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Uncle Markie out and about.

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May '15

Trip Report: Hawaii With Dwight, The Final Tour

This seems to have been the “trip of tours”, but it’s been fun to show Dwight Oahu. Frankly, we are both “knackered” at this point. Like one of those all-inclusive tours. But I got the last one, the “Grand Circle Tour” at half off rack rate ($39 for us via some random broker which turned out to be legit [Savon], $79 on Roberts). The cheaper tour miss the Temple (and the nice drive through the cemetery), but basically add $20 to the Roberts tour, and another $20 if you want lunch included.

Basically we were out of the house (aka condo) at mid-seven as our bus was to show up at 8am a block away.

Love the logo on the bus:

Speaking of tour buses…today’s bus:

Yesterday’s bus, which did the first four stops we are doing today:

Our tour today includes:

  • Diamond Head Lookout
  • Hanauma Bay
  • Halona Blowhole
  • Sandy Beach
  • Makapuu Beach
  • Chainman’s Hat
  • North Shore Beaches
  • Dole Plantation
  • Pineapple & Sugarcane Fields
  • Pali Lookout

We actually did the tour in a different order, so here are just random pictures of the day. Pali Lookout.

Lunch spot – custom cooked, which is amazing for a tour bus of people:

The North Shore:

With the surfer boys….

Praise LORD the 18x lens for that shot.

And how about just some random beach shots that are damn fine:

For my brother and sis-in-law, some bird pictures:

And then onto the Dole Plantation – think Pineapple Disneyland:

Then at the end of the day, it was Manhattan time – at Vit’s Hawaiian Steakhouse down the street from the condo. Add some Crab Wonton and you have a great way to wait for the shuttle to the airport.

Then we were back to the airport, and used two certificates to get us into the United Club (see previous posts for pictures) for some food and drink.

Luckily I was upgraded again (well, Dwight had to pay $150 for his), and home to lovely Bellingham where I slept all the way home.

But the last picture of the day has to be this great portrait of Dwight and I at one of the sightseeing stops:

And frankly – getting Dwight to smile in a photo – PRICELESS!

Thanks Dwight for driving home.


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May '15

Trip Report: Hawaii With Dwight – Day Three, More Tours

Day three is upon us, more touring the island. Our first tour is that of a factory type – a tour of the Yamaka Ukulele factory located in downtown Honolulu next to the law courts (though in the next couple of years they are going to have to move as development is coming through – but in the meantime, the old man (son of the founder) is still doing tours Tuesday through Friday at 10:30am. The sign says it will last 30-45 minutes – prepare for an hour and a half non-OSHA approved tour. We caught the local bus (#19 or #20) for $2.50 a person since it was direct – could have walked from the Red Trolley line but that would have been 45 minutes each way.

This time was a little different from the other two or three times I’ve been on the tour…started the same, with the old man going charmingly on about the history of the ukulele in Hawaii and the current state of ukulele sales…

But after the first half-hour, his voice started to fade…he is 80+ after all. Luckily, he son (Sam Jr. who runs the place was on hand to take over and give the rest of the tour – that would be the grandson of the founder. Talk about a family business.

They age all of their Koa wood for over four years – and that stuff is truly expensive and why the most security on the premises is aimed at the wood pile:

In the next bunch of pictures you will see what I mean about “non-OSHA” approved tour – reminds me of the Four Roses Bourbon Distillery tour in Kentucky years ago where we were up and down ladders, on catwalks, the works (https://blog.unclemarkie.com/2008/04/19/another-day-in-bourbon-country/ — if the pictures aren’t there, hopefully they will be in a couple of days. They were stored on a Twango account (one of my marketing clients), who got bought by Nokia and eventually closed down. They are on the server at home.)

And Dwight at the end of the tour…

With an aerial shop of the shop floor….

Luckily even with the tour at an hour and a half, we still had time to catch the blue line tour on the Waikiki Trolley

AND grab a little lunch. I opted for leftovers in the room, and Dwight set out to find something and meet me there (without a map – which caused a little mishap since there are several DFS Duty Free stores).

Lots of scenery on this 2.5 hour tour…starting with Halona Blow Hole:

And then Sandy Beach (sort of sounds like a porn star name):

And then Hawaii Kai Lookout:

The whole stop list looks like this:

Blue Line:

Tour duration: 2 hours and 30 minutes per tour
Stop/Highlight 1st Tour 2nd Tour 3rd Tour
Ilikai Hotel & Suites** 8:30AM
T Galleria by DFS*** 8:42AM 11:00AM 1:30PM
Duke Kahanamoku Statue 8:45AM 11:06AM 1:36PM
Hanauma Bay*
Halona Blow Hole*
Sandy Beach Drive-through only
Sea Life Park 10:00AM 12:21PM 2:51PM
Hawaii Kai Lookout*
Kahala Mall**** 10:35AM 1:01PM 3:31PM

* 5-minute photo stop only; no disembarking.
Hanauma Bay is closed on Tuesdays and is therefore skipped.

**Ilikai Hotel & Suites stop does not have a Waikiki Trolley stop sign. Please wait in front of hotel along Ala Moana Boulevard.

*** DFS Galleria Waikiki pick-up location is along Royal Hawaiian Avenue.

**** Kahala Mall pick-up location is at the Kilauea Avenue bus stop.

We will hit some of the same places tomorrow on the Grand Circle Tour.

I was thinking about trying the Pink Line to maximize our dollar value, but by the end of the day we were both beat and ready to retire to the condo.

Speaking of the condo, I still haven’t posted pictures of the place, which is on the opposite side of the building from my last trip to Waikiki:

Another BBQ meal off the grill by the pool, but apparently I was out of energy to take any pictures. Basically the menu was same – marinated chicken, salad, white wine.


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May '15

Trip Report: Hawaii With Dwight — Day Two, Exploring

Day two of our (Dwight and I’s) adventure… today’s items to tick off the list:

  • Shuttle to Hilo Hattie to check out the clearance rack
  • 3 block walk to Salvation Army to check out what is on offer for 25% Seniors Day (Tuesday)
  • Pick up our ticket for the Waikiki Trolley and try and get as much use out of them over the next two days

Oh, and cook some chicken on the grill…

The result? No deals at Hilo Hatties, but some serious finds at the Sally Ann — $64, 8 shirts, 4 of them Tommy Bahama’s in good shape. Tommy Bahama shirts start at $80 and go WAY up from there.

Not the best of pictures but you get the idea.

Lunch at the Big Kahuna – which after I got back to Seattle I learned is a Dining for Miles restaurant, and our light lunch of the Pulled Pork Quesadilla – what you see is what we took home. And that was an appetizer, and it was on the Happy Hour menu.

After our snack it was off to pick up the tickets for the trolley tours. I sort of like the illustration for the Waikiki Trolley:

Today we managed to do the Red Line (Downtown/Chinatown/Museum of Art/Etc.) and the Green Line (Diamond Head and other stops).

We did get some good pictures through….

Our trolley, and below, the Japanese tourist whale tail bus…look closely and you can see the tail on the end of it.

Diamond Head in the background…

Roxy says that the drinks at the Elks are cheap and the view is stunning at the Honolulu Elks club – unfortunately, its members only.

And famous Waikiki Beach….

We got both the Red and the Green trolley lines done, with plans tomorrow to do the Blue Line and maybe the Pink Line if we have any energy left.

In the meantime, dinner at the condo tonight is chicken (brought from the states) done on the grill, with a nice salad and a bottle of white wine (also brought from the states).

And it was an early night for both of us…with a big day ahead tomorrow.


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May '15

Trip Report: Hawaii With Dwight – Day One, Getting There.

Spring trip to Hawaii number two for Uncle Markie, this time with Dwight who has never been before, and we have a TON of stuff planned to give him an overview of the place. But first we have to get there. And since it’s a long flight – off to The Museum of Flight we go for a quick tour of the planes parked outside that we can tour and then an overview of the various wings inside.

