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Boarding the California Zephyr at Union Station, Chicago
When we purchased our round-the-world airline tickets from the "Star Alliance" a year ago, we knew that we were not buying enough miles to get all the way back to California. As we have written before, we deliberately left the entire last half of our trip unscheduled, with intentions to figure it out as we went along. As the time to return drew nearer, though, we needed to decide how we would get back home from Michigan.
We debated everything from buying separate airline tickets... to renting another car and driving cross-country... to renting a motorhome... to taking an Amtrak train. Two years earlier, we had taken Amtrak from Helper, Utah to Emeryville, California during our "wild west" vacation (which also included spending a week in a covered wagon caravan and another week driving along the Oregon Tail). Despite a three-hour train delay we had enjoyed the experience; so we decided to try Amtrak again.
We also needed to decide when to return. Russell favored the symbolic idea of returning home exactly one year after departing -- on July 19th. Gail preferred being home in time for the July 4th celebration -- this would also give us more time to unpack before Russell restarted work on August 1st. In the end, the timing decision was made for us. When we contacted David, our travel agent, in May to make the arrangements with Amtrak, he responded that the trains were already pretty full. A rare "family sleeper" was completely out of the question. We kept broadening our timeframe and he kept digging, and he was ultimately able to find one deluxe sleeper and one standard sleeper on a California Zephyr train from Chicago to Emeryville on July 3-5. We snatched it up, although it would mean spending July 4th on a train.
So on July 2nd we departed Silver Lake Sand Dunes and drove to Chicago. We passed Holland, Michigan, a tourist town that boasted a tiny windmill, Dutch shoes, chocolate, and Delftware. Although we stopped there for lunch we didn't visit any of the attractions -- after having seen the other Holland in Amsterdam, this one felt kind of anticlimactic. We also drove through the tip of Indiana just long enough to pass from Michigan into Illinois -- we never even saw a sign at the state border. By mid-day, the temperature outside had hit 101° F (and this is not a "dry" heat).
Chicago's skyline, featuring Sears Tower
We arrived in the suburbs outside of Chicago by mid-afternoon and arrived in Burbank, where we had a reservation at the Best Western Midway Airport. As usual before a major departure, we had scheduled one-night's accommodations in a single room where we could repack our bags and take care of any last-minute business. Cameron and Joss didn't use the hotel pool; they said it was too cold. For dinner we drove a good half-hour to Lemont, where we had fried chicken at White Fence Farm, a local landmark.
On July 3rd we had the twin tasks of returning our rental car and getting ourselves -- and our luggage -- to Union Station. Using a combination of Yahoo! downloaded online maps and a Best Western brochure to navigate downtown Chicago, Russell dropped the rest of the family off at Union Station at 11:30 AM, then went on to return the car. Unable to find a gas station, he intended to return the car only half full of gas and pay the difference. When informed that the difference would be $55, he decided to go out again in search of a gas station (he found one eight blocks away). Russell also enjoyed the brisk 1.5 mile walk from the rental agency to Union Station. Despite the 95° heat, he stopped to gape up at Sears Tower (the tallest building in America) and listen to a live bluegrass band performing "Man of Constant Sorrow."
Meanwhile, Gail, Cameron, and Joss had secured three carts and hauled all of our luggage into Amtrak's crowded Metropolitan Lounge, where they parked themselves with complimentary beverages. When Russell met up with Gail at 1:00 PM, we checked-in five of our suitcases (we had to pay a surcharge on two of them that weighed more than 50 lbs. each). Daria, the desk attendant, was a very sweet and friendly woman; but she gave us a scare when she mentioned that the last inbound train had been delayed 18 hours (Amtrak, which must share its tracks with other local and freight train carriers, is constantly subject to delays beyond its control).
Fortunately, our 2:15 PM departure was only a half-hour late, and we soon made up the time. Russell and Gail took the deluxe sleeper, a 6-foot by 8-foot compartment that included a toilet/shower, sink, and sofa that converted into two bunks. Cameron and Joss took the much smaller standard sleeper, a 3-foot by 6-foot compartment that was just large enough to fit two seats that faced each other (and also converted into two bunks). The boys very much enjoyed having their own private compartment a car-length away from mom and dad; and despite Gail's best efforts to have all of us together for our symbolic departure by train, Cameron and Joss preferred to sequester themselves in their cabin.
Cameron and Joss's compartment... day and night versions
We immediately made friends with Pete, our porter who looked every bit like a train conductor. We also immediately made enemies with Mr. Ahmed, the dining car maitre d' who apparently never forgave us for changing our requested dinner time after he had already written it down (so far he has spent the entire voyage glaring at us whenever he sees us). Gail the friendly traveler met some teenagers who are going from Springfield, Ohio to Denver on a church outing (there are over a hundred of them in the coach car), and a mother (Pascale) and son (15-year old Goffert) who are visiting America from Holland (the one in the Netherlands).
As we passed from Illinois into Iowa, we spent our time alternating between our sitting/sleeping compartments, the sightseeing car, the lounge car, and the dining car. The sightseeing car features numerous outward-facing seats and panoramic windows up on the second level. The lounge car is the only place with tables and chairs; when Russell, Cameron, and Joss broke out their Lord of the Rings card game, they immediately attracted a small crowd of other kids. The dining car, with its white tablecloths and wait staff, is where we are having all of our meals, included in the cost of our sleepers. For dinner Joss had macaroni and cheese, Cameron had penne pasta, Russell had a pork chop, and Gail had steak (which had to be sent back for further cooking, and which ultimately gave her an upset stomach anyway).
The men in the Lounge Car, attracting visitors (Goffert is sitting next to Cameron)
Gail in the Sightseeing Car
In the evening Pete made up our beds. Despite the romantic notions of being lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the train, none of us slept very well that night. We didn't have anything like the hot and noxious fumes that we had experienced on China's trains, but the ride here was bumpy at best. On the other hand, both Gail and Russell were awake early enough on the morning of July 4th to see the sun rise over the plains of Nebraska. (Although our bodies were still on Eastern time, we had departed Chicago on Central time, and the train was currently on Mountain time.) As we lay drowsily in our compartment watching the scenery go by, we saw acres and expanses of farms and cows. But as Gail remarked sadly, "There's not one single sheep in sight."
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