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Thank you,

Lisa

LB Living Better

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All Aboard! Setting out to see “the States”

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picture courtesy of http://www.amtrak.com

It’s official, we are setting out to see the states!  The United States ~ the country we call home.

After much deliberation and debate we have concluded that the best way for this family of five to see the states is by …. wait for it… TRAIN!  Thirty days, 12 segments and as many contiguous states that we can cram into one trip!  (For more information, click here AMTRAK USA RAIL PASS).

How did we arrive at this decision you might ask?  Well, it goes something like this…. I have always wanted to travel cross country and I anticipated that I would be doing it like the Griswolds (if you are unfamiliar check the video reference in our last camping trip post).  The Griswolds less the dead grandmother on the roof!

Seriously, my vision involved renting an RV and spending a summer month leisurely riding across America with my family.  I’ll admit I’m an optimist and an adventure seeker, but thankfully, I also possess a very practical and realistic mindset.  The idealistic version in my head collided with reality and produced these frightening truths about my family’s ability to drive across country together:

1)  I actually do not like to drive ~ I am a great passenger!

2)  My family loves each other, but let’s face it my teenage children do not get along like the Brady Bunch.

3) Our marriage like most marriages has its strengths, however, after 2 decades together I am quite certain that getting lost while driving in a new city does not bring out the best in us.

4) The idea of driving a large RV, repeatedly parking and setting up in campsites, and copious amounts of gasoline all worked against this once dreamed of idea.

Enter the train plan.  Many years ago I traveled through Europe on a Eurail Train Pass and it was the time of my life.  A few google searches later and I stumbled upon the Amtrak multi-city pass.  For Christmas we surprised our children with the plan and gave them their first assignment, to choose the one city they can’t miss on our trip.  (Our only caveat was to start 10-12 hours outside of the northeast since that is within driving distance of our home and can be saved for a later adventure).

Now I need your help, my fellow bloggers and followers.  What advice can you share about train travel?  Where should we go?  What cities, places, adventures should not be missed on our next great adventure?  Any and all suggestions are most welcome!

“I’m All That and a Bag of Chips”

I first learned the phrase “All that and a bag of chips” from one of my lovely middle school students, many years ago.  It made me laugh then and today I use it every time I think, “I have it all together, but deep down I know I’ve got a long way to go!”

cropped-img_032111.jpgOne trip under my belt and I am cocky, experienced, train traveler.  Yup, a pure bag of chips.  Looking back to the pre-trip posts of last year brings the worry and panic right back.  The 2014 list included issues that we have resolved this year… here are the 2015 Answers:

How much is this going to cost?  Not as much as you thought… pleasant surprise

Will we really be able to sleep on a train? Yes and no, pick the right seat, bring ear plugs and be sufficiently tired from the days activities.  Sit with your smallest child!

Is train travel safe? Even though recent events would suggest otherwise, I felt completely safe on board, far less tense than driving and very comfortable letting my children wander and meet new people.

Can we survive the togetherness of a family of five with teenagers? A resounding yes, moving about the train is a huge bonus, and let’s be real we all had our moments, but most have been forgotten at this point and I don’t think any of them went viral.

What happens if we get stranded or find ourselves lost in a new city?  This did not happen but it’s always a concern especially if you are trying to catch an early train… those nights I slept worse in the hotel than on the train!

It’s summer, will the heat be unbearable? Nope, lucked out here too!  The elevation in Flagstaff made it actually chilly in the evening, who knew?  Texas and Louisiana this year are giving me pause however….

Should we just fly out to CA as originally planned? ABSOLUTELY NOT!  We had a great amount of time in California and I wouldn’t trade the experience of getting there for a first class plane ticket.

Where are we going to stay?  This is a tough one and the motivation for our new book “Beyond the Rails”.  Where to stay and what to do takes a bit of planning and thinking about carrying everything with you all of the time!

How will we manage without a car? Renting a car in two cities was a nice change of pace.  This year we will be going the whole trip without a car, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Will this be the adventure of a lifetime for my family that I hope it is? All the worry, all of the planning, all of the angst were more than worth it because “Yes” this was an adventure of a lifetime that I would recommend without reservation to anyone who ever considered “seeing” the United States.  For the adults and children our understanding of our country has been completely redefined and our perspective forever changed. 

Though I have one trip under my belt I do know that I am destined  for a pre-trip melt down. I’m hoping I may have had it already when I fell and sprained my ankle a few days ago.  (Update:  Off crutches, using air cast and my ankle is quite the kaleidoscope of bruising colors!)ankle_injury_running

The countdown is on, we leave in five days.  Nothing is packed, and our itinerary is still in the making, I have at least three dozen errands to do, but I got this, “I’m all that and a bag of chips!”

Please join us on Twittter @LBLivingBetter where we hope to be broadcasting live with Periscope!   #Beyond the Rails

You can also find us on Facebook!

