Since 2018, I’ve kind of wanted to turn the event into an excuse to visit friends and do some US travel that’s not the brisk and strict point-to-point nature of air travel.
But wait, what if you don’t get a non-stop flight?
Airports aren’t really a place per se, yeah they’re a place but the nature of that place is (sorry) liminal; an airport is mostly just a bunch of hallways lined with (never enough) chairs, interchangeable lounges, stores, and quick service kitchens.
I won’t not have a Mango Cart at the LAX AAdmiral’s Club but let’s not pretend it’s a Los Angeles experience, just a place to enjoy free wifi and a restroom where you don’t have to brace your forehead on the wall to fit.
Since I don’t like driving, I decided to take Amtrak. And since I also had to work in July, I only took it for part of the trip. I’d fly to Seattle, do computer camp, see some friends in town afterwards, take the train south to visit a friend in southern Washington, continue south for what would hopefully be a nice morning in Sacramento and not a stressful connection, then catch the California Zephyr first to Denver, see more friends there over the weekend after Toorcamp, get back on the Zephyr to Chicago, and fly home from there.
Miami to Toorcamp
I flew to Seattle, spent an evening with Greg and Josh, and the next day caught a ride with another Toorcamp attendee.
The ferry ride was gorgeous; we were on the one that left right before sunset, and it was incredible to be sailing right into all the spectacular colors.
Toorcamp was amazing as always. Orcas Island, or at least the Doe Bay resort it’s held at, is spectacular. It’s the mostly wild Pacific Northwest, with tall trees, complex terrain, not-unfriendly fauna, and simply stunning summer weather, with (to this Florida Man) cold nights and days that may be anywhere from hot and sunny to etheral and gloomy. I got to see a bunch of friends, made some new ones, leveled up my radio license, and of course talked about computers a bit.
I’m also glad I snuck off a few times to just wander through a big garden, down to the shore where the seabirds frolicked mostly free of people, and up through the woods to a quiet district where a few people stayed in yurts. As a fun chance encounter, while walking back to the main camp from the yurt zone, I had a quick conversation with Annalee Newitz, an author whose books I’ve enjoyed and the event’s keynote speaker.
All in, it was a super great event and I’m thinking about what to do for next time.
Cascades and Starlight
After spending a day in Seattle (shopping and visiting friends, of course), I caught the Cascades line to south Washington. The walk down to the station from my hotel wasn’t too bad, even if I was a bit overencumbered with stuff I’d bought the previous day. Since I wasn’t going far, I just got to enjoy breakfast and my morning games (Wordle, among others).
My friend in south Washington lives somewhere mad rural; on the drive to his place we got to see some funky local landmarks, like an indoor flea market that’s “open” but feels abandoned most days, a weird and possibly illegal event space, a massive and ugly bird sculpture that’s rumored to contain a helicopter (all of these are the same place).
It honestly made me think of rural Saskatchewan, but with stuff more concentrated due to terrain. I had a ton of fun out there at the farm, seeing chickens, shooting guns, subjecting everyone to the bottle of Jeppson’s Malört that I horked from Toorcamp.
The next morning, after breakfast, I went back to town to catch the Coast Starlight south. Unlike the Cascades line, the Starlight is a proper long-distance train, with sleeper cars, sit down dining, an observation car, the whole deal. I had a roomette, since I was gonna be riding overnight, and also computing a bunch.
The sleeper train experience is pretty nice, once you get over the bumps, the non-deterministic arrival schedule, and unreliable cell service. I’m not being ironic; it’s way more spacious than anything in the skies, you can get up and walk around, and every few hours there’s a “smoke break” where you can get off the train for a bit.
The roomette is pretty good too. You get two chairs that face each other and recline, wider than US first class airplane seats. You get power and a huge window. There’s an easy bed to get in to, made by reclining the two seats together. There’s a difficult bed that pulls down from the ceiling, and on the Superliner trains it’s nice and dark up there too.
The Starlight has a substantial smoke break in Portland, which is a gorgeous station;. South of there, coincidentally when I was getting dinner, it passes Odell Lake, which another passenger at the table commented was “more trees than [they’d] ever seen in [their] life!” Over lunch I’d had the meyer lemon cake for dessert, so with dinner I decided to get the chocolate cheesecake, which was super rich and dense.
