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Member since: 2002
Number of posts: 45,756

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Infinite America, Part 6: From coast to coast in one fat post

The Story So Far
Part 1: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018825480
Part 2: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018825709
Part 3: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018825986
Part 4: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018826315
Part 5: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018826928

When I left you, we were in New York City getting ready to go west. I saw Yankee Stadium...

...34th Street...

...the United Nations...

...midtown Manhattan...

...the Brooklyn Bridge area...

...the new World Trade Center...

...and, of course, the famous New York subway system.

You hear all these horror stories about the New York subway. It's dirty, it's dark, it's worn-out, it's full of criminals, it's just this awful, awful place. I used four subway systems on this trip: Washington, DC; Boston; New York; and San Francisco. The only one I'd count as "dirty" and "worn-out" is the DC Metro. All subways are "dark," no matter where in the world they are - which is a side effect of building a train station twenty feet underground. And as for "full of criminals"...I don't think I saw any "criminals" even on the DC Metro, but I haven't memorized what all the Republican congressmen look like. But they forget to tell you the REAL fun part about the New York Subway: how unbelievably hot the stations are. New York City has a huge public steam system. The steam system parallels the subway system, and the heat off the pipes winds up in the stations. Anyone sensitive to heat should only ride buses in New York City in the summer.

Now it's time to do a little nighttime training...

We rolled out of Penn Station a little after 3:30 pm bound for Chicago...

...passed through the Adirondacks...

...and returned to Union Station a little after 9 am.

The westbound California Zephyr is a very well-scheduled train: it goes through the flat, boring parts in the middle of the night. It also goes up the eastern side of the Rockies then, depositing you at Denver's Union Station very early in the morning...

which leads us to...

Now that we have the mandatory picture of a weed store out of the way...

I'm only going to show you two more pictures from Denver:


Denver has a lot of things to DO. Things to SEE are another story: it is a pretty, midsized Mountain West city but the really spectacular stuff is outside the city limits. If you want to go to Denver, take a week, rent a car and snag a Mile High Culture Pass. I found a food trailer selling doner kebabs, and that was kinda cool - he got the meat and the sauce right, but he is forced to use the wrong bread: American flatbread rather than the impossible-to-find Turkish doner kebab roll. I'll let him slide on that one.

Returning to

...this is where it gets really good.

This picture fairly screams, "bring a camera with between-frame data imprinting and a handheld GPS on a trip like this!" When I got the film back from the lab, I kinda thought this was a Montana picture. Then I looked a little closer. See that building just to the left of the three two-story buildings? It says "Walker's Toggery" on it. A quick Google search shows Walker's Toggery in Truckee, California. Nope, not Montana.

With as much film as I had, getting confused is understandable. If you write down the time and GPS coordinates of everywhere you expose a frame, then use Google Maps to display the locations when you get home, you'll never get confused. There are only five cameras I know of that will print the data BETWEEN frames, which is what you want: Nikon's F4 and F5 have optional data backs, the Nikon F6 includes it as a standard feature - with the price tag of an F6 being what it is, they SHOULD give it to you! - and in medium format, both the Hasselblad H-series and the Mamiya 645AF series will do it. If you want a medium-format autofocus camera and you see either of those, grab it QUICK: because both are designed to accept digital backs as well as film backs, people buy used bodies to mount digital backs on. The back itself is between $10,000 and $20,000, so you can well understand the attraction! My recommendation: Get an F4 with the MF-23 back. There are a lot of them out there, they're super cheap (less than $200, in most cases) and they work extremely well. If I'd have had enough room in my pack to hold a second camera, I would have brought mine.

There are a lot of tunnels on this route. One springs to mind quickly: The train staff got on the intercom and announced that "once we pass through this tunnel, we will be at the highest elevation Amtrak travels." Naturally, I'm sitting there staring intently through my viewfinder, finger at the ready, prepared to shoot the glorious scene from the top of the world when the mighty Zephyr roared out above the highest point in the entire Amtrak system...and then the train actually emerged from the tunnel. The trees up there were so dense, seeing anything would have been like looking through a green Berlin Wall.

Strange thing: a lot of the Rockies are bare of trees. It's not because of clearcutting; an Idahoan can spot a clearcut from twenty miles away. It's more like the ground has lost the ability to support trees there. I'd love to take a handful of Republicans on this route and ask them, "what the hell?" but you know Republicans would never support a socialist enterprise like Amtrak. (They stick to socialist enterprises like the air traffic system and the highway system.)

