West Coast, March 2010

Great Britain

Great Britain
and Finland



Travelogue: West Coast by Train,
March 2010

By Roger W. Reini

By date:

13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17
18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28


It is time for another cross-country trip by rail.  There are three trains that travel from Chicago to the West Coast: the Southwest Chief to Los Angeles, the California Zephyr to just shy of San Francisco, and the Empire Builder to either Seattle or Portland.  Now I have taken the first two trains already, the Southwest Chief in 2000 and 2006 and the California Zephyr in 2004, trips recounted in previous travelogues.  Now I would like to add an Empire Builder trip to that list.  I would also like to take a trip to someplace warm in March.  But the Pacific Northwest is not warm in March; in fact, it’s actually farther north than Detroit, and it tends to be damp there, so it doesn’t seem like a particularly inviting place to visit in late winter and early spring.  Now how do I reconcile this conflict?  I could have taken the Empire Builder in the late summer or early fall, but that didn’t seem very appealing in mid-winter, and I really wanted to travel in March.  Southern California in March sounded extremely appealing to someone living in Detroit in mid-January – sunshine, bicycle tours, whale watching expeditions, and more – and what’s more, I’d really enjoyed my previous trips out there, but that trip would not give me the novelty of train travel across the northern states – the northern Rockies, the Cascades, the Big Sky country.

Here is how I resolved the conflict: I found a way to do both.  By traveling on the Southwest Chief to LA, I could spend a week in San Diego and LA.  Then I could travel on the Coast Starlight up the coast to Portland or Seattle, spend a night in either city, and then catch the Empire Builder back to Chicago.  I’d be experiencing a wide range of scenery from the train, and my cameras would be getting a real workout.  With that trip, I would spend time in warmer climes, and I’d also visit five states I have yet to visit or pass through on the ground (only South Dakota, Alaska and Hawaii would remain unvisited).  I could say that I had traveled on every train heading from Chicago to the West Coast, leaving only one West Coast route left: the Sunset Limited from New Orleans.  But that could wait for another time.

With train ticket effectively (though not yet officially) in hand, I needed to determine where I would stay, how I would get around and what I would do.  My schedule gave me a few hours layover in Seattle and around ¾ of a day in Portland, so I wouldn’t be able to do much more than walk around in those cities.  As for the week in Southern California, most of that would be in San Diego, a city I’d visited once before 10 years ago.  And there was so much I could do….


January 18, 2010

As of today, I’d decided where I would be staying every day of the trip.  Seven nights in San Diego, one night in Arcadia/Pasadena, one night in Portland, and of course five nights in sleeping cars on three trains.  Still needed: a rental car for LA and San Diego.  I would not need one in Portland, as I would be staying just one night, and in the downtown area as well.  I also started making reservations and getting tickets for certain attractions, such as a whale- and dolphin-watching cruise out of San Diego Bay.  I’m contemplating a second whale-watching trip out of Newport Beach to Catalina Island, as well as a return visit to the San Diego Zoo and some special events at the zoo’s Wild Animal Park.

February 5, 2010

Today I attempted to pick up my train tickets at the Amtrak station in Dearborn after work.  The station now has an automated ticket kiosk that lets you print your tickets after displaying a bar-coded printout.  I started to do so, but the ticket agent suggested that I not do so today.  I didn’t need to print my tickets until I actually needed them, he said, which would be on the day I started to travel, some five weeks away at that time.  If I needed to make any changes to my travel plans, I could do so without incurring a 10% penalty if paper tickets had to be changed.  And so I left without claiming my tickets.

My travel plans have indeed changed slightly: I won’t be spending as much time in San Diego, and I will be spending time with a former classmate in LA.  More on that later.

March 2, 2010

In 11 days, I will be on the train heading to the West Coast.  Earlier today, I made reservations for a whale-watching trip to Santa Catalina Island, which I will be making with my former classmate and friend David and his girlfriend.  Other than possible bicycle tours in San Diego, I’ve made the reservations I’ve needed to make.  I’ve stopped papers and the mail.  And soon, I need to pack.


Friday March 12

Today was my last day of work prior to my vacation, and it was a very busy morning.  It was so busy, in fact, that it extended into my lunch period.  I didn’t eat lunch until 2:30 PM (an aside: due to medical reasons, I am not able to observe the Bahá’í Fast).  Things did slow down in the afternoon, thankfully.  I had a meeting with my boss at 3:30 about the items I was working on (quite a few) and what would be due while I was gone (very little, as it turned out).  Then there was the daily 4 PM call-in meeting with one of our suppliers that has experienced a problem (I’ll not mention the supplier or the problem).  Those meetings were scheduled to continue in my absence.

And so at 4:30, I was able to head out the door and into my SUV.  On the way home, I stopped for gas at Kroger.  The sign said $2.67 a gallon, but the pumps were actually set for $2.62 a gallon (that was on the sign earlier this morning), and with my KrogerPlus card, I actually paid $2.59 a gallon.  That’ll be the last I see of those prices; they’ll most certainly be higher in LA and San Diego.  When I got home, I got the mail (a Goldmine magazine and a flyer for SAE seminars) and started final packing.  At times, I got concerned that I wouldn’t able to fit everything I’d wanted to fit.  I think I did.

Later on, I went out to supper at a Middle Eastern restaurant on Ford Road in Dearborn Heights, having hummus with chicken shwarma.  The meal was good, but the portions were just too much for me.  I’d have taken a box home if I weren’t going on my trip tomorrow.  Then it was back home to continue packing, to watch Michigan State lose to Michigan in college hockey, and to go to bed.


Saturday March 13

It was important that I be awake early for the train’s departure, and so I had set the alarm for 5:15.  But I was up before 5 on my own, no help needed from the alarm.  I checked my e-mail, downloaded the Saturday papers, and finished packing.  My carryon bag (the one that would be slung on my shoulder) ended up being heavier than my wheeled bag.  That didn’t seem right, but I had no time to fix that now.  I looked out the front door to see how the weather was (it was raining), and I saw the Saturday Wall Street Journal on my porch.  I had put in a vacation hold that was supposed to have started today, and clearly it hadn’t.  No harm done, not yet anyway, but if one were delivered on Monday when I wasn’t there to pick it up, I would be a bit concerned.

When I was done using my MacBook, I shut it down completely rather than put it in sleep mode.  Doing so would use less power, which was important because I’d have no way to recharge on the train.  Also, I’d have my iPod touch with me, and I would be able to recharge that.  I took two of my morning medicines but held off on the two that should be taken with food; I would not be eating breakfast before leaving the house, and I wasn’t sure when I would be eating.

By 6:10 AM, I was completely packed and on the road to the Dearborn train station.  As I’d said earlier, it was raining, though that didn’t keep me from making good time on Ford Road, hitting most of the traffic lights while they were green.  I was flipping around some of my favorite satellite radio stations on the drive: the Underground Garage, the ‘60s, the ‘70s, and Old Time Radio, hearing such songs as “Bell Boy” by the Who, “SOS” by Abba, “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” by the Fifth Estate, and the start of an episode of “The Life of Riley”.  And soon I was at the Dearborn train station.

Recall that I had attempted to print out my train tickets at the Quik-Trak machine some five weeks earlier, only to be dissuaded from doing so.  Well, it was time for me to print them out for real.  It wasn’t difficult at all: just scan in the receipt for my online order, and then command the tickets to be printed.  And soon I had six tickets, one for each train I would be taking.  Two would be used today; the other four would wait until later.  I sat down and waited for the boarding call.  That arrived at 7:05.  The train pulled in at 7:06, just as I was going up the steps to the platform.  The business class section was at the rear of the train, on the other side of the café car.  I struggled a bit climbing up the steps with my luggage, but I made it on board and found a seat.  Only one or two others were on board in this section; that would change later.  A New York Times was waiting for me on my seat; combined with my Wall Street Journal from home, I had some high-powered reading ahead of me.
The train pulled out of Dearborn on time.  I was on the left side of the train, meaning the south side for most of its run, and so I had a view of Greenfield Village, the old EEE building at Ford, and other neighborhoods on the south side of the tracks, all familiar to me from previous train travel as well as living and working in the area for some 25 years.  Our stop in Ann Arbor was a long one; many people were getting on board.  I suspect most of them were college students.  I decided to get some breakfast from the café car, choosing a cinnamon bun and a bottle of apple juice.  As we traveled westward, I noticed that the streams and creeks were running rather high from recent rain and especially from snow melt.  I didn’t see much evidence of flooding, though.  As the train rolled onward, I recalled the time in 2004 when I was doing some actual work on the train, working on an SAE paper on which I was a co-author.

The train slowed down east of Albion for a time; signal problems, the conductor said.  Soon, we were back on our normal pace.  That pace proved too fast for me when I tried taking a picture of the statues of Tony the Tiger and Tony Jr. in front of the Kellogg’s headquarters in Battle Creek; the picture turned out blurry.  Onward we went through Kalamazoo and southwestern Michigan, and then northwestern Indiana.  Michigan City had a new casino and large hotel.  If there were any changes in Gary or Hammond, I wasn’t able to see them, as it had become foggy outside.  That fog and mist lasted all the way into Union Station in Chicago, where we arrived on time.

After visiting the men’s room, I went inside the Great Hall and took a few pictures.  One picture took a long time for me to take: one of the entrance leading to the train platforms, as I was trying to avoid having anyone in the picture.  I didn’t succeed, but I managed to minimize the number of people in it.  Then it was off to Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge, the waiting area for anyone with a sleeping car ticket.  My train’s departure was a few hours off, so all I wanted to do now was to drop off my bags, get some lunch, and perhaps do a couple of things outside the station.  Lunch consisted of an Angus burger at McDonald’s; I should have stuck with my semi-traditional Filet-O-Fish (see previous travelogues involving Union Station), for I didn’t really care for the burger.  I stepped outside the station and went to the CVS drugstore down the block for a nasal inhaler.  No, I didn’t have a cold, but I remembered catching a cold while on the train in 2004 and being without any medicine for it, and I did not want to repeat that experience.

Back at the station, I visited one of the newsstands.  There were no newspapers that I wanted to buy, but two books did catch my eye: the official companion to the HBO miniseries The Pacific, and a book by conservative talk-radio host (and former co-star of Babylon 5) Jerry Doyle.  I didn’t get either one, but I did get the latest issue of Analog science-fiction magazine.  Then it was time to go back to the Metropolitan Lounge and wait for the Southwest Chief to depart.  I retrieved my bags, found a chair, and had a seat.  One TV in the lounge had on the Illinois-Ohio State game; the other one had on CNN.  The basketball game ended in a tie in regulation, so overtime was necessary.  But I never got to see overtime and so didn’t get to find out until later who won, for our boarding call came just at the end of regulation.

We were escorted out of the lounge and onto the platform for our train.  It was a long walk to reach the sleeping cars at the front of the train.  At least I was able to roll one of my bags there.  For the next two days, my home would be room 6 on the upper level of sleeping car 0331.  The porter for the car would be Fred.  I stowed my wheeled bag in a rack on the lower level, then brought my other bag with me to my room.  It was a bit large for the room, but no one else was in there with me, so it didn’t really matter.

The train pulled out of the station right on time.  There was no opportunity for a scenic picture of downtown Chicago today; it was hidden by fog and cloud.  I did take a few pictures along the tracks in the western suburbs of places that looked interesting to me.  I also started to read one of the Bahá’í books I had brought along, one that demonstrated the prophecies in the Bible that pointed to the advent of both Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb (that’s a subject for a different discussion, not a travelogue).  Later on, I started to listen to a Great Courses lecture on Buddhism.

My dinner reservation was for 5 PM.  My seatmates were three: a woman who lived in the Hyde Park area of Chicago, only a few blocks over from where President Obama used to live before entering the White House; a man who had also lived in that area but now lived in Old Town; and a woman returning to her home in suburban Kansas City.  The two Chicagoans were the chattiest at the table, frequently talking about conditions in the city or in the Hyde Park neighborhood.  The woman from Hyde Park had some rather liberal political opinions, I noticed.  For dinner, I had shrimp scampi (I’d had better), with chocolate peanut butter pie for dessert (very good).

Back in my room, I listened to more of the Buddhism lectures.  I finished three of them before noticing I was getting quite sleepy.  I called for my bed to be made up, traveling down to the café car for a snack while that was being done.  When I came back with my snack, my bed was all ready for me.  Soon, I’d nibble on some chips and cookies before putting them away for later and going to sleep.


Sunday March 14

For those who are mathematically inclined, March 14 was Pi Day (3.14…).  But that plays little part in my travelogue, so I’ll continue: In the past, I have had difficulties getting a good night’s sleep on the train, mainly due to the rolling motion and the clickety-clack of the train.  Overnight was no exception, as I did pop in and out of sleep frequently.  One thing was different: unlike my last train trip, I did not have to get up frequently during the middle of the night and use the bathroom.

I woke up around 6:30 according to my watch.  Now thanks to the time change from standard time to daylight time, there was no need to reset the watch when traveling into the Mountain Time zone.  I went for breakfast down in the dining car and had some good French toast.  One of my seatmates this time was the woman from Hyde Park I’d met last night; the other one was a man from Cleveland on his way to Las Vegas to start a medical billing business.

