Every few years my husband and I save enough to go on a tour with our favorite travel group, Mountain Outin’. The tour director finds unusual and wonderful places to visit with rail travel to get you there and back. This year the Winter Rail Escapade was to Wisconsin.
Wisconsin? In the snowiest winter that just won’t stop, with things like bone chilling cold and wind chill factors? Yep…that Wisconsin, for six days with thousands of miles of AMTRAK added in. For two weeks we saw something other than never ending rain.
Since the tour’s formal departure point was Los Angeles we took the “San Joaquin” train from Martinez to Bakersfield, then a bus to L.A. I don’t know whose responsibility it is to collect trash and disburse the homeless encampments along railroad right-of-way but it’s NOT being done. Trash ankle deep and populated and abandoned homeless campgrounds blemish every approach to every station stop. Stockton was particularly shocking, what a mess. Municipalities and railroads should work to correct this visual blight. As an interesting aside, of all places Alpine Texas had the cleanest approaches to the station of anywhere we visited.
The “Texas Eagle” left L.A. for San Antonio Texas and a route north to Chicago. We arrived two days later and eight hours late. Note: AMTRAK is never late…it’s “delayed” they say. Part of the problem is the tracks belong to the freight carriers and often freight goes before passenger cars trains can travel. But this time it was air brakes on the locomotive breaking down not once, but twice. We were literally hauled into Union Station behind another AMTRAK train in ten degree weather with wind blowing sideways. The tour had arranged for a bus to pick us up to take us to Racine and it had been waiting eight hours. Twenty-five weary cold travellers piled in for a midnight arrival at the hotel.
Sightseeing out the window of the “Texas Eagle” or any train always generates questions and observations in my mind. Why are there so many lone palm trees scattered through the Delta outside Martinez? People are obviously living in their boats in the marinas along the Sacramento River…what do they do for sewage? Fruit blossoms look like snowfall covering the ground in orchards. Fields once cow pastures are now sporting solar panel arrays. Hops are still being grown by Fresno.
Cactus first appear as native plants in the landscape on the Arizona-New Mexico border. Cell phones glow like Lightning Bugs when you walk through a dark coach car at night. (Always get a sleeping compartment.) Nut orchards we passed in the southwest were always pecans. Coming into El Paso were hundreds of empty auto rail carrier cars. We were told car bodies manufactured in the USA were shipped to Mexico to be accessorized, then shipped back completed for sale here. The infamous Border Wall is incompletely built here and anyone could walk around the ends if they were brave, or foolhardy enough.
Where does the orange pumice for rail bed gravel come from in Texas? The Franklin Mountains to the north of El Paso are considered the southern end of the Rocky Mountains. A quick view of white deer and exotic hooved animals out the window turned out to be a “hunting preserve” with a gun club next door. The highest elevation on the train route is at aptly named Alpine Texas at 4,485’.
Everything is bigger in Texas. The sunset turned the skies golden over a horizon that went on forever. Even sagebrush is pretty trailing long shadows across the grasslands at day’s end. Texas featured Drive-Thru Taqueria y Cerveza fast food stops and Temple had a trackside railroad museum with a Pullman Troop Car. The railroad sleeping car company built military barracks on wheels. Del Rio proudly proclaimed itself the “Goat & Sheep Capitol of Texas.” Then I got really into watching small town motto’s on welcome signs. “The West at it’s Best” or the “Best Little Town on Earth” and the “Crossroads of…” or the “Gateway to…” proclamations. “America’s Home Town” vied with a “Little City Doing Big Things.”
Some things seen out a train window are universal. Yes, Walmart and Dollar General stores cover the face of the earth, but so do backyard trampolines, corner liquor stores, brotherhood and VFW halls, self-storage units and Subway sandwich shops.
Going north from Texas we started experiencing snow and frozen weather. Snow and ice can be highly amusing to a Californian. How do ponds freeze making different concentric circles scattered over the surface? Cemeteries with uniform gravestone markers under snow would melt potholes around the monuments and give a three-dimensional appearance to the grounds. Snow would make snowballs the size of garbage cans balanced atop broken off upright tree trunks. Icicles four feet long hung off of roofs. What happens when one falls off and lands on your car? Do school buses have snow tires or chains?
