Thursday, June 28, 2012

On to New England

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Summer has arrived, so Team Redtandem is off on its latest adventure, this year exploring the Northeast.

Once again we set off by Amtrak. Unlike other years they sent us two curve balls, one at the start and one at the end of our journey. The one to begin our trip was telling us, after the tandem was all boxed, that it had to weigh less than 50 pounds. At that point it weighed 62 all packaged up. Tough keeping a tandem to 50 when you need two of Amtrak's bike boxes, telescoped together, to ship it, and each box weighs 8 lbs. We normally remove all the bags and a few items such as the pedals and Jeff's seat post with his saddle and Louise's handlebars attached, but this time had to reopen the box and remove the rear rack, Louise's seat post and saddle, and the heavy timing chain that transfers Jeff's pedal power back to the rear wheel. The baggage attendant cut off 2/3 of box #2, leaving just enough to create our stretch version of a bike box, and we hit the scales at 50 lbs. even. Whew!

We had a little more drama when we reached Boston and the bike was there, but not the two cartons that contained all our tools and the things we stripped off the bike to weigh in, but they did show up a day later and we had allocated that day to seeing the art museum in Boston, so it all worked out in the end. Here's the pile of bike parts and bags about to reassemble themselves into our vehicle and baggage for the next 12 weeks.

Instead of a 3-day train ride straight through to Boston, we took a 2-day route to Denver and spent three days visiting friends Keith and Nedra before hopping on the train for 2 more days to our ultimate destination. For this first leg we splurged on the deluxe sleeper with its much larger room, complete with private bath. The sink and mirror are next to the door, and the commode is in the corner of the room on the right. Pull down the plastic cover over the toilet paper dispenser, turn the faucets, and you have a private shower! We both tried it and found it quite civilized. The arid desert air had the commode and the floor dry pretty quickly -- that's not snow outside our window in Utah, it's salt, and this wasn't even the Great Salt Desert, just one of the lesser ones. At night the attendant pulled down the beds and we both slept quite well. We think it might be that the beds in the deluxe rooms are at right angles to the tracks so you rock head-to-toe, rather than side-to-side as in the regular sleeper rooms. The wider beds may have helped too.

We changed trains in Sacramento and took our bags with us rather than deal with checking them into and out of storage at the station. Light rail took us to a charming British-style pub where Jeff tried the Eggs Benedict Arnold, Eggs Benedict but with Welsh rarebit replacing the hollandaise sauce. Very tasty! We then walked back past the state Capitol and through an area called Old Sacramento, attractive but filled with a bit too much tourist kitsch for our taste. Did admire the walkway they've built along the Sacramento River, which goes another 20 miles from here to Folsom up the American River.

The second leg of the trip to Denver was on the California Zephyr, and it is a spectacular route. The shot on the right was taken passing through Donner Pass, where the Donner Party spent a winter of starvation in 1848-49. As you can see, the expansive windows in the Lounge Car make sightseeing easy. That's the Colorado River in the shots below, which we followed for hundreds of miles across its eponymous state. The lounge car and the dining car, where community seating puts travellers together in groups of four, are great places to meet people, and we became quite friendly with Carmen and David, two New Zealanders currently working in England.

Unlike airplane travel, one gets to walk about on a train, if only to visit the lounge and diner as well as the loo. But every 3-4 hours the train pauses for a busy stop and/or refueling, and every 8-9 hours to change the operating crew, and that gives us 10-20 minutes each time to get off and stretch our legs and check out the local weather. It is also the only time smokers get to "exercise" their vile habit, so we sometimes have to work our way around clouds of smoke, but getting in a fast walk up and down the platform is way too cathartic to let the cancer crowd stop us. At two stops we arrived over 30 minutes early, and ventured half a mile from the train since it never leaves before the scheduled time.
At Glenwood Springs, a large group of Amish boarded. Jeff later found himself seated next to three of the boys and discovered they were all one family with 11 kids! The teen next to Jeff had a bandaged hand from "trying to do what I didn't know how to do" on a mountain bike. He and his 19-year old brother both have Fuji road bikes, one with Ultegra components, the other with "105's," i.e. high end machines. In fact the older brother once rode to a cousin's home over 100 miles from his own, in one day. Bicycling is actually quite popular in Amish and Mennonite culture - think Floyd Landis, a teammate of Lance Armstrong's before Landis's fall from grace over doping.

