After a hectic rush of energy to get everything ready to leave our bus behind in the hands of Master Tech RV in Elkhart, IN – we had one final night of rest in our own bed.
Saturday morning, May 30, we loaded our backpacks, a bag of dirty laundry and Kiki in the Mini Cooper and made our way to St. Louis – officially starting our big Alaskan summer adventure!
This post will cover what we consider to be phase 1 – getting to Vancouver.
St. Louis Time
It was roughly a 7 hour drive back to St. Louis, which exceeds our normal day’s drive when in the RV. The reason for St. Louis was to leave Kiki with her grandparents while we embark on our Alaskan adventure, who will also be parking the Mini while we’re gone.
When we return in mid to late July, we’ll just route via St. Louis to pick up both the cat and car before heading to back to Elkhart to finish up bus projects.
The drive down was uneventful, except for non-stop rain and having a cat glued to my lap. But mainly we were just exhausted after all of the preparations, and heck – I’ll take cat snuggles any time I can.
Chris’ folks have a great new house in the area with a most excellent guest suite – with ample space to get fully prepared for our rail & sea adventure. We did a final load of laundry, and got our packing done.
We also got Kiki caught up on all her shots at the nearby Banfield (located in Petsmarts across the country – giving her pretty nationwide access to veterinary care with records that are centrally located in their system).
We spent some quality time with Chris’ folks, and we took a much needed chill day.
Honestly, all of the non-stop preparations for both the bus and the trip caught up to us. It’s a lot of emotional energy to yank yourself from your home, leave it in the hands of others and set off for adventures thousands of miles away. Even if it is all by choice.
So we’re glad we padded in a couple extra days to get everything together before catching our 6:40am train to Chicago on Wednesday.
It’s about a 5 hour train trip up to Chicago, and we arrived shortly after noon. As Amtrak is notorious for not running on time, we knew better than to book our train travel up there on the same day as our departure to Seattle.
So we took the opportunity to enjoy an overnight in Chicago, a city we had only day visited together in the past.
We booked a room in the university area using AirBnB.com, which is a site that allows you to book directly with individuals renting out space in their homes. We had never used the service before, so decided to try it mostly out of curiosity.
We had been reading a bit of controversy over the site, as there seems to be quite a number of properties being used exclusively for rentals, thus effectively taking affordable housing off the market for locals.
We booked what we thought was a spare room, and were a bit taken aback when we arrived to discover that all three rooms in the apartment are AirBnB rentals and the owner doesn’t live on site. A fact not disclosed in the listing.
All and all, the stay was just fine – it definitely served the purpose of a comfortable stay nearby dining and public transportation at an affordable price of $89/night.
And not staying with a host did let us off the hook of feeling the need to be social and set off exploring without explanation.
But we did feel bad knowing that we were contributing towards taking away affordable student or staff housing in the area.
That didn’t stop us from enjoying Chicago. We set out to grab lunch nearby, and ended up walking well over 11 miles. We ended up walking around Grant Park, the shoreline, and randomly boarded a water taxi at Museum Campus. At Navy Pier we then took an Architectural History tour by waterway.
It was absolutely fascinating to learn more about the area from this perspective and we definitely recommend taking one of the many tours like this if you’re in the area.
I spent a lot of time in Chicago on my own in my 20s on various software development projects, and each time I return I fall more in love with the city.
Someday I’d love to rent a downtown loft in for a month or two in the spring and just soak it up.
We got a good night’s sleep, and then set off back towards Union Station to catch our westbound train. We definitely maximized our 24-hours in town.
The Empire Builder
The Empire Builder westbound train leaves Union Station at 2:15pm. One perk of having booked a Roomette is that we had access to the Metropolitan Lounge, which offers free baggage storage. So we dropped off our backbpacks earlier in the day, and enjoyed some more walking around town.
At 1:30p they started loading the train and we got settled into our super cozy Roomette that would be our home for the next 44+ hours on our way to Seattle.
Those who have been following us a while might recall that almost exactly 4 years ago we set off with a month long Amtrak rail pass in search of our vintage bus (after several years of full timing in super small travel trailers).
That year, The Empire Builder route was closed down due to flooding, so we never to got to incorporate it into our search – which was a big reason we booked this particular adventure. It seemed appropriate now four years later while doing a major bus renovation project.
We both absolutely love trains, it’s such a peaceful way to travel. There’s no security inspection, no waiting until you reach 10,000 feet to walk around and you can bring wine & food on board.