We were expected in Sacramento at, like, 6:30am the next day, and by the time I finished dinner we were still on time (outlier) so I set my alarm for 6am, got everything I wouldn’t need in the morning packed, and made it an early night.
Nobody told me I’d have a fun time in Sacramento. Getting out of the train station at 6:30 (checked everything at the luggage counter except my wallet, phone, and rented camera) was interesting. It felt like much of the town hadn’t woken up, and while the train station was pretty close to the capitol, Downtown Sacramento doesn’t have a lot going on for visitors at 7am.
I’d looked around online and found Milka Coffee Roasters, a coffee shop about a mile walk away, so I set out. I got there a few seconds before the barista did, but I did enjoy legit one of the best espressos I’ve ever had, a maple latte which was also great, and a muffin.
After that, I set off again, wandered around the Capitol building, and decided to see if anything was open in the Old Sacramento tourist district. The train museum wasn’t, but trains are big and they were pretty easy to see from outside. A little diner was, so I had a more substantial breakfast while sitting outside. After that, I walked over the river mostly for the sake of filling the ring on my watch, and headed back to the station way earlier than necessary.
California Zephyr, Above Denver
The California Zephyr is two things. It’s an absolute beast of a journey, a 2400 mile trek from San Francisco1 area to Chicago, over 52 hours2. It’s also a pretty typical Amtrak long-distance train, with similar amenities to the Coast Starlight.
This ride, I’d booked a full bedroom since it was the longest leg of the trip. The bedroom’s great. You get a chair, a big couch that folds down into a bed, another bed that pulls out of the ceiling, and a little private bathroom with both a toilet and a shower.
The real reason to take the Zephyr is the scenery, especially through the Rockies between Grand Junction and Denver. Most of the second day’s route is along the Colorado River, through the mountains, with people out on the water showing the whole train their backside as tradition. It was enjoyably busy on the river for a Friday afternoon, and the scenery didn’t disappoint.
The conductor3, Brad, for this leg was fantastic too, with tons of facts about the route and a great sense of humor. A few times up in the mountains, we’d stop for a while to wait for a switch to move, and at least once he stepped off the train to wrangle it by hand.
A fun bit of trivia: the Zephyr passes through the Moffat Tunnel in the Rockies, a six-mile tunnel that’s the highest point on Amtrak’s network, and commences the train’s descent into Denver, and basically Chicago.
Brad described it as, in some ways, the top of America, and while it wasn’t the emotional high point of my whole trip4, it definitely marked, for me, the beginning of the end of the odyssey.
I was going to spend a weekend in Denver, the top of America, where the romantic southwest transitions to the cultural northwest and geographic midwest without being threatening to people from the east. I was going to see friends that had fled Miami years prior for something that wasn’t the fast pace of the northeast, the ethereal gloom of the northwest, or California. But after that I’d continue downhill towards Chicago, nothing more planned than a hotel reservation and an airplane ticket.
According to Brad, the trackage west of Denver isn’t particularly well maintained by the freight railroad that owns it, and with modern summer heat, they have to slow the train way down to avoid damaging it. That meant that we got in to Denver hours late, but the dinner on the train was so nice and my plans for after arrival were so sparse I didn’t mind.
A Weekend in Denver
Earlier on Friday, I’d texted my friends in Denver. A couple of them, said they were going to be busy all day Saturday, racing dragon boats at Sloan Lake, just west of downtown. Another friend, Javi, was working Saturday but not Sunday.
So Saturday morning I woke up, washed up, found a coffee place, and took the light rail out to Sloan Lake to see if I could figure out where the dragons were.
After a hot but dry walk up the hill from the light rail, I found myself in a quiet but massive park, with what might be some activity at the far side of the lake. So I kept walking around the lake, and eventually got to a massive festival, with a bag check at the entrance, tons of food vendors, multiple stages, an unusably oversubscribed cell network, and a bunch of different teams of racers, and I had no idea where my friends were!
I got a bottle of water, and found a spot that was alright for watching the races but top-notch for watching the racers getting on and off the boats, and I found one of them pretty soon after that. He (and the rest of the team that’d just won their race) led me to their club’s tent where his wife was, and we hung out in the shade and shelter from the itinerant afternoon rain, enjoying spam musubi and fun company. I met a few other people that were spectating and talked a lot about Toorcamp, but eventually as it stayed hot yet drizzly, we split up for the afternoon, although I did get an invitation and an offered ride to what ended being a fun and relaxing backyard cookout that evening.
