Amtrak: California Zephyr: Day 3: Colorado to Chicago, Illinois

21 04 2018

Day 3: Sometime overnight we passed into Nebraska from Colorado, then around 6:30 am we passed into Iowa (IA), so I missed Nebraska entirely. Some may say that was a good thing. Fortunately, I’ve driven across Nebraska before, so I know what it looks like (from the Interstate, anyway) and how pretty it can be. (Bonus: I just added another US state to the list of those I’ve visited — Iowa! I think I’ve now visited some 40 of the 50 US states.)

This is the third and last day on the train. We’re scheduled to arrive at Chicago’s union Station at 2:50 pm, but as we were an hour late leaving Denver last night, I don’t expect us to get there on time, unless they made up a lot of time overnight. This is possible, because we’re no longer in the mountains and so the train can go faster.

Observations from today:

  • I slept reasonably well last night. I took an Advil (?) PM tablet before I went to bed, AND I put in my much better ear plugs (not the little foam ones given out on the plane). Then there was the wine, and the fact I had hardly slept the previous night. All in all, my sleep was much longer and stronger, though I did wake several times during the night.
  • For breakfast, I had the omelette and asked for it with guacamole, which came in a squeeze packet!!! I’ve never seen that before. Tasted fine, but there was a LONG list of unreadable ingredients, so who knows what was in it to stop it discolouring.
  • 8:15 am: We’re currently stopped at Creston, IA. There’s no cell service that I can connect to here, so I’ll have to wait a bit before I can post.
  • It’s very cloudy today — that overall grey nothingness that casts a dull pall over everything and just absorbs any light. As expected, the landscape is gently undulating farmland, with silos (grain?, corn? soy?), barns, farmhouses, and little towns. The trees appear to be bare — no leaf and flower buds are discernible yet from a passing train, though you can see birds’ nests. There are some patches of green grass, but mostly the fields are bare soil, waiting for the spring burst of life for the crops. Some fields have cattle in them. The predominant colours? Grey, brown, and yellow, with small patches of green.
  • Haha! Announcement from the conductor that marijuana is a federal class 1 drug, and that while it is legal in Colorado, it’s only legal there and not on this train, which is run by the federal government. She said that the DEA would be happy to invite anyone carrying marijuana to the DEA’s ‘hotel’, and she suggested if you did have marijuana that you get off at the next stop or dispose of it. I think the implication is that the DEA may get on the train at a stop in the future, or that the Amtrak Police officer I spoke to the other day has the authority to act on the DEA’s behalf. While the announcement was quite funny in its delivery and the words she used, there’s a bit of an issue here — passengers in rooms and roomettes CANNOT lock their room from the outside, which means that while you’re at meals or out of your room for any other reason (in the viewing car, perhaps), anyone could come into your room and plant drugs there.
  • After 2 days of travel, rain, and snow the windows aren’t looking as spotless as on Day 1.
  • I sat with the Amish couple at breakfast — they have 8 children, 33 grandchildren, and 7 great great grandchildren. She had her last child only a few weeks before her firstborn had their child. One of their daughters also has 8 children. They sold their farm (Elkhart [?], Indiana) to one of their daughters.
  • 8:40 am: 10 mins out from Osceola, IA, and still no cell service…. now I have cell service, but my laptop isn’t connecting to my mobile hotspot. Reboot everything… 1 bar, but no connection. 2 bars, no connection, but at least Google Maps on my phone has updated itself with Iowa locations. Got connected very briefly, then lost it again.
  • 8:55 am Next stop is in 75 mins, so hopefully I can connect properly by then. This time my SIM is from AT&T (previously T-Mobile) and up until now, I’ve been impressed with the coverage I’ve had in places where I didn’t expect to have it. But so far it’s not so great out here in the flyover states.
  • 9:20 am: Cariton, IA. No cell service…
  • 9:50 am: And today is brought to you by the colours grey and yellow! Fortunately, I’ve lived in this sort of country [Ontario, Canada] and I know how pretty it can be in full spring, summer, fall, and the depths of winter. It’s only during this nothingness between winter and full-blown spring that the colours are so dull. Add to that a very dull cloudy sky, and everything just sucks the light.
  • 10:20 am: 10 mins outside Ottumwa, IA, I got a little bit of cell service, the first all day that allowed me to do anything.
  • Early lunch today, which they started announcing at 10:30 am!! They’ve run out of a few items, so I had the Black Angus burger again. It’s still grey and yellow outside…
  • 12:00 noon: Crossed the mighty Mississippi from Iowa into Illinois, at Burlington, IA. Final stretch to Chicago now underway. We’re currently about 90 mins behind schedule, so if they don’t make up that time (unlikely with the freight traffic on this line), then we’ll be into Chicago after 4:30 pm. That’s OK for me — online reviews had indicated you could be an hour early or up to 8 hours late on this train, so I booked a hotel room for tonight so that I wasn’t under pressure to collect my rental car at a particular time. In hindsight, that was a wise move!
  • After the Mississippi, the undulating land turned into FLAT land. Still greys and yellow, but now flat. Flat as a pancake, except even pancakes have rounded edges. Did I mention it was flat?
  • We were late into Naperville, and are now 20 mins behind the time we were due into Chicago, which is about an hour away. No surprises there, with the accumulated delays we’ve had along the way. So instead of the scheduled 52 hours, the eventual trip will be about 53.5 hours. Actually, it took 53 hours — we got in just one hour late.

Bottom line: Was taking the train halfway across the US worth it? Absolutely! A great way to see parts of the country you may never have seen before, a great way to relax and let someone else take care of the driving and navigating and the meals, and for some I’m sure it’s a great way to meet people (I only went to the viewing car once, so only met new people at meals).