When I returned from breakfast, my bed had been turned back into seats, and so I settled in for the long ride.  It turned into a foggy ride later on, as I noticed after a trip to the restroom.  The fog persisted through our stop in La Junta.  I got off the train there but didn’t bother taking any pictures, unlike on the previous trips.  I stopped inside the station briefly to check on the tourist literature, and I recognized many of the sites being advertised; I’d visited them on my Colorado trip in 2008.  There wasn’t any need to pick any of it up. After getting a can of Diet Dr Pepper, I got back on the train, and we continued onward.  It remained foggy and cloudy all the way to Trinidad, so I never saw that large mountain in the distance I’d seen last time.  I still had no way to confirm if I had seen Pikes Peak from the train in 2006.  The porter brought newspapers from Pueblo; they had intensely local news, which wasn’t of much interest to me.  I had my iPod touch and MiFi, as well as my MacBook, which I started up when I wanted to do some major mail retrieval.

At one point past Trinidad, I saw a horse running off in the distance.  I wanted to take a picture of it, but my camera wasn’t handy, and we were moving too quickly; we’d be out of range within seconds.  So there was a lost opportunity.  The dining car steward came by for reservations for lunch; I chose 11:45.  At 11:45, my seatmates were two high school girls on a class trip to the Grand Canyon and a woman from El Paso returning home.  Today’s meal was an Angus burger, which was actually much better than McDonald’s version.  Then it was back to my room for more reading and more looking out over cloudy scenes.  It actually started to snow for a while!  But I could take comfort in knowing that there would be no snow where I was going.

Around 4:45, the train pulled into Albuquerque for a major service stop.  As I had done in the past, I got off the train and walked around.  I didn’t leave the station area this time, unlike last time.  No, I just visited the restroom inside the station.  Why do that, when the train had toilets of its own?  Well, let’s just say that the toilets in the station were more comfortable to use; I won’t be more specific than that.  After my business there, I went back on board and downloaded the men’s NCAA tournament bracket in prelude to my playing in this year’s Vegas Dave tournament.  Michigan State was in.

We were on our way west when dinnertime came around.  I’d selected a 5:45 reservation.  When I got there, the dining car was mostly empty.  For more than half of my meal (steak), I was by myself.  Then came later seatings, and I was joined by my male dinner mate from last night, the resident of Old Town Chicago.  We talked of our train experiences over the years, and he pointed out that the train we were on was consistently among the best on-time performers because the BNSF railway took care to give it its proper due when scheduling its freight lines.  Other railroad companies did not give sufficient respect to passenger lines, he said.

Back in my room (more like a roomette – in fact, that’s what it was officially called: a Roomette), I spent some time taking pictures of the scenery.  The clouds and fog had vanished, and it was sunny out, at least until the sun set.  The red rocks looked magnificent in the golden sun of late afternoon.  I went to bed somewhere between Gallup, New Mexico and Winslow, Arizona.


Monday March 15

Once again, my sleep was fairly light, although I thought the first part of my night had a rather sound sleep.  When I opened my curtains, I could see stars out, many more stars than I was accustomed to at home.  The Big Dipper was clearly visible, and I actually thought I saw the whole Little Dipper as well.  Around 4:15, I woke up again; this time, I had to visit the restroom, and so I had to put on all my clothes in order to go downstairs.  While I was down there, I noticed the shower.  I thought to myself, “I’m here; why not take a shower?”  It was my first time using the shower on the train.  There was plenty of soap available, and the water pressure and temperature were reasonable.  I did try to limit my use of water, and so I concentrated on cleaning certain areas.  I dried off, put my clothes back on and then went back to my room to lie down.

Breakfast opened at 5:30; I was there at 5:45.  My seatmate told me that the train had been stopped at Flagstaff for around 3 hours last night; apparently, there had been a linkage that broke and needed to be repaired.  I was asleep during all of this and didn’t notice a thing.  Hm – if I was asleep during the time the train was stopped, perhaps that was why I thought I slept well the first part of that night.  This morning’s meal was bacon and eggs with home fries and a croissant that looked more like a bagel; it was very good.
We pulled into Barstow at 6:45; yes, we were indeed three hours late.  Would we be able to make up the time?  Would I still have my rental car available at Union Station?  As we proceeded onward through Victorville and down the Cajon Pass, we were not picking up any time.  Nor were we losing time, for we were arriving at stations almost exactly 3 hours late.  Onward we rolled, through San Bernadino, Riverside and Fullerton.  At last, downtown LA came into view.  I could see its tall buildings in the distance – the shorter City Hall off to the right – a Sears warehouse and a Sears store (both somewhat older) somewhere in between (2555 E. Olympic Boulevard, according to the Web) – and as always, the mountains in the distance.  Now the schedule had some padding in it, for we pulled into LA around 10:15 AM, only two hours late.  I got my bags and went down the stairs towards the train station, walking with Mr. Old Town Chicago.  Then I had cause to think about my cell phone, which was in my jacket – which was still hanging in my room on the train!  I rushed back to the train to collect it, only to see Fred the porter coming toward me on the platform with it.  What a relief!

While I waited at the Hertz rental counter, a woman was kind of talking to me about tea: what her favorite kinds were, how cream would curdle up immediately when poured into certain teas, and how she didn’t care for that, etc.  I was partially listening, but I was also waiting for the rental clerk to handle my reservation.  Eventually, my turn came, and soon I was in temporary possession of a silver Toyota Camry with no floor mats (removed in the wake of the acceleration problems, no doubt).  I drove off, got on the 101 headed south, and I was on my way to San Diego!

There was no satellite radio in the car, so I put the radio on KNX and listened to the news and traffic.  I had no problem driving on the 5 toward Orange County; people on the other side of the freeway could not say the same thing, though, not north of the 91 they couldn’t.  I stopped briefly in Anaheim at the Ham Radio Outlet to pick up an Extra Class license study manual (I’d mislaid my copy at home) and the newest issue of CQ Magazine (it would arrive while I was gone), and then I got back on the 5 and proceeded to South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.  This was near where I stayed on my first trip to LA back in 1998.  My purposes in visiting today? One, to eat lunch, and two, to stop at the Borders for a recent California atlas.  Lunch consisted of soup and salad at California Pizza Kitchen ASAP (a satellite of their main restaurant).  The soup was tomato basil bisque, and the salad was their Original BBQ Chicken Chopped.  The combination was very good.

It took me a little while to find the maps inside the Borders, but I eventually found the Thomas Brothers atlas for California.  GPS devices are fantastic, but they aren’t particularly suitable for browsing or easily looking at wide areas, which is why I wanted the atlas.  And now, with atlas in hand, I set back out on the road.  Well, I had to visit the Apple Store first (I didn’t get anything there) and walk all the way back over to my car before I could set out on the road.  I had parked at the Sears store, and the Borders was about as far away from there as you could get and still be on the grounds of South Coast Plaza.

Traffic on the 405 and then on the 5 was moderate as I went through southern Orange County down to San Diego.  I pulled off at a couple of vista points during the drive so that I could take in the views.  The first was on the grounds of Camp Pendleton and had a great view of the ocean.  From there, I could see well up the coast and well out to Santa Catalina and San Clemente Islands.  I could also see a Marine ground vehicle on the roll on the land between the freeway and the ocean (it wasn’t the beach).  Whatever they were doing couldn’t have been secret, else they wouldn’t have been doing it in plain view.  The second turnoff was near Carlsbad and one of the lagoons, although the “lagoon” was mostly dry.  You could see the Coast Highway in the distance, hugging the shoreline very closely.

I drove onward.  Past the south end of Camp Pendleton, there was an official California Welcome Center in Oceanside, right along the old Coast Highway.  I stopped there for some San Diego and general southern California tourist information, and the man at the welcome center was very happy to oblige.  If I’d had time, I might have taken old 101, the Coast Highway, down the rest of the way, but I didn’t, so I didn’t.  As I was leaving, another Michigander entered the welcome center (he was from the Holland area).  Back on the freeway I went, heading south towards San Diego proper.

Eventually, I found my way to downtown San Diego and figured out where the Hampton Inn was.  I had to make a couple of U-turns to get there, and I also had to contend with road construction in front of the hotel.  This would be my home for the next four nights.  Parking was slightly underground, beneath the hotel; it also cost $12 a night.  I wasn’t too thrilled about that, but that was one of the prices to pay (literally!) for staying in such a convenient area.  And a convenient area it was, for the hotel was on the edges of the Little Italy area and two blocks from the waterfront.  There was also a trolley stop nearby.  Unfortunately, the tracks for Amtrak and Coaster service passed close by the hotel, and the trains passed by fairly frequently – and they blew their horns as they passed.  I didn’t care for that.

My room was room 348 on the third floor.  It looked out onto a courtyard that was open at one end facing east, toward the train tracks.  So I wasn’t going to have much of a view from my room.  But a short walk away were many opportunities for tremendous views.  I did go on a short walk that afternoon, in part to determine where I needed to go tomorrow for the whale-watching cruise.  There were quite a few people on the Embarcadero, walking, skating, or bike riding, and some of them may have been admiring the artwork along the pathway.  A camera crew from channel 8 was set up, most likely for a live weather report.  I walked up to where two Hornblower boats were berthed, and then I walked down to the Hornblower ticket booth.  That was where I needed to go tomorrow, to the ticket booth, not to where those two boats were.
Next, I went east a couple of blocks and arrived at San Diego’s historic Santa Fe railway station, still in use today by Amtrak as the terminus for the Pacific Surfliner train, the Coaster commuter rail line, and as a station for the local trolley service.  The inside and outside had been well preserved, and they made good photo opportunities.  Then I walked back to my hotel room; I figured I’d walked about a mile in all.  I rested for a short time, and then I proceeded to make my entry in this year’s Vegas Dave NCAA tournament game.

Now where would I have supper this evening?  What was close by?  I’d seen an advertisement in my hotel directory for a steakhouse up Pacific Highway.  I wasn’t really in the mood for steak, but I walked up toward that steakhouse, figuring I’d see something else along the way.  It wouldn’t be the Jack In The Box across the street from the hotel, that was for sure!  It ended up being a Denny’s in the same building as the steakhouse.  I had one of their grilled chicken skillet dinners, and it was very good.  Back at the hotel, I downloaded photos from the camera and started to identify them, and I also looked at some of the tourist literature I’d picked up today.  But I started to feel sleepy, and so I went to bed shortly after 9.


Tuesday March 16

My sleep wasn’t particularly sound this evening, for I recalled popping awake four times.  The last of those times was just before 4 AM; I don’t think I fell back asleep after that.  I may have lie quietly in bed and been in a borderline sleep state, but I am pretty sure I did not fall asleep.

I got up for good before 6, took a shower, checked my e-mail, and did the usual things I do in the morning when on vacation.  Then it was time to head to the lobby for the breakfast bar.  It turned out that this breakfast bar had something extra: waffle-making machines.  Was I going to make my own waffle?  Yes, I was.  I took the cup of batter that had been provided, and I poured it into the griddle.  But I recalled my previous experience with a waffle maker where the batter overflowed, and so I didn’t pour it all in.  That was another mistake, as the batter didn’t quite cover the griddle.  There must be a fine line between too much and too little batter.  But that didn’t keep the resulting waffle from being good, and so was the rest of the breakfast.

Back in my room, I read the rest of the paper (or at least skimmed it) and got ready for the whale-watching cruise.  Camera and batteries ready?  Spare batteries charged and available? Access to extra memory cards? Jacket, hat, sunscreen?  I had all these things, and so I was ready.  By 8:35, I was on my way to the waterfront and the booth for Hornblower Cruises.  Ten to fifteen minutes later, I was all checked in and waiting to board.  I walked down to take a look at the USS Midway, which I planned to visit later in the day.  Then I walked back to get in line to board.  As we boarded, a staff photographer had us pose in front of the boat for souvenir photographs (more on those later).

The boat had three decks, of which two were available for passengers.  I chose to go up to the top deck and sit on the starboard side, mid-ship.  While in dock, it was a very sunny and warm position, but after we got under way, it would be in shade most of the time.  As we waited to depart, I was looking over the side when I saw something gray and moving in the water.  It turned out to be a baby ray.  I got out my camera and took a couple of pictures of it.  One of the naturalists on board said that was indeed a baby ray, hanging out by the dock to keep from being eaten.

The boat was a little late departing the dock, but once it was under way, we were treated to the wonderful sights of the north part of San Diego Bay.  Some ten years ago, I’d been on a harbor cruise that concentrated on the south bay, and now I’d get to see the rest of the bay from afloat.  My camera was busy as we passed downtown, the airport, Harbor and Shelter Islands, North Island NAS, and the submarine base.  I could hear the guide’s commentary about the sights on the port side of the boat (North Island), but I couldn’t see them; I would get to do so on the way back.  I could overhear a young man talking in detail about the Navy vessels; it turned out he was an ensign on leave and showing his family around.  Point Loma came into view, and we traveled down its full length.  The skies were blue, and the haze content was low, a great day for viewing whales – or sea lions, as it turned out: we saw several sea lions resting on the many buoys in the channel.

