Brian’s Travel Spot: Heading West

Have coffee, will travel. Making an Aeropress on Amtrak between Boston and Albany.Welcome to the second instalment of Brian’s Travel Spot, which follows my three week adventure across the USA. The first instalment, imaginatively entitled New England, covered my time on the east coast in New England: Boston, Providence and Portland, Maine, to be precise. This second instalment covers my journey west, by train, as I thread my way, city to city, to my ultimate destination.

The idea behind Brian’s Travel Spot is that it enables you to follow my adventures as they unfold. As with the New England post, I’ll update this post every few days, in between my normal Coffee Spot posts, the idea being to capture the highlights, with the emphasis on the travel rather than the coffees shops (although I’m sure they’ll feature).

Each update has its own gallery followed by a short entry:

You can see how my journey started after the gallery.

  • What could be said to be the start of my journey. The Atlantic Ocean at Portland, Maine.
  • I take my leave of Portland and my very fine room at the Inn on St John.
  • On the Downeaster from Portland to Boston. Sadly the views are not spectacular.
  • For spectacular, you have to wait until you're west of Boston, heading into the Berkshires.
  • A view of the Memorial Bridge as we cross the Connecticut River at Springfield.
  • More hills! And big skies!
  • Soon we're in the heart of the Berkshires, following the Westfield River (I think).
  • There are frequent glimpses of the river, but they're not easy to photograph!
  • After passing the most dramatic scenery, I realised I could stand at the back of the trian.
  • I wasn't the only one who realised this!
  • Along the way, there were plenty of these...
  • ... hauling plenty of these. We had to stop to let this one go past.
  • It only took three minutes. If it was travelling at 30 mph, that makes it a mile and half long!
  • There were fewer of these. In fact, this was the only passenger train we passed.
  • It's our opposite number going back to Boston from Albany.
  • The spacious interior of coach class on Amtrak.
  • This leaves plenty of room to get the coffee kit out. Thanks to Caffiniti for the beans.
  • Add Aeropress, grinder & hot water from Amtrak, and you'll have great coffee on the train.
  • It was Upper Cup's first time on the train.
  • Next stop, Albany Station, and one of the better station cafes in the US.
  • I'd been there before, but it was Upper Cup's first visit. And my first visit in daylight.
  • This is my train, the 49 from New York to Chicago, coming into Albany Station.
  • Crosisng the Hudson just outside Albany.
  • Sunset over the Mohawk River, Schenectady
  • More sunset.
  • I leave you with the firework display laid on for us during a stop at Syracuse Station.
  • Well, I say laid on for us...
  • I suspect it was more to do with the minor league baseball game that had just finished.
  • The Syracuse Chiefs play in a stadium next to the station...
  • ... and had just lost 2-10 to the visiting Scranton/WB Railriders.
  • I guess it was more of a commiseration than a celebration then!
HTML5 Slide Show by WOWSlider.com v4.6

5th June: Portland, Maine to Rochester

As we saw in the first part of Brian’s Travel Spot, I took a day-trip to Portland, Maine, which turned into an overnight stop, courtesy of Amtrak. It’s at Portland, specifically down at the harbourside, by the Atlantic Ocean, that my journey could be said to have really started.

The following morning, Friday, 5th June, saw me rising early and heading down to the station at Portland, to catch the Downeaster (all Amtrak trains have names), which, having  started in New Brunswick, was to take me to Boston. So at eight o’clock sharp, I boarded the train and settled into my seat. The train takes a more coastward route than the bus I caught up to Portland, but, a few small stretches aside, it doesn’t actually run along the coast itself, and the scenery is limited to endless vistas of trees. Where it scores over the coach is the space and provision of at-seat power. Even in standard (coach) class, there is bags of room, at least twice that on an equivalent British train. Even when the person in front of me reclined the seat, I could still comfortably work at my laptop and type two-handed, not something I could ever do in a British train, except at a table seat.

The trip was scheduled to take two and a half hours, but due to engineering work on the line, it took three and half hours, leaving me with the an hour and a half to kill. I caught the Orange Line to Back Bay station, where I was due to catch my train to Rochester and spent my spare hour having lunch in the Back Bay branch of Flour, a five-minute walk from the station.

The train to Rochester was another effected by engineering work. Originally scheduled as a through train, with the carriages from Boston joining up with a train from New York City at Albany, it turned into a one-way train from Boston to Albany, at which point we were turfed off and had to wait an hour to board the New York train, where, predictably, all the best seats were taken.

However, the leg from Boston to Albany was easily the highlight. After a relatively flat hour or so heading west from Boston, the train went straight through the Berkshire Hills running along the spine of Massachusetts. It’s a spectacular route, one I’ve been driven along a couple of times to get from Boston to Williamstown, home of the Clark Institute.

The road (Route 2) takes a more northerly route, going over the tops of the valleys, giving some spectacular vistas. By comparison, the train takes a lower, more southerly route, hugging the valley bottoms and following the Westfield River (I think). This affords some amazing views as the train twists and turns, crossing and re-crossing the river, before eventually coming out above Albany and dropping down into the Hudson Valley.