We coursed our way out of the Sierra Nevadas and around the Navy's floating maritime graveyard to arrive at Emeryville, California - the worst-placed station on the whole Amtrak network. Amtrak knows this, so they have bus service between the station and San Francisco. Of course, I didn't remember you could buy tickets for the bus through the Quik-Trak kiosk sitting right there, so I decided to walk (a very long walk at that) to the BART station and ride the subway into San Francisco.

Speaking of the San Francisco subway...if the word "sparkling" can apply to a subway, it applies to BART. They do things right there.

The first of my two days in SF was spent on the waterfront, or walking to it...

This is the back of the Ghirardelli factory, where the chocolate is made. Strangely enough, you can't smell chocolate on the air around here.

Please help me out here: There's a CVS drugstore where Jefferson Street becomes The Embarcadero. In it they have a good assortment of San Francisco souvenirs. One of the things they sell is an "Alcatraz gift basket" with a bunch of Alcatraz-themed crap...and also a chocolate bar labeled "Alcatraz Good Behavior Bar." (I got some chocolate, but not THAT chocolate.) Come on...did they actually give these to inmates, or is this just invented tourist crap?

This is why I'll never move to San Francisco: the houses are zero inches apart - literally; they TOUCH, which is one of the reasons every house in San Francisco is masonry - and the streets are kinda steep. Strange thing: everyone knows about Lombard Street, the "crookedest street in America." It is not, however, the STEEPEST. Leavenworth Street leading up to the base of Lombard is worse. There are streets even worse than that. Would you like to be the richest person in San Francisco? Start a company that does brake jobs in office building parking lots.

I usually shy away from "standard tourist photos" but a fella can't go to San Francisco and NOT photograph Alcatraz.

There are CABLE cars, which the tourists ride, and STREET cars, which everyone rides. This is a streetcar. There are several, and no two look alike.

For reasons unknown I have a vast collection of pictures of coves.

Did they "restore" The Castro Theater, or did they keep it nice and not have to? Either way, it's beautiful - and a lot more fun than your ordinary cineplex.

Figure this shit out: How in hell do you build a COUNTRY CLUB (that's what the sign says, "Castro Country Club" on the side of an 80-percent grade in the middle of the most densely constructed city in America?

The Castro relishes its history as the West Coast's epicenter of the Gay Rights movement, like the Haight-Ashbury district celebrates its place in hippie culture. They do not, however, seem so willing to relish actual hippies and gay people: as soon as the hippies fixed up the Haight and the gays fixed up the Castro, the landlords priced both groups out of their homes. Now the gays are working on the Tenderloin...which desperately needs it.

They're sluts. But that doesn't change the fact this bank actually LOOKS like a bank, not a dentist's office.

I returned to Emeryville and waited for the train. Ten pm comes. No train. Ten-thirty comes. "We are delayed because there is a car stalled on the tracks in Oakland." Hang on for a second kids, that's what the train is for: recruit twenty or thirty people from it to go outside and push the car back, and the problem's solved. Eventually they got the car out of the way, the train arrived, and we loaded on and immediately went to sleep.

Tomorrow: we're pointed at Seattle; that will close out our little excursion.

Infinite America, Part 5: On the joys of being Captain Asoh

Where we've been so far:

Part 1: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018825480
Part 2: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018825709
Part 3: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018825986
Part 4: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018826315

Captain Kohei Asoh was a World War II veteran of the Japanese air force who was employed as a captain for Japan Air Lines. On November 22, 1968, he landed a DC-8 in San Francisco Bay - so gently they were able to fish the plane out of the ocean, repair it and fly it for 32 more years. He then ended the NTSB investigation of the incident by telling the panel, "as you Americans say, I fucked up."

I tell you about Captain Asoh because I pulled an Asoh while writing this: I had a really nice post going, and then I closed the window and erased it all. Aargh! So...attempt number two follows.

