Monday, September 27, 2021

Rocky Mountaineer


For years the Rocky Mountaineer has run luxury trains in Canada, for instance from Vancouver to Banff. The trains are designed for sightseeing with big glassy areas, with deluxe food and beverage service, and only daylight travel (with an overnight stay in a hotel enroute.)

Earlier this year the company announced their first service in the United States between Moab, UT and Denver, CO with an overnight in Glenwood Springs, CO. I discussed this with friend Rick Moser and we decided to book a trip in mid-September. Rick’s wife Jane would come along but my wife Barb declined.

Fast forward to now. I returned from a trip to Portland Maine on Sunday, September 12 and was looking forward to the start of this trip on the following Friday. But I developed a toothache on Monday that got worse on Tuesday and my dentist said that I needed an endodontic evaluation. No endodontist could see me on Wednesday, but one who I had used before agreed to see me at 7:30am on Thursday before his first appointment. I had an infected tooth and he did a partial root canal and cleared me for travel the next morning.

Friday, September 17

On Friday morning I actually slept 9 minutes past my alarm (I never do that) and awoke at 4:39am. I was planning to drive but saw that there was an Uber available at a semi-reasonable price (compared to 10 days of parking) and took that instead. I was at the airport and through security about an hour before my 7:20am flight on Southwest to Salt Lake City via Chicago. Both flights were scheduled to be 737Max aircraft but both ended up being 737-800s which made me happy. Both flights were early. At Midway Airport I was joined by Rick and Jane and we made the flight to Salt Lake City together. The walk from the gate at SLC to the baggage claim must be the longest possible in any airport (and I’ve flown into Heathrow). It went on and on, and just when you thought you were there, just like at Disneyworld, you turn a corner and it continues to go on and on. But we eventually made it.

Rick had rented a one way Volvo to Moab, and relatively soon we were on our way. After a quick lunch at an In-and-Out Burger Restaurant we drove down I15 to US 6 to I70. Instead of taking US191 directly to Moab we elected to go about 50 minutes out of our way and, on the advice of friend Steve Gregory, took UT128 which was incredibly scenic. We checked into our hotel, the Hoo Doo Hilton where there was a slight room mixup that was quickly dealt with. The Hoo Doo, booked through Rocky Mountaineer as a part of our package, is a great hotel with really good rooms and public areas. It was our home for three nights. After settling into our rooms we met in the lobby at 6:30 and went to Dewey’s Restaurant and Bar for a good dinner. I think I was back in the room by 8:30 and had the light off by 9:15. I went to sleep immediately and did not awake until around 7:30am on Saturday.

One of the vistas from UT128

Saturday, September 18

I awoke around 7:30am and got ready for the day. Around 8:30 I went for breakfast and ran into the Moser’s who had also just arrived and enjoyed French toast and a huge portion of bacon (that I could not finish).

At 10am we went to a local car rental place and picked up the Toyota Sienna we had reserved for two days then drove it and the Volvo the 18 or so miles out of town to the Canyonlands Airport to turn in the one way rental. From there we went to Dead Horse Point State Park where the vistas were amazing. Then it was off to Canyonlands National Park where the vistas were amazing. There is one “easy” hike in Canyonlands … about 0.5 Miles round trip to see Mesa Arch. I really struggled with breathing on the “easy” trip and only made what I am assuming is a 0.35 mile round trip. I got near to the end but saw that there was a significant drop to get to the end and decided that I was not confident about being able to make it back up again! So I turned around. Rick commented that he was surprised I had made it as far as I did. We then went to several other vista points that were easily accessible (though I was still winded) and headed back to our hotel in Moab, arriving around 4pm. Note that the altitude of the “easy” hike was about 6,200 feet.

At 6:30 I met the Moser’s in the lobby and we headed out to dinner at the Moab Diner. Here I made a mistake and ordered a chocolate malt. I will leave out additional details. Bedtime was around 9pm because of an early day tomorrow.

Dead Horse Point State Park

I almost made it all the way up the "easy" path (near Mesa Arch)

At Grand View Point, Canyonlands National Park

Green River Overlook, Canyonlands National Park

Sunday, September 19

We had heard of long lines (and even closures) to get into Arches National Park and decided we wanted to do the sunrise thing. So we left the hotel at 6am and were at the entrance to the park by 6:20am. There was no wait to get in…in fact the booth we went through had no one attending (we have senior passes so no fee owed, but it would have been nice to have a map/guide…the visitor’s center doesn’t open until 8am.) The ride up into the park had a “if you build it, they will come” kind of vibe…with a line of headlights snaking up the road in complete darkness. I’m glad that Rick was doing the driving. Our first stop was at Windows at sunrise. We did not realize that we could easily see Double Arch nearby and ended up coming back much later when it was significantly more crowded. We saw Delicate Arch and made several more stops before heading back down to the visitor center where we realized our mistake regarding Double Arch (and so went back.) As we approached the visitor center we could see a long line of cars waiting to enter the park. When we came back from retracing our steps they had actually stopped admitting cars for a while.

