Monday, November 2, 2009

Amtraking It Home

Our regular readers know we've mentioned Amtrak more than a few times, as it is one of our favorite ways to get around the U.S. We took Amtrak to St. Paul to start our Minnesota-Wisconsin adventure, and now it was time to take it back to Seattle from Milwaukee. We had a 3:55 pm departure, which left plenty of time for us and our friends Don & Erica to take a 25-mile tandem tour of Milwaukee bike trails before arriving at the station to pack up. We've had remarkably good weather on this trip, and it held out to the very end. Ten minutes after we were inside the train station the skies opened and it poured cats and dogs. Talk about timing . . .

Amtrak provides cyclists with boxes for $15 each, with tandems needing two that we telescope together to make a single long box. Once in a while a baggage room will have used boxes that we get for free. They also lend out a tape gun, but we're responsible for having the tools to adjust the bike. We remove the pedals, pull off the stoker handlebars and hang them over the rear top tube, and turn the captain's handlebars, as you can see in the photo. We've done it enough that we can do the whole thing in about 30 minutes without feeling rushed.

The Empire Builder, as the train from Chicago to Seattle is called, takes 44 1/2 hours to cover the 2,120 miles from Milwuakee to Seattle. En route we enjoyed dinner the evening we boarded, all three meals the next day, and breakfast before arrival at 10:25 am.
Meals are included in the fare when you have a sleeper. We had enough points on our Amtrak Guest Rewards credit cards to have a free trip both ways, while our friends paid about $1,300 for the round trip for the two of them. Meals are served at tables for four. Lunch and our dinners were of course with our friends, but we had breakfast at different times, so got seated with other travellers, which is always an interesting experience. There are always a chicken dish, a fish, a steak, a vegetarian offering, and a "chef's choice." Other than having a much more limited menu, the type of food is much like a Denny's.

On some of the longer routes, including the Empire Builder, Amtrak offers a wine tasting in the afternoon for the sleeping car passengers. You wouldn't mistake this for a four-star wine bar, but the cheese was tasty and the wine from the budget aisles that we usually browse when buying for ourselves, so it was a fun experience. We were served two whites and two reds, and they awarded the remainder of the four bottles via a contest. Jeff won one of the bottles by knowing that the train was named after James J. Hill, the founder of the Great Northern whose nickname was indeed "The Empire Builder."

What we love about train travel is the chance -- indeed, the necessity at meal times -- to get up and move about the train. In addition, every 4-5 hours the train stops for 15-20 minutes for fuel and replenishment of the water tanks and sometimes of the food supplies in the diner and cafe cars as well. The nicotine-addicted use these to get their fix (there's no smoking on the train itself), and the exercise-addicted like us weave around the smokers up and down the platform, stretching our legs.
We've gotten to know some of these stops well, such as the old steam locomotive at Havre Montana, or the goat, symbol of the Great Northern RR that built this line, in Whitefish Montana.

In the daytime we can read in our rooms or in the lounge car, which has wrap-around windows. At night the seats convert into a lower bunk and an upper bunk bed folds down from the ceiling.
It's tight, but even 6'4" Jeff fits. And there's even a shower downstairs, if you don't mind doing something like a '60s dance step to wiggle with the train movement while you wash.

And of course there's the scenery. While much of it in eastern Montana and in North Dakota tends to blur into a semiarid pastiche of rolling wheatland and distant hills, the trip through Glacier National Park and the Cascades is always delightful. It helps that we have special memories of places like the Glacier Park Lodge in this next photo, where we began our honeymoon bike adventure through the Canadian Rockies,
or of the Isaak Walton Inn that we stayed at on bike trips in 2005 and 2006 (when we took this photo of the passing Empire Builder).
Yes, we truly do enjoy taking Amtrak as part of our bike trips.

Well thanks for joining us on yet another one of our adventures. We're now back in Seattle and have no plans for the next trip, other than to know that there'll be one. Check us out next summer!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Biking in Vikingland 7: On to Milwaukee

We've now made it to Milwaukee. After the 80 miles of the Elroy-Sparta Trail and its extensions, described in the last blog, we covered another 200 miles to the town beer made famous, 2/3 of those miles on trails.

The first miles, however, were on the road, and friends Don and Erica captured this action shot of us in traffic. It may be hard for you to imagine if you yourself don't do this sort of biking, but we hardly notice trucks like this when we're on roads with adequate shoulders, at least once we see in our rear-view mirrors that the truck is giving us a little room. And most trucks actually give us quite a bit more room when there's no traffic coming the other way.