I left Boston at 8:30 in the morning and arrived in New York about four hours later. Unfortunately, the sky was so cloudy and dark along the route I couldn't get any good pictures. (Note to all: ISO 400 film is Good.) I arrived at Penn Station just in time for lunch, and visited NY Pizza Suprema, which is right across the street from Madison Square Garden. There I learned the real reason genuine New York slices taste so much better than "New York Style pizza" anywhere else: it's the oven. Bake greasy pizza in a cast-iron Real Pizza Oven for fifty years, and the aromas from those millions of pies will saturate the pores in the metal to produce a flavor you'll never get from one of those hot-air atrocities people who've never been to New York attempt to make "New York style" pizza in. Word to the wise: Never eat New York pizza if you aren't in New York.

Manhattan is a Las Vegas Casino Buffet for the eye. The hardest part of photographing there isn't finding photos, but in holding yourself back.

Another of the (very few) pictures I preplanned: the Brooklyn Bridge - which everyone knows about - is in the foreground, the relatively unknown Manhattan Bridge in the background.

This is the side of the Brooklyn Bridge's Manhattan approach. Does anyone know why there are doors in it?

How do you get a "different" look at Yankee Stadium, one of the most-photographed things in New York? Set up in a side window of the subway station, of course!

(And be sure to get a ground-level picture of it too...)

Under the subway is also...well, interesting.

The moral of this story: New York really needs a full week.

Tomorrow: Off to Denver.

Infinite America, Part 0: Will do very large issue tomorrow

This is my earliest work day, so no time to make a new article. A thousand apologies and will make up for it tomorrow.

The land of the bean and the cod: Infinite America, Part 4 - Massachusetts

Part 1: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018825480
Part 2: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018825709
Part 3: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018825986

Infinite America's eastern leg visits Washington, DC; Boston; and New York City. There are many ways to string those three cities together into a coherent whole; the least expensive way is to use the red-eye train between Boston and Washington, which leaves one city in the 10 pm hour and arrives in the other in the 7 am hour.

When I was in school at Fort Devens in 1982, it cost $3 one-way to take Greyhound between Ayer and Boston. The bus went to South Station, which is pictured here. In 1982, South Station was not a nice place to be. Sadly enough, North Station was better and it was old and worn-out. (It had character, though, which the North Station they built in TD Garden does not.) Thirty-three years was plenty of time for them to fix the place up, and they did well.

I hope whoever invented the wedge-shaped building took out a patent on it. I have quite a few of them in my book, and everyone who sees it "knows" exactly where a particular building is. Unfortunately for me, most of the places people "know" are places I have never been. (This particular specimen is two blocks from the Garden.)

Until I did the day before Columbus Day in Boston I didn't know how big a deal it is there. I also didn't know there was a movement afoot to replace it with Indigenous People's Day. Columbus being one of history's more prominent assholes, they've got a point

The Coast Guard has a fairly good-size presence in Boston.

This was pretty slick of one of Boston's previous police chiefs: Convince the state police to pay to patrol the city waterways.

Zoom in on the green sign on the building in the middle, read it out loud, and it becomes clear Bostonians can laugh at themselves.

On to Day 2...

A lot of towns wrap their streetside utility cabinets because ugly-ass grey steel boxes are...well, ugly. Why hasn't anyone else turned one into a Tardis?

This is the old railroad control tower in Salem, and it's one of the reasons I like New England so much. A lot of the country will stick a sign at a Famous Historical Place..."In this place was a dilapidated old house in which George Washington had slept. We tore it down and built a sparkling new McDonald's in which he had slept." New England fixes up the dilapidated old house...and puts the McDonald's in it.

This is about the best shot of the House of the Seven Gables you're going to get if they don't hire you and let you set up a lot of equipment inside another building on the grounds.

It's impossible to forget the "McDonald's" joke because it was only two pictures ago, but here's proof: Whatever this WAS a hundred or 150 years ago when they built it, it's a seafood restaurant now.

This is not a classic ship from the era of sail. It's fifteen years old and was built with the best knowledge and technology as a floating museum...one that's certified by the Coast Guard and is sailed occasionally. Still pretty, though.

I'm pretty sure the boaters of Northeastern Mass were pissed when the Friendship was delivered; this boat launch looks to be in good shape and was probably in heavy use until the National Park Service closed it.

Yes, I had to put a picture of a cemetery in here somewhere.

Salem embraces its maritime heritage. Fortunately, Salem Harbor is too shallow to take a container ship.

Salem also embraces the atrocity that was its witch-trial heritage. So we have this nice little statue of a witch on a broom..."why in hell does the witch look exactly like Elizabeth Montgomery?" Because it IS Elizabeth Montgomery: the statue was donated by the TV Land network, who airs Bewitched.