From Albany, the train heads due west, on its way to Chicago, effectively following the southern edge of the Great Lakes. Aside from a glorious sunset, there wasn’t much to see, other than a firework display at Syracuse, which, disappointingly, hadn’t been put on for us (it was from the neighbouring ball park, where a Minor League Baseball game had just come to a close).

Problems in the yards at New York meant that my train was delayed into Albany and I eventually arrived at Rochester, an hour later than scheduled, at midnight, a mere 16 hours after I’d departed Portland. The good news was that I had an extra hour working on the train, which enabled me to get the first part of Brian’s Travel Spot finished.

See how I got on in Rochester after the gallery.

  • I spent a lot of my time while in Rochester hanging out here, my friends' back yard.
  • In particular, we were out here on the deck. I now have serious deck envy!
  • Talking of my friends, this is Liam, who was keen to help me write the Coffee Spot...
  • ... and this is Allie, looking very majestic.
  • However, Allie doesn't always like having her photo taken...
  • I particularly liked my friends' house and its wooden features...
  • These two photos are of the evening sun streaming down the stairs.
  • While in Rochester, we did that most American of things: brunch.
  • However, the food on offer at my friends' house was every bit as good.
  • One of Rochester's highlights is the High Falls, right in the city centre.
  • High Falls, as seen from the pedestrian Pont de Rennes.
  • The walls of the cliffs on either side are punctuated by some interesting-looking openings...
  • I never did work out what they were for!
  • The view downstream from the Pont de Rennes. It's a very muddy river!
  • The river is full of interesting features, including pillars of old bridges...
  • ... and the occasional stubborn tree!
  • The train line crosses the river above the falls. Here's the Maple Leaf, en-route to Toronto.
  • Talking of waterfalls, this is Niagara Falls, seen from the US side.
  • The falls in more detail, with the American falls in the foreground, Canadian at the back.
  • In amongst all the spray, you can see that the American falls plunge onto rocks.
  • The spray, and the noise of the water, are tremendous.
  • The edge of the falls, in more detail...
  • ... and the spray at the bottom. Check out the footpath!
  • One of the many boats which venture into the spray beneath the falls. This is a Canadian one.
  • The Canadian falls are further back (the border runs down the centre of the river).
  • The Canadian falls in more detail. They seem to be more vertical than the American ones.
  • Talking of Canada, it's easy enough to get over there on one of the many bridges...
  • ... where you'll find, amongst other things, this futuristic-looking observation tower.
  • Upstream of the falls are the rapids, which really give no clue of what's to come.
  • Even as the water approaches the edge, it all seems placid enough.
  • Right at the edge and the drop doesn't seem too bad...
  • ... however, a quick change of perspective and things become clearer!
  • Further upstream and the rapids are, well, rapid!
  • It's quite dramatic up here in its own right...
  • ... in many walls, equal to the falls, in an understated sort of way.
HTML5 Slide Show by WOWSlider.com v4.6

6th – 7th June: Rochester and Niagara Falls

My weekend in Rochester was deliberately and pleasingly low-key, mostly just relaxing with my hosts, old friends who had moved to Rochester several years before from Madison, Wisconsin. I’d visited them in their old home, but this was the first time I’d been to see them in their “new” house in Rochester. I say “new” since it’s a beautiful, old, timber-built house from the early 20th century, now over 100 years old. It’s got many original features, including a lot of the original woodwork, and it creaks in many interesting ways, but I loved it.

We spent a lot of our time lounging on the deck in their amazing backyard (I have serious deck envy) but we did find time to go out for that most American of things, brunch, at a local diner. We also went to see the High Falls, which are in the middle of Rochester itself, a quite unexpected and spectacular sight. The falls powered much of Rochester’s early industry and now provides hydro-electric power for a large proportion of the city.

We also took a trip out to Niagara Falls, a one-and-a-half hour drive west. We weren’t there for long, but it was enough time to admire the physical splendour and majesty of the falls themselves, while bemoaning the (inevitably tacky) tourist infrastructure that had sprung up all around it. There wasn’t time to visit the Canadian side (something I’d have liked to do) or take a boat trip into the spray at the bottom of the Falls. One day I’d like to go back and perhaps spend a full day there, seeing how the Falls change with the changing light, from dawn ‘til dusk. I’d also like to see them by moonlight.

After that, it was back to Rochester to wait for my train on to Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited. This time it surpassed itself, arriving in Rochester one-and-a-half hours late. The good news was that we were able to keep track of its progress on-line from the comfort of my friends’ house, which was 10 minutes’ drive from the station. The result was that I got lots more work done and rolled up at the station five minutes before the train!

You can see whether I made it to Chicago on time after the gallery.

