Days 21-27: Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago
After the overnight bus from SLO to Emeryville (just outside of San Francisco), I was ready to start the trek east. Of the four possible cross-country trains, I had selected the California Zephr, since it offered the cities I was most interested in seeing, and terminated in Chicago, from where it would be easy to get to Ontario. The first leg, to Salt Lake City, afforded some great scenery in the Californian mountains and through Nevada. In some nice added value for a geek like me, volunteers from the California State Railroad Museum read out historical trivia at relevant stops. That night, somewhere in Nevada there was a fantastic moment where we stopped and had some kind of power failure, left to look from the dining car out into the complete darkness of the desert.
Salt Lake City was an exact 24-hour stop, arriving and departing at 4am. It was a day full of the expected: views of the mountains, a tour of Mormon headquarters (including some searching in their immense genealogy database), and a stop at the state legislature. Mostly, Utah made me really want to return with a car or bike and check out the huge number of national parks in its southern half, to explore the unique landscape.
Despite the good luck of arriving during Sundance, every film I was interested in seeing was sold out; I consoled myself by catching a flick at the megaplex and feeling excessively lame. I had failed to finalize plans with a couchsurfing contact, and just ended up sleeping in the train station — a painful experience, given its small size and uncomfortable furniture, but apparently SLC is building a new one for future travellers.
Another day on the train brought me to Denver, a city which I did not do justice to. The bought of consecutive nights of partial sleeps in awkward places caught up with me; I spent about half my day throwing up in the apartment of my gracious couchsurfing host and the other half wandering around downtown. I enjoyed its pedestrian mall, bookstores, and what I saw in my brief, obligatory look at the state legislature — beyond that, all I can say is it’s a city I’d like to see again. I was scheduled to leave at 8pm; luckily I checked the Amtrak website and knew well in advance that the Zephr was running 6 hours late.
By now, even a train-lover like me was getting sick of the train, and I spent as much time sleeping as I could. Thanks to the delay, I arrived in Chicago after midnight, and decided that it was too late to wake up my planned couchsurfing host, so I instead planned to walk the mile to a hostel. As soon as I stepped outside of the train station, the wind hit me, and it seemed like tourists everywhere where being tossed by the wind. Feeling the chill cut through my long johns, I begrudgingly hailed a cab who took me to hostel for an embarrassingly cheap fare.
Like Denver, my schedule and temperament didn’t afford nearly enough to Chicago. It had a lot to offer, and completely outperformed my expectations. I managed to fill my little time there catching the El-train to the suburb of Oak Park, where I saw Ernest Hemingway’s birthplace and took a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s house. After that, I was back downtown for a two hour walking tour of modern architecture put on by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. It was fantastic, totally accessible to an architecture newbie, and with frequent indoor stops to warm up from the cold.
That evening I waited in the beautiful Union Station for my overnight train to Buffalo, the Lake Shore Limited — despite Richard Florida’s urging, there actually isn’t a train to Canada on the north side of Lake Eerie, one has to circumnavigate it to get from Chicago to Toronto.
Due to my increasing fatigue and dying batteries, the only photo I got in Chicago was of Hemingway’s birthplace (and it turns I had read the hours wrong and couldn’t even go inside):
Authenticity note: As the trip wound down, I really didn’t feel like writing about this segment, so I actually didn’t get around to it untill today (late March). The final post though, was actually written in “the heat of the moment”.
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