Ten days, eleven states (7): Revisiting the Twin Cities

St Paul, Minnesota is almost a second home. I’ve been visiting there regularly since 1998 when Hannah, our elder daughter, transferred from Swansea University in the UK to Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in St Paul. Incidentally, Macalester is the alma mater of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Hannah settled in St Paul after graduation, completed her graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, married Michael, and home is now complete with our two American grandchildren Callum (who will be seven in mid-August) and Zoë (five last May). So you see, Steph and I have many reasons for returning to the Twin Cities.

St Paul was the destination of our 2800 mile road trip from Georgia, beginning in Atlanta on 31 May and lasting 10 days, and covering 11 states. It was a great trip, but I was somewhat relieved when we pulled into Hannah’s driveway on the Friday afternoon, having covered the final 333 miles from Iowa City, looking forward to almost three weeks with the family and exploring favourite haunts, and hopefully discovering a few new ones. We are less familiar with the other half of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis (and currently in the news for all the wrong reasons), that lies on the opposite bank of the Mississippi from where Hannah and Michael’s home is in the Highland Park area of St Paul.

Callum finished the school year on the day we arrived, and Zoë didn’t complete her final childcare year at the St Paul Jewish Community Center until the following Wednesday. For the first three days of that first St Paul week we had Callum to ourselves, and both of them for the Thursday and Friday. So we had to find some fun things for Grandma and Grandad to do with them. The second week they went off to summer camp.

We visited Camp Butwin to check it out. Then the following Monday, it was Callum and Zoë’s first day. I was on drop-off and pickup duties!

Stillwater
Stillwater, a small town on the banks of the St Croix River (the state line between Minnesota and Wisconsin), some 27 miles east from Hannah’s home, is one of our favorite places. I first went there in 2004 with Hannah and Michael, and heard my first Lake Wobegon monologue from Garrison Keillor as we sat in the car park beside the river.

It’s a pleasant riverside town, that will become even better once the new bridge over the St Croix River is opened in August. This bridge will replace a narrow, 80 year old lift bridge in the town center.

Being a main route over to Wisconsin, much heavy traffic currently passes through the town center; this should disappear after August. No doubt to the relief of Stillwater residents and presumably many businesses. But will the diversion away from the town center take away some passing trade? Probably not, as Stillwater has its own attractions for visitors.

Stillwater high street has numerous antique and souvenir shops, and bookshops. One gift shop, Art ‘n Soul, on the corner opposite the lift bridge, sells beads, mainly crystals. Every time we visit Stillwater, Steph (an avid beader) has to pop in just to check things out.

On the hillside above the town there is an excellent children’s play park, and Callum spent a very enjoyable hour amusing himself on all the apparatus.

The St Paul-Minneapolis Light Rail
Opened in June 2014, the Green Line of Metro Transit connects downtown St Paul with downtown Minneapolis, passing through the campus of the University of Minnesota. On a very cold June day in 2014, we queued up to take the first train from St Paul on the Green Line. Then the heavens opened, and we beat a hasty retreat to the car parked nearby. This was our first opportunity since then to ride the Light Rail.

Callum and Zoë couldn’t keep still, and I warned them about standing up while the train was moving. It travels at quite a lick, as the clip below shows, and the cross-city journey takes about 40 minutes.

On the return from Minneapolis (we’d met up with Hannah and Michael in downtown Minneapolis for lunch), and as we were approaching the Capitol/Rice St stop, there was an almighty bang, and the driver slammed on his brakes. We’d hit a car (with five passengers, including a baby) that had apparently tried to run a red light. Within minutes we were surrounded by police cars, rescue vehicles, the fire service, and ambulances. One woman was taken to hospital although did not appear to be seriously injured. For our part, Callum and Zoë happened to be sitting when the impact occurred. No-one was hurt on the train.

While St Paul exudes ‘old money’ and extravagant mansions along Summit Avenue, downtown Minneapolis is the bright and brash commercial center. Skyscrapers gleaming in the sunlight, reflections, and on one building, celebrating a local boy made good. Who? Nobel Laureate (for Literature) and sometime troubadour, Bob Dylan.

Local boy made good . . .

The McNeely Conservatory at Como Park
This is one of St Paul’s jewels. It is always a treat to see what delights the seasonal planting design brings. So, it is no surprise that we had to visit once again this year.