But to do it properly and without feeling claustrophobic, and if you have the funds to do so, consider a ‘bedroom’ in preference to a ‘roomette’, or a ‘roomette’ in preference to ‘coach’. With the bedrooms and roomettes, all your meals are included in your fare AND you get a bed to sleep in (though it may be the top bunk!). With the bedrooms, you get your own (tiny) toilet and shower, and power outlets; with roomettes, you have shared toilet/shower facilities (and possibly power outlets). I’m not sure if coach passengers get the option of a shower, and they have to pay for their meals, and sit up the entire way.

There was no wifi on the train I was on (California Zephyr), but with cell service (patchy and non-existent in places), I was able to hotspot my phone and get connected. For some, no connection at all for 3 days would be part of the charm.

Despite not having much contact with people (my choice), I wasn’t bored. The landscape changed so frequently that you didn’t have a chance to be bored. I just wish I knew more about geology so that I could’ve appreciated the Utah and Colorado landforms better.

Other hints: Take ear plugs for sleeping, and possibly a sleep-inducing drug if you have trouble sleeping on things in motion, such as planes. You can bring your own snacks and drinks, but be discreet and consume them in your own room, not in the public areas (there’s a snack bar that sells food, drinks, and alcohol, but they may not have the brands you want). Don’t bring in marijuana from Colorado! 🙂 Bring your own toiletries. The car attendant just showed me the storage area in my room near the hand basin where there were toiletries, wash cloths, tissues, and spare toilet paper!

Would I do it again? With enough time, a route that suited my plans, and sufficient funds — YES.

 One final thing: They have accessible bedrooms in the lower level of the sleeping carriages. I’m not sure how they deal with meals for those in these rooms — perhaps the staff bring them down? The stairs to the upper level are very narrow, though they do have handrails on both sides. Very large people or those with mobility issues may have trouble negotiating the stairs, as well as the toilet/shower facilities in the bedrooms (I believe the shared toilet/shower facilities downstairs for the roomette people are bigger.)

See also:

Amtrak: California Zephyr: Day 2: Utah to Colorado

20 04 2018

We stopped at Salt Lake City, UT around 2 am, then continued on through Utah throughout the night and into Day 2.

Observations from Day 2 (some photos are here, but there’s a link to all 200+ photos below):

  • I hardly slept. And I know why. It was the constant vibration. It’s the same on planes and is why I don’t sleep on them either. Sitting up you don’t really notice the movement, but once you’re prone, the movement is constant. When we were going through the areas where we were at full speed, I tried to count the number of movements in a minute — there were well over 200. It’s not heavy rocking and rolling, but constant small and uneven movements. When the train slowed down, it was better, but the most I got was a couple of short cat naps. I wore my ear plugs to cut the noise, and they helped, but they don’t stop the moving. Let’s see what tonight brings…
  • The landscape this morning is similar to that of late yesterday in northern Nevada, with lots of dry high desert vegetation, salt pans, dry gulches etc., but this time we have more undulations in the land as well as rocky and craggy mountains and formations in the distance. I’m hoping we get to see some classic Utah canyons — we’re currently headed towards Green River and then Grand Junction (following I-70 now), which are not far north of Moab and Arches National Park. (Note: Green River is most definitely NOT green, and I’m not sure if there’s a river! Update: Yes, there was.)
  • Breakfast this morning was scrambled eggs (a bit dry) and bacon (very dry and crisp), breakfast potatoes, which I didn’t eat, and a square thing they called a croissant — it tasted good with butter and Vegemite!
  • Taking a shower in the tiny cubicle actually works and I didn’t fell too crammed. The water was very hot and the pressure was great. Once I got used to the controls and the auto shut-off every couple of minutes (you just press the button to restart the flow for another minute or two), it was easy to get my hair and body washed. Amtrak supplies towels, but no toiletries or wash cloths, so you need to bring your own and toiletries, wash cloths, and tissues (they’re in the white cupboard above and next to the hand basin, as I found out on the last day! They also supply hand soap and a hand towel at the small wash basin in the main room.
  • Saw a few cattle while I was having breakfast, and some wildlife! Either deer or antelope — I’m not sure, but there was a small herd of them. They didn’t prance, so I suspect not (pronghorn?) antelope, and they had white backsides, so perhaps white-tailed deer? (the elderly Amish man suggested mule deer?)
  • There’s nothing like a decent canyon with mesas and all sorts of rock formations to affirm your insignificant place in the universe!