North Windows Arch at Dawn, Arches National Park

Above all around North Windows Arch, Arches National Park

Owl Rock

Skyline Arch

Courthouse Towers

Courthouse Towers

Double Arch

After leaving the park it was time for breakfast. We ended up at the Canyon Steak and Waffle House which was quite good. Then back to the hotel for a bit. At noon we decided to explore UT 279 which goes down the Colorado River Canyon to the big potash plant at its end. The potash plant is the reason that the railroad the Rocky Mountaineer train uses to get to Moab exists and we wanted to see the line as best we could. This was a beautiful drive and we took a number of pictures, including one of Jug Handle Arch. Then it was back to the hotel where I spent some time at the very nice pool area, watched the end of the Pirates game, and read.

Long Canyon off of UT279

Jug Handle Arch off of UT279

On the road to Potash

Dinner was at Pasta Jay’s. (A small chain with another location in Boulder I am told.) It was a two block walk away. The three of us split a medium pizza and (because the pizza was so delayed) an order of garlic bread on the house. We walked back to the hotel. I went to my room and did some packing before bed. 

Monday, September 20

I slept poorly and was up early—ready to meet the Moser’s for breakfast at 8am. I went for a walk and otherwise killed time at the hotel until the noon checkout time. The Rocky Mountaineer shuttle bus was supposed to pick us up at 1:15, but that time came and went with no one telling us what was happening. It turns out that the inbound train was about 30 minutes late but no one told us. In any event we made it to the train which was located at a place on the line known as “seven mile” (where UT 313 intersects US 191) because it is that far from the end of the line. The train left at around 2:40pm (40 minutes late.) The people who handle reservations at Rocky Mountaineer exhibited yet another lapse of service. Instead of seating Rick and Jane in adjacent seats, they seated Rick and I together even though we were on separate (but linked) reservations. We switched seats and settled down for the afternoon/evening.

Fifty-five minutes (and roughly 21 miles) after departure we were off the Cane Creek Subdivision (the only new mileage on the trip) and on the mainline headed to Denver. We stopped twice on the mainline for oncoming traffic (including a freight and Amtrak #6 the second time.) We probably lost an hour total due to this. I was amazed at how many blocked (with seemingly junk cars) sidings we passed. Arrival in Glenwood Springs was just past 8:30pm. My very nice room was in the Hotel Denver right across the street from the station and my suitcase was awaiting within. I dropped my other bag and went back out to see if I could do some low-light photography of the train but it had already been moved to wherever they service it overnight.

Leaving the Cane Creek Subdivision

Tuesday, September 21

Meal service on this train can only be described as a (largish) step above pre-pandemic domestic airline first class. Drinks are served from an airline-style trolley that doesn’t quite block the wide aisle. Meals are served individually from a limited number of choices and are obviously prepared off-train (but are good.) The service is spotty. I asked for some excess glasses to be cleared off of my tray-table and was told I’d have to wait. It took me 20 minutes and multiple requests to get a Diet Coke with my dinner. But the staff is cheerful and does hustle. The hostess in our car was a font of knowledge talking about the typography of the land and mentioning how we were on the “Tennessee” line (we weren't). Upon boarding we were given a very nice charcuterie and cheese plate. Dinner was a choice of a chicken breast or braised short-ribs. On the second day we were greeted with a beverage service (but only coffee, tea, or water) where I had expected Bloody Mary or Mimosas. Not even Diet Coke. This was followed by fruit and a croissant and then a choice of a frittata or a very nice waffle with more fruit. Lunch was a choice of coriander crusted coho salmon or a roast pork loin. I had the pork which was a huge portion and not particularly juicy.

I rode in Silver Leaf Plus class that gave me access to a comfortable lounge with premium beverages (and Diet Coke). The 24 or so seats were very comfortable and much better for viewing than the high-backed seats in the coach.

A highlight of the trip was being able to spend as much time as desired in the vestibule with an open dutch door…something you can’t do on Amtrak. I shot many, many pictures of us going along the D&RGW mainline.