At last we arrived at the tip of Point Loma.  Once we were past that, we had left San Diego Bay and ventured out into the Pacific Ocean.  Our speed increased.  Seas were calm with occasional swells, which made it difficult at times for those who hadn’t found their sea legs yet.  Ahead lie the Coronado Islands, which were Mexican territory.  A number of other boats were ahead of and behind us; it looked to be a great day.  Everyone was on the watch for whales, especially their plumes whenever they would blow on the surface.  I thought I saw a whale well in the distance, but as we got closer and I could zoom in on it, it turned out to be a buoy.

The captain announced a sighting of birds near the water off our bow.  That was a sign fish were near the surface, and it was also a sign that dolphins were nearby.  As we approached, we saw the dolphins leaping and swimming.  They weren’t terribly active, the captain said, because they were too busy feeding.  Still, I tried to get a few pictures.  When I’d taken pictures of dolphins before, I was somewhat disappointed with the results because I would find myself taking the picture after the dolphin had gone back into the water, for the most part.  And that turned out to be the case here as well.  It seemed like I’d have to take a picture a second before I realized I wanted to take a picture (not possible) or shoot continuous video (too low resolution).  I would find a solution to my dilemma, but not until Sunday the 21st.

The boat went onward.  Eventually, we did see a whale blowing in the 1 o’clock position off our bow.  We moved closer; it continued to blow.  The engine cut way back.  Everyone got very quiet so as not to spook the whales (there were two, said the captain).  Minutes past.  Then one blew again, and then that one actually breached, leaping out of the water.  Everyone  ooh’d and ah’d at the sight, but I didn’t get to see it that well.  In fact, I thought I’d missed it altogether, for my view was blocked.  I was holding my camera up very high and shooting video, and later I’d discover that I did capture the whale breach.  I was not zoomed in, and so it didn’t look very spectacular on video, but I did get it. Those swells made it hard to use an extreme zoom lens setting on the camera, but I managed.

Other boats were converging on our spot; they wanted to see the whale, too.  However, it seemed that the whales weren’t too keen on seeing us, so they were heading out to sea, gradually pulling away.  We’d see them everyone once in a while, getting farther and farther out.  I did get a couple of pictures and some more video, but there were no more breaches like that first one.  My batteries ran out on me during the trip; fortunately, I could change over to my spares.  We ended up some nine miles offshore before we had to turn around and head back to port: we were out of time.  But we had seen whales!  It may not have been as striking or as spectacular as we would have liked, but we had seen them.

The captain announced that souvenir photos taken when we boarded were available downstairs.  Two prints for $20, the man said.  The one of me turned out pretty well, so I thought, why not, and sprung for them.  Unfortunately, I had no good place to store them during the remainder of the trip, and so I had to awkwardly hang onto them.  We saw more dolphins on the way back, and I took a few more pictures and some video.  There was an incident on the way back: an older woman slipped and fell on the deck.  She didn’t appear to be hurt, though.  I was still on the starboard side, and as we entered San Diego Bay, I could see the sights of North Island, such as the USS Ronald Reagan and USS John Stennis in port and a huge cargo plane about to take off for parts unknown (to me, anyway; I’m sure the pilots knew where they were going).  Finally, we pulled back up to the dock around 1, right on time.  Our cruise was over.  As we left, we all received stickers saying “I Saw A Whale!”  I wished I’d gotten a better look at the whales, but I still enjoyed the trip.

I knew it would be too warm to wear a jacket on shore in the afternoon, and I also wanted to put away the souvenir photographs, and so I walked back to the hotel and back to my room.  On the way there, I saw a group of four men in yellow-orange robes.  They were Buddhist monks, and they appeared to be visitors to San Diego.  It’s not every day that you see Buddhist monks, not in this country at least. After dropping my stuff off at the hotel, I went back to the waterfront.  Now what would I do for lunch?  Two answers were ahead of me: the Elephant and Castle at the Holiday Inn, or Anthony’s Sea Grotto on the water.  I wasn’t in the mood for pub food, and I’d heard good things about Anthony’s, so I went there. As I sat overlooking the bay, I had some clam chowder, a salad, and fish and chips.  Everything was pretty good.  I made some notes in my notebook about the whale-watching cruise.  I would have checked e-mails, but my MiFi was out of power and needed to be recharged.  And so I looked out of the window and saw lots of boat traffic: two kayakers, people being taken from ashore to their boats docked offshore, people visiting the Maritime Museum, and so on.

When I was done with my meal, I walked down to the Midway.  When I signed up for the whale-watching cruise, I’d bought a package that included a ticket to the aircraft carrier, now permanently berthed in San Diego Bay as a museum.  I went on board, presented my ticket, picked up a headset that served as a personal tour guide, and started my tour.  Now it was nearing 3 PM, and the Midway closed at 5.  I would not have time to see everything here, unfortunately, and so I limited myself to a few choice sights.  I went forward and toured the crew’s quarters, the fo’c’s’le area, and the officer’s quarters.  I saw several of the ready rooms used by the pilots; the ready rooms shown in Battlestar Galactica were modeled on these, I have no doubt (I’m referring to the general layout of the ready room, not these specific rooms).

I then moved up to the flight deck and observed the several models of aircraft on board: several fighters, a few helicopters, one or two trainers, and more that I can’t remember.  One exhibit was devoted to the tricks of landing with tailhook and restraining cable.  I saw a sign for tours of the conning tower; the last one would be at 4, and so I hurried up to wait in line for a tour.  The volunteer who spoke to us in the waiting area was a WWII veteran who had seen action in the South Pacific but had not served on the Midway.  As he spoke, I thought he sounded a bit like Sonny Eliot, the longtime Detroit weatherman (and former WWII pilot and POW).

When the time came for us to go up, I had to watch my head and lean forward a number of times so I didn’t get conked.  We first saw the air traffic control area, and then we went up to the bridge.  There was a duty chart up there set up as it was on January 16 or 17, 1991, the day the Persian Gulf War started.  That was the Midway’s last conflict; it had been in active service 47 years, the longest of any Navy ship.  The views from the bridge were tremendous, as one would expect.  But I bet it could have been a bit rough up there during rough seas!  The sailors were undoubtedly used to it, I imagine.

After returning to the flight deck, I looked over more of the planes and helicopters on the deck.  One of the helicopters had helped recover five Apollo missions; whether it had recovered the astronauts or brought the command modules on board, I don’t recall.  I took a picture of the wiring in a couple of the choppers; it would not meet 2010 automotive standards (I wonder if it would have met 1960’s automotive standards).

5 o’clock was fast approaching, and I would have to leave.  I took a brief pass through the gift shop but didn’t see anything I wanted.  I felt like I should have spent more time touring the ship, but that wasn’t possible, not today.  Looks like I have a reason to return to San Diego!

After I left the Midway, I walked to the south a short distance, for I wanted to check out something I’d seen from the ship.  There were a number of sculptures in the area saluting the Greatest Generation, showing various World War II related scenes.  The one that had caught my eye was a huge sculpture of a sailor kissing a nurse, a recreation of the famous photograph from Times Square on V-J Day, when the war was finally, truly and completely over.  A short distance away was another sculpture, or I should say sculptures: it was a memorial to Bob Hope and the shows that he would give for the servicemen and –women around the world and at home.  Bob was at the radio mike, and his audience consisted of men and women from all branches of the service, including some who were wounded and recovering.  There was a dedication plaque sunk into the ground nearby, along with a time capsule from the dedication in 2006; I noticed Connie Stevens as being on the board of the memorial committee.

It was a tiring walk back to the hotel.  Having been on my feet much of the day, my feet were quite sore, and I was glad to take off my shoes in my hotel room.  And since I’d had a late lunch, I didn’t really feel like going anywhere for supper.  I just went to the vending machines and got some chips and a bottle of Diet Coke, and that was enough for me.  I downloaded my pictures from today, and that was when I learned I had caught the whale breach on video.  Around 10:30, I called it a night and went to bed.


Wednesday March 17

As I’d mentioned before, my hotel room was located close to the trolley tracks and the main tracks between San Diego and Los Angeles.  One of those trains awakened me in the middle of the night; I was not happy.  I did go back to sleep, though, awakening for good around 5:30.  One of the first things I did (besides my normal e-mail check) was to take the camera memory card I had been using to date, locking it off, and setting it aside. There was no way I was going to erase the pictures on the card until I was able to return home and backup my photo library.

For breakfast, I stayed away from the waffle maker today and had Special K, some muffins, and peach yogurt.  It was still good.  And then I proceeded to get ready for my big event of the morning: a bike ride.  One of my purposes in deciding to visit San Diego was the opportunity to do some bike riding, either on my own or as part of a tour.  I couldn’t decide what tour to do, though, and so I contented myself with renting a mountain bike from a business along the waterfront (Wheel Fun Rentals) and pedaling around for a few hours.

I arranged for a half-day rental of a 7-speed mountain bike; that included a lock, cable and helmet.  The cost was merely 1 ½ times the cost of a one-hour rental.  I had to leave my driver’s license behind as a security deposit.  And so, with instructions to be back by 1:30 PM, I was on my way.  I set off to the south, towards areas I had not yet visited.  The path along the waterfront went through Seaport Village, but bicycles were forbidden there, and so I had to get on the roadway to get past it.  I couldn’t find a good place to get back to the path, and so I went past the Convention Center and all the way down to Petco Park, the home of the San Diego Padres.  There, I found a way to get back to the shore.  I then started back along the shore path, making a detour through Embarcadero Marina Park and making a second detour around the Seaport Village.  I saw several bike riders on the street, including one on a recumbent two-wheeler.

Back on the path, I proceeded north toward and past the Midway, past the Maritime Museum, and around the curve.  I was now heading towards the airport.  I stopped several times for taking pictures, for there were plenty of opportunities for picture taking.  One of the buildings at the airport had a large painting of a pilot, vintage 1920’s or ‘30s.  It took me a while to figure out it was Charles Lindburgh.  San Diego’s airport is known as Lindburgh Field, and so paying tribute to him in this way was appropriate.  I pedaled to the end of the trail, but it was possible to get over to another trail and cross a waterway, thereby getting onto the Point Loma peninsula.  I was entertaining some thoughts of pedaling to the Cabrillo Monument but decided not to.  Instead, I’d follow the trail up this waterway, which was very close to the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot.  The trail along the Esplanade went past some very nice parks that were being used by parents with their young children.  There were some benches a little farther on; I stopped there for a rest as well as relief, for I had realized that the bike saddle was irritating me rather badly: the horn was pressing on nerves in my groin, and I didn’t care for that at all.

On the return trip to downtown, I had to stop several times in order to obtain relief from the saddle problem.  At one stop, I stopped to obtain relief in another way: I removed the pants legs from my pants, which turned them into shorts.  I had to apply sunscreen to my now-bare legs, but after that I continued back towards downtown.  By 11:45, I was back at the rental location.  I had enjoyed the ride, especially toward the beginning, before the saddle started to bug me.  Then it was back to the hotel to rest and to cool off before lunch.

Now I was staying in the Little Italy neighborhood, but I had yet to have a meal at one of the Italian restaurants in the neighborhood.  It was time to take care of that today as I walked over a couple of blocks and looked for places that appealed to me.  Several places were available, and I had a hard time selecting one.  But finally, I chose one: Zagarella Italian Restaurant on India Street.  They had a small outdoor section, but I wanted to eat inside, having been outside most of the morning.  For several minutes, I was the only one eating inside until a larger party arrived.  I had fettuccini Alfredo with chicken along with some garlic bread, and it was good!

Now what else did I want to do today?  I had not driven anywhere since arriving on Monday, and there were some sights in the outlying areas I wanted to visit.  And so, I got out my GPS equipment and attempted to program the Mount Soledad Veterans’ Memorial as a destination.  I had a very hard time doing so; it would keep coming up, Not Found.  Not until I had driven close to La Jolla did I discover that the GPS had it under “Mt Soledad”, not “Mount Soledad”.  Once programmed in, my GPS device (my iPod touch mounted in a TomTom accessory mount) pointed me right to it.  I had to drive up some steep roads to get there, but the weather was excellent and traffic was light.

The dominant feature of the Mount Soledad Memorial is a tall, white cross that is visible for miles around.  The cross has generated some controversy by being on public land.  Over the years, it has turned into a veterans’ memorial, with plaques commemorating veterans from conflicts from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Iran and Afghanistan. Some were for those who lost their lives in those conflicts; other memorial plaques honored those who made it home and lived full lives.  I recalled seeing plaques for Ernie Pyle and Admiral Stockdale.  I took one picture of the memorial in which the cross seemed luminous.

As you can imagine, the views from atop Mount Soledad were tremendous.  I walked all around taking pictures.  One direction, La Jolla and Scripps Pier.  Second direction, the snow-capped San Bernardino mountains, the North County area, and a Mormon temple, extremely bright in white.  To the southeast, downtown.  To the south, Mission Bay and Ocean Beach.  Elsewhere on the mountain, there were three radio operators operating.  I took a look at one equipment setup; at first I thought they were operating military spec hardware, but then it became clear that they were not amateur radio operators at all.  They were at work, and I chose not to disturb their work.  If they had been hams, then I would have struck up a conversation with them.