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48 Hours Until We are Locked in as Passengers!

I have 48 hours to make final decisions on our 2015 USA Rail Pass adventure! You can call in your itinerary to Amtrak and then ask for a courtesy hold. My courtesy hold will expire on Friday and I admit I have already changed the “final itinerary” once!amtrak_map

On Friday, we will need to pay in advance for our reservations and then we are locked in as passengers. While daunting to make the commitment this can also be a relief because it means NO MORE CHANGES! I’m one of those people who needs a limited menu, otherwise I can completely overwhelm myself!

This brings me to you ~ my friendly reader. Below is our itinerary and I would LOVE to hear from you, if you are from a particular city or you have travelled there for business or pleasure. Where should we stay? (I prefer to stay near train stations but I am willing to look at unique options.) What activity or vista should we absolutely not miss? Any particular food that we must try? Any and all commentary is welcome!

Here is the route, we leave from Boston, South Station and we are using the eight segment 15 day pass:

CHICAGO, IL**
FORT WORTH, TX
SAN ANTONIO, TX
NEW ORLEANS, LA**
ATLANTA, GA
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA

** We will be staying at the JW Marriott in Chicago and I am so grateful for their help in planning this trip.  The JW Marriott is only two blocks from Amtrak’s Union Station and I could not be more excited!  With this kind of luxury, you might have to pry me out of the hotel to continue our trip!

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Thank you to the NOLA Convention and Visitors Bureau for the VIP Media Passes!

Cross Country Train Trip Videos

I’m so excited to have finally finished some travel videos from our last great train trip adventure! Now that I have mastered the software :)…. you can expect many more!

Here is a look at “Beyond the Rails in Flagstaff, Arizona”.

And here is a highlight reel that features the best of our trip in less than three minutes!

Follow our new youtube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCOc-CIscmAp-dAiXBxE0BKg or join us on twitter as we plan our next adventure: @lblivingbetter

Eating and Sleeping in West Glacier, Montana

There is no website, you won’t find much on Tripadvisor, and you have to call to make a reservation, yet I could not have found a better place to stay and eat on our cross country train trip.

Arriving in Belton-West Glacier at 1:00 a.m. is not high on my list of recommendations, but sometimes you just have to go with it and make do.  Thankfully when we stepped off the train in the dark, we were less than 100 yards (albeit up a bit of a hill) from a clean, spacious, comfortable hotel room!

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Passing freight train in background, cross the street and you are home!

Since our stay last July, Glacier Highland Resort now has a website and a Facebook page!

Arriving late we were able to pick up our keys and directions to our room where we were pleasantly surprised by the size, cleanliness, and accessibility.office_door

The restaurant at Glacier Highland is not to be missed.  We ate all of our meals there and indulged in the most incredible pies!  I’m still not quite sure what a huckleberry is but I sure wish I could get them here at home ~ Delicious!  See the slices of pie on the counter… yum.resataurant

The biggest standout about are stay at the Glacier Highland is the owner, Mary.  A woman of few words on the phone when making reservations, I found her to be a tough, no nonsense receptionist behind the front desk.  When one of my children fell ill however her kindness brought me to tears.

We were only staying for one night and then continuing on our journey west to Seattle when one of my sons became ill.  Not your typical runny nose or stomach bug, but the full on flu, fever, shakes, the whole shebang.  What started with “Mom I have a headache” at the beginning of the day became “lets hope it’s altitude sickness” at the top of Logan’s Pass. As he sat wrapped in a sweatshirt, and we made our way back to the hotel (which is another great story in the kindness of strangers to be written shortly), we stopped in the Glacier Highland restaurant to have dinner, gather our stored luggage and check on our train.

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Mary and family

Thinking that we only needed to wait until about 8:00 p.m., we were dismayed to find out that the train would not be in until midnight.  My poor son now has his head down on the dining room table and he is virtually incoherent.  With no actual train station to wait in, just a bench outside in the dark, I looked at my husband and said “I’ve got to rent another room, he can’t stay here.”

I ran across to the office that Mary was closing for the night and explained my desperate plight.  Suddenly the woman I’ll admit I was mildly intimidated by, told me to get my son over here right now.  She opened a freshly made up room right next to the office and within sight of the train.  By the time I had dragged my family and luggage to the room, Mary had the bed turned down and a water bottle on the nightstand.

When Mary refuse to accept payment, my eyes filled with tears.  She waited nearby visiting with her family, but I believe, that mother to mother she was making sure we would be okay.

