Rails and Sails– A 2005 Adventure Odyssey
(with apologies to the TOPPS Bubble Gum Company)
By Gordon L. Wilson–TCA 76-10233
Since becoming a TCA member in 1976, only twice have I ever flown to a Convention – in 1977 to Boston and 1990 to Atlanta , and Atlanta was only partially a flight. We flew into New York and flew back to Phoenix from Atlanta . In between was a “memorable” excursion on Amtrak’s version of the Southern Crescent from Penn Station in New York City to Atlanta . It was so bad that we’ve sworn off long- range rail travel ever since. Resultantly, driving to and from Phoenix (Fountain Hills, AZ) and the Convention site allows one to see, do, and experience parts of this country not available at 35,000 feet.
We use a combination of rural by-ways and Interstate highways. I generally start planning a trip shortly after returning from the current one. This was truly the case for this year’s 2005 Seattle Convention.
The Seattle Committee really “got it right” when they added an Alaskan Cruise to the end of the Convention week. The “ Inside Passage ” is the way most travelers to the 49 th state are first introduced to “The Land of the Midnight Sun.” I understand that nearly 150 TCA Conventioneers availed themselves of this “add-on” trip. Having taken this trip myself twice before, plus an interior and northern one, we were not among their insightful 150. We opted instead for a two-week cruise to the Aleutian Islands, Russia (Siberia) and Western Alaska via the North Pacific, Bering Sea/Strait, and Arctic Ocean . However, more on that later. I was referencing when our 2005 trip planning was begun.
Our trip to the Seattle Convention began in September, 2004, when the Cruise West trip to the Bering Sea was booked.
My interests, while traveling, span a wide range of things: baseball, golf, good food, train rides, scenery, natural and man-made oddities, and a major one which I can trace back to a 7 th grade geography teacher – National Parks. If you are over 62, then for a mere $10.00 you may obtain a Golden Age Pass, good for a lifetime of free admissions into all of America’s National Park Service Fee areas.
Leaving on May 25, what better spot to start than the Grand Canyon . Historic Cabin # 6154 is right on the rim, overlooking the Bright Angel Trail .
The Grand Canyon Railroad train led by a pair of Alco PA’s puts on a wonderful show of moving around, once the passengers have disembarked at the rustic, former Santa Fe , log cabin station.
The next day saw us in Zion National Park in Southern Utah, only a short drive from another spectacular jewel in our National Park system, Bryce Canyon National Park . Utah ‘s scenery and abundance of working railroads is a train lover’s delight. Check you schedule closely, as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s weekly rehearsal is open to the public, and it is free. We found ourselves about 30 miles west of Brigham City in Promontory at the Golden Spike National Historic Site.
Each morning around 11 they stage a reenactment of the driving of the Golden Spike, which signaled the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Members from the viewing audience are selected to participate, so get there early and become a living part of railroad history!
One thing I collect is U.S. State Capitals, and I had never been in Helena , Montana (same 7 th grade geography teacher – that lady has cost me a lot of money, none of which do I regret spending). Now, I have.
Then it was north to Glacier National Park (#6 and #7), my absolute favorite park.
If you can’t relax and “kick back” here, well, then you’re in a world of hurt! Golf on the West Glacier Country Club was quiet and serene, with wonderfully beautiful vistas. Billings , MT , and Spokane , WA , are both minor league baseball venues and always “fan friendly.” Mt. Hood in Oregon overlooks the Columbia River Gorge near The Dalles . The UP (south) and BNSF (north) parallel one another on each side of the Columbia River, while the Hood River Scenic Railroad (#8) provides its daytime tourist passengers (us) with some close-up views of Mt. Hood.
We were now only a few hours from Seattle , but a full 3 weeks before the Convention. There are 30 major league baseball stadiums, and I had been in 29 of them.
Safeco Field in Seattle was the only one missing. That ended on June 2. The most amazing thing here? A Sushi Bar! And a young woman in front of me who seriously exclaimed, “It’s not baseball without sushi!” Yes, she was serious! What has become of hot dogs and beer? This place was really a restaurant surrounding a baseball diamond!
