The Great Plane, Train, Car and Bus Adventure - (Part 2)

Combination Amtrak and Greyhound station
in St. Louis
After arriving at the St. Louis Amtrak/Greyhound "Gateway" station and after the mad dash to the restrooms by most of the passengers that had been on the Texas Eagle for the last seven hours with no bathrooms, things changed. For the better, thank goodness. We made it inside the building which, strangely, appeared to be older and dingier on the inside than it did on the outside.

With almost 8 hours to kill before our next train arrived, we thought we would see about checking our 8 suitcases and gym bags in storage and take a cab to visit the St. Louis Arch (Youngest-daughter and I had been there during our Route 66 road trip, but the Momma-woman has never been) and maybe a few other sites. I asked the nice ticket agent if there was a safe place to leave our luggage and after finding out our plans, she said it was pretty expensive to store the luggage there for such a short time and besides, there's not a lot to see and do in St. Louis without a car. She then looked up our itinerary and said there's more to do in Kansas City, our next scheduled stop. Then she informed us there's a train leaving in 45 minutes and she can get us on it if we'd like. Being the now wise, veteran train traveler I was, I knew "3 guaranteed seats" doesn't mean 3 seats together so I asked and she assured me there would be space so we could sit together. That sounded better than spending 8 hours sitting on a hard wooden bench in St. Louis, plus we would get to travel the whole way during daylight hours and be able to see any good scenery, so we switched to the earlier train. Good decision.

At the St. Louis station, you have to go up
and over the tracks to get into the station
Calling once again on our hard-won train travel knowledge, we took the few minutes available before we could board the Missouri River Runner and ate breakfast at a little deli inside the station. I started to get a banana nut muffin, but decided to go with the sausage-egg breakfast burrito and quickly received confirmation that my ability to make bad decisions had not deserted me. The egg part was ok, but something bad happened in my mouth with the sausage part. I wanted to scrape my tongue off with my fingernails. I opened it up and pulled out the sausage bits so I could eat the thing. I was jealous of the Momma-woman's egg & ham and Youngest-daughter's bagel, which they said was "not bad." We grabbed bags of chips and Bugles for snacks later. A quick "just in case" trip to the restroom was barely completed when we heard the call in a bored, monotone voice, "now boarding" for our train. Sadly, I guess it's just in the movies they call, "All aboard!"

On board the Missouri River Runner
Boarding this time was much easier than in Longview the day before as there were not as many people and virtually no line. This time we knew enough to store our bags in the lower storage bins of our car so we only had our backpacks (containing our laptops, cameras and a few other essential items), blankets and pillows to carry with us up those ridiculously narrow stairs to the upper seating. We were pleasantly surprised to find the car appeared to be very clean and only a few other riders scattered around. The seats were pretty much the same as before, but the windows were cleaner and the whole thing just seemed to be much better. Shortly after boarding, the 2nd leg of our journey began and we were on our way to Kansas City.

The train that runs between St. Louis and Kansas City is named the Missouri River Runner because it follows the Missouri River for most of its route. Via road, it is only 250 miles between the two cities, but via train, it takes almost 6 hours due to the meandering route and the many stops in small towns all along the way. It didn't seem that long though as the scenery and towns we passed were interesting. Youngest-daughter was thrilled because this one had Wi-Fi and thankfully, all of the restrooms worked during the whole trip!

Hermann, Missouri and two characters in my
novel - the tough-as-nails, cigar smoking female
that nobody in town messes with and her friend
who is actually an undercover KGB spy.
I found it almost strangely fascinating to see the towns we passed through and to watch the people in those towns. I wondered what it was like to live there and as people got on and people got off, I wondered about their lives. Some boarded in one small town only to get off in another small town shortly and I wondered why. I began writing a novel in my head about people I saw. Of course, it was mostly about me, the retired super spy turned hero private eye, saver of damsels in distress, and all the pretty girls I saw would fall for my charms and into my arms. Some people were just peripheral, but interesting players - the owners of the local mom-and-pop store, the kindly grandma who bakes cookies for the neighborhood children, the weary travelling salesman who shows up one day and is gone the next, the bored housewife cheating on her husband with the school bus driver who takes her children to school. A few people, for one arbitrary reason or another, I didn't like the looks of so it doesn't take long before they are killed off. One of these days, somebody should make a movie of the stuff that goes on inside my head.

The cheating housewife and her "friend" the
school bus driver meeting up in downtown
Jefferson City.
Arriving at the Kansas City station within just a few minutes of the 2:55 PM scheduled time, we retrieved our luggage and were immediately impressed as we entered the building. It reminded me of Grand Central Station in New York. It was huge, it was impressive and either a very well maintained or very well renovated building. Our footsteps echoed as we walked to the information booth.