In front and under 787-8 number three (third down the production line). Before long we are headed to Bellingham with a couple of stops along the way:

  • Gas for Dwight’s Volvo
  • Snacks for both of us
  • Champagne glasses from a thrift store in Mount Vernon for the shop

It’s sort of embarrassing what our snacks were – Two for 99 cents tacos from Jack in the Box. That made Dwight’s iced tea more expensive than his snack.

And a Hawaii-bound on the road picture:

Yep – that’s me at the wheel of Dwight’s Volvo. Guess who is going to drive home on the return leg so I can sleep?

Alaska Airlines has this new self-tagging system that we are trying for the first time – nothing like 1000 Bonus Frequent Flyer Miles for both of us tor motivation.

You print the tag at home and then slip them into this flexible plastic reusable sleeve.

One of the nice things is that Bellingham’s Airport, while it lacks an airport lounge, it does have a decent place to drink and snack and connect to wifi – that would be Scotty Browns Social House. Their house bourbon is Evan Williams – which is my house bourbon as well.

We had the appetizer of the Salt & Pepper Dry Ribs – just a little nibble before our dinner onboard our flight.

My favorite seat – as usual, this time with company.

There was a slight problem with catering that the just joined the company 30-days ago and on her first First Class posting – they didn’t board any dinner plates – so we ate out of the warming trays.

And our hosts:

A great crew on the flight over! The gentleman even made me a hat just before arrival:

Our luggage arrived with these experimental self-tags on them – and we found our driver. Only one problem that we discovered on the arrival at the Royal Garden by Wyndham in Waikiki – my back pack (with my computer) had fallen off the stack of luggage and was – you guessed it – at the airport, having been discovered by security folks there. I checked us in, send Dwight up to the room, and paid another $50 for roundtrip back to the airport to pick up my bag. Not the best way to start a holiday.

At least I brought some booze for our first night and after a trip to the ABC Store for mixers and to the ice machine for some ice (full-size fridge in the unit – but they clear all the ice between guests) we were set for the evening.

Lots of stuff to do in the morning, and pictures to take of the room and the view.

Stay tuned.


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Dec '14

Trip Report: Amtrak From ABQ To SEA With Dwight

Left mom’s house a little after 10am after getting the snow off the rental car. They thankfully included a brush/scrapper in the car, though all it needed was to be brushed off.

Goodbye Santa Fe for a couple of months (back March and then again in July).

Picked up Dwight around 11 at the hotel I’d gotten him a discount in – wanted to see the room, but he’d already checked out. No real loss – it was an airport hotel after all.

First stop: Gruet Winery, a fine Méthode Champenoise producer in Albuquerque, New Mexico whose vineyards are outside Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, a town named after the game show (formerly known as Hot Springs). We sell their Blanc de Noir at the shop and it’s been a staple of the Souder household’s Christmastime tradition. But I had to try them all – Dwight declined as it was a little early for him…

That was a nice side trip.

We probably should have gotten lunch somewhere but I ended up dropping Dwight and all our luggage at the train station in Albuquerque while I returned the car to the airport and caught a cab back to the station. I’d thought there was a shuttle, which technically there is…three times A DAY.

Took another little side trip before turning in the car to the “aircraft viewing area” at Albuquerque’s Sun Port International Airport and found these:

These are two DC-10 based firefighting planes which you can read about at http://www.10tanker.com.

Basically three hours in the train station which is also the Greyhound Station in Albuquerque. Made for interesting people watching. Our route home is the Southwest Chief from Albuquerque to Los Angeles, then the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle (Olympia for Dwight).

The train was running a little late…and it started raining…

I used 25,000 Chase Ink Rewards points to get a Bedroom Sleeper unit on both trains. What’s a bedroom on the train look like:

And the shower/toilet stall…

Two beds – the lower being the wider of the two, which I claimed because:

  • I’m wider than Dwight
  • It was my points

This gives you an idea of the amount of space.

No Parlour Car on the Southwest Chief so it was dinner in the Dining Car with random strangers…I had the steak. Noticed that the “cheapening” of Amtrak’s ‘First Class’ service continues. Amenity Kits long gone, and now it’s the Newman’s Own Thousand Island which is stunning. Ranch and Vinaigrette are the remaining choices unless you order the Caesar and they grudgingly provide ONE package. Add to this that at dinner they were completely out of desserts and we were on an early seating. Not that either of us need it, but it’s nice to know it’s there.

Slept well as did Dwight:

Normally the Southwest Chief is on-time or early getting into Los Angeles. Not this run. I got up at 5am for breakfast (supposedly served from 5-6am because of the arrival time) to find a limited menu (usual) and the train running two hours late. Needless to say, I ate and went back to bed.

The train was so late that we had 5 minutes to make our connection (which is better than being bused to catch the train up the line). At least when this happens they pull the train in just across the platform from the Coast Starlight. Downside is no time to raid the Metropolitan Lounge in LA’s Union Station.

Burger for lunch for me, on the early side since we’d eaten at 5AM. Dinner in the Parlour Car was the short rib. In the Parlour Car if you are at least two people they give you your own table.

By nightfall we were in Emeryville:

Yep – wearing my leopard print Santa Hat, cocktail in hand. While it isn’t permitted to bring your own in Coach, in the First Class Sleepers it IS permitted and they are happy to supply you with a bucket of ice. In our case, three times a day. Dwight introduced me to the concept of tipping at the BEGINNING of the trip for better service and if they are really good, adding more at the end. Ours on the Coast Starlight got more at the end as well with his excellent ice service. Dwight is a $10 a day tipper.

Another good night’s sleep for me, not so much for Dwight. I asked if I was snoring and he said no – THAT’S something new.

Omelet for breakfast, Caesar Salad for lunch…

Not much for presentation… didn’t even bother to open the croutons. But it was nice to have some greens (though the burgers ARE good). An early dinner was back in the Parlour Car, again having the Short Rib dinner – early because Dwight gets off an hour or so before me. At least this train had desserts all the way to the end of the line:

I always get mine to-go, having them a couple of hours later, especially at lunch.

Running early into Seattle after being on-time at Olympia to let Dwight off. It was fun to just hang out with him for a couple of days of doing nothing, including the dishes.

Roxy met me at the train station with my car, but not before I spotted this little number at King Street Station:

It is one of four privately owned railcars from the original California Zephyr that ran between Chicago to LA from 1948 to 1981.

More information here: http://www.calzephyrrailcar.com/California_Zephyr_Railcar_Charters/Welcome.html

And they do repositioning runs: http://www.calzephyrrailcar.com/California_Zephyr_Railcar_Charters/Positioning_Moves/Positioning_Moves.html. A couple of years ago I was on a four-car consist from San Diego to Los Angeles in the Silver Splendor which is part of the LARail group.

It was good to get home in one piece – for work it is for me in the morning.


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Oct '13

Dinner With Dwight.

Time to start tackling the to-do list from Jim and I’s business meeting a while back. Today will be the second attempt to make a rolling wine rack for the shop. We will eventually need seven of time. The prototype I hacked together last week was too tall and didn’t offer enough storage — so much for the easy way. Looks like almost from scratch.

Picked up a ½” 4×4 sheet of plywood at Home Depot to go with the casters I picked up last week at Lowes. A couple of cuts, a lot of glue and nail gun work, and this is the result of a couple of hours of work:

The space below the bottles it turns out with hold two cases side to side.

On the way aback from working in the garage I noticed that my quince tree had all this downed fruit:

Normally I get like two quince in a season – must have been the warm weather this summer. They are still tiny, but I was thinking about making a quince infused moonshine. Thoughts?

After that was built and the glue drying it was off to see how the bridge work is coming – they announced that the other leaf of the bridge would be mounted today:

And before you knew it was time to start working on dinner. Dinner with Dwight tonight – and a fancy dinner it is. Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas’ Braised Lamb Shank recipe that he modified for Amtrak to use on the Coast Starlight. I thought I’d shared the recipe before but couldn’t find it on the blog so here it is:

Amtrak’s braised lamb shanks with Portobello mushroom, tomatoes and oregano

Total time: 3 hours

Servings: 4

Note: Amtrak serves the lamb shanks with garlic mashed potatoes and an array of vegetables.