It was then, as Johnny Horton would have sung, “North to Alaska .” What this taught me was that neither the Seattle or Anchorage airports, nor Alaska Airlines is “user-friendly.” In my opinion, all three entities seemed to go out of their way to make things extra difficult for the traveler. I am reminded of a friend who once asked me to RETRIEVE her from an airport. When I reminded her that I could only “retrieve” something which had been discarded or kicked aside, she said that that was exactly her point. I now know precisely what she meant.
During our previous trips to Alaska , Mt. McKinley had been invisible, shrouded in clouds, fog, and mist. We headed for the Talkeetna Chalet, a B&B near Mt. McKinley . Talkeetna, the location site for the TV show Northern Exposure , is a jumping-off point for Mt. McKinley climbers, and for my purposes, a major stop for the Alaska Railroad. It turned out to be a bonanza.
The Talkeetna Chalet B&B turned out to be the most hospitable and delightful one at which we have ever stayed. The views of Mt. McKinley from the B&B’s great room were awesome, if I may be permitted to use that oft-overused word. It was here in Talkeetna where I consumed the wildest interpretation of a Philly Cheesesteak ever conceived by a chef/cook. Its main ingredient was reindeer sausage, and actually quite tasty.
The coup de grace in Talkeetna occurred when a northbound Alaska Railroad passenger train made a prolonged stop there, allowing me the time to photograph it from the leading two power units to its fantail observation car.
We then joined our Spirit of Oceanus cruise ship passengers to begin our journey to numerous National Parks, the Aleutian Islands, the Bering Sea/Strait, the Arctic Ocean, and the crossing of the International Date Line into Russia ‘s Siberia . Despite the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, Lenin is still honored and revered here, much as Abraham Lincoln is in our country. I was afforded the opportunity in Novoye Chaplino- to sample a staple of the locals’ diet – walrus meat, their equivalent to our hamburger or chicken. One chewy bite was more than enough! The life styles in the subsistence villages in eastern Russia and northwestern Alaska can best be described as primitive and difficult.
On the surface, living as we are accustomed to, we would consider the worst slum areas in our big cities to be palatial in comparison. The arrival of supplies and mail is completely dependent on the weather and schedules of available barges and small aircraft. “Luxury” is a mere word in the dictionary, yet these indigenous people seem very happy and content as they go about their daily life. To outsiders, such as we, it could appear as though the only thing these northwestern Alaskan villages have in common with the rest of the US is the currency, and to some extent, the language. Because of perma-frost, trains in this part of the world do not exist. Having previously riden trains in other parts of Russia and Alaska , I chose NOT to run a toy train here, as I did in Antarctica in February of 2000.
A few words about the Alaskan cruise company we chose to use. As I alluded to, Alaska can almost be considered a foreign country. Its beauty is overwhelming. The lifestyle practiced by many of its inhabitants is completely foreign to those of us in the “lower 48,” or even Hawaii . Cruise West is the one Alaskan tour company that can and will allow travelers to see, visit, and experience Alaska as the inhabitants do. Their cruise ships dock at the shore, allowing passengers to save time normally allocated for “tendering in and out.” This means more time to visit in the towns and villages. The largest ship in this American-owned company holds just over 100 passengers, rather than the 1500+ on the large cruise ships. One of the main attractions of Alaska is its wildlife – whales, bears, musk oxen, puffins, and a plethora of others. Let me cite a couple of incidences which happened to us on this trip.
A grizzly bear and her two cubs were spotted digging for clams along the shoreline. The ship altered course, powered down to a “dead slow,” and crept to less than 100 yards from these bears. Another time in the Bering Sea while we were dining, the ship suddenly stopped dead in the water. (The engines going into reverse make a really loud noise) The ship’s captain announced that we had come across a pod of 12 humpback whales. There we sat for roughly two hours watching, photographing, observing, “oohing” and “aahing” as these “monsters of the deep” playfully went about their business.
Such episodes were to reoccur later for gray whales, blue whales, bald eagles, sea lions, seals, and all other manner of wildlife. The large ships cannot (physically) and will not (philosophically) perform such client-friendly maneuvers. Would you, as a visitor to “The Land of the Midnight Sun” rather spend your time seeing the “real” Alaska or a Broadway-style show? For me, it’s an easy choice.
