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My 2019 Birthday trip on Amtrak
written by Lindsay Korst
gngoat@gngoat.org

To celebrate my sixtieth birthday, Baolu and I took a cross-country trip, mostly by train! From the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes to the Pacific. The highlight was the journey itself onboard Amtrak's Train #58, The City of New Orleans and Train #3, The Southwest Chief. We had a blast and hope you enjoy reading this travelogue as much as we did discovering America from sea to shining sea.



Saturday, October 12th
Alaska Airlines non-stop Seattle, WA to New Orleans, LA


Lyft out to SEA-TAC airport. Overpowering scent in car (which, apparently is a thing on all these ride services). Checked two bags, then waltzed through the TSA pre-check. We both signed up for the pre-check and it is the best security line experience since they formed the frikken TSA.

The airport is packed with humanity! Where is everyone going? The Port of Seattle (bastards) closed 2 of our favorite restaurants, Anthony’s and Ivar’s. Thus we ate at some obscure bar somewhere along the way to the gate. Breakfast for me was (ironically) some Ivar’s clam chowder, a breakfast burrito and two Bloody Mary's. Baolu had Stah-bucks and a breakfast croissant. Both our meals seemed very light, so we stopped off at Waji’s (Uwajimaya-lite) and both picked up munchies for the 5 hour flight to NOLA.

They bussed us out to the plane! How primitive. I'm guessing the remodel of the C gates means Alaska doesn't have enough jetways to use. Our plane is completely full and mostly women! Columbus Day weekend jaunt to the Big Easy for 30-something females? Baolu and I have aisle seats across from each other, but the chick sitting center seat next to me is very annoying, flipping her hair, elbowing me, continually motioning with her hands and babbling nonsense to her friend on the window. I'm thinking either amphetamines or too much caffeine.

Our pilot really throws the plane around. Coming into New Orleans our 737 (hopefully not a MAX) noticeably lurched downward. Then he absolutely SLAMMED the plane onto the runway. I'm amazed he didn't blow a tire.

Baggage claim at MSY is as farked up as ever. There are 14 carousels in the airport, but they make ALL incoming flights share 4. Absolute chaos. Bags didn’t come out for 50 minutes despite Alaska’s 20 minute guarantee and they switched carousels on us 3 times. I think this is a regular performance because the lone Alaska rep (who would issue a refund) locked his small office and disappeared, never to be seen again. It was like a scene from the movie “Airplane!” as crowds of people hustled from place to place at each garbled announcement.

A quick Lyft took us into the Four Points Sheraton right on Bourbon Street. The party was already started (this is the view from our room):




What better place to celebrate my upcoming sixties than the Hermčs bar at Antoine’s!



A string of Cognac Sazerac for B and Old Fashioneds for me led into some wonderful New Orleans cuisine.



And, YOWZA, that New Orleans food -- Cajun, Creole, it is just indescribably yummy. Nothing else like it in the world.



As Baolu documents the culinary masterpieces, dessert is not far behind.

Back out on Bourbon Street, the party is in full swing.  Par-tay, Baolu!!!



Hey, look at this...our hotel is on the site of the old, historical Opera House. I'd say that calls for a drink.  BTW, that catfish B ordered was outstanding. So light and fluffy.  Something about being passed through a Louisiana kitchen...





Sunday, October 13th
Happy birthday to meeee!


Comes the dawn. After a restless night’s sleep, Baolu serenades me with the Happy Birthday song. The party outside our window went on until about 3am. It was so loud, the windows and walls were vibrating. Thankfully, the Sheraton provided bedside earplugs which made sleep theoretically possible. Here is a view of the wreckage from last night's debauchery:



B fancies herself some Cafe Du Monde beignets for breakfast, so we trudge down Toulouse Street to the riverside on Decatur Street. Even at 9am, there’s a line down the block.

What’s this? Right across the street is Monty’s on the (Jackson) Square with the clever slogan, “Why wait? We have beignet fries.” Why not, indeed. Baolu got her beignets whilst I had the crab cake Benedict with grits -- oh ho, those grits, so creamy (my mouth is watering thinking of them).



