California Coastal Carpinteria Trip

Going back in time today, the story of my trip to Carpinteria, California for a week of work. I had some fun adventures and around about explorations while learning how to traverse the landscapes of Carpinteria on up to Santa Barbara. The trip, spoiler alert, was a most excellent and awesome trip! It all started on April 1st, but no fool’s day for me, with a bike ride.

Departure Bike

I left the house and walked a mere ~200 feet and there sat one of the new zippy e-bikes that LimeBike has in the city. I scanned it to unlock the bike, loaded up my luggage in the front rack and off I went to the bus stop. It wasn’t absolutely necessary to use the bike, but it would give me a few more minutes downtown if I wanted to grab a coffee or something. I often, since my trip is from Ballard to Seattle City core and then to the airport, stop and grab a coffee or eats downtown before leaving for the overpriced and routinely lackluster options at the airport.

Within just a few minutes I arrived at the bus stop and checked the arrival. The next King County Metro Route 40 bus arrived within just a few minutes. I boarded, plopped my luggage on the ground and sat back and enjoyed the ride into the city. We arrived downtown, I decided today to skip the downtown drink and grub and instead opted to board the LINK direct to the airport.

I boarded the LINK and in a short time I arrived at the airport. The regular security bullshit and TSA circus facade ensued and I already wished I had decided to take the Coast Starlight. Flying is the closest thing to the icky confines of a bus, one just gets to go 400+ mph and arrive faster, but the journey and the airports are such a mall bathroom style trash show. However, there was a silver lining, like so many of my flights these days, I was at least flying first class on Alaska Airlines.

As one does with the Alaska Airlines wing of SEATAC I rode the little underground subway bus train contraption.

First or Business Class

There’s so many blasted designations about first class or business class, this status or that status, upgraded, or bobbityboopity status. One just doesn’t know what entitles one to what when it comes to the airline flight experience. As anyone would, I long to just be rich and be ushered to my plane with my closest of friends, family, and comrades only! But I digress, this business or first class thing I had purchased wasn’t so shabby!

The flight was smooth, except for a little bumpy coming out of the low lying clouds in Santa Barbara. Walking off the plane I noticed two things about the airport that I immediately fell in love with. The first thing is that they have a patio you can sit on that is effectively on the tarmac where you can watch planes taking off and landing. The second thing is that it is a small, super chill, single food establishment type of airport. None of that crazy big airport cruft!

Upon arriving, I of course, now needed to get from Santa Barbara to Carpinteria. That’s where things were sort of tricky. I’d done exactly zero research on how to get from there from here. I checked Google Maps and it gave me a transit ride that would take about an hour, I checked Lyft, it would take about 35 minutes, and there was also a possibility, if I wanted to, that I could go to Goleta and take the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner into Carpinteria via the ~27 minutes trip along the coastline.

I did the dumb thing and took a Lyft, albeit he conversation was fun, friendly, and rather heart warming. My drive was a guy originally from Ethiopia, who had come to America about 15 years ago. He told me how he’d come here, worked construction for a number of years. He had a great boss that even during the downturn helped all his crew out by letting everybody stay at his house. He had then gotten married, and now his wife and him live with their two children there in between Santa Barbara and Carpinteria. He drives Lyft now and it gives him the freedom to work when he needs to, take her to work and immediately start getting pickups, and even pick up the kids and have all that flexibility one needs as a parent. He loves it!

We also talked cars and Lyft costs, and the related economic impact of that. He knew it was closer to the loss and profit line then a lot of drivers seem to realize. It was refreshing to talk with such an optimistic guy in light of today’s political nightmare we have.

That was the last car I’d get in for the trip however, and even though I had a great conversation with the driver, I was glad to be out of that traffic mess and on to other things. I arrived at the Motel 6, which seemed immediately I’d made a slight mistake, as a a much nicer hotel was next door. But it turns out, after check in, the room wasn’t half bad. Very 60’s era retro, clean, and very egalitarian. It appeared it would work out perfectly, as I only needed the room for the very functional purpose of sleeping. I’d otherwise be in the office or around exploring the whole time anyway.

That Oddball City Limits

One thing I noted, as I’d mentioned I could catch the train at Goleta, is that Santa Barbara’s Airport is effectively in Goleta, not in Santa Barbara. But zoning and city limits and all that fun stuff put things where they are. Here’s a map of the city limits of Santa Barbara outlined in red.

city-limits

…having arrived, I unpacked, and immediately went about getting some work done and then caught some sleep ready for the week of teaching & recording! But alas, I’ve got more about that coming, so stay tuned!