Now, let us return to that which brought us to Seattle in the first place, the 51 st Annual National TCA Convention. The Doubletree Hotel is a wonderful facility, with great service, good food, free Internet access, and large comfortable rooms. Best of all, it is just a stone’s throw from Sea-Tac, the main airport serving Seattle . It should be noted that the Convention Committee provided 24-hour pick-up service for TCA’ers opting to arrive via Amtrak. This was a highly commendable venture, as Amtrak is not noted for maintaining a punctual schedule. Therefore, many of the Pacific Northwest van drivers found themselves doing their “volunteer” work at 3 and 4 AM .
The task of picking up Registration Packets was made quite simple and efficient by the lengthy hours put in by PNWD members, spouses, and other family members. There was always someone available to answer questions, provide help, or point one in the right direction, from early in the morning until well after dinnertime. The tours were well planned and provided for a diverse agenda when it came to experiencing this part of the country. The Welcome Party on Wednesday night had a feature that this author had not previously experienced at any other toy train Convention – enough chairs and tables so that everyone could comfortable enjoy “A Taste of the Northwest.”
(A personal note: I was disappointed that Merle Parise and his Committee did not include some whale blubber as an appetizer. Just kidding, Merle!)
The Convention “members’ auction,” conducted by Greg Stout, proved to be a bonanza for me. I was able to replace a long-gone boxed Marx 333 New York Central passenger set, a 6464-400 B&O Sentinel, and a Mint K-Line Southern Pacific GS-4. Two other notable Convention plusses dealt with the Kids Club and the Banquet. The two large rooms reserved for the Kids Club were well stocked, always supervised, and nearly always filled with young railroad enthusiasts – potential TCA members? The dining facilities at the Banquet were spacious, allowing each diner sufficient elbowroom. The method for distributing table prizes was easy in its execution and highly commendable. Checkout the next morning was a “breeze.”
Our early morning exit took us to Tillamook , Oregon , for a train ride along the Oregon Coast . That evening, in Eugene , Oregon , we enjoyed a performance at the Oregon Bach Festival of J. S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio.”
This was our second classical music performance in three days, as on Friday night we had attended a Seattle Symphony/Chorus production of the Verdi Requiem .
Want some real helter-skelter excitement? Guaranteed, a jet boat excursion on the Rogue River near Grant’s Pass, Oregon , will provide it! The trip we took included classes 1, 2, and 3 rapids. Classes 1 and 2 are very doable. However, class 3 surely grabs one’s undivided attention.
Nearby Crater Lake National Park is huge, spectacularly beautiful, and even in late June full of impassible snow banks. Just south of Crater Lake is the town of Ashland , home to the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We happened to see one of the Bard’s bloodiest creations, Richard III, a 5-act marathon of intrigue, double-dealing, deceit, and murder, as only the Medieval British knew how to do!
We had planned to stay in a Santa Fe caboose, a part of the Dunsmuir, California , Railroad Park . We opted to cancel and move on when we learned that the Park’s Southern Pacific dining cars were not serving meals that day, the McCloud and Mt. Shasta railroads were not operating, and the Yreka Railroad had ceased operations permanently.
Therefore, we proceeded southeastward through Lassen Volcanic National Park to Susanville, a 19 th Century gold mining and railroad town, whose main attractions today are huge historic murals on the sides of buildings and a hiking-biking trail along 24 miles of the old Southern Pacific right of way. A word about Mt. Lassen : While we had experienced a fair amount of snow previously in Glacier and Crater Lake National Parks , these were mere “pikers” when compared to the 20-foot drifts and banks of snow still accumulated here on June 29 th .
Trains soon became a big part of this trip, as we spent the next week with Lake Tahoe serving as a home base. Carson City , Nevada ‘s capital, is also home to the Nevada State Railroad Museum . During this time of year, they fire up all of their engines and motive power. Train rides around their premises are the norm, supplemented by the frequent use of the “Armstrong” turntable and the “elbow grease/back power” handcar. Live steam and modular layouts add to the entire 4 th of July celebration. Just 20 miles to the east of Carson City is world famous Virginia City, which grew into prominence via the Comstock Lode silver mines.
The Virginia and Truckee Railroad operates between Virginia City and Gold Hill, site of the oldest continuously operating hotel in the State of Nevada .