  • All aboard for Chicago. My sleeping compartment, set up as a bed...
  • .. and here in the morning as a two-seat private seating compartment.
  • The sleeping compartments are quite wide: the corridor, in contrast, is narrow!
  • One of the best bits of travelling by sleeper: you get free use of the dining car.
  • French toast for breakfast, anyone?
  • The landscape on the approach to Chicago featured a lot of this...
  • ... punctuated by the occasional farm...
  • ... or large, industrial location.
  • There were also lots of sidings and freight cars.
  • Occasionally, however, there would be interesting things, like some water...
  • ... or hills! Well, not really hills, but anything to break the flatness!
  • My first sight of Chicago: the Sears (now Willis) Tower in the far distance.
  • We're getting closer!
  • A first proper look at downtown Chicago as we cross the freeway south of the city.
  • Chicago's famous skyline in more detail.
  • Crossing the Chicago River: almost there!
  • Finally, we arrive in Chicago's Union Station, which is underground.
  • This is my engine, by the way.
  • A view of Union Station from the outside, as seen from the other side of the river.
  • I'll leave you with a view of the Chicago River as I set off to explore...
All aboard for Chicago. My sleeping compartment, set up as a bed...1 .. and here in the morning as a two-seat private seating compartment. 2 The sleeping compartments are quite wide: the corridor, in contrast, is narrow!3 One of the best bits of travelling by sleeper: you get free use of the dining car.4 French toast for breakfast, anyone?5 The landscape on the approach to Chicago featured a lot of this...6 ... punctuated by the occasional farm...7 ... or large, industrial location.8 There were also lots of sidings and freight cars.9 Occasionally, however, there would be interesting things, like some water...10 ... or hills! Well, not really hills, but anything to break the flatness!11 My first sight of Chicago: the Sears (now Willis) Tower in the far distance.12 We're getting closer!13 A first proper look at downtown Chicago as we cross the freeway south of the city.14 Chicago's famous skyline in more detail.15 Crossing the Chicago River: almost there!16 Finally, we arrive in Chicago's Union Station, which is underground.17 This is my engine, by the way.18 A view of Union Station from the outside, as seen from the other side of the river.19 I'll leave you with a view of the Chicago River as I set off to explore...20
HTML5 Slide Show by WOWSlider.com v4.6

7th – 8th June: Rochester to Chicago

The train, the Lake Shore Limited, which I caught from Rochester, was the counterpart of the train I’d arrived on 48 hours earlier, only my destination this time was the same as the train’s: Chicago. I was booked into a sleeper compartment, similar in size to a sleeper on the London to Scotland trains in the UK, although considerably taller. It was also slightly more comfortable and had the added novelty of having a toilet in the compartment, something I don’t remember from the only other time I took a sleeper car in the US, when I went from Chicago to New Orleans five years ago.

I got a decent night’s sleep on the train, not perfect by any means, but certainly adequate. One of the nice things about travelling by sleeper on Amtrak is that you get complimentary access to the dining car which, in my case, meant a breakfast of French Toast. You also usually have to share tables, which meant I breakfasted in the company of a pleasant couple on their way to hiking in the Glacier National Park. This meant that they were changing trains at Chicago and heading on west on the Empire Builder, the same train I was scheduled to catch, only in my case it would be two days later.

Coming back from breakfast, I converted my bed into a pair of seats, which meant that I had a spacious, private seating compartment all to myself. Sadly the views weren’t up to much, the most scenic parts of the route definitely having been east of Rochester. From the point I woke up until we reached Chicago the predominant terrain feature was flat. It really feels as if someone took a giant steamroller to the whole area. Having grown up and lived amongst hills all my life, it’s something I still struggle to get used to.

The landscape itself alternated between farming and industry, with frequent sidings and loading areas for freight trains. This reminded me, not for the first time, that in the USA, the principle traffic on the railway is freight, which is in stark contrast to the UK, where passenger services predominate. However, I wasn’t too disappointed since I knew what to expect: I’d done most of the route twice before, once coming from Ann Arbour to Chicago and the other time coming from Detroit.

Having departed Rochester an hour and half late, we finally rolled into Chicago’s Union Station, right in the heart of downtown, a mere two and a half hours behind schedule.

You can see what I got up to in Chicago after the gallery.

  • First stop on my quick tour with Jeff: Intelligentsia on Jackson Boulevard...
  • ... where we had time for an espresso (me) and a Cortado (Jeff).
  • Next it was on to Asado Coffee at Pickwick Place...
  • ... but not before I'd had a quick tour of the beautifully-restored Steger building.
  • It has some amazing original features, such as this mail box...
  • ... and this gorgeous staircase.
  • After that, we popped into Asado itself...
  • ... where I had one of the best espressos I've had in a long time...
  • ... and Jeff had a Cortado!
  • A few stops later on the Blue Line, and we're at Asado's new location in River North.
  • This amazing coffee shop is fully kitted out and ready to go, but isn't yet open.
  • I've never had a coffee shop entirely to myself before: another espresso for me...
  • ... and some filter coffee for comparison purposes!
  • Finally, I had just enough time to squeeze in a visit to an old favourite of mine, Tempo Cafe.
  • ... where I had a very late brunch to soak up all that caffeine!
  • I'll leave you with the beautiful interior of Tempo Cafe.
First stop on my quick tour with Jeff: Intelligentsia on Jackson Boulevard...1 ... where we had time for an espresso (me) and a Cortado (Jeff).2 Next it was on to Asado Coffee at Pickwick Place...3 ... but not before I'd had a quick tour of the beautifully-restored Steger building.4 It has some amazing original features, such as this mail box...5 ... and this gorgeous staircase.6 After that, we popped into Asado itself...7 ... where I had one of the best espressos I've had in a long time...8 ... and Jeff had a Cortado!9 A few stops later on the Blue Line, and we're at Asado's new location in River North.10 This amazing coffee shop is fully kitted out and ready to go, but isn't yet open.11 I've never had a coffee shop entirely to myself before: another espresso for me...12 ... and some filter coffee for comparison purposes!13 Finally, I had just enough time to squeeze in a visit to an old favourite of mine, Tempo Cafe.14 ... where I had a very late brunch to soak up all that caffeine!15 I'll leave you with the beautiful interior of Tempo Cafe.16
HTML5 Slide Show by WOWSlider.com v4.6