Inquiring about nearby things to do and places to eat, we were told it would be $5 per bag to store them in a luggage room for the next 7 hours. Big luggage or small bags, it would still be $5 each. The fiscally-minded part of me (my wife shortens the terminology to "cheap") rebelled at spending $40 to be bag free for 7 hours. Just about the time I was going to give in and fork over the cash, the gentleman informed us there were restaurants and lots of shopping places within a few blocks if we didn't mind walking around in the hot weather. I used to love summer, but now in my dotage, I no longer like being hot and sweaty and due to a recently developed physical issue, I have a bit of difficulty walking long distances. Put it all together and I chose to save that $40 and stay in the station guarding our luggage and reading my book while the wife and daughter went out exploring. Bring me back a burger and fries and I'll be good I told them. Since you'll probably be gone for at least several hours, hold on a minute and let me take a few pictures and go powder my nose (the experience on the first train of 7 hours with no bathroom available has probably scarred me for life!).

The KGB spy in Washington, Missouri handing
over stolen secret documents to his contact
who is actually an undercover agent for
the good guys.
Coming back from the restroom, I spied an ice cream shop and couldn't resist. Inside, there was a rather small sign on the wall - "Sale! 2 scoop cone, $2" it said. Hey, I just saved $40 so sure, sounds good to me! Walking up to the counter was a hand-lettered sign on an erasable board - "Today's special - cone with 2 scoops just $2." A teenage girl with cornrowed hair looking like there were a million places she would rather be asked what I wanted. "Hi. I'll have 2 scoops of chocolate in a sugar cone, please."
"We're out of sugar cones."
"Oh, ok. Then I'll take a waffle cone."
"We're out of waffle cones."
"OK, then what kind of cones do you have?"
"The regular kind."
"Well, I guess I'll have 2 scoops of chocolate in a regular kind."
At the cash register, she rang it up and said, "$3.08." Wow, that's a lot of taxes, I thought. "Is that right?" I asked. "I thought it was on sale for $2."
"The sugar and waffle cones are on sale, not the regular cones. 2 scoops in a regular cone is $2.75."
"What? Where does it say that?"
"The small print on the poster," she replied and pointed to the poster hanging on the wall a good 10 feet behind her. Not having my glasses with me, all I saw was some teeny tiny squiggly lines at the bottom of said poster.
"I don't think that's legal. You said you are out of sugar and waffle cones and forced me to get the regular cone. That's bait and switch."
"It's what?"
"Bait and switch. Haven't you ever heard of that? It's illegal."
Total incomprehension. "Never heard of it. That will be $3.08."
"I'd like to talk to the manager, please."
"She's already gone. That will be $3.08."
It was just a dollar difference, but the whole situation and her attitude upset me. I started to refuse and just hand the damn cone back, but by then I really had a hankering for that ice cream so I forked over another dollar. It wasn't Bluebell, but it was pretty good. It would have been better for a dollar less though.

Inside the Kansas City train station
Taking over the luggage guard duty, I found a nice, hard-wood bench to spend a few hours sitting on as the girls hurried off in search of shopping opportunities. A couple of hours later, I looked up from my book as I noticed it was really quiet. I looked around this big, open room and found I was the only one in it. Not scary as it was still light, but kind of strange and a little eerie. It was like that for about 20 minutes and then a few people started coming in the doors and walking around. I was people-watching when three people came in with musical instruments. Oh, cool, maybe they'll set up and start playing, I thought. Then a couple more musicians showed up. I was watching them set up about 20 feet from me when two nicely dressed ladies walked up to me and said, "Hi. How are you?"
"I'm doing fine, thanks. How are you?"
"We're wonderful because we're bathed in the blood of the lamb."
Oh, crap. Here I am stuck with all of this luggage against a wall. Escape is impossible. Trapped like a rat.
"We'd like to share the word of The Lord with you. Do you know Jesus?"
"Yes I do and I don't mean to be rude, but I would really rather not be preached to. I'm just sitting here reading a book, minding my own business and I'd like to continue like that so if you don't mind, good luck and happy hunting somewhere else."
"You're traveling and we'd like to pray over you for God to protect and shed his grace on you."
"No, really, thanks, but no thanks." Just at that moment, the Momma-woman and Youngest-daughter walked up holding a sack containing my food. The ladies saw her and said hi. I tried to warn her off with subtle hand gestures and a negative shake of my head, but my wife, unlike me, is very nice, friendly and outgoing. She said hi back and that's all it took. It was like hungry ticks on a hound dog. By the time I insisted they leave so I could eat my food, we had been blessed and put on a prayer list.
In the front part of the Kansas City station where
the majority of the religious accosts would
later take place

Before I could finish my burger, 2 more faithful members of the flock walked up, interrupted the girls telling me about the stores they had visited and stopped me in mid-bite of a French fry wanting to tell us about Jesus and to pray for us. I told them we had already been blessed and prayed for by 2 ladies. Thankfully, they didn't persist and left.

The musicians had finished setting up by then and began playing songs of praise to God and heaven and hell and saving grace. They weren't very good, but they sure were enthusiastic. The sounds of poorly played guitars and bongos accompanying "can't carry a tune in a sack" voices echoed off the high-ceilinged walls. Instead of praying for other people, they should have been praying for musical talent. Of course, that's just my opinion.

Not 5 minutes after we had chased off the last ones, 2 more ladies wanted to tell us about Jesus and pray for us. I'm afraid I was running out of patience by then and wasn't as nice about asking them to please leave us alone.