Empire Builder Onboard

Our exodus from Chicago went smoothly. Arriving at Glenview, Milwaukee, and subsequent stops on time. The train ran smoothly in these segments, how the train ought to run really. It makes me curious too about the 110mph trains in this corridor. It would be nice if we could get the Empire Builder up to those speeds in this corridor, or at least up to 90 mph with the existing equipment. It seems a possibility with the fact the Santa Fe, decades ago, ran the double decker Superliner cars easily at 90mph!

The Bleak Countryside

As we rolled north and then turn northwest in direction upon leaving Milwaukee the landscape changed slightly. From neighborhoods, cleanly organized traditional grid suburbs, and empty countryside with spotty industrial building corpses and a spot of trees here and there, the scenary shifted away from all of this. In its stead was the grand smaller girth of the northern Mississippi river.

Always a sight to see at any point, but at this point in the Mississippi where we cross she’s extremely wide, but deceivingly so. You see, there’s numerous islands right center in the river, where the bridge segments make landfall. I suspect, at time of construction this made the bridge construction dramatically simpler versus attempting to cross at a section that would have traversed the entire width. The crossing is seemless and if one doesn’t know the geography would cross without awareness that the segment before and after the island are the same river!

The river shorelines on both sides are endless trees with a few small house boats interspersed between them all. We ride along on the south shore of the river, with the almost desolate look to the countryside. It’s spring, supposedly, but one couldn’t tell by the lack of green amongst all the trees. Nothing is really blooming yet, and everything is a tones of gray, with the brown grass peaking out among the high river waters flooding the shorelines.

After a few hours the sun begins setting and the absolutely epic view along the hilly horizon is outside our window. An amazing view that requires a few pictures, and a long look along the edge of the hills. The red emblazons this hilly edge as the yellow of the sun’s light dissappears for the night. The pictures, upon quick review after taking, are a paltry nothing compared to actually seeing the beauty of the sunset in person.

As night rolls around, the bunks down, the train rocks back and forth settling us in for sleep. Tick tock, tick tock the night hours pass by.

Homeward Bound Empire Builder

Today, we left Chicago on the Empire Builder on time with a clear highball clean all the way to Milwaukee. The train is such a great way to depart such a great city smoothly rolling along. The breathtaking views, the grand station, the comfortable Metropolitan Lounge (or one of the other first class lounges) which is recently remodeled bring together an absolutely great experience.

Chicago Union Station Metropolitan Lounge

Before even talking about the trip I need to elaborate on this Metropolitan Lounge in Chicago. This is the way to do travel right! My first thought walking into the new lounge is simply, “wow”! It’s nice. There’s a small bar, a cheese and fruit bar to complement the wines, an upstairs section and downstairs section, and enough nooks and crannies to kind of hide away with a little privacy throughout the lounge. The airlines or anybody that actually cares about quality experience and comfort should take note, that this is how you put a comfortable lounge together.

Upon entering we (wife and I) walked in and displayed our tickets, which then granted us access to the lounge. We entered and were greeted by the fruit and cheese bar, with the wine & other drinks bar just past that. I immediately stopped by a had a wine tasting while she climbed the steps to the second floor. While I was tasting the wines she found a comfortable set of chairs, propped up leisurely and had a few phone calls to make.

While she enjoyed her conversations I went through the rounds of wine options. I then decided to actually got a bottle of the reisling for the trip! It had a nice sweet and smooth body to the taste, that would be perfect pre- and post-deserts on the train. With the bottle in hand I went upstairs and took a number of photos of the lounge.

The art on the wall included some of the famous pictures and logos of the fallen flags, such as the Pennsylvania Railroad, one of the classic shots of an old PRR steam engine (T1 Class) that is massive in comparison to the men standing in front of it, and other shots of engines and other railroad imagery adorned the walls.

The chairs and couches in the lounge are upholstered nicely with a range of styles. Some chairs have high backs, some are more functional, some sit along tables and counters for laptop work, and there are numerous outlets on the various tables and counters along the walls.

Enough on the Metropolitan Lounge, onward to the train! (i.e. the next post)

Thoughts & an Empire Builder Trip to Chicago

Today, on my birthday of April 21st, my wife and I set out for a trip from Seattle, Washington to Chicago, Illinois. We’ve chosen the Empire Builder for this trip, since we’ve opted to skip flying whenever schedulig allows. Which fortunately for us means we’ll be taking the train for the vast majority of our travels from now on.