  • From the train I can see just the red tips of the rocks at Arches National Park across the plain, about 2+ miles away according to Google Maps. But from the train, the colours of the rock formations are muddy browns, yellows, and greys. Totally different from Arches. How can something so close be so different?
  • The train is so much more relaxing than driving, even as a passenger. As a driver you don’t see much except what’s in front of you and immediately to the side, and as a passenger, you’re either concentrating on navigating or are a pseudo-driver, looking out for danger on the road or beside it. On the train, your time is your own and you can relax and just enjoy the vistas around you.
  • We’ve just gone under I-70 and are heading towards the Colorado River. I don’t think we’ll see it for quite a while, if at all. Update: We followed the Colorado for much of the day.
  • Finally, some green grass and bushes (somewhere near Cisco, UT) — there must have been some rain here in the past week or so.
  • McInnes Canyon National Park – spectacular! I don’t think you can get to it easily from the road. As we went through the canyon, we skirted the Colorado River (on the train’s right; I’m sitting on the left). I didn’t see any ‘mooners’ though, but I did see one campsite with 2 tents and 4 rafts on the bank. It was probably too cold for the mooners!
  • Once we came out of the McInnes Canyon, we crossed under I-70 and were back into undulating (dry desert) ranchland, near a dot on the map called ‘Mack’. We’ve now left Utah and are in Colorado. And I just saw my first cattle feedlots 😦
  • About 10 mins late into Grand Junction, CO — not bad for 24 hours straight travel time. First time I’ve stepped of the train. Cool temperature, but then its elevation is 4578 feet.
  • Coming out of Grand Junction I saw a freight train heading west — it had three locos on the front and two on the back. That must be some climb it’s done! A later one had 6 locos, all at the front.
  • Fruit trees are starting to blossom near Grand Junction.
  • It snowed while we were having lunch (between Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs). I’ve been told that we’ll lose cell reception totally for at least 3 hours between Glenwood Springs and then we get it back again as we go through the Colorado mountains and tunnels. We’re following the Colorado River now and it’s raining quite heavily, so I don’t think I’ll be taking many photos for this leg.
  • For lunch I had the Black Angus beef burger. It was pretty darned decent for a burger produced on a train. Burger, cheese, bacon, dill, onion, lettuce, and maybe tomato too? with potato crisps on the side. No mayo etc. in the burger so it didn’t turn into mush.
  • Between the narrow gaps of the canyon walls and the train track, the overhead wires change from a ‘t’ formation to an ‘i’, with all the connectors running down the pole instead of across the top of it on the t-bar. Update — not the case — see another note further below.
  • Many of the boulders that have come down from the tops of the mesas and canyon walls are as big as cars, some even as big as houses.
  • Ain’t modern communication wonderful! I’m on a train going through the mountains in Colorado, following the Colorado River, and I have cell phone signal. A fellow Aussie (from Queensland) is with her family at the Menin Gate in Belgium waiting for the end of day bugle call. I know this because she’s posted on Facebook where she is. I let her know that my great uncle is memorialised in the Canadian section. She asks which division etc. I just happen to have my family tree software and database on my laptop so I tell her Canadian Infantry, 58th battalion. Within a minute she sends me a photo of the plaque he’s memorialised on, and a close-up of his name. My mind is officially blown!
  • Mountains. Great big towering and close-to-the road mountains. And a fast-flowing Colorado River, with a double-decker I-70 on one side and the train track on the other side of the canyon. Unfortunately the rain precludes taking any photos so you’ll just have to believe me when I say how AWESOME these mountains are and this trip is. And tunnels. There are tunnels too! (no snow on these mountains — yet…)
  • Stopped at Dotsero (sounds like Dot Zero!) while we wait for the westbound California Zephyr to pass us. Conductor now telling us no more phone service very soon as we’ll go north of I-70 and leave the towers behind.
  • I saw two beaver dams and lodges in a side stream of the Colorado — I think the beavers had made the side stream, by the way! Saw quite a few more beaver dams and lodges on the Colorado later in the day – those little guys can certainly change an ecosystem in a short period of time.
  • I wish I knew more about geology than I do. This is a geologist’s paradise!!
  • The Roundup River Ranch looks like a BIG operation on the banks of the Colorado River.
  • Sometimes the colours of the rocks changes dramatically — from muddy browns, greys, and yellows to vibrant orange reds and terracotta. Then there are the blacks in the red rocks (indicating iron?) and greens in some of the lighter-coloured earths (indicating copper, perhaps?). And the layers go from horizontal strata to clines and anticlines (I think I have the right words), sometimes in a few feet. The power of the forces that did this boggles my mind.
  • You know, I bought along ebooks and magazines and other stuff to read and halfway through the trip I haven’t touched any of it. The ever-changing landscape has completely captured my attention.
  • Some of the people I’ve met at meals:
    • A truck driver who had an accident near Los Angeles, fortunately after dropping his load off. He and the other driver are OK, but his truck has about $50K damage done to it (other driver’s fault) and it has to stay in California for repair, so he’s catching the train back to the Chicago area (he won’t fly any higher than 500 ft in the air). He doesn’t have income protection insurance so in addition to the repair (covered by insurance), he’s also out of work for several weeks, then has to get back to California to pick up his truck once it’s done. Yes, he owns the truck and drives it on behalf on another company.
    • A couple whose children bought them tickets to various places in the US for their 50th wedding anniversary.
    • A retired sports broadcaster (sound guy) who figures he’s flown enough for several lifetimes. He started in Minneapolis and trained to Portland, OR, then down to Sacramento. This train takes him to Denver where he’s catching up with a friend, then flying home to Minneapolis. The train legs will take 5 days to do that loop from Minneapolis to Denver.
    • A father, his adult son, and his son-in-law, all living in Indianapolis, who are just doing this as a bonding exercise and because they can. They were surprisingly well-versed in the Australian political system!
  • The Rockies are aptly named — there’s a helluva lot of rock. And much of it is precipitous and completely impassable, which makes you wonder how on earth the early settlers traversed this inhospitable country with their wagons. Horses and people on foot might have been able to make it, but not wagons — at least not in many of the places I’ve seen in Colorado today. The river valleys can’t be guaranteed to have pasture lining the banks — in many cases it’s sheer walled canyons, or massive strewn boulders. And the rivers themselves are dangerous — fast flowing, deep in places, with impassable rapids.
  • Rock slide alarm system — who knew? They are like phone lines that alert the engineer that rocks may be on the railway line (see the first photo below). They don’t stop a slide. We’ve now stopped in the Lower Gore Canyon as the alert system is showing red, which means there may be rocks on the line and the staff have to shift them. The drop-off is STEEP. REALLY STEEP. Not good for me, so I’ve come back into my room to sit down on the left (mountain) side. This track is one way only, not two tracks. And it’s freakishly high and close to the edge of the canyon (I took the canyon photos below just after we entered Gore Canyon, and before it got really scary — I didn’t take any while we were stopped and EVERYONE was on the river side of the train!). And now they’ve just said there’s a rock on the track and the staff just have to go up and hopefully move it/them off the track. Far out, brussel sprout. I’m definitely NOT in my comfort zone… 5 mins later and we’re moving again, very very slowly. I really don’t want to look out the right side down the very steep drop to the Colorado River – there be my mental ‘don’t go there’ dragons!!! We’re now through to an area where it’s much less precipitous. I can breathe… And it’s now 3:45 pm, so I think it’s time for a wine! Engineer/conductor just told us the rocks were a decent size — about 200 lb each, and it took a couple of guys to get them off the track. We’re now through the Upper Gore Canyon and into flat pastureland, and I’m feeling a little more comfortable. A freight train was waiting for us to pass on the other side, ready to tackle that line heading west. That was certainly a scary 30 mins! I’m still trying not to think about the thousands of tonnes of train balanced precariously on a narrow ledge high above a fast-flowing and freezing cold river and the STEEP drop to that river…

