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Day 3, Friday
Friday was my last day in the city of Chicago. Waking up rather early around 7am, I was packing up my things ready to check out from my AirBnb room. Packing up only meant putting my chargers and toiletries back in my bag since I was traveling light, but regards I finally head out of the house around 8am.
Stepping outside, the weather was horrific! Pouring absolutely everywhere, and there were times when I’d had to bring down my umbrella to block the cars driving through giant puddles. Fortunately it was only about a five to ten minute walk to the rail stop, but even during and after the ride, the rain just kept pouring.
I decided to check out the Field Museum, opening earlier than the rest of the tourist attractions, but also since I had wanted to the day before. I also wasn’t particularly fond of natural history museums (as opposed to like the aquarium or perhaps an art museum), but knowing that this was one of most renowned history museums in the whole world, I decided to broaden my horizons for a day. Nature was making me doubt my decision for a moment, as winds paired with the rain became so strong that I had to hold my umbrella with both my hands, and for a split second the wind literally swept me off my feet! I scuffled my way through the weather for a solid ten minute walk from the rail stop to the museum, and thank goodness the doors were open when I got there just several minutes before their official opening time of 9am.
This museum covered pretty much everything you can think of in terms of natural history! From wildlife in Africa and Asia to artifacts in Egypt, from the first organism to civilization today, from Hawaii’s volcanoes to preserved underground gems, it’s no surprise that this is known as one of the largest natural history museums in the world. I could easily spend the whole day here, but unfortunately I had to cut my time short as I still had a few more places I wanted to visit before my train ride.
Leaving the museum around 11:15am, I walked my way to lunch at Lou Malnati’s. I’ve only heard positive reviews from this place, more than Pizarro’s yesterday, so I was definitely excited! I ordered a personal pan Chicago Classic, which was basically sausage, cheese, and lots of tomatoes. While waiting for the pizza for about half an hour to cook, I ordered a small minestrone soup for this terrible-weather day, perfect for covering up my tiny sniffles I was just getting, but otherwise nothing special. Not too long later the pizza comes out, and to my unfortunate surprise it really wasn’t too special in my opinion again. It seemed to be similar quality to Pizarro’s, but had a lot more tomatoes (but were definitely ripe), and the sausage seemed barely cooked. The crispy, crunch crust with the soft interior was fantastic though. After finishing, I felt like I could have ordered the next size up, which was meant for two people, and I definitely should have since I hadn’t eaten breakfast; maybe the larger size pizzas were more representative of their quality. For dessert I tried out their Chocolate Chip Pizza, also personal pan size, which isn’t really a pizza but just a chocolate chip cookie prepared similarly to the deep-dish pizzas, paired with ice cream and whipped cream. I preferred the dessert to the actual meal, but that may just be my sweet tooth talking. Overall worthwhile, but like yesterday nothing completely worth craving over.
After lunch, I get to my final attraction for Chicago, none other than the Skydeck Chicago. I loved the modern design inside the tower, definitely fitting with the skyscrapers of the city. Lots of impressive facts about how tall the tower really is on the way to the elevator, such as saying “300+ Michael Jordans tall!” Animations were shown as you climbed up the 100+ floor tower. Everything was going swell.
Except that when we get up there, there was literally zero visibility! I had saved this location for last, since from here to the train station would only be a five minute walk, but I started to regret my decision. We’ve been warned constantly throughout our way there, from the initial entrance to purchasing the ticket, but boy was it something to laugh about. You could only see the city when you stood on the glass panels and looked straight down. On the rare occasion you can lift your head up just a tiny bit and see a little more!
After seeing all that I wanted to (and could) see, I finally head down about an hour later, taking my time since my train ride would be in an hour. At the bottom floor (below the main entrance) there was not one but two gift shops to check out, in addition to the shop at the top floor. What piqued my interest however was the fact that they were selling Chicago hot dogs (along with the deep-dish personal pizzas and other foods). I completely forgot about this and hadn’t tried one the entire trip, so instantly I put in my order. The staff took about ten minutes to prepare it (they appeared busy with perfecting it the whole time), bringing my hopes up for this! One bite into it later, this also was somewhat of a disappointment. In theory it sounded like an amazing combination of mustard, onions, tomatoes, salt and peppers, and of course the pickle. In the end however, it just felt like a small salad with way too much bread (the bun also collapsing easily due to everything making it soggy). Just like the tower though, at least I can say I tried it.
About ten minutes later I arrive at none other than Union Station! Waiting in line, entering the train terminal, stepping into the train – it all felt like my very first Hogwarts Express moment. I was excited to see what was in store, from talking to all the people choosing a similar adventure to seeing the natural wonders of the states, from simply enjoying my relaxing ride to soaking in the experience I probably won’t get again anytime soon.
