Wednesday May 3rd to Saturday May 13th, 2006

About The Trip
On Wednesday May 3rd, 2006 I took my fifth long distance train trip, and the longest I've taken so far. I'd start in San Luis Obispo, California and head south to Los Angeles on the Pacific Surfliner to connect with the Southwest Chief to Chicago. There I'd spend half a day, a night, and the next half day. From Chicago it would be the Empire Builder west, to a place called Essex, Montana, and a wonderful hotel called the Izaak Walton Inn. The following evening it would be back on the Empire Builder to Portland, Oregon, a connection with the southbound Coast Starlight, and another change of trains in the capitol of California, Sacramento. From there I'd take the California Zephyr to spend the night in Denver and return to Emeryville the next morning. From there a Capitol Corridor commuter train would take me to my final destination of San Jose. I'd be there Saturday night, the 13th of May, twelve days after I started. There's no good connection from the California Zephyr to the Coast Starlight heading south, so I'd get a ride home from my brother who lives in the Bay Area.

I planned this trip less than two weeks in advance. My desk at work was covered with schedules and maps downloaded from the Amtrak web site. There were yellow highlighted lines on the Texas Eagle to Chicago, the City of New Orleans down to Mississippi, and the Heartland Flyer, among others. My plans for a southern route were changed because there would be a ten hour layover in San Antonio Texas. I then decided to go to New Orleans, but there wasn't a room to be found on such short notice at a rate I was willing to pay. So it would be the Southwest Chief to Chicago, which was going to be my primary destination. But then where? Mississippi would be nice in the spring, but it would be a night trip from Chicago and I wouldn't be able to see anything on the way. Besides, I wouldn't get enough time in Chicago. I wanted to take the California Zephyr across the Rockies and Sierras, but the inn in Essex was calling to me.

I discovered the Izaak Walton Inn a few years ago on my second (or was it third) train trip. My friend and I wanted to take a trip, and we only had six days. He called Amtrak and asked where we could go and be back "by Thursday." The Amtrak representative suggested Essex. The train would arrive at the crack of dawn and we could pick up the return train at sunset. We figured that we could get something to eat in Essex, hang around town for the day, and both being train whackos we would be entertained just wandering around the train station. When we got to Essex we knew those plans weren't going to work out. You can read more about Essex on its page, but it's enough to say here that we ended up at the Izaak Walton Inn and I fell in love with the place. I've wanted to return ever since.

So now I had decided it would be the Southwest Chief to Chicago, and the Empire Builder to Essex. Where from there? I really wanted to take the California Zephyr, but I was already on my way back home. And besides that, there were no connections with the Zephyr between San Luis Obispo and Sacramento. Then I got an idea. My brother lives in Santa Clara, so if I could just get to San Jose on Saturday night perhaps he could get me home on Sunday. I called him, and he agreed, so I got the tickets from Sacramento to Denver and back. It wouldn't be the whole route, but I figured that Kansas and Missouri couldn't be that much different than Nebraska and Iowa. Besides that, most of that segment would be at night. As an added bonus, I'd get to go through the Sierras and the Rockies twice!

So, the tickets were bought and I was ready to go. I got a ride from home to the San Luis Obispo depot at 5:45am, with a backpack full of clothes and power adapters, my digital camera, a PDA with a GPS card and full of mp3s and books, and a deck of eight train tickets. I wish I'd have thought of joining Amtrak's Guest Reward's program. Eight-thousand and eighty-eight miles is a lot of miles!

About This Website
When I returned from my last train trip, in December 2005 from San Luis Obispo to Glasgow Montana and back, I put together an HTML document of the trip. I don't call it a web site, because while easily viewable on my computer at home, the files were too big to work well on the Internet unless the viewer had a really good high speed connection and I had 700MB of storage space. When I came back from this trip, I decided that I'd make a regular web site. Videos were replaced by stills from them or short animated GIF files. Photos would be scaled to 1024x768 for smaller file sizes. A high-speed connection is still required because of the large background audio files, but it's much more friendly than the Glasgow trip. I also edited the text into something for the general public, instead of just copying and pasting my original notes that I took on the trip.

Navigation is by clicking the route or destination on the main map on the home page, by selecting from the drop-down list, or clicking on "Start In San Luis Obispo." Since the California Zephyr goes in both directions, you'll need to click on it once to get the eastbound page, then click on "Continue" to see the westbound page.

The photos on the train portions of the trip are laid out sequentially from left to right or top to bottom. At the stops I grouped them by subject. Each page has an "About This Page" link at the top. There is also a "Continue" link to take you to the next sequential page on the trip and a home button to take you back to the main page. They're at the top of the route pages, and the bottom of the stop pages. There's no back option - trains don't go back.

The background sounds are either compilations of the audio tracks from videos, or in one occasion a recording that I made using my camera's audio recording mode. All audio was recorded on the train whose web page it appears on. I've tried to make them work as ambiance to go with the web site, but if you want to turn them off there is an icon on each page to do so. If you get an Active-X warning, just click OK or the sound won't play.

The Empire Builder and California Zephyr pages have the train name in the original font used by the railroads before the creation of Amtrak, and all routes have the herald of the railroad that originally ran trains on those routes. In the case of the Pacific Surfliner, the Coast Starlight, and the Southwest Chief, Southern Pacific and Santa Fe didn't run trains by those names so there is no original train name graphic. For the Pacific Surfliner I was thinking of using the SP Daylight font, but the days of free fonts all over the Internet are long gone. The same for the Southwest Chief and a Santa Fe style font. The SP had a train from Sacramento California to Portland Oregon called the Cascade, but I've been unable to find the appropriate graphics for that train either.

This page was designed to be viewed at 1192x864 - that's the weird resolution I use on my 19" monitor. If your screen is set lower the pages will still work, but the route maps will be cut off. If a photo is larger than your monitor, it will automatically scale to fit. Clicking on 100% will make it appear at its maximum size, which is 1024x768 (576x758 for verticals), or 640x480 for video stills. You may need to scroll to see the entire image, but it will eliminate the distortion caused by your browser resizing the picture. If you don't have a 100% option then you have your monitor set to high resolution, and the photo is already at maximum size. Unfortunately, this resizing doesn't work right in Firefox. I wrote the JavaScript from my old guides, and apparently some things aren't compatible. Some day, when I have an Internet connection at home and am using Firefox again myself, I may write the code to make it work, but for now you'll have to use IE.

For The Technically Minded
The camera I used is a Canon S2-IS. It's a 5MP camera that also lets me shoot video at 640x480 at 30fps and high-quality sound. On the Pacific Surfliner I was worried about space so I shot at 320x240, but thankfully I changed my mind on the Southwest Chief. The lens is the equivalent to a 36-450mm zoom on a 35mm camera without digital zooming. I've never used digital zoom so I can't tell you what that would make it. It also has an audio-only mode that I used for note-taking. To store all that I got something called a "Digital Partner" on eBay for $50 ($15 for the case, $35 for shipping), into which I installed a 40GB 2.5" laptop drive. It lets me put in my SD cards, press a button to dump them to the drive, and then I can format the cards for re-use. In all, I used 20GB for the 1,500 photos and videos I took that were whittled down to what you see here, and 150MB for 38 audio files worth of notes.

I hope you enjoy the site.