Awaiting departure at Glenwood Springs

Scenes along the mainline

Interior of the very comfortable lounge car

Leaving Moffat Tunnel a few days later. Photo courtesy of Joe McMillan

Because Rocky Mountaineer doesn’t yet have access to Denver Union Station, the train arrived in a yard area about a 10 minute bus ride (if you don’t have the bus driver we did) away. We arrived at the yard a bit after 5pm and got on waiting buses. Most of the buses went to various hotels that had been arranged by Rocky Mountaineer. For those who didn’t (including us), they had a bus to Union Station. The driver nearly got into an accident, drove about 2 miles an hour, and made at least one wrong turn. It was 5:40 before we got there. At least our luggage was aboard the same bus.

I was met by friend Neal Payton who first showed me the solid silver Moffat cup on display in the station and then drove to a parking spot he had reserved at Coors Field. The spot was much further from the stadium than Union Station but they had a free shuttle to take people to gate A. We saw the Rockies lose to the Dodgers.

I had wanted to see a game at Coors since the year it opened. That year the late Dave Ingles and I were in town to ride a special train called the National Parks Limited and had tickets for the night before departure. We got into the stadium but it was raining so we waited on the concourse. Eventually we tired of waiting and, after finding out that we could get back in (something you can’t do at most baseball parks) went down the street to grab a dinner while we waited. Eventually the game was called on account of lightning so I never actually sat in a seat at Coors before. We had good seats in section 135 but it was too crowded and I never felt COVID-safe (masks are optional in Colorado.) I was over stuffed from the Rocky Mountaineer and ended up just getting myself a Diet Coke. 

I had hoped for a fast game and the first five innings looked good for that…but with the score tied in the 8th and me having an early flight, I prevailed on Neal to leave early. He graciously took me to my hotel at the airport and I called it a night.

Wednesday, September 22

I awoke ahead of my alarm by a few minutes, and got ready to fly to Chicago on the 8:15am United flight. Landing in a very windy Windy City was tricky (or seemed so) but we made it on time (in spite of having to taxi along the so-called "scenic route" due to the runway we used). I caught a Blue Line train to the Loop and walked the few blocks to my hotel near the riverwalk, dumped my bags, and then met some folks for lunch at The Palm nearby. I spent part of the rest of the afternoon walking around and not doing much else until it was time to meet my friend Andrew Fox for dinner at Shaw’s Crab House. Too much food today. I hope to make up for it tomorrow.

Thursday, September 23

Again I awoke ahead of my alarm. I got ready and headed to Randolph Street (aka Millennium Park) Station to catch a South Shore train to South Bend. On the way I stopped at Stan’s Donuts for some nourishment to take enroute. The train was ready to board shortly after I arrived at the station. It consisted of 8 single level cars but only the front four were open for boarding. I took a seat on the north side in the first car. 

The train left at 8:45am, on time, and then sat for a bit (presumably at a signal to get on the main in between METRA Electric District trains. We lost a minor amount of time before Michigan City street running. Somewhere along the way (near Gary) I spotted Amtrak 29, the Capitol Limited…running about 2 hours late to Chicago. When we got to the Amtrak Michigan line crossing we encountered a red board and the conductor announced that we would be stopped for a while waiting for Amtrak. I went up to the window behind the engineer to watch Amtrak go by. After some 10 minutes or so it eventually did. From there to the South Bend Airport there were no delays but we were still nearly 30 minutes late. 

South Shore at South Bend Airport

The whole reason for this trip was to ride the spur into the airport. The last time I had ridden was around 1977 and the South Shore’s South Bend Station was at a location called Bendix several miles up the line from where the airport spur heads off to the north. The spur heads to the east, and then covers 3 sides of a big square to actually get to the airport…where it is actually connected to the terminal. Unfortunately the covered station is open on the sides and this particular day there was horizontal rain. And it was cold. The layover was scheduled at 40 minutes but because of the lateness we left about seven minutes late. Although boarding was through one vestibule it was relatively quick…again in the front four cars (the ones we didn’t use heading Eastbound.) A large crowd boarded and almost all of them sat in the car they boarded…I moved to the next car and it was virtually empty throughout the trip. I referred to the car behind me as the COVID-car. It was that crowded. The trip back was uneventful. We ran about seven minutes late the whole way but as we approached Chicago we made up a lot of that time and arrived at Randolph Street just about on time. After a quick detour for some Garrett Popcorn and a snack I headed back to the hotel to relax before dinner. (Not that the train ride was ll that taxing of course.)

Dinner was at Joe's Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab with my oldest friend, Al (“Alfie”) Marks and his wife Marlene. I’ve been going to Joe’s (the Miami Beach version as well as the Chicago version) since the 1950s. It has been a family tradition. (My Mom, who spent winters in Miami Beach as a teen would go with her father.) I really tried to order reasonably, but there were so many things I wanted. I had oysters, three stone crab claws and a salad but then went over the top with their wonderful key lime pie. I was going to waddle back to my hotel but ended up accepting a ride from Al and Marlene.