  • Back into rangeland, and snowy fields. Much more undulating hills now than precipitous mountains.
  • And now into Byer’s Canyon, also with lots of rock slide alarm system wires — earlier, I thought these were phone/electric lines and that they were an alternative to ‘t’ bar ones. But they’re not — they’re the alarm system.
  • And now back to flatland, still following the Colorado River.
  • If anyone suggests whitewater rafting the Colorado River, be aware that many parts are treacherous, unable to be reached by anything if there’s an accident, and have HUGE boulders either sticking out of the water or silently waiting for prey underneath the surface. Not for this little black duck!
  • Estimated time into Denver will be about 30 mins late, likely because of the stop we did in Gore Canyon to get the rocks off the track. Plus the 15 mins we were late into Grand Junction.
  • I find it amusing that when we come to a designated stop, the announcer mentions a fresh air break followed immediately by info regarding smokers! So much for fresh air…
  • We went through a 3-tunnel thing where the front of the train was coming out of the third tunnel, while the back was going into the first. The announcer told us that the Steven Seagal movie — Under Siege 2? — was filmed there. Something about the hijacking of a train…
  • And now an announcement about dinner and getting in quickly because they have to do something with power (at Fraser/Winter Park?) which means no power to cook food! Seems we’ve been operating with one loco since Green River, so they have to cut normal power for a few minutes to go up the grade to the tunnel as they need one loco to go up and one for power. Cutting the power (air con etc.) gives them full power in the one loco for going ‘over the hump’. Likely to be only a few minutes. Tunnel built 1923-1927, 3rd longest railroad tunnel in the US, and 4th longest in North America.
  • Fraser is about 8500 ft, higher than anywhere in Australia. After Winter Park, we go through the Moffat Tunnel (about 9000 ft, and 6.2 miles long). This tunnel crosses the continental divide. We can’t go between cars while we’re in the tunnel — residual coal dust, diesel fumes etc.
  • And into the tunnel… Pitch black outside, as you’d expect, but they didn’t need to cut power because the first loco had enough grunt to get us through. It should all be downhill from here…
  • After we come out of the tunnel, we’ll be following a different river — the Colorado only flows on the western side of the divide.
  • And we’re out… into the light, though with low cloud/snow skies. Lots of recent snow on the trees and on the coal in the rail trucks in the siding. There was heavy snow on a solar panel for the railway line too — I hope they have another option!
  • Dinner for me tonight was the steak, and it was cooked to my liking and tasted great. I’ve been impressed with the meals. It’s a limited menu, for sure, but more than enough to choose from for two days and nights.
  • The only downside of the meal was the gentleman who sat with me and two other ladies. He was very charming, but was a preacher and certainly wanted to preach! I’m not a fan of proselytising of any sort, religious or otherwise, but especially religious. Fortunately, we were able to steer the conversation away to more general things.
  • The views coming out of the mountains into Denver were AMAZING! Unfortunately, they were on the wrong side of the train and I was having dinner at the time and was squashed in next to ‘Charming Gentleman’ and couldn’t get out to take photos. Also, BIG dark grey clouds over Denver and the plains, so I’m not sure they’d have come out well anyway. But those views were to die for! We’re only 20-30 mins late into Denver, after nearly 36 hours on the train, and the delay while we went slow, stopped, and they cleared the rocks from the track.
  • 25-minute stop in Denver to change some of the crew. Then 8 hours to Omaha. Still another nearly 20 hours to go… But I’m hoping the worst of today’s excitement is over. The wine is helping 🙂

See also:

Amtrak: California Zephyr: Day 1: San Francisco to Elko, NV

20 04 2018

I’m on the train! I’m taking the California Zephyr from San Francisco (Emeryville, actually) to Chicago. It’s a 52-hour trip — 3 days and 2 nights. I was never going to go coach for that distance, and the roomettes are pretty small, with shared toilet and shower facilities downstairs. So I sprung for a ‘Bedroom’ and it’s more spacious than I thought it would be.

Here are my first impressions of the journey (only some of my 200+ photos are here):

  • It’s a beautiful, cloudless day to be starting such a journey.
  • Train left Emeryville station exactly on time at 9:10 am.
  • The attendant for my car — Ralph — will be with us the entire way to Chicago.
  • The ride is very smooth and pretty quiet.
  • My room is clean and the windows are SUPER clean.
  • My room (Bedroom, in Superliner parlance for Amtrak) is more spacious than I thought it would be — it comfortably seats 3, but would only sleep 2 and perhaps a small child. For one person, there’s PLENTY of room — a big sofa (that converts to a large single bed) and a small armchair. Above is the fold-out bunk, which I won’t be using, of course. There’s a tiny closet, 3 power outlets (all near the door, unfortunately, which means draping cords across the sofa/floor to the tray table), a combined toilet/shower (TINY, as expected), pull-out table for my laptop (or for playing cards etc. if you were with others), small hand basin and mirror in the main room, plus a full-length mirror, a cupboard for trash (which didn’t close properly, but Ralph sealed it with duct tape at my request), air con controls, reading lights, room lights, night light. The door to the room can be latched from inside, but not outside. It’s a glass door, so you can easily see across the corridor to the view on the other side of the train. There’s a curtain for the door for privacy at night and for when you leave your room. Curtains on the windows too, though I doubt I’ll use them — I like early morning sunshine. (Here’s a tip worth investigating: If there are two of you, it seems to cost as much to have two of you in the one room as it does to make two bookings with a room each — you could choose adjoining rooms and gets heaps more room than two sharing the one space. This is based on how the fare structure seems to work, which is everyone pays for a coach seat and then adds on their accommodation charge. Now don’t quote me on this, but I reckon it’s worthwhile seeing how much it is for two separate room bookings, compared to two people under the one booking and therefore in the one room.)