After a frigid late arrival in Chicago we took off for Racine Wisconsin and bright sunny frigid weather. We visited the Johnson Company that makes makes the wax based products we all grew up with. Five generations of one family had enough money to have Frank Lloyd Wright build them a 500 window house that eternally leaked called Wingspan. We were introduced to a Danish pastry called a Kinngle and watched them made (I was highly unimpressed with the taste).
Factory tours were fun because those of us who didn’t want to go on a 10 block walk through production facilities could stay in the visitor center and pester people with questions. We asked everyone if Trump’s tariffs on imported steel were impacting them. We asked why unionization of workers was never mentioned in their historic displays. We were polite but curious…and yes, all three factories we visited were unionized.
At a Case-International Harvester tractor factory we saw new units with no seats for a human being…all operations were done with computers with a drone flying ahead of the tractor. In Oshkosh we visited the Chudrow Museum of Yesteryear where are salvage dealer collected so much stuff he filled a 15 room museum. Ever drink PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) beer? You should see the mansion he built. Now a museum. We stayed at the Pfister Hotel built in 1893 and lovingly restored to its Victorian elegance and full of art. Great German food is to be found in Maeder’s Restaurant in Milwaukee, the best meal of our trip.
The Grohmann Museum deserves special note. Here was a three story museum of painting and sculpture dedicated to man at work. Every art object showed men and women at work…right up to the stained glass windows. The Lakeshore Culinary Institute students in Sheboygan prepared us a great meal and the Kolher factory showed us the production of bathroom and kitchen fixtures by the thousands. I loved the 1960s lavender porcelin sink, tub and toilet in their museum.
In Oshkosh we explored the Experimental Aircraft Association Museum, then traveled through Wisconsin to catch the “Empire Builder” train in Columbus. There are 18 states with a town named Columbus…I checked…just out of curiosity. Have you ever eaten at a Golden Corral? This restaurant seems to be uncommon in the West but they are a real adventure. You enter, pay a fee, and can eat as much as you want of anything you find. There’s a huge salad bar, a grill, side dishes, breakfast food, and even a gluten-free vegan could find food. For the first time in 60 years I got brave and ate a single slice of liver (I HATE liver). This was grilled, thinly sliced, served on garlic bread with a BBQ sauce and actually wasn’t bad. And for my five year old grandson we took a picture of an ever circulating chococate fountain you can dip fruit chunks into. He now can’t wait to experience this himself.
The prettiest natural thing we saw was a long lingering sunset in Montana. Peachy golden light spread across the prairies, with cows and tiny calves in the foreground. Locals said those calves were supposed to be born in grassy pastures but Mother Nature was not cooperating.
Again, as we looked out train windows or acted like tourists, we learned a different vocabulary. Tractor dealers are implement companies. Prisons are correctional facilities and you don’t go to a parking garage in a city…it’s called a “Ramp.” You drink from a bubbler, not a water fountain and car racing fans go to a dragway, not a race course. You are warned “Don’t Pass on the Right of the Snowplow” and “Do not follow this streetcar.” White bread was 49 cents a loaf at the mini-mart and a Driftbusters club was for snowmobilers.
We watched a rancher trying to herd a loose steer down a frontage road with his pick-up truck and wondered what else was offered for dinner at the “Catfish & More” restaurant. Why do white propane tanks never have snow build up on them? Questions… questions… questions…
Departing AMTRAK at Portland Oregon we rented a car and drove over the Cascades to see old friend and AVA columnist Bruce Patterson and wife Trish in Prineville. Out to dinner we knew we were back in the Old West when the restuarent had a light fixture of a spotted tanned cow hide nailed to the ceiling with barbed wire and dried flowers hanging down with LED bulbs inside old power line glass insulators for illumination. Pattersons send their regards to their Anderson Valley friends.
Home in Comptche after 16 days and 5,000 miles on the road it was a blessing to be able to open my eyes in the morning and not think “Where the heck are we today?”