American Swedish Institute
Midsummer, and we headed off to the American Swedish Institute, just off E 26th St in Minneapolis. It was a very hot Saturday, so we were glad to be able to tour the Turnblad Mansion, the focus of the institute today. Built by newspaperman Swan Turnblad at the turn of the 20th century. It’s ostentatious but so elegant, and a delight to view. I was fascinated by the Swedish ceramic stoves, known as a kakelugn, in many of the rooms. I didn’t have my Nikon with me, so the quality of the photos I took with a small Casio is less than I’d like. Nevertheless, they do give you an impression of this beautiful building.

Although I’d never been to the American Swedish Institute before, I was ‘familiar’ with the Turnblad Mansion, as I mentioned to one of the volunteers, John Nelson. The mansion featured in one of the programs by Tory politician-turned-TV presenter, Michael Portillo (he of the flamboyant trousers and jacket) about the Twin Cities, in his series Great American Railroad Journeys (a spin-off from his popular Great British Railway Journeys), and broadcast earlier this year on the BBC. I mentioned this to Mr Nelson, and he told me he had sat next to Portillo in the sequence where he dined at the mansion. He said he hadn’t seen the program nor met anyone, until that moment, who had!

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
This was our third visit to the arboretum. Again, we enjoyed a tour round the ‘Three Mile Drive’, discovering new landscapes where we didn’t stop last year, and renewing our acquaintance with those we had see previously only on the Autumn.

The St Paul waterfront
Finally, we took advantage of the excellent weather to explore the walks along the Mississippi close to where Hannah and Michael live, at Hidden Falls Regional Park, and beside the Downtown area of St Paul.

Finally, of course, we had time to sit back, relax and just enjoy being with Hannah and Michael and the grandchildren. And, of course, the addition to the family: Hobbes the cat!

All too soon our 2017 visit to the USA was over, and on 28 June we headed back to MSP to catch our overnight flight on Delta to AMS, with a connection to BHX. It’s three weeks today since we came home. It seems a lifetime ago. But there’s always next year!

 

 

Photographing the Summit-Selby neighbourhood of St Paul

20160916-003-minnesotaOver the years we have got to know our way around St Paul, Minnesota, quite well. Minneapolis (the other half of the Twin Cities) less so. The grid system of tree-lined avenues and streets makes it quite easy to navigate around the city, with a significant number of avenues running west to east from the banks of the Mississippi River to the Cathedral Hill district.

Two avenues, Summit and Shelby, actually converge at Cathedral Hill (map), and from the steps of the magnificent Catholic Cathedral of St Paul, you can enjoy a panoramic view over the downtown area of St Paul, from the Minnesota Capitol (currently being renovated) to the northeast and the Mississippi to the southeast.

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Looking east on Selby Ave towards the Cathedral of St Paul.

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The downtown St Paul skyline, with the state capitol to the left, and the business district to the right. The Mississippi lies just beyond the business district.

So, a couple of weeks ago, Steph and I decided to drive over there, to take a walk round, and for me to do some photography. It has been six years since we last wandered round there. Our eldest grandchild, Callum, had been born just a month earlier in mid-August 2010, and while Hannah (our elder daughter, his mother) had a hair appointment, we pushed Callum around in his pram. Respite for the new mum, first grand-parenting responsibilities for Steph and me.

16 September past was a bright but overcast day, perfect for photography because there were no harsh shadows to complicate matters.

For the past seven years I have been using a Nikon D5000 DSLR. I bought it in the Philippines a few months before I retired, and I’ve been very happy with it. It had an 18-55 mm lens fitted when I bought the camera, and around 2012 I acquired a 200 mm lens. Now, while I liked that telephoto, it wasn’t very convenient having to constantly change lenses for just ‘that’ shot. Often, I just didn’t bother.

However, a few days before we flew to Minnesota for our latest visit at the beginning of September, I treated myself to an all-in-one lens, Nikon AF-S Nikkor 18-200 mm 1:3.5-5.6 GII ED lens – an early combined birthday and Christmas present. So our Summit-Selby wander was a good opportunity to test some of its capabilities.

I decided that some shots of the cathedral, both wide angle and telephoto from the same location would be quite interesting, and here are some of the results.

The Summit-Shelby neighbourhood is rather lovely, but expensive. Along Summit are some of the grandest houses that I have ever seen; and some more modest ones too. It’s also a neighbourhood famous for the great and good of St Paul who settled there over the past century or more. Authors F Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby) and Garrison Keillor (A Prairie Home Companion) both lived in the neighbourhood at one time or another.