After a half-hour to 45 minutes, I decided I’d seen enough.  Where would I go next?  How about the Cabrillo Monument at Point Loma, where I had thought about riding the bike this morning?  And so I programmed the monument into the GPS and set off down the 5 again.  My route took me fairly close to Sea World and through parts of San Diego I’d never seen before, through some nice neighborhoods and finally near military installations.  I passed a guardhouse that was currently not being used, although it could be reactivated at any time.  I passed by the Fort Rosecrans military cemetery and gave a salute to the servicemen and servicewomen buried there.  At the gate to the monument, I had to pay a $5 fee, which was good for the next seven days.  There was a turnoff leading to the tidepools, but I chose to go straight to the visitor center at the monument.  With plenty of parking available, I found a spot and went inside.

The visitor center served as a gift shop, but nothing struck me there.  No, my main interest was the view – and a tremendous view it was.  From here, I could see downtown, North Island, Coronado, the sub base I’d seen yesterday from the boat, and more.  I could even see Mount Soledad in the distance.  Boat and air traffic was clearly visible.  I walked over to the Cabrillo statue.  When I got close, I saw his name was written in Portuguese: Joao Rodriques Cabrilho.  It turned out Cabrillo was really Portuguese but sailed for Spain.  The views from here were slightly different; I could even see Tijuana.  The Coronado Islands were clearly visible, too.

A short distance away was the old Point Loma lighthouse, built in the 1800’s but abandoned because it was too often shrouded in fog.  I walked up there and took a few pictures, although I didn’t enter the lighthouse proper.  It was certainly not foggy today!  The walkway up there let one see down to the Pacific coast side, towards the tidepool area.  There wouldn’t be time to go down there today, and so I made a note to myself to go there later in the week.  Elsewhere on the walkway, there was a shaded area that served as an onshore spot for whale-watching.  I didn’t see any whales from that location, although I was not paying close attention.  I did use that area to take a timed self-portrait with the old Point Loma lighthouse in the background, and I thought it turned out pretty well.

Back at the visitor area, I saw a man dressed in conquistador garb.  He must have been on the staff of the memorial.  I stayed to marvel at the views for several more minutes; one of the things I noticed was a ship that was transporting powerboats.  That struck me as unusual, although in retrospect it probably shouldn’t have.  When I’d had enough, I got in my car and drove back to the hotel.

When I’d been out today, I had left my car rental agreement in the hotel room.  That was probably not a good idea, as that was effectively my car registration.  When I set out for supper this evening, I made darn sure that I had the agreement with me.  Tonight, I’d be setting out for the Mission Valley area, home to two large shopping malls and a number of food options.  I didn’t have much trouble taking the 5 up to the 8 eastbound and onto Hotel Circle.  It was much the same as when I’d stayed in the area back in 2000.  The Holiday Inn Select I’d stayed at back then was now a Courtyard, it turned out.  A loop under the freeway put me in position to pass behind the shopping centers, and I started looking for places to eat.  I was also looking for a Barnes & Noble I remembered being nearby.  I found the Barnes & Noble on the other side of the 163, and there were a number of restaurants nearby.  I was beginning to consider Mexican food, but I didn’t see any around.  What caught my eye was an Applebee’s, and I ended up eating there, having one of their shrimp & spinach salads, along with some tomato basil soup.  Both were very good.  I then went over to the Barnes & Noble, thinking I was going to get something but ended up getting nothing.  It was onto the 163 all the way downtown, then onto Ash Street over to the hotel.

Back at the hotel, I got some change for the vending machines and then proceeded to grab a snack.  The hotel’s Internet service was out, so I had to use the service from my MiFi this evening.  By 10, I was tired and called it a night.


Thursday March 18

My trip would have four significant nature experiences: the whale-watching cruise in San Diego, a second whale-watching trip to Catalina Island departing from Newport Beach, a visit to the main San Diego Zoo, and today’s big event, a trip to the Zoo’s Wild Animal Park and a photo caravan safari trip through the park.  The day started with my waking around 5:30.  An e-mail check found that e-mail was waiting for me; the hotel’s connection had to have been restored during the night.  I took a shower and went down for breakfast, where I decided that I would attempt to make my own waffle again.  The cup that had the waffle batter seemed to be filled higher to the top than on Monday, but I poured the whole thing in; it overflowed.  But I have to admit, it tasted pretty good.

The photo caravan safari would not be until 1 PM.  But I wanted to see the rest of the zoo, and so I planned on spending a whole day out there.  That’s why I was on the freeways very early in the morning.  From the 5, I took the 8 over to the 15 and up.  Yes, I could have taken the 163 up to the 15, but I wanted to see where the Fry’s in town was located, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I had taken the 163.  I went quite a distance out of town, almost to Escondido.  Before I reached that city, though, I saw a sign directing me off the freeway and toward the park.  The roads to the park had me passing more than a few vineyards and wineries, and then I was there: the San Diego Zoo Wild Animal Park.  I paid $9 to park, and then I made sure I had my essentials: camera, hat, sunscreen, 2-day pass for the basic zoo admissions, and ticket for the photo caravan.  Thus equipped, I entered the park.

My first visit was the aviary, where birds were flying in fairly close proximity.  I saw a couple of birds fighting or rough-housing; I’m not quite sure how to characterize it.  My camera was always at the ready, and I used it a few times in the aviary.  After I left, I had to decide what to do.  What would allow me to see most of the zoo yet get me back in time for the photo caravan?  I decided to follow the marked Kilimanjaro Safari Tour, which led one through the majority of the African-themed exhibits.  That took me past an exhibit of gorillas, one of which didn’t seem too thrilled about being there.

Many of the exhibits were on a lower level; to reach them, you took the Great Rift Elevator, which was nothing more than a regular elevator.  The exhibits down below included the lions, giraffes, ostriches and rhinos.  All of the animals had a fairly wide range to roam, although I suspect the lions would have preferred a larger range: “all of this food is SO close, and we can’t get at it!” I did get some good pictures of the lions, both from up close and from afar.  And it was from afar that I saw the flatbed trucks that were taking the morning photo caravan participants; I could see them feeding giraffes, something I’d be doing in a few hours.  I walked over to the elephant area, but they weren’t out; keepers were doing some work in the pens, so the elephants were confined to small enclosures.

I made sure I was back in plenty of time to go on the photo caravan; I even had time for lunch.  It was a rather messy chili dog and a Diet Coke served in a huge souvenir cup that I had no place to store, so I didn’t keep it, I recycled it.  I was glad to be off my feet during that time, after having walked around the zoo.  And now it was time to head to the departure area for the photo caravan.

There were multiple trips departing at the same time, a longer trip and a shorter trip.  The shorter trip participants got their hands stamped.  There were some fifteen of us on the longer trip, which would last some 3 ½ hours.  One family had been on this trip seven years earlier.  After checking in, we boarded the back of a flatbed truck fenced to keep us in and most critters out (although as we would see later, it wouldn’t stop hungry giraffes).  We set off for the first area.  Every area was double-gated like an airlock to prevent anything from getting out that shouldn’t.  The truck would drive to the first gate, open it, and drive inside.  Then that gate would be closed and the next gate opened, and we’d proceed, followed by that gate’s closing.  At our first stop, we were greeted by a couple of ostriches that our guide described as positively flirtatious.  We also saw some wildebeest lounging around, not looking very “wilde” at all.  We saw a group of Cape buffalo, who seemed just as not-too-happy with our presence as the ones in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda.  As we drove along, we encountered our first group of giraffes, young males eager to be fed.  We stopped here and broke out the leaves for them; they enjoyed those immensely.  I took a few pictures but did not participate in the feeding this time out.  Later on, I did feed some leaves to the giraffes in a different area.

We saw what may have been one of the last northern white rhinoceroses; I say “may” because biologists aren’t sure if the northern white rhino is truly a separate species from the regular white rhino.  We saw some black rhinos (not black at all), and later on, we saw some regular white rhinos.  I got to feed pieces of apples to those rhinos, which were actually rather calm.  Their eyesight is terrible, and the stories about charging enraged rhinos are myths, for the most part, fostered by bad Hollywood movies.  One of the rhinos was named Taniya, which struck me as funny because I know and work with someone named Taniya.  I don’t know how she’ll react when she learns of her namesake rhino in San Diego.

On our drive around, we saw the zebra enclosure.  They are not allowed to mingle with the other animals because they’ll be aggressive towards them and do them harm, our guide said.  This way, they’ll just be aggressive to themselves.  Photo opportunities were tremendous, just like on the Ugandan safari drive.  This lasted for the same amount of time, as well, although there were differences.  For one thing, in Uganda, the lions I saw were not in their own enclosure; they had free rein.  For another, I was traveling with far more people on this ride versus the three on the Ugandan drive.  Now halfway through the tour, we stopped for a snack break; I had some snack crackers and a diet drink.  Unfortunately, the diet drink caused me to burp rather loudly, which scared someone as I was walking past.

The sights and sounds of a tour like this are very hard to put into words; pictures and movies would do a better job of conveying the experience, I feel.  The combination of all three would do the best job, I imagine.

After 3+ hours, our tour was done, and we were back at home base.  There wouldn’t be time for me to visit some important areas of the park, but I would be able to visit the elephant area and perhaps see the baby elephant born on Valentine’s Day.  This birth caught the zoo staff off guard, the guide said during the photo caravan, for the mother began labor earlier than expected.  Someone would have been on hand at the birth, but that didn’t happen.  Everything went well, though, and the other elephants were really trumpeting the news.  By coincidence, there was a sleep-in taking place on the grounds that night, and those campers could hear everything going on.  And did I get to see the baby elephant?  I sure did, and just in time: not long after I got there, it and its mother went inside.  I did get a good picture, though.

I went back to San Diego the way I’d driven up in the morning.  On the way, I heard the news that Fess Parker had died (he’d played Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone).  Traffic on the 15 wasn’t too bad.  Now I planned to stop at Fry’s on the way back to check out what they had, and so I exited at the Aero Road exit.  What would I have for supper?  How about Mexican at the Baja Fresh restaurant in the shopping center on the corner?  That turned out to be real convenient.  I stopped there and had my usual meal, a Burrito Mexicano and a taco.  I had to do a U-turn at the light in order to get to Fry’s, but I got there all right.  The store was laid out differently than the ones I was most used to (the Webster and Austin stores), but I eventually found the departments I was looking for.  They had extra batteries for MacBooks; after the outbound trip, I thought I might want one for the trip back.  But I wasn’t ready to get one today; I’d have more opportunities in the next few days.  And so I left without getting anything and then drove back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel, as I prepared to download my photos from today, I came to the conclusion that my existing iPhoto library was too large.  It had all of the photos I’d taken ever since I’d got my first digital camera in 2004, and it was some 32 GB in size.  It was time to create a new library for all of the new photos I’d be uploading, I said to myself, and that’s what I did.  In truth, what I would have liked to do was to put all of my photos from the start of 2010 in there and have New Year’s 2010 be the changeover point.  I’d need a special utility to do that, though, and that could wait for later.


Friday March 19

Well, today I would be leaving San Diego for LA.  My original plans had me staying in San Diego through Monday, but those changed after my high school friend David offered to host me for a few days.  I was not going to turn down that opportunity!

For some reason, I woke up around 3:20 in the middle of the night and could not get back to sleep, and so I used that time to check e-mail and visit some of my favorite websites.  I did go back to bed for a time, but I don’t think I went back to sleep.  By 5:45, I was up for good.  I started to pack.  I started to charge my cell phone.  I watched the news on channel 6.  I went downstairs for breakfast and had cereal, muffins and yogurt.  I made sure I had David’s address written down for later reference and his phone number entered into my phone.  I even had time to start identifying the pictures I’d taken at the zoo yesterday.

Before I left San Diego, I wanted to visit the main zoo in Balboa Park, the one most people have heard of, and I wanted to pay a second visit to the Cabrillo Monument and go see the tidepool area.  Both opened at 9; where would I go first?  I chose the zoo.  And so, when I checked out of the hotel around 8:30 and left the parking garage for one last time, I drove over to Balboa Park.  My route took me past many of the museums that are in town, museums I would like to visit on future visits to San Diego.  But there wasn’t time today.  I found the parking lot for the zoo (free parking here, unlike at the Wild Animal Park), got my camera, applied my sunscreen, and went inside.

After I got my bearings, my first destination was the panda exhibit.  Recalling how crowded it was during my visit in 2000, I made straight for that exhibit as best I could.  My troubles were rewarded, for there was hardly anyone there, and three of the pandas were out.  The youngest was sleeping, while its mother was munching happily away on bamboo.  I then walked the tiger trail, hoping to see one of the animals I missed yesterday at the Wild Animal Park.  I did see him, although he was lying down in a shady area and didn’t feel much like doing anything.  I then proceeded to make a big loop around the park, catching the koalas, a kangaroo or two, a baby Bactrian camel born 11 days prior, a California condor or two, a couple more lions, several elephants, and more.  I could not see the polar bears; a revamped polar bear exhibit would be opening in a week, but I would not be there to see it. 