4 (1 pound each) bone-in lamb shanks, well-trimmed

1/4 cup canola oil, divided

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup finely dice red onion

2 large Portobello mushroom caps, gills removed, cut in medium dice

2 tablespoons minced garlic

3/4 cup dry red wine

2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano leaves, preferably Greek

1 1/2 cups (8 ounces) diced plum tomatoes in tomato juice

3 cups beef demi-glace (or 3 cups beef broth thickened with a slurry of 2 tablespoons each cornstarch and cold water)

2 bay leaves

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, toss the lamb shanks with 1 tablespoon oil, one-half teaspoon salt and one-fourth teaspoon pepper.

2. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed sauté pan over medium heat until hot. Add the oil, and when the oil is hot add the lamb shanks in a single layer (do this in batches, if necessary). Brown the shanks uniformly on all sides, then remove the shanks to an appropriate casserole or braising pan with a tight-fitting lid.

3. Pour off and discard any excess fat, leaving only 1 to 2 tablespoons in the pan. Add the onion and mushroom and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 4 to 5 minutes, then stir in the garlic. Cook another minute, stirring, so that the garlic does not burn. Add the red wine, bring to a near boil, and reduce the liquid by two-thirds. Stir in the oregano, tomatoes with juice and the demi-glace. Bring the mixture to a boil, remove from the heat and pour over the lamb shanks. Add the bay leaves and cover the lamb tightly with the lid.

4. Transfer the lamb to the oven and cook for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to 300 degrees and continue to cook the lamb until it is fork tender but not falling off the bone, about 1 additional hour.

5. Remove the casserole and allow the lamb to cool , uncovered, for 15 minutes. Remove each shank to a serving dish and cover with foil. Remove the bay leaves from the casserole and discard.

6. Skim any fat from the top of the sauce. Check the consistency of the sauce (it should be the consistency of heavy cream). If the sauce is too thin, reduce it on the stove-top until it is the proper consistency. This makes about 2½ cups sauce. Taste the sauce, adjusting the seasoning as desired, then pour over the lamb shanks and serve.

Each serving: 730 calories; 74 grams protein; 33 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 34 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 30 mg cholesterol; 4 grams sugar; 1,795 mg sodium.

Mind you on Amtrak it’s done using sous-vide cooking (“20 hours at a precise 160 degrees”).

Between doing the lamb shanks (three hours) and the fresh baked bread (two hours, though with overlap with the lamb), it’s a more involved meal than I normally do. Add a salad and a nice bottle of wine and you have a fine meal – and with Dwight staying in the guest room tonight, no worries about driving.


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Sep '17

Home Report: Hospital Time

Many of you know my aversion to hospitals – and my one week in town has me visiting TWO friends in the hospital and or in-patient rehab for long periods of time.

My long-time friend and travel-buddy Bliss fell off a 22-foot ladder, found by his neighbor at his Hood Canal cabin, MedEvac’d from the beach by float plane (no place to land a helicopter). Coma for a week and a half. He won’t even be able to put any weight on his left leg until the 9th of October. Cracked pelvis, 3 broken ribs, screwed up left wrist. It’s going to be awhile before he is back at home, longer to get back to teaching. Lots of Physical and Occupational Therapy. Oddly enough, he’s in a Kosher care center, his room has a beautiful view of Lake Washington, and he’s 15 minutes door-to-door from my house (closer than his apartment!).

One visit — it was Physical Therapy time (which is a couple of times a day).

When I was there last – he was finally in own clothes.

As for Dwight, another long-term friend and occasional travel-buddy, after a week plus, he is still in the hospital with a quarter of his bowels missing (which, by the way is VERY serious). Downside for me visiting (which I did last Friday) is that he’s in Olympia, an hour away.

Lots of tubes and hoses – at least today, he got the nose tube out.

What is sobering is that these guys are 4- and 8-years my junior. Oy!

Please keep them in your thoughts.

[221.4] Not really happy with that.

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Sep '16

Trip Report: ROAD TRIP!

What happens when there are no cheap flights during the summer? ROAD TRIP!

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, it turns out to be a parade of visits to friends that I’ve known for years:

  • Cathy = 46 years (stop 2)
  • Dwight = 31 years (stop 3)
  • Peppermint = 22 years (stop 6)
  • Yusaf = 19 years (stop 6)
  • Rache = 21 years (stop 7)
  • Bliss = 24 years (stop 8)

And the weather was stunning – probably got more sun than I should have.

First stop was to see Cathy – and drop off some cookware from my mother’s estate. She had many dinners at my parent’s table and reveled in the fact that my mother had nice things – and used them everyday. I passed on a Dansk 60’s turquoise double boiler and a Le Creuset orange saucepan with lid.

It was good to catch up in person with here rather than email/Facebook.

Next up – Dwight. My overnight stop. The photo from Dwights:

He does stock the bar for me! There was also a “handle” of Evan Williams Black. Dinner tonight was lovely Steak Fajitas delivered in (by a cute delivery guy). I got the “blow-up” queen-size bed in the spare room. We don’t get to see enough of each other – one of the reasons is that he has cats. I just doubled up on the antihistamines!

Morning found me early out of the house – Portland bound. I’ve got to hook up with Peppermint at his shop and head to a food show in SE Portland. Somehow I didn’t get a picture of Sunnyside Espresso.

I did get a couple of pictures from the food show – spread over two floors:

And this is a serious “cold press” coffee machine – using ice water:

On the way to my evenings lodging I passed the corner that was a block from where Jimmy and I lived in Northwest Portland – which was a corner market/butcher shop – now it’s a Mcmenamins Bottle Shop.

Tonight’s lodging is with Yusaf and Peppermint – who have also rolled out the red carpet! Here is the “Love Shack” that is my home for the night:

Complete with turquoise appliances!

And power!

They sacrificed an animal for the grill in my honor:

I brought a couple of bottles of a 2005 Bordeaux that we have at the shop – was $25, now $14 – and drinking GREAT!

There where even vintage “gay” magazines in the “love shack”!

They are from 1974 – when I was a senior in high school. I had to borrow them to scan and return. The T-Shirt Princess will love the images.

Slept in late, knowing that “breakfast” will be at Burgerville – my weakness in burger places – and the St. John’s one had a full parking lot and a drive through line that stretched onto the street:

After the “Devil’s Burger” it’s on the road to Long Beach (Washington, not California!) for an overnight with Rache.

It’s odd to pass through Seaside and not visit Seaside Boy – who actually is in Blaine these days:

Tried to find some new cargo shorts – after four stops, found some Ralph Lauren “not cargo” shorts, but they had a nice feel and were new at $10.

Stunning lamb dinner of the grill with Rache:

Again, my host is out of the house before me – and I’m on the road for the longest leg of the trip. But the top is down, and all is fine in my world.

Until I hit a backup – only 15 minutes:

And a blog update stop in a roadside rest stop:

The last stop of the trip is an overnight with Bliss. And the Cowboy Bed!

And the view isn’t bad:

Little did I know what was planned for my visit – a whirlwind of cocktails, boating, oysters and dinner! Bliss making scratch thermos’ full of Piña Coladas for the boat.

Bliss’ contractor has a boat and friends…I have a Speedo!

And even I went swimming in Hood Canal:

We did a little motoring around before heading to Union for beer, and as it turns out, oyster samples:

After a little ass-grabbing (NOT on my part, well, the ass was, not the grabbing) it was time for a sunset dinner with the guys – what a lovely end to the evening!

Not a bad road trip. Got stuck in a little traffic around Tacoma on the way home, but it was nice to sleep in my own bed.


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Oct '15

Trip Report: Birthday Ramble Part Two –

The California Zephyr

I sometimes feels like I’ll be on the road all the month of September (and October and November). This installment if from the California Zephyr between Denver and Chicago. What I learned is that two people in a Roomette is a tight squeeze.

As you can see by how close our knees are!

Bring lots of booze and mixers, it’s OK according to Amtrak if you are in a sleeper – and they will even uncork your personal wine in the dining car (leave a GOOD tip!). Dwight taught me to give some of the tip up front for better service with the room attendants.