After chewings, we wander around Jackson Square hitting all the gift shops. What's this? I spot a tiger purse way up on the wall. Baolu has to have it!

Finally, we head over to the fabled Acme Oyster House with their rude employees with such contempt for us unwashed tourists. Got two shrimp & oysters Po’boys to go. A bemused Baolu awaits our lunch outside the restaurant. It would eventually, grudgingly, be handed over.



Back to the room, we packed up, checked out and Lyfted over to NOLA Union Station. Completed in 1956 for use by 8 railroads.

Gulf, Mobile and Ohio
Illinois Central
Kansas City Southern
Louisville and Nashville
Missouri Pacific
Southern Pacific
Southern Railway
Texas and Pacific



Today, we are going to ride Amtrak's train #58, "The City of New Orleans" to Chicago. Inside, the station has beautiful murals high up on the walls. Magnolia Room is the small, rather pedestrian, first class lounge.



They load us 45 minutes before departure, so there’s plenty of time to walk up to the head end. In an amazing coincidence, our locomotive is #13! And our sleeper is 5900, my birth year (sort of). What are the odds of all that happening?



When our hogger pulls out, right on the dot, Baolu and I are enjoying our Po’ Boy lunch washed down with a good bottle of Joel Gott cab brought from home. Look what B bought in the Union Station gift shop!  Tigers!



Shortly after departure our car attendant Anthony stopped by to take our dinner order (we opted to eat in our room for the 7 o’clock seating....slipped Anthony a fiver upon delivery). We both had the creole shrimp & andouille dish and it’s quite good -— a notch or two above airline first class.

October 1st, Amtrak replaced full diner service on #58/59 with the dreaded “cross-country diner-lounge”.  It wasn’t so bad for just an overnight trip and we’ll still get full food service on Tuesday’s Chief #3.



About 30 minutes into our trip, we stop for half an hour waiting for #59 to pass. There’s so much pad in the schedule, we are pretty much on time by Memphis.



It’s a beautiful evening as we roll north through Mississippi.



We have an engineer who just blows and blows and blows the whistle. Where there’s no grade crossing - no track work. I think what he’s doing is he starts blowing at the whistle post and just keeps on blasting away until reaching the crossing. Or crossings.  At least the horn is reasonably in tune, so it’s a pleasant, if monotonous symphony.

Seeing fistfuls of Canadian National locomotives on the old Illinois Central (Mainline of Mid-America) just looks WRONG.



CN has the roughest track I’ve ridden on in quite a while, almost the entire 900 mile journey. We are bouncing up and down, side to side and hanging on for dear life. It only smoothed out when we hit the suburban Metra Electric District outside Chicago.

The logistics of moving around in a deluxe bedroom with two suitcases is a bit crowded, but manageable. The toilet is fine, but the shower is way too cramped for someone of my height (and girth). I think on #3, I’ll shower downstairs. B remembers from a previous Empire Builder trip, it’s much more spacious.

Nighttime on the City of New Orleans. Anthony made down our beds while we visited the lounge car.  Ahh....crisp, white linens and the blue nightlight overhead. Just LOVE that blue light. In that middle frame, note Baolu enjoying a bedtime snack of New Orleans "Chee Wees" a sort of Cheetos, but much more flavorful and less salty.




Monday, October 14th

Just time for a claustrophobic shower and a quick breakfast as we rocket along past Illinois corn fields.



"All along the northbound odyssey, the train pulls out of Kankakee..."



#58 arrived early 9:03 (9:15) even though we sat next to Soldier Field for 25 minutes waiting for outbound train #391 The Saluki (what’s a Saluki? — some sort of sausage?). From there, we circled around 180 degrees and BACKED into Union Station. Got a great view of Amtrak’s diesel shop and coach yard. We clamber off #58, tip Terrance a 20 spot, and roll down the platform to Union Station.



From Canal Street, we Lyft to our hotel inside the loop. Only $6.20! The Lyft. Not the hotel.