Outside in front of the Kansas City station
 I had just finished eating and the three of us were having a nice conversation when 2 more young, male cult members (at least that's what I thought of them by now) showed up from who knows where. Their numbers seemed to be endless and they just kept walking up to us from around corners like they were being manufactured down in the basement. That proved to be too much even for my sweet wife who said no thanks, got up and walked away. My daughter abandoned me and left with her mom. I thought we were partners, but I guess in the face of overwhelming odds, it's every man for himself.

"Have you met Jesus?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I used to pay him to mow my lawn."
"That's not really funny, sir."
"I thought it was."
Pointing to my military cap which displays a picture of an aircraft carrier and the words "USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63)" one of the boys asked, "Were you in the military?"
"What, the army?"
"Um, no, not the army. The army doesn't have ships."
"Oh, the Coast Guard?"
"The Coast Guard doesn't have aircraft carriers."
"Oh. Well, I'm in the military too," he said very proudly. "I'm in the Lord's army!"
"Does the Lord's army have aircraft carriers?"
"No, sir, we have something better - the word of God."
"That's good. I'll be sure to call you if we're ever invaded by hoards of evil doers."
"I would fight them with the word of God. It's the only thing that can save your soul, you know."
"OK, whatever you think. Would you do me a favor?"
"Sure, as long as it doesn't go against God's word."
"It doesn't. You guys are the 10th of your group to accost me and I'm asking you to go away and tell all your little friends to leave me alone. Can you do that?"
"Can we pray for you first?"
"No. Just go."
"God bless you sir."

The doors we retreated through while trying to
get away
Before more came, I gathered up all the luggage and feeling like a pack mule, struggled into a different part of the building where the actual Amtrak passengers could wait. And who did I find? There was the wife and daughter who had abandoned me! A few minutes later, we heard the music stop. Wondering what was up, Youngest-daughter and I quietly snuck back, concealing ourselves along a wall until we could look from our hidey place and see the "band." A security guard was standing there telling them they had to pack up and leave because people were complaining about their activities! They seemed to be good natured about it and immediately started putting their instruments in cases and preparing to leave. The security guard said something funny to them and they laughed as they began to leave.

We turned around to go back to our waiting room and surprise! Two more spreaders of the word had snuck up behind us! "Hi travelers."
"No! Look, we've already been approached by about a dozen of you people and we're tired of it. You guys need to hand out ribbons or pins or something to the people you approach so the rest of you will know not to bother those people again. Really, for your safety, I strongly suggest you just go away and don't say anything."
"Oh, ok. Sorry sir."
"Just go!"

Security Guard telling a joke after asking the
Jesus Saves band to leave.
I have never in my life encountered such a large, deeply religious group of folks who were so intent on praying and spreading the gospel as they believe it. I can only think it was a cult because normal people don't do what they were doing in those numbers. Not the normal people that I know anyway.

Retreating back to the Amtrak waiting room, we were patiently waiting when a large group of Mennonites came in. It was easy to tell from their haircuts, clothes and the way they spoke. We didn't pay much attention to them. Little did we know, we'd see a lot more of them on the next leg of our trip.

(part 3 coming soon)

The Great Plane, Train, Car and Bus Adventure - (Part 1)

Many Americans fantasize about a romantic vacation via passenger train - hop on and see America the Beautiful through the huge windows of a lounge car while sipping an adult beverage, letting the clickity-clack of the rails lull you to sleep at night after being tucked in by a friendly porter. My family and I did too so we decided to actually take one rather than just continue to idle talk it to death. Living in Arkansas and with there being a train station in the capital of Little Rock, we thought it would be a fun and easy adventure to take Youngest-daughter to Grand Canyon National Park before she heads off to college in the fall. Gather 'round and I'll tell you what we experienced fulfilling our great train vacation fantasy.

Union Station in Dallas
The first thing I discovered was there is usually only one train per day each way out of most places where there is a station. The train into and out of Little Rock is named the Texas Eagle and it is scheduled to arrive and depart at 11:39 pm. As in midnight. And the station is located in a part of downtown that is not a crime-ridden slum, but I certainly would not feel comfortable walking around the area after dark. Plus the parking lot where we would have to leave our car for the 10 days we would be gone is totally open - no gates, no guards, no nothing to at least give a hope it would still be there when we returned. Since we have newer vehicles we would like to hang onto and we didn't want to ask any of our Arkansas friends to drive us that far (we do not live in Little Rock) that late on a work night, it ruled out catching the train in Little Rock. Fortunately, we have family in Dallas (where we are originally from) who would let us leave our car at their house and give us a ride to and from the big Amtrak station there. It meant a 5-hour drive to and from, but we would much rather do that and not worry about our car still being where we left it when we got back.

One of our desires was to stay inside the park at the Grand Canyon. We also wanted a car to be able to come and go as we pleased rather than be restricted to a tour group itinerary. After checking out the schedules for the connecting trains and the logistics of getting a car, seeing and doing what we wanted and getting back home, we concocted plans for our "Great 2017 Train, Car, Plane Adventure." Basically, it consisted of taking a train from Dallas to Flagstaff, Arizona; renting a car and driving from Flagstaff to Las Vegas, Nevada with stops in Williams, Arizona and the Grand Canyon; then flying from Vegas back to Dallas. Man plans, God laughs (and it turns out, so does Amtrak).

