest activities.

We didn’t go to the Jazz Fest grounds, but a lot of the musicians play in clubs around town during the event, and we did get to see one of my favorite NOLA musicians, Jon Cleary.

Here’s some rain porn for a parched Southern Californian:

Sex notes — I’m not having any here, but I do have thoughts/opinions on it — On looking for sex so far – it’s the apps, it’s all about the apps, it’s Adam4Adam. The same thing I typically get at home – headless or totally photo-less guys emailing me asking me if I’m interested in sex. I don’t even bother answering anymore. Especially on that site Adam for Adam – the only reason I keep it is that I still would like to meet this one L.A. guy some day and so far as I’ve seen, he’s not on Grindr or Scruff. And of course, I would never run into him in the real world, because who goes out anymore? How we’ve changed, in such a short time.

I thought about writing this last night and this morning, and decided maybe I should try cruising, you know street cruising, again, which I’ve largely avoided since prostate cancer surgery for a number of reasons. There’s also the part about being old. It usually doesn’t happen anymore, that instant eyeball connection that was made in public so often in the younger years. But sometimes it still does happen.

It’s still fraught with danger, somewhat, in that you never know if you’re cruising a straight guy who will be offended and possibly violent. Or, if you cruise a younger guy—and at this stage, they’re ALL younger—you risk coming off as a creeper. So I usually don’t – make initial eye contact, or do the 1-2-3 turn-around-and-look dance.

One of the days we went up to City Park to look at the sculpture garden and have coffee and beignets. At least I did. Some pictures of that park below.

One sculpture in particular caught my fancy, it was for the Resistance Fighters. Obviously super relevant in the age of Trump.

Here’s some pix from the NOLA portion of the trip: