Posts Tagged ‘ameritrip2019’

Riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr: Life on board the train

May 11th, 2019


I assume most people have never ridden the California Zephyr route — if they’ve ever been on Amtrak at all. This post is for those curious about what life is like aboard the train. It’s an important consideration since the entire route is a serious time commitment at around 52 hours.

From Chicago heading west the trains quickly became less crowded. The train was full in Chicago but had plenty of empty seats by the time we reached Omaha. Aside from April not being peak travel season, I suspect Amtrak is a more typical form of travel for those east of the Mississippi.

As for what to do on the train, I’d recommend downloading some TV shows or movies onto a laptop or tablet. Over the course of the trip I had enough time to read two books and start a third, but a few sections of the train track are too bumpy to make reading a pleasant experience.

Another thing to do is plan adventures your for your next destination — particularly when there’s wifi or at least cell service. I figured out details like how I was going to get around, booked tickets for tours and events, found unusual sights to see, etc. I wouldn’t recommend booking accommodations at the last minute though, nor anything that could sell out months in advance.

California Zephyr
Crossing the Mississippi River

The most obvious thing to do is look out the window. The lounge car is built specifically for this since the windows are very large and you can go downstairs to the cafe for drinks and snacks. But really there’s a good view from any upstairs window seat.

Occasionally we got an announcement about what we were seeing, such as when we went over the Mississippi River. For the most part when I was curious about what I was seeing I relied on Google Maps.

At least one group of people on each train I was on took a booth on the lounge car and passed the time with card games. A deck of playing cards can be purchased from the cafe.

California Zephyr
Coach legroom with my backpack

Even at its most packed the coach section is roomy, with big aisles and plenty of legroom. When the seat next to me was empty I’d often stretch out and use all the space, which felt surprisingly luxurious. In coach from what I understand you can switch seats whenever you like as long as you stay in the same car and move the destination card above the seat with you. Be warned that if you switch cars you could miss your stop — passengers are assigned cars by destination, and not all doors open at every stop!

I have less to say about my two nights on the sleeper cars because, well, I was asleep. Yes they’re a little cramped, though comfortable enough. In general I had no problems sleeping in a roomette aside from getting jolted awake a couple times. To reduce noise I brought along “Leight Sleeper” brand foam earplugs. The train announcements stop during the night so people can sleep without interruption, though the train whistle still goes off throughout the night for safety reasons.

While in the sleeper cars I always set an alarm on my phone to wake up in time. Conductors go around knock on doors to wake people up before their stop, though I wanted to wake up a little early for a shower and breakfast.

There was only one part of the trip where we were told not to move between cars; inside the Moffat Tunnel between Denver and Salt Lake City. It’s a long tunnel and the ventilation is bad, so if anyone opened the doors between cars it might fill up with diesel smoke.

Every few hours at a stop we’d be invited to exit the train for a “fresh air break,” which in practice was mostly a chance for smokers to take a quick cigarette break on the station platform. That said it’s a good chance to go stretch your legs and take photos.

In the cafe, nearly everything is prepackaged and the food is often microwavable (they work the microwave for you.) It’s somewhat overpriced and disappointingly is not open 24/7. You can allegedly order “meals” here but they’re ghastly smelling TV dinners. The worst thing I personally ate from the cafe was a bagel, a chewy mess.

Amtrak breakfast
Dining car early breakfast

The dining car is a step up from the cafe. It’s included if you’re in a sleeper (but bring cash for a tip) or as a paid option in coach. Not the most exciting menu, but it meets most diets. Unlike on an airline it’s served on plates with metal knives and forks. There’s even a tablecloth! Don’t get me wrong though, the food’s more like Applebee’s than a gourmet restaurant.

The worst item I tried on the menu were the salads, all of which came with wilted lettuce; they should have taken them off the menu. The best item was the baked potato side dish. The after dinner deserts were all fine, but I only ordered them so I’d have an excuse to stick around and chat.

All tables on the dining car are communal, which is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the ride. If you’re traveling as a couple or group you’ll get seated together, but those of us traveling alone could get seated anywhere. This is an underrated aspect of dining on Amtrak — meeting random people on the train. The conversation starters are obvious:

“So where are you going?”
“..and why Amtrak?”