Sometimes it pays to be a Marriott’s member. Even though check in time is 4:00pm, our room is ready at 9:30am when we arrive. It is an enormous suite with full kitchen, separate bedroom and TWO TVs. Schweet!

Lunch is deep dish pizza at Chicago’s world-famous Giordano’s. It takes 45 minutes, but is well worth the wait.  Excellent pizza.  Some of the best we've ever tasted.



We’re both stuffed 3 hours later as I type this (I’m back at the room, and Baolu has Lyft-ed over to Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” for some punitive shopping). The pizza was so gutty, dinner consisted of just a very robust bottle of Indian Wells & watching a American Pickers marathon. I hit the hay early, but Baolu stayed up to watch a house-hunting series.





Tuesday October 15th

Sleeping in today, as #3, The Southwest Chief doesn’t leave until 2:45pm.

Over a splendid breakfast buffet (scrambled egg whites and andouille sausage, yum and yowza!), it is decided we’re gonna hit Giordano’s once more for lunch.

Packing and lounging consumes 90 minutes until 10:30 arrives. Time to checkout, stash the bags and hoof over to 223 West Jackson. We're still a bit early, so we decide to check out the interior of the Board of Trade building.  Absolutely gorgeous art deco, Daily Planet/Superman movie furnishings. Coolest looking mailboxes you've ever seen. And look! Here's Baolu holding the world's largest martini.



We arrive at Giordano’s at 11am and are promptly seated at a window booth. Great sidewalk people watching helps pass the time and 50 minutes later our individual pan pizza's come out. Just as good, world-class grazing as before (she looks left, she looks right). Lindsay says, "Check it out!" if you're ever in downtown Chicago (it's fairly close to Union Station).



Okay, back to the hotel to retrieve our luggage and Lyft over to Union Station. After a few wrong turns, we finally find the Metropolitan Lounge for first class passengers. Showing our tickets, we stow our luggage and head out to explore the station. Lindsay gets in a few train shots, then it's time to go wait for the Chief. We discover the "Pennsylvania Room" upstairs which has some beautiful scenes from the Pennsylvania Railroad's days of yore.  That's a late 1930's DeSoto parked beside the streamlined K4 - Thanks Mark!!



Upon check in, we had been told to be in the lobby ready to go at 2:15pm. We're in position when the fatal message is broadcast that "Train #3 will delay departure due to a mechanical issue". Oh, No. That could be anything from a bad order locomotive to a malfunctioning toilet. Say it isn't so!

It isn't so.  Luck is still on our side as another booming announcement is made just 30 minutes later. They hustle us (as a group) down to board our sleepers on Track 20 where #3 awaits. Terrance, our car attendant, greets us at the steps. I schlep our bags up the winding staircase after stashing our HUGE suitcase downstairs in the luggage racks.

After the coach passengers board, we slip out of Union Station 45 minutes late. Soon we're on the 3 track raceway out of town. Coming up on Lisle, we slow and just barely creep along. It's obvious there's a Metra train ahead of us making all the stops. We make our station stop at Naperville, but it's not until past Aurora (the end of the Metra line) where we really start to move.



Our 6:45 seating for dinner finds us sitting across from two sisters - one from London and one from Scotland. I have the flat iron steak medium rare whilst B has the pasta dish. It is pitch black outside as we cross the Mississippi River (can't see a damn thing) and into Iowa (new state for me and B).

Through the darkness, we roar towards La Plata, Missouri (LAP) and its fabulous railcam! I manage to notify the virtual railcam chat group that we're coming. We wave a flashlight salute with our phones as our sleeper passes the depot (those two dots the silver-haired gentleman is staring at).



BTW, if you'd like to view the La Plata railcam, visit YouTube and search for La Plata railcam.  It's the first thing that pops up.  I didn't include the YouTube link because they're always changing it.

Shortly thereafter, Terrance stops by to pull down our beds. Time to hit the hay, but first....a libation. Baolu gets us some coffee, I provide the Baileys and it's a soothing nightcap to salute the end of day.
 