  • The rooms and dining and viewing sections are all upstairs in these double-decker carriages, with the showers, toilets, food kiosk/lounge, and baggage downstairs. This means that you see far more than if you were at ‘ground’ level, like in a car.
  • I can hear the people next door talking, but not what they’re saying. I can also clearly hear when they flush their toilet, and smell it! So the insulation/barrier between rooms isn’t the best.
  • As with any train experience, you see a side of the country that’s normally hidden from view when you’re travelling in a car. There were quite a few homeless camps — far more than I expected to see. And rubbish — lots of rubbish. Graffiti is pretty pervasive too. Abandoned boats and decaying jetties at the water’s edge. Even a dead seal. A surprising number of mattresses have just been dumped near the tracks — it’s like someone said, “Let’s take it to the end of the road and toss it over the fence.”
  • Someone had a sense of humour! They stuck two plastic pink flamingos into some stockpiles of blue metal on the side of the track 🙂
  • I’ll be wearing ear plugs at night — the train toots its horn fairly often, especially in built-up areas where roads directly cross the rail. Plus there’s the general noise of wheels on tracks, more noticeable at higher speeds than lower. That said, it’s a very smooth and quiet ride.
  • Some of the stops/places we went through in the first few hours — Richmond, Martinez, Davis, Sacramento, Roseville, Auburn, Soda Springs, Truckee, Reno…
  • By 2 pm we were well into the snow, going through the Tahoe National Forest. The eucalypts around San Francisco had changed to pine trees, and the flat land had changed to mountain land with steep drops. The blue sky had changed to very cloudy. Essentially we followed I-80 much of the way for the first 5 or so hours. I wonder if those driving on I-80 realised there was a train almost directly above them!
  • I saw cows in a field! It’s not often you see that in the US.
  • Of course, the room/train has no TV, movies, entertainment, though cell phone service is a bit better than I expected, even up in the Tahoe National Forest. But as we’re skirting I-80 (the thin ribbon of road on the left in the photo below), I’d expect we’re picking up signal from the towers along that route.
  • There have been quite a few tunnels. Nothing too long, but I decided to turn on my blue night light so that I wasn’t in pitch darkness when going through the tunnels.
  • I saw some strange aqueducts, for want of a better word. They were on raised wooden platforms, and were like half a 44-gallon drum cut lengthwise, then joined end to end. Those I saw had fast flowing water in them. They almost looked like a sluice.
  • We went through the famous Donner Pass. Long tunnel near there.
  • For lunch on the first day (all meals are included in my room cost), I had the baked chilequile (sp?) which looked awful but tasted good. That was followed by greek yoghurt cheesecake, which wasn’t too sweet.
  • I met the Amtrak police officer on the train! Yes, the train has its own police officer. He’s been working for Amtrak Police for nearly 30 years riding the rails across the USA, and in that time he said he’s had to deal with about 150 deaths and accidents. Deaths are from vehicles trying to outrun the train at a crossing, or trying to outrun another train without realising the passenger train is passing as well at 70 mph, or, more frequently these days, suicides. The engineer/driver gets about 3 days off for counselling after such events, and these accidents/suicides can delay the train for several hours, as you’d expect. He always hopes for an uneventful trip, one where he has to do basically nothing except deal with any minor issues on the train. He said on the open track the train does up to 80 mph, but when in the mountains, it’s more like 30 or 40 mph. Freight trains don’t always have right-of-way, but if the passenger train has been delayed, then the freight timetable takes precedence.
  • In addition to the dining car, you can buy drinks and snacks (I wrote that as ‘snakes’!) on the train, including wine and beer and spirits. Wine is $6.50/glass, so I bought my own bottle, plus my own Diet Coke as they only sell Pepsi on the train.
  • After the Donner Pass area, we rapidly came out of snow country to pretty much no snow around Truckee. It’s an hour to Reno after leaving Truckee.
  • You get a brand new roll of toilet paper for your trip 🙂
  • East of Truckee, someone has come along the rail access road and placed little rock cairns on top of big boulders. Only train passengers who were looking north would ever see them. Thanks!
  • For meals, you sit at a table of 4, so as a solo traveler, you can end up speaking with up to 3 others.
  • There’s more cell service than I had expected through the Sierras. only lost signal for a few minutes at a time. With no wifi on the train, I’m using my cell phone as a wireless hotspot.
  • Crossed into Nevada around 3:20 pm, some 6 hours after departure. We’re now in the high desert — vegetation is totally different, and it’s a more barren landscape. Lots of browns and sage green/greys, rocks and boulders, and not much else. Cloudy.
  • Arrived in Reno, NV at 3:40 pm, right on time, if not a tad early. Scheduled to leave Reno at 4:06 pm, and left right on time.
  • There are a couple of Amish on board — I believe they don’t fly. I’m sure there are others who don’t fly for whatever reason too, then there are those like me who just want a different travel experience.
  • Spots of rain as we were leaving Reno, spoiling the clean windows and the view. But they certainly didn’t last long.
  • Rocks, lots of rocks. There’s some harsh country just east of Reno.
  • Haven’t seen any deer (or sheep?) yet, though I’ve seen their paths through the grass.
  • Broken-down fences, vehicles, barns, houses, factories, and towns. The sad state of much of rural America. Trashed trailer parks with rubbish strewn everywhere.
  • About an hour east of Reno (following SR 95), it’s just sand, salt flats, and tumbleweeds. And flat. Almost nothing grows here, and I expect very little rain falls here. I’ll take back the rain statement. An hour or two on, and there were heavy rain clouds and evidence of quite a bit of rain in the past day — lots of puddles, big and small.
  • Lovelock, NV — there were irrigated fields here! There must be some decent artesian basins, because I doubt they’re getting their water from direct rainfall and dams. The irrigated fields had those BIG rolling sprinkler systems, the sort that makes the green ‘crop circles’ you see from the sky when you’re flying over the US.
  • The sky is endlessly changing — blue sky, solid grey sky, bold clouds, rain clouds, puffy clouds…
  • In northern Nevada, we continued following the I-80, and had more snow-capped peaks in the distance.  Lots of gulches.
  • I lost cell service for about 3 hours, and called it a night not long before we got to Elko, NV (around 9:15 pm). The train continued travelling overnight reaching Salt Lake City around 2 am.
  • Throughout northern Nevada there’s no sign of livestock or large native animals. However, late in the day (the sun went down about 7:15 pm and it was fully dark about 30 mins after) after Winnemucca, NV there were a few cattle (with new calves).
  • For dinner I had the Norwegian Salmon, with a herbed rice and vegetables. It was delicious and everything was perfectly cooked. I was very pleasantly surprised.