Beyond the Rails in West Glacier, Montana

I will admit, as an east coast girl I “was” woefully ignorant of the incredible beauty of the northwest area of our country.  We have mountains in New England, but there are MOUNTAINS in Montana.  Overnight on our westbound train from Chicago we arrived at the West Glacier Train Depot close to 1:00 a.m.  It wasn’t until we woke the next morning and opened our hotel room door that we saw the MOUNTAINS for the first time.  It felt like the best of surprises on a Christmas morning, just unbelievable.mountain_view

We chose the West Glacier train station to visit Glacier National Park.  Amtrak does consider West Glacier a station, but I would put it closer to a “flag stop”.   Due to delays, we arrived closer to 1:00 a.m rather than the scheduled 8:23 p.m., however, we were aware of these delays going in to our trip.  It is not easy to arrive in the dark in what I consider to be a remote area with a warning from our hotel owners to beware of Bears!  (As it turns out you can buy bear spray in Montana as easily as you can buy a cup of coffee in Boston.)

Belton-West Glacier turned out to be a fantastic place to disembark our train and spend a day seeing Glacier National Park (GNP).  According to Amtrak’s Empire Builder Magazine:

Belton-West Glacier is the western entrance to Glacier National Park, set aside as a national park in 1910.  Note the original Belton Chalet on your right, the first lodge built by the Great Northern Railway for the park.  The lodge is now restored and open to guests year round.  Snowfall here averages 100-200 inches per year.”

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Freight train passing through Belton Station.

The train depot is directly across the street from three places to stay as well as a terrific restaurant.  Walk under the railroad bridge and you are at the Alberta, Canada information center (don’t be confused, you have not reached Canada yet).  Here there are camping supply stores, tourist gift shops and more restaurants.Glacier_National_ Park_sign

To visit GNP you will need to do a short hike (very flat, easy walking path and serene scenery, but do watch for bears) of approximately two miles. This short hike will bring you to the Apgar Village Center where you can hop on and off a free bus that tours from Lake McDonald to St. Mary.  Additionally this bus will take you up the famous and incredible “Going to the Sun Road” to reach Logan’s Pass.

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En Route to Logan’s Pass

It is hard to truly appreciate the beauty of this trip up the mountain and more importantly the sheer terror of the narrow road and substantial drop!  Overall an adventure not to be missed and a picturesque, snow covered treat at the top!

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This was truly a  full one day adventure beyond the rails.  There are opportunities for horse back riding, swimming, boating, tours and hiking.  We utilized the bus systems and stopped at the lookouts as well as at Lake MacDonald. Read more about our excellent accommodations and food options that are not to be missed.

Eating and Sleeping in Flagstaff, Arizona

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Amtrak Station, Flagstaff, Arizona

Arriving in any city by train has some immediate challenges not the least of which are the odd hours at which you may arrive or the hour you are scheduled to depart.  Add to this challenge the fact that your most reliable form of transportation is the set of laces on your travel weary feet.

A very important feature in our new book “All Aboard, Now What?” addresses these very important challenges when finding a place to stay and somewhere to eat.

In Flagstaff, Arizona you are in luck.  This city is by far one of the most walkable and train convenient cities we visited.  In fact, it is a feature city in “Beyond the Rails”.

On the advice of the Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau we decided to stay somewhere a little different for my family, a hostel.  We stayed at Motel DuBeau Travelers Inn and Hostel and we were very glad we did.

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Motel DuBeau is a three minute walk from the Amtrak station, the three minute factor is extremely important.  The Southwest Chief travels from Los Angeles to Chicago once a day.  Travelling east from Los Angeles to Flagstaff the train arrives at 4:36 a.m. and it departs at 4:41 a.m.  At those times, every minute counts and you don’t want to be stumbling around in the dark looking for accommodations.

Welcomed by this note, our check in could not have been easier:

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The motel is neat and clean and we  had a great room in the motel section with ample space for our family of five:

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The best part however was introducing my family to staying at a hostel.  They had never experienced a “hotel” situation where you not only made your own breakfast, but you cleaned it up too!  Meeting people from all around the world over oatmeal and coffee was a memory I savor.

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Our new friends from Germany and Romania.

“No there is no waitress”… hmmm doesn’t that sound familiar to you from home!  Clean up your breakfast dishes!

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Great food we discovered both in Flagstaff and on our adventure to the Grand Canyon include the following:

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Try the Navajo Taco! Awesome!

Near the Amtrak station and the Motel DuBeau are some great pizza, bagels and coffee!

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If you are from the east coast, you will have difficulty ordering a plain cup of coffee however the baristas in this shop knew immediately that I was not from the area and fixed me the closest thing to a “regular cup o’ joe”.

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Great Coffee, Desserts and Vegetarian!

It will not open for a 4:00 a.m. train, but you can hit Biff’s Bagels the day before and you will be very happy come breakfast time aboard the train.

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Biffs Bagels

I can’t say enough how glad we were to stop in Flagstaff, Arizona.  It was the best option for us as train travelers to not only have great food and unique accommodations, but also a fantastic trip to the Grand Canyon.  Tic another item off of the travel bucket list!