The first leg of our flight to New Zealand departs from Seattle, primarily because the airfare was nearly half-off vs. departure from anywhere else in the country, and our nomadacy means we have the rare ability to price-shop by departure location. Secondarily the Seattle area is the closest thing we have to a “home base”, so touching that base is always valuable for us. The downside is that we have to overcome how silly it feels to have left Seattle on our bikes at the end of May, then have pushed further east to Chicago, and finally have made it nearly to the opposite end of the country in upstate New York, only to reverse the whole thing.
Not only that, it’s a repeat of the New York to Washington Amtrak journey we made last winter, though that one included a month-long holiday stay with my parents in the Chicago area in between. The 3-night pause this time is much-briefer, though still long enough to get a break from train-life, see old friends, and get some final spoiling from family.
And then it’s time for our fourth visit to Chicago’s Union Station in 22 days, and the completion of our second Amtrak-based transit of 4/5ths of the country in the last year.
Even though we’re experienced Amtrak travelers, the Empire Builder route is a whole different beast. At 46 hours (if it’s on-time, which it frequently is not!), it’s more than 3 times longer than a Chicago-Syracuse trip. When we first did it in January, it turned out to be much more enjoyable than I had been fearing, but I figured now with some of the novelty worn off, this one would be a more-challenging slog. But it actually felt just as easy. It helped that it wasn’t winter, so the plumbing on our car didn’t sends its odors up to us like it did last time after the pipes froze (though we were still too late in the season to pass through Glacier when it was light outside, and unlike last time couldn’t huddle with our faces pressed to the black window watching the full moon light up the snow-covered forest).
Also between our two trips Amtrak has begun allowing coach passengers to eat in the dining car again (a COVID-era change had restricted access to sleeping-car passengers only). We mostly brought our own food with us, supplemented a bit by items from the less-fancy cafe car, but treating ourselves to a dining car dinner was part of the plan both for a better meal and some entertainment to break up the days. We waited until the second evening, and jumped up earlier in the day right when the announcement was made that they were opening reservations to coach passengers, and just barely secured one of the last slots (though in general it didn’t feel like there was a huge imbalance between supply and demand). The $45 price probably suppresses that demand, but the three-course meal (one glass of wine included!) ended up being surprisingly good. But a near-equal benefit is being seated with other travelers, and we lucked out with a younger guy from Oregon traveling home after his shift in the North Dakota shale oil fields, and an older guy traveling out from Minot, ND to relieve a relative caring for a sick loved one. Hearing direct and insane details about the boom-and-bust cycles that brought tons of workers to the unpopulated Bakken Formation over the last 15 years reveals a lifestyle more-unique and interesting than our own!
We also had the ideal car, with the dining car directly in front of us, and the observation/cafe car directly behind us. The observation/cafe car (along with the other cars going to Portland instead of Seattle) then drops off at Spokane, but we could still get grab-and-go breakfast items from the dining car, and then could see right down to the tracks from the back window of our car for the final daylight Cascades-crossing section that made us wow over Washington as we always do. One day our luck will run out, but not only did all of these Amtrak trips arrive on-time, a couple (including this one) were even early!
The total two-person ticket cost (including bicycle fees) for our roundabout four-leg Amtrak journey from Denver to Seattle was $924. That’s certainly not nothing, but it’s slightly less than the price difference between New Zealand flights from Seattle (~$700/person) vs. anywhere else (minimum ~$1200/person). So in comparison to, say, departing straight from Denver for New Zealand, we were able to get a huge inoculating dose of family-and-friends “for free”. On top of that, “where we sleep at night” is our largest expense, so one that we’re always trying to optimize. Our four Amtrak journeys covered five nights, so the $924 becomes an especially good deal when considering that it covers both transportation and lodging for us (unlike most Amtrak travelers, a night on the train for us doesn’t mean a night unused-but-still-paid-for in our apartment/house). Of course it’s not the most-comfortable form of overnight lodging, but it sure beats the night we’re going to have on the airplane over the Pacific Ocean!
Unlike our winter stay in Seattle, where we lived for four months a few miles north of downtown, this time we were staying right in the center, in a guest/rental unit in Rett’s friend Kelly’s high-rise apartment building. At King Street Station we unpacked our Ikea bags and reloaded our bikes, but ended up just walking them the mile or so up the hilly sidewalks.
Rett was happy to reconnect with some of her Seattle friends (especially Kelly who we could enjoy having over to dinner most nights), take care of some medical stuff (we both got COVID+flu shots), and I did some much-needed bike work; I replaced the really expensive Cinq Plug5 Plus phone charger on her bike with the Plug6 Plus after water-induced corrosion wrecked the USB-C port on the poorly-designed Plug6 (hopefully improved with the Plug6!) Now she’ll be able to listen to music on her phone again while riding without totally killing her battery.
In an even bigger emergency, a chain replacement on my bike revealed that I had left the old chain on too long, to the point where it significantly wore down the teeth on the front chainring, revealed by the new chain now skipping any time I pedaled with a mild amount of effort. No!! None of the replacement chainrings I could find on Amazon would arrive in the small remaining window we had (and I couldn’t find much appropriate anyway). The stock in local shops wasn’t helping either, so I was even looking ahead at solutions in New Zealand (and failing there too). This was a real crisis! Would I need to change out my entire drivetrain to a more-modern and easily-available system than our tried-and-true 3×9? Argh!!
But several hours into my quest for a solution, when once again searching the websites of local shops, I found that Westside Bicycles in West Seattle (just an easy 4 mile ride away!) again didn’t have a suitable chainring, but they supposedly had the entire Shimano M4050 crankset that we both use, in stock! This would be a bit of overkill, though actually an easier replacement, but one I hadn’t really been looking at since our cranks had been discontinued years ago, to the point where they aren’t available anywhere online anymore, regardless of shipping time. A call confirmed that not only was their website telling the truth, they even had more than one! This super-small (40/30/22t) triple-ring crankset (with a chain-protector!) has barely ever been used outside of Europe as far as I can tell, so I have no idea why this nearby Seattle shop had any in stock, but I rode over as quick as I could the next morning and bought both of them! (the second went to the storage unit). While there I also broke down and bought a tool to measure chain wear, even though it seems like a silly extra bit of weight to carry around, but I obviously can’t be trusted to check it on my own anymore!