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Trip Report A “Cooler” Trip Than I'd Imagined: Albany NY to Portland OR & BC by Train

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*How The Trip was Concocted*

For this year’s summer vacation, up until around March, I had been acting in an uncharacteristically uninspired, wishy-washy fashion and had not determined a plan of attack as to where or if I would travel. I don’t know if any of you ever feel like this, but due to the number of choices out there, I became paralyzed as to where to go. THEN, all of a sudden in the midst of my fickleness, one of my long-time friends with whom I socialized regularly moved for work from Montreal, where I live, to Vancouver BC. At first, since I like to open my eyes by visiting somewhere new, since I had been to Vancouver in 2005 and briefly in 2008, since a return visit had not been on my mind particularly etc…, I told him that I didn’t think I’d be visiting this year, to which he seemed resignedly disappointed.

Then, all of sudden thanks to this turn of events, a plan for my summer vacation dawned on me! I’d never been to Portland, OR before and could combine a visit to that city with a trip to Vancouver BC to see my friend. I’d also been craving a long-distance train ride and I’d never taken the Empire Builder train route that went from Chicago to Portland. Those of you who’ve seen my prior trip reports might be aware that the train is a form of travel I seek out. Portland , being a city some folks had mentioned as being progressive with a cycling culture, had long piqued my curiosity although I must admit had not been close to the top of my list of places to visit due to its distance and my perception of its similarity to other Pacific Northwest cities. Ultimately though, the thought of seeing the Pacific Northwest again with its mighty trees and dramatic landscapes convinced me that this was the trip I must do. My last trip to the Pacific Northwest was 5 years ago and I felt it had now been too long.

As it turned out, all the sleepers from Chicago to Portland were sold-out, so I ended up going with the Chicago to Seattle train, which I had taken when I’d visited Seattle and Victoria 5 years ago. While I was disappointed, it turned out for the best as I got to meet a Vietnamese friend for lunch in Seattle who I’d not seen since high school (24 years ago!) and we had a terrific visit, as I got to meet her 5-year-old twin girls and go to one of her favorite Vietnamese restaurants in Seattle.

*The trip*

June 15-- morning Greyhound bus from Montreal QC to Albany NY. Albany NY (4 hours to explore). Leave Albany 7 pm on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited for Chicago.
June 16—Chicago IL (2.5 hours walking downtown). Leave Chicago 2:15 pm to Seattle on Amtrak’s Empire Builder.
June 18—Seattle (2.5 hours in Seattle with high school friend). Leave Seattle 2pm on Amtrak’s Cascades Train for Portland OR (arrival ~6pm).
June 18-21—Portland Oregon and vicinity
June 21—Amtrak from Portland to Vancouver BC.
June 21-25— Vancouver BC
June 25-29-- VIA Rail’s Canadian and Windsor/QC Corridor trains from Vancouver-Toronto-Montreal

*The bus/train rides &layovers in cities I’d been to before*

How I enjoyed my 4 hour return to Albany! The view of the handsome state Capitol and nearby hills by the reflecting pools in front of “the Egg” made for a nice place to sit and read a book. So quiet, so under-appreciated I thought as almost all I could hear was the wind gently breezing over the Empire State Plaza with only maybe a half-dozen other souls scattered over the entire large expanse with me. Lark Street still has a fun vibe, a good place to go for a coffee, surrounded by those charming narrow side streets with a early-13-colonies look to them. I discovered a pedestrian walkway which took me over to a path adjacent the Hudson River and enjoyed watching the families strolling, kids pushing themselves along on scooter or skateboard, couples sitting in the grass or on a dock admiring their waterway—a side of Albany I think many don’t see.

The train from Albany to Chicago had some lovely river and lakeviews, passing adjacent the Mohawk River, Lake Erie for surprisingly long stretches and a bit adjacent Lake Michigan just before Chicago. While I had been on this train before, I’d never been on it westbound and never along the Albany-Buffalo stretch. While I’ve not seen it listed as one of North America’s most scenic train rides, it certainly is no slouch as far as beauty is concerned in some parts.

The train was late arriving in Chicago, leaving me 2.5 hours in this city I’d not seen since 2008. I walked straight from Union Station to Lake Michigan and back. I enjoy the contrast of Chicago with east coast cities. Downtown Chicago denizens, regardless of race, seem to have a more clean-cut, all-American look about them, that differs from the more gritty east. Chicago to my eyes has such as clean new-ness and polish about it, that even things that are probably not so new, such as the “El” train tracks, have an air of youth about them somehow. Perhaps it’s just the people and sights I’ve chanced upon, but I’ve also perceived an upbeat optimism and innovation to the city.

The last time I took the Empire Builder train from Chicago to Seattle, I was bussed from Chicago to Minneapolis due to floods in Wisconsin. This time however, rather than getting a boring old highway, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the beautiful views of the tall hills rising like islands out of the Mississippi River next to the tracks as we passed through the state of Wisconsin. It reminded me in some ways of the spectacular coastal mountain islands of British Columbia in look but on a smaller scale. I must say, I really wasn’t expecting the Wisconsin portion of the ride to be quite this scenically beautiful. Even downtown Milwaukee looked more interesting than I’d imagined it, with some busy-looking charming restaurant terraces floating along a waterfront.

Glacier National Park in Montana, with its snow-capped mountains, icy green-blue rushing rivers and streams; the Cascade Mountains in Washington with the unfathomably tall firs, spruce and pine; the close-by views of the Puget Sound with the Olympic Mountains in the background as you make the final sally toward Seattle: all three conspire to make the journey from western Montana onward a near-constant “wow” fest in admiration of the dramatic scenery. I was reminded of myself on my first trip to the Pacific Northwest in 2005 upon talking to one of my fellow passengers who had never been further west than Louisiana who told me her eyes were glued to the window. Even though I’d done the trip before, as an easterner, I find my eyes too drawn to the scenery in admiration and sometimes disbelief.

**My thoughts on Portland, Oregon coming up**

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