As I start this post it’s 7:56pm and we’re approaching Leavenworth, Washington. This town is a moderately famous – at least in Washington – as a little town that dresses itself up as a kind of German mountain town. It’s cute, albeit I’ve still not been there yet. It’s on the “visit and have a beer or three” list however.

The Empire Builder leaving Seattle is one of the more scenic parts of this route, and overall probaby one of the more scenic parts of any route in the United States. It is simply stunning.

The Start, Urban Tunnels

The train departs, on time at 4:40pm from King Street Station. Within just a few dozen feet from the station we enter the tunnel which takes us underneath the actual city of Seattle. It’s a short tunnel built in the early 20th century. We gain egress just north of the downtown city core along the waterfront. Looking out of the train, from the west the view is over the magnificent Puget Sound, to the east one can see the Seattle Space Needle along with the surrounding hills of Queen Anne.

As we roll north the Empire Builder passed through Interbay, across the northeastern side of Magnolia. The route then goes through a cut gully with forrested sides and a wooden pedestrian overpass just before turning directly north to cross the rail bridge near the Ballard Locks and then make way along the waterline around Ballard, Edmonds, Mukilteo, and into Everett where the train enters another tunnel. This one cross the downtown core of Everett and allows the train to pull into the eastern side of Everett’s downtown core.

With the waterline edge and city tunnels crossed, we then enter the lowland areas between these coastal regions and the inland mountains of Washington. The train travels through a number of small towns along the way, where signs of industry that once was is evident. Eventually we start to rise up into the mountains, climbing grade after grade.

Aboard Amtrak

Amtrak, clearly a pseudo private public corporate entity with monopolistic enablement has a clearly confusing aura in many ways. The crew on this run are nice, enjoyable to talk to, and good natured all around. Over the years the service aspect toward the customer has been very hit or miss with Amtrak, confused even more so by it’s actual mission.

Our car attendent has a slight accent, which I can’t place exactly. He got us sorted right away upon boarding the train and has been quick to ask if he can help and has helped others on the train. I’ve actually handled putting the bunks up and down in the roomette, so haven’t needed much assistance at all. As for the baggae, that too, I just stowed myself.

The diner has a happy crew, the lead and respective wait staff team have smiles and jovially answer questions while taking orders and serving passengers. With this jovial spirit among the crew it makes it even more jovial among the passengers. As always, a deluge of conversations have started and continue throughout the trip.

Night Train into Spokane

Eventually we pass out, well before getting to Spokane. I’ve been having a helluva a time in the top bunk getting to sleep. The top bunk, being at the top of the swing back and forth of the car as it rocks along the tracks can be forceful. I reluctantly admit, I’ve got a bit of a wrenched gut trying to gain calmness and relax like I used to. The 501 derailment back in December isn’t fully out of my system. I might be back physically, but mentally I have some burned in muscle memory whenever I feel the train sway hard. The top bunk, is where all of the hard sway is.

However, amidst the fight I have to get some sleep we pull into Spokane. I noticed we stopped and I peak out the window. There the lights of the Spokane station eluminate the night. In a few moment after initial detraining the merging of the Portland Empire Builder will begin. Once connected we’ll be on our way again, but I decide to sneak downstairs and see if I can snatch a quick breath of fresh air. However, no luck, as the train starts moving again to get into position to get connected up to our other segment.

There in the night, with no visibility into what is going on I count the minutes in my mind where the train shifts into the yard. I pull up my phone and look into google maps so I can see the track layout and figure out our exact position in the rail yard of the station. I get that figured out and feel the train come to a complete stop. My guess is that the Portland segment is either arriving within minutes or already here since we’ve already manuevered into position.

Sure enough, in the dead of night the power drops from the train and everything is pitch black and eerily silent. Within a few seconds the initial coupler strike of the trains connecting is heard. Oddly, it appears they didn’t get it with that attempt. Another attempt is made. This seems to make the connection. Again power is turned on, oddly, and then cut off again. The other engine then traverses the length of the train and is connected to the front of the now combined train. We’re ready for departure.

Onward to Idaho, Montana, and More!

Sometime around 2 am I finally pass out and sleep like a newborn! The sleep is absolutely great! I’m relieved because sure enough, as with train travel, the next day starts real early. Just as we are running along Whitefish Lake the announcement is made over the intercom that we’re just minutes away from Whitefish itself.