In fact Keillor once owned a bookshop underneath Nina’s Coffee Cafe on the corner of Selby and Western Ave N, a well-known and popular meeting place in that neighbourhood (he has now moved to another venue on Snelling Ave near Macalester College).

These are just a few of the properties that caught my attention as we walked around.

And on the corner of Summit Ave and Western Ave N, there is a delightful small park, Cochran Park, with an elegant fountain with abronze statue of a running Native American with his dog at his feet.

All-in-all, an excellent morning’s exercise, coffee break, and photography. I look forward to many more opportunities.

 

¿Cómo está?

Steph and I enjoyed our 2016 visit to the Twin Cities in Minnesota. The weather was great, and since we had the daily use of a car, we could visit several places that are on our favourites list.

como-logoAmong these was Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, that lies a couple of miles north of I-94 on Lexington Parkway in St Paul. We’ve visited Como Park for many years, especially its beautiful Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. In May 2006, our elder daughter Hannah married Michael in a lovely ceremony conducted in the Sunken Garden wing of the Conservatory where the most wonderful floral displays are planted throughout the year. We’ve visited in the Spring, mid-Summer, early Fall, and in the depths of Winter when we spent Christmas with Hannah and Michael in 2007. I placed a few photos from these visits in a story I posted last November.

On our recent visit three weeks ago to Como we were pleased to see that several changes had been made to the Conservatory since our last visit.

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The planting was much more subtle this time, light pinks, blues and mauves in general. But always that sense that the gardeners had thought things through very carefully. And as you enter the Conservatory you are greeted by a heady atmosphere of the most beautifully scented blossoms.

Outside the Conservatory are the Ordway Gardens, a collection of bonsai specimens and a Japanese garden.

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The Conservatory was built in 1915, and to celebrate its centennial a water garden was constructed outside the entrance to the visitor center. What a beautiful addition to a special place!

Having taken in all that the Conservatory had to offer, we had a very welcome cup of coffee in the visitor center, then headed off into the zoo. Many of the animals were taking a midday nap, but we did get to see the orangutans, giraffes, and flamingos.

So, if you ever find yourself in the Twin Cities, and have a few hours free—whatever the Minnesota weather—do visit Como Park and breathe in the botanical displays of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. You won’t be disappointed.

It’s amazing what a difference an extra four inches can make . . .

Size does make a difference after all. Well, at least when it comes to airline seats. Not that the actual dimensions of Delta Comfort+ and regular Economy seats are different. It’s just that there are an extra four inches or so between the rows in Delta Comfort+ section of the cabin.

And what a difference those four inches actually make, as I commented last year. So, even though the cost of the Comfort+ upgrade had increased by £100, we felt that the added space and comfort (really the ability to move around in one’s seat, and not have the seat in front in your face) was worth the extra expense.

And that’s how we travelled to Minnesota just a couple of days ago, for our annual visit to St Paul to stay with Hannah and Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë.

We arrived to Birmingham airport (BHX) around 09:10 for our 11:25 flight (operated by KLM Cityhopper) to Amsterdam Schipol (AMS, that takes around 55 minutes), only to discover that the check-in desks did not open until 09:25. Not the best situation for me these days, standing around on my weakened right leg. Anyway, once we had checked in our bags, we went through security quite quickly, although Steph was given a random check for explosives, and the hand gel that I was carrying was given special scrutiny.

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Sitting in the departure lounge at BHX waiting for our flight DL9415 (operated by KLM Cityhopper) to Amsterdam Schipol (AMS).

Our flight (an Embraer 190 aircraft) was boarded quickly, and the captain advised us that, at 11:10, we were ready to depart early. Only to come back on the blower just a couple of minutes or so later to tell us that two passengers had decided not to fly after all, and their bags would have to be found and removed from the aircraft. After all this we actually departed about 10 minutes late!

Being a Cityhopper flight, we arrived to a ‘bus gate’ at Schipol. This was actually rather convenient, since the entrance into the D pier was close to Gate D1 that Delta uses exclusively to process all its passengers but does not actually board any flight from there. And even better, our Minneapolis-St Paul flight DL165 was scheduled to depart at 15:35 from Gate D3. No long walks for me in Schipol last Tuesday, which was quite a relief.

I asked for priority boarding, and Steph and I were the first passengers on board the Delta A330-300, and quickly settled into our seats.