They embrace their seditious history too...the plaque on the corner of this building explains its role in the Revolution.

Well...off to New York, shall we? Catch ya this time tomorrow!

Infinite America, Part 3a: Solving the Great Debate - In-n-Out or Shake Shack?

It's the Heavyweight Championship of the Burger World!

In the western corner, weighing in at 305 stores clustered around California, we have In-n-Out! They offer a basic menu of burgers, fries and shakes, all customizable to the nth degree.

In the eastern corner, weighing in at somewhere around 35 stores, say hello to Shake Shack! The brainchild of a fine dining magnate named Danny Meyer, they offer a broad assortment of gourmet hamburgers, fries, frozen custard, hot dogs, beer and wine.

I ate at both, and chose meals as close as I could get to each other for a fair comparison.

First, Shake Shack, which I visited at Washington's Union Station. It was VERY busy in there. It's a very modern-looking place. They've got a foosball table on the second floor. It's pretty, I'll give them that.

I had a Double ShackBurger, a Shack Fries, a Shack Coke and a pint of chocolate frozen custard.

The best thing on the menu was the frozen custard. It may be the best ice cream I've ever eaten, and I've had a lot of it. Since Shake Shack is based in NYC, the frozen custard capital of the universe, they have very high expectations to meet and, from what I see, they did pretty well. (Strangely enough, you'd think a NYC-based fast food chain would also serve egg creams, but Shake Shack doesn't even in Manhattan.)
The Coke was just utility-grade Coke, but it's served in a pint cup - one just like the custard came in. It's about three times the price of a large soda from McDonald's and it's less than half the size. Plus, no refills. List this as a total ripoff.
Fries? Out of the freezer. The customer wanted frozen crinkle-cuts and that's what he got. Nothing either bad or good here; they are what they are.
The burger is the issue. The biggest problem is you can't taste the meat! Imagine an eight-dollar gourmet grilled cheese sandwich and you know what a Shackburger is like. There's a reason the Smoke Shack, which puts peppers and bacon on a Shackburger, is so popular: at least you can taste those things.

Scale of 1-5: decor 5, popularity 5, food 2.5 - and if I'd have skipped the frozen custard it would be 2. Not worth the money, which is substantial. (IIRC it was around $23 for that meal.)

Next comes In-n-Out. I went to the one on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. There's good and bad here:

First, the food. It is good. The hand-cut, single-cooked fries are as close to crisp as I've ever had from that sort of fry. The burger - I got a Double-Double - is tasty, with a nice meaty bite balancing out the cheese. I had both a lemonade and a shake - In-n-Out doesn't sell ice cream so this is as good as it gets, and I added the lemonade because it was hot and I was thirsty. (And it was really good.) Prices are reasonable.
The decor is "Nineteen Fifties Diner Traditional." That's fine.
Now for the bad: WAY too little room for the customer flow they get. I went in October and there were so many people in there you couldn't breathe; I can just imagine what it would be like in July. People were walking away because it was so damn crowded.
I wanted to try some of the Secret Menu you guys who love In-n-Out rave about...but after I saw the 2000 other people in there I realized I'd be a total asshole to ask for something special, and got just the "regular menu" chow. I will have to drive to California and hit an In-n-Out when it's not packed to see what all the fuss is about. Regular menu ain't bad, tho.

Scale of 1-5: decor 4, popularity about 25, food 4.5. A good deal if you don't starve to death waiting to be served.

The verdict: For mass-produced burgers In-n-Out is clearly the choice, but compared to a small chain like San Francisco's Super Duper Burger it's just okay. Go to Shake Shack for the custard and forget about the rest of the menu.

And now the fun begins! Infinite America, Part 3: Chicago to Washington, DC

Part 1: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018825480
Part 2: http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018825709

We arrived at Chicago's Union Station a little after 5 pm. At this point I could get all poetic and talk about the surging masses of humanity eagerly streaming toward the streets of the vibrant city. Naah...we were all headed toward the restroom.

That taken care of, I found Union Station's main staircase, which was made famous in Kevin Costner's The Untouchables. It's still there, and now features escalators! Progress is good.

Amtrak is restoring some of its more historic stations, and there are few more historic than Chicago's Union Station.

