Yes, much like the movie Trains , planes and Automobiles, my son and I trekked across the country using a variety of transportation. Although unlike Steve Martin and John Candy, our rental car did not catch on fire! But we did have our fair share of calamities along the way. Our route was determined by the states that I have not yet been to in this great country of ours. If you read my last post, (and of course you have!! ) you already know about my goal to reach all 50 states by 50! I am happy to report that after this adventure… I only have 4 to go!
We were leaving from our home state of New York and decided to fly to Chicago and take it from there…. That’s where the “train” part comes in . We reserved a one way Amtrak sleeper car from Chicago to Whitefish, Montana and then rented a car to continue our westward journey. The Amtrak sleeper was a little under 400. pp and included meals. FYI, you can take this same train “The Empire Builder” all the way to Portland, Oregon but we opted to rent a car in Whitefish, Montana and drive to Oregon.
Stops Along The Way
We decided to spend a few days exploring Chicago before getting on our Amtrak train. Chicago is an awesome city with unbeatable architecture, great outdoor spaces and the best deep dish pizza (coming from NY that is a huge compliment). There is a fantastic 90 minute narrated river cruise that will introduce you to the many buildings in downtown and give you a really neat perspective from down below on the river. I must also mention the ever so popular Sky Cloud sculpture (known by locals as the “Bean”) which is worth a visit in the center of Millenial Park! There are a TON of other things to see and do in this vibrant city, but we must be moving on for now….
Where to Stay
The LondonHouse. If you can score a view of the river you won’t want to leave the room! Beautiful historic building in one of the best locations!
Quartino Ristorante. The eggplant parmesian was awesome! Portions are on the smaller side, but I still found mine filling enough.
Eggy’s Diner. Great place for a delicious breakfast!
We took 2 side trips from Chicago while we were there before we hopped on our Amtrak heading west!! Where did we go, you ask…..?? Well Europe was closed to Americans this summer due to COVID… so no, my side trips from Chicago were NOT Romania and Hungary! But since I had not been to Wisconsin or Michigan yet, those were the winners! The Michigan coastline is suppose to be spectacular. Unfortunately we did not make it as far north as I would have liked to, but we spent the day at Silver Beach and enjoyed a great day ! I was curious as to what creatures live in Lake Michigan and Googled it before running full speed into the lake without a care in the world. Fun fact; no shark reports have ever been documented in Lake Michigan. Observation based on my experience…Lake Michigan is FREEZING!
St. Joseph Michigan
After a day in Michigan, we drove the 3 hrs. Over to Beloit, Wisconsin. This small, one light town really impressed me! To make a long story short, the town was way past it’s prime as a steel manufacturing hub . Like a forgotten part of America, it was lost in the shadows …until a single mother moved there in the 1960s and started flipping houses to make a living. She did extremely well and continued to invest in the town little by little. This woman , Diane Hendricks, eventually became the richest self made woman in America and to this day at 73 Years old she is living and investing in this town! She brought it back out of the shadows and helped create an eclectic, quaint mid west revival town worth a visit!!
Where to Eat
Velvet Buffalo . Wow! So the pastas are homemade… never thought I could get such an amazing pesto dish in a tiny Wisconsin town!! And the roof deck was spectacular!
Where to stay
Ironworks Hotel. Such a cool hotel.. it represents the history of the steel industry that was Beloit’s beginnings .. the interior is industrial/Art Deco and the location is right on the river!
Elsewhere in Wisconsin
This blog would not be complete without mentioning the Mouse House Cheese Haus outside of Madison. Much like Chevy Chase’s quest to show his family the “World’s Largest Ball of String” in National Lampoon’s Vacation … My quest was to visit the Cheese Haus and sample as many Wisconsin cheeses for free as possible. Admittedly, I spent way too much money to ship 1 pound of 17 year old cheddar and a pound of Muenster to my house, but who could resist? The cheese was amazing!!!
Now… for the train part of our adventure ! We boarded the Amtrak “Empire Builder” in Union Station back in Chicago. We were in the last car, top room of a double decker. I wish I could describe it as a “smooth ride “. It’s pretty cool to have your own sleeper car though. The bottom chairs slide down into a bed and a top bunk pulls out from above. We had a train attendant who checked in on us and another who made our meal reservations , etc. it was a unique experience. We made friends with one of our attendants when I discovered that we grew up 2 towns away from each other back on Long Island . Small world!
Minot, North Dakota
The train makes several stops along the route. Some a little longer than others. I only mention Minot (rhymes with why not?) because North Dakota was another state on my list of “never been there states” . We had about 40 minutes there (which was twice as long as needed) to run off the train and up a hill, crossing a street and down through what appeared to be the only two streets in town . I bought coffee and a scone at the local coffee shop. Minot, why not?