Our destination was Spring Green Wisconsin, and what a charming little town it is. Then again, we tend to be partial to towns with great B&Bs, and the Hill Street B&B is certainly one of them. We stayed here 7 years ago and were astonished when the owners lent us their car for the day to hit some sightseeing spots that were a bit beyond a day's round-trip biking range. We got around this time on foot on our rest day, when we weren't lounging on the porch reading our novels, but did get first-class breakfasts once again. Do stop in and stay with them if you're in the vicinity.

We spent two nights here in order to canoe the Wisconsin River on that "rest day." It was a mile and a half walk to the canoe rental place on the river. Plunk down your money and they carry you by truck 13 miles upriver with a boat, paddles and life jackets, and ask that you be back before dark. Not a problem, as the river current added 1-2 knots to our paddling speed.
This is a large river, but at this time of year not overly deep, with plenty of sand bars to choose from for our lunch stop. Because it is untamed by dams, few buildings line its banks and we felt wonderfully transported to a world of nature.

From Spring Green we rode south, climbing out of the valley of the Wisconsin River and up to what was called Military Ridge after the army built a road along it in the 1855 to reach the lead mining region of Mineral Point. Curious fact -- holes dug by the lead miners looked like badger holes, and "Badgers" became the nickname for folks from Wisconsin. Later the railroad used the ridge, and after abandonment the state turned the rail line into yet another beautiful rail trail, the Military Ridge Trail. It took us past vistas of rolling farms, for we are still in the "driftless area" that the glaciers missed, and through small towns such as Blue Mounds where we were entertained by the high school marching band on maneuvers,

and little Norwegian Mount Horeb, where trolls large and small decorated many front lawns.

Not far beyond and we were in Madison, that quirky mix of student life and Wisconsin politics. The city is wedged between two lakes,
and we were able to ride to within a few blocks of the capitol building all on bike trails. We found a B&B at reasonable rates right downtown, and spent two nights so we could explore the "UW" campus, a short walk down pedestrian mall State Street from the imposing Capitol Building.
It was odd seeing "UW" in Wisconsin red instead of the University of Washington Purple and Gold, and odder still seeing such a hodgepodge of architectural styles on campus, few of them attractive other than a handfull of early buildings. But a major campus it was, complete with emblems of fall such as trees starting to turn color, kids tossing footballs, and the marching band getting ready for the Big Game.
Elsewhere on campus we found students enjoying the lakeside trail and a class of kayakers practicing eskimo rolls. Boy, don't you miss college?

From Madison to Milwaukee is about 90 miles, but only a dozen of those miles were on roads. Madison's well-used trails got us part-way out of town, after which we picked up the 52-mile-long Glacial Drumlin Trail.

Highlights there were a picnic lunch overlooking Rock Lake, and several small towns where we admired trees trying to celebrate Fall. It was right about the equinox,
but foliage season was not really cranked up just yet. A short ride off the trail took us to Aztalan State Park, the most significant archaeological site in Wisconsin. You can click on the photo to enlarge it and read more about it. One of the mounds and a reconstruction of the original palisade around the site are visible in the background.

After a short break to let a heron share the trail, Glacial Drumlin Trail brought us to the edge of Milwaukee. A series of trails then got us all the way to downtown courtesy of the Milwuakee Bike Map that we had printed off the web, but it was like a geocaching adventure or a hike to earn a boy scout mapreading merit badge. We made it with no serious wrong turns, although we did stop a lot and scratched our heads a few times as we navigated the twisty course. Our reward was this shot taken where we first touched Lake Michigan. We think of it as "tandemonium," for there are tandem lighthouses, kayaks and sailboats, as well as tandem bikes in the scene.

We spent an extra day in Milwaukee to see it on foot. We started with a walking tour of downtown architecture offered by the local historical society, with Milwaukee's over-the-top city hall, the river walk, and some 19th century atria as highlights.
We followed up with a boat ride down the river and out into Lake Michigan, and came away with new respect for this old city. It's doing a good job of rediscovering its waterfront, both on the rivers and Lake Michigan.
A nice final touch were the college crews skimming by as we had supper in a riverside cafe.

Well, all that remains is the train ride home. We'll describe that in one last blog entry, next time.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Biking in Vikingland 6: The Elroy-Sparta Trail

We live across the street from, and use almost every day, the Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle, an early and famous railtrail. But even the illustrious Burke-Gilman is no match in fame to the Elroy-Sparta, nor as interesting thanks to its three long tunnels.