A surprising number of my fellow passengers were just like me: those who’d never been on Amtrak before, but were curious to try it. It doesn’t bode well for Amtrak’s California Zephyr if most of the passengers are new rather than loyal riders. I’d expected the typical rider would be older men afraid of flying; yet I only met one passenger who fit that profile during the entire trip.

Another surprise was how many passengers were heading to San Francisco. I didn’t want to play tour guide since I was on vacation myself, but I did answer some basic questions. This worked out fine as nearly everyone had a concrete plan already. Mostly the SF-bound crowd only wanted to chat about their plans or to ask simple advice like where to find good coffee near their hotel.

The entire time I was in the dining cars I couldn’t help but to worry about my backpack, especially if it was in coach. In practice Amtrak seems relatively secure, though if they had private lockers it would have given me more peace of mind.

A scenic fresh air break

Tipping is an aspect of Amtrak I’m not sure I fully understand. It’s straightforward enough in the dining car if you treat it like any other restaurant. Still, what do you tip the conductors? They accept tips in cash when they greet you as you leave the train. It never felt mandatory to me in coach, but on the sleeper cars conductors do everything from making the beds to making coffee.

I’m not very good at remembering to carry cash so unfortunately I only tipped the second sleeper car conductor. I gave him $20. Was that the right amount? Hell if I know. Just because I’m American doesn’t mean I understand all of our tipping practices.

It’s worth pointing out that food on the dining cars — but not alcohol — is included in the price for sleeper passengers. You just write your car and room number down similar to how you’d bill something to your room at a hotel. However this doesn’t mean tips are included, and the only option is to tip in cash. This is a little confusing since you won’t see a bill, you’ll just have to remember the menu price of what you order and tip accordingly.



The big question is, would I do it again? The answer is yes and no. Yes, I’d consider riding Amtrak again, but not this route. Why? Three reasons. First, I’ve already done it, so if I took another Amtrak trip like this I’d go on a different route and visit new places. Second, my favorite stops by far on the trip were Chicago and Denver, and both of those are far away enough it’s faster and cheaper to fly.

The third reason I wouldn’t repeat this route is a personal one: of all the major stops for travelers on this Amtrak route, the last destination is where many are headed for their trip: San Francisco. As I went across the Bay Bridge on an Amtrak shuttle bus from Emeryville to San Francisco I couldn’t help to watch other passengers marvel at the city skyline and try to spot Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc.

Yet all I could think about was going back to work on Monday. I was the only passenger who left the bus at the first stop, the Temporary Transbay Terminal. Everyone else was headed to a hotel — where my vacation ended, theirs was just beginning. I couldn’t help but to feel jealous.

Riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr: Tickets, scheduling, stations, and boarding

May 10th, 2019

One of many views along the way

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the California Zephyr’s schedule is very inflexible. Each stop gets one train per day, per direction. This is not a commuter train.

While planning my trip I purchased the majority of my train tickets directly from Amtrak’s website. These tickets appeared in the Amtrak app on my phone. To make sure internet access wouldn’t be an issue I saved the tickets to Apple Wallet. I assume there’s a similar option on Android.

I purchased one ticket through Amtrak Vacations — the official third party travel agent for Amtrak — because I had a gift certificate from them. They typically arrange package deals but will purchase any Amtrak tickets you’d like as part of a “custom” trip. The price is no different than booking through Amtrak itself. I had to call them to buy tickets, which they emailed to me. The only real downside is you can’t load these tickets onto the Amtrak app.

The total cost for all the Amtrak segments from Chicago back to San Francisco was $602 with an early booking discount. That included three coach tickets and two overnight roomette sleeper tickets.

Amtrak app

The Amtrak app was a must-have for checking train arrival times, I found it very accurate. Whenever my train was running late I’d go have a coffee or something before heading over to the station.

As mentioned above the app also displays your tickets. The tickets themselves are QR-style codes scanned with a handheld device.