When I passed the giraffe and rhino exhibits, I couldn’t help but notice that they were much smaller than the Wild Animal Park exhibit areas.  Quite understandable, of course, but yet I felt a bit sorry for these animals who didn’t have the ability to wander as much as their brethren at the other zoo.  I went past the panda exhibit again, and it was definitely more crowded at this time of the morning; I’d made the right decision in going there first.  I went through the aviary and got some great closeups of some red and green birds at their feeding dish.

For lunch, I had a burger at one of the zoo restaurants.  There was nothing special about it; I was hungry, and it was edible.  Then I visited the gift shop and bought some gifts – specifically “poo-paper”, paper made from elephant dung. It’s not as bad as it sounds, believe me; it’s a legitimate form of recycled paper that doesn’t smell bad at all. 

I’d spent some 3 hours at the zoo, or 11 hours altogether when counting yesterday’s excursion, and I was tired.  I’d had my fill of the zoo for a while.  Next stop: the Cabrillo Monument.  It wasn’t hard to get there from the zoo at all.  My admission from Wednesday was good today, so I didn’t have to pay again.  This time, I drove right down to the tidepool area and got very close to the beach.  I climbed out onto some rocks but didn’t feel comfortable going all the way to the water’s edge; that footing looked a bit precarious for my liking.  There were a number of people there, but I took a picture of some boulders that made it look like the area was desolate.  I could see several surfers offshore; I’m not sure they were supposed to be surfing there.  My phone received a couple of text messages from my provider; it seems that in the tidepool area, I was roaming into a Mexican carrier’s area of service.  But I wasn’t going to be calling anyone, not yet anyway.  I drove back to the top of the monument and went back to the visitor’s center, and I noticed that visibility was definitely poorer than on Wednesday.  I could not see Mount Soledad this time, nor could I see Tijuana.  North Island, downtown and the bay were still quite visible, though.

It was time to head up to LA.  Would there be time to drive up the Coast Highway through Carlsbad and Oceanside?  I didn’t think so; I’d want to do that on a subsequent visit.  But I did think there would be time to drive up Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, from San Clemente to Harbor City.  Bad traffic in Laguna Beach convinced me that was not a good idea.  I set up my iPod touch in its GPS cradle and asked it to direct me to David’s house; it did so, telling me to find my way to the 405.  I got gas in Newport Beach, then set off on my way using the GPS’s instructions.  They were quite straightforward, it turned out.  Unfortunately, traffic on the 405 was stop-and-go, as well, at least at first.  I saw a Smart fortwo on the 405 and marveled at either the bravery or foolhardiness of the driver; that car strikes me as being too small.  Eventually, traffic broke free, and I made my way to the 101 and down to Sepulveda and over to David’s house.

A pork roast was cooking as I arrived.  Dinner wouldn’t be for a while, so we nibbled on a few things.  March Madness was in full force on the TV; I was able to watch the end of the Michigan State game.  David’s girlfriend Robin arrived a short while later and joined us for dinner, the aforementioned pork roast; that turned out to be pretty good.  After a brief tour of the house and the guestroom where I would be sleeping, we pondered what it would take to connect my MacBook to the flat-screen TV so that I could show my pictures.  David had a cable but no adapters to connect to the TV or to either of our laptops.  I did own the right adapter, but it was back home in Michigan, of no use to me right now.  So we would have to get the adapters tomorrow.


Saturday March 20

I woke up once during the night with a stuffed-up nose; adjusting my sleeping position led to its unstuffing, and I went back to sleep.  Around 6, I woke up for good, doing some e-mail checking and iPhoto library adjusting.  Yes, I now had the software that would let me move and copy photos from one library to another, and so I could make my new library hold everything from 2010.  I checked the latest results from Folding@Home, seeing how well I was doing.  But there appeared to be a problem: no results had been submitted since Wednesday.  I tried to login to my iMac at home using Back to My Mac; I couldn’t.  That meant something was wrong at home; the iMac had either crashed, locked up or not recovered from a power failure.  I was kinda ticked off by that, more so because I couldn’t take any action to fix it until I got home next week.

By 8, I’d gotten up and taken my medicine, and then I heard David awaken.  Our plans today were fairly minor. We’d go for breakfast at Ruby’s in Redondo Beach, head up to the Santa Monica Pier, look for the proper adapters for connecting our MacBooks to the flat-screen TV, then head back home for doing who-knows-what.  We set off in David’s Camaro, a very nice vehicle, even if it does come from GM (I’m a longtime Ford engineer, remember).  As we got ready to leave, we saw a cat prowling around.  It was Greystoke, said David, a neighborhood stray that seemed to be reasonably healthy.  He was also a bit skittish, as he scampered off fairly quickly.

Ruby’s was on or near PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) in Redondo Beach.  This was the nicer section of Redondo, the part that was actually near a beach.  I remember staying at a hotel in the inland part of Redondo 10 years ago.  The neighborhood was OK, but the hotel had seen better days.  It turned out that Ruby’s was across the street from a hotel and had a nice view of the waterfront.  We could see kayakers pedaling in the harbor at times.  David mentioned that the Pirates of the Caribbean ship had pulled into or close to the marina located nearby during the filming of one of the movies.  Nothing like that happened today; all we did was enjoy our breakfast of French toast made with cinnamon rolls along with scrambled eggs and turkey sausage.  The sausage was spicy but dry; the eggs were good; and the cinnamon French toast was very good.  Neither of us could finish, although I ate more of mine.

As we made our way over to the 405, David pointed out the Northrop Grumman offices where he works.  Traffic wasn’t too bad on the 405 over to the 10, the Santa Monica Freeway.  Now the plan was to park near the Third Street Promenade, visit the Apple Store first and then hit the pier.  But we missed the exit for downtown and had to get onto PCH heading north.  A U-turn had us positioned for parking in a lot on the beach, close to the pier, and so we went there first instead.  There was a lot of activity at the pier in preparation for tomorrow’s LA Marathon; the finish line would be at the pier.  Good thing we were going today, then!  The pier was one of the LA attractions I had yet to visit, which is why I wanted to see it on this trip.

Yes, it was a tourist trap – a scenic one, yes, but still a tourist trap.  There were a number of gift shops, an area of amusement park rides, a few restaurants, a carousel, and plenty of places to fish.  There was a sign saying “66 End of the Road”, commemorating the western end of Route 66; I had David take my picture there.  There was a pigeon resting on the rails, unconcerned about what was going on; we took some closeup photos of it, some of them with downtown Santa Monica (such as it is) in the background.  Thanks to zoom lenses, we didn’t have to get too close to it.  Then along come a couple of young men, and one shoos the pigeon away.  Why did he have to do that?

The famous Ferris wheel now had advertisements in it, we noticed.  That didn’t keep me from taking a couple of pictures.  We heard and saw a couple of street musicians; one of them was playing steel drums (and doing a good job of it!).  We walked over to the carousel.  David mentioned having taken some pictures of carousels in the past with slow shutter speeds to get blurred motion.  We both decided to try that.  In David’s case, he had me pose in front of the carousel and remain still while the shutter was open for a fairly long time; that effect turned out well.

After seeing the pier, it was time to go in search of the Apple Store.  It was a bit of a climb to get from pier level to street level, but that put us at the entrance to the pier and its famous sign.  This opportunity for a picture could not go by untaken, and so we took some.  We even asked some folks on the street to take one of the two of us.  Then onward we went in search of the Apple Store.  It didn’t take us too long to find it, although it was at the far end of the Third Street Promenade from where we were.  One area had a film crew filming some scenes for The People’s Court; they were across the street from us, and we didn’t go near them.  We had to cross the farmer’s market to get to the store.  It turned out to be one of the larger Apple Stores; not as big as a flagship store such as in Manhattan or San Francisco, but it was larger than the ones I frequent in Michigan.  Still, the stores carried the same stuff.  And back in the corner, we found the adapters we needed, adapters that would allow a 15-pin VGA connection.  I had one at home but had not thought to bring it with me; now I’d be getting a spare.  David would be getting one for his MacBook air; it has a different display connection than my MacBook, so we could not use the same adapter.  I also had decided that I would indeed pick up a spare MacBook battery for the train trip home.  I had to make sure I was getting the right model, one that would work with my white MacBook; I almost got one for a silver MacBook, and I’m not sure it would have worked.

On the way out, we popped in at the Brookstone store.  They did carry wallets, but this one was out of them.  David did find something for his wine “cellar”, though.  Then it was on to The Puzzle Pit, a place that is a combination toy store and science-fiction collectible store.  Want a light saber, a Han Solo blaster, or a Buck Rogers disintegrator pistol?  You’ll find them here.  How about a Lost In Space robot cookie jar?  Yep, they had one of those too.  I think David was tempted by that cookie jar, but it remained locked in the display case.

Back to the pier we went, and back to the parking lot we went.  It had definitely filled up since our arrival, and we knew it was time to head on back.  We ran into a big traffic jam on the 10 that would have hindered our getting onto the 405, so we got back onto surface streets and tried to plot an alternate route.  But the GPS kept trying to direct us back onto the 10; it didn’t know about the backup (caused by a wreck), and I didn’t know how to tell it about that, if I even could.  We ended up going back to Lincoln Avenue (Highway 1, PCH) and down to another freeway (the 90) near the airport.  That got us onto the 405 and on the way home.

While NCAA tournament basketball played out on the flat-screen TV, we had grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch, and then we attempted to connect my MacBook to the TV.  I say “attempted” because the adapter I got today was only part of the solution.  It seems that the cable David had did not have the right connectors, either, and so he was off on multiple trips to electronics and video specialists, trying to find the right cable adapter.  What he ended up doing was buying a whole new cable.  That, plus the adapter, did the trick.  Robin had come over in the meantime, and now I was in a position to show them some of the photos I’d taken earlier in the trip.  I had to be real careful with the adapter; one time, it pulled out partially, and it seemingly caused my system to crash with a kernel panic.

For dinner, the three of us went to a Mexican restaurant called La Capilla in Torrance.  It appeared to be reasonably authentic; the room in which we were seated had a big-screen TV tuned not to basketball but to Mexican soccer.  I got a combination dinner, while David and Robin got smaller items.  They must have known something I didn’t, for my combo plate was filled, or I should say overfilled.  A tamal (the proper singular of tamales; it’s not correct to refer to “a tamale”), an enchilada, and a tostada – I couldn’t finish it all!  I had to box up the leftovers and bring them home.
Back at David’s, David and I went to his music room for a little bit of jamming.  I was using his Epiphone Les Paul plugged into a small amp, while David was going acoustic and unplugged.  Later, the three of us watched a repeat of Fantasy Island for a time, and then I decided to go to bed.  We had an early day ahead of us tomorrow with the Catalina trip.  I didn’t go to bed right away, though; no, I did a little bit of laptop work and then watched some of the first episode of The Pacific that aired on The 101 Network (a channel unique to DirecTV).


Sunday March 21

I awoke briefly around 4 then went back to bed; I was up for good around 6, and I did my normal e-mail check then got dressed.  I wasn’t sure which jacket to take with me, my yellow one or the brown suede one; based on the experience from last Tuesday, I chose the yellow one.  I also chose to wear my Yaesu hat rather than my Ford B-24 hat from Oshkosh; the Yaesu one fit better, an important consideration in windy environments.

David and Robin got up and got prepared; they packed some extra clothes in their backpack just in case conditions were cooler than anticipated, and that included a pullover for me.  Around 7:30, we set off for Newport Beach.  It was rather cloudy and foggy outside; that was the marine layer, David said.  We listened to XM’s 60s on 6 as we made our way down to Newport Beach.  Traffic was very light, as one might expect for this time of day.  We were there in plenty of time for departure.  Finding the place to park was not hard; finding the boat departure point took a little more work, but we found that.  We got checked in, and then we found the public restroom for a last-minute visit.

Today’s vessel was the Nautilus; it was a smaller vessel than the Hornblower boat I was on last Tuesday.  Part of me thought we should have a larger vessel, since we were going farther out to sea.  When it was time to board, the three of us found a bench in the stern area underneath the top deck.  It was sheltered from the wind, but we could quickly move over to the side for any whale or dolphin sighting.  It was still cloudy and foggy as we made our way down the channel and out into the ocean.  Eventually, thanks to the fog, we were no longer able to see land.  But David’s iPhone with its GPS showed where we were and how fast we were getting there.  He had to download an app to do so.  We were averaging 15 mph, or 13 knots.

