Robots, Superheroes and Amtrak Joe
July 19, 2009 6:01 AM   Subscribe

So you say you wish you were doing something different like attending San Diego ComicCon or taking a Coast-to-Coast Train Trip? Well, you can do both vicariously via Webcomics Legend (and MeFi's Own) rstevens who is Tumblogging the whole adventure! Okay, not that big an adventure, but he's one of the few IMO who can balance the snark and the gee-whiz enough to make it entertaining... "So much to review before traveling..." "Albany Station, you're a real charmer!" The "hon" effect.
posted by wendell (37 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Pretend I'm a high court judge or someones grandad - what's this tumblr thing again?
posted by Artw at 6:07 AM on July 19, 2009

For next year's vacation I've been considering train from Detroit to Seattle, which would involve all of the Empire Builder line. It's interesting to see such minutiae of a similar journey represented in photos.

I hope to end up on the Alaska Marine Highway at the end of the train ride, though.
posted by c0nsumer at 6:25 AM on July 19, 2009

God this sounds like an awesome thing to do.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 6:26 AM on July 19, 2009

tumblr's like Blogger with ADD and poor eyesight.

Pretty cool story so far, but I kind of wish there were more content.
posted by MegoSteve at 6:28 AM on July 19, 2009

Tumblr (to me) is just a simplified blog platform for simplified (one blurb or one picture at a time) blogs. It works if you know what you want to do with it (and clango certainly seems to).
posted by wendell at 6:31 AM on July 19, 2009

Amtrack is a bureaucratic monstrosity that by all rights should not be sustainable yet continues its unholy existence year after year. That is the magic of America baby!
posted by America at 7:06 AM on July 19, 2009

If you want to get to the 2009 Penny Arcade Expo in a suitably old fashioned "geek caravan" manner you can partake in the similar West Coast Train Trip or the even more insane (insanely cooler that is) Cross Country Supertrip.
posted by PenDevil at 7:30 AM on July 19, 2009

I am actually planning on doing the Empire Builder in ~2 weeks, with a stopover of several days in Glacier National Park. This is something I have wanted to do for a long time, and looking at flickr streams for related terms only makes me more excited. Some of the views look just unreal.

I've taken other long train trips, most notably the AutoTrain route from Orlando to NOVA (incredibly useful for transporting your car with no hassle), and my advice to anyone considering something like that with overnight travel is to spend the extra $300 on the superliner roomette upgrade. I am not sure I would've survived the AutoTrain without it.
posted by feloniousmonk at 8:01 AM on July 19, 2009

I actually did a trip similar to this last summer. Took the Lakeshore Limited from Boston to Chicago, then the Southwest Chief from Chicago to LA for a friend's graduation. Then I hopped the Coast Starlight up to Seattle and took a smaller train to hit the Alaska Marine Highway up into Alaska. I managed to get as far north as Talkeetna without using an airplane, although one could make it up to Fairbanks. On the trip back I just took the Empire Builder from Seattle to Chicago.

rstevens' journey is so far much funnier than mine. Those Boy Scouts? Yeah, they're all going to Philmont.
posted by clockbound at 8:13 AM on July 19, 2009

To all of you that are planning or going to travel on the Empire Builder. Mrs. Flash and myself have taken that train 7 times in the past four years. Once with a 7 and 9 year old in tow and once with a pair of 92 year old "kids".

The ride is most enjoyable, the scenery is fantastic in the more western section, the food from the snack car is passible, food in the dining car is well above average. The microwave hamburgers in the snack car are really quie good for fast food.

I/we highly recommend traveling by this train, if time is not a prime concern.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 8:20 AM on July 19, 2009

Ah, the classic Amtrak microwave burger. A staple food if you travel on the Acela regularly.

What is the crowd like on the Empire Builder? The AutoTrain was 95% snowbirds, which wasn't a shock, but I am really curious about what the ridership on EB is like.
posted by feloniousmonk at 8:24 AM on July 19, 2009

Families mostly. Glacier NP is a huge attraction on that line, and like Jumpin Jack Flash has mentioned, the scenery is indeed gorgeous.
posted by clockbound at 8:26 AM on July 19, 2009

Heading to PAX this year. Went to San Diego last year, and oh boy was it fun. I kind of overbooked on panels though, ended up only going to two of them. So, don't do that. It's really an experience, especially if you get lucky like me and somehow manage to get moved in front of the thousands of people in line for Preview Night.

I would totally go on the PAX Cross Country trip if I wasn't flying already- I have school at that time, so I have to get there and back pretty quickly. But basically, I'm going to be spending ever waking hour of Friday and Saturday in the Seattle Convention Center, then rushing back on Sunday to go to a huge family camping trip. It will be awesome(ly tiring).

Anyone else going to PAX? I'd like to meet some Me-Fites, even if just by chance. A quick meetup, perhaps?
posted by Askiba at 8:45 AM on July 19, 2009

Amtrak is a fun way to travel if you're not in a hurry, and you have some extra scratch to spring for a roomette (sleeping compartment). The coach seats are roomy and comfortable, but spending 3 whole days in 'em is not my idea of a good time. I'll be taking Amtrak across the USA next week but I won't be blogging it, or tweeting, or txting, so rstevens will have to cover it for both of us.