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Around 15:30 (after we’d been on board for about 40 minutes) the captain said we were ready to depart, but then advised us that engineers were working on a fault with the water and vacuum system for the toilets (now that was an issue I’d experienced recently on my flight from Lima to Cali, Colombia), and there would be a slight delay. Ultimately we departed about 25 minutes late (and arrived into MSP delayed by about the same time).

Once we were on the move, we had a very smooth takeoff from runway 24, and climb out of the gloom over Amsterdam.

Initially, our flight headed towards London, and didn’t turn northwest until we had passed Bristol. That’s quite unusual based on previous flights, when we headed out from AMS towards Scotland. Anyway, we crossed Ireland, passed south of Iceland and Greenland, and heading in over North America on the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, over Hudson Bay and Ontario in Canada, before the long descent into MSP once we had crossed the US-Canada border north of Duluth.

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There wasn’t a great deal to see until we crossed the coast of Newfoundland, and then there was a spectacular view of the rugged coastline, with inlets bordered by precipitous cliffs.

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The spectacular coastline of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Mostly it was cloudy, with odd view of an island or two as we crossed the southern part of Hudson Bay.

But for once, it was an incredibly smooth flight almost the whole way. In fact I can say that we experienced no turbulence at all, apart from the occasional little bump. And even though stormy weather had been predicted for our arrival around 18:00 in MSP, and the captain advised us during the descent that the approach could be rather bumpy, we had no bumps at all.

Nevertheless, a nine hour flight is a long time. Having made the same flight before in a regular Economy seat, and knowing how uncomfortable I was, the upgrades to Comfort+ have been worth every penny.

Also, the odd Bombay Sapphire or three during the flight certainly helps. I read something today that drinking gin is good for you. I don’t need any excuse. I enjoy it for itself, and also for the fact that it relaxes me during flights such as Tuesday’s.

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Delta serves a limited menu in Economy Class: chicken and . . . Having previously opted for the hot dish (and invariably regretted having done so), I decided to try the cold chicken salad, and surprisingly quite satisfied with my choice. About four hours afterwards the cabin crew came around with a snack – quit bizarre, but nice nevertheless. It comprised crackers and a red bell pepper spread, and a sachet of about a dozen green pitted olives. Never had anything like that on any flight before. Then just 90 minutes out from MSP we were served a hot cheese and chicken sandwich, and some ice cream.

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On arrival at MSP we were off the plane quickly and among the first passengers through Immigration. Our bags arrived quickly and before we knew it we were out and meeting Michael and the grandchildren.

Yesterday was still quite stormy and wet in St Paul, and we didn’t manage a short walk until quite late in the afternoon. Hannah and Michael moved house a few months back, just a few blocks from where they had been living. But it’s a larger house, and along the Mississippi River Gorge. These next photos were taken just a couple of minutes away from their house.

We are here in St Paul for the next three weeks. Although we don’t yet have any firm plans to travel, we are contemplating a short break in the north of the state, at the headwaters of the Mississippi and Itasca State Park. Some of the trees here in St Paul are already beginning to show the first signs of autumn colour. Perhaps we will see a more spectacular display in northern Minnesota.

Watch this space!

 

Gardens, apples and pumpkins

For one weekend last September, I almost felt like a ‘latter-day Johnny Appleseed‘. I hadn’t seen so many apples in a long time, nor been apple picking before. Seems it’s quite a family outing sort of thing in Minnesota, towards the end of September, and especially if the weather is fine—maybe an Indian Summer day even.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Steph and I flew to the USA on 10 September to spend almost three weeks with our daughter Hannah, son-in-law Michael, and grandchildren Callum and Zoë in St Paul, Minnesota. And we still can’t believe how lucky we were with the weather this vacation. Almost every day for the entirety of our stay (including a side trip to Chicago), the weather was bright and sunny, hot even with days often in the low 80sF.

The first weekend in St Paul, Hannah and Michael took us to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (part of the University of Minnesota), around 23 miles due east of Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport, along I-494 W and MN-5 W. There are miles and miles of roads and trails to explore, but with two small children of 5 and 3 in tow, we limited our visit to a walk through the various glades and gardens close to the arboretum’s Oswald Visitor Center (map).

Hannah and Michael had taken Callum and Zoë to the arboretum on 4 July, when there was an impressive display of Lego sculptures around the gardens.