We gather ourselves together after a topsy turning night of missed sleep. Upon gaining our footing we stroll to the diner and meet some tablemates to have lunch with. You see, Amtrak follows the old passenger rail tradition of seatting other passengers with other pasengers. Largely, this is to help with capacity and ensure they can feed everybody that wants to be fed.

Let’s Talk Track & Ride Quality

As we roll along, I’ve got this new perspective at this point in life on passenger rail. Two things have painted this new perspective for me; 1. The derailment of 501 that I was on and 2. having travelled on a number of trains in western and eastern Europe. With those two things in mind I feel compelled to discuss the quality of the ride.

It’s real easy to discuss the ride quality compared to trains in Poland, Netherlands, Sweden, England, Germany, and Denmark. The simple statement, is in the United States the passenger rail ride is garbage. It’s bumpy, often violent moves and bounces, and feels like the cars are working dilligently to jump right off the tracks. The ride is one thing, as I’m more than happy with a bit of a rough ride in spite of my stressed induced reactions to some of the jarring bouncing. But what really irks me is the fact, again, the America does so poorly at something. It’s not just that we have one of the weakest and least comfortable of all rail systems of all first world developed nations.

With all that jarring and bumping, I still need to add more context. Sure, rail in the US appears to be built with poor standards that leads to this ride quality. But overall, the ride quality is still better than flying, driving, or any number of other transportation options. Not a little bit either, but by a large margin. For one, let’s talk about the seats.

Seats

The seats in most of Amtrak’s trains are huge by any normal sized person’s standards. But these seats are designed to take care of 95% of Americans, which means they’re not a normal sized peron’s seat. Beyond the seat, just in front of it, for the Empire Builder and similar Superliner styled train service there’s a most excellent foot rest. It’s the kind of foot rest, when paired with the seat, one pulls it out and reclines the seat and it’s practically a bed.

You know those big reclining seats for flights across the Atlantic or Pacific on planes? Yeah, the seats that start at about $3500? Yeah, those seats. Those seats are junk compared to these “commoners” seats. Even Amtrak amidest it’s strife delivers seats that make those seats look like overpriced prisons.

That’s not all though, there isn’t just this magnificance that is the regular fare on Amtrak there’s often other options too. On the Empire Builder there’s the standard roomette, bedroom, combined bedroom, accessible room, and family room options also. Each of these have their respective space and comfort, with the added benefit of showers, folding out to beds, and all sorts of other niceties. All of these also include all the meals for the trip and more. Which in the end, turns out to be some pretty epic level service in spite of our ridiculously rough riding, 50s era, laggard train options.

Speed & Sleeping Food Combo Thoughts

Now some might say, well, the trian is so slow. Let’s take a few different vantage points on this. First, yeah, obviously the train is slower the flying. This is also America, were we have 50s era train tech out here on the rails still. This isn’t exactly high speed rail clocking along at a blazing 200mph or more. The Empire Builder for instance tops out at 79mph and averages somewhere well below that. But let’s compare this to what it really compares to however, because honestly only comparing it to aircraft on the speed measurement is just idiotic.

Let’s compare train travel to automotive travel for instance. If you’re trying to make this same trip it would be thousands of miles you’d put on either your own car or a rental car. It means you have to drive, and can’t do anything else while you do. At least you shouldn’t be doing anything else while driving if you’re a respectable person. Don’t even get on about stupid radio or podcasts, those barely count as doing something. So that’s a huge cost on your vehicle you’re going to undertake, many hours of unproductive time you’re going to throw away, and a host of other things.

I addition, if you’re going to actually get sleep and stay rested for your arrival you’d need to get a room, likely two nights for sure. This means you’ll rack up that cost well beyond merely gas, having a car on lock down to use, and start getting into the area of getting food and room. In the end, unless you’re really looking for a subservient, non-service focused, and time consuming way to get from Seattle to Chicago you could drive. But taking the train gives you your time to spend in a million different ways while enjoying all the scenary and staying rested. No actually far more because you get to go where you otherwise can’t while driving and you actually get to look at the scenary, unlike in a car when driving where you do actually need to keep paying attention to the road or you’ll die in a car fire.

In summary, if you want to relax, enjoy life, and see the country while en route to your destination then you take the train. It’s great, even when the ride is bumpy.

If you’re in a hurry you fly, if you hate the planet or want to smoke pot in a bunch of states then go ahead, I suppose you could road trip it. But whatever you do, enjoy the trip! šŸ˜‰