Boarded the Zephyr in time for dinner, went for the short ribs in red wine demi glaze…with a nice bottle of wine we packed with us. Only once have I had them refuse to open a provided bottle – usually all it takes is, “Ours is better, and we tip well.” As usual, I took my dessert “to go” while Dan ate his ice cream at the table. I should point out that there were no salads with our dinner as they had a refrigerator issue and FROZE all the lettuce.

And before you know it, it’s time for bed:

View from the end of the train, which oddly, the sleepers are at. Normally the sleepers are at the front of the train. Because of this:

Everyone’s phone went off at 7AM with flash flood warnings, luckily not for the railway. Almost as good as an alarm clock to get up and have the scrambled eggs – they were out of the omelet, but still had the Railroad French Toast (think Denny’s with the same corn syrup dressing).

Along the way be pass all sorts of stations in all architectural styles… here is the Creston, Iowa station:

But actually, THIS is the Amtrak station in Creston, Iowa:

Or the box that is Ottumwa, Iowa’s station. Extra points for the fictional television character from Ottumwa.

Answer: Radar O’Reilly from the TV series MASH.

It was at Ottumwa, Dan needed to do a little trackside yoga to combat the tight quarters – next time a Bedroom rather than a Roomette:

And here is our lovely room attendant who kept us well stock in ice:

Just after leaving Burlington, Iowa (on the border with Illinois) two hours late, we passed this lovely suspension bridge that I’d actually driven across a couple of years ago when I was visiting Galena, Illinois with Lisa and Joe (stayed at the WorldMark Galena). Galena is mostly known as the home of Ulysses S. Grant.

As you can see, the weather is clearing up. Just in time for lunch – bacon cheeseburgers for the both of us, oddly they’d acquired some iceberg lettuce for the burgers to go with the tomato and onion. And sure enough, the sun is out showing off the corn fields:

And better late than never, we finally arrive in lovely Chicago, a little over two hours late. Here is a shot of the old station which rumor has it they are bringing back to life:

And a GREAT shot of Chicago that looks like Seattle because:

  • There are draw bridges
  • There is a Boeing logo on their headquarters
  • There is a Starbucks

Time for a little food – even though they say we are getting dinner on board, I’m skeptical…off we go after trying to reach his CDW rep he deals with…Dan does the logical thing – he goes on Yelp and looks for happy hour specials within 3 blocks. We ended up at Blackies, with half of Chicago hanging out in the sun:

Buffalo Wings and Manhattans – that’s a happy hour!

Dan is looking happy.

As we were leaving Blackies – Dan gets the call – so we are off for MORE cocktails with his CDW rep at the sports bar in the train station!

I love this photo – and before you know it, we are on the train headed to New Orleans. They were serious about the meal – they loaded us 45 minutes before The City of New Orleans was scheduled to leave. No rocking for dinner! Stay tuned for the next post.


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The California Zephyr

Apr '15

Travel Tips: Gaming The Amtrak Guest Rewards System

An occasional feature of UMTravels are tips and tricks for maximizing your award potential. Today’s topic: Amtrak and their Guest Rewards Program.

The basics of the program are: Earn 2 points per $1 spent on your Amtrak travel. Unless you travel a lot on Amtrak it’s going to take you a long time to even get a coach ticket (one-way) on the Amtrak Cascades (1,500 points, 2,000 points for a Business Class seat).

But as we all know with any Frequent Traveler program, it’s hotels (Choice, Hilton, Wyndham Brands, La Quinta, Starwood), cars (Budget, Enterprise, Hertz), and a handful of oddball partners.

And then there is the credit card tie-in, which at the moment Amtrak Guest Rewards doesn’t have. The DID have a MasterCard (from Chase) with a 12,000 sign up bonus if you spent $500 in three months – a small sign-up bonus, but a TINY spend compared so some cards I’ve had ($5000 in three months). I did query Guest Rewards about what happened to their credit card and received this response (in under 48 hours which for Amtrak Customer Service is pretty good):

Dear Mark Souder,

Thank you for contacting the Amtrak Guest Rewards Service Center.

We apologize, however we are no longer accepting applications for the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard credit card from Chase at this time. More information regarding the Amtrak Guest Rewards credit card will be shared in the near future.

We hope this information is of assistance and apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.


Amtrak Guest Rewards Service Center

So, it sounds like there is something coming down the pike – and I will most likely sign up for it assuming the enrollment bonus/spend is decent.

There is one credit card that does offer a way to get Amtrak Guest Rewards points – the Chase Ink card offers a 1-1 transfer with 40,000-60,000 miles sign up bonuses (also 1-1 transfer with United and some hotel chains). When I signed up for this card I got 60,000 Chase Points (after the aforementioned $5,000 spend in three months).

Another way to get big chunks of Amtrak Guest Rewards point – you can purchase them outright for $0.0275 apiece ($275 for 10,000 – the yearly [calendar] maximum), but wait for sales where you get up to a 30$ bonus bringing the cost down to $0.021.

WHY would you want all these points? – well, it you like to travel by train in either Roomettes or Bedrooms, you know how expensive those rooms can be. A NOLA-CHI-LAX-SEA two-zone trip (20,000 point) that I took last summer would have been about $1445 six months out (value = $0.0723 per point), $1748 two months out (value = $0.0874), or $2092 (value = $0.1046) a month out. What I didn’t realize when I booked these first couple of trips is that the rewards are for TWO people (and all their meals). The point values that I’ve used are for ONE PERSON. Add several hundred dollars for the second persons rail ticket (sleeper is the same no matter how many people), so the saving are even bigger if you want to travel with someone else. A good example would be that NOLA-CHI-LAX-SEA Two-Zone trip which for two people six months out would be around $1700. Another nice thing about Amtrak is that they have VERY liberal change/cancel policies — as long as its 48 hours before the trip, you can change the days or just get a refund.

Having done trips with two people in a Roomette….it’s tight. A Bedroom unit is a better choice, but be prepared to have the majority of your luggage on the luggage racks by the boarding door.

As an added bonus, sleeping car passengers are allowed by bring their own alcohol (the porter will provide you with a bucket of ice – just remember to tip at the end of the trip, though my buddy Dwight always tips at the beginning for guaranteed service) and on many routes they will open wine you brought in the dining car as well – though that varies.

This is the rewards table for sleepers (I should ask if they have a Family Room redemption code):

Amtrak Guest Rewards

Sleeper Rewards




1 Zone



2 Zone



3 Zone




The sweet spots that I see on the reward chart are the 1-Zone Bedroom at 25,000 and the 2-Zone Roomette at 20,000, especially if you are trying to maximize the distance/days of your trip.

To give you an idea of the sort of routings you can get within or between zones, here is the Amtrak Zone Chart:

Redemption Travel by Zone

  • A travel itinerary for a single redemption must follow a published route between the initial origin and final destination. A published route is an itinerary automatically generated by Amtrak’s reservation system.
  • A single zone entry or zone exit comprises usage of one zone in the redemption, irrespective of prior or future travel in that zone as part of the same itinerary.
  • Where a desired itinerary does not exist as a single published route, the trip must be constructed as a series of published routes using multiple redemptions.
  • Circle trips are not permitted using a single redemption. A circle trip is a travel itinerary comprised of a series of segments that exit, and later re-enter, the same zone.
  • An Amtrak station located on a zone boundary may be considered part of either bordering zone, if it is the initial origin or final destination for the redemption.
  • Where a published route requires a connection between two segments, a later connecting service may be chosen as long as it departs on the same date as the connection originally offered.
  • Where a published route contains a valid connection of 23 hours, 30 minutes or less, an overnight stay in the connecting city is permitted at the passenger’s own expense. (Example: one-way travel from New York to El Paso, where the published route requires an overnight connection in New Orleans, would be permitted on the same redemption.)
    • Where sleeping car service is not offered for the entire published route, and where an alternate direct routing exists with sleeping car service on all segments, the alternate routing is allowed. (Example: Denver, CO to Los Angeles, CA on Trains 5 and 11)

And there are a few Blackout dates around Christmas, Thanksgiving and other longs weekends, but it’s not that bad.