Boarding worked differently at each station. The gist of it is that someone scans your ticket, hands you a boarding slip with your destination on it, and directs you to a certain car. Usually your conductor meets you at the door.

The stations vary significantly as well. Some are old stations which serve (or served) multiple passenger rail lines, dubbed union stations back in the day. Others are nothing more than a small waiting room.

Union Station, Chicago

In Chicago I waited in the Grand Hall of the old Union Station until my train was called. True to Chicago’s form the station is at least two buildings with an underground “pedway” connecting them. From the waiting area they walked us to our trains in a cavernous underground station where they scanned our tickets.

I have to admit this is a confusing station, many of the signs seem confused as well. Fortunately Amtrak has staff to help find your way around. The newer part of the station has a newsstand and a basic mall-like food court. It’s nothing special, I’d recommend going outside for better food and shopping options.

California Zephyr

Omaha’s old Union Station is now a museum, so Amtrak has a tiny station without much going on. It’s not a major stop but it’s big enough to have an indoor waiting area with a heater.

When the train arrived a conductor jumped off and called us outside. There were maybe 10 people tops so it didn’t take long to scan everyone’s tickets.

Denver's Union Station

Denver’s old Union Station isn’t nearly as large as Chicago’s, but it’s completely different. For one thing the interior is filled with shops, upscale dining options, and even a hotel. I considered eating at the station a couple times but it was always too busy.

I asked how to board at the Amtrak window, they directed me to a platform where a line of passengers were already waiting in line for the same train.

Amtrak SLC

In Salt Lake City I might be a little fuzzy on the details because the train was running super late; I think I boarded after 2 AM. It’s a slightly larger version of the Omaha station.

A few people wandered in who had some kind of Greyhound voucher which they exchanged for Amtrak tickets. The conductor scanned everyone’s ticket, told us all to stay inside until he called our group; which everyone promptly ignored and went outside. In fairness I’m sure all the passengers were all as tired as I was.

Amtrak's Reno station

Reno’s station layout is pretty strange, but essentially you wait in the “basement” next to the sunken railroad tracks. The guy who took my ticket told me which train car to get on relative to the end of the train (this confused many people) and the conductor of that car assigned a seat to me. While sleeper cars are always assigned, this is the first time I had an assigned seat on coach. Realistically you could sit wherever, the “assignments” were not enforced and there were plenty of empty seats.

The weirdest element of the Reno station is in the photo above: there’s an elevator intentionally blocked off by a row of chairs. Fortunately it’s not the only elevator.

Of course, not all stations are as large as these. Many stops in small towns are nothing more than couple benches next to sign bearing the Amtrak logo. As a general rule the larger stations tend to be at stops with luggage service.

If I had one piece of advice for Amtrak here it would be this: the boarding procedures should be more straightforward and remain as consistent as possible between stations. Anything to reduce passengers’ cognitive load is welcome… especially when their train arrives at 2 AM.

Riding Amtrak’s California Zephyr: The trains

May 8th, 2019


As I outlined in my first post about the trip, in spring 2019 I took a trip across America via train on the California Zephyr route with stops in Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Omaha before returning home to San Francisco. In this blog post I’ll go over the trains themselves before delving into other aspects of traveling this route in future posts.

On the California Zephyr Amtrak has to share all the rails with slow moving freight trains, which often leads to delays. There are only a few sections where they can floor it and make up for lost time — and even those sections aren’t exactly high speed. On straighter sections of the track the trains can hit about 80 MPH at most, but on the winding, curved sections of track it may go as low as about 35 MPH. (Take these measurements with a grain of salt as I came up with them from an app on my phone.)

The train layout is relatively straightforward. In the front are two massive engines. Following the engines is the luggage car, which can be used for checked bags if and only if you’re starting and stopping at stations which provide luggage service. Next are the Superliner cars: the sleeper cars, dining car, the lounge/cafe car, and the coach cars.

The way the passenger cars connect on a Superliner is a bit unique. They’re all double decker train cars and the only passageway between cars is on the second level. Downstairs there’s areas for passengers with disabilities, bathrooms, the cafe on the lounge car, or the staff-only kitchen area on the dining car. If you’re in a roomette the shower is on the lower level.

