Well, I'm home, fairly recovered, and ready to talk about the trip. Scroll down for photos we took along the way.
TRIP TO OHIO: DAY ONE
I hate to fly, and our daughter is terrified of it...so we usually take the train. I LOVE to travel by train. It's a three-day trip, roughly. We've taken this train trip several times, and know the route and train pretty well by now. It's usually my favorite part of the vacation.
We arrive at the first-class lounge about two hours early. The lounge is for sleeper car passengers only, and is basically a very nice room with a tv, several phones, many nice chairs and coffee tables, and free drinks in the form of coffee, soda, bottled water and juice. Jonathan drops us off at the lounge, and rushes out. This is his money-saving idea du jour: instead of paying $20+ for a cab, he drops us and the luggage off at the lounge, drives the car back to the house, and then takes the bus to the station. He ends up arriving about two minutes after they start boarding our train. We rush off, and in the process, Wren falls and badly scrapes both knees. It's not an auspicious start to our vacation.
An attendant (Dan) shows us to the Family Sleeper, which is very spacious. We've never had this car before, always choosing the deluxe bedroom in the past. We've clearly been missing out. We also notice right away the much-advertised renovations to the Empire Builder train. The old 70's-style upholstery has been replaced with a very nice dark blue pattern, for example. The whole train, in general, just looks and feels better.
About an hour or so after departure, Dan returns with champagne for the adults and sparkling apple cider for the kids. Ooo la la! The dining car isn't actually with the train yet, so our first meal aboard is a boxed one. Last time, the meal was barely edible---bad deli sandwiches and limp salads. But Amtrak has improved in this area as well---the girls and I had chicken salad with fruit salad and brownies, Jonathan had roast beef and Ceasar salad, while Phoenix had a shrimp tempura. We kept passing bites around so everyone tried everything. It was all delicious.
The first night on the train was not a breeze. The sleeping arrangements were as follows: Jonathan and Phoenix took the top bunks, while Wren took the smaller bottom bunk and the baby and I shared the larger. Eden, who until that point was having a great deal of fun on our little adventure, became terrified when the beds were folded down and I began trying to coax her into dreamland. I think she really thought we were going to ride the train during the day, then go home and let her sleep in her own bed at night! She threw an hour-long screaming fit. At first, I was concerned that this would bother the other passengers on our floor--but as it turns out, the doors on the family bedroom are pretty thick, and no one heard a peep. Not that there was much I could do about it in any event---she was inconsolable until she finally nursed and fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.
At that point, I too was ready to sleep---but alas, it was not to be. First came the pleas from my two older children to go to the bathroom every twenty minutes or so (it takes a good day or so for their little bladders to get used to being jostled about so much). The bathroom was down the hall, but I wasn't comfortable with them going alone...especially as Jonathan and I had spotted a couple of militant skinheads on the train earlier. By the time I got the kids settled, Jonathan began to snore. Very, very loudly. I couldn't believe the bed wasn't shaking from it. I kept getting out of bed and nudging him to roll over, to no avail. To make matters worse---the pain then began to kick in. I finally gave up and gazed out the window at the city lights passing us by all night.
We awake in the morning and head out to the dining car, now attached, for breakfast. The dining car is one of the best features onboard Amtrak. If you're first-class, your meals are all included---and the food is fabulous. It makes airline food look like---well, airline food.
When we get back, a copy of the local newspaper is there, the room has been cleaned and we're ready for our first full day of train travel. And as usual on vacation---we left something at home. Namely, Jonathan's pants. He's only got one pair of pants in our day bag for the train trip, and that's it. He is unthrilled. He cheers up, however, when Dan returns to invite us to a wine & cheese tasting in the observation lounge. Jonathan takes the kids while I take a much-needed nap. When he returns, he tells me the skinheads are still on board---and now wearing t-shirts with swastikas and violent, anti-Jew messages on them. Lovely.
We head off back to the dining car for dinner, where our waitress admires my tattoos and shows me her butterfly on the back of her neck. Outside, we see a derailed train and a construction crew working around it. The wait staff is trying very hard to ignore it.
As we return to our room, there is a lady we haven't seen before arguing with Dan about why the coach-class passengers do not get blankets like the first-class people do, or newspapers, or free coffee and soda. Dan explains to her that these are first-class amenities only---and that she, not being first-class, cannot even be in this area (a fact which is clearly marked by signs on the doors to the car). The woman is still complaining when we shut our door.
