Travelogue: Edmonds to Chicago via the Amtrak Coast Starlight, Part 2

A chilly Chicago at night. (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)

Part 2 of 2. Read Part 1 here.

Sunday, Jan. 27

Chicago in six hours. We are surrounded with glazed snow, and even the double-glazed windows on the train are letting the cold in. A wonderful night’s sleep, except for half an hour on the roughest tracks I’ve experienced: At one point I almost fell out of bed.

(Question: why do people making announcements always emphasize the verb? “Restrooms are on the lower deck”  “The dining car is open” — as if someone had claimed the restrooms weren’t there or the dining car wasn’t open. You hear it everywhere.  “The captain has turned on the seatbelt sign.”)

We had some fun last night. After we left Trinidad, Colorado, an attendant called over the intercom that a passenger had failed to get off the train at his stop. A little later Peggy, the wonderful car attendant, told me that the person in question had boarded without a ticket and had been hiding in a restroom with the door locked. A stowaway! I have no idea what happened to him, but I suspect there may have been a warm police reception at the next stop.

We are into rolling hills in Illinois, snow lying deeper are we head north. More vast, empty fields — mile, after mile, after mile. If only we could realize how big and great America is, and stop yelling at each other. The current sad state of “party before country” obscures the fact that this is our country, yours as well as mine, and  good will and a readiness to make principled compromises with our neighbors — these are essential to a functioning democracy, country (or city). As George Washington said in his final address as president, “Let me now … warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” Sir Thomas Brown wrote in praise of “…wiser believers, who know that a good cause needs not be pardoned by passion, but can sustain itself upon a temperate debate.”

Seeing the vastness of our country, as one does from the train, reminds one of an immense richness that makes so much of our politics seem insignificant. Perhaps all politicians should be required to spend four or five days touring America by rail — with no internet!

We arrived in snowy Chicago on time and I have checked into the Palmer House Hotel, another of the Grand Old Hotels of America.  It is snowing out, and the dreaded Polar Vortex is approaching.

The Palmer House Lobby

This is a wonderful hotel, and I have rarely experienced such friendly staff! The Historic Hotels of America points out that Palmer House is “the longest continually operating hotel in the United States.” The original structure, built by Potter Palmer for his bride, was 13 days old when it burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Palmer immediately rebuilt the property across the street, sparing no expense, and reportedly tiling the floor of the hotel’s barber shop with silver dollars.” The silver dollars are sadly gone, but the hotel has recently had a $215 million renovation and at the very least, is certainly worth visiting for a drink in the lobby bar.

Monday, Jan. 28

With the Polar Vortex starting to be felt and the snow coming down, I thought it would be best to visit two of the places I had planned to see. First was the Auditorium Theatre, built by Adler and Sullivan in 1889. It is still in active use, and has been the home at various times of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Opera — and the 1888 Republican National Convention before it even opened its doors!

The Auditorium Theatre in Chicago in 1889. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The Auditorium Theatre is magnificent, if a bit unsettling. Or perhaps settling: It was built on mud and clay and has sunk up to 36 inches in places; this causes the lobby to slant down to the sides, and the top gallery to bend down a little at each end, as well as tip forward. A visit to the top gallery was about the most vertiginous experience I have ever had, and me with a bad case of vertigo!

It’s a magnificent auditorium and no expense was spared to make it so. It was the first fully electrified theater in America; the side “frame” of the stage can be pulled up like a second curtain to make an even wider stage. Huge panels can be cranked down to hide the top gallery if it is not being used, though owing to the bend of the building, these have not been used in 80 years or so; as our docent told us, they’re not sure if the could get the panels down — or back up if they did.

But the real attraction of the theatre is the magnificent design and decoration. Its “compression and expansion” effect, as you emerge from low-ceilinged passages into the auditorium itself, an Adler and Sullivan hallmark, is a concept that Frank Lloyd Wright employed at Hollyhock House. Wright himself worked for a time for Sullivan, but was let go for “moonlighting” on some private design projects. The only thing in the theatre that is certainly by Wright are some finials, though the fireplace nooks in the lobby look very “Wrightish.”

It is a magnificent building, and well worth the $25 charge for the thorough, hour-long guided tour!

From the Auditorium I Ubered to the Field Museum, which is housed in the last remaining grand Beaux Arts building of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. It includes an enormous library, as well as exhibits of an Egyptian tomb, dinosaur skeletons, and exhibits for exploring various habitats. As the Vortex was approaching, the Field Museum was almost empty, and since my legs were giving out, I cut my visit short and came back to Palmer house, happily having visited a museum I used to love in the ‘50s when my mother and I would have most of a day between trains on the way to visit family in Philadelphia. I remember being mesmerized, age 12 or so, by the mummies.