For most of the trip I rode coach. In many ways coach on Amtrak is nicer than what you’d find on airlines; every seat is either a window or aisle seat, and they all have a generous amount of legroom. There’s an outlet for each seat to charge your phone or laptop.

Amtrak Roomette Amtrak Superliner Roomette
Superliner Roomette: Day vs. night configuration

I spent two nights sleeping on the train in private “roomettes,” tiny rooms with blackout curtains and fold-out beds in the sleeper cars. These are worth considering if you’re a light sleeper and have trouble getting a full night’s sleep in coach.

Each roomette can fit two able-bodied people with a bunk bed, and even features a tiny closet with hangers. Larger rooms are available for families and groups, but they cost more.

Although fairly comfortable and clean, the coach and sleeper cars look old and aren’t always well maintained. The worst thing I saw was a toilet seat that wasn’t at all attached to the toilet.

California Zephyr
Enjoying a beer in the lounge

Anyone’s free to wander into the lounge and cafe car. Upstairs there’s large windows with skylights and two seating areas, one with booths and one with seats facing the windows.

The cafe is downstairs in the same car — it’s not really a cafe so much as a small convenience store. Depending on the model you’re riding, the cafe will either be a window where you order or a small room where you serve yourself and check out.

At least during my trip the dining car had freely open times for breakfast and lunch, for dinner the staff walked through the train to take reservations. Meal details were announced over the speakers throughout the train. On the dining car the waiters hang out near the center, communicating with the kitchen staff below. To be seated you have to walk up to them and ask for a table.

As for other amenities:

  • The trains have wifi… sometimes. I can’t blame Amtrak for this entirely but I blew through my T-Mobile monthly data cap both months during the trip.
  • The first sleeper car I rode in ran out of hot water before I had a chance to take a shower. The second one had hot water and it was glorious! There’s nothing quite like falling asleep in one place and waking up in another — but trust me, it’s so much better with a shower and change of clothes.
  • The biggest amenity is the windows. Unlike passenger jets there’s a clear view of everything outside as long as the sun’s out. On a route this long there’s plenty to see out there.

Reno wrap up and stray observations

May 5th, 2019

Reno sign

Reno: it’s the city most of us think of either as a second-rate Las Vegas, or a spot you stop by on your way to somewhere more interesting like Lake Tahoe — or Las Vegas.

What I’m saying is most of us tend to view Reno less of as a destination and more of a rest stop. Which is unfair because Reno actually has a lot to offer. Unlike in Omaha where I was bored after 48 hours, I spent the same amount of time in Reno and felt rushed for time. Not just because it was the last top on my trip, but because I realized I wouldn’t have time to stop by the Nevada Museum of Art or the nearby Sundance Books and Music — a bookstore housed in an old mansion.


Before I say too many good things about Reno, I stayed at Harrah’s, a casino hotel that’s just old. It’s the only hotel I stayed at on this trip as there weren’t many Airbnb’s in downtown Reno.

Aside from the convenient downtown location right across the street from Amtrak there’s not much to say about this hotel, apart from the obvious fact that it was last renovated around the time Bill Clinton was elected president.

Truckee River

The Truckee River cuts through Reno. Along the river there’s a pedestrian path with a variety of parks, restaurants, and cafes. I particularly enjoyed dinner at Campo and the coffee at Hub Coffee Roasters, both of which are right on the river.

Heading west along the river from downtown, there’s a small island with an amphitheater called Winfield Park, and just across the street is a little sculpture garden called Bicentennial Park. Further west — not too far past Hub Coffee Roasters — a much larger park called Idlewild features a lake, various gardens, activities, and plenty of space for stretching your legs or having a picnic.

Former post office building Former post office building

Just across the Truckee River from downtown is an old Post Office building from the public works era. It’s no longer used as a mail facility; the upstairs is now a West Elm store.

Sounds disappointing unless you somehow know to go downstairs to the basement where you’ll find a cafe, a bar, a salon, and other local businesses. There’s also a history wall with old photos of Reno, including the “quickie divorce” era in which Reno’s main attraction was its liberal divorce laws.