After breakfast, we begin to pack up, as this will be our last day on the Empire Builder---and unfortunately, our last day in first class. In the early evening, we'll change trains in Chicago to one taking us to Cincinnati---and as that trip is only a few hours, we don't qualify for first-class accomodations (you have to be staying overnight on a train for that). I am not looking forward to it.
About two hours before we reach Chicago, the train stops abruptly and over the loudspeakers, the conductor asks if there is anyone on board who is a doctor or first-response medical personnel. The train begins to move again, and maybe 20 minutes later the conductor comes back on the speakers to announce that a passenger had a medical emergency, but thanks to several medical personnel on the train and the fast response of local ambulances, the passenger was now on their way to the hospital and it "looks good." Poor guy.
During another stop, I had a bit of an embarassing moment. I had the curtains open so the kids could look outside, and I was nursing Eden. Several passengers had gotten off at the stop and were milling about the station, but I hardly noticed them....until Eden suddenly pulls off the breast and leaves me exposed....to an elderly Mennonite man right outside our window. He smiles at me. It takes a lot to make me blush, but that did it.
We arrive in Chicago. The station in Chicago is actually quite nice---many little shops and restaurants. We begin to head upstairs to get the kids some dinner when we pass by the skinheads. I am wearing my "Frybread Queen" t-shirt. One of the skinheads comments to his neo-Nazi buddy: "I'm not even going to say anything about that fucking shirt." Yeah, screw you, too, assmunch.
After dinner we took the kids to a playroom there in the station. Inside is a television playing SpongeBob (my girls' favorite) and some play equipment. We were the only ones there. The kids played happily while Jonathan and I sat down and waited for the announcement that our train was boarding.
Finally, the announcement came...and we got on the train. Coach. Which I hate, especially on that particular train. And let me tell you why: not only is there no privacy, the train is NEVER on schedule, there's no room and no nicities, the train is always, always, always filthy and the bathroom (which about 40 people have to share) is even worse. It always reminds me of that "Beetlejuice" quote: "Oh, look, an indoor outhouse!"
The conductor shows up and gives a little speech about what he will and will not tolerate, punctuated by what I am sure he thinks are very witty barbs. We makes a big deal out of how he must see everyone's tickets and ID, and then take ticket stubs. He never checks our IDs, gets all bitchy because I have not signed the ticket stubs (I had no idea I needed to), and then never does return to take them.
Jonathan and I do our best to get the kids comfortable in the tight, dirty quarters. He and Wren are sitting in the aisle across from Phoenix, the baby and I. In front of Jonathan is a drunken man sipping Crown Royal from a paper bag. Behind me is an elderly man and a young college student. The student is the most annoying person I have come across in some time. She is a complete idiot. The man clearly is uninterested in anything the girl has to say, but she doesn't get it. She shows him a ton of photos of every tiny detail of her life---including her dorm bathroom, her neighbor's cat and her ex-boyfriend's little brother's best friend's girlfriend. She drones on and on about her "giant crush" on Billy Ray Cyrus (why?), her "way difficult" college course load and asks nearly everyone who passes by her seat if there are speed limits on trains. She then tells the man that she is "exotic" because her grandfather was a Cherokee, or as she put it, "a hillbilly Indian." I am ready to stuff a sock in her mouth, and just keep saying to myself, she'll fall asleep eventually. What a fool I was. As soon as the man fell asleep (from sheer boredom, I am sure), she then put on headphones and hummed loudly for nearly an hour---before passing out and snoring loud enough to put Jonathan to shame. I hate this idiot. I don't even know her, and I hate her.
We finally arrive in Cincinnati, at a nearly abandoned station with two museums and an IMAX theatre. We sit in a cafe and drink vending-machine coffee and hot chocolate until my in-laws arrive.
It was boring. It was mind-numbingly boring. It was Ohio.
ROAD TRIP: DAY ONE
We did not take the train home, as it was our turn in the "family car rotation" and we were leaving town in my father-in-law's old Oldsmobile. You see, my in-laws buy a new car every five years. The new car always belongs to my mother-in-law. Father-in-law then gets mother-in-law's old car, and Jonathan and his sister alternate getting father-in-law's old car. It was our turn, so we drove home.