On the Sunday of our second weekend in St Paul, we met up with Hannah and Michael’s lovely friends, Katie and Chris and their daughters Nora and Annie, to go apple picking at a farm in the valley of the St Croix River (that joins the mighty Mississippi just five miles south), about 30 miles southeast from their home in the Highland district of St Paul. Thanks to Katie for several of the photos below.

The Whistling Well Farm offers several apple varieties for picking, as well as pumpkins and pot chrysanthemums for sale, and chickens to feed.

It’s a great place for the children to explore, and to get thoroughly wet. There was a heavy dew!

Having ‘exhausted’ possibilities at Whistling Well Farms, we journeyed just a couple of miles west to Afton Apple Orchard, to take a trailer ride around the orchards and pumpkin fields.

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What a lovely way to enjoy the company of family, especially grandchildren.

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L to R: Hannah, Zoë, Michael, Callum, Steph and me.

 

 

 

Lakes and leaves – spending time in the Twin Cities

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity of visiting many of the ‘great’ cities in the USA: New York, Washington DC, St Louis, San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago (most recently). But the city (or should I say cities) I have visited most over the years are the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul in the heart of Minnesota.

And for good reason. First, when I was traveling to the USA in the early 1990s, the international airport in the Twin Cities (MSP) was the hub for Northwest Airlines (now absorbed into Delta), and was the most convenient way for travel from Manila in the Philippines into the USA.

Since September 2008, however, St Paul has been home to our elder daughter Hannah. After completing two years of her 3-year psychology and anthropology degree at Swansea University in the UK, she asked us if she could transfer to Macalester College in St Paul, a highly-respected—but small (maybe 2000 undergraduates)—private liberal arts college that counts former US Vice President Walter Mondale and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan among its notable alumni. The most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize for an original novel in the English language is Macalester professor Marlon James.

So, over the years we have visited many times and come to know and appreciate the Twin Cities, although St Paul is the half of this metropolitan duo that we know much better. There’s a vibrant community, and the cities have something for everyone. It’s pretty laid back, but I guess you could say that about Minnesotans in general. Maybe that’s why I like Minnesota so much.

Among the things I like are the breakfast diners (I like the Grandview Grill on Grand Ave, just below Macalester), some of the best ice cream I’ve tasted anywhere at Izzy’s on Marshall Ave, and only St Paul can boast the Fitzgerald Theater, home of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

But what sets the Twin Cities apart, for me at least, are the numerous lakes dotted around the Minneapolis side, and the tree-lined avenues everywhere. In fact, it’s hard to imagine cities that are more leady. And taking into account that Minneapolis-St Paul was founded on the banks of the Mississippi River, and on the ‘edge of the prairie’, the amount of tree planting over a century or more is implrsssive. Certainly the avenues are lined with some of the most impressive specimens I’ve seen anywhere, often up to 100 feet tall.

In the (speeded) video clip below, our recent return flight to Amsterdam took off from Runway 30L to the northwest, climbing over the Tangletown and Linden Hills districts of Minneapolis, over Lakes Harriet and Calhoun, before turning right, and heading northeast over the Mississippi just north of downtown Minneapolis, and continuing over the norther suburbs of St Paul.

There are some pretty fancy properties around the two lakes, but you can’t see them for the trees. It would be the same if you landed from the west or took off to the east and had a view over St Paul, which lies on the eastern bank of the Mississippi. Trees everywhere. And of course north of the Twin Cities, the landscape is dotted with lakes large and small. Not for nothing is Minnesota known as the state of the Thousand Lakes.

Hannah and her family live between the Macalester-Groveland and Highland districts of St Paul, just three blocks from the mighty Mississippi. Steph and I have mostly visited during the spring or summer months, so we get to see everywhere at its best in terms of flowering and in leaf. And this is what so impresses us as we take our daily constitutional down to the bank of the Mississippi and along boulevards lined with the most impressive trees. And of course there are some very fancy properties along there as well.

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The view from the Ford Parkway bridge crossing over the Mississippi River, and looking north towards the Marshall Avenue bridge. Hannah lives just three blocks east of the river.

But having so many tall trees so close to residences has its drawbacks as well, as we saw in June 2013 after a short-lived but rather violent storm passed through (tornadoes are not unknown, but infrequent). Just close to where Hannah lives several large trees had been brought down, and fortunately the damage to houses was much less than we first feared.