See also:

Empty Spools, Asilomar, 2018

19 04 2018

One of the Empty Spools quilt retreat weeks locked in nicely with my conference in the US, so I booked in for Cindy Needham’s class on free-motion quilting, her style (see

And what a class it was! Cindy is a delightful teacher, extremely willing to share her knowledge and her magnificent body of work, and it was just a fantastic week with a lovely group of 15 woman from all over the US and Canada, and with me as a ring-in from Australia. We laughed, we shared stories, we helped each other, and we had fun. I even taught them how to eat Vegemite!

Each day started with Cindy talking about a particular aspect of quilting (we started with some basics of needles, threads, tension, batting, etc. and by the end of the 5 days, she was talking about quilting vintage linens, whole cloth quilts, and how she blocks a quilt; along the way we learned how to use stencils and design grids, and how to design the quilting on a quilt, using examples the students brought along). The afternoons were our own to either work on our own projects, or to put into practice some of the techniques she talked about. This was purely a techniques class, not a project class, and it was our sandbox to play in, make mistakes, learn, and enjoy each others company.

Cindy is an early riser, so she had the classroom open by 6 am each day (class officially started at 9, but we could get help from Cindy beforehand), and some of the women worked into the night as well. I was very grateful for the early start — first, I had jet lag the first few days, so it was better to be working than twiddling my thumbs in my room waiting for 9 am, and second I’m an early riser too, so being able to get in an extra hour or two of practice time each day was just wonderful. And we were in the BEST classroom at Asilomar — the Surf and Sand room, which has floor to ceiling windows on three sides and just has the most wonderful light.

Enough talk — let’s get on to the work I created over the 5 days. Remember, these are practice pieces and will likely never see the light of day.


Update January 2020: This doily is now finished:

Some other photos from the week:

Jet lag revisited

13 04 2018

After the long (36-hour) day on Wednesday with about 2 hours sleep, I slept like a log for just under 7 hours after getting to the hotel. I was up at 8:30 am yesterday (Thursday) and forced myself to stay awake to 10 pm to try to get my body clock sync’ed with the local time zone. I dropped off to sleep quickly and went straight into a deep sleep. Something woke me at 12:40 am — possibly the body needing to pee! — and I went back to bed hoping to fall asleep quickly.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. By 2 am I realised I wasn’t going to get back to sleep just lying there, so I picked up my book — reading fiction tends to lull me into sleep fairly quickly. Not so this time. By 6 am, I got up. For the second night in three nights, I’d had just over 2 hours sleep.

Today I have to get myself back to the airport, catch a shuttle to Monterey, check in for my residential quilting seminar, and start class at 4 pm. I wonder if I’ll be able to stay awake until this evening? Perhaps I might fall asleep on the bus ride to Monterey — that’d be good!

Update: I went to bed on Friday night around 9:45. I read for a bit, then I must’ve dropped off as my tablet fell on my face and woke me up around 10 pm, so I turned out the light and had about 7 hours of good solid sleep, waking at 4:15 am. Still a bit early for me, but not too much so. What will Saturday night bring…?

And so the long day begins…

13 04 2018

I was awake at 5:00 am Australian Western Standard Time, Wednesday 11 April, and we left for Perth Airport around 10:00 am. It’s a 2-hour drive, so by the time we got to the airport, I’d already been up for 7 hours, and had travelled for two of them. Next was the wait time at the airport for the 2:30 pm flight to Melbourne (a 3.25 hr flight), then nearly 2 hours wait time in transit at Melbourne Airport, before the 14.5-hour flight to Los Angeles. Once there, I’ll have a 2.5-hour wait for my connecting 1.5-hour flight to San Francisco, and am expected to arrive at San Francisco Airport at 11:00 pm. All in all, my elapsed time from waking up at home and reaching San Francisco will be around 33 hours — and I don’t sleep on planes, even in a Business Class lie-flat bed! By the time I get to my hotel, I guess it will be 34 hours…

Access to Qantas International Lounge at Perth Airport (Terminal 3)

Despite many emails to Qantas, live chats with Qantas reps, phone calls to the Frequent Flyer number, and online sources such as Australian Business Traveller, as well as at check-in, I couldn’t get a clear and consistent answer as to whether or not I’d have access to the Qantas international lounge at Perth. Qantas’ own website says that access is only for transit passengers coming in from London and going on to Melbourne, or those travelling from Perth to London, with nothing at all about those international passengers starting their journey in Perth and going to Los Angeles via Melbourne. Everyone and every source said something different, including the Qantas person at the entrance to the immigration/customs area at Perth. He sent me back to the domestic Business Lounge to talk to them, where I got another ‘no’. Fortunately, the other person at the desk at the Business Lounge overheard my conversation, and assured me that yes, I DID have access. She called the international lounge desk and walked me to the entrance to immigration and customs where she very politely told the guy who told me earlier I wouldn’t have access that in fact I did because I met all the usual criteria AND I was a connecting passenger to LAX (via Melbourne). So after weeks of trying to get a straight answer, here I am (eventually) in the new Qantas International Lounge at PER. They’ve had this terminal and lounge operating since March 24, so you’d think after three weeks there wouldn’t be so many mixed and confusing messages and information. Bottom line: Consistent messaging is key for the customer. Consistency reduces confusion.