I spent one night in Chicago, and lodged at Hosteling International-Chicago. Hostels are the civilian equivalent of open-bay barracks; since I lived in the barracks for over a decade, I figured I'd fit right in. This place is like what you'd get if Conrad Hilton had joined the Army, or an HGTV makeover show invaded Fort Bragg - REALLY nice, and really close to the lake. My room had a window that looked right out on the L, so I kinda felt like I was Elwood Blues. Naturally, at breakfast the next morning I had two pieces of dry white toast.

HI-Chicago is on Congress Avenue. If you walk out the front door and turn left, walking a few blocks gets you to Buckingham Fountain. You'll notice it's off. It normally runs from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. thru mid-October, but on the day I was in Chicago they were preparing the area around it for the Chicago Marathon and the wind was coming in from across the lake...yeah, it would have been pretty miserable trying to erect tents while getting drenched by the water coming off the fountain.

It also gives you a pretty decent view of the historic, and expensive, Congress Hotel...

I then locked up my camera and headed to Giordano's on Jackson Boulevard, just a few blocks away from the hostel, for a Chicago Casserole. The official name for this dish is "stuffed pizza," which is a misnomer. I've also heard it referred to as a "stuffed pie" or an "Easter pie," which are closer to the truth. Imagine making a two-crust apple pie with cheese and pizza meat rather than fruit in it and pizza sauce baked on top, and you're on the right track. It is very tasty and if I lived in Chicago I would eat a lot of them, but tastiness does not change what it is - and what it is, is not a pizza. The other problem is how big these are: I can normally slam down a "small" pizza by myself in one sitting, but a "small" one of these would be a hard row to hoe for two. Some homeless guy got a pretty decent meal that evening. Giordano's has a lunch version of this sized for one, which they should serve all the time.

Amusing Giordano's story: Every Mafia movie has a restaurant with a private dining room in the back where the Mafia met to hammer out deals. Giordano's has one of those rooms...and they seated me in it...next to a table with six guys hammering out a deal. The deal sounded legitimate, but I still thought it was pretty cool.

Before I left Coeur d'Alene I printed out a list of all the places in Chicago where the Blues Brothers was filmed. If the sky was blue I was planning to visit at least the two bridges and the area where Matt and Aretha's restaurant was. And, of course, have some fried chicken somewhere along the way - I don't think I could eat four whole chickens no matter how many Cokes I had with them, but half a chicken is definitely doable. If the sky was gray, I was going to look at the lake and the downtown area.

The sky was grayer than John Boehner's lungs. Downtown, here I come.

Chicago is no longer Carl Sandburg's Hog Butcher for the World, but it's still a Player with Railroads. This particular specimen is part of the Metra Electric District.


The advantages of buying in bulk: the Chicago River, and the canal connecting it to Lake Michigan, are festooned with drawbridges that all look basically alike.

Like they say...if ya got it, flaunt it. What a lovely place to spend your lunch hour, or to stroll on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Chicago has one tiny problem: The Land Stretcher has not been invented. Creative architects have devised ingenious solutions to that issue, like...

putting an apartment building above a parking garage...

or a road on top of another one...

or a restroom forty feet above street level. Hey, if you can't jump up there you really didn't need to go that bad, now did you?

The Columbia Yacht Club uses this retired Canadian ferry as its clubhouse. A sign posted next to it says the ship will hold an entire passenger train, which makes a ton of sense: if you need to cross a wide body of water, it's better to use a ship than a bridge.

No historical significance here: I just liked this one.

The Merchandise Mart is the nation's premier B2B salon for the furnishings, fixtures and appliance industry. If you are in that industry, you can go in here and see anything you might ever want to sell or install. (If you're not in that industry you can't go in here at all.) At one time the Merchandise Mart was the biggest building by square footage east of the Mississippi, but from the other side of the canal it looks nowhere as big as it is. Maybe it's an optical illusion; it's actually one of the shortest buildings on the canal.

I have some pretty decent photos of the Great Hall at Union Station, but the problem is, the 45mm lens (equivalent to 28mm on my Nikon) I was carrying just isn't wide enough to take in the grandeur of the thing in one frame. I'm thinking "fisheye lens, and lie on the floor pointing straight up" action. So...I present to you one of the coolest lampposts you will ever see.