8th June: Chicago

Chicago was another low-key stop, visiting friends, topped and tailed by visiting a pair of Chicago’s finest coffee shops. When I eventually got to Chicago, around noon on Monday, I met up with Jeff Liberman of Asado Coffee, a small chain of coffee shops-cum-roasters, which I’d already planned to visit. I’d not met Jeff before, but, through the power of twitter and a mutual acquaintance who neither of us have actually met face-to-face, we arranged to meet.

Jeff’s quite a character, a really live-wire who is full of energy and passionate about speciality coffee and about Asado in particular. He became my tour-guide for the day (what do I keep saying about the kindness of strangers?) and took me around a couple of his coffee shops, as well as pointing out some of Chicago’s famous architectural gems.

However, before we started, Jeff and I paid a quick visit to Intelligentsia on Jackson Boulevard, a 15-minute walk from Union Station. This is the second-ever Intelligentsia and holds a special place in my heart since it’s one of the coffee shops I visited on my first ever trip to Chicago over 10 years ago and one I’ve been back to several times since.

From there it was on to Asado, which is just a block away on the other side of the street. It’s in a private alley between two historic, iconic Chicago buildings, the 1911, 19-storey Steger Building (to the right) and the 1912, 16-storey Gibbons Building (to the left). It’s one of the most delightful, small coffee shops I’ve seen, with outside seating in the alley. We made another express stop where I had one of the best espressos I’ve had in a long time.

From there, we jumped onto the Blue line to go a few stops to River North where Jeff showed me the latest Asado. This is in the ground floor of an office building, but which sadly isn’t open to the public yet. It is, however, fully kitted out, so I had an entire coffee shop just to myself, which was really cool.

After that, I had just enough time to track down Tempo Café, another old haunt of mine from previous visits to Chicago, and a favourite 24-hour diner, where I had a late brunch, fortuitously dodging a torrential downpour in the process. From there, it was back to Union Station and the commuter rail out to Prairie View to stay with some old friends for a couple of nights.

You can see what I got up to after the gallery.

  • The double-decker commuter rail train that took me out to my friends' place.
  • Breakfast!
  • I brought a gift for my hosts (& remembered it this time!). The Roasting Party hits Chicago.
  • However, the highlight was when Marc produced a bag of green beans.
  • This time, I remembered to weigh them before roasting...
  • ... and I persuaded Marc to roast them in a frying pan on his hob.
  • Marc favoured tossing the beans, pancake-style, rather than turning them in the pan.
  • It was impressive and effective, but it did lead to the beans coming off the heat a lot.
  • The beans are browning nicely...
  • ... and then suddenly they're rather black! We quickly got them outside to cool.
  • However, they didn't look too bad once I'd sieved them for chaff.
  • 60 grams in; 50 grams out. But what did they taste like?
  • We tried them on the train a day later, but you'll need to wait to find out how they tasted...
The double-decker commuter rail train that took me out to my friends' place.1 Breakfast!2 I brought a gift for my hosts (& remembered it this time!). The Roasting Party hits Chicago.3 However, the highlight was when Marc produced a bag of green beans.4 This time, I remembered to weigh them before roasting...5 ... and I persuaded Marc to roast them in a frying pan on his hob.6 Marc favoured tossing the beans, pancake-style, rather than turning them in the pan.7 It was impressive and effective, but it did lead to the beans coming off the heat a lot.8 The beans are browning nicely...9 ... and then suddenly they're rather black! We quickly got them outside to cool.10 However, they didn't look too bad once I'd sieved them for chaff.11 60 grams in; 50 grams out. But what did they taste like?12 We tried them on the train a day later, but you'll need to wait to find out how they tasted...13
HTML5 Slide Show by WOWSlider.com v4.6

9th June: Roasting Green Beans in Chicago

I stayed with my friends Marc and Cindy out in Prairie View, northwest of Chicago, making use of Chicago’s (relatively) extensive network of commuter trains to get out there. The commuter rail has double-decker coaches by the way; sit at the top if you can. It also costs just $7 one-way into Chicago, a similar distance to Guildford to London, but at a fraction of the cost!

It was a relatively quiet visit, mostly spent relaxing and catching up on e-mails, plus I got a chance to do some laundry. A lesson I learned relatively late-on while travelling; never underestimate the value of having somewhere to do laundry in the middle of a long trip; it hugely reduces the amount of clothing you have to carry!

Probably the highlight of the stay was when Marc and I turned our hand at roasting green beans. Marc has a home roasting machine, which he hasn’t used in several years. He proposed getting it out of retirement, having recently bought some green beans in anticipation of my visit. However, following my success with roasting beans at home in a wok, I persuaded Marc to try roasting them in a frying pan on his hob.