Tuesday, Jan. 29

The Polar Vortex is beginning to be felt. There are signs on the street warning people about wind chill. Tired from yesterday, I had decided to take the day easy, but learned after lunch that all museums (and schools) would close tomorrow, I walked over to the Art Institute, about a block — and far enough, even though I was wearing a wool shirt, a sweater, a tweed jacket, an overcoat, a ski hat and gloves. It is getting COLD!

The Art Institute houses a magnificent collection of art of all periods. As there was little time left before closing, I basically did a mouth-watering walk through, pausing for some magnificent and large Tiepolos, enjoying some wonderful 18th century French portraits, and the collection of Greek vases. Then it was time to dash back to the hotel. I must come again and spend at least a whole day here.

Wednesday, Jan. 30

I decided to sleep in. All museums, stores, schools, etc. are closed, and the hotel is limping along on skeleton staff. The hallways are cold, and the breakfast room is closed because of skeleton staffing, so we got chits for breakfast in the restaurant, rather than the “continental” stuff in the 22nd floor lounge.

The batteries for my computer mouse quit this AM, and all the shops in the hotel are closed. The concierge called the pharmacy across the street and found they were open. Rather than come back up to the 22nd floor and the eight miles of corridor, I made the 50-yard dash in shirt and sweater. The doorman said it was -32 when he came on. He’s stationed at the inner door: You come in through a revolving door into an airlock, and then there is another door, then the doorman). I was able to dash across the street in the middle of the  block, as there was no traffic to be seen. The streets were deserted. There was only one person working in the drugstore, and I was the sole customer.

Empty Chicago street. (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)

The Amrtak website says trains are canceled today and tomorrow, though they “may” run the next day. I’ve made sure I have the room for another 24 hours, and they gave me a late checkout tomorrow, so there’s a little room to maneuver. I hope if I have to re-book that there will be a room or roomette available on the train — three days in coach is more than I feel like taking on.

The rest of the day will be books and Walkman. I channel surfed last night and found 77 channels of wall-to-wall vacuity: hyper-masculine rubbish, over-reacting “celebrities,” all-day news hyperventilating about something or other, demeaning sit-coms, demeaning ads…  It is very discouraging to realize that this is the source of information and entertainment for so much of our population. I am very glad I do not have TV at home!

It’s even a bit cold in the lobby, and when going near my window, the cold grabs at me several feet away! Thank goodness for those thick, double curtains!

Having managed to change my train reservation to Friday, I went down to extend my stay in the hotel. On the way back through the lobby, a young panhandler stopped me to ask if I had any change. I gave him a dollar, and walked over to the express elevator to the Executive Floor. He followed me in.

When we got to the 22nd floor, he got out. I did a head face-palm and said I forgot something, and came back down to the lobby. No one was at the concierge’s desk. I walked over to the dining room reception and reported the incident, and then went to the bar for a beer and to wait. After a few minutes, security came over and asked me for a description. Long story short, they sent some people up, and 10 minutes later I saw the fellow “under escort.” End of story. Only I hope he wasn’t just some street person looking for a warm place. But with rooms open for housekeeping…  who knows? Staff were grateful to me for reporting what could have been a serious intrusion.

Chicago skyline in intense cold. (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)

Crystal-clear skies, no traffic on the street, steam streaming from ventilators on all the buildings around.  The papers are full of pictures of ice on the lake, and in its way, this is really magnificent and an adventure!

Thursday: another day in the room. It’s still -5 and nothing is open, though a few more hotel staff made it in. Thank goodness for Amazon streaming (the new Vera season!) and good books. I have just discovered Susan Hill’s delightful mysteries, and will spend the day writing email. I’ve sent two shirts down to the laundry — having stayed longer than anticipated, I’m out of clean shirts. And now it’s time for a nap. I leave (I hope!) tomorrow in the early afternoon, though the weatherman says there are pockets of -50-degree weather along the route west.

Saturday, Feb. 2

We are now in the middle of northern Montana with the same flat, empty land we have been going through since I got up this morning. We’re slowly climbing, and will reach the mountains sometime after dark, which is too bad. But we were four and a half hours late leaving Chicago owing to backups and delays all over the grid. Several trains were canceled altogether, the passengers put on other trains or on buses, so we’re fortunate that the good old Empire Builder was able to get under way at all, although the walk along the platform to the car was cold!