Wednesday, October 16th

I'm up about 5:30am for a toilet and shower as Baolu snoozes in the upper bunk. Working the shower is difficult, but manageable this time. I carefully take the toilet tissue out of the holder before my shower and set it outside.  Otherwise, we'd wind up with a sopping wet mess of TP as we discovered on the "City of NOLA". <VBG>

I notice the train is right on time and as 6:30 is rolling around, I'm getting a little peckish. Unfortunately as we roll into Colorado from Kansas, we revert to Mountain Time....and it's now 5:30 again.   Argh...denied!

At breakfast, we are seated with an older gentleman who asks polite questions about our travels. He boarded the train last night in Kansas City. His traveling companion is absent, so he orders breakfast for himself only. We are all just tucking into our repast when his partner, a flaming homosexual "in full PMS mode" according to Baolu (NTTAWWT), storms up and sits down.

"Where WERE you??" he whines. "I've been looking ALL over for you!" "I'm been TEXTING you --- didn't you get any of my MESSAGES??" The waiter stops by and the petulant fellow explains he just CAN'T load up on carbs today and orders just eggs and sausage, "and no bread, no potatoes, no grits".

After this demonstration, we decide it's best to finish breakfast and get out of the middle of this lover's spat. Breakfast was good -- I had the omelet and B had the scrambled eggs. We both had grits and croissants. Heading back to the room, we discover our sleeper is named, "Maryland".



Terrance has our room back in daytime configuration so we watch a gorgeous sunrise and I pull out the laptop to get caught up on my notes. Baolu takes a quick cat nap on the sofa.



As of right now, we are sitting in La Junta, Colorado staring at some Powder River basin coal hoppers and "waiting for time".  Can't leave until 8:04am.

We finally trundle out of La Junta and stop in a siding about halfway to Trinidad, Colorado. After 30 minutes, what should roll past, but our opposite number #4, over 11 hours late. (There was a derailment just outside Flagstaff which held him up until the tracks could be cleared.)



After piddling around some more, we finally have our track warrant from Fort Worth. We proceed about 10 miles, then come to a grinding halt. Signal problems, we are told. Understandably, BNSF doesn't want to spend too much money on this line as this section is pretty much Amtrak-only. We are proceeding at restricted speed to the next signal. Hopefully, it'll be green.

We're into Trinidad about 70 minutes down. The Conductor says we should be about an hour late into Lamy, New Mexico and Albuquerque. Outside Trinidad, we begin to climb Raton Pass.



From the summit tunnel, we cross into New Mexico and descend the pass on a series of sweeping horseshoe curves.



Meanwhile it's 11-ish and I break out the J.D. for me and a Hennessey for B. It's the only way to fly. Shortly thereafter, the dining car steward stops by to make our reservations for lunch at noon and dinner at 5:30pm.  This is the life.

We leave Raton, New Mexico about noon, so head to the diner. They seat us with this really creepy guy wearing sunglasses who pumps us for information, but offers nothing in return. Socially challenged maybe?  Deviant on the lam, perhaps?  Eww...

Lunch is good - I have the cheeseburger and Baolu has the mussels! Back to the room and shortly thereafter we open our last bottle of wine, the H3 Merlot. Here we are in fabulous Las Vegas! (New Mexico, that is) at 1:17pm (12:12)

It's a long, enjoyable haul through the beautiful mesas and sagebrush and up and over Glorieta Pass. The small hamlet of Glorieta (at the top of the pass) features an elaborate ex-Santa Fe Railway depot converted into the local post office. Beautiful red rock formations trackside as we descend towards Lamy.



We take siding just outside Lamy so #4 can do it's station work (this #4 is much closer to on time than the one we saw earlier this morning). #4 also features two private cars on the rear including a Baltimore and Ohio dome car bringing up the markers.



NOTE: Apologies for all the dirty window pictures. The Chicago coach yard didn't do a very good job washing our train.



After making our short station halt, it is on to Albuquerque for a major servicing stop (they fuel the locomotives, water the cars, drop off trash bags and dirty laundry, etc. I even see a car knock (carman) inspecting the trucks of each car. Meep! Meep! A Rail Runner peeks into our sleeper -- later we see a short train waiting for its next run (Santa Fe -- Albuquerque -- Belen).