We roasted 60 grams of Guatemalan Antigua Finca Cabrejo green beans from Sweet Marias and got 50 grams of roasted beans out. In contrast to when I roasted at home, things took a little longer this time, a shade over 15 minutes, as I was probably too conservative with the heat early on. Also, Marc liked to toss the pan in order to turn the beans (vital if you’re not to burn them) which probably contributed to them not getting as much heat as I’d have liked.

I wouldn’t say that the results were 100% successful: we both thought we roasted them a little too dark (they really got away from us in the last minute of roasting). Despite this, I declared myself very happy with the outcome, especially for a first attempt in an unfamiliar kitchen, while Marc was a little more sceptical.

You can see which of us was right after the gallery.

  • All aboard! Marc and I start our journey at Prairie View station to catch the commuter train.
  • When we got to Chicago, this happened. One of the lift bridges over the river opened.
  • Here it is closing again, just to prove it isn't kept permanently open!
  • Chicago's Union Station: the less glamorous part where the trains actually are...
  • ... and the view of the river from our train as we are about to pull out.
  • Our train. Long, isn't it? The front's behind the station building (the tiny thing in the distance).
  • The front of our train and its two engines. Marc & I are special: we need one each!
  • The connections between carriages are done at the top level of the double-decker coaches.
  • Coach class (ie standard seating). More room than our compartment, but less privacy!
  • The observation deck, between the Seattle and Portland parts of the train.
  • The dining car, set for dinner on the first evening.
  • Talking of which, I had the salmon, which was excellent.
  • My breakfast omelette, with grits and a biscuit, was pretty good too.
  • And of course, with this kit, as long as you have hot water, you'll have good coffee!
  • My Aeropress, along with Porlex mini-grinder and UpperCup, in action at breakfast.
  • This is where we were, by the way. Sleeping car passengers only, in case you hadn't noticed.
  • The very narrow corridor between the two rows of sleeping compartments...
  • ... and our compartment, converted for seating during the day, by our attendent, Alfred.
  • The more spacious sleeping compartments at the back; just enough room for a corridor.
  • And, the joy of Amtrak trains, the open window right at the back...
  • ... where I spent many a happy hour watching the world go by!
All aboard! Marc and I start our journey at Prairie View station to catch the commuter train.1 When we got to Chicago, this happened. One of the lift bridges over the river opened.2 Here it is closing again, just to prove it isn't kept permanently open!3 Chicago's Union Station: the less glamorous part where the trains actually are...4 ... and the view of the river from our train as we are about to pull out.5 Our train. Long, isn't it? The front's behind the station building (the tiny thing in the distance).6 The front of our train and its two engines. Marc & I are special: we need one each!7 The connections between carriages are done at the top level of the double-decker coaches.8 Coach class (ie standard seating). More room than our compartment, but less privacy!9 The observation deck, between the Seattle and Portland parts of the train.10 The dining car, set for dinner on the first evening.11 Talking of which, I had the salmon, which was excellent.12 My breakfast omelette, with grits and a biscuit, was pretty good too.13 And of course, with this kit, as long as you have hot water, you'll have good coffee!14 My Aeropress, along with Porlex mini-grinder and UpperCup, in action at breakfast.15 This is where we were, by the way. Sleeping car passengers only, in case you hadn't noticed.16 The very narrow corridor between the two rows of sleeping compartments...17 ... and our compartment, converted for seating during the day, by our attendent, Alfred.18 The more spacious sleeping compartments at the back; just enough room for a corridor.19 And, the joy of Amtrak trains, the open window right at the back...20 ... where I spent many a happy hour watching the world go by!21
HTML5 Slide Show by WOWSlider.com v4.6

10th June: All aboard! Leaving Chicago on the Empire Builder

The following morning (Wednesday) saw Marc and I heading back into Chicago on the commuter train. We allowed ourselves enough time for a more leisurely visit to both Intelligentsia and Asado, plus a lunch stop at another coffee shop in the same area with the delightful name of Dollop. Fully caffeinated, we then headed back to Union Station in time to catch our train. If you hadn’t worked it out already, we were on our way to Portland, Oregon (to attend a friend’s wedding).

You may question my sanity in flying out to Boston in the first place, but I’ve always wanted to go coast-to-coast across the USA on the train and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Originally I’d planned to start in New York, but when I switched to flying into Boston, I realised that I could take a day trip to Portland and, by catching the train back, not just go from coast-to-coast, but go from Portland to Portland.

After our short tour of downtown Chicago coffee houses, Marc and I boarded the Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago’s Union Station to Spokane in Washington, where it separates, the front part going to Seattle and the rear section going to Portland. This is one of the longest trains I’ve been on; two locomotives, a single-deck car and then 10 double-deckers (the Eurostar is longer, while I once went on a TGV from Paris to Quimper that was two 10-car TGVs joined together). Naturally, the Portland sleeping car was right at the back, which meant we didn’t have to walk very far to get on, but it did mean we had to go a long way to get to the dining car for our meals. This was in the middle of the Seattle section of the train, a full six coaches ahead of us!