Amtrak requires you to pay when you make reservations and to ensure you get seats on the day you want, you should make those reservations at least several weeks in advance. We made ours a month in advance. We also joined the Amtrak guest rewards program and started receiving e-mails advertising specials. Several weeks later, one of those e-mails advertised tickets to Grand Canyon were on sale for less than what we paid so I called up Amtrak to see if they would do something for us. The friendly reservation person was very helpful and refunded almost $200! However, if I wanted it refunded to the credit card, there would be a 20% charge so I would only get $160 back. Or I could get a voucher for a future trip for the full $200. A friend and I had been planning a train trip later this year so I chose the voucher. Now I wish I hadn't because that future trip is in doubt. If you make reservations on Amtrak, I suggest you watch their emails and call back a few days before you leave to make sure you pay the minimum.

The train leaving Dallas was scheduled to depart at 2:40 pm and arrive in St. Louis, Missouri, our connecting point for another train heading west, at 6:24 the next morning. A week before leaving, I received an e-mail informing me the schedule had been changed and departure from Dallas would now be an hour later. I wasn't too happy about this as it meant the person who was driving us to the station, my brother-in-law, would now be required to drive 35 miles back to his home in rush-hour traffic, a long and unpleasant experience. Great, let's start our vacation by feeling guilty.

Five days before leaving came another e-mail saying there would be no train service between Dallas and Longview, Texas so we would be riding a bus 130 miles and catching the train in Longview to continue on to St. Louis. Turns out Amtrak does not own the tracks it runs on. Commercial train companies like Burlington Northern and Santa Fe own the tracks and the owner of the tracks between Dallas and Longview scheduled it to be shut down for maintenance. Not happy about this, but OK, we can rename our vacation the The Great Plane, Train, Car and Bus Adventure.

Inside the Dallas station
The Dallas train station is certainly nothing fancy, but the architecture is interesting, it was fairly clean and the ticket agent was friendly and helpful. Try not to get there too early though as the seats in the waiting room are hard and not comfortable. There is also no food except for a vending machine so eat before you get there. 

Our bus arrived on time and much to our surprise, it proved to be a nice, new tour bus equipped with overhead storage and a bathroom. The A/C worked great and the seats were very comfortable. There were plenty of those seats available and most folks took one toward the front so we took 3 toward the back, the wife and daughter sitting next to each other with me right across the aisle from them.

We had been waiting a few minutes when a scroungy, homeless-looking man came on board. There were empty seats all along the way and 3 rows of empty in front of ours, but of course, he decided to come to the back with us. I was watching him closely and saw him staring at my daughter the whole way. She recently turned 18, but looks 14 and this creep was probably in his 30's, dressed in dirty clothes with filthy, greasy hair and smelling bad. Youngest-daughter was dressed conservatively in long pants and a t-shirt so it wasn't like she was inviting stares. 

The bus just before leaving - plenty of open seats
He took the seat right behind my wife and daughter, leaned forward and started talking to them. He said he had just flown in from Mexico City and was taking the train to Little Rock. None of it made sense. I had noticed him walking out of the station and he didn't have any luggage, plus why would you take a plane from Mexico City and then board a train in Dallas for Little Rock? The Dallas airport is miles away in a suburb and it's not easy to get to downtown Dallas without a car or very expensive if you take a cab. It would have been cheaper to stay at the airport and fly to Little Rock. He also said he had to get to Little Rock before midnight, but with the change in schedule, the train wasn't scheduled to arrive there until 12:40 and trains often run late. All lies coming from his mouth. He then announced he was going to get something to drink and left the bus. I got my wife and daughter to switch seats with me. Several minutes later he came back on the bus not carrying a bottle of water or anything else. He immediately looked straight toward where my daughter had been sitting. I very much enjoyed the confused look on his face when he saw me sitting there instead. He sat down behind me and a few minutes later, he "casually" stretched his arms out over the empty seat next to me while glancing across the aisle at my girls. By then it was getting dangerously close to either him getting off that bus or police would be called to pull me off this pervert so I turned and gave him a warning death stare. He saw my look and quickly responded that he was just stretching his arms and does his arms over the seat bother me? "Yes, as a matter of fact, it does." He got the obvious message, mumbled an apology and moved to the empty row of seats in the very back. Fortunately for me, his stink mostly went with him. He remained very quiet back there for the whole 2 hour ride.

Once we pulled out of the station, things went smoothly. I passed the time by watching the scenery and looking down into cars as they passed by. For some reason, it seems most people feel invisible once they get inside their car and become insulated from the world around them. Since it was rush hour, it was almost entirely individual drivers sitting behind the wheel looking totally bored, but occasionally there would be something interesting that came along. Like the guy dressed nicely in shirt and tie driving a clean, new-looking Lexus sedan. It was interesting because the front passenger seat and floorboard was covered in discarded fast food wrappers and bags and the whole back seat was piled from floor to ceiling with crumpled up clothes. I'm sure there is an interesting story there so I spent some time thinking up various scenario's.