Taking the train gives you a different view of the country from flying (obviously) but also from driving. The interstate highways largely bypass towns and cities to avoid getting snarled up in local traffic, but train tracks go from downtown to downtown. From the highway you see the car culture of exurban sprawl: strip malls, big box retailers, an unbelievable number of car-related businesses (seriously, count them and try to imagine the landscape if every car-related business simply vanished into thin air), and overblown real estate developments that look like the ones we see in the news where the homeowners are simply abandoning their mortgages. Buildings look new(ish), starkly flat and plain (prefab concrete everywhere, not a brick in sight), and desolately homogeneous.

From the train you see an older America, the small towns that grew up around farming or mining, or maybe steel mills or other heavy industries. Many of these towns are dying now that the mill has shut down and Archer Daniels Midland keeps squeezing farmers. You see the remnants of the modest prosperity of 100 years ago: abandoned sturdy factories with a touch of fancy brickwork, their windows and skylights shattered; small shops along Main Street losing the fight with Wal-Mart, their decorative fa├žades cracked and peeling; houses sagging and badly in need of repair but there's no money any more ... It's also desolate but there's a certain Dust Bowl dignity in the struggle to hang on, which you don't see in the exurbs. (I really should note that it's not all doom and gloom - some small towns look like they're doing OK.)

Plus you can't beat the scenery from the train. Railroad surveyors were undaunted by some incredibly rugged terrain, and railroad tracks go through mountains and canyons that highways won't touch. (You only need room for 2 tracks, not 8 or 10 lanes, so trains can squeeze through some pretty tight places.) If you ever have the opportunity to cross a continent by train, preferably a continent with proper mountains (sorry, Australia), do it. You don't even need a comics convention as an excuse.
posted by Quietgal at 9:21 AM on July 19, 2009 [5 favorites]

Dang, I wish I'd known that I could have gotten free oral antibiotics last time I was in Albany. Will they deliver?
posted by pemberkins at 9:28 AM on July 19, 2009

Artw: "what's this tumblr thing again?"

"A tumblelog is a variation of a blog that favors short-form, mixed-media posts over the longer editorial posts frequently associated with blogging. Common post formats found on tumblelogs include links, photos, quotes, dialogues, and video. Unlike blogs, tumblelogs are frequently used to share the author's creations, discoveries, or experiences while providing little or no commentary."
posted by WCityMike at 9:50 AM on July 19, 2009

So... It's a blog?
posted by Artw at 10:24 AM on July 19, 2009

I've never really done the "Great American Roadtrip" thing, but I'm told that driving invariably results in long stretches of nothing and a borderline sense of misery throughout. Going by train sounds aesthetically pleasing and hilarious, although that may just be because it's rstevens and not me.

Train newbie here: I get that time shouldn't be a priority if traveling by train, but how much leeway are we talking here? I seem to recall some terrible episode of "Tales from the Darkside" where some dippy co-ed gets on a train and ~ominous voice~ IS NEVER ALLOWED TO LEAVE! Is trying to get from Massachusetts to California. a weekend fling? A few weeks of passionate track? A lifetime commitment? And how "ette" are the "roomettes"?
posted by Diagonalize at 10:30 AM on July 19, 2009

I'm told that driving invariably results in long stretches of nothing and a borderline sense of misery throughout.

Yep, if you're on the Interstates. We've done several cross-country trips and one US-Alaska trip by road, and all of our cool memories are on the smaller highways. The Interstate is just... bleh.
posted by crapmatic at 10:45 AM on July 19, 2009

Diagonalize: I've had some issues travelling by train - the most famous being my Toronto to Dallas trip where we found out, at the Canadian border, that there had been a derailment in Battle Creek, MI, and "the trains would not go through, you need to find your own way". The station agent at the border Amtrak station saw the light of a lot of very angry people and got buses to take us to Chicago. (I already had a reservation in Chicago at a hotel, since the train from Toronto was scheduled to arrive two hours after the train to Dallas left, but a lot of people had issues.)

As far as the 'ette' is concerned, this is the page about the roomette on the Amtrak website for you to look at. I've been told it's comfortable; the food is pretty good, really, in the dining car; you get access to the shower.

I'm planning on going cross-country by train later and seeing what I can see.
posted by mephron at 11:03 AM on July 19, 2009

To be honest I have never had major timing issues on an Amtrak trip of serious length, but this is probably because few of them involve "connections" in the airline sense. The thing with time is mostly the obvious one -- it's pretty slow. 48 hours from Chicago to Seattle. Amtrak publishes info on on-time rates, so checking that out is a good idea if you need to meet someone on the other end.