One-Zone routes in a Roomette that would work are (with a June departure):

  • ABQ-SEA via LAX (3 hour layover with lounge access) Retail $1100 [.073 value]
    Includes: Dinner, Early Breakfast (to LAX) , Lunch, Dinner, Breakfast, Lunch, Early Dinner (to SEA)
  • ATL-DEN via WAS (6 hour layover with lounge access) and CHI (5 hour layover with lounge access) Retail $1300 (for two) [.087 value]
    Includes: Breakfast (to WAS), Dinner, Breakfast (to CHI), Dinner, Breakfast (to DEN)
  • NOLA-DEN via CHI (5 hour layover with lounge access), Retail $1100 [.073 value]

$1900 Retail ABQ-SEA Bedroom (and 25,000 points) [.076 value]

$2000 Retail ATL-DEN Bedroom (and 25,000 points) [.08 value]

And interesting concept is that two people buy the maximum amount of miles (2 @ $275) and then split the cost of transferring one set of miles to the other (1 @ $130 for a total of 26,000 miles, which is enough for either a 1-zone Bedroom, or a 2-Zone Roomette for $680 (for the two people) which is MUCH cheaper than retail. Of course, you can only do this once a year (up to 10,000 miles plus whatever bonus they offer), which is calendar year.

If you were to think a 2-Zone reward (20,000 points in a Roomette, 40,000 points in a Bedroom), you could do the 5-day long trip I did last year…

Rack rate (retail) is $2377 in the Roomette or $3543 in a bedroom. You could do NOLA-CHI-SEA (Empire Builder), but I was trying to maximize train time for the same number of points. I did it in a Roomette and got a value of .11885 from points I purchased for .021 — now THAT is a return on investment assuming you want to spend five days on the train having someone feed you and make your bed.

Or another would be Fort Lauderdale to Denver (I’m only thinking of Alaska Airlines cities), that comes in between $1100 and $1600 depending on whether you transit via NYC or DC.

All the retail numbers are for trips in late June, assuming there are rooms, the closer you are to travel dates means an even bigger savings.

Every time I look at the map I come up with new ones, like Fort Lauderdale to Albuquerque (Two-Zone) – that would be fun…

Here are some photos of what Roomettes and Bedrooms look like. Roomette first…

And with the bed down (or you could sleep in the top bunk):

Or the Bedroom units:

Well, that’s it for my tips and tricks on Amtrak Guest Rewards earning and redeeming. Stay tuned for an update once they bring out a new credit card offer.

All this pondering has me considering my Birthday Ramble this year…maybe DEN-CHI on the California Zephyr, then the Cardinal to Charlottesville, WV, then the Crescent to New Orleans—four days on the train, in a Roomette. Retail for two: $2706 (or $0.1082 per credit). That would be a two-zone ticket. Then stay a couple of nights at the WorldMark New Orleans. Now to convince Lisa to let me borrow Dan for a week.


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Dec '14

Trip Report: Santa Fe To Visit Mom

All packed and ready to go:

More presents buried under the shirts… and here is the whole stack of what is going with me:

Can you say “Christmas Presents”? Good thing I get two free checked bags on Alaska.

Uber (click on link to get free $20 ride for you and me when you sign up) to the airport, man is that convenient! And somehow I got the last first class seat 2F a day and a half before the flight – which is odd because it should have loaded me at 72 hours. Not complaining and I made the woman next to me VERY happy when I lent her my tablet stand.

Really nice lunch on board – Green Chile Chicken (how New Mexican!). Wish they had put another tortilla on the plate.

And a nice view from the window seat, which I don’t usually get:

Got into Albuquerque early, got the luggage, got the car, and crammed everything in…good thing it’s just me in this tiny car:

No snow, good weather, all is good and before you know it (well, an hour plus later), I’m in Santa Fe at El Castillo with Mom waiting.

Tonight’s dinner was from 5-Star Burgers which I picked up after hitting Albertsons for booze to pack home. I wasn’t impressed with 5-Star Burgers. The burger looked OK, but even though I had a take-out menu with crab cakes on the menu – they weren’t available. And the Caesar I chose instead did not have the “shaved” parmesan, but as the beertender (where you order to-go) said was absent because “there was lots of parmesan in the dressing”. So – basically some chopped up Romaine with a container of dressing.

No sleeping in the following morning as The Colonels are picking me up at 10am for a run to Taos to see the Millicent Rogers Museum to see the exhibition “Fred Harvey and the Making of the American West“.

No pictures allowed inside, but here is the outside with The Colonels:

A late lunch afterwards at Michael’s Kitchen Café in downtown Taos, just across the street from the WorldMark Taos where I have booked The Colonels into next July in exchange for some of their Wyndham Points they used to book me into the Royal Gardens in Waikiki in March with my buddy Bliss.

At Michael’s there is this FUNNY sign posted by the two handicapped parking spaces (The Colonels have handicap plates):

We probably shouldn’t have had that big a late lunch as we are due at El Castillo’s private dining room at 6 (with cocktails at the apartment starting at 5). With seven you get eggrolls – just kidding. Seven is the magic number for reserving the private dining room.

It was a good meal even with the rather unexciting buffet choices of the evening – but they did have liver and onions which made at least three people in the crowd very happy and they even did up a fresh batch for us!

A dusting of snow greeted me in the morning:

Not enough to muck up my drive back to Albuquerque where I pick up Dwight for the remaining chunk of this trip – and a separate blog post.


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Dec '14

Holiday Letter

Guess this gives me an excuse to write a Holiday Letter so here goes:

My addiction to travel continues untreated. This year found me hitting several milestones:

  • In June hit United Airlines Million Mile status meaning gold for life
  • In September made Elite Status on Princess Cruises meaning free internet minutes, free laundry/dry cleaning, and they stock my mini-bar once for free – another lifetime perk
  • In October made Alaska Airline MVP Gold Status through 2015 meaning fairly regular free upgrades to First Class and double miles on all my flights. When I don’t get the upgrade at least they comp my first drink in Economy – and then there are the two free checked bags which is handy when heading to Santa Fe during the holiday with all the presents in tow. Leaving tomorrow staying a couple of nights and taking the train home in the bedroom sleeper.

As for all that travel, it’s been a CRAZY year. On United to get to that Million Mile mark, 41,543 flight miles, Alaska Airlines will be 53,440 (only needed 40,000 to qualify for Gold but there were too many great last minute deals).

The travel list for this year (including this week’s trip):


  • Berkeley, CA
  • Los Angeles, CA – Ensenada, Mexico – Los Angeles, CA cruise
  • Berkeley, CA
  • Victoria, BC
  • Bozeman, MT


  • Forks, WA
  • Portland, OR
  • Breitenbush Hot Springs, OR
  • Portland, OR
  • Berkeley, CA
  • Denver, CO


  • Boston, MA (mileage run)
  • Boston, MA (overnight)
  • Bucharest, Bulgaria
  • Istanbul, Turkey


  • Denver, CO
  • Hong Kong (mileage run)
  • Honolulu, HI
  • Redmond, OR
  • Vancouver, BC


  • Vancouver, BC
  • Vancouver, BC-Seattle, WA Cruise
  • San Francisco (2 mileage runs in one day)
  • Orlando, FL (mileage run)
  • Oakland, CA (mileage run)
  • Houston, TX (overnight to connect to Air France flight)
  • Paris, France


  • Santa Fe, NM
  • New Orleans, LA; Chicago, IL; Los Angeles, CA; Seattle, WA Train Trip


  • Whistler, BC
  • Dublin, Ireland
  • Stockholm, Sweden
  • Amsterdam, Netherlands


  • Denver, CO via Train and Plane
  • Victoria, BC


  • Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
  • New Orleans, LA
  • Seattle, WA to Vancouver, BC Princess Cruise
  • Vancouver, BC to San Francisco, CA Princess Cruise
  • Tucson, AZ


  • Tucson, AZ (same as September trip)
  • Sacramento, CA
  • Santa Fe, NM


  • Los Angeles, CA to Los Angeles, CA Princess Cruise
  • San Diego, CA (Cruise Stop)
  • Ensenada, Mexico (Cruise Stop)
  • Denver, CO


  • Detroit, MI
  • Santa Fe, NM
  • Albuquerque, NM to Los Angeles, CA Train Trip
  • Los Angeles, CA to Seattle, WA Train Trip


2015 is starting to book up as well:


  • Sacramento, CA
  • Kansas City, MO
  • Victoria, BC Canada
  • San Antonio, TX


  • Berkeley, CA
  • Victoria, BC Canada
  • Santa Fe, NM


  • Dubai, United Arab Emirates
  • Tokyo, Japan
  • Komaki, Japan
  • Forks, WA


  • Honolulu, HI



  • Whistler, BC


My business partner just shakes his head when I tell him where I’m headed. He’s much more the home body, but as long as I’m back to work my days, no harm, no foul. Speaking of the shop (that would be Madrona Wine Merchants which I have a 1/3 interest), here is a status update on how the business is going.