Longview station
We pulled into the Longview station just two minutes behind schedule. There are two waiting rooms inside, but it was still very crowded. We managed to find two seats on a bench so the girls could sit with our luggage and I stood nearby. There was a ticket agent standing in a corner who told us the train was there, but we couldn't board until another bus with more passengers arrived and that would be about 30 minutes. Either there was no air conditioning in the station or it was broke so it was very hot and uncomfortably stuffy. We took the time to use the restroom, which turned out to be a good decision which I'll explain later. I then ventured outside and took a few pictures. We would eventually determine that most train stations are not in the better part of towns and Longview was no exception. Because of the number of people there and because it was in the daytime, I felt perfectly safe walking around, but it's still best to be on your guard when there are burglar bars on all the windows and fences with razor wire around the parking lots of the buildings around the station.

Across the street from the Longview station
After the next bus arrived and unloaded its passengers, we were told to line up outside and wait for the ticket agents to direct us to our train cars. Once outside, they sorted us into groups, those with sleeper rooms first, then all the rest of us. A little information here - list price for our three coach seat tickets from Dallas to St. Louis was $379. List price for a sleeper car (called a "roomette" by Amtrak) would have been $745, almost twice as much. For the extra $366 during the 14 hours we were on the train, we would have gotten a private "room" with 2 seats which at night, convert into a bunk bed with an upper bunk bed that is lowered (you either have 2 bunk beds at one time or 2 seats because if you lower the upper bunk, there's not enough room to sit in the seats). You also get free meals and 2 free bottles of water. The roomette is just barely big enough for the seats/beds to be enclosed by a wall about 6 inches from the edge of the bed. The main reason we didn't get a sleeper car on this portion of the trip was because there would only be room for two of us to sleep, we would only be getting one meal and not even getting a full night before getting off at 6:24 the next morning. And the coach seats are advertised as "featuring wide, comfortable reclining seats with ample legroom for your comfort." We figured it wouldn't be worth the extra money just for that one night.

Waiting in line to board in Longview
Amtrak advises you to pack light and use smaller luggage as large luggage will be placed in a car that may not be accessible during your trip. With that in mind, we each had 2 small suitcases and a backpack plus a pillow and blanket. After being directed to our assigned car and being given a little slip of paper with "StL" handwritten on it, a porter watched as we struggled with all of our luggage trying to get up to the second floor of the car through an extremely narrow, steep stairway. So much for the vision of a friendly, always helpful porter assisting with whatever you need. With much difficulty, we finally made it up to our car only to find it was already very full with only a few single seats available. It dawned on me the agent I had purchased our tickets from had assured me we had 3 reserved seats, but she had not promised they would be together. I looked around for a porter or other Amtrak employee, but none were in site. I finally decided to hell with this and walked through our assigned car, through the doors at the end and into another car. Hey, look at this, there's almost nobody in this one! 

The seats are arranged 4 in a row with 2 next to each other and an aisle between the two sets. We chose 2 seats together and an empty 2 seats directly across the aisle, stowed our luggage in the overhead and sat down. We were a bit nervous as we expected someone to come through and tell us to move since we weren't in the car they told us to be in, but the train started moving so we relaxed a bit. A little later a porter came through and walked up to us. Uh oh, I thought, he's going to tell us to move, but no, he just asked for the little slips of paper they had given us and stuck them under a small metal rail along the overhead bin. I asked him what were those for and he explained it indicated where we were going to get off so if we were asleep, the porter on duty would wake us up. He also said if we happen to switch seats, take the paper with us and put it above our new seats. On Amtrak, a "reserved seat" just means you are guaranteed a seat on the train and not any particular assigned seat. Throughout our whole trip we found Amtrak would never really tell you anything unless you asked. It's like they assume all passengers are frequent and know everything there is to know about Amtrak travel so if you don't know, ask!

What we saw from our window for several hours
Excited to finally be on the train, we sat back to watch beautiful views of the countryside glide by our window. That's part of the travel by train fantasy, right? For the next few hours, reality was far different. Right outside of Longview, we started traveling through woods - traveling very fast through dense woods. The trees were very thick and very close to the train. So close in fact that several times limbs would brush against the train. Sit back and relax, read a book or something because you will not be seeing anything on this particular section. I retrieved my laptop and decided to pass the time by wasting time on the internet using the advertised free wi-fi. Nope, can't do that. No connection available. In spite of what the advertisements said, there is no wi-fi on the Texas Eagle. "What? No internet connection? Dad, you said there would be wi-fi available!" Wonderful, just wonderful.

Having eaten a large lunch earlier in the day, we decided to get a light supper in the snack car. I wouldn't say it was bad, but I wouldn't say it was good either. Everything hot was frozen prepackaged items heated up in a microwave. Microwaved hamburgers are not good. No lettuce, no tomatoes, no nothing but meat and a soggy bun. Ketchup and mustard from those little single-serve packages made it kind of palatable. The wife got a sandwich of some kind and the daughter got an individual-size cheese pizza. Add a small bag of chips, a bottle of water and a can of Pepsi and $26.25 later, you have a small meal for three. We did, however, enjoy sitting in a restaurant-type booth eating our food while watching the scenery through the large glass windows even if all we could see was trees. Amtrak allows you to bring on food and that's what I recommend you do if traveling coach. In my humble opinion, pretty much any food you bring on will be better than what's available in the snack car.