We then encountered the first of two dolphin pods on the outbound trip.  Remembering my difficulties with taking dolphin pictures last week as well as several years ago, I set up my camera to take continuous photos as long as I held down the shutter.  I’d fill up a card faster and take a lot of junk, but the chance that I would have a great shot were much better.  And that would pay off big time, for I happened to get an excellent picture of a dolphin that had leapt completely out of the water.  As I realized what I’d captured in my viewfinder, I exclaimed loudly, “I got it!”  Robin said that people had looked at me enviously, for I don’t think they got the picture.  There was one man there with a DSLR (Pentax?) and a large telephoto lens (not sure if it was a zoom); I don’t think he got it.  And if I hadn’t been in continuous mode and already taking pictures, I don’t think I would have gotten it, either.  I was quite fortunate.  Several minutes later, and several miles closer to the island, we passed through another pod of dolphins.  I got a lot of pictures here as well, including some where much of the dolphin was out of the water, but there was nothing as spectacular as that one shot.

We docked at Avalon just before noon and had two hours before the boat left again.  What to do in those two hours?  How about walk around, hit the restroom, have lunch, get a few supplies for the return trip, walk to the other end of the harbor, hit the restroom again, and then wait for the boat to arrive some 10 minutes late?  That’s exactly what we did.  David, Robin and I ate at a place called Jack’s.  I had a burger made with Kobe beef and topped with Colby cheese.  It was OK, but the bun had been saturated with the cheese or with a secret sauce, and it tended to fall apart.  To be honest, I’d had better.  I treated David and Robin to lunch today.  We saw a dog on the street with some markings on its spine; we’d learn later he’d been burned there in an accident, and the hair never grew back.  We stopped inside the Vons Express store for a few items, then proceeded to walk down the main street then back to the dock.  I would check in on the Michigan State score every once in a while; they were still holding on.

By 1:45, we were back at the dock, wanting to be first to grab our seats.  But the boat was not there.  2 o’clock came around: still no boat.  What was going on? Finally, we saw the boat come around the bend and head to the dock, ready to take us back aboard.  I also got the final score: Michigan State had won its game and was on to the Sweet 16.  We found our seats, the same seats we had on the outbound trip.  Five minutes later, we cast off.  Now I thought we were going to sail around the rest of the island, for that was what the website for the trip implied, but we headed straight for the mainland.  Some of the fog had lifted, so we were able to see Catalina for farther out than earlier.  Indeed, around the midpoint, we were no longer out of sight of land; we could see the mainland ahead and Catalina behind.

We passed through those dolphin pods again, and once again I was taking a lot of pictures.  During the second pod, which the captain described as a megapod, I ended up taking some pictures where the dolphin was up vertical on his or her tail, just like in Flipper or in sea shows.  I even took some movie footage this time; the dolphins were really enjoying themselves.  David took a picture of three dolphins completely out of the water, topping my single dolphin out of the water.  Yes, those dolphins were having fun.  And if this had been billed as a dolphin-watching cruise, it would have been completely successful.  But this was a whale-watching cruise, and we hadn’t seen any whales at all.  When we got close to shore, we started looping around looking for a whale that the other boats had seen, but we had no luck.  By 5:35, we were ashore.  Since we did not see any whales, we were given rain checks good for the next year for a free 2 ½ hour whale-watching trip with them (Newport Whales).  David and Robin could take advantage of that fairly easily, but I’d have a harder time doing so.  I didn’t know when I would or could return to LA.  Still, I took the rain check and put it in my pocket, not knowing when or whether I could use it.

On the drive back to Harbor City, Robin placed a pizza order at Hank’s Pizza and Deli; it was ready for us when we drove up.  We decided to have a meal at home because we all wanted to see the pictures I’d taken today.  I’d taken hundreds, so I had to step through them very quickly, stopping when the good ones appeared.  And there were some that would have been good if I had zoomed in some more.  A number of the pictures I took formed time-lapse sequences, David said, so you could see the dolphins going out of and going into the water; those might make good slideshows.

It had been a long day, and David and Robin had to go back to work tomorrow.  Robin left for her home, and David and I picked things up and got ready for bed.


Monday March 22

I woke up around 5 or 5:15 and did an e-mail check, a web check, and some final packing.  I turned on the news to see what the weather and traffic were doing.  By 6:30, I was packed and ready to go.  When David woke up for work, he didn’t have to wake me up.  Through the window, we saw one of the neighborhood cats drinking from his swimming pool.  It noticed us looking at it through the window and took off.  It was a cute kitty, too.  It wasn’t Greystoke; it was a different kitty.  And so it was that we both left at 7:15: David for work, and I for breakfast.

David had suggested the Spires restaurant up the street at Western and Sepulveda, and so I went there and had one of their breakfast specials while reading the morning paper.  It was a good meal, but when I was finished, it was shortly after 8 o’clock.  What to do next?  I drove to the Target that was at the corner of Sepulveda and the 110 freeway; it opened at 8, and there weren’t many people there at all.  It had a slightly larger grocery selection than the Target back in Westland, but it was not a full-fledged grocery store like the Super Targets in Texas.  I didn’t get anything from there, not from the grocery section nor from the rest of the store.  That wasn’t for a lack of looking, either; I would have got some Cheerios bars if they’d had any.

Now I was on my way up the 110, heading in the general direction of Disneyland.  As it was rush hour, the 110 was rather busy.  Once I got onto the eastbound 91, though, traffic lightened up quite a bit.  On the radio was Morning Edition on KCRW; when I got tired of that, I flipped over to KRTH, “K-Earth” (I always tend to think they got the call letters wrong because it’s a transposition of KTRH, a Houston station).  Traffic got heavy again once I neared the interchange with the 5; it turned out that there had been an accident on that ramp, and I was caught in its aftermath.  Once I got on the southbound 5, though, everything moved smoothly.

Soon I was at the exit for Disneyland.  I had no desire to visit either of the parks today; no, I was solely interested in visiting Downtown Disney.  I followed the signs for Downtown Disney, but they had me park in the big (and expensive) Mickey & Friends parking garage.  I was on level 2, or Daisy level.  Down the escalator I went, and then over to the tram waiting area.  It took 4 or 5 trams before I was able to board, and I couldn’t do so without banging my head on the tram ceiling (low clearance).  Off we went on our short ride to the stop for the entrance plaza and Downtown Disney.
I thought about walking over to the entrance plaza, but there were long lines for bag checks, and so I didn’t go.  Now I’d visited Downtown Disney on my last trip to LA in 2006; from first looks, it appeared little had changed.  I could see some renovations taking place on the Disneyland Hotel; the balconies and window glass were being removed and updated to give the building a more contemporary feel.  I suspect the entire building was being remodeled.  It was slightly before 10 when I got there, so very few stores were open.  I walked the length of DD and crossed over to the hotel, then started on my way back.  The Compass Book store was open, and I went in there for a time (didn’t get anything).  I walked through the lobby and grounds of the Grand Californian Hotel and thought that would be a nice place to stay sometime, although I suspect I wouldn’t care for the rates.  Over at the huge World of Disney, they had lots of stuff, as always, including some rare and collectible artwork.  I ended up getting two T-shirts from here, a Goofy one for myself and a Grumpy one as a present for my uncle.

By this time, it was lunchtime, and I decided to eat at the House of Blues, for I’d never been to one before.  I wasn’t super hungry, and so I decided to get a bowl of clam chowder and their Cobb salad.  Well, their Cobb salad was served in a very large dish.  It was good, but there was no way I could finish it all.  I saw advertisements for the Gospel Sunday Brunch and thought it would be interesting to go to one of those.  I liked the HOB’s slogan, “Unity in Diversity”; that’s something you hear with respect to the Bahá’í Faith, as well.  Only when leaving did I notice the ceiling populated with plaques of the many musicians voted into their Hall of Fame.

When I was done with lunch, I took a tram back to the parking garage, for I had completed my visit to Downtown Disney.  Next stop: the Pasadena area.  David said I should get over there in the middle of the day or else face the wrath of rush hour.  And so I set up the GPS and had it direct me to the Rose Bowl, which I’d never seen for myself.  I’d tried in the past but had been unsuccessful.  The GPS did its job perfectly, and within 45 minutes, I was in the parking lot of the Rose Bowl.  I took a couple of pictures of the famous sign and a couple of pictures of the surroundings, and then I went back the way I came, all the way to where I’d exited from the 134 freeway.  One direction took me to the Rose Bowl; the other put me on old Colorado Boulevard.  I saw that this appeared to be a stretch of old Route 66 I’d not been on before, including an old bridge, and so I took it.  I little past that bridge, I saw the Norton Simon Museum on my left.  I then knew that I was on the stretch of roadway where the Tournament of Roses parade is held every year.

There was a Ralph’s a short distance down the road.  I stopped there to check on Cheerios cereal bars, but they didn’t have them either.  And so I continued eastward on Colorado Boulevard, past the Old Town area and past other areas, past the Santa Anita racetrack and on to Arcadia.  It was too early to check in at the hotel, and so I drove around to the Santa Anita mall and ended up walking around there for an hour or so.  It was there – more specifically, at the Brookstone there – that I found a new wallet and another battery extender for the iPod touch, one that was rechargeable.  Hopefully I would have better luck with that charger than with the one I had earlier, the one that used AAA batteries.

I’d stayed at the Hampton Inn in Arcadia before, during my last visit in 2006; it was little changed.  It was in their records that I’d stayed there before, as I was welcomed back at the front desk.  I had room 328, and one of the first things I did was to take a shower.  Did I ever need it!  Circumstances hadn’t allowed for one at David’s.  Now once I was checked in, I didn’t feel like going anyplace else.  And I didn’t need to, for an excellent place to eat was right next door: the Souplantation.  Many other people had the same idea as I did, for it was very busy this evening, more so than a typical Monday night, I overheard.  The salads, soup, pasta, muffins and dessert made for a very good meal, hopefully a fairly healthy meal.  By 9:30, I was in for the night and in bed.


Tuesday March 23

Around 6:20, there was a piercing sound: the fire alarm was going off!  I was mostly dressed, and so I cinched up my pants and buttoned my shirt.  I debated what to bring down with me in case this were a real emergency; I didn’t want my tickets home to be destroyed, nor did I want my computer and pictures lost.  But just as I was about to decide what to do, the alarm ceased.  I opened up the door and looked out; so did the guy in the room next to me, who looked like he’d come from the shower.  Nothing visible, so we went back to our business.  A few minutes later, I heard a siren: it was a fire truck coming to the hotel.  I went down to the lobby for breakfast; I saw the firemen talking to the manager on duty.  It must have been a false alarm.  Whew!  For breakfast, I had scrambled eggs, home fries, sausage, a chocolate muffin, and some yogurt, along with some orange juice to drink.  There was one waffle maker available, but it was in use.  I read the USA Today as I ate.

Back in the room, I continued to work on the travelogue as I awaited the best time to leave for the station.  I didn’t want to get there too early, but neither did I want to be stuck in traffic and be late.  I ended up leaving around 7:53.  Traffic on Colorado Boulevard was not heavy at all, nor was it on Arroyo Parkway.  It started out moving smoothly on the Pasadena Freeway, but then it ground to a crawl.  Would I make it to the train station by 9?  Traffic inched onward.  NPR was carrying the comments of the Vice-President and then the President at the health care bill signing ceremony.  The clock moved; the traffic moved, but more slowly.  At long last, I saw the exit for Sunset Boulevard.  I knew I could take that to the train station.  Then I proceeded to hit every light on the way to the train station, or so it seemed to me.  I wasn’t too happy about that.

It turned out I was a few minutes late, but I was within the grace period for returning the car.  And so I looked for and found the waiting area for Coast Starlight sleeping car passengers.  That was somewhat unusual for LA, for the Southwest Chief sleeping car passengers have never had their own waiting area.  I sat down there, had a cup of juice, and read a paper I’d bought at the newsstand.

The conductor came by and collected our tickets.  Those who needed assistance getting to the train received rides from Red Cap attendants.  The rest of us followed the conductor as he walked us out to the platform.  We boarded our sleeping cars: I was in car 1430, room 5.  I got on board, stowed my rolling bag in the rack, and brought my other one up to the room.  The room wasn’t any different from other roomettes except in one way: the head protector on the seat back had the Coast Starlight logo on it (the one on the Southwest Chief was pure white).  I wasn’t quite sure which way to sit, for I didn’t know which way the train would be moving.  Nor did I know on which side of the train I would be until the train started to move.  At 10:15, the train lurched into motion, and I knew then I would be on the east side of the train.  I would not have a view of the coast from my room.  I also knew that I wanted to sit on the other side of the roomette, the side facing forward.  That was easy enough to manage, but what could I do about the view?

I knew what I could do about the view: go to the Pacific Parlour Car, that’s what.  It was a combination observation car, lounge and diner specifically for sleeping car passengers.  When I first went inside, I noticed that there were 8 chairs that swiveled, although one of them seemed to be stuck.  There were two rows of bench seats along each side of the car, with tables in front, and then there were diner seats.  Beyond the Parlour Car was the regular dining car.  I would alternate eating meals in the regular dining car with meals in the Parlour Car, as it turned out.

As we proceeded out of LA and into the Valley, I took a few pictures of what proved to be beautiful downtown Burbank (should I be capitalizing that?).  These were some of the stores I’d visited back in 2006 (a Barnes & Noble, a Best Buy, etc.).  I couldn’t see the NBC Studios from my position (they’re the ones who popularized the expression).  When I was in the Parlour Car, I saw the Fry’s Burbank store, the one with a UFO crashing into the front of the store.