The basement is a hidden gem I would never have known about without the suggestion by a friendly local. I definitely would have stopped by for a coffee if I’d known about it in advance.

Death & Taxes Death & Taxes Death & Taxes Death & Taxes

Midtown’s Death & Taxes might be the most ridiculous cocktail bar I’ve ever visited, but it’s so photogenic I had to include it here despite not staying long. The first clue the place would cost more than a nice dinner was I arrived in the late afternoon and it wasn’t happy hour, because they don’t have one. The second clue is the woman behind the bar who greeted me was cutting up roses… which I quickly realized were intended as cocktail garnishes.

The guy sitting next to me had ordered an entire ~750ml bottle of some liquor for himself, and offered me a sip which I politely refused. He clearly had a lot of money to throw around as he chatted with the bartender about some overpriced gin aged in whiskey barrels, which he claimed “tastes just like whiskey.” The guy on the other side of him laughed loudly and said “so just drink whiskey!” That guy had a point.

Just before I left a middle aged couple walked in. The wife ordered something from the cocktail menu, while the husband ordered some kind of call drink with Jose Cuervo. His wife shot him a dirty look, and without missing a beat the hip bartender said they didn’t have Cuervo and recommended their well tequila. Burn!

Junkee Junkee Junkee Junkee

I’ve saved the weirdest for last, one of a lot of weird places in Midtown. Junkee is a large store selling all kinds of costumes, antiques, and secondhand goods.

The words to describe this store don’t exist yet. They have everything from old chairs, used jewelry, vintage comic books, armored knight costumes, and even a bowl of dolls correctly labelled “creepy.”

I’m not sure Junkee is the absolute weirdest store in Midtown — I did enter one small store there which had a giraffe skull for sale — but Junkee is a reasonably priced spot for costumes and odd decor.

One last observation about Reno; it’s easily the most friendly place I visited on this whole trip. Locals would just stop to say hello or good morning, help me out if I looked lost, and even recognized me if we crossed paths a second time. The city’s motto is true, Reno really is “the biggest little city.”

Reno street art: Midtown

May 5th, 2019

Reno street art
Reno street art Reno street art Reno street art Reno street art Reno street art Reno street art Reno street art Reno street art Reno street art Reno street art

In the last post I went over some of the street art in Reno’s downtown. Now, onto the Midtown neighborhood.

Not long ago Midtown was known for dingy motels and strip clubs; to some extent that’s still true, but it’s undergoing a renaissance these days. And why not? It’s a short walk from downtown — just across the river, really — and has become a destination for nearby office workers to have lunch or grab a drink after work.

I don’t think I would have considered visiting Midtown to see its street art on my own, but while searching for food tours in Reno I came across the Midtown & Murals Tour from Reno Food Tours. I don’t want to go into the food aspect too much here except to say I was very stuffed by the end.

The highlight of the tour was completely unplanned: while looking at one of his murals, we just happened to cross paths with prolific Reno muralist Joe C. Rock. Our guide immediately spotted and introduced us to him.

Some though not all of the murals in the above photo gallery were featured on this tour. It’s pretty easy to find most of these murals; they’re either in parking lots along Virginia Street, or off to the side in alleys, parking lots, and on the backs of buildings. There’s no need to go on this or any other tour to walk around Midtown and see plenty of murals on your own.

I’ll admit I was surprised by the quantity, quality, and variety of street art in Reno — particularly in Midtown. It’s definitely not a city I would have associated with street art, and I was happy to be proven wrong.

Reno street art: Downtown

May 5th, 2019

While in Reno I came across so much street art I’m doing two posts about it, starting with downtown Reno. Since I only spent 48 hours in Reno there’s probably many glaring omissions here. Even this first post is split into two galleries for reasons that should make sense momentarily.

Reno street art
Reno street art Reno street art Reno street art Reno street art

Downtown Reno looks pretty shabby overall these days, so what better way to add some color to boarded up buildings and big blank walls than with murals? The pieces range considerably in size and style. The above photos are just a select sample of what I came across walking around downtown within a five by five block radius or so.