A little more than three years into starting the wine shop, things are frankly going better than I would have ever hoped for. We have no debt mostly because to retail wine in the state of Washington you have to pay for it first, no credit from the distributors allowed. What debt we had from the beginning were mostly store fixtures (much of which we built ourselves in my woodshop/garage) that we put on the shop’s credit cards was paid off last year. We pay ourselves for our time behind the counter and have always been current with the exception of a couple of winter months the first year. We’ve upped our take several times over the years and are on stable ground finance wise.

The shop itself is small – just 350sqft of sales space with 75sqft in the back for toilet/sink/icemaker and a small amount of storage. Small, but we pack it in with over 650 different labels (stock ranging from 4 to 12 bottles of each. The majority of the bottles are in the $10-20 range with a handful under $10 and a few that range to the low $100s. We are located in the Madrona Neighborhood of Seattle. Those of you who visited me in Seattle before I had the Boylston Street house might remember when Jim (now my business partner) and I lived at 25th and Union – if you kept heading east on Union, at the top of the next hill you would run into 34th Avenue, the heart of Madrona where we are on the main strip with reasonable rent. Sales have been improving year over year which is what you want in a small business.

As for the love life, I’d been seeing someone for a couple of years but with the 4 hour commute and other things he found a partner to move in with who is a much better match. We parted on good terms and are still in contact from time to time. Socially active having people over to dinner a couple of times a week (when I’m in town) and opening the house to the occasional CouchSurfer along with my friends from out of town. Mom is still holding in there though losing a lot of body strength which she is working on with the help of a therapist. Sadly, her travel days are over but she has all the memories of her own travels and still has her mind and eyes and is happy keeping current with books/magazines and the three daily papers, It is nice that she is at El Castillo, a retirement community just off the Plaza in Santa Fe. With it being a two-bedroom it gives me a place to stay on my visits to work through the “honey do” list. I try and show up every 3-4 months depending on airfare.

Looking forward to seeing The Colonels in a couple of days during their almost annual pre-Christmas visit to Santa Fe. And, of course, looking forward to taking the train home with my buddy Dwight sharing the Bedroom Sleeper on the Southwest Chief connecting to the Coast Starlight in Los Angeles.

Happy Holidays one and all.


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Nov '14

Status Report: Confessions Of A Travel Addict

While my hands are quite shaking, it does feel weird that I’ll be at home for the next couple of weeks – maybe that’s why a spur of the moment trip to Leavenworth is looking so tempting. It’s not like I don’t have anything to look forward to:

The second Albuquerque is actually Dwight’s flight to meet up with me for our train ride back to Seattle in a Bedroom (rather than Roomette) on the Southwest Chief connecting to the Coast Starlight. What’s a bedroom on the train look like:

And the shower/toilet stall…

But the trip that I’m most excited about is my March trip to Japan to visit TokyoDave, faux nephew Julian who is teaching English as a second language, and see the Phallus Festival in Komaki where he lives. Of course, the journey is part of the adventure:

Yep – I’m going the long way around. Emirates from Seattle to Dubai, a 13-hour layover in the Business Class
Lounge, then onto Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Haneda is the close in airport – and Emirates is even giving me car service on both ends. It was 75,000 Alaska miles for a one-way to Japan and another 75,000 on United to fly home in Business aboard an ANA
787-8. $57.70 in taxes and fees. Not bad! I pulled the price of my itinerary on Expedia and their price was $16,269.40. WOW. That means I am getting 10.8 per mile value out of those frequent flier miles – the usual calculation is that frequent flier miles are worth 1-2 cents apiece.

POST UPDATE: Here is a great article on what points are worth. According to this article, Alaska points are valued at 2 cents per mile while Uniteds are valued at 1.5 cents per mile (down from 2 cents last year because of changes redemptions). Whole article here.

Lots of firsts (but no First Class) on this trip:

So, assuming I have the right images, this is what Business Class on Emirates 777s look like:

As opposed to the Business Class seats on ANA’s

Looking forward to experiencing both airlines. And look at the menus:

Not going to lose any weight on this trip.

Here is a great picture from WikiPedia of the Phallus Festival…

So, the confession is that even when I’m in town, my mind is out of town, looking forward to the next trip – but having blown most of my stash of miles, it will be awhile before I’m back overseas.


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Oct '14

Trip Report: Fico’s Birthday In Tucson

Another week, another trip. This week I used my last two Gold Guest Upgrades for 2014 to secure first class round-trip Seattle to Tucson for $300.

But first, an amusing shot from Sea-Tac, a SubPop record store in the airport concourse…

And my plane, which you can’t quite see from here, is in the Portland Timbers livery:

Not a bad fare, too bad I didn’t realize it came with a dog. A “service dog” that needs some seriously remedial training.

The guy behind me doesn’t look too pleased with the dog either… or maybe with me taking the picture. That damn dog panted all three hours to Tucson riding on the woman’s shoulder – and the woman herself smelled like a dirty ashtray. Guess it could have been worse, the dog could have had its buss a foot from my face for three hours.

Here is my exchange with Alaska’s Customer Response Team:

1:06pm Mark Stephen Souder

Can you tell me what the rules are concerning “service dogs” — the one in the picture attached I doubt is a “service dog” even with the service dog vest on. This is a picture from bulkhead first class (1A — old lady and dog, 1C myself). I discreetly inquired with the flight attendant who said there is nothing they can do…that dog rode her shoulders for the entire flight, panting in my direction the whole way, which is better than getting it’s butt 12″ away from my face for two hours. And FYI, being slightly allergic to dogs luckily I had pills on me, but hope your planes are equipped with EpiPens.

2:07pm Alaska Airlines

Hi Mark Stephen Souder, sorry about the experience you had. Regarding service animals, if the passenger provides us identification cards, other written documentations, presence of harnesses, tags or credible verbal assurances of the service animal, then we have to accept it as a service animal. -John

2:21pm Mark Stephen Souder

Are their behavior rules in the cabin? All other service animals I’ve seem are at the feet of their companion rather than crawling over seat backs and going for my food.

2:40pm Alaska Airlines

Service animals doesn’t have to sit at the feet of the companion. I have seen smaller dogs that sit on the lap and they help the companion detect low blood sugar levels. -John

2:53pm Mark Stephen Souder

Thank you for the information — is this a situation where I could ask to be reseated due to allergies?

2:58pm Alaska Airlines

yes, you can always ask a flight attendant to be moved to another seat in first class. -John

So, dogs trump allergies – and any old paperwork and harness qualifies. At least it wasn’t a German Sheppard in a bulkhead row.

And, of course, the dog went after my lunch…

But before long memories of the nasty little dog faded as I settled into Life At Ficos…a little Ensalada Caprese because the early lunch wasn’t terribly filling…

And then to the pool…

Dinner tonight was out with a friend of Fico’s at Parish – I had a couple of appetizers, the Chile Rellenos and the Frog Legs Wrapped In Bacon. But we started with the Bacon Popcorn.