Finally, I dined at Al's Beef although "dined" seems a bit prissy for the way you eat here: lean over the table, chow down with gusto and worry about the stains on your tie later. The Italian beef sandwich is one of the finer culinary creations this nation has ever produced: a "French dip" sandwich dunked in au jus, and covered with the giardinera Chicagoans put on everything.

A bit after 6 pm, the Capitol Limited took off for Washington. This is one of the wonders of the modern world: huge rock outcroppings were laboriously chipped away over a century ago, and the rock formations would have made beautiful images...if you were carrying a pair of night vision glasses to shoot through, because it is REALLY dark in there. I'll leave you with this little river shot and go on.

Ah, America's favorite Republican-infested sewer.

This is where our best Republican president was shot...

...and this is where he died...

...and this is where he never would have seen the inside of if he had to put up with teabaggers.

There are two ways to plan any vacation. You can buy a guidebook and meticulously arrange your journey to take in all the touristy attractions...or you can stick a pin in a map and find photos there, which is what I do. This is one of the few shots I actually planned before I left.

Unfortunately, today I have to make this short (gotta go to work very early to scrub out a plate processor) but tomorrow...it's off to Boston!

I don't believe this hasn't been posted yet...Cheech's Christmas story

Infinite America, Part 2A: How to take pictures through a window

I made this photo through the window of a speeding train. Notice there are no reflections from the glass. Here's how to do it.

You'll need three pieces of equipment: a camera with filter mounting threads on its lens; a rubber lens hood; and a tripod. If you're shooting film, get some ISO 400 film; digital shooters can just crank up their ISO until they get...oh, 1/500 at f/8 will be plenty good. You don't need a gyrostabilizer to get good photos - which is a good thing because they are very pricey.

The procedure is very simple: push the camera right up against the window until the lens hood forms a seal all around.

Once you have your images back you'll probably have to color-correct them; the windows on Amtrak trains are darkened for passenger comfort, which makes your photos look like they were shot through a tobacco filter.

Rites of Passage, or Amtrak from Spokane to Chicago: Infinite America, Part 2

The first installment is at http://www.democraticunderground.com/1018825480

Where we are so far: I have a USA Rail Pass with this trip loaded:
Spokane to Chicago (Empire Builder)
Chicago to Washington, DC (Capitol Limited)
DC to Boston (Northeast Regional)
Boston to New York (Northeast Regional)
New York to Chicago (Lake Shore Limited)
Chicago to Denver (California Zephyr)
Denver to San Francisco (California Zephyr)
San Francisco to Seattle (Coast Starlight)

I have reservations in hostels all along the way. I have more expense money than I think I'll need, a spare set of camera batteries, lots of film...let's get started!

The very first picture of the whole trip:

Everyone thinks the Empire Builder, which runs between Seattle and Portland (the consist is in two pieces; half of it departs Seattle, the other half Portland, and they're coupled in Spokane) and Chicago, sounds like the coolest trip in America because it goes through Glacier National Park, in Montana. This is true, and you get to see things like this...

Unfortunately, you ALSO get to see things like this:

There are two "cool" parts to this segment: Glacier National Park, and the Upper Mississippi River...

Between the two is a LOT of farmland. Also, Empire Builder runs over freight tracks, and the people who own the tracks claim right of way, so you get to park in quite a few sidings. There's only one track running across the top of America, and they could really use two - when you unload a train full of North Dakota wheat in Seattle, you then have to get the train back to North Dakota! Ah, it's not all bad - I managed to read all of Henry Wilhelm's "The Care and Preservation of Color Photographs," which I had on my tablet.

You spend most of your first day in Montana, cruise through St. Paul and Wisconsin Dells during the day...we were supposed to get to Chicago just before 4 pm and arrived about 5:30. With all the stopping you do to allow freight trains past, I didn't think it was that bad. And while this was the most boring part of the trip, what happened next made up for it.

Coming tomorrow: Chicago to Boston!

Now it can be told: I went around the United States in 15 days by train

Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone...
--Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

If the Republican Party had a tenth of a chance in hell of getting away with it, they would abolish Amtrak tomorrow. With the knowledge nationwide passenger rail, the most efficient form of long-distance transport, could be gone with the stroke of a pen if America is stupid enough to ever allow the Republicans control of both Congress and the White House, I took what could possibly be my last chance to ride the rails and made a Lap of America in October.

I set four rules for this trip: see things most people usually miss, eat nothing I can get at home, visit at least two West Coast cities, two central US cities and two East Coast cities, and shoot all of the 100 rolls of film I brought with me.

