Saturday, June 28, 2014

California to Chicago and Michigan by Rail - Final Thoughts

This trip was interesting as it had several different focal points; the train, Chicago, Michigan and the reconnecting with my cousins and other family members who I hadn’t seen for a long time.  It seemed like we were always on the move, but never really rushed, it just kind of flowed along.  

My Aunt Judy, who was with us the whole time, was a wonderful traveling companion and we all had a great time together.  It’s nice having an aunt near your own age and the bantering and joking between us reminded me of the times long ago when I lived in Michigan.  We also owe Judy a big thanks for the use of her car, for chauffeuring us around Sturgis and the biggest thanks for arranging the cousins reunion. I really enjoyed seeing my cousins after so long and reconnecting with them.  That was very special, thanks so much Judy.    

It was also great to have my brother Doug and his family fly in and join us in Michigan, we all had a great time together.  As usual, Val also gets a special thanks for all the research and planning she did to find all the great things we did.  As I said, a great trip, here are a few specific comments about several aspects of our travels.

The Train
Traveling by train is not for everyone, especially if you’re in a hurry, but Val and I really enjoy it.  Even with a bedroom compartment it’s not exactly luxury, but it’s certainly adequate and a whole lot of fun.  When we tell people we are traveling by train they always ask what we do to keep from getting bored, but that’s never been a problem for us.  The days go by quickly as we watch the ever changing scenery roll by, there’s time to read and even doze a little as the train's sound and gentle rolling put you in a state of relaxation.  There’s the meals to look forward to with food that’s not exactly gourmet, but actually quite good, and of course the people you meet.  Among others on this trip we met a couple from Australia who were seeing the USA by rail, a retired geologist and his wife who worked in the oil industry and I could compare notes with, and even a CNN Vice President who was traveling to New York City with his wife to start a new position.

Getting in four hours late to Chicago and seven hours late to Davis was a little frustrating, but didn’t really cause us any problems; you just have to go with the flow.  With the huge amount of coal, oil and freight we saw on this trip, I don’t think the schedule delays are going to go away anytime soon. We are big rail travel fans and certainly will take more train trips in the future.

We really enjoyed Chicago.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but I certainly wasn't expecting such a clean, interesting, beautiful and friendly city.  Our stay in the Aqua Building (another big thanks to Val for finding it) only added to our enjoyment.  We will return.

I moved to California in 1958 and have only sporadically visited since then, but I really enjoyed revisiting many things I remember from my childhood.  Not only was it great to see everyone, but also to visit places that brought back so many wonderful childhood memories was very special.  Michigan is a beautiful state and our five days of touring reminded me of that.  I don’t think I will stay away so long next time.

The Blog
I had high hopes of doing a live blog and updating daily as I always had Internet access, but it just didn’t happen, we were much too busy.  I faithfully kept a journal so I wouldn’t forget things, but there just wasn’t time to publish so I waited until we got home to put everything together.

That’s it for now, we had a great trip.  Stay tuned... We leave for Alaska in a week!

Friday, June 27, 2014

California to Chicago and Michigan by Rail - Califronia Zephyr West

We were up early as we had to be in Battle Creek by 8:55 to catch the Blue Water train to Chicago.  Judy picked us up at 7:00 and we arrived in Battle Creek with plenty of time to spare, particularly since the train was running almost a half an hour late.  Judy’s friend Barb who lives in Battle Creek and who we had met on one of Judy’s trips to California also dropped by the station so we got to talk to her for a while also.  The train finally arrived and it was time for our final sad farewells, we had a great time in Chicago and Michigan with Judy.

We arrived in Chicago nearly on time.  We then went to the Metropolitan Lounge, which is available for sleeping car passengers. to check our carry-on bags and then went out to get some lunch.  When we returned to the lounge it was packed with people as there were four trains leaving in quick succession.  They were also having delays. which also added to the crowded conditions.  It was finally time to load the Zephyr and we were finally on board.  The train was packed so it took quite a while to load, but we were finally on our way about forty minutes late.  Val and I sat and watched the countryside roll by and enjoyed just doing nothing.  After a late dinner we were soon ready for bed and called it a day.