Day 3.5-5, The Amazing Amtrak Adventure
My ride started by making small talk with my seatmate, a quiet, older IT guy from India who’s working in the Bay Area and making a quick stop in LA. As an IT, he had some programming experience, so I really got to talk to him despite his sheepish nature about his background, from his schooling in India to striking it rich in Silicon Valley. Aside from his career, he does some side photography and videography, telling me about how he got into that as he brought out his expensive Canon DSLR with the longest lens ever. He even showed me a video that he uploaded to YouTube, showing his adventures in India while claiming that he had a million views on his channel.
As he started recording a few clips of the scenery, I joined in with my own camera. A woman across the aisle jokingly complains how we got such a nice view at that time, seeing the vast architecture of Illinois, while on her end all she saw were giant plains. I noted the fact that at least she didn’t have a seatmate; after having said that, she was shocked since she thought the IT guy was actually my uncle or some relative with how close we seemed to be. She was quite the opposite of the other guy; just a few years older than me, quite outgoing yet sarcastic, working in the field of bartending. She talked a lot about her love for architecture and showed me photos she took herself throughout Chicago, as I related through my passion for arts in general. Not too long later, she mentioned how she came down to Chicago just to visit a friend, while jokingly saying “Yeah I decided to come here just because, and just randomly take a train ride all the way back [to New Mexico though, not LA]!” When I told her that that was exactly what I did, she was so inspired from my solo adventuring, and then we talked about a lot of random topics along the way for the next two hours.
Unfortunately, not too long after, the IT man decided to move to a different seat, possibly because of all the chatter she was making (the conversation was quite one-sided most of the time) while he tried to sleep. He apologized as he said that he didn’t want to bother us with his snoring, which he did, but I felt bad and thought instead that it really was just us two. (On the plus side, I had my side all to myself now.) He was still very kind as we stumbled upon each other throughout the ride, however.
In replace of him, however, three people surrounding us decided to join in the conversation as well. These conversations became so comfortable, it’s a surprise that we all just met that day. They started joking around, then started to sing Christmas carols and other songs (with a beat since one of them was a drummer!), just overall having a fantastic time for the next few hours. These kinds of connections, even if we end up never meeting again, could almost never be made on a plane, bus, subway, or short train ride, so this by itself made the Amtrak experience unique and memorable.
For dinner, the Amtrak provided two options: a cafe lounge car open throughout most of the day where you can buy simple meals like sandwiches, frozen pizzas, snacks, and drinks (even alcohol); and a full-service dining car where you order fresh entrees by Amtrak’s trained chefs. For the latter, you had to put in a reservation as an attendant came around asking for requests. I wasn’t aware of how things worked, thinking that they would come around for more reservations for a later time, but instead they just come around one time to reserve for any time throughout the rest of the day, from 5pm to 8:30pm. Since they took our reservations as soon as we departed, around 3:30pm, I declined at that moment without realizing I didn’t get a second chance. Alas, I just settled for a sandwich.
Sleeping on the Amtrak was a relatively comfortable experience. The chairs recline much further back than a seat on a plane, and the amount of leg room was probably equivalent to a plane seat in first class. The Amtrak seats even come with foot rests, both right below your own seat as well as the seat in front of you. I switched between sleeping normally in my seat and taking advantage of both of the seats available to me now; both were equally comfortable, but I still kept waking up every few hours. Roomettes (with real beds!) were available for those who were willing to pay, but that was about four times the price for the minimal upgrade. Family suites are available for almost $2000 for this trip. On the plus side, those who do pay for any upgrade get their meals provided in the dining car.
I really wake up around 6am as I see an amazing blend of sunrise in the snowlands of Colorado. There were quite some sights to behold throughout the next few hours, from running cows in the snow (it’s surprisingly hard to believe that most people probably haven’t seen a running cow before!) to thousands of birds migrating together. I had only seen snow once in my life before, three years ago in Utah (and just a bit on my arrival to Chicago), so there was a LOT for this Hawaii kid to take in.
For breakfast, the dining car was available, but without reservations; it was a first-come, first-serve. Along with the Amtrak’s unique experience comes in this community serving, where the car is so limited in size that they seat you with fellow passengers, doing whatever it takes to fit four people on one table. I was sitting with a retired couple as well as a middle-aged man who also happened to work in the IT field. I could never imagine it any other time, but the moment I sat down, I felt as comfortable as ever, ready to dine with these fine, kind people. I got myself the Continental Breakfast, consisting of oatmeal (or cold cereal), fruits, a croissant (or biscuit), and Activia yogurt. Surprisingly decent for train food, but was unsurprisingly expensive.