Baolu and I hike up to the head end to take a selfie-stick portrait with #7, our lead locomotive.



Heading back to our sleeper, we stop to buy a couple trinkets. I had hoped they would have had a larger bowl than this, but I think it's attractive, nonetheless. Also got a grab shot or two of the classic AT&SF depot, but putting that Greyhound emblem up there? Blasphemy!



Despite warnings this would be only be a 20 minute stop, it stretches out to sixty minutes, so we remain over an hour late (and indeed we would arrive in Los Angeles the next day about 70 minutes down.)

It is getting dark as we race along the old Santa Fe (now BNSF) southern transcon. The dispatcher is doing a great job threading us through the traffic jam into Belen. I stopped counting after 5 eastbounds waiting their turn to get into the big yard and crew change point.

Supper is good once more. I have the steak and Baolu partakes of the "surf and turf" (crab cakes and steak). I wind up eating most of B's steak as she wasn't too hungry. By this time Baolu has bonded with our food server gal and gives her a big hug as we leave the diner (I tipped her lavishly because she gave us great service and had a very good sense of humor about the whole thing.

Soon Terrance stops by to turn down the beds and it's time to hit the hay.


Thursday, October 17th

I'm up at oh-dark thirty for a shower and morning purification. The dining car steward had announced last night that the diner would serve only an "express breakfast" from 5am to 6am....if they were on time (which we weren't) closing up no later than San Bernardino.

Thus at 5:45am, I trudge up to the diner and have a wonderful plate of scrambled eggs, sausages, potatoes and a croissant. Our food server gal was all concerned Baolu wasn't with me, but I explained she's not a big breakfast eater so early in the morning. She even offered to fix something for me to take back to the room for her. She got another fat tip. Great service. Thank you Amtrak On-Board Services!!

Back in the room, B was in the shower and after a sleeper cup of coffee was ready and raring to go! We got our first sunrise pictures as the train descended Cajon Pass. Just like the night before, train after train after train passed us on the triple track mainline.



We rolled into San Bernardino about 7:30. They have a beautiful station there.



Man, I forgot what a HUGE area Los Angeles is. Continuous city and suburbia views. And thus, train after train to pass on the triple track line stuffed to capacity.  Business is booming on the BNSF.



Fullerton, the last stop before LA Union Station, also has a gorgeous ex-Santa Fe station.



We soar up and over the Los Angeles River, then pass the Amtrak engine pit and coach yard.



I spy three private varnish stored trackside -- one a Union Pacific and two Southern Pacific.



Finally, with a broadside view of downtown Los Angeles, we turned the corner at Mission Tower and trundled into Los Angeles Union Station at 9:11, just 71 minutes late, not bad!



Baolu's breakfast/lunch was a wonderful feast at Cafe Crepe, right in the depot (I had one too -- it was my lunch) ;p



Now to Lyft out to Orange County. There are just 3 taxis at the stand with no takers but on the OTHER side of the construction detritus is a constant flow of Lyft and Uber ride shares.

Our driver is prompt and soon we are zooming south on The Five towards Buena Park. Northbound is the morning "rush" which is completely clogged.

Soon, we pull up at our Marriott Courtyard and once again, the room is ready for us! We dump our bags and "minimize" (wallet and iPhone only) then walk the mile or so down to Knott's Berry Farm.

Yeah, Knott's Berry Farm, baby! We arrive about 11 and....the park is DESERTED. There are NO LINES at any of the big roller coasters. This is great! I know, roller coasters at my age? With my girth? Well, we had a little trouble buckling up on a couple rides, but otherwise smooth sailing.

We both had a blast. I think our favorite was the gigantic wooden roller coaster that just went on and on and on. We even rode a couple of the "kiddie" rides (the water slide ride). This one had a line, but no more than a 20-30 minute wait. Here's little Baolu a bit miffed at getting soaked from head to toe (somehow she rode the water ride in the front, keeping ME from getting wet....):



Not to worry, she was completely dry in 30 minutes (man, California is DRY).