While at Lake Tahoe , we stayed at the Tahoe Biltmore Casino and Resort, in a cabin overlooking the lake. My biggest disappointment of this entire six-week trip took place just across the street from the Biltmore. The Lake Tahoe Brewing Company had ceased to operate! In my opinion, they brewed the best-tasting dark brown beer I have ever been served. A replacement search has now begun!
While we’ve been to Yosemite National Park many times previously, we had never seen or visited the high country. Driving along the east side of the Sierra Nevada range afforded us this opportunity, and we took full advantage. At Lee Vining, California , Route 120 leads directly into Tuolomne Meadows area of Yosemite . We can now lay claim to having visited the entire Park, not just Yosemite Valley .
Most persons, when driving from southern California to northern California , or vice versa, do so on I-5. What a treat they are missing! The east side of the Sierra Nevadas is beautiful beyond description. In addition, many of the old towns along US Route 395 (not an Interstate highway) are well worth the time to stop and visit. Wonderful restaurants, informative museums, and just plain friendly people will make it a memorable trip. Just north of Bishop, a town filled with antique stores and restaurants, is the Laws Railroad Museum , and it is FREE! Journeying further south on 395, one enters Lone Pine.
Looking to the west, you will see Mt. Whitney , the tallest mountain in the “lower 48.” ( Mt. McKinley in Alaska is the tallest in North America .) OR you can go due east and enter the lowest point in North America, Death Valley National Park .
We opted to continue south to Barstow , a modern-day rail center whose rail traffic reaches nearly 300 trains per day. Close to two dozen trains came through during the one hour we visited the Barstow Depot, Museum, and Harvey House, just off of Historic Route 66.
Continuing on, and ever closer to home, toward Palm Springs/Palm Desert is a unique part of the Mojave Desert . Joshua Tree National Park contains forests of some of the most unusual looking and shaped trees in the world. So far as I know, this is about the only place that they grow and thrive in abundance. It is one of America ‘s least known and visited National Parks, but if you’re ever in the Palm Springs area, this is a Park NOT TO BE MISSED. Take the time to go through ALL of it.
The J. W. Marriott Desert Springs Spa and Resort in Palm Desert is worth a stay, if for no other reason than its unique water-filled lobby lagoon. You may ride to any one of its six restaurants in a canopy-covered motor boat. Following the old Southern Pacific line east from Palm Springs , across the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, we arrived back in Fountain Hills , Arizona at 2:30 PM on July 8. My six-week sojourn was one of our shortest in terms of miles driven (only 5488). We visited 9 states, 3 countries, a dozen National Parks; crossed the International Date Line and the Arctic Circle; ate such uncommon foods as walrus, elk, reindeer, caribou, buffalo, whale; and ridden or visited countless railroad sites. After exactly six weeks to the day we had left, a truly memorable vacation and adventure trip came to an end.
DINING ESTABLISHMENTS THAT GRABBED MY CULINARY ATTENTION ALONG THE WAY
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ–Arizona Steakhouse on the Rim
Kanab, UT, The Three Bears (super Ice Cream dishes)
Zion National Park, UT, The Zion Lodge Dining Hall (need a rez)
Brigham City, UT, Maddox Fine Dining (huge portions)
Montana City, MT (SW of Helena),Montana Mining Company (Steaks and Fish)
The Dalles, OR, Winseeker Restaurant & Portside Pub (view)
Sea Tac, WA, (near the airport)Roasters (everything, huge portions)
Anchorage, AK, Glacier Brewing Company (seafood &beer)
Seattle, WA (on the waterfront),Elliott’s (seafood, ambience)
Susanville, CA, The Black Bear (whole menu, big portions)
Gold Hill, NV (near Virginia City),Gold Hill Hotel (gourmet menu, service, view)
Bishop, CA, Whiskey Creek (entire menu, great service)
Barstow, CA, The Idile Spurs, Steaks (ambience and service and food)
Barstow, CA (5 miles east off I-15),Peggy Sue’s (the ultimate 50’s diner & food)
Palm Springs, CA, Billy Reed’s (great service, menu, portions) Palm Desert, CA (JW Marriott Resort),Any restaurant – go to dinner in a boat. Wow!