Compared to the sleeper from New York to Chicago, where the carriages were tall but single deck, these were all genuinely double-deckers, with the bulk of the seating/sleeping compartments upstairs. Although you enter on the bottom deck, the connection between the carriages is all at the upper level, with the lower level being mostly reserved for restrooms/baggage (coach seating), the kitchens (dining car) or the café (lounge/observation car). The plus side of this arrangement was that we got some excellent views; the downside was that our sleeping compartment was much smaller.

For starters, the ceiling was a lot lower. Although I’d not needed the top bunk on my way to Chicago, there was plenty of room up there. In contrast, I did end up in the top bunk on the way to Portland and had just enough clearance to roll over and that was about it! Secondly, the compartments were narrower; instead of one compartment stretching almost the width of the carriage, the Empire Builder had compartments on either side, with a narrow corridor down the middle. This meant no room for a toilet in the compartment (a mixed blessing) and more importantly, no room to actually put anything! This is fine if you’re travelling solo, since you can use the other seat for storage, but if there are two of you, it becomes a little trickier. There are large, family compartments, which stretch the full width of the car (minus a narrow corridor) and have their own washroom, but these are much more expensive.

Despite all this, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and you can see what I made of the journey after the gallery.

  • The train heads west initially, giving great views of the Hancock Tower.
  • Have I mentioned that Chicago is very flat? Lots of cars had to wait for our train.
  • More views of the Hancock Tower.
  • Crossing Western Avenue, once the western boundary of Chicago.
  • As we head further west, we are joined by more tracks.
  • The Chicago area has lots and lots of rail tracks, mostly for freight trains...
  • ... although in this case it was for a depot for Metra, the commuter rail company.
  • Old and new. Metra has some very sleek, modern-looking locomotives...
  • ... and plenty of old ones, like this fellow, who seems to have misplaced his train...
  • A last view of downtown Chicago from the Hancock Tower to the Sears (now Willis) Tower.
  • Soon we're into flat, open countryside...
  • ... although it doesn't seem long before we're approaching Milwaukee, our first major stop.
  • I think I've been to that branch of Collectivo!
  • Ahhh, Milwaukee, with your complex freeway system right in the heart of the city...
  • Back to flat again. But wait, is that a hill in the distance?
  • And what's this? A river! However, this is nothing compared with what's to come.
The train heads west initially, giving great views of the Hancock Tower.1 Have I mentioned that Chicago is very flat? Lots of cars had to wait for our train.2 More views of the Hancock Tower.3 Crossing Western Avenue, once the western boundary of Chicago.4 As we head further west, we are joined by more tracks.5 The Chicago area has lots and lots of rail tracks, mostly for freight trains...6 ... although in this case it was for a depot for Metra, the commuter rail company.7 Old and new. Metra has some very sleek, modern-looking locomotives...8 ... and plenty of old ones, like this fellow, who seems to have misplaced his train...9 A last view of downtown Chicago from the Hancock Tower to the Sears (now Willis) Tower.10 Soon we're into flat, open countryside...11 ... although it doesn't seem long before we're approaching Milwaukee, our first major stop.12 I think I've been to that branch of Collectivo!13 Ahhh, Milwaukee, with your complex freeway system right in the heart of the city...14 Back to flat again. But wait, is that a hill in the distance?15 And what's this? A river! However, this is nothing compared with what's to come.16
HTML5 Slide Show by WOWSlider.com v4.6

10th – 12th June: Chicago to Portland, Oregon

The journey from Chicago to Portland was amazing. In all, we were on the train for 47 hours and crossed three time zones, Central Time (Chicago), Mountain Time (Montana) and Pacific Time (Portland). We also crossed eight states: Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho (briefly), Washington and Oregon. In all, my journey from Portland to Portland took in 14 states, those eight, plus Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and Indiana. If you add in my day trip down to Rhode Island, that makes 15 states in all, although some I just travelled through while asleep (Ohio and Idaho, I’m looking at you).

I thought 47 hours might drag, but the time actually flew by. The structure of having regular meals also helped pass the time. We got breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining car, starting with dinner on the evening of the first day. However, when the train divided at Spokane, the Seattle part stole the dining car, although we were allowed to keep the café car with the observation lounge, which is where we had breakfast on the final day.

As well as Marc and myself, we met up with the daughter of a mutual friend and her father, who were also travelling out to the same wedding. However, neither Marc nor I had met them before so it took us a while to meet up. When we did, we discovered that they were two sleeping compartments down from us!

The scenery was interesting and varied. Even through the long, flat bits of North Dakota and Montana, it was never entirely flat, with enough to keep me (at least) interested and looking out of the window. That middle section was also punctuated by lots of oil wells and gigantic wind farms. However, the highlights come near the beginning and end of the journey, starting on the evening of the first day as we crossed the mighty Mississippi and then followed its southern bank all the way to St Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota. What impressed me was just how massive the river was, given how far north we were and hence how much closer to its source. Talking of rivers, we also followed the northern bank of the Missouri for quite a long way.

At the end of our long trek across North Dakota followed by Montana, we suddenly came upon the Rockies. Crossing them was another highlight, particularly the moment when we crossed the watershed from the Atlantic to the Pacific at a height of 5,216 ft above sea level. The approach to the Rockies had been sudden and dramatic, but even better was the slow descent down the steep-sided Flathead River valley on the other side.