The cars sway a bit back and forth, rocking you into a lullaby at night. The scenery passes by out your window along big open fields, mountains and following rivers. You can walk amongst the various cars – dining, coach, sleepers and even a scenic viewing car that often features narration by volunteer rangers and guides.
You get to see some places that might not even been accessible by road.
All meals are included in the dining car with a roomette purchase, and the seating is community style. So each meal you’re dining with someone new.
We met some interesting fellow travelers each on their own unique journeys, which always adds to the charm of train travel. And the food was pretty darn good. They have plenty of options for a variety of food preferences, and I had no problem finding gluten free and mostly vegetarian options (they don’t promise the absence of cross contamination however – something I generally don’t worry about).
For any train segment that exceeds more than a night onboard, we love upgrading to the Roomette instead of Coach. During the day they are two seats facing each other with a small folding table in-between for workspace. You get your own scenic window, and a closing door with curtain for privacy if you desire it.
At night, the two seats become a single bed, and a bunk drops down from above. Our only complaint about the Roomette is that there is only one power outlet, and we should have pre-planned that better by bringing a power strip to keep all our devices charged up.
There are bathrooms located throughout the car, and even a dressing room and shower. Some larger rooms have their own facilities and can accommodate up to 5 people.
The train makes stops every hour or two at cities along the way to drop off and pick up passengers. At stations that have baggage service, you’re usually stopped for a few minutes and they allow passengers off for a ‘fresh air break’.
We take every opportunity we can to get out on the platform to stretch and move around.
The downsides of train travel is that Amtrak does not own the rails. However, if they depart on time they get priority for a window of time. But if they miss their window of opportunity then the freight trains get priority and Amtrak trains often get sidelined waiting for them to pass.
Due to a small sink hole holding us back while passing through North Dakota while the track was repaired and inspected, we ended up running a few hours behind schedule and missed passing through Glacier National Park during daylight.
But it was still gorgeous by moonlight, and the conductor did open a window for us downstairs to get a better view.
It also gave us great mid-morning light for our pass through the Cascade Mountain range on our final approach into Seattle.
Seattle and Cascades
The Empire Builder route splits off in Spokane – with half the train going to Seattle and the other half to Portland (the concept that your mode of transportation can reconfigure and go in different directions is really cool to wrap your head around!).
We arrived to Seattle just a couple hours behind schedule, and were picked up at the station by our dear long time friends Lindsay and Sean for an afternoon. They showed us their new neighborhood and digs, having just moved to the area from the San Francisco area last year.
It was great to catch up with these guys, and it’s always way too short of a visit.
They dropped us back off at the station in time to catch our 6:50pm Amtrak Cascades route into Vancouver.
The train trip up the coast along the sound was beautiful, and we did have two delays along the way – one caused by a bridge ahead needing to be inspected (better safe than sorry), and the other by a trespasser in the train yard on arrival into Vancouver. Once in Vancouver, we cleared Canadian customs confirming that we had plans to visit friends in the area and exit the country on a cruise ship in a few days.
All and all, we arrived a bit over an hour late, and thankfully our kind hosts Tracey and Harold are late owls too.
Train Adventure Summary
Amtrak isn’t the way to travel if you want the quickest way – but it’s a great way to travel if you have the extra time and aren’t on a fixed time schedule. Have some patience and adaptability for inevitable delays, and a smooth running cross country train trip can be a memory to last a lifetime.
And it’s not terribly expensive either. For our cross country 3-segment adventure from St. Louis to Vancouver, including our all-inclusive Roomette on the longest segment, we paid just $862 for the two of us. And it was easy to book directly at Amtrak.com. They do offer discounts for seniors, military, AAA members and more. Definitely compare different departure days, as prices can vary by supply and demand.
Sure, flying might have been cheaper & faster – but it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.
And for us, it’s usually about the adventure!
Next Adventure Up: In our next adventure report, we’ll tell about our wonderful introduction to Vancouver and making new friends, and the one-way Alaskan cruise that I write this post from.
Bus Update: Master Tech reports that they have been busy getting parts in to start our project, and getting space cleared out in their shop to dedicate to Zephyr. We’re continuing to coordinate with them on some details, including which patio awning option is going to be best for us.
While we’re a bit disappointed to not have much else to report on given it’s been 2 full weeks since we left Elkhart at this point – they promise us things will start moving at a rapid pace now. The goal is to complete the non-paint involved projects first while the bus is getting stripped, that way there’s little risk of any damage to the new paint once it’s done.