Soon after our meal, the scenery outside our window improved greatly. And then the sun began to set and we experienced what we had thought train travel was all about. We sat back, relaxed and watched a wonderful sunset and the lights of small towns flash by. It was a wonderful couple of hours.

Once it got dark, there was nothing to be seen unless we passed through a town. The lights were turned down low, it was quiet except for the rhythmic clicking of the tracks and we were all tired from our busy day so we curled up with our pillows and blankets for a nap. And that's when we found out the seats, pretty comfortable to sit in for a while, were not comfortable to sleep in! There's not a lot of padding and when reclined, the metal bars of the seat frames are raised up and are extremely uncomfortable. I had two seats so I tried to curl up across them, but the bars of the frame forced me to give up that idea within just a few minutes. Youngest-daughter, being short and slender and much more "bendable" than her parents was the only one who managed to fall asleep.

Each coach car has seating in the upper level and 5 or 6 toilets on the lower level along with space to store medium-size luggage. Of course, nobody told us that, but we saw signs pointing the way. Needing to get rid of the Pepsi I had at supper, I made my way down and found all six of the toilets not working. There were signs on three of them saying, "Out of Order" but the other three should have had signs on them also. I went back upstairs and told the girls the situation. They got up and when they came back, they told me a couple of toilets were working in the next car behind us. By the time I got down there though, several people were coming back up saying there were no more working toilets. Going from car to car, I finally made my way to the front of the train where the "roomettes" are located and where us lowly coach travelers are not supposed to go, but nobody stopped me. Fortunately there were a couple of functioning toilets there. A few minutes after getting back to my seat, a porter came through saying, "All the toilets are broken and we cannot repair them until we get to St. Louis. Sorry for the inconvenience." I felt sorry for the folks who had not recently taken care of their toilet business as St. Louis was still 7 hours away. Sorry for the inconvenience indeed!

After a night of very uncomfortable, fitful, off-and-on sleep, I woke up early the next morning, early enough to see the sun starting to peek out. Lord help me, I really needed to make a trip to a bathroom. There's a reason why us "more mature" people have learned to never pass up an opportunity for a bathroom break. Hoping for a miracle, I went in search of a functioning toilet. I was sorely disappointed. You can't go from one car to the next on the lower level so my journey from car to car consisted of going down those tiny, turning stairs and then back up when I found only broken toilets, repeat, repeat, repeat. Desperate, just before suffering extreme embarrassment, I entered one and lifted the lid. It was the nastiest, foulest, most disgusting thing I have experienced in maybe forever - full to the brim of raw human waste. I came close to throwing up right there. Slamming the lid back down, I turned to the sink for relief and was extremely grateful for being a guy right then. Surprisingly, the water and sink drain still functioned so I spent several minutes using paper towels and soap from the dispenser to thoroughly clean the sink. That was most assuredly the cleanest sink on that train by the time the foulness from the toilet drove me out. Lesson learned - if the train stops at a station for more than just a couple of minutes to let people on and off, take the opportunity to use the station's restroom!

Asleep coming into St. Louis
Shortly after returning to my seat, the porter came through and told us St. Louis was coming up in about 15 minutes. He also said the train would be held there to get the toilets fixed. Fortunately for my wife and daughter, they had slept until just before arrival, but after the train stopped, a quick exit and dash to the ladies room was in order for them while I waited with our luggage. We then had an 8-hour wait before our connecting train arrived. So far, our eagerly awaited train trip had been mostly the train trip from hell. We were certainly hoping the next leg would be more in line with what we had expected.

(part 2 will be posted 7/14/17)

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park in California was created on October 1, 1890 when it was signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison. It has been described as the ultimate pilgrimage site, the absolute manifestation of the divine, where people can celebrate God in nature.

The first white visitors were vigilantes who were paid by the California government to stop Indian raids on gold miners who had invaded land the Indians considered their home and were killing game the Indians relied on for food. The vigilantes rode into Yosemite in 1851 and 1852 in pursuit of the Ahwahneechee, a branch of the southern Miwok. A large number of the Indians were killed and their village was burned. The survivors were driven from the valley and returned later only in small, heartbroken bands. The vigilantes brought back stories of a beautiful seven-mile-long gorge between the cliffs now known as El Capitan and Half Dome. They reported the valley was filled with serene meadows and spectacular waterfalls. Ironically, the area the Indians called "Big Mouth" became known to the whites as "Yosemite," a Miwok word meaning "killer." 

Yosemite Valley
The first tourists began arriving in Yosemite in 1855 and by 1861, a steady stream of them was turning up in summer. Traveling for several days by train, stagecoach and horseback, they would reach Mariposa Grove, a stand of over 200 ancient giant sequoias, where they would rest before embarking on a descent of 26 switchbacks into the valley. 

Damage to Yosemite Valley’s ecosystem followed the tourists as they trampled sensitive plant life, chopped down trees for fire wood and left trash strewn about. Lodges and other commercial establishments soon followed and the number of visitors greatly increased as thousands of trees were felled for building material and to make way for numerous roads. A carriage-wide tunnel was cut through a 2,300 year-old giant sequoia tree which stood in the Mariposa Grove. The tree, 227 feet tall and 90 feet in circumference, became known as the Wawona Tree. Everything from horse-drawn carriages in the 19th century to automobiles in the 20th century traveled the road which passed through that tree. The tree died, but it was so massive that it stayed upright until it finally fell in 1969. 