Here is the “office” set up…

Wednesday we celebrated Fico’s Birthday will dinner for eight at the house…a lovely salad:

Roasted root vegetables:

And BBQ’d chicken thighs:

Definitely a group effort for dinner, but then there was the wine:

The two Mondavi’s were from the 90’s and still tasting quite good, even with the desert of Tres Leches cake:

And the birthday boy (technically on Friday)…

Work for me all day Thursday, between the usual Thursday Madrona Wine Merchants site updates, there was a proposal due for another consulting gig that is looking good. That would make three jobs to be juggled – a good thing since I need the money since I keep spending it all on travel.

Dinner Thursday night was a couple of pan-friend rib eye steaks I’d picked up at the same time as the chicken, the remaining roasted veggies and another salad, though not quite as nice as the one Sam(antha) made last night. Dessert (and drinks) was at the Coronet Café at the Coronado Hotel – featuring a Gypsy Jazz Trio with Sam on violin…

They are pretty good as you can hear in this clip — and who doesn’t love an accordian:

Before you know it, it’s Friday, time for breakfast and out the door at noon:

The standard Uncle Markie breakfast – a couple of eggs and some meat product.

No lounge at the airport – but there is a GREAT sushi bar in the concourse…

Plane is on time…and no “service dogs” on this leg…

Cocktails, then a little lunch, which I just ate the chicken out of…

And before you know it, I’m shopping at Safeway on the way home since I have company for dinner…great view of Tahoma (Mount Rainier) from the parking lot:

A bit of haze from the temperature inversion, but still pretty.

Dinner tonight is a rare one, with Dwight up from Olympia for BrickCon at Seattle Center – yes, he’s a LegoHead, and an Amtrak fan as well, so I passed on my collection of Amtrak wares…

Needless to say, it was a long evening.

Back to work tomorrow.


Jun '14

Trip Report: The Coast Starlight From Los Angeles To Seattle.

The third and final train trip in this month’s rail adventures – The Coast Starlight.

Arrived 15-20 minutes late on The Southwest Chief – unshowered and unshaved but at least my teeth were brushed. First stop…wait for it….The Metropolitan Lounge on the second floor of Los Angeles’ Union Station.

This lounge has only been open since December of 2013 when I was through on my way back from Santa Fe – when it still smelled new. It’s sort of hard to find…to the right of ticket counter and left of the Hertz desk, then up an elevator and then to the left. Signage is a little lacking.

Plain from the outside:

Snazzy on the inside:

Juice, soda, coffee, espresso, sweet rolls, and a conference room with this really great photo of the previous era Coast Starlight:

Craig and I track side for one of the best “Platform Memories” yet – well, the photo is the best quality – and I should be as he’s a professional photographer.

We got to hang out for twenty minutes or so – and I got to give him a tour of the sleeper car. He wants and invitation the next time I want company on a train trip.

First order of business – even before the train left the station was a shower. I really should have done it on the Southwest Chief, but live and learn:

It much easier to shower when you aren’t bouncing off the wall of a moving train.

Greek Salad for lunch in the Parlour Car (this one from 1956) which alternative dining option to the Dining Car. Much more limited menu, but you generally don’t have sit with other people though not in my case as there was another single dinner – so much for my plans for reading USAToday while I ate.

Spent the afternoon working on the Southwest Chief post, jotted down a couple of ideas for future posts on weeks I’m not travelling. So much for getting anymore of the book I started on the airplane completed. The book (Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness) is the required reading for all incoming Evergreen Students for the fall semester. Yesterday I took one of those silly FaceBook quizzes on what your spirit animal is…and I got crow. Go figure.

I took dinner in the Parlour Car as well, with the same single gentleman as at lunch – and with each interaction it’s feeling odder and odder. It doesn’t help that his roomette is right across the hall from mine.

The main reason for the Parlour Car again for my meal was the Red Wine Braised Lamb Shank – which I’ve had before, and liked enough to track down the recipe which I posted in a previous entry. LINK.

The lighting is a little funky, but you get the idea. Luckily my “less than ideal” dining companion gets off at Sacramento around midnight.

After dinner I got text from Lunetta – apologizing that they wouldn’t make it to the platform (which I hadn’t expected they would) –his plane ran late, and he and Onyx were still at dinner. Nice of them t text – guess they enjoyed the last “Platform Moments”.

My last FaceBook post before I got out of range was “Bedtime For This Bonzo”.

After the weirdness of lunch and dinner I opted to have coffee and breakfast delivered to my room at 8am. How civilized. Mostly they provide this service for mobility limited people (like my mother who always gets the handicapped room downstairs) but anyone can request the service – though the last morning on the Southwest Chief you’d probably have to tip the room attendant in advance. But here was my breakfast:

Scrambled eggs, pork sausage patties, home fries (which I mostly didn’t eat – and I requested to biscuit/croissant either).

And for Swanda a “footie”…

For the rest of you a slightly maniacal “selfie”…

Had the burger (again) for lunch, again using Newman’s Own Two Thousand Island dressing as the “secret sauce”. Damn tasty, sorry, no photo – it disappeared too quickly.

At Eugene I texted the boys (Travis and Leo) saying the train was on time and that I was in Eugene:

Got a quick response back from Travis saying it was doubtful he was going to be able to make it after all. Sigh. Such a photogenic guy. And then Leo was stuck at the post office – a total bust for “Platform Memories” other than..

We were thirty minutes early into Portland, which means probably 30 minutes early into Seattle – meaning a compressed dinner schedule. I was surprised when I got a 6:20 reservation…the last seating.

I finally remembered to take a picture of their “Signature Cooked To Order Steak”:

Shared the table with a lovely couple from Stockholm who were headed to Seattle to catch the Norwegian Cruise Line boat to Alaska – thereby achieving their goal to see all 50 of the United States. How many citizens of the US can claim that. I can, but I’m definitely in the minority.

Caught a cab back from the train station and dropped off my Junior Conductor hat with Casey, one of the Evergreen Grad neighbors that moved in a couple of months ago – I think it looks better on him than me.

[217.6] Better than I was expecting – only a 3.8# weight gain after 5 days of 3-squares a day via Amtrak.

Mar '14

Trip Report: The Return Train To Istanbul.

Checked out of the hotel at10:30, was to the train station a little before 11 – two hours before my train. Probably way too much time but better safe than sorry.

As the last shot from Bucharest – here is where I’d like to be doing my banking.

Shades of Young Frankenstein!

Having scoped out the shops yesterday, it’s just time to assemble the goodies for the train trip:

  • (2) 1-liter bottles Coke Light
  • (2) 500ml sparkling water
  • (1) 700 ml Greek Brandy
  • (1) 200ml Pear Brandy (to take back to the states)
  • (1) 200ml Plum Brandy (also to take home)
  • (20) Spicy Wings from KFC (a bucket worth – good either warm or cold)

Now I have FOUR bags to get on the train:

  • Suitcase
  • Briefcase
  • Shoulder bag
  • KFC bag

I should have gotten a picture of that pile. Luckily to suitcase also functions as a hand truck.

The train boss, the train…

That would be the couchette card – no beds, just seats.

Technically my car is 478, but its sign isn’t as pretty. After a little run-in with a panhandler (let me help with your bags) I got settled into the compartment – pretty much the same layout as the last one, just different veneer. And then came a young American girl with the room attendant… apparently they had put her in the top bunk of my cabin. Seems this was what was on MY ticket:

Woman. Why they sold ME a woman ticket, I’m clueless, unless the ticket agent was trying to set us up since she bought her ticket the same day. And which all the empty compartments, why double up at all. The room attendant moved her next door.

One of the first things I noticed was that there were more “amenities” on the southbound train — complete with a sealed baggie with washcloth, soap, toothbrush, wipes, etc.  — and paper towels in the dispenser in the bathroom! Dwight will be getting the amenity kit for his train collection.