At one point, I reached into my bag for the Lord of Lords book I had been reading.  But I couldn’t find it!  I knew I’d had it out last night on the bed in my hotel – and I must have forgotten to pack it this morning!  It must have been hidden under the covers, which is why I didn’t see it.  I called the hotel on my cell phone and left a message with housekeeping.  An hour or so later, they called back saying they had it.  Did I want to return to the hotel to pick it up, they asked.  That was not possible, I said; I was on a train to Portland.  Could they mail it back to me?  Yes, they could; they would charge it to my room.  I was not happy that I’d left the book behind, but I was pleased I would be getting it back.  Perhaps it would be waiting for me when I returned home (it was).  For now, I went downstairs and retrieved the companion volume, King of Kings, and planned to start reading that later.

I made a lunch reservation for noon in the dining car.  When I went there at noon, I was seated with two older women who were living in Oregon now; one of them lived in Albany, Oregon, as I recall.  I had an Angus burger for lunch as the train passed through Oxnard and Ventura on its way to the coast.  And it was during lunch that the train reached the ocean.  This was where the Coast Starlight really lived up to its name, or at least the Coast portion.

Because my room was on the wrong side of the train, I spent a lot of time in the Parlour Car during the time we were along the coast.  In the distance, I thought I could see the Channel Islands, the upper ones (Santa Catalina was too far away).  I could also see the occasional boat or ship, a few oilrigs, and the occasional group of surfers.  There was even a time when I saw dolphins leaping out of the water very close to shore with no boats around.  The conductor made an announcement about dolphins playing on the left side of the train, but I didn’t see any after that announcement.  I didn’t attempt to take any pictures of the dolphins; I didn’t have my camera ready, and they wouldn’t have turned out well anyway.

The train turned north, as did the coast; we were now passing through Vandenberg Air Force Base.  I did see a few rocket gantries, for this was and is the west coast firing range.  There was even a launch pad that could accommodate a space shuttle for being launched into a polar orbit.  The train moved northward and away from the coast for the duration of the trip.  The hills and fields became greener as we moved northward, in my opinion; I thought my pictures of that area would turn out very well.

I found the seats in the lounge car very relaxing, and I found myself getting a bit sleepy.  This had been my longest period of extended rest during the trip, not counting the journey out from Detroit.  Did I mind?  No, I needed the opportunity to rest and relax.  Later, I went back to my roomette and did some reading.  There was a wine and cheese tasting party in the Parlour Car at 3, but I did not participate because I don’t drink; I haven’t since I became a Bahá’í in 1994.  Around 5, I fired up my iPod touch and my MiFi and listened to some streaming audio for a time.  It was all-news WWJ from Detroit, where the time was 8 PM.  With the small speaker in the iPod, it was like listening on an old transistor radio.  It was nice to hear a touch of home after a week and a half away.

My dinner reservation was for 6 o’clock, but this time I decided to eat in the Parlour Car and try one of its meals, which were different from the dining car meals.  I arrived a bit early and plugged in the MiFi to charge it while waiting to be seated.  While I waited – not because of crowds, for there was only one or two other diners; it was just not yet 6 – there was some commotion: a young man in the sleepers was complaining loudly that he could not upgrade his accommodations.  He was on the phone with an Amtrak agent, and he was eventually talking to the conductor, but he never got any satisfaction.  I gathered that part of the problem was that the central office could not officially contact anyone on the train for this matter, or that no one on the train could officially answer due to rules instituted after the Chatsworth incident (the one where a texting engineer caused a train wreck).  The guy was calmer later on during the meal.  And speaking of the meal, I could choose between bison and duck; I chose duck, and so it was that I had a roast duck meal with mixed vegetables and rice, a salad, dinner roll, Diet Pepsi and chocolate mousse cake – wonderful!  The tables were a bit cramped for me, though; the seats were closer to the table than in the dining car, making it very close quarters for someone who was overweight.

After dinner, I decided to stay in the parlour car and take some pictures of the sunset.  I couldn’t get the actual sunset because the horizon was blocked, but I didn’t do too badly.  I sent an e-mail to David and Robin telling them they would enjoy the ride.  Later, after dark, I brought out the MacBook and did some work on the travelogue.  I was able to plug in and so didn’t drain my battery any.  There wasn’t much to see outside now that it was dark, so it was a great time to do some work on it.  When I started getting sleepy, I packed up and retired to my room.  I read for a while, at least until the train pulled into Oakland.  I could see the Oakland Tribune building from my window as the train pulled into the station.  Not long after that, I shut the curtain and went to bed.  I had to have fallen asleep before the next stop of Emeryville a short distance away.


Wednesday March 24

I recall popping awake on a few occasions during the night; none of them were at a station.  I woke up for good around 6 and saw a mountain outside that had to be Mount Shasta, for it looked like the mountain on the Shasta pop cans.  I didn’t take a picture because it was still too dark outside.  Later on, I went to the dining car for breakfast, choosing to have French toast and sausage; as always, the meal was very good.

The first stop of the morning was in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and it was an extended stop; we could get off and wander close to the train.  This was my first time in Oregon; now, in the next two days, I would be entering several states that I’d never visited before: Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota.  The only times I’d been in Minnesota before had been in the Minneapolis airport; did that count as having been there?  I’d be going through for sure on Saturday.

For much of the day, I would be in the parlour car admiring the scenery, taking pictures on occasion, and working on the travelogue.  Later in the day, I’d even have lunch in the parlour car (a sandwich).  One of the train workers stopped by and showed us a calendar he’d had prepared with pictures he’d taken along the train route over the years.  Some of the photos showed the train plowing through great snowy areas, where it didn’t seem like any tracks had ever been.  They were excellent shots.  One of the passengers commented that the calendar should be on sale in the lounge car (I’d go along with that).

As the train continued northward, we passed through Eugene and Springfield and then Salem on the way to Portland.  Off in the east, Mount Hood came into view, as did what appeared to be a second similarly-sized mountain.  I tried taking pictures of both as best I could, which wasn’t easy thanks to closer trees and buildings blocking the best view much of the time.  We kept going northward until, right on time, we pulled into the Portland train station.  Here was where I got off.  The train would continue into Seattle tonight, but that portion of the trip would end in darkness, and I wanted to be able to see the area in daylight.  Also, I was not aware of any hotels close to the Seattle train station, but there were some close to Portland’s.  And so, I got off the train here in Portland this afternoon.

The Portland train station was rather elegant inside, but I didn’t have much opportunity to admire it as I made my way through to the exit.  At the end of the sidewalk, I stopped to get out my camera and take a picture of the station, which was a landmark with its clock tower with the signs “UNION STATION” and “GO BY RAIL”.  Then I set my carry-on bag on top of the rolling bag and walked the seven or eight blocks to the hotel.  I was glad that I could set the bags atop each other and pull them, but it was still a good workout for me to pull that weight.  I had to stop and alternate arms every once in a while to avoid strain and to reduce the feeling that I was twisting my lower back.  At last I reached my destination, the Embassy Suites in downtown Portland.  It was very elegant inside, I noticed as I made my way to the registration desk.  The clerk asked for the certificate that said I had enough frequent stayer points to stay here; it was in my carryon bag, so I got it out and gave it to her.  Then she gave me the key, and I went up to room 532.

Room 532 was a very fancy room.  It was a suite, of course; the name of the hotel was Embassy Suites, after all.  The hotel had originally opened as the Multnomah back in 1912.  The main living area had a meeting table with 8 positions, making it look like a small boardroom.  There were flat screen TV’s in the living room and in the bedroom, carrying a mixture of HD and analog channels; one of the channels was an English language channel of NHK Tokyo called NHK World, presenting news in English at the top of every hour and other programs about Japan at the bottom of the hour.  The hotel Internet service cost $9.95 a night; I decided to stick with my MiFi.  It would have been tempting to stay in the room the rest of the evening, but I did want to see some of the area.

It was a very nice day outside as I walked to the banks of the Willamette River and the shoreline hike-bike path, which was seeing some very healthy use this afternoon.  I took several pictures of the area, including another picture of Mount Hood and a picture of a famous local landmark, the “Made In Oregon” sign in Old Town.  I made my way back to the hotel through part of Chinatown, dropped off my camera in the room, and then went to the basement for the daily Manager’s Reception for guests, where one could drink, snack and relax.  Alcohol was available, but I stuck with the Diet Pepsi or Coke (I can’t remember which one it was, though I lean towards Diet Pepsi) as I nibbled on popcorn, chips and snack mix of one sort or another.  Two TV’s in the room were tuned to different ESPN channels, one of which had on NBA basketball; I glanced at them occasionally.

After the big meals on the train and the snacks at the reception tonight, I didn’t really feel like supper, certainly not at the establishments that were close to or inside the hotel.  No, I just got a couple of snacks from the gift shop before going to my room.  I didn’t go anyplace else for the rest of the night, turning in around 9:15.


Thursday March 25

When I woke up this morning and looked outside, it was raining.  This was more typical of Portland weather, I thought.  I had packed an umbrella in my carry-on and thought I might have to use it today, but the weather forecasts suggested a break in the rain later in the morning, when I would be walking to the train station.  I took a shower, got dressed, and then went downstairs for complimentary breakfast, where I had pancakes, among other things.

By 7:40, I was on the sidewalk (no car, so “on the road” would not be appropriate) headed for the train station and an 8:30 departure.  I had the carry-on atop the rolling bag, but it fell off twice during the trip, forcing me to wear it on my shoulder for most of the way.  Once again, my carryon was heavier than the rolling bag; perhaps I should have bought a larger rolling bag.  I arrived at the station just before 8 and checked in for the train.  Just as I did, there came the boarding call for business class riders, and so I went right from the counter to the gate and to the train.  My bags didn’t want to fit in the overhead racks very well, but I found some space in racks at the end of the car.  Then I had to move to a different car, for I had not noticed that the card I thought was merely a discount for food in the snack car was actually a seat assignment.

The seats in the business class car on the Cascades train were similar to those on the Chicago-Detroit train, although the Detroit train had more leg room.  The leg room here was quite sufficient, though.  We pulled out of Portland on time, and within minutes, we were in Vancouver – Vancouver, Washington, that is.  No Olympics had been here; those were in the other Vancouver, the bigger one, the Canadian one.  We proceeded northward, mainly through cloudy skies.  At some points, we were close to the I-5 freeway.  I recall seeing an exit where the destinations were Longview and Long Beach.  Those were awfully far apart to be on the same exit sign, I thought, and they were, if you were to think of Longview, Texas and Long Beach, California.

My seat was on the right side of the train, which proved to be the less scenic side of the train.  I didn’t take many pictures on this part of the trip; I’m sure I’d have taken more had I been on the other side.  As the train neared Seattle and Puget Sound, there would have been several opportunities, but I wasn’t able to take any advantage of them.

We arrived in Seattle perhaps 15 minutes late.  As I entered the King Street Station, I started looking around for lockers or any place where I could store luggage temporarily.  I never found any (I heard later that there were lockers or at least a storage area, but I never saw it).  I went outside briefly, allowing me to see Qwest Field.  But there was no way I was going to haul my luggage around downtown Seattle doing sightseeing.  I reluctantly concluded that I would be spending my 4+ hours of layover inside the station.  And so I grabbed a seat and sat down for a couple of hours, getting up only a few times: to visit the restroom, to take some pictures outside, and to get some snacks from the vending machine.  Those snacks would be my lunch.  I decided to do some studying for my Extra Class amateur radio license, since I had plenty of time available.  The book I got last week was in my carryon bag, so I got it out and proceeded to study.  Hopefully, the study time proved useful; I won’t know that until I pass my license exam.

As the departure time for the Empire Builder approached, the station filled up.  Many of the new arrivals had come in on the Cascades train, a later one than I had taken.  All of a sudden, there was an announcement: due to a mudslide between Seattle and Everett, passengers on the Empire Builder would be bused to Everett.  And so we got on board two or three buses and braved Seattle rush hour traffic to venture north of town to Everett.  Traffic was stop-and-go for several miles, but it eventually opened up.  At least I got to see the Space Needle from the bus.

It was raining in Everett as the buses pulled up and we got off.  We went over to the platform entrance and then split into two directions: coach to the left, sleeping car to the right.  I found my car: 830, and my room: 3.  This car had a lot of wood paneling in it, unlike the other sleepers I’d had on the trip.  Otherwise, there was little to distinguish it from the other sleeping cars.  Was this an older or a more recent car?  I had no way to know.  Gary would be our car attendant on this journey.  Once again, I didn’t know which side of the train I was on until we started rolling.  It turned out I was on the right side, mostly the south side turning into the southwest and then the west side.  We left an hour later than scheduled, not surprisingly.

Dinner that first evening was on a first-come, first-serve basis owing to the delays in departing.  For tonight’s dinner, I sat with a couple who lived near Vancouver, BC and with a vehicle driver from Mishawaka, Indiana.  The driver drove specialty vehicles and delivered them to customers all over the continent, and he had a big frequent flyer account with US Air for his return flights.  But he wasn’t able to get a reasonable flight out of Seattle today, and so he ended up on the train, sleeping up with the crew in what he called the most expensive ticket on the train.  For supper, I had meatloaf made with bison meat; it was very moist and very good.