Now although we’ve visited mainly in the summer months as I mentioned, we did spend one Christmas with Hannah and Michael in 2007. And what a baptism of cold it was. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such cold. And don’t forget we had left the tropical weather behind having just flown in from the Philippines! Nevertheless it was fun, and once suitable wrapped up against the cold we did get out and about on foot to savour the experience.

One interesting comparison we were able to make this September was when we walked from Hannah’s home to Minnehaha Park, just under two miles away. There is an impressive waterfall, which we have now seen in two contrasting seasons.

One of our favorite places to visit is Como Park, where there’s a small zoo and the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. The conservatory is most exquisitely planted all year round. On a cold day in December it was a wonderful place to get out of the cold, and escape from the grey-out of a cold Minnesota day. But the conservatory was the location where Hannah and Michael were married in May 2006. We had the whole place to ourselves, and it had recently been planted with summer bedding plants. What a delight!

There’s also one aspect of walking around the Mississippi River area that we appreciate. It’s both human and dog friendly, because there are strict ordinances restricting the length of dog leashes.

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Letting the train take the strain – Amtrak-style

amtrak-logoSt Paul, Minnesota.
22 September 2015.
07:45.

The Amtrak Empire Builder pulls into Union Depot on time, two days and about 1,800 miles after leaving Seattle¹, headed by two GE P42 Genesis locomotives.

Destination: Union Station, Chicago. Another 400 miles and 8 hours travel, with intermediate stops at Red Wing and Winona in Minnesota, La Crosse, Tomah, Wisconsin Dells, Portage, Columbus and Milwaukee in Wisconsin, and Glenview (an outer suburb of Chicago) in Illinois.

Until early 2014 Amtrak used the Midway depot (between Minneapolis and St Paul) as its station in the Twin Cities. Now it operates out of the refurbished—and very plush—Union Depot in downtown St Paul, alongside the Mississippi River. Interestingly, Amtrak uses three-letter codes for all its stations, just like airports (MSP for St Paul-Minneapolis).

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We arrived to Union Depot with about 20 minutes to spare, found our way to the exit gate, and joined the other passengers (around 40) waiting to board the train that was due in a few minutes later. Once all St Paul passengers had ‘de-trained’, we were assigned our coach at the departure gate, and made our way down to the platform. The train consisted of a single-decker baggage railcar just behind the locomotives (you can just see it in the photo above), and a long set of sleeper cars and seating cars, a dining car, and an observation car. Seattle cars were at the front of the train, and those from Portland at the rear.

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Although we had reserved seats, we didn’t have actual seats assigned. But as the railcars were not full, we just found the first empty seats available, all on the upper deck of each Superliner car. Fortunately, Amtrak does assign blocks of seats for couples traveling together, and those for passengers traveling alone. So it’s always possible to sit together. If the train is full, however, the conductor will assign specific seats.

On both sectors we had no problem finding good seats, and down to Chicago, our car was immediately behind the observation car, with its snack bar on the lower level. All seats face forward, recline, there’s a foot-rest, and ample space between seats, more like the business class seating space on an aircraft.

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Since we only had hand luggage, this could be accommodated in the racks above our seats. There was plenty of space for larger luggage downstairs, and baggage could also be checked and stored in the baggage car.

So, letting ‘the train take the strain’ we settled into our seats, anticipating the journey south to Chicago.

We departed on time at 08:03, which is exceptional for Amtrak considering the issues this service has been facing in recent times. Delays of up to five hours have occurred on some sectors, especially west of St Paul. The Amtrak Empire Builder runs on tracks (often single tracks) owned by several freight companies², which take priority. So if extra freight trains are added to the schedule, or there’s a breakdown on one of the single track sections, for example, then Amtrak just has to fit in. Fortunately on both sectors of our Chicago jaunt, the trains ran to schedule and on time.

About 20 miles south of St Paul, the railway crosses the Mississippi at Hastings over to the west bank. I didn’t even notice when that happened, as the river is quite narrow at this point. Not so, further south, as the river merges with a set of lakes. Where the railroad crosses the Mississippi over to the east bank near La Crosse, WI, it is most impressive as you can see in the Part 1 video (at around 13 minutes).

From Hastings south to Red Wing and Winona, the railroad more or less hugs the bank of the Mississippi. After crossing the river, it heads east over mid-Wisconsin, often through extensive wetlands, but also mile upon mile of maize and soybeans. After Milwaukee, on the shore of Lake Michigan, it turns abruptly south, and after another 90 minutes or so, pulls into Chicago’s Union Station—as we did on time around 15:55.