Wisconsin bought up an abandoned Chicago and Northwestern RR corridor in the late '60s to turn it into a hiking trail, then cycling activists convinced the state that it would make a terrific bike trail. It was already a few years old and wildly popular when Jeff rode it in 1971 as part of his bike trip from Astoria OR to Boston. Louise biked coast-to-coast and rode the Elroy-Sparta and its extensions in 1994, and we both rode the full 101 miles it now extends to (bureaucratically, under four different trail names) in 2003 on our tandem. We were very excited to be back, and our hopes were not disappointed.

First we had to say goodbye to Minnesota with one last ride on the Root River Trail, which ended in Houston MN at a wildlife education center. A broken wing has ended Alice's life in the wild but turned her into quite the star there. A few miles beyond and we were crossing over the Mississippi River, much more impressive than the small stream it was when we last crossed it in northern Minnesota.

Unlike Minnesota, where all the trails we rode were asphalt paved, the trails in Wisconsin are generally packed limestone. It's actually a mix of clay and limestone, and it is remarkably smooth and easy to ride. It looks as if it should be tricky on skinny tires (ours are 26" x 1.25"), like riding on gravel, but we kept the rubber side down while riding about 200 miles on packed limestone, without any close calls. Without the sharp contrast of black asphalt, the trail corridor does look somewhat more like an organic earth-toned whole, we must admit.

Our first day took us 2 miles from our motel in La Crosse to the trail, then 42 miles on the trail to Wilton. We had lunch by the rail depot in Sparta, where the La Crosse River Trail becomes the Elroy-Sparta. The town labels itself the "Bicycling Capital of America," and from the numbers of cyclists we saw from there to Elroy, it's a name they seem to have earned.

This part of Wisconsin is called the "drift less area," an area that the four major Ice Age glaciers missed. As a result, it is much hillier than the rest of the midwest, other than smaller parts of the driftless area in nearby Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. In terrain like this, you really appreciate a rail trail! The Elroy-Sparta is not level, however. It did have portions of what felt like a 1 to 2% grade, enough to slow us on the climb and speed us up on the descents, neither to a serious degree.

Travelling eastward, you come to Tunnel No. 3 first, and it's The Big One: 3800', almost 3/4 of a mile. That's a bike headlight in the tunnel in the first shot. Even after adjusting our eyes to the dark, we couldn't see that elusive "light at the end of the tunnel" until we were halfway through!
And was it ever dark!!! We had a small LED light on the front of the bike that was barely adequate for avoiding banging into the walls of the tunnel even while walking, so Louise walked alongside the bike with a compact flashlight carried the whole trip primarily for this moment, and it did indeed provide adequate illumination. Jeff and his friends in 1971 had no lights and tried riding when they started to see the end, with disasterous results. When he wrote home that summer, he commented on how similar that was to Lyndon Johnson's recent experience with Viet Nam, where the president kept talking about seeing "the light at the end of the tunnel" in that war. We didn't even try riding this time.

Before reaching our destination, we came upon Tunnel No. 2, only 1700' long and dry, unlike No. 3 which dripped steadily for a good part of its length. It was also lined with stone or brick its whole length, almost civilized compared to the rough-hewn rock of Tunnel No. 3, though each were equally cool inside, high 50's even though the air outside the tunnel was in the low 70s. Although you could see straight through No. 2 (click on the photo to blow it up and see for yourself), we obeyed the signs and walked through once again.

The next day we stopped at the old depot in Kendall, which was lined inside with old photos of the line that helped us visualize what it was like in the old days,
including some days that weren't exactly "the good ole' days" for the railroad. It was also now mid-September, and fall colors were starting to make an occasional appearance.

On the way to Kendall we went through our third tunnel, named of course Tunnel No. 1, rough-cut but dry and cool. As interesting as the tunnels were, they were also somewhat claustrophobic, and we were happy to be back in nature once again.
Our 80 miles on this trail series ended with 22 flat miles on what is called the 400 Trail, commemorating the C&NWRR train called the "400" because it aimed, and sometimes succeeded, in covering the roughly 400 miles from Chicago to Minneapolis in 400 minutes, stops included.
It was easy to see how the train covered some of these flat stretches at up to 100 mph. As we rolled at somewhat slower speeds under a canopy of trees, we crossed and recrossed the meandering Baraboo River countless times, sometimes with a grassy horse trail alongside us. It was a verdant end to a magical ride, once again, on the great Elroy-Sparta Rail Trail. We'll next turn south for about 50 miles by road to Dodgeville, then take more railtrails almost the entire way to Milwaukee. We'll tell you all about that in our next post.