Leaving Glenwood Springs we passed through Glenwood Canyon, one of the most controversial stretches of Interstate in the country where I-70 won out over environmentalists to squeeze through its narrow confines after decades of court fights. As a sop to the greens, they worked a 16-mile bike trail into the plans, no doubt spectacular but doubtless also rather noisy.

In another canyon we passed a lesser road hundreds of feet above us. You'd hardly realize a road was there but for a white station wagon that was full of teenagers when it missed a curve in the 1950s. Astoundingly, the car did not roll all the way to the river and is still perched up there on the hill. The conductor said some survivors made it out of the car, goodness knows how.

As we approached the continental divide the canyons got narrower and steeper, and we passed hundreds of cyclists doing this year's Ride the Rockies, including what appeared to be a dad and daughter tandem team. At Winter Park we pierced the Rockies through the 6.2 mile long Moffat Tunnel at the highest elevation Amtrak reaches, 9,239'.

Once through we had views out to the Great Plains and its rivers stretching eastward to the Mississippi, interrupted by 30 smaller tunnels before Denver came into view during our four thousand foot descent.

We had a comfortable stay at Keith & Nedra's, including breakfast on the patio one morning and this wonderful salmon dinner one evening. Keith took us hiking one of our days in Rexborough State Park, full of wondrous sandstone formations turned on edge by the rising of the Rocky Mtns. eons ago. Along the way a small lizard and a bush full of white butterflies entertained us, and a prickly pear cactus was poised between attracting us with its flower and repelling us with its thorns.

While in the western suburbs we also visited the town of Golden and watched first responders learn the correct way to rescue folks caught in rapids. Almost wanted to fall in the river and get rescued ourselves.

Another highlight was a tour of Denver's Botanical Garden, a short walk from their house. Keith is a retired landscape architect so knows plants like a chemical engineer knows organic compounds, and in fact he's a docent for the Garden so we got a private tour. So what was really interesting? . . . a section of the garden they planted to look like it did before Denver was settled!

Oh, and also an annual bonsai exhibit where visitors were asked to pick their favorites. Our three were an 8 year old forest of miniature Siberian Elms, a 20 year old Juniperus Horizontalis and a 40 year old Japanese White Pine.

We also spent a few well-rewarded hours in the Denver Art Museum we'll describe in our next blog entry. Right on the scheduled time we boarded the California Zephyr for the remaining 21 hours to Union Station in Chicago, where there is a special lounge for sleeper car passengers that has complimentary luggage checking. We had about five hours before the next train so dropped the panniers off and headed to the shore of Lake Michigan, past a retired ferry boat that is now home to the Columbia Yacht Club. Walking back along the Chicago River we were amused by the refection off the Trump Hotel of two of Chicago's architectural icons of the 1920s, the Tribune and Wrigley Buildings.

Our final train was the Lake Shore Limited. Like many of the eastern Amtrak trains it has only single-level cars due to lower bridge clearances. The dining car looks from the outside like it's more than one level, but from inside you can see that it's just extra windows for viewing the passing scenery.

As on the Denver-Chicago leg we were back to the economy bedrooms. No place to practice dance moves, but they work for reading during the day and sleeping at night. Somehow the eastern cars squeeze in a private toilet (well, semi-private if your roomette companion doesn't get the hint to take a walk down the corridor), and a drop-down sink that drains when you stow it back in the upright position. There is a shower compartment down the hall but we chose to wait for our B&B in Boston for that.

The scenery is less dramatic than out West, but compensates with history. For miles we followed the Erie Canal that opened in 1825, but in a narrow, man-made ditch. For the last century the Mohawk River has served as the canal now that diesel engines powering boats up to 43' wide with 11' drafts have replaced mules pulling 7' wide barges that had no more than 3 1/2 foot drafts. It's a much-tamed river now, with locks and dams every few miles as it drops over 400' from Rome and Utica to sea level at the Hudson River in Albany.

We showed you our pile of bike parts and baggage earlier this entry. Two episodes from now we'll put them into motion and head up to Maine. Next entry, however, will be one of several this summer that will highlight a few paintings each from the thirteen art museums we hope to include in our travels through New England.

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