We've made this drive many times, but each time, we've always taken the same route: through the mid-west, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and then Oregon. This time, we decided to go a more southernly route, through Missouri and Colorado. We were pretty excited about it.
Before we leave, we have one last meal at our favorite pizza place in the world: Marion's. If you've never been to Dayton, and never had a Marion's pizza...I both pity and envy you. Pity you, because you've really missed out on some fantastic pizza. Envy you, because you've never been to Dayton.
And so, we bid farewell to our "hometown" and hit the road.
As we drive along, we begin to see billboards advertising something we haven't seen in years and years: Ponderosa's. As both Jonathan and I have good memories of the steakhouse from our youths, before they all disappeared from the Dayton area, we decide to hit one for dinner. It was very disappointing: the decor was all wrong, the salad bar had next to nothing for me to eat, and the famous dinner rolls we'd loved as kids were nowhere to be seen. And strangly enough---every waitress there had a Markie Post on "Night Court" she-mullet.
Among the strange sites we saw on the road that day: a giant Cross (see the photo below), an off-road stand with a badly-painted tipi and giant bison statue in front, and several dune buggies and ATMs actually on the highway. We also discovered that radio stations in the middle of nowhere can be rather eclectic: mostly bluegrass/country-western, Christian sermons, 80's-era hits and lots of AC/DC. Although we did come across a station outside of Terre Haute, Indiana, with a DJ who had the following comments about the Aretha Franklin hit "Freeway of Love": "It's a lovely song, but Aretha, not a lovely woman, ha ha." What the hell?
We spent that night in a great Comfort Inn in St. Charles, Missouri. My son filled out a postcard for his little girlfriend (awww). I once again did not sleep well, due not only to face pain but to leg spasms as well.
After a terrific complementary breakfast at the hotel (with some amazing Belgian waffles and cinnamon rolls), we were off again. Among the sites on day two: an Elvis is Alive museum, several semis playing chicken, weird Missiouri signs (with letters like "A" and "T"...does anyone out there know why Missouri has random letters on its
highway signs?), and freaky billboards for pro-life groups, pro-Jesus groups and doctors doing reverse vasectomies. Often, they would be in a row: "We love babies!" "Jesus Saves!" "Get Your Vasectomy Reversed!"
When dinner time rolled around again, Jonathan spotted a Sonic. Now, Sonic has had commercials in our area for about a year...even though there are NO Sonic restaurants in Oregon and according to their website, none on the way. This has always irked Jonathan, but he wanted to give them a day in court. We pulled up, got the kids out to stretch our legs, went up to the door...and were promptly (and rudely) told that there was no indoor restaurant---you ordered from your car. We ended up going to Arby's.
We spent that night at a Days Inn in Colby, Kansas, where I spent a fun half-hour watching a Spanish tattoo show before passing out.
The breakfast at the Days Inn was definately not as good as the one at the Comfort Inn. For one thing, you couldn't bring the food to your room...so instead of Jonathan simply bringing us up breakfast, we had to schlepp the entire crew to a small "break room" for donuts, cereal and bad coffee.
Among the things we saw on day three: the city of No Name, a huge sign declaring that "Happiness is a Crock of Beans" and some rather gorgeous Colorado scenery.
We spent the night at a Comfort Inn in Green River, Utah.
After another fine Comfort Inn breakfast, we piled into the car and realized we were in trouble. Jonathan was due back to work the next day...and we were still over 900 miles from home.
To prepare for this long haul, we went to Wal-Mart and invested in some soda, some snackies and some new toys and video games for the kids to prevent boredom and melt-downs. Our big find of the day was a Video-Only SpongeBob for the Game Boy Advance: three episodes of SpongeBob for the baby to watch to her heart's content. Several times during this day were we glad we'd made the purchase.
The big highlight of day four came when we decided to stop for dinner...in Eden, Idaho at a place called the Garden of Eden. We got some great pictures of Eden there, and the employees seemed tickled to hear her name.
We drove well into the night. Or, I should say, Jonathan drove. There could be no hotels or long breaks; his stops mostly centered around bathroom trips and coffee refills. It was a long night, but we finally got home around three in the morning.
I can't tell you how happy I was, to sleep in my own bed again. In my own house. You really appreciate your home, when you've been away from it....especially if you've been staying with your in-laws!
And that, in a nutshell, was my vacation. I am so, so, SO glad to be home!