I should point out there’s also a significant number of pieces that are just decorative, like patterns painted on utility boxes — not as exciting though definitely a welcome splash of color.

Reno street art
Reno street art Reno street art Reno street art Reno street art Reno street art Reno street art

City Plaza is a hot spot for skateboarders with its large evenly-paved surface and makeshift ramps. There’s a number of utility boxes in the plaza with murals of cartoon raccoons on skateboards; while photographing these a guy skateboarded past me and boasted “my friend painted that!”

Come to think of it, everyone I saw there was either skateboarding or taking photos.

What the plaza’s best known for though are its two sculptures originally built for Burning Man: a giant 3D sign that says “BELIEVE,” and two stained glass whales known as Space Whale which feature internal lights that glow after dark. Both of these act as selfie magnets for the Instagram crowd.

The impact of Burning Man on Reno isn’t something I’d thought about before. As it’s the biggest city on the way to Black Rock City, Reno bears the brunt of its problems (guess where the trash gets dumped?) but it’s also beneficial for the tourism industry and local art scene.

Review: The Illusionists Experience in Reno

May 4th, 2019


Last night I went to see The Illusionists Experience, a magic show with a residency for the next few months in Reno’s Eldorado.

The name is a little confusing, I think they just tacked on “Experience” as a way to differentiate it from their traveling sister show which is simply known as “The Illusionists.” Unlike the traveling show, the Experience has a fixed set of illusionists. They are, in order of left-to-right in the above photo:

  • Valentin, The Showman
  • David Williamson, The Trickster (and host)
  • Chris Cox, The Mentalist
  • Hyun Joon Kim, The Maniupulator
  • Krendl, The Escapist

The first trick is one you’ll have to perform on your own: finding the theater inside the enormous Eldorado casino floor. By the time I found it my eyes were watering from all the cigarette smoke.

In the theater lobby I picked up my will-call ticket and was directed to wait in one of the two lines. I bought the second most expensive ticket, which got me pretty close to the stage in the second row of seats. The priciest tickets get you a little table in the very front.

As we waited for people to file in, David invited us to come up to the bar at the front of the stage, grab a drink (champagne was free, at least with my ticket), fill out a small form for Chris Cox’s act and drop it in a box, and watch David’s up-close card tricks at the bar.

If you’re sitting in the back it’s not the end of the world though, they have crews walking around with live cameras projected on a large screen for the close-up acts. As far as I could tell this was legitimate, they weren’t displaying doctored footage.

The show begins with the bar transforming into part of the stage. David acts as a host, introducing the other illusionists and performing his own tricks while set pieces were being rolled out behind the curtain. He’s more of a comedian than a magician though, he claimed he learned all his tricks from magic books he checked out at the library. What he does have going for him is the ability to work the crowd, and in his final performance of the evening he invited a few kids up on stage, all of whom seemed genuinely fooled or at least very confused.

Hyun Joon Kim does card tricks that seem impossible like cards suddenly changing colors and pulling cards seemingly out of thin air. If you’ve ever watched Penn & Teller’s Fool Us, you’ve certainly seen other magicians do similar card tricks. Might not fool Penn & Teller, but it definitely looks magical to those of us who don’t know the secrets.

Chris’s mentalist routines were okay, but like most of these types of magic tricks he obviously had an assistant feeding him information and Googled a few members of the audience to “read” their minds. Although I don’t think he really fooled anyone, what Chris does have going for him is an energetic stage presence and a self-deprecating sense of humor.

Krendl’s escapist routine culminated in a Houdini-style escape from a locked tank of water while handcuffed — and holding his breath the entire time. This was easily the most impressive act, though I think it would have benefited from a slower pace to establish the stakes such as what’s really required of him to escape.

One trick involved an “impossible box” illusion where one of the two beautiful female assistants was locked in a box, an enormous rectangular rod was slid through the center of the box, and then… well I don’t want to spoil this one, but it’s obvious the box is much roomier than it appears.