The farmlands of Illinois and Iowa as we roll by one the train.

Going west we will gain an hour every night so it was nice to have an extra hour to sleep.  We had breakfast in the dining car and settled back to enjoy the morning.  One thing was very evident as we watched out the window – there were a tremendous amount of freight trains, particularly coal and oil tankers, being hauled.  This really impacts the schedule as there is a lot of freight train traffic and only a few tracks. Also the wear and tear on the tracks from the heavy freight is causing the tracks to be taken out of service for repair. 

We experienced this first hand in Denver where after arriving two hours late we were told there would be a four hour delay because the tracks were being repaired up ahead.  We got off the train and walked around a bit and had lunch in Denver and then returned to the train.  It turned out to be only a little over two hour delay, but leaving Denver was very slow because of all the train traffic that was held up by the repair.  

The new train station in Denver with the old building in the background.

We start our climb into the Rockies.
This is the repair work being done that held us up for two hours.

It’s starting to look like we’ll be pretty late getting into Davis tomorrow, but that won’t cause us any problems. It's obvious that if you’re in a hurry, the train’s probably not the best way for you to travel.  Here are some pictures from our journey through the Rockies, bear in mind these were shot through a dirty window on a moving train.

Enjoying the ride.

After another good night's sleep (we slept better than our eastbound trip) we were ready for our final day on the train. Also, we discovered we had lost more time during the night.  Oh well, just more time to enjoy the train ride.

(I have just noticed that the last part of this entry has disappeared, so I will reenter what I remember).

One of the benefits of being late was we were seeing parts of eastern Nevada that we had never seen from the train before as it is usually dark when we pass thorugh.

The Ruby Mountains near Elko, NV.
We lost more time as we had to stop in Sparks (which is just east of Reno) to pick up a coach car that had to be taken to California for repair.  By this time we were running seven hours late with little hope of making up any time.  After the Reno stop we started our climb over the Sierras late afternoon.  As always, the trip was very scenic especially with the sun setting as we neared the summit.

We followed the Truckee River as we climbed the Eastern Slope of the Sierras.

Our journey was almost over as we approach our final stop in Davis.

We finally made it to Davis just before ten, almost seven hours late, but this was not really a problem as we had hotel reservations just across the street.  We claimed our luggage loaded it in the car and made the short hop to the hotel and were in our rooms less than twenty minutes after our arrival.  It felt very good to sleep in a real bed after two nights on the train so we both slept quite well.

There is not much left to tell; we slept in a little, had breakfast at the hotel and started our drive home.  We were home by late afternoon and although we had a wonderful trip, it felt good to be home, at least for the short time before our next trip.

California to Chicago and Michigan by Rail - Back to Sturgis

The drive back to Sturgis was pretty short and we arrived early enough to have lunch in Sturgis, and then Val and I borrowed Judy’s car to drive out to see my Uncle Bob again.  My cousins Sherie and Laurie were visiting so it gave me a chance to catch up with them.   We left Uncle Bob's to return to Judy's, but first I wanted to make a short side trip to see one of my fondest memories from my childhood in Michigan.  My grandparents on my dad's side owned a farm with a river running through it called Fawn River.  They had made a picnic area where we had many suppers, reunions and picnics with family and friends.  We swam in the river, fished and it was just a really nice spot.  The farm has long since been sold, but the picnic spot was still there although someone had built a house there now, but it still looked just as idyllic as I remembered it.

Looking across Fawn River at what used to be a picnic area owned by my grandparents.

Looking the other way down Fawn River.
After returning the car to Judy we all went out to a Mexican restaurant for dinner and then she drove us to our hotel.

Sunday we spent the day at Judy’s doing laundry and helping her take care of a few things.  Then it was back to the hotel for our final night in Michigan.

California to Chicago and Michigan by Rail - Traverse City to Holland, Michigan

Today we will be driving south to Holland, Michigan where we will spend our final night together.  After the beautiful evening we had yesterday we were disappointed to see that the clouds had returned and the weather had turned cooler.  We had all day to make the short drive so we headed back to Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore to find the visitors center, which was at the south end of the park.  The visitors center was interesting and we’d wished we had seen it yesterday, but we had started at the north end so we missed it.