The roomette is good for 2 people who are at least good friends. It's basically a small room with chairs that convert to beds. There are also larger rooms for more people but they get pricey fast. Amtrak's site has panoramas of the various options on each route's page. If you've taken the Acela, it'd be roughly comparable in size to the seats that face one another. You get a turndown service of sorts where a conductor swings by and sets things up for sleep and then tears it down in the morning. The cars that they are in are dedicated and usually have a bathroom nearby. You'll end up walking through coach to get to the dining car.
posted by feloniousmonk at 11:17 AM on July 19, 2009

Sounds like that was fun, mephron. I've never experienced anything like that, but most of my train travel has been in the NE on the Acela and various regional routes. I would expect the major tourist lines like Empire Builder to be fairly reliable, but once you get into the regional lines, even the big ones in the NE, delays are not uncommon but are typically no worse than your average weather delay at the airport.
posted by feloniousmonk at 11:24 AM on July 19, 2009

feloniousmonk: actually, it was. The trip itself was good, and since I'd planned for it, it wasn't a bad thing at all. I relaxed, I wrote, I watched the world go by. Since it was between two different anime cons (Anime North and A-Kon in 1992), I really needed the decompression time.

I really do recommend it for a trip if you have time. I also want to travel with someone sometime, preferably someone I'm in a relationship with, just for the fun of it.
posted by mephron at 11:48 AM on July 19, 2009

To all you wannabe train riders (you rock!): Amtrak is well aware that they run epically late on most routes, since the tracks are mostly owned by Union Pacific and Burlington Northern (I think), which give right-of-way priority to their own freight trains. Knowing they'll have to wait on sidings for several hours, Amtrak builds lots of padding into their long-haul schedules toward the end of the route. As a result, trains depart from their origin city punctually and generally arrive at the final destination more or less on time, but can easily be 3 hours late at stations in the middle of the route.

So if you have to change trains in Chicago, you'll probably make the connection just fine since Chicago is the terminus and it always seems to work out that there's a 4 - 6 hour layover there anyway (but you can walk from Union Station to Grant Park and the Art Institute, so it's fine). I just wouldn't ask somebody to meet me at the train station in, say, Ottumwa at 11 pm, knowing that they'll probably be waiting there past midnight. I can haz hispeed rail plz?
posted by Quietgal at 12:06 PM on July 19, 2009

All this feedback has further encouraged me in the belief that trains are kinda sorta really awesome. Thanks, folks!
posted by Diagonalize at 1:29 PM on July 19, 2009

Trains are awesome. I am probably spoiled because of where I live, but I can walk across the street from my apartment in Virginia and essentially take the train all the way to Manhattan with 3 connections, 2 of them in the Metro, and to top it off, it ends up being about the same length as flying if you factor in the airport travel time. I wish this was feasible in more parts of the country because it is truly fantastic.
posted by feloniousmonk at 2:08 PM on July 19, 2009

Artw: "So... It's a blog?"

Yup, a kind of blog.
posted by WCityMike at 3:20 PM on July 19, 2009

A deserving a verb kind of a blog?
posted by Artw at 3:47 PM on July 19, 2009

There should be a meetup where some number of mefites get on a train on one end of the country and a considerably larger number get off at the end of the route in Portland (to visit Matt, of course).
posted by jdherg at 5:24 PM on July 19, 2009

I'm taking my family (Mrs. AYK Bob plus two kids) via Amtrak from NY to San Francisco later this summer. So this level of detail ("AC at each seat/ spotty connectivity/ edible French toast" etc.) is wonderful to read.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 7:01 PM on July 19, 2009

The longest train ride I ever took (to date) was 8 hours from Union Station in Los Angeles to Oakland and once the train left the coast and started chugging along inland, it got very boring, very quickly. Mind you, this was before the iPod age and before I had a light laptop, so such a trip now would not be that big of a deal for me.

I recently got back from a weekend trip to Boston, MA by train and I do have to say that I hope Acela keeps having sales and discounts and the like because man, that was short, nice, sweet, and I felt a little special because I was able to bump up my service to business class, too.
posted by TrishaLynn at 7:04 PM on July 19, 2009

AsYouKnow Bob: what route are you taking? From the best I can tell you can't actually take Amtrak to SF without a bus from Sacramento, but I could just be misreading things. Amtrak doesn't list any train stations in SF. I would love to hear that there is a reasonable way of doing this.
posted by feloniousmonk at 8:01 PM on July 19, 2009

You get off the train at Emeryville and take an Ambus across the Bay. It takes half an hour. No biggie.
posted by calwatch at 9:00 PM on July 19, 2009

Amtrak Train Status History if you care about arriving on time (or close to it).
posted by calwatch at 9:05 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks, I'd heard stories from friends in SF that it was a big deal.
posted by feloniousmonk at 9:34 PM on July 19, 2009

I hope that this isn't too late.

Get out at as many smoke stops that you can and walk around a bit, just to smell the air (away from the smokers, of course).

Head for the station in Havre as quick as possible. There is a ice cream sandwich machine inside. The only place to get ice cream between Chicago and Seattle, except for dessert in the dining car.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 2:47 PM on July 20, 2009

AsYouKnow Bob: what route are you taking?

As calwatch said, Amtrak's California Zephyr will take you to the East Bay, and you either can stop there in Emeryville, or you can let Amtrak put you on a bus and take you across the Bay into the city.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 7:38 PM on July 20, 2009

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