It’s worth acknowledging the elephant in the room: all the illusionists at this show are male, and the two assistants are female. Seems like they could have at least found one female illusionists to balance this out a little better, though David deserves credit for making jokes at the expense of the gender imbalance.

My recommendation: Chances are you’ve seen many of the routines performed during this show before, if not some of the performers themselves. That said it’s one thing to see these illusions on TV and another to see them live; for that reason alone it’s worth considering. On the other hand it’s pretty expensive for a 90 minute show, and you’ll pay extra for the good seats. I think almost anyone would be entertained though the ideal audience is those who haven’t seen big scale live magic shows before and don’t mind the steep ticket price.

Salt Lake City wrap up and stray observations

May 3rd, 2019

University of Utah
View from a bridge on the University of Utah campus

I arrived in Reno late this morning after a very delayed train, so I’m wrapping up my stay in Salt Lake City in this post before moving on to adventures in Reno.

The first thing to notice about Salt Lake City is the view. From pretty much anywhere, including the outskirts of the city, you have a view of mountain ranges in the distance (see the above photo for example.) Aside from the nice views this also provides a convenient way to figure out which direction you’re facing as the mountains look fairly different.

Anti-panhandling parking meter

There’s a noticeably large population of homeless people in Salt Lake City. To discourage others from donating to panhandlers, the city has specially marked “parking meters” they’d like you to donate to instead for homeless services.

This idea seems curious to me — someone gets paid to go around and empty these things, right? — but I do think it’s commendable that Salt Lake City is trying their own approach to tackling homelessness.

State Wine Store

Utah is a very backward state in many ways, one of which is the sale of alcohol. Mormons aren’t supposed to take any non-prescription drugs including caffeine, tobacco, or alcohol. Their influence in the state is enormous, including restrictions on alcohol sales. Outside of bars and restaurants if you wish to purchase alcohol you have to go to a “State Wine Store.” This is similar to what I found in Stockholm, Sweden as well as Oslo, Norway during my trip last year.

It’s not even legal to bring alcohol into Utah, but scofflaw that I am I accidentally found a workaround. I purchased a (wildly overpriced) bottle of wine on Amtrak, put it in my backpack, and consumed it at my Airbnb in Salt Lake City. In other words I committed a state crime with the assistance of the federal government. Come at me, Utah, you ain’t got nothing.

Artesian Well Park

One of the most unexpected things I found in Salt Lake City was a tiny park called Artesian Well Park. This “park” is really just a free water supply, with water flowing from an underground spring to a pipe above where locals fill up water bottles.

Like the continuously flowing fountains in Rome the water is supposedly clean and drinkable. Can’t say I tried it myself though if I were thirsty enough I would have given it a shot.

Harvy Milk Blvd

The people of Salt Lake City seem at odds with the anti-gay stance of the Mormon church. I noticed a series of billboards downtown with personal stories from survivors of anti-gay conversion “therapy.”

But really nothing could be more of a condemnation of Mormonism’s stance toward homosexuality than Salt Lake City renaming 900 South Street after gay civil rights icon/martyr Harvey Milk. The context is interesting here because Milk had no personal connection to Utah or Salt Lake City as far as I know; he grew up in New York and moved to San Francisco as an adult. So this is more of a matter of honoring an important American historical figure, and one who irritates certain Mormons in particular.

That sums up Salt Lake City; next up I’ll post about my last stop before heading home: Reno, Nevada.

Is Salt Lake City really a city?

May 3rd, 2019

TRAX train
Downtown Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City left me with a burning question: is it really a city? I mean technically sure, but when we think of cities today we typically think of fairly urban places where it’s easy to get around on foot, and the public transportation is at least decent enough to use on a regular basis for commuting.

Before you say “but ‘city’ is in the name!” let me point out that North Korea is technically called “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Names can be a facade to hide a deeper truth.

Salt Lake City is the only city on my trip so far where walking isn’t very practical, and the density is too low for the public transit to get anywhere interesting in a reasonable period of time. (Side note: all public transit in Salt Lake City is run by the state of Utah.) I had to rely on Lyft a couple times, which is not cheap.