As we pulled out of Union Station, I caught a glimpse of the “burning tracks” that have been in the papers. In this cold, there is a strong chance that railroad switches would freeze and become inoperable, which would bring the entire grid to a stop.  To avoid this, the railroads have planted long gas burners at crucial points, rather like the oven burner in a gas stove, and these, lit, keep the switches going, and the grid open.

Burning rails. (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)

There has been little to do all day but read, nap, listen to some music on the Walkman (portable personal digital music storage device, I suppose… ) and try to catch up on email and news on the occasions when we’re within range – much of the time we’re not.

I’ve been reading My Edmonds News following “Cookiegate,” and feeling discouraged, not at the various cookies, but what looks at this distance and after the Polar Vortex, almost like a frenzy, the way so many seem ready to categorize and dismiss others in our community.

Looking out the window in the fading daylight, I wonder what it would be like to live in the isolated, harsh environment we are speeding past, and how the experience of trying to make a living here would form someone’s view of life.  It would certainly be different from the view an Uber driver in Chicago might form, in constant contact with an infinitely wide variety of human beings.  And yet each view is based on genuine life experience, and if we truly believe in the fundamental principles of democracy, both views have to be given equal respect.

The view from the train, headed home. (Photo by Nathaniel Brown)

I am dismayed at the ease with which we dismiss each other as “virtue signaling,” or purveying “fake news,” or excoriate “leftists.”  I really don‘t mind if you object to something I do that affects you. I do mind if you pigeonhole me without the least idea of what I have done and learned in my life, and I have no right to do the same to you. It seems to me that the original cookie was a joke that went flat and might perhaps might better not have been made, given our current highly polarized political situation. But the amount of “meaning” and the epithets have surely crushed the original, harmless cookie to crumbs.

Edmonds is a small community. We have real problems and issues to deal with from speeding on streets never meant to handle the volume of traffic they now bear, to the emergency railroad crossing; from the endless experiments on Sunset to the bad state of some of our roads and sidewalks. Let’s work on those, not each other.

Sunday, Feb. 3

Home! I’m be very glad to get back to Edmonds, late or on time.  I just wish there was no snow in the forecast; I’ve had about enough winter for a while!

— By Nathaniel Brown

Edmonds resident Nathaniel Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the U.S. Cross-Country team in 1989. He coached at three Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for nine years and Cross-Country Skier for two. He has written three books on skiing and training. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service, until retirement seven years ago.

5 Replies to “Travelogue: Edmonds to Chicago via the Amtrak Coast Starlight, Part 2”

  1. Love reading your “Trip Reports”, Nathanial. My question is if this trip cured you of any curiosity regarding train travel during winter again? Just reading about it gave me a chill. Traveling to the Southwest would be an entirely different story, I’m sure!


  2. Thanks for the kind words! I love winter, and spent most of my life working in it. I think we can assume the Polar Vortex was a fluke – and yes, I’d go again!

    One treasured memory was taking the train from Oslo to Geilo, Norway, during a break in the World Cup. Snow everywhere, ski racks on the outside of trains, and at one stop an older lady getting out with a pack of shopping on her back, clicking on her skis, and taking off down the slope!

    But I do want to do the southernmost trip, too!

    PS – Several friends and I are taking the Queen Mary II to England next October, hoping we see some heavy weather. Guess I just enjoy extremes and wild weather!


  3. Fully enjoyed the travelogue. More, please! I had the pleasure of riding the Great Northern in winter of 1960/61. As I recall the route was further north through the Canadian Rockies. Magnificent! I can’t get enough of train travel but for the past twenty years it’s been in Europe. Now you’ve inspired me to give Amtrak another chance.


  4. We’ve done the train trip from Chicago to Seattle, but in summer. It was so interesting to hear about your experiences in the winter! Also found your musings so interesting. Having so much time to think/reflect is a gift from being on a long train trip which I really enjoyed. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing your thoughts and experiences.


  5. Great article Nathanial. Have just been able to read bits and pieces so far but plan to read it all when I can. My wife (now deceased) and I took the Coastal Starlight to LA twice and I enjoyed every minute of it. (My wife not as much). Train travel requires patience, some physical endurance and a good sense of humor. If you don’t have those traits, better off to fly for sure. Also have taken the train from Edmonds to Vancouver B.C. which was great fun. No car needed there, thanks to great Sky Tran light rail all over town. Love, Canada where people actually know how to get along and solve problems without name calling and never ending political theater.


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