The other kiddie ride was the Mine train run which was sort of a disappointment. No careening downhill at breakneck speeds on this one. Just lots of corny jokes inside the mine and fake TNT explosions at the very end. Ya can't win them all...



Back in the 1950's or 1960's Knott's Berry Farm picked up some Rio Grande Southern equipment and set it up on the grounds. We were able to ride the "Galloping Goose", but their steam locomotive is only trotted out on weekends. Pity...

Well. We've got the roller coasters at the berry farm KNOCKED. (Hi Carl!) So we trudge over to the enormous gift store on the property and buy lots of JAM and a knick knack or two. Got my Boysenberry T-shirt, see? ;p



Trudge the mile back to the hotel arriving about 4pm. At five, we cross the street to Buena Park's most FABULOUS
cafe (according to AAA and Yahoo anyways), drum roll, please......P O R T O S !!!!

Meh. The place is PACKED. Turns out it's more of a breakfast and lunch place and we were Jonesing for maybe a nice sit down meal. Back across the street to the Marriott and their little "bistro bar". We wait for the opening at 5 pm and then, BOOM! Suddenly, there are now a million people in the lobby and just one guy to serve us....YAH!

The poor fellow was so overwhelmed, he gave us all our food TO GO in a yuge shopping bag. Okay, we can do this. Back to the room we go and enjoy a wonderful feast of hotel munchies. Not too shabby, all-in-all.  Cordials, then bedtime!


Friday, October 18th

Up and at 'em! Time to head for home.  But first, breakfast (guess where?) That's right! Portos awaits. This time (7am) there's
hardly anyone here. OMG the food is so good! Take a look at our breakfast!  Num num num....



In addition, B & I got these potato rolls and meat pies to go for the flight home. Supposedly items these guys are famous for.  Okay time to call the Lyft and head for the airport.

We are rolling down the 5 and even in the carpool lane it's slow going. Still, our driver gets us to SNA - John Wayne Airport in under an hour. Again, the TSA pre-check line is a breeze and we're in the airport with plenty of time for our flight on Delta Airlines.

Or so we thought. The plane arrives from somewhere, but they are not boarding at the appointed time. The captain comes up the jetway. We overhear, "Mechanical problem" and "light will not extinguish". This could be trouble.

What will this day be like....I wonder?



Sure enough, we get the bad news that the plane is unusable (we later overhear it is "excessive engine vibration". Yikes! No, I'd rather not fly today.  A mechanic comes up the jetway shaking his head...

Soon, they herd everyone from Gate 6 to Gate 1 Bravo where we are to be rebooked on another flight. We overheard the poor woman in front of us get the bad news that, "all flights are fully booked until tomorrow". NOOOOOOOO!!!!

Another Delta person waves us over to his podium. He has a very happy demeanor and quickly rebooks us on a flight leaving at 1:30pm. Wow, that's better than we dreamed hope for!

As we head over to Gate 3 for this flight, an announcement is made for Baolu and Lindsay Korst to return to the podium. Oh no, some schmuck wants our seats! But no. They are giving us an UPGRADE to comfort class (whatever that is), so no, Nancy Pelosi has NOT bumped us.

1:30 stretches on until 2:30 when our little Embraer 175 lands from Salt Lake City. The staff really hustles things along and gets us aboard in record time.

Soon we are off to Seattle.  Wow, these comfort class seats are indeed comfy and so much leg room (at least in seats 5C/5D).  What's this?  Free booze to go with our Portos grub, yahoo!!  THAT'S what I'm talking about.  Well, I'm a satisfied customer.  To top things off, miracle of miracles, our luggage is there BEFORE we land! They must have fixed the problem aircraft and flown it to Sea-Tac after all.

Anyway, a longer than expected, but ultimately successful journey home. I hope you enjoyed the story as much as we did experiencing it.  It was the trip of a lifetime with Amtrak at its best -- All Aboard, America!

THE END