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Seattle to Victoria by Victoria Clipper

March 5, 2017 Sunday – Seattle to Victoria on the Victoria Clipper fast ferry

I’m up at 5:30AM, since the Victoria Clipper boards at 7:15AM for an 8AM departure for Victoria. Unfortunately I don’t have time for the included breakfast at the hotel, but grab a coffee in the lobby as I wait for my taxi to Pier 69, where the Victoria Clipper departs from. I have a few minutes before they open the departure area, so I get a cappuccino at the adjacent cafe. I check my big bag through to Victoria and go through pre-clearance where they check my passport against my boarding pass.

Rough seas as the Victoria Clipper passes Port Townsend into Juan de Fuca Strait

Rough seas as the Victoria Clipper passes Port Townsend into Juan de Fuca Strait

I’m soon settled onboard and the Victoria Clipper departs on time. We encounter some wave action as we pass Port Townsend into the open waters of Juan de Fuca Strait, but it smooths out again once we are in open water. There is no Wi-fi aboard, but my US data roaming gives me a good LTE connection for most of the trip, as I work on my photos and blog for most of the time anyway.

After our arrival in Victoria, the Canada Customs agent asks me the usual questions, then welcomes me back home to Canada. There is slush coming down outside as I catch a taxi home.

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Northern California & Oregon to Seattle by train

March 4, 2017 Saturday – Amtrak Coast Starlight train from northern California through Oregon to Seattle

Sign: Union Pacific Railway: Chemult, Oregon. Elev 4,764 ft

Sign: Union Pacific Railway: Chemult, Oregon. Elev 4,764 ft

There is no rush to get up this morning, since our arrival in Seattle is scheduled for 8:12PM this evening. I get up around 7:30AM and then go for breakfast a bit later. We make a quick stop in Klamath Falls at 9:15AM – Upper Klamath Lake still has some ice on the surface as the train winds its way around the shoreline.

There is some light snow falling as we stop in Chemult, Oregon at 10:40AM – the same spot it was snowing on the way down. Needless to say, there is still quite a bit of snow on the ground in this high elevation area. The train stops to pick up some passengers and then starts the descent through the pine forest. As the Sun comes out, it’s beautiful country, but I’m glad to be inside with my slippers on.

At 11:23AM we are at Cascade Summit, the highest point on the railroad as it crosses the Cascade Mountains at an elevation of 4,852 feet or 1,479 metres. There is lots of snow on the side of the tracks and on the trees, and it’s lightly snowing as we enter the summit tunnel. The snow gets deeper as we descend, and the train becomes very quiet as it goes through the deep snow. By my count, there are 18 tunnels in this stretch of track.

After leaving Albany, the rain starts falling. There is lots of primary industry in this area, especially lumber mills. The train is running about a half hour late, not that it matters to me. We pass by Willamette Falls and Abernethy Island as the train runs down the shoreline of the Willamette River towards Portland. My sleeping car is pretty quiet after leaving Portland, so obviously a lot of people got off here. Portland has a big and busy rail yard. Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe both operate out of this yard.

As we leave Portland, Oregon and cross the Columbia River into Vancouver, Washington, the conductor announces that we will be delayed because of a swing span being opened and having several freight trains waiting ahead of us. In the mean time, they are serving an early dinner starting at 5PM. I send a Facebook message with a virtual wave to my friends who live in Scappoose, across the Columbia River from where I am on the train north of Portland (in Washington State).

After a short stop, the train engineer really barrels out of Tacoma station, obviously wanting to make time to the Seattle King Street station and the end of the line. We were about 35 minutes late earlier in the day, and I don’t think he gained or lost much time despite several delays mainly caused by freight traffic. It is sprinkling a bit of rain as I head out of the Seattle King Street train station after our arrival, walking the six blocks to my hotel, the Best Western at Pioneer Square. It is an older hotel, but well-run, and very convenient to the train station.