The final highlight came on our final morning as we made our way along the northern (Washington) bank of the Columbia Gorge, tracing the course of the mighty Columbia River which we’d picked up during the night. Rather than trying to describe the landscape and scenery, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Day 1: The Mighty Mississippi and the Minnesota Sky

  • Towards the end of the evening, we cross the mighty Mississippi...
  • ... and then, a minute later, we do it again...
  • ... and again! The Mississippi splits into multiple channels here, making it easier to cross.
  • Our engines round a bend before heading over another bridge crossing...
  • ... you guessed it! The Mississippi!
  • However, that was the last time. Thereafter it was visible through the window to our left.
  • Sometimes it was so wide, I thought it was a lake!
  • We were also treated to a glorious sunset...
  • ... which was reflected in the river's waters.
  • I'll say this for Minnesota: it does big skies very well.
  • We weren't always by the river, but kept to the valley. That's the northern edge over there.
  • More lovely clouds, underlit by the setting sun.
  • I'll let this picture and the next three speak for themselves.
Towards the end of the evening, we cross the mighty Mississippi...1 ... and then, a minute later, we do it again...2 ... and again! The Mississippi splits into multiple channels here, making it easier to cross.3 Our engines round a bend before heading over another bridge crossing...4 ... you guessed it! The Mississippi!5 However, that was the last time. Thereafter it was visible through the window to our left.6 Sometimes it was so wide, I thought it was a lake!7 We were also treated to a glorious sunset...8 ... which was reflected in the river's waters.9 I'll say this for Minnesota: it does big skies very well.10 We weren't always by the river, but kept to the valley. That's the northern edge over there.11 More lovely clouds, underlit by the setting sun.12 I'll let this picture and the next three speak for themselves.13 14 15 16
HTML5 Slide Show by WOWSlider.com v4.6

Day 2: Across North Dakota and Montana

  • Dawn on Day 2 saw us crossing North Dakota, here looking east from the back of the train.
  • It was very flat...
  • Hills! A curve in the track! Two & a half hours after getting up, there's something to see!
  • It made a change, I can tell you!
  • We also started to run into evidence of industry, which was to be a major feature of the day.
  • Our first significant stop: Minot, North Dakota.
  • Like many others, I got out to stretch my legs, my first time on North Dakotan soil.
  • After that, the landscape was more varied, including cows!
  • We also started to see these, lone oil wells, pumping away...
  • ... and these, much larger oil facilities.
  • Sometimes the two were combined...
  • ... and elsewhere there were clusters of pumps, all part of the North Dakota oil boom.
  • Check out the newly-laid track on the left. There was a lot of work going on along the line...
  • ... all to support the aforementioned oil boom.
  • The front end of one of the oil trains, the back of which we passed a minute ago.
  • Next stop, Williston, home of this rather magnificent locomotive, now 100 years old.
  • Not long after, we started to run alongside another of America's great rivers, the Missouri.
  • We were to follow the Missouri for quite a way...
  • The landscape also got quite interesting. I believe that this is typical of the Badlands.
  • It's at some point around here that we crossed the state line into Montana.
  • Sometimes we weren't by the river, but we could see the southern edge of the valley.
  • Eventually we left the Missouri, instead joining its tributary, the Milk River.
  • Not long after, we pulled into Glasgow... Not much like the Glasgow I know!
  • After Glasgow, we continued to followed the course of the Milk River...
  • ... through some more interesting terrain.
  • For a while, we joined Beaver Creek, a tributary of the Milk River...
  • ... before rolling into Malta, perhaps the definition of small town America (population 1,997).
  • Then it was back to the familiar Milk River as we headed into our first major stop in Montana.
  • This was Havre, where we refuelled. I'm not sure I've been on a train that's refuelled before!
  • After refuelling, we pulled into the station proper and I got out to stretch my legs.
  • Real-time train information, Montana style. We were running about an hour late at this point.
  • We left Havre and trundled on towards Shelby, crossing yet more flat terrain.
  • I got very excited when I saw these in the distance, far away to the south. The Rockies?
  • This interesting fellow also attracted my attention. But it turns out it wasn't the Rockies.
  • Soon we rolled into Shelby, Montana.
  • We saw a lot of these on our travels, gigantic wind farms, a counterpoint to all the oil.
  • Rte 2 followed us much of the way. Here we both cross Cut Bank Creek just west of Cut Bank.
  • Not long after, we did get our first view of the Rockies! The coach is on Rte 2 by the way.
  • These magnificent mountains were on us very suddenly...
  • ... and before we knew it, we crossed Two Medicine River on the trestle bridge.
  • That was looking south to US Rte 2. This is looking down (& north), 4,885 ft above sea level!
  • Soon we had mountains on either side of us...
  • ... gorgeous mountains, with lots of pine forests.
  • By now it was evening & we'd reached Glacier Park, Montana, where the real fun was to start.
Photo Carousel by WOWSlider.com v4.6