In 1864, to ward off further commercial exploitation, conservationists convinced President Abraham Lincoln to declare Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias a public trust of California. This marked the first time the U.S. government protected land for public enjoyment. 

In 1889, John Muir discovered that the huge meadows surrounding Yosemite Valley were being overrun and destroyed by domestic sheep grazing. Muir and Robert Johnson, an influential magazine editor, began pushing for national park status to be given to the wilderness area around Yosemite Valley. This led to the government acquiring an additional 1,500 square miles of land for what would become Yosemite National Park, America’s third national park. 

I visited Yosemite, but unfortunately, due to previously made commitments I couldn't change, I only had 1 day to do it. I wouldn't normally try to visit a national park, especially one as big as Yosemite in just 1 day. I am definitely not one of those people who drive through as fast as possible, stopping for 30 seconds to take a picture at a few overlooks and scenic vistas and then declare "I've been there." They haven't "been there" anymore than looking at a comet crossing the night sky makes you an astronaut. But there was no telling when I would be able to get back to the Yosemite area again, if ever, so I decided to go and just see as much as I could. I shouldn't have. It was July, the height of the tourist season and California was enduring a record-breaking heat wave.

Bridalveil Falls
The one good thing I did was to get up and leave my San Francisco hotel so early it was still dark. Coming in via Hwy 140, I arrived at the Arch Rock entrance about an hour before the hordes came in behind me. I was able to visit and enjoy Bridalveil Falls with only a handful of other people beside me. That would prove to be the high point of my trip.  

It would have been OK if I enjoyed driving in stop-and-go traffic on the park roads and then driving for an hour around and around small, already full parking lots with a hundred other cars looking for an open spot. It was like playing musical chairs with 100 people and only 1 chair. Eventually you would be in the right place at the right time when someone would back out in front of you so you could be right there to grab their spot. Then the crowds were so big and thick unless you shoved and pushed your way to the front of the overlook, you could only see the magnificent view by looking through and over 3 or 4 rows of the people in front of you. And doing all of this in heat so bad it was hard to breath. Not fun. 

Half Dome
After 6 hours of extreme frustration doing that, I decided to visit the visitor's center and store where I could get a bite to eat, get my National Park Passbook stamped and buy a t-shirt. The crowds were so overwhelming though, you have to catch a park shuttle bus as no cars are allowed there during the heavy season. I arrived at a designated bus stop and found several hundred people standing in line. An hour later, word filtered to the back of the line that the buses were being held up as the visitor's center could only hold a limited number of people. I had been in line for over an hour, had seen only 2 buses arrive and depart and both had taken on just a few lucky individuals because they were already standing-room-only full. I had moved forward in line about 10 feet. With a 100-foot line of people ahead of me, I decided to get my sweat-drenched behind back in my rental car and just leave. 

After exiting the park on my way back to San Francisco, I passed several miles of stopped cars waiting to enter the park. I was happy to be going the other way. 

The park is incredibly beautiful and I am glad I was able to see a few of the iconic sites such as Half-Dome, El-Capitan, Bridalveil Falls and Nevada Falls. What I most remember about the park is, unfortunately, the crowds of people and the endless lines of cars. I've been to most of America's National Parks and based on this visit, I have to rank Yosemite as my least favorite. Unfair, I know, but that's the way it is. The park is the poster child for a place well on the way to being loved to death. I think the only way to truly save it would be to place limits on the number of visitors allowed in the park during any one day.

From my experience, I would strongly advise against a visit during the summer months. Go during the early spring or fall when the public schools are open and be there during the work-week, not on weekends. You should also be aware that Yosemite Valley, the region visited by the vast majority of tourists, only comprises a very small percentage of the park. If physically able, you really should plan to take a few of the dozens of designated hikes so you can get away from the overwhelming crowds of people and truly enjoy the splendor of Yosemite. Only then you will be able to say, "I've been there."

Nevada Falls

Road Trip to Utah - Part 7 - 4-Wheelin' and Rock Crawlin'

Our last full day of Mancation dawned just as bright and clear as all the other days. After a leisurely breakfast, we headed to the Moab Adventure Center for the 4-wheeler tour we had reserved. It was pretty darn expensive, but what the heck, we both love going where there's not a crowd and seeing what the mainstream average tourist doesn't. Besides, it's only money! 

Sad to report though, this particular adventure left us disappointed. I've been on a number of 4-wheel drive tours and driven a bunch in my own jeep and sadly, this one ranks at the bottom of the list. The good was that our driver was friendly and we got lucky in that there was nobody else with whom we had to share the tour. Since it was just us, the driver gave us our choice of which tour we wanted to take. We chose the "Back Country" at his suggestion for "awesome scenery and great arches that other people don't know about." He told us it would take a while to get to the off road part, but we had 3 hours so it was no big deal.