Flight from Perth to Melbourne

This was my first flight on the Boeing Dreamliner 787-9. I was on one of the new planes recently purchased by Qantas and named ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (I had secretly hoped I’d be on ‘Quokka’!). For this domestic leg of the London-Perth-Melbourne-Los Angeles flight, I found very little different to the fittings, food, and service you get on Qantas’ domestic A330 cross-country flights. The window shades were interesting — not a shade so much as a control that changes the structure of the molecules (??) in the window ‘glass’ to let in full light through to pitch black. The lighting was interesting too, but the test for that on combatting jet lag will be on the next leg to Los Angeles.

The Business Class lie-flat seat seemed the same as that on the A330. It will be interesting to see if there’s any difference to the bedding and facilities once it becomes an international flight again.

For my meal I had the tomato soup with a garlic and parmesan toast, followed by the ploughman’s plate, which comprised sharp cheese, smoked ham, pickles, and half a scotch egg (hot). And a Maggie Beer ice cream, of course!


I watched ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ on this flight, which I enjoyed, except for the ending which sort of left you hanging. Perhaps they’ll make a sequel?

Once I arrived in Melbourne, I went to the International Transfer area, where you go through hand luggage security again, and then into the Qantas First International Lounge, where I had a lovely shower and a small plate of their delicious salt and pepper squid. We’re going to be fed again on the flight — at least once — so I figured I’d go easy on the menu in the lounge!

Shower stall in the First Lounge:


This next flight will be interesting — it leaves at 9:40pm and arrives at LAX around 7pm, so basically it’s a 14.5-hour night flight. Most times I’ve flown to the US, I’ve left around noon, getting in around noon (Dallas) or 7am (LAX), which means there’s still quite a bit of day to get through. This time we get in at night and I won’t get to San Francisco until nearly midnight, so I’ll see how I go with sleeping on the plane (I never do) AND getting in at bedtime.

One of the things about the Dreamliner is that it’s supposed to have cabin pressure set to about 5000-6000 ft, instead of the usual 7000-8000 ft, plus more humidity (about 10% instead of the usual 2%), and therefore there’s a much greater chance of sleeping and/or arriving not feeling like a zombie on landing. Here’s hoping… My track record with sleeping on planes is pretty abyssmal — I cat nap at best, even on a lie-flat bed in Business or First Class.

Flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles

Here are some of the things I remember: (NOTE: Many of these things are only niggles, which don’t take away the AWESOME experience of flying across the Pacific Ocean in a small silver tube for 14+ hours and landing on a runway on the other side of the world!)

  • Watched two movies — Goodbye Christopher Robin and I, Tonya — both with Aussie Margot Robbie as the lead actress. I enjoyed them both. The I, Tonya one was especially enlightening, though obviously from her perspective — I have only vague memories of the original incident.
  • It was bumpier than the pilot had expected. At least twice he turned on the seatbelt lights, though I think there were at least two other occasions when they should’ve been turned on
  • The Business Class seat is the same as that on the A330 (domestic; as mentioned above), which means that your feet sit in a narrow space at the end of the lie-flat bed and it’s a bit cramped. The tray table wraps around you, but you can’t push it further out, so if you’re big (like the 2+ m tall guy opposite me), you’re going to feel quite squashed.
  • The service was OK, but not as good as I’ve come to expect on Qantas, particularly in international Business Class.
  • Meals were good — there was a main meal after we got underway, then a snack meal about 2 hours out of LAX. I believe snacks were available at any time during the flight, but I didn’t avail myself of them.
  • Toilet was very cramped — especially for Business Class. I used the single toilet at the front of Business, but I believe there was about 4 of them behind Business that are shared with Premium Economy.
  • It was much noisier than I expected. I had a very noisy air vent, which they partially fixed after I complained about it on the PER-MEL leg and before we took off for LAX. I think there was still a bit of loose plastic behind it (this is a new plane), and it made a lot of noise from PER-MEL, but wasn’t quite so bad from MEL-LAX. Turning the air vent fully open (mini cyclone) or fully closed fixed the problem, but I like having a soft blast of fresh air on my face, so had to put up with the noise. The noise from the aircraft was also quite loud, even with ear plugs in and noise-cancelling headphones on. The noise-cancelling headphones work very well for watching movies etc., but I can’t sleep in them as the ‘cans’ really hurt my ears when I lie down.
  • I slept maybe 2 hours the entire flight. With the turbulence and the noise, sleep was always going to be hard to come by. And for the first time I noticed how dry the air was, despite this plane supposedly having better humidity levels than the A380. I didn’t feel particularly refreshed on landing, but I didn’t feel like a zombie either.
  • So, is the Dreamliner the way for me to go in the future, if I have a choice? Probably not. It’s fine, but for me it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and my experience certainly didn’t match the hype.
  • We left about 40 mins late and arrived in LAX about 10 mins late.

The hell that is LAX

I’d forgotten how bad LAX could be, and even though it was hellish, it could have been MUCH worse had they not had about 100 automated kiosks for immigration — had we all had to be processed in person as it used to be, I’d probably still be in the queue!

Our flight arrived around the same time as a flight from China, one from the Philippines, another from the UK, and one or more from Central/South America. The automated kiosks for ESTA holders worked well, but the language barriers and the unfamiliar technology meant that some people spent way more time than necessary at them. When I put my passport in, it asked me questions in Chinese, and I had to cancel and eventually get back to the screen where you choose your language. Needless to say, with that many people it took about 45 mins to get through the immigration queue, automated kiosk, and then we had to go into another queue for processing by Homeland Security (only 2 guys on desks dealing with a hundred or so in the line), before getting to baggage claim. Once I got my bags, it was into another queue for them to take away the kiosk receipt I’d received about an hour earlier! Then yet another queue to check my bags for my connecting flight.