Now this was one of my favorite towns on this trip! After 30 plus hours on the train, we were finally at our next destination! The mountain air was invigorating! We stayed 4 worthwhile nights here and explored Glacier National Park, the adventure park on Whitefish Mountain and the town itself. The adventure park is a ski mountain in the winter , turned downhill biking trails in summer. I told them I was a beginner when I rented my bike, face helmet and lift ticket. Perhaps they didn’t hear me or maybe they didn’t care. To say it was a challenge would be an understatement. The face gear should have been a hint about the danger level… My son thought it was a thrill . At one point as I was navigating over foot high roots and boulders going at ungodly speeds downhill I wondered who would water my flowers when I didn’t make it home. Suddenly, Just when I was feeling a little courageous after a few times down, I slid on some unknown obstacle and lost control of the bike. The scars are still visible as I write this. My son can’t wait to go again.
There’s also a mountain coaster worth mentioning on the mountain. Super fun and no face helmet required!
Glacier National Park was about an hour or so from the town of Whitefish and was so amazing! They have a horse stable right inside the park and so many great hikes to choose from ! We did the Avalanche Lake hike while we were there and spent hours on different trails. When we were there it cost $25.00 per car to enter the park.
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Grouse Mountain lodge. I loved everything about this place… the animal heads on the wall, (not meant to sound as creepy as it does) the huge stone fireplace, the staff … and especially the free bikes that we used to ride into town everyday!!! I love free things. Oh! And the outdoor hot tub!
Our next stop was Wallace, Idaho. Not more than a few hour drive from Whitefish. How do I begin to describe this place? Ok… so it began as a mining town back in 1887. The town has a cool history and there is even an opportunity to go on a mine tour , one of the towns biggest attractions (and only attractions). Actually the town has several other interesting and quirky museums , antique shops and sites. The center of the universe is located in Wallace . If you don’t believe me , google it. It’s a hilarious story. I have a photo to prove it! The famous Hiawatha Bike Trail , a 15 mile downhill biking trail that goes over 7 sky high tressels and through 10 abandoned railroad tunnels is a short drive from Wallace and well worth it. All in all, I would absolutely recommend a day or two here. You never know what you might find! Hopefully it won’t be a light at the end of the tunnel …
We stayed at an AirBnB called The Church House. It’s actually an old chapel with stained glass windows, a patio and an amazing location. I can’t recommend it enough! We also had the pleasure of meeting the owners who gave great recommendations around town.
Well, we actually stayed on the outskirts of the city in an old school converted into a hotel. The hotel stay was an experience in itself. All of the rooms are old classrooms with chalkboards, book shelves and a desk for the teachers. There are also several bars in the school turned hotel with clever names like , “the Detention Bar” and “The Principals Office” . When I was a kid, my grade school principal used his desk as his own private bar …..nowadays I understand why. They also show classic movies in the old auditorium at night. As a teacher myself, I was loving the fact that I felt like I was drinking and sleeping on the job! The ride from Wallace to Portland was about 7 or 8 hours!
Where to Stay
Mcmenamins Kennedy School .
Moving on now to Wolf Creek Oregon, approximately 3 hours south of Portland… there is a stagecoach inn (one of the oldest continuously running in the Pacific Northwest) said to be HAUNTED with great rooms, an amazing dinner and a ghost tour… if you dare! About 10 minutes up the road you can visit the ghost town of Golden. There is still a schoolhouse , a church, a dilapidated outhouse (talk about “shitty” accommodations) and a few other abandoned buildings and houses. It was worth the 10 minute drive for some great photos and it’s free to visit.
Where to Stay
At The Wolf Creek Inn of course!
The Pacific Coast Highway
As they say, all good things must come to an end… our cross country adventure ended with a leisurely drive down the Pacific Coast Highway and included a stop to see some North Pacific Redwoods, a ride over the Golden Gate Bridge, a fantastic horse ride through the California mountains at Circle Bar B Ranch ( amazing ride with great horses) and a night at a drive in movie theatre at West Wind Drive In. This was one of my trip highlights , not only because they were playing a double feature of Goonies and Gremlins, but also because I love everything about drive in movies. Nothing beats the old fashioned concession stands and the overall atmosphere of a drive in! They charged per car, not per person, so I had no excuse to lock my kid in the trunk…
Unlike the characters in Goonies, we did not find gold and treasures when we reached the Pacific Ocean at the end of our adventure…. but we had much more valuable experiences along the way. I mean, seriously… unlimited cheese samples at the Mouse House/ Cheese Haus AND the chance to stand on the Center of the Universe in Wallace , Idaho versus finding a pirate ship full of gold and jewels ?! I say we won, hands down and I wouldn’t trade it for the world!
Where to stay along the PCH
The Bluebird Motel, Cambria, California. Great prices , lovely town and good location! It’s also a good midway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Where to Eat
In-n-Out Burger … No need to say more.
New York Times article