On both sectors there are slightly longer stops at Winona and Milwaukee to permit passengers to step off the train for a few minutes and stretch their legs and, if needs must, smoke. All Amtrak services are strictly No Smoking!

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Stretching our legs at Winona, MN

On the journey to Chicago, we bought sandwiches in the snack bar. Big mistake! They were expensive, and dry, almost inedible slabs of bread (no butter or mayonnaise) with a turkey and cheese in between. As we had to leave the house early for our train we hadn’t had time to prepare anything. On the return journey we stocked up with supplies from a deli close to our hotel. Much tastier and better value.

While many passengers (retirees in particular) take the Empire Builder for its relaxing way to travel across this vast country, for others rail travel is cheaper than flying. After all, our two return tickets cost only USD224. For others it’s really the only way they can travel. On both journeys there were many Amish (or were they Old Order Mennonites, or even Hutterites?) making their way to Chicago, or back to their communities in the far west in Montana.

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A young ‘Amish’ woman and her baby making their way through the observation car.

On the return leg, there were four young ‘Amish’ women sitting in the row in front of us, chattering away in ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’, that strange Swiss-German dialect they have used since first arriving in the USA (you can hear them at the beginning of the Part 2 video). They were traveling to Malta, Montana, another 36 hours at least west from St Paul. Another young man seated near us was traveling on to Portland, OR. And only seated! I couldn’t do that. On a longer journey than our trip to Chicago, I would definitely choose the sleeper option, with all meals included.

Was it a good trip? On the whole, yes. I love traveling by train, as I have posted elsewhere on this blog. Traveling by train allowed us to see new parts of the USA that we wouldn’t had we flown to Chicago—new communities, new landscapes, new agriculture. A pity though that Amtrak doesn’t clean the railcar windows more regularly (as you can see from the videos, unfortunately).

Maybe another time, for a short trip like this one, I would travel by train one way, and return by air. That would certainly be the case for a transcontinental trip. Nevertheless, our trip was comfortable, interesting, on time, and with rail travel there is the distinct advantage of arriving in the center of the city. From Union Station in Chicago it was a short taxi ride to our hotel. I have one regret. We didn’t have time to look round Union Station. It was a bit of a maze to find our departure gate, so once there, we just waited for the gate to open (about 20 minutes) rather than wander off around the concourse, and I’m not sure in which direction that lay. Union Station is huge.

Three things struck me as we traveled:

  1. Chicago is the terminal for many of the long-distance trains that Amtrak operates to California, the Midwest, and Texas among others. Of course, it was the city from where the 19th century railway building boom started. Parts of our journey used to be double track or more. Many lengths are now just single track. But looking at the landscapes, the rivers and wetlands that the railroad crossed again brings to mind the superhuman effort to build a trans-continental railway then.
  2. The state of the railway is quite poor in parts, although efforts are being made to upgrade different sections of the line. But almost exclusively existing wooden sleepers are being replaced by wooden sleepers. I hardly saw any concrete sleepers at all. And rail lengths are very short. This is in contrast to what you see in the UK and Europe, where all rail refurbishment is with concrete sleepers and extremely long lengths of steel rails welded together for a safer and smoother ride. With wooden sleepers about a foot or so apart, I hate to think just how many trees (and which species) have been sacrificed to build the railways. Crossing the Great Plains in the 19th century, sleepers were shipped in, were quite crude, and made from timber (often cottonwood) that didn’t survive for very long. Modern wooden sleepers are huge chunks of wood.
  3. And as you will see as you watch the two videos, there isn’t much segregation between the railroad and cars and people. Obviously the railroad follows today the original 19th century route, passing through the center of towns along the way. There are innumerable railroad crossings, and the locomotive engineer was constantly sounding his horn the whole journey as we approached the many roads crossing the line, or on entering towns. There are no fences, and the line often cuts across gardens of houses alongside the railroad.

However, this Amtrak trip is another item ticked off my Bucket List. Time to start planning my next trip.

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¹ Actually, the Empire Builder is two trains, one from Seattle and the other from Portland, OR that join to form a single train at Spokane, in eastern Washington State.
² BNSF Railway’s northern route from Seattle to Minneapolis, Minnesota Commercial from Minneapolis to St. Paul, Canadian Pacific from St. Paul to Glenview, and Metra from Glenview to Chicago.