The next morning I went to a very busy but pretty good breakfast place (got the huevos rancheros) before checking out at the hotel and dropping my bags at Union Station. From there, I caught the train east out to suburban big box hell, and walked from there to Station 26 Brewing. We hung out for a few hours, had some brews and listened to the band. We then made our way across town to Epic Brewing, in an area that didn’t seem unlike Wynwood. After a drink there, we went to a neat basement ramen shop, and then he dropped me off back at Union Station.
Of course I was still thinking in airport timing, and I had about ninety minutes to kill at the station. I developed photos from the busy day, had a manhattan from the bar right there in the waiting room, and eventually moseyed outside to get on the train.
California Zephyr, Below Denver
Out on the platform, there was a big queue before the train even pulled up, next to a private railcar I hadn’t noticed Friday. I walked around the gathering to get some photos of the train pulling in, and when it did, the conductor yelled at me from a window to get in the line. Back in the line, we got to watch the back end of a private car pull in, and once that was uncoupled, people started streaming off the train just as I had Friday night. A few minutes later, we started piling on.
I was looking forward to going to bed, and my roomette was already set up for it. Chairs merged, mattress and sheets in place; all I had to do was figure out how to share the space with my bags and get over the subtle but persistent aroma I hadn’t noticed in any of the previous rooms I’d been in.
After rigging up the coat strap to keep everything stowed in a sensible way, I slept alright.
Riding down into Chicago the next day was pretty relaxed. The view is mostly corn, so I got lots of computing in. It was kind of neat going through places that I either think of as punchlines for jokes or not at all, but mostly in a checklist kind of way. Omaha? Checked off.
It was great to pull in to Chicago on Monday evening. I’d enjoyed the ride, but real life responsibilities hadn’t been on vacation with me. The need to finish a work project had been building up, the side project I’d been working on was drawing close, and I missed people from home too.
I was pretty glad I wasn’t trying to catch the 8pm flight to Miami, because that’s when the train arrived. Instead I’d booked a hotel downtown for the night, and I enjoyed a second shower of the day, a $26 Manhattan back downstairs in the lobby (c’mon that is ridiculous), and a king size bed that didn’t wobble around.
Before heading out to O’Hare, I got some amazing huevos rancheros at “Eggy’s,” enjoyed some of the weird terrain and elevation around there (climbed a big staircase after breakfast), and finally figured out how to get on the Blue Line.
The last train ride of the trip was neat; it was after rush hour, so for most of the ride the real hustle and bustle of the car was a guy taking a few kids to the airport, trying to teach the oldest how to play rock-paper-scissors. At the airport, I waited around while listening to a family on their way to the Orlando theme parks while ordering DEF CON supplies.
The rest of the trip home was honestly kind of a blur! More distance than the ride the previous day, in a fraction of the time. I didn’t even bother with the big computer, instead watching a video on my tablet and enjoying a beer. The trip from the airport back home was similarly quick, and all I could think of to do once I got there was throw my stuff down and immediately go walk for groceries, in the heat and humidity.
For me, that’s kind of how many of these trips end; amazing times with friends I miss, the blur of travel, and after that a quick transition to rejoin the world I feel obliged to pay attention to. The fascinating and memorable part of this particular experience was that the bulk of the trip was memorable, to an extent. While the train is primarily a mode of transport, it’s similar to a Caribbean cruise in that the mode of transport is contemplatively slow enough that it becomes as much a goal of the trip instead of simply a facility.
Will I do it again? I could absolutely see doing this trip or something similar for a future Toorcamp, and I’m absolutely not opposed to taking Amtrak to DC or somewhere like that again either. It’s not great if you’ve got a schedule, but for leisure travel, sometimes you’d rather not have a schedule.
listed as 51h40m eastbound, but you will not go that fast ↩
on Amtrak, the conductor is the main person for the passenger part of the operation, similar to a purser on an airplane or ship ↩
that would probably be celebrating after passing the radio test, having a really good whisky, or learning about how Shadytel ran phone service to the upper camp in exchange for taking a good picture ↩
well, Emeryville ↩