Making matters worse almost all of the roads in SLC are extremely wide. I often couldn’t cross a street during the allotted time — and I walk pretty fast.

Someone came up with the world’s worst most insane solution to this problem:


Honestly I thought this was a joke by some clever conceptual artist the first time I saw it, but as I found more of these throughout Salt Lake City the horrible truth dawned on me: these are intended to be taken seriously. What the hell is going on?!

After a couple days of putting up with this I started doing some research. It turned out I’d already listened to (and forgotten about) an episode of 99% Invisible called “Plat of Zion” that goes into the details of how this hostile street layout came into being.

The sentence from the episode that really sums it all up is this one:

Created by Mormon settlers, the grid of Salt Lake was part of an effort to create a spiritual utopia.

Perhaps one shouldn’t turn to religious leaders for urban planning advice.

The only part of Salt Lake City that really seems like a city is the downtown area. That said it’s not a very big downtown, and aside from Temple Square there’s nothing terribly unique about it; just the same chain stores you can find anywhere else. What it does have going for it is good public transit service, which makes it the best part of town to stay while visiting.

So if Salt Lake City isn’t a city, what is it? It’s not a suburb, obviously. Parts of it are downright rural.

I think the answer might be that it’s a city by Utah standards. The inhabited parts of Utah tend to be very rural towns where nothing’s open on Sunday and “shopping” means driving your truck down to Walmart.

The irony is that despite being created by Mormons, Salt Lake City has the lowest percentage of Mormons in the state. So the original plan didn’t make the place any more spiritual, let alone more utopian. On the flip side that means Salt Lake City has plenty of establishments Mormons would never approve of like really good cafes and brewpubs. Cheers to that!

Bush plane flying tour

May 2nd, 2019

Bush Plane Flying Tour
Bush Plane Flying Tour Bush Plane Flying Tour Bush Plane Flying Tour Bush Plane Flying Tour

There’s experiences and then there’s experiences, and this one falls strictly into the latter category. On a whim I booked a “Bush Plane Flying Tour” hosted by an Air Force vet and flying enthusiast named Neil.

We met in the parking lot of the South Valley Regional Airport, just outside of Salt Lake City. It’s a tiny airport with just one runway, and has a flight training school as well — this aspect was particularly unnerving when a helicopter landed only around 100 feet away from me, piloted by someone who was obviously a student.

Neil met me and another guest (confusingly also named Eric) and showed us around his Cessna 170. It’s an unpainted four-seater propeller plane from 1953, with some upgrades including a new engine. We all put on headsets to talk to one another and hear the radio. The radio’s important because South Valley Regional Airport is too small to have an air traffic control tower so pilots have to maintain contact to share the runway.

Taking off in a little taildragger airplane is nothing like flying on a passenger jet. The propeller engine sounds like a motorcycle, and as it gets up to speed the tail lifts off the ground before the front.

As we began ascending I felt a fear of heights kick in, though that quickly became a fear of turbulence as we got knocked around a little by the wind.

We took a slightly roundabout route to Antelope Island in order to avoid violating the airspace of Salt Lake City International. Neil took us pretty low over the island to spot the bison that live there. On the east side of the island there wasn’t much to see. After making a quick turn over the island, we spotted a large herd of bison on the west side. The noise of the airplane scared a few of them away.

Coming back around to the airport we took a detour through a nearby snowy mountain range. It’s supposed to be a good place to spot deer though we weren’t lucky enough to see any.

To land, Neil pointed out a flag outside a grocery store he uses to determine the wind pattern on the runway. Fortunately it was in our favor, so he took us over a soccer field, turned the plane around, and then said “so this is what you do if you want to lose altitude really fast, it’s called a ‘sideslip.'” He turned the plane so it was pointed at an angle to the runway, and sure enough we dropped very quickly, landing fast but smooth.

This excursion went by so fast I had to double check my phone to see that yes, we actually were up in the sky for an hour. It felt more like 10, maybe 15 minutes. Time flies, as they say.

My recommendation: If you want to try something unique and exciting while you’re in Salt Lake City, this is a good bet. It can be booked through Airbnb Experiences.