The car preceding this dining one was a sightseer lounge car, perhaps the best physical aspect of the Amtrak. Windows spanned the entire wall, and seats were designed perfectly angled just for observing the fantastic scenery. No assigned seating, plenty of space, grouped in multiple sizes from individual seating to groups of five, foot rests along the walls, mini tables along each (group of) seat(s). The fact that this is on the second floor of the train makes everything perfect. Oh, and the cafe lounge was right below here, so grabbing a snack was rather convenient. I spent majority of my time here, talking to new people who came to sit next to me, enjoying my relaxing time reading, and just soaking in the everlasting sights. The only time I went back to my original seat was when another attendant came around to put in reservations for both lunch and dinner; by the time she got to me, there was only one time slot available for lunch and that was rather early at around 11am, so I opted out and instead got the earliest dinner slot.
I can never speak enough of just how sublime the scenery experience was. We went through the snow-capped Colorado mountains (and even through a mountain tunnel), saw actual civilization here and there in this winter wonderland at every stop, and spotted hundreds of horses, goats, and cows grouped together. Not too long after, we went through the dry, bright-orange canyons of New Mexico, noticing individual homes in the middle of nowhere, observing the brick-like rock structures crumbling along the canyon walls, and even spotting two bears out in the desert (while passing Las Vegas! … New Mexico). I definitely spent more time simply sitting and observing instead of reading as I intended.
Around 4pm, we hit our major stop, Albuquerque, New Mexico. The stop here was for about 45 minutes as many people got off and even more, almost 200, got on. During that time however, we were able to walk off the train and check out the vendors set up specifically for this long stop. The items they had for sale were so interesting!, showcasing a lot of New Mexico’s culture. I got myself this clay-made turtle with plentiful strands of actual horse hairs, as well as a tiny duckling made of plaster (with a Yelp logo…?). These objects currently sit alongside my desk at home and will always remind me of the experience I had and the genuine connections I made with so many individuals throughout these few days.
By the time we departed, it was nearing 5pm and the sun was already setting. I took a few more photos and a bit more footage of the remaining visible scenery, then carried on with my reading for the rest of the night, before and after dinner.
For dinner, I ended up sitting with only two others, two older women who had actually lived in not just San Diego but in my very own city of Carlsbad! They currently reside in LA now, but that simple coincidence carried our conversation throughout the entire night. I got myself “The Amtrak Signature Steak,” a small (maybe 6oz) flat-iron steak with mashed (or baked) potatoes and steamed veggies. I was disappointed for a second time in the price for the quantity that I got; however the food was definitely enjoyable and still much better than what I could prepare on my own.
Around 8pm after reading for quite a bit longer in the sightseer lounge, I finally make my way back to my seat. Turns out that someone had taken the seat next to me, and she definitely took advantage of the space she thought she had available. She was sleeping comfortably in one chair, but her blankets were so wide that they completely covered up my own seat! I had no idea how long she had been asleep, so I walked back and forth every hour or so to see when she was awake. I kicked myself in the butt when I went back around 11pm to see that she was still asleep. Too late to wake her up now, I thought. I guess I was sleeping in the sightseer lounge.
Sleeping in this lounge was, to be frank, quite miserable. I kept waking up every hour half or so while sleeping in awkward positions. Since nobody was in this car anymore, the air ventilation was quite strong, especially since they were right above the seats and into my nose. I didn’t have a pillow or a blanket, so all I could do was using my paperback book as a pillow of sorts for elevation. The lights were still somewhat bright, so I had the longest and hardest time trying to fall asleep, every time every hour.
5:30am hit and I finally see a Californian sunrise! Many more people were hanging around in this lounge, possibly waiting for their final round of breakfast, so the mere energy of the room woke me up despite a harsh night. I held off on breakfast, waiting to enjoy the food in LA, and just continued to enjoy the sunrise. The sightseer lounge closed around 6:30am, kicking me out at last and forcing me back to my seat where I finally got to introduce myself to my new seatmate.
We arrived earlier than expected, stopping at around 7:15am instead of 8am. I pack up my things and finally get off, being one of the last people as I soaked in the rest of my train experience. Coincidentally I got off together with my original seatmate, exchanging farewells as we departed ways into the sunrise.
I’m back in California. And I didn’t even catch a flight. The feeling was quite bizarre yet familiar.
I stayed in LA for the rest of the day, taking advantage of my time here as I rarely come out here to explore on my own. I explored Little Tokyo and Downtown LA throughout majority of my time, waiting for yet another parade in the evening, the Hollywood Christmas Parade in of course none other than Hollywood. I’ll save this adventure for another post however.
I catch one last Amtrak ride back to Oceanside from around 10:30pm, and then call for one quick, final Uber ride back home. (“Where are you coming from?” “Believe it or not… Chicago!”) By the time I arrive home, it’s almost 12:30am, and I had never felt both so exhausted yet satisfied in my life, even comparable to my experience with running a marathon! I hit the bed as soon as I opened the door, resting up as I return to my career ventures in software engineering.
Hope you enjoyed reading this series as much as I enjoyed sharing it! Just reminiscing about all this still feels surreal, two weeks later, both of all the great times as well as all the places where I messed up, hah. So now I have left to ask is…
When are we doing this again?