Filming a movie shut down the road
Turned out it was a big deal. The 4-wheeler was a converted military Hummer with a top and no sides - and no air conditioning. Mother Nature chose that day for the old sun to shine bright and the temperature to climb. Because of the low gearing, the Hummer couldn't go faster than about 50 MPH and we drove on pavement for 25 long, loud, uncomfortable minutes. Then we came to a dead stop because (one guess here) either another movie was being filmed or the same movie filming we had run into before (see Part 4 here) had the road closed. Evidently movie crews are allowed to shut down any road for however long they want in Utah because we sat there with the hot sun beating down on the metal top for over 20 minutes. We couldn't see what they were filming so we just sat there talking a bit. We paid good money for this and the minutes seemed like hours. Frustrating.

The "4-wheel trail" we drove on
When we were finally allowed to proceed, we drove on the pavement for another 10 minutes and then took a dirt road to the right. Finally! Now we're going to have some fun! Nope. We spent the next hour driving along the same dirt road. There were some interesting things our guide pointed out and there was some beautiful scenery and we never saw anyone else, but the road never got very rough or anywhere near challenging. My stock Ford F150 pickup would have easily driven that road. We eventually came to a wide spot and stopped. The guide said this was a good place to take pictures so we got out and walked around taking a few while he wandered away from us to have a smoke.

Beautiful scenery on the back-country tour
A few minutes later when we returned to the Hummer, he turned it around and we headed back. Sure enough, we were stopped on the road yet again while the movie filming continued. Fortunately, it only took about 15 minutes before we were allowed to drive on. We returned to our starting point just 10 minutes later than our allotted 3 hours. We had spent almost 2 hours on pavement and only 1 hour of our 3-hour, 4-wheel back country tour on a dirt road that wouldn't have challenged a regular pickup truck. Not happy. 

The most interesting place on the 4-wheel drive road
We went back to the hotel to shower and change out of our wet-from-sweat clothes. We ate a few of our road snacks we still had and ended up taking naps before we returned to Moab Adventure Center for the 4-wheelin' rock crawling sunset tour we had signed up for. We went with the mindset that if this one was as disappointing as the back country tour, we were going to raise hell until they gave us our money back. Fortunately, no hell needed to be raised because this one was a lot of fun and very interesting. 

Our Hummer on the back country tour. The driver
was off having a smoke.
We loaded up into another Hummer, but this time, we had 6 other people (3 couples) with us. They were all very nice and our guide was very outgoing, engaging, and funny. Being true to my Texas upbringing, I let the women get seated first and of course their men sat beside them so, without setting out to do it intentionally, I ended up being the last to board. That worked out great for me as that meant I got to sit in the front seat next to the driver - the very best place to be! We only had to drive about 10 minutes on pavement before turning off on a dirt road where we ended up 2 minutes later facing a large boulder. 

Our rock climbing Hummer and driver/guide
"Well," said our driver as he pointed to a group of other large boulders ahead of us, "we need to get up there, but I'm not sure how to get there." We sat there for a few seconds as he appeared to be thinking about it. "Oh, what the heck" he said, put it in 1st gear and headed straight for that big rock in front of us! The next thing we knew, our Hummer was climbing up and we were leaning way back in our seats holding our collective breath! 

I admit, I would never have thought a vehicle could have gone into and out of the places we did. We eventually caught up with another tour group and I swear the two drivers began trying to outdo each other in where they could drive those Hummers and we certainly benefited from it. Of course, it might have just been all a part of the adventure as neither of them were ever unsafe, always driving slowly and getting out to inspect the route any time it seemed particularly steep, but it was very enjoyable anyway.

Our friendly rival group going down where we had just been
About 3/4 of the way through the tour, we arrived at the top of the trail. We all dismounted and watched as the sun set and a full moon rose from behind the distant mountains. Some stood, some sat down, but everyone was very quiet, all lost in their own thoughts. Michael and I have been very good friends for many years. We get along well and I really enjoy taking road trips with him, but right then, I sure missed my wife.

After the sun went down, we headed on back. At one point, we hit a rock sticking up at the bottom of a precipitous descent which poked a hole in the oil pan. After looking it over, the driver decided it wasn't leaking much and we could limp it back to the offices. This tour certainly made up for that disappointing first excursion and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend you experience it. 

Enjoyed the scenery while crawlin' the rocks
After supper, we retired early as we planned to get an early start back home in the morning. On the way back, we stopped several times going through Colorado to take in the beautiful scenery and to eat and walk around the historic town of Creed. After one more night in a cheap little privately owned motel, we arrived back home safe and sound the next day right at our expected time. 

This trip, like many of our other road trips, proved to be a really interesting and adventurous time away from our normal every-day lives. We saw many beautiful things and we met and talked to many interesting people. I truly wish everyone could and would take some time and slow down, travel around and experience this incredibly beautiful country peopled with incredibly friendly and caring humans. As for me, I'm already in the planning stages for an epic solo "Seeing America" road trip driving 1,894 miles on Hwy 83 all the way from the border in Brownsville, Texas north into Canada. Stay tuned!
Moon rising from behind the mountains.
(photo by Michael)


Cool valley in Colorado
Waterfall in Colorado
We had a wonderful time walking around Creed, Colorado