From there we drove north to the small town of Glen Arbor, which we had been told was interesting.  Val was looking for a necklace made of Petoskey Stone, which is the state stone of Michigan and is found no other place in the world than the Great Lakes.  It is fossilized coral and is very unique looking.  We walked around town and Val finally found what she was looking for so she was very happy.  We also found a very interesting place called the Cherry Republic where all their products had cherries in them, from candy to cherry salsa and best of all they let you sample everything.  They also had a café and a wine tasting room for tasting cherry wine.  We had lunch at the café and then decided we had better start heading south.

The rest of the day was mostly spent driving, but we did make one stop in Montague, Michigan to see the World's Largest Weather Vane.

The World's Largest Weather Vane
The sun did come out as we drove further south and it turned into a beautiful day.  We arrived in Holland and found our hotel and settled in.  Holland, Michigan is noted for it's Dutch theme and a Tulip Festival every spring.  No one felt like seeing the tourist sites so we opted for dinner at a BBQ place and then ice cream at Captain Sundae’s, which had to be the busiest ice cream place I had ever seen, it seemed like everyone in town was there. 

After that we headed back to the hotel. In the morning Doug and his family will be driving back to Chicago to catch their plane to Los Angeles, and Val, Judy and I will be driving back to Sturgis to spend our last couple of days before catching the train back to California.  We said our final goodbyes to Doug, Janis, Becky and Mandy and called it a night. 

California to Chicago and Michigan by Rail - Traverse City

We awoke this morning to the same cloudy skies we had yesterday, but it’s supposed to clear up later so we’ll hope for the best.  Today we would be exploring the area around Traverse City so after a quick breakfast we hit the road.  The first thing we did was to drive out the Old Mission Peninsula which splits Grand Traverse Bay in two.  It was a nice drive through some beautiful countryside.  At the end of the peninsula is Old Mission Point where there is a park and Old Mission Lighthouse.   

The Old Mission Lighthouse

Old Mission Lighthouse from the beach.

A small marina on west side of the Old Mission Peninsula.

We wandered around there for a while and then drove back on the western side of the peninsula and made our way to the Leelanau Peninsula, which forms the western side of Grand Traverse Bay.  We stopped about half way out in the town of Suttons Bay for lunch and then continued on to the end where we visited the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, which was a much larger facility than the Old Mission Lighthouse. The good news was that the weather predictions were correct and we did start to see the sun and some warmer temperatures.

The Grand Traverse Lighthouse
Judy taking a break in a nice spot.
Our next stop was the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore which started about half way down the west side of the Leelanau Peninsula on Lake Michigan.  We had trouble finding access as we didn’t have a map or any information, but we found a scenic drive which wound through forest and dune views.  The dunes were very impressive with steep slopes all the way down to the lakeshore.   


The steep side of a dune
It's a lot easier going down than up.  If you look closely in the
center of the picture, there is a guy trying to climb his way up. 

After the drive, Val, Judy and I decided to go back to our hotel and my brother and his family decided to find access so they could climb the dunes.  As we drove back the weather continued to clear and it turned into a beautiful afternoon.

We had decided to have a pizza delivered for dinner that night so after everyone had returned we had a pizza feast.  This was our last evening in Traverse City and with our first sunshine in a few days we went down to enjoy the beach at our hotel.  The beach is private and they provide lounges, barbecues and a dock.  There is also a fire pit, which they light every evening and provide the makings for s’mores so we spent some time roasting marshmallows over the fire and making s’mores.  The sun sets much later here than in Southern California so we spent quite a bit of time down on the beach enjoying ourselves; the perfect end to the day.

Val looking out from our third floor balcony.
The Tamarack Lodge from the beach.

The Tamarack Lodge from the pier.

Judy enjoying the balmy evening.
Everyone gathers around the firepit.

Doug preparing his marshmallows for s'mores.
Val enjoying her first ever s'more with Judy looking on.

Mandy feeding the mama duck and her
ducklings who decided to join our beach party

Sunset on Lake Michigan