As I had 2.5 hours between landing and taking off on the next flight, my plan was to go back through security at Tom Bradley terminal, then to the Qantas Lounge for a quick shower and a light bite to eat. However, with yet ANOTHER long queue for security, by the time I got to the Qantas Lounge I didn’t have enough time to do any of that, so instead hightailed it to Terminal 4. I poked my head in at the Admirals Club lounge to find out where I had to go to catch my flight to San Francisco — she told me I had to keep walking, then go downstairs to a holding area, then get taken to a regional terminal, and no, I probably didn’t have enough time for a shower.

Off to the holding area for gates 52A to 52H, where a bus picked us up and took us to another terminal. There was a very small Admirals Club here too, but no shower facilities. Oh well, I’d have to wait until I got to my hotel. No big deal. There was some snack food, so I had a bit of that, plus some water as it’d been a long time since I’d had water on the Qantas flight. And then the flight was delayed some 20 minutes. When they started to ‘board’ us, it was to a covered walkway on the tarmac, where we had to wait for a bus to take us to the plane, then walk up a ramp to the aircraft doors! By the time we took off, we were an hour late getting out of LAX. Fortunately, the flight to San Francisco was just on an hour, though there was a mess up at the terminal because the tug hadn’t put the aircraft in the correct position for the jetway, so we all had to sit back down and wait while they moved it again. By the time I collected my bags (yes, they arrived safe and sound) and gone back up to the departures level to find the hotel shuttle pick-up area, it was almost midnight. Eventually the shuttle came — the last one for the hotel for the day — and I got to my room after 1pm. Finally, I had that hot shower and fell into a super comfy bed!!

I worked out there was 35.5 hours between getting out of bed at home and into my bed at San Francisco, with about 2 hours sleep (cat napping only) in between. A long day, indeed.

Community Quilt 395

8 04 2018

I made this quilt top back in February, and got it back for quilting! The spots in many of the fabrics meant it was easy to decide a motif — large circles/bubbles/pebbles in the main top (in yellow thread), then a motif I made up in my head of odd-length ‘pipes’ ending in round shapes (bobble heads?). I quite like the effect of those bobble heads and will likely do them again. And yes, I just coined a name for that motif — ‘bobble head’. You heard it here first, folks!

(Click on a photo to view it larger)

Threads used:

  • Top: Fil-Tec Glide ‘Marigold’ (40 wt, trilobal polyester, colour 80130); Madeira (40 wt, rayon, colour 1047)
  • Bottom: Fil-Tec Magna Glide Classic pre-wound bobbin (white)


Community Quilt 394

8 04 2018

This was a big quilt, with lots of elements in it. It took several hours to quilt.

How to quilt it? As usual I started by stitching in the ditch around the main elements. For the square corner and centre blocks containing flowers, I stitched a flower motif. Then I followed the log cabin seams in the yellow border, stitching straight lines from one side to the other. Still with the yellow thread, I stitched a single line down the middle of one the yellow borders, and a ‘u’ motif in the other. I left the blue border unstitched.

After switching to a dark grey thread, I stitched a squared-off motif in the large and small black borders, and a small stipple in the setting triangles in the centre block; I left the black borders in the centre unstitched.

Lastly, I switched to pink thread and did a large meandering stipple in the pink border.

(Click on a photo to view it larger)

Threads used:

  • Top: Fil-Tec Glide ‘Marigold’ (40 wt, trilobal polyester, colour 80130); Floriani (40 wt, rayon, colour PF488); Robison-Anton ‘Crimson’ (40 wt, rayon, colour 2416)
  • Bottom: Fil-Tec Magna Glide Classic pre-wound bobbin (light tan, lead gray, candy apple red)


Community Quilt 393

8 04 2018

As with most quilts, I started by stitching in the ditch around all the sashings and borders. For the centre panel, I stitched a square stipple; for the middle ‘circle’ of blocks, I stitched a square spiral in each; and for the outer ‘ring’ of multicoloured blocks, I stitched a big X, then lines sort-of echoing those Xs. I left the blue sashings and borders unstitched. I only used my Line Tamer rule for stitching in the ditch and the big Xs — everything else was free motion.

(Click on a photo to view it larger)

Threads used:

  • Top: Robison-Anton ‘Tuxedo Red’ (40 wt, rayon, colour 2420)
  • Bottom: Fil-Tec Magna Glide Classic pre-wound bobbin (candy apple red)


Community Quilt 392

8 04 2018

This was a difficult quilt to quilt. I think there was a heap of high-loft polyester batting behind the main top, even though the borders only had standard low-loft batting — the main top was very puffy, usually an indication of fluffy polyester batting. Then there were the buttons in the centre of all the flowers, plus the applique, plus seams that hadn’t been pressed one way. All of these add to the difficulty in quilting a quilt.

To stabilise it as much as possible, I first stitched in the ditch around all the main elements, including around all the fused applique pieces, and the borders. Then to reduce the puffiness, I did a meandering medium-sized stippled in the white space around each teapot and mug. I was going to do spaghetti lines, but the stripes in the white tone-on-tone background fabric went in different directions, so that wasn’t going to work.

I left the green and gold  border unstitched, and stitched different length ‘u’ shapes in the yellow border.

(Click on a photo to view it larger)

Threads used:

  • Top: Fil-Tec Glide ‘White’ (40 wt, trilobal polyester, colour 10000); Fil-Tec Glide ‘Marigold’ (40 wt, trilobal polyester, colour 80130)
  • Bottom: Fil-Tec Magna Glide Classic pre-wound bobbin (white, light tan)