The train did not have a lounge car, at least not yet; that would not become available until the segment of the train originating in Portland hooked up with ours in Spokane during the night.  And so I went back to my room and adjusted my watch to Mountain Time, for when I woke up tomorrow, I would indeed be in the Mountain Time zone.


Friday March 26

I was asleep during the stop in Spokane and throughout our trip through Idaho.  When I woke up around 5:30, I got dressed for a visit to the restroom.  That’s one of the disadvantages of the roomettes: having the restrooms down the hall.  Someone was about to get off the train; I asked where we were, and she said Libby, Montana.  I had indeed slept through all of Idaho!

Breakfast in the dining car was quite busy this morning, so much so that I had to get on a waiting list.  When I was served, I sat with a family from Minnesota that had been visiting Montana and had spent some time in Glacier National Park, which the train was passing through at that time.  It looked very picturesque and worthy of a visit in the future.  Across the aisle, I noticed a young man at a table who seemed to be wearing earrings – rather large earrings.  When I looked more closely, I saw that those weren’t earrings at all.  No, he had seemingly put discs about the size of Oreo cookies in his earlobes and turned them into built-in earrings.  To each his own, I thought.

The train continued eastward and left the Rockies; now we were in Big Sky country, although with the clouds, the sky wasn’t as big as it could have been.  I did get a few nice photos throughout the day.  When the train arrived in Shelby, Montana, I was able to get off and walk around briefly.  It was rather chilly, so I didn’t really want to stand around very long at all.  I walked down to the street in front of the station and then went back to the platform for a walk down its length and back.  Then it was back on board.

At lunch, I sat with a father and son from Alliance, Ohio who had been hiking in Olympic National Park in Washington and with a retired hairdresser from Montana heading back to her hometown in South Dakota for a vacation from minding the grandchildren.  Today’s lunch special was macaroni and cheese – a penne pasta and white cheddar, not the typical Kraft Dinner style mac and cheese (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Since I didn’t feel like a burger today, I had that macaroni and cheese special, and it was pretty good.

It was back to the routine in the afternoon: read for a bit, work on a travelogue for a bit, take a few pictures of the scenery outside, etc.  Our next significant stop was in Havre, Montana, and that was where I made my next e-mail check.  The train rolled onward towards North Dakota.  I think we were in North Dakota by the time dinner rolled around (I had a reservation for 5 o’clock).  I sat with a couple from Williston, North Dakota, who were returning home from a trip to the West Coast.  The vehicle driver/transporter from Indiana was at my table again, as well.  Everyone had steak except me; I wasn’t in the mood for it.  No, I felt like having that bison meatloaf again, for I had enjoyed it last night.  It was still good tonight, but I don’t think I would have had it again tomorrow night; three nights in a row would have been too much.

Around 9:30, I called for the bed to be made up.  After that was done, I read for a little while and tried to keep tabs on the Michigan State game.  It was a close one – would they win and advance to the Elite Eight?  Yes, they would!  I could go to sleep happy.  Their next game would be Sunday, after I’d arrived home.  And so I went to bed, or tried to.  When I looked out the window, I saw that the train was pulling into Rugby.  The station had a sign saying that Rugby was the geographic center of North America.  There was an official monument somewhere nearby, but as it was dark, I didn’t see it.  I didn’t even know if it was particularly close to the train station.  But right then, I could honestly say that I was in the middle of it all.


Saturday March 27

Once again, I woke up a couple of times during the night but went back to sleep almost immediately.  I decided to get up for good around 6:30.  Time to put on my clothes including my shoes and head down to the bathroom to take care of essential business.  Then it was back upstairs to head for breakfast.  There weren’t too many in the dining car at this time of the morning.  I sat with a university instructor from the UK; he teaches at a university in Chester, and he was on a train tour of the US, having recently spent time in LA and Seattle.  While we were eating our meal, the train was passing through Minneapolis; I could see the Metrodome in the distance, and I saw the new University of Minnesota football stadium as well.  The train station that serves the Twin Cities is known as Midway Station; it must be on the border of the two cities.  It was a service stop, meaning we would be there for an extended period.  I got off briefly, but I wasn’t wearing a jacket, and it was too chilly for me to stay out there very long.  I fired up the MacBook to retrieve my e-mail and to charge up the MiFi.

When the train left, the Mississippi River was close by.  Many streets were blocked due to flooding potential.  I saw no active flooding taking place, but I saw work crews removing sandbags, so any flooding that had taken place was past.  That had to have been the case in Fargo, as well; the train would have gone through during the night.  The train crept along, and then it came to a halt near St. Croix.  We were there for quite some time.  It wasn’t freight train traffic holding us up; it was public safety officials investigating a car accident that had taken place on an upstream bridge, and they were on the railroad bridge as part of the investigation.  The accident involved a car driving off the bridge, so the investigation may have involved body recovery.  We saw no signs of any investigation when we passed through that area, although I did see a number of sheriff’s cars parked to the east or southeast of the bridge.

As the train moved onward, I found few subjects worthy of picture taking.  For the most part, I read, either from the Kindle app on my iPod touch, the King of Kings book, or even some of the tourist literature I’d picked up over the last two weeks.  Thinking of my next trip out west, perhaps?  I checked e-mail occasionally, but I found that the MiFi was really running low on power.  I thought I could get some charging from the outlet in my room, but it turned out that the outlet was really loose.  Any charger I plugged in did not want to stay plugged in.  There was no way I could leave the MiFi unattended and attempt to charge it; any such attempt would lead to the MiFi running low on power.  That prevented me from eating lunch when the dining car opened.  I went there right at 11:30 and got a spot, but I was too concerned about the MiFi charging.  Also, to be honest, I wasn’t all that hungry.  I asked to be put on the waiting list instead and went back to my room.  It turned out my fears were justified: the charger had fallen out, and the MiFi was even lower on charge than when I started.  I broke the MacBook out again and plugged the MiFi into it for charging, and I also did some work on this travelogue.

Some two hours later, my name came to the top of the waiting list, and I was called to the dining car.  I was hungrier, and the MiFi had an acceptable level of charge, and so I felt comfortable going for lunch.  My tablemates today were a woman from Minnesota traveling to East Lansing to visit her daughter, a music major at MSU; a man from Montana who used to own a chain of barber shops in central Illinois; and an organic dairy farmer from near Grand Rapids who was returning from an organic farming conference in La Crosse.  An interesting combination, to be sure.  What’s more, it turned out that the three of us men were musicians.  The Montanan was a multi-instrumentalist: guitar, banjo, mandolin, and a bit of harmonica.  The farmer was a guitarist specializing in alt-country, Americana styles.  And I was and remain a guitarist who plays classic rock, ‘60s music, a little blues and whatever else I feel like.  All of us had the Angus burger, though the farmer was the only one who got cheese on his.  We all got desserts, although the Montanan didn’t eat his; he let the three of us split it.  And so it was that I had a slice of cheesecake (very light, and very tasty), a little bit of ice cream and part of a slice of chocolate Bundt cake.

We were passing through Milwaukee during dessert time; the Montanan pointed out when we passed Miller Park, home of the Brewers.  Afterwards, I went back to my room for more reading and sightseeing.  When I saw signs for the Tri-State Tollway, I knew we were in Illinois.  I started seeing signs for train stops and cities I recognized.  The train slowed down and stopped a couple of times; the conductor explained via the intercom that we were following a commuter train and had to keep back a prescribed distance from them.  And so it was that our last few miles into Chicago were fairly slow.  It was my first time approaching the downtown area from the north side on Amtrak, and so I saw things I did not normally see, such as the United Center.

We pulled into Union Station around 4:40, nearly an hour late.  My suitcase was out on the platform waiting for me as I stepped off the train; a $10 bill awaited my car’s attendant when he went through to check the rooms.  On to the station I walked.  My first destination would be the men’s room.  That business taken care of, I went to the Amtrak waiting room and found a seat.  It was very busy in there, for there were two trains in the process of boarding and a third (the Detroit one) soon to be boarding.  The monitors showed special messages for the Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited trains, something about service disruptions between Chicago and Toledo.  What was going on, I wondered.  Time to turn on the iPod touch and the MiFi and do a search.  And what was going on? There had been a derailment in Waterloo, Indiana, blocking the tracks between Chicago and Toledo.  Good thing I wasn’t going that way!

5:15 PM came and went; one of the trains that was boarding departed.  I was already in line for the Detroit train.  Then came a call: senior citizens and business class riders, come up to the front and check in.  I got out of line and went up to the front.  There was a waiting area next to the gate where we sat for the next few minutes.  Then came the next call, for families traveling with young children.  A few minutes later came another call: business class riders, head out to the train.  And that’s what we did.  It wasn’t easy lifting my bags up the stairs, but I did so.  I found my seat, stowed my bags overhead, and then I saw that the seats had power outlets.  Hurray!  I could charge my laptop and my MiFi!

The train left Chicago right on time, just as I was typing an e-mail to family members.  The ride started out fairly smoothly and stayed on time, at least for a while.  I did power down the laptop while I had my supper (a Cup of Noodles), but then I turned it on and kept it on to finish charging.  It was a perfect opportunity to work on the travelogue.  As we neared Ann Arbor, though, the train ground to a half and didn’t move for several minutes.  A freight train passed, but we still didn’t move.  In fact, for a while we went backwards!  Then we started heading forward again.  We were definitely going to be late getting into Dearborn.


Sunday March 28

As the train left Ann Arbor, I packed up my laptop, put on my jacket, and read from my iPod for the remainder of the trip.  As we got closer, the café car attendant offered to bring one of my bags up to the exit.  I sat in the café section as the train rolled through Dearborn and up to the train station.  We stopped, I got off, rolled my bag to my car, and then – I couldn’t open it.  It wouldn’t open via the key fob.  That was odd.  I opened it with the regular key: yes, it was indeed my car.  But no lights came on.  This was ominous.  The door locks wouldn’t work; this was very bad.  My battery had gone completely dead in the two weeks the SUV had sat here in the parking lot.  There had been no indication of battery trouble before I left.  I struggled to open one of the rear doors in order to gain access to battery jumper cables as well as store my luggage, and then I walked to the one car that still had someone there and asked for a jump.  He refused, saying his car was too sensitive to give jump starts.  The Amtrak attendant wouldn’t do so either.

I was an AAA member, and so I called them for emergency service.  The operator said someone would likely be out by 2:15 AM.  That was a long time, and so I sat in a cold car in the parking lot, waiting for the tow truck to come.  I decided to open up my suitcase and retrieve my suede jacket; it would be warmer than the yellow windbreaker, for sure.  I kept close watch for any movement, vehicle or otherwise.  The parking lot was well lit, and it was right behind the Dearborn police station, but I still kept a tight hand on the car key, ready to poke at someone if need be.  I did see three or four vehicles pass by, including a police car; none of them noticed me.  Perhaps I should have attracted the officer’s attention; I vowed to do so if one came around again.  I sent an e-mail to my aunt and uncle in Warren telling them what had happened in case harm came to me.

Around 2:15, my cell phone rang.  It was the wrecker driver saying he would be there in 15 minutes.  And so I waited a bit longer, knowing help was on the way.  I kept watch; I wasn’t sleepy, or more likely, I didn’t allow myself to be sleepy.  Then I saw a wrecker come by, but the name on the side wasn’t the one I’d been given, and so I didn’t jump out.  The phone rang; it was the wrecker driver, saying he was at the train station.  I asked if he was in the wrecker with the name I saw; yes, he was.  I then got out of the car and motioned him over.  A few minutes later, the hood was open, and he was verifying that the battery was discharged.  Jumper cables were connected, I started the car, and success!  The car started easily, suggesting the battery was fundamentally OK.  All I needed to do was reset the clock.  The service was covered under my AAA agreement, meaning it was no charge to me.  I’d had fears of having to be towed home in case the car wouldn’t crank (that did happen to me several years ago), but those were unfounded today.  And so, some two hours late, I was able to drive up the Southfield, over to Hines Drive and then to home.  I suspect my blunder was in not unplugging everything from the power point outlets; I’ll have to remember to do so the next time I leave my vehicle sit for so long.

It was after 3 when I made it home.  The clocks were all showing the correct time; there had been no power failure while I was away.  The iMac was running, but it was behaving like it was locked up; I powered it down and restarted it.  Something had indeed happened to it on March 17; it hadn’t recorded anything since then. And now it was time to take one bag upstairs, the ones with my essentials.  It was time to e-mail my relatives that I was home, safe and sound; time to backup my MacBook; and time to go to sleep (I would only get four hours of sleep, as the daylight awakened me).  Tomorrow, time to collect the mail and wash the clothes, to watch some of the TV backlog and to cheer Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament (they would win and make the Final Four but lose to Butler in the semifinals). Monday, time to go back to work and return to the normal routine.



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©2010 R. W. Reini.    All rights reserved.

Written by Roger Reini
Revised April 18, 2010