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 instalment covers my journey west, by train, threading 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:
- 5th June: Portland, Maine to Rochester
- 6th – 7th June: Rochester and Niagara Falls
- 7th – 8th June: Rochester to Chicago
- 8th June: Chicago
- 9th June: Roasting Green Beans in Chicago
- 10th June: All aboard! Leaving Chicago on the Empire Builder
- 10th – 12th June: Chicago to Portland, Oregon
- 10th – 12th June: Galleries
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 (while almost all Amtrak trains have names, this isn’t the case for the Northeast Regional services, where the Downeaster is an exception), which, having started in Brunswick, was to take me to Boston. I made the 20-minute walk from Inn on St John, where I’d been staying, under I-295 (going the right way this time!) to the Portland Transportation Center, where I’d arrived the previous day.
At eight o’clock sharp, I boarded the train and settled into my seat. After leaving Portland, the train iniitally takes a more coastal route than the bus I caught up to Portland, but, that stretch aside, it doesn’t actually run along the coast. Instead it cuts inland for the rest of the journey to Boston’s North Station, the scenery limited to endless vistas of trees. .
Where it scores over the bus 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 this Travel Spot finished.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 2: Across North Dakota and Montana
Day 2: Crossing the Rockies
Day 3: Down the Columbia Gorge to Portland
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.
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