In short order, the bar is set up but now that I know the routine I didn’t bother with locking the luggage to the rack:

And time to meet the neighbors Eric (British) and Chandi (Texan):

It wasn’t long before the room attendant moved Eric next door to Chandi who was next door to be since we were all getting along so well. Eric is on a week’s holiday between jobs, and Chandi just finished up six months of living in Spain, working as an au pair and learning Spanish. Lots of lovely conversation as we share a little food and drink. When it was time for me to bow out, they got this great shot of me…

Which was shortly before this:

The first border stop was in Romania to get out passport stamped to get out, then 10 miles later, in Bulgaria to get our passports stamped to get in, then at 2am in the morning to get our passports stamped to get out of Bulgaria, then 3am to get stamped to gain entry to Turkey… and there is where the fun began. While Chandi and I had electronic visas for Turkey, Eric did not, nor did two other people on the train. And the visa office at the train station wasn’t open… finally one of the guards DROVE them to the car/truck crossing so they could get a visa. Those three got a pretty sticker in their passport – all Chandi and I have is a crappy piece of paper with a barcode. Sigh.

And then there was the Midnight Express (the 1978 movie about an American college student arrested and thrown in jail for trying to smuggle drugs out of Turkey) aspect to the final border crossing as the room attendant wanted Eric and Chandi to buy him four cartons of cigarettes with dollars that he had. And here is the tatty Duty Free store:

Lots of inspections – even of mine and Eric’s luggage. Needless to say, that put us a bit behind schedule.

And a better shot of the terminus of the current train station:

Our scheduled arrival in Istanbul was to be 7:50, in was closer to 9. Grabbed my bags, headed to a bank machine (because when I bought my Jamesons at Duty Free I paid in Turkish Lira and they gave me change in Euro – there went my cab fare Lira, then to the cab stand for the ride to what I think is the suburbs to a Radison that has a free airport shuttle.

And we’ll pick up the story from there in the next post.

[213.4] Middle of the afternoon in a wet Speedo

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Dec '13

All Day On The Train.

Up at 7:30 and off to the dining car of an uninspired omelet and even odder chicken/maple sausage – I should have trusted the Aussie from the last trip and his comments about that particular style of “sausage patty”.

Then it was back to bed until around 10:30 – trying to kick this head/sinus cold/infection like thing. I really don’t want to fly home on Friday feeling like pooh (and we aren’t talking Winnie The). Dwight made us noon reservations for lunch and 5:30 for dinner (the latest seating they had since we arrive at 9pm). Here is the view from the lunch table – Central Valley vineyards:

By mid-afternoon we were ion San Luis Obispo:

And later in the afternoon, the former Almond Exchange building, now the Derby Wine Estates:

The train actually got in half an hour early so I showed Dwight where the Metropolitan Lounge was since he had an hour and a half until his train for Fullerton in Orange County.

As for me, my buddy Craig picked me up for an overnight at his house – will be nice to have a bed that doesn’t rock back and forth. Still had Bourbon and Mixers from the trip, so we set to work on those while catching up on what’s happened in the year since I’d seen him.

How is this for a collapsible bowl:

Or would that be a bowl that turns into a chopping block?

A long day but at least I get to sleep in since my flight isn’t until 9:30pm tomorrow night.

[? ? ?]

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Dec '13

LA Bound.

Didn’t I Just Come From There?

Minor issue with the cab driver this morning for my 8am Time Call… he called at 7:45… lost. At least I knew the cab was coming.

Got to the train station an hour early as is my usual…and the station is looking good – you can now even get up to the second floor viewing gallery (previously hidden by a hideous fake ceiling):

And I spotted a place that would make a great “Metropolitan Lounge” on the second floor that LOOKS like there is still some construction going on. It would be FABULOUS to have a Metropolitan Lounge with an open air view of the main waiting hall. I’d posted that I hope they’d “pimp out” the paint to highlight the details, but the semi-gloss white is starting to warm to me:

It is great to see the station come back to life – the other train station in town (Union Station) is basically the lobby for one of Paul Allen’s office buildings (co-founder of Microsoft, my former employers.

Onboard the Coast Starlight Train Number 11, Room Number 8 – I settle in a half an hour before departure with a couple of splits of California Bubbles and get the “office” set up:

In honor of my mother I mixed the bubbles with a wee bit of cranberry juice to make a Red Baron. I really liked the suction window mount for the tablet until the seal gave hold and it tumbled to the ground, dragging the cell phone with it. Maybe tomorrow I work on seeing if it mounts (and stays) on the tray table.

This is what awaited Dwight when he boarded the train in Olympia (he is headed to his Moms for the holidays):

His xMess (thanks for the phrase CharmPop) present and a Santa Hat (which he refuses to wear for “father-son” pictures, or at all. Sigh.

Here is a great shot of Dwight and I at dinner:

And then again at the Klamath Falls smoke stop – yes, Dwight still has that habit, though at 2 packs a WEEK it could be worse:

Not the best selfie but at least you can see the snow in the background.

Dwight brought supplies for Black Russians (Vodka and Kahlua), and I packed Bourbon and Diet Verners and a couple of bottles of wine to have with dinner:

Did I mention that I brought real glassware on the trip? Thanks Swanda for the Vancouver Olympics booze glasses.

Burger for lunch, steak for dinner (with the Southard Syrah).

Let’s just hope the train stays on time.


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Didn’t I Just Come From There?

Dec '13

Cleaning Up The Mess.

The down side of all this travelling and then coming home to work the weekends is that… well, the house suffers. Eight different bags half-packed, half-unpacked.

Today is about just getting organized and organizing the house a bit. First order (besides sleeping in since I think I’m getting a bit of a head cold) is the xMess presents:

Yes, there is a small live tree buried with the sculptures… something I’m sure I can kill within the next year.

Not all done but enough for today. Also did a little grocery shopping and swung by to see the progress on the South Park Bridge…

The old South side casein has been demolished… looks like they are pouting the concrete on the bridge deck. Looks like we might have a bridge by spring. Another sunny day in Seattle – we take them where we can get them.

More packing – or at least making stacks of stuff that go in the TWO Porter Cases headed to LA. One is for my buddy Craig – think that one will be filled with Dwight’s xMess present, glasses, mixer, etc. for the trip. The other, clothing and booze.

No time to work on the new bar – figuring it might be AFTER the first of the year at this point. Sigh.

Marinated chicken breasts with greens for dinner tonight. A spare tit for tomorrow, or maybe Wednesday breakfast.


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Dec '13

Train Day Three.

Managed to get to breakfast around 7:30 this morning. The Retired Ship Captain that I was seated with last night was just arriving as I was finishing my spinach/mushroom/cheese frittata with pork sausage on the side. I ignored the potatoes, but did have a glass of cranberry juice. I explained that I wasn’t very chatty in the morning… and that maybe we could (and did) share a table later.

After last night I was now out of mixers for the bourbon that I brought along… so with lunch I got a complimentary Diet Pepsi (one per meal) as did I with dinner – along with grabbing a couple of small cans from the Metropolitan Lounge when we stopped in Portland for an hour. This means I will have avoided buying any of their bar soda pop at $2.50 a pop.

A little different scenery today as we are now in the mountains – yesterday morning was all sun and beaches, today is all overcast and snow:

Here is my car attendant Brian:

He was the nice main that made sure I never ran out of ice.

Speaking of Portland, here is a quick shot of the station. If you see the red cone, that is the entrance to the Metropolitan Lunge which is only for sleeping car passengers (others are in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York) – the source of free Diet Pepsi:

The train you see is the cancelled Empire Builder run for today (and until Sunday apparently). Seems North Plains storms have severely affected service between St. Paul and Spokane. Full Story Here

And those long-time readers may have seen my posts about Amtrak’s Braised Lamb Shanks… well, here they are in the flesh – so tender that the Capt. Ret. only needed to use his fork to finish them off:

Got into Seattle almost an hour early – or at least it felt that way – bodes well for next week’s Coast Starlight Trip to Los Angeles with Dwight – he’s headed to see his mom – me, I’m just tagging along to LA, spending the night, then flying home.

Looking forward to my own bed tonight.

[? ? ?] Always worried what tomorrow’s number will be after a week on the road, especially with three days of three square meals a day.

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