My "small" dinner at Joe's

Al and Marlene Marks joined me for dinner

Friday, September 24

This day started out with a Zoom meeting with some colleagues in the dependability community about a panel that we are hosting in a few weeks. This was the only work I did since the Friday before. From there I walked to Avis to rent a car for two days and then drove to my Friday night hotel in Deerfield where I checked in and dropped my bags. Lunch was with friends Kevin Knourek and Don Rieck at Portillo’s in Rolling Meadows where I enjoyed their great Italian Beef sandwich. After chowing down we all went to Arlington International Racecourse to attend the second to last day of racing ever. I have lots of memories from Arlington Park. My grandparents would take me there starting in my pre-teens and, in turn, I’ve taken Lizzy there twice. Apparently it is going to be torn down and redeveloped...perhaps even as the site of a new stadium for the Bears. We were joined at the track by friends David Aronson and Guy Berentsen. I bet on five races, won one, and was short changed $2 by one of the tellers.

Senorita Aurora crosses the finish line

Back row: Me, Don Rieck, Front row: Dave Aronson, Kevin Knourek. Guy showed up later.

I left early because high school classmate, Beverly DiDomenico, was having a birthday dinner at the Nite N' Gale restaurant in Highwood, where my family dined at frequently. I enjoyed the company of Elliott Garber, Maria Jose Almeida Matos, Ellyn Shepard, Susan Berkenstein-Ori, Donna Frigo Grandi, Chris Cassai McOmber, and Elaine Santi--all except Maria were classmates. I’ve actually known Ellyn since kindergarten!

When Dave Aronson heard I was going to be in Highwood for dinner he insisted that I come by his house afterwards. Although I was exhausted I stopped for about 30 minutes (very nearby) and had a nice time chatting with him, Caryl, and his mother, before heading back to the hotel to collapse.

Saturday, September 25

The whole reason for the stop in Chicago after the Rocky Mountaineer trip was to attend a memorial dinner for my late very good friend, J. David Ingles and his wife Carol Ingles up in Peawaukee, WI. The dinner was scheduled for 5:30pm so I had a full unplanned day. I ended up going to the Illinois Railway Museum for the first time in 20 years. The growth of the museum is amazing...and their collection of equipment is both amazing and well protected from the elements. I had hoped to see their recently restored North Shore Electroliner but I could find no one who could tell me where to go to see it. In fact, most of the volunteers I approached ignored me when I spoke to them. (At least I think I spoke to them.) I got fed up after 2 hours and left for East Troy, WI where I rode their interurban operation to The Elegant Farmer. 

I was still ahead of schedule after the ride concluded so I spent a bit of time “chasing” the next run and took some pictures. I still arrived about an hour early and decided to drive around a bit. In downtown Peawaukee I had the pleasure of running into a small Trump 2024 rally.

When I got back to the restaurant around 5:15pm I saw that many had already arrived. It was a great evening with old friends. After dinner we saw several slide shows featuring Dave and Carol. Much to my surprise I think that I was prominent in more slides than anyone else who wasn’t family. Not sure how that happened because I’m usually the one who takes people pictures. It was “interesting” to see how I (and others) aged throughout the show. Suzy Ingles (Dave and Carol’s daughter) had organized the dinner. Around 8pm her kids Carson and Sam had started to act up a bit and she bid us farewell. I left around 8:15pm as I had a two hour drive to O’Hare Airport where I was spending the night at the on-airport Hilton prior to my flight on Sunday.  By the time I turned in the car, took a shuttle to the airport and walked to the hotel it was nearly 11pm. It wasn’t much past 11 when I went to bed.

Sunday, September 26

My intention had been to sleep in until 8am...but I was up bright and early at 7am. Since I had time I got ready and went down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast before completing packing and heading to the airport. My flight left out of terminal 2. I had noticed a United counter the night before but discovered that it was only for carry-on and had to walk over to terminal 1 to check in, and then back to terminal 2. Pretty wedged if you ask me. My flight left early and arrived early. My bag was waiting for me when I got to the baggage claim (and I did not particularly take my time so I was surprised.) I had a 15 minute wait for the city bus to home and after a change of buses and a brief walk, I was home just past 2:30pm.

It was a very very exhausting week, but it was good to be back on the road again. I have no more travel scheduled for this year but we shall see.

(All photos used in this article with the exception of the train leaving Moffat Tunnel were taken by me using an iPhone 12pro without any post-processing.)