This is going to be an eight-part message. Today I will discuss the route I took, the things I carried with me and prepare you for the journey ahead. Then we'll start seeing photos from December 26 until New Year's Day.

Shall we begin?

Amtrak offers the USA Rail Pass - lots of miles, not a lot of money. They come in three versions:
15 days and 8 segments (I took this option and paid $459; please refer to Amtrak's website for current prices)
30 days and 12 segments
45 days and 18 segments
I chose the 15-day pass.

A "segment" is a trip where you board a vehicle at one station, travel on that vehicle to a different station, and leave the vehicle. Segments are not mileage-limited or time-limited; Newark Liberty Airport to New York Penn Station and Chicago Union Station to Emeryville Station in California are both single segments. (Having said that, if you really do go from Newark to Penn Station via USA Rail Pass, with all the other ways you can get from Newark to NYC, you are dumber than you look.)

Here's the rules, and they're not hard:
You must purchase your pass and make your reservations not more than six months prior to travel.
You can't buy a pass at an Amtrak station.
Your travel has to end at midnight of the last day of your pass - if you have a 15-day pass and you start on January 1, January 15 is the last day you can go. They used to let you start your last segment on the fifteenth day, but no longer.
You don't have to end your trip at the same station you started it from. You can also request a trip where Segment 1 ends and Segment 2 begins at different stations - trains no longer go from New Orleans to Florida, so you can go to Florida by train, use Greyhound or the airlines to go to NOLA, then pick up the train again from that point. It's a really flexible way to travel.
You must pick up your pass at a staffed Amtrak ticket counter before your travel begins.
You must use the least-expensive seat on the least-expensive train between any two terminals - IOW you can't go from NYC to Washington on the Acela...but if you look at the timetable for trains between those two places, Acela isn't much faster than the Northeast Regional, which you can use.
And you may not travel over the same set of rails more than three times on the same pass. You can go from Washington to NYC, then to Philadelphia, then to Boston and be okay, but you can't then go back to NYC because that's a fourth trip. However, if you went Washington-Philadelphia-NYC-Boston it would count as one pass over the same rails and you could go back to NYC with no problems.

Now, here's how to do this.

Step One is to figure out where you want to go, and don't get your heart set on one exact trip if you don't want to pay extra. These passes are not huge moneymakers so only a certain amount of seats on each train (the "inventory" are available to the pass traveler. I wound up plotting five trips, and ended up with my second-choice journey. It was still a good choice, so no worries, eh?
Step Two is to go to www.amtrak.com on a computer with a printer, and purchase the USA Rail Pass you want. They will e-mail you a confirmation message. Print this out because you'll need it.
Step Three is the fun part: call the Amtrak national reservations desk - no, you can't set this up online because a reservations clerk needs to check each train's inventory level before selling you a seat - at 1-800-USA-Rail. You'll read off your confirmation number and request the trains you want to use. If there's no pass inventory on a particular train you want, you can pay an upgrade fee to use a better-grade seat. When all this is locked in, they'll e-mail you another confirmation message. Print that out too.
And finally: Take both printouts to any Amtrak ticket counter and receive your paper tickets. Wait until your trip begins, and you're off!

After about nine months of fiddling, I finally bought the pass, and this is the route I chose:
Spokane, WA, to Chicago. Stay one night.
Chicago to Washington, DC. Wait until the red-eye train arrives and go to the next point.
Washington to Boston. Stay two nights.
Boston to New York City. Stay one night.
New York City to Chicago. Transfer to a different train.
Chicago to Denver. Stay one night.
Denver to San Francisco. Stay two nights.
San Francisco to Seattle. Stay one night, then return to Idaho.

How I packed was very simple: as little as humanly possible. I intentionally bought a pack that was too small to encourage minimalism - and to make it even more minimalistic, I then proceeded to put eighteen five-roll packs of 120 film in it. (The other two went in my camera case.) So...I had, in addition to the clothes I had on:
four pair of socks
four pair of underwear
two long-sleeve t-shirts
personal care items
Mamiya 645 Pro TL camera with the AE Prism finder and two backs
45mm lens
105-210mm lens
Travel tripod
100 rolls of film
Pencil pouch with all my paperwork in it

I took a big coat that also served as a blanket.

For tomorrow: The journey begins!
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