Day 2: Crossing the Rockies

Day 3: Down the Columbia Gorge to Portland

  • Morning on our third & final day on the train saw us heading west along the Columbia Gorge.
  • We were still in the (comparatively) broad upper reaches of the gorge...
  • ... which is populated by a lot of these: massive wind-farms.
  • Soon there was a forking of the single track into two...
  • ... which led to the (almost) inevitable freight train heading on up the gorge.
  • Still the same train. Llook carefully to the right & you'll see another one: we're surrounded!
  • Soon, however, we're back to a single track.
  • The landscape on the far (southern/Oregon) side was amazing, dominated by eroded...
  • ... cliff faces. If you look carefully, you can see I-84 running along the bottom of the cliff.
  • We've left US Rte 2 far behind now, swapping it for I-84, seen here crossing a tributary.
  • The rocks on our side of the river are just as interesting, by the way, just harder to see...
  • We also have wind farms!
  • Soon we get our first glimpse, in the far distance, of Mt Hood, at 11,249 ft above sea level.
  • There it is, a nature feature in the landscape, towering above a man-made one...
  • ... the Dalles Dam, one of many built to tame the Columbia River.
  • The Dalles Dam, which, as well as making the once impassable Columbia River navigable...
  • ... also generates hydro-electricity.
  • The town of The Dalles on the Oregon side. We, by the way, are in Washington.
  • Another man-made structure dwarfed by the size of Mt Hood.
  • This time it's the Dalles Bridge.
  • The reason the bridge is so high is to allow these fellows to pass underneath.
  • The landscape starts to change as we head west, bare slopes giving way to pine forests...
  • ... which is one of the areas main sources of industry: timber.
  • The next major town along, and the next bridge over the river, is Hood River.
  • Hood River, in the shadow of Mt Hood. I stayed here on my only previous visit to this area.
  • Not only Oregon's highest mountain, Mt Hood's the most prominant, lacking any neighbours.
  • Hood River is, by the way, a major resort for wind-surfing and the like.
  • The gorge starts to narrow past Hood River and there are some interest rock formations...
  • ... such as these two out-croppings. You can see I-84 skirting the base of them.
  • Look carefully and you can just see a waterfalls, which might be Starvation Creek Falls.
  • Our first glimpse of the Bridge of the Gods, by Cascade Locks. I stayed here this trip.
  • The magnificent bridge.
  • A look back upstream (east). It's so placid, but before the dams, there were rapids here.
  • Now dams such as the nearby Bonneville Dam have tamed the river, flooding the valley...
  • ... and creating interesting features such as this island/rock.
  • Another highlight on the Oregon side; the historic Columbia Gorge Highway look-out house.
  • Soon, however, the gorge broadens out: we've passed through the Cascade Mountains.
  • Not long afterwards, we are crossing the mighty Columbia River and entering Oregon.
  • We're almost at Portland. There are lots of train tracks around here.
  • Crossing the Willamette River, north of Portland, looking towards the St Johns Bridge.
  • Welcome to Portland: American urban planning at its best!
  • Our final stop, Portland's Union Station. The US does have some exceptional station buildings.
  • And relax. As sleeper passengers, we get to use the Metropolitan Lounge at the station.
HTML5 Slide Show by WOWSlider.com v4.6


Finally, I’ll leave you with the end of the green bean saga. I took the beans that Marc and I roasted on the train with us and used them in my Aeropress. I had the first cup for breakfast on the second morning and really enjoyed it. It was a little darker than my usual coffee of choice, but it had plenty of body and was ideal for the first cup of the day. Marc, however, found it too strong.

I managed to get two more cups out of the beans and with each successive brew, the coffee mellowed somewhat. By the third cup, even Marc was declaring it very drinkable and, for someone who always puts cream and sugar in his coffee, he was surprised to find that he enjoyed it black. All-in-all, I call that a huge success!


This concludes the second instalment of Brian’s Travel Spot. Part three, the third and final instalment, covers my time in the Pacific Northwest.


If you liked this post, please let me know by clicking the “Like” button. If you have a WordPress account and you don’t mind everyone knowing that you liked this post, you can use the “Like this” button right at the bottom instead.

Don’t forget that you can share this post with your friends using the buttons below.

17 thoughts on “Brian’s Travel Spot: Heading West

  1. Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: New England | Brian's Coffee Spot

  2. Pingback: Asado Coffee, Pickwick Place | Brian's Coffee Spot

  3. Pingback: Roasting Green Beans at Home | Brian's Coffee Spot

  4. Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot – The Pacific Northwest | Brian's Coffee Spot

  5. Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: New York & Philadelphia, 2016 | Brian's Coffee Spot

  6. Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: Philadelphia & Beyond, 2016 | Brian's Coffee Spot

  7. Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: Back to New England, 2016 | Brian's Coffee Spot

  8. Pingback: Elm Coffee Roasters | Brian's Coffee Spot

  9. Pingback: Intelligentsia, Jackson Boulevard | Brian's Coffee Spot

  10. Pingback: Asado Coffee, River North | Brian's Coffee Spot

  11. Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: Heading East | Brian's Coffee Spot

  12. Pingback: Intelligentsia, Old Town | Brian's Coffee Spot

  13. Pingback: Tempo Café | Brian's Coffee Spot

  14. Pingback: 2016 Awards – Coffee Spot with the Best Lighting | Brian's Coffee Spot

  15. Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: Vietnam By Train | Brian's Coffee Spot

  16. Pingback: My Travelling Coffee Kit | Brian's Coffee Spot

Please let me know what you think