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California coast by train from LA

March 3, 2017 Friday – north along the California coast by Amtrak Coast Starlight train from Los Angeles

Main waiting area in LA's Union Station

Main waiting area in LA’s Union Station

It’s a good thing I set my alarm last night for 4:00AM after leaving Tucson, because the train arrives in LA an hour early at 4:30AM Pacific Time. My car attendant predicted an early arrival, and he was right. I ask him to reconfigure my Roomette back to seating for the last hour. He gives me a light breakfast in a bag, which is very much appreciated, since the dining car won’t be open this morning.

After our arrival in LA’s Union Station, I schlepp my bags through the tunnel system under the tracks to the station. The Metropolitan Lounge for business class and sleeper ticket holders doesn’t open until 5AM, so I grab a cappuccino from the Starbucks in the station and kill time in the main waiting room. It’s a zoo in there, with all sorts of weird people, even in the area reserved for Coach ticket holders. I’m glad to get out of there!

Tables, chairs, loungers and a bookcase in the Metropolitan Lounge, LA's Union Station

The Metropolitan Lounge, LA’s Union Station

I have several hours to kill, since my train to Seattle doesn’t depart until 10:10AM. The Metropolitan Lounge has all sorts of snacks and beverages available at no charge. I take the opportunity to clean up in the bathroom, since it’s so much easier than when I’m being pitched around on a train. There is free Wi-fi, so I entertain myself, despite its slowness. When it is time to board, a Red Cap porter takes us to the train in a motorized cart.

As the train leaves Los Angeles behind, we see the light industrial side of the city and pass by Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, where some passengers board. The train stops a couple of times along the way for track work and oncoming trains, and goes slow through many areas. There are lots of fields with crops as we pass through Oxnard and Camarillo, with lots of workers in the fields.. As we hug the California coastline starting in Ventura, we pass along beautiful shorelines and beaches near Carpinteria, and sand dunes and estuaries by Vandenberg Airfield. I lucked out since my Roomette is on the side of the train with the coastal view, so I can sit comfortably shooting photos and video as the scenery flies by.

California Coast by train from JoeTourist InfoSystems on Vimeo.

I have lunch in the dining car while we are going through the Santa Barbara area. We arrive at Pismo Beach by 2:30PM, where the train turns inland, leaving the scenic California coastline. transitioning into huge tracts of range land.

We change engineers and conductors in San Luis Obispo, so I take the opportunity to have a shower while the train is stopped. I’m signed up for the 6PM dinner sitting, ordering the special roasted chicken breast with baked potato and veggies. We stop in San Jose at 8:30PM for 10 minutes, and then roll out of the station and sit around until 9:05PM waiting for another train to pass before we get going again. I notice there are lots of old motorhomes with people living in them parked along the tracks in this area. No doubt living in San Jose is very expensive, so if you are a normal wage-earner, living in a decent home isn’t easy. We arrive in Oakland at 10:00PM for a stop. As we leave the station, it is time for bed. The train has a lot of distance to cover before our scheduled arrival in Seattle tomorrow evening.

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Tucson to Los Angeles by train

March 2, 2017 Thursday – Leave Tucson, AZ aboard Amtrak’s Sunset Limited train to Los Angeles, CA, USA

I arrive at the Amtrak station in downtown Tucson a bit after 5PM and check in at the wicket. The man tells me the train is running a bit ahead of schedule, so I will be able to board early (whatever that means). I’m glad the waiting room is air conditioned, since the Sun is pretty intense this afternoon.

JoeTourist: Tucson &emdash; Old Centralized Traffic Control Board displayed in the waiting roomMaynard’s Market is next door to the Amtrak waiting room, and they also run a restaurant that is quite popular. I can smell the food, but I’m really not hungry after my late lunch. The other end of the terminal has a couple of shops and a railway museum, including a steam engine under cover and statues of Wyatt Earp and Doc Halliday. There is an old centralized control station, which was used to control the trains in the area.

People watching in the waiting room is entertaining: a guy is wearing a zipped-up parka and talking loudly to himself; a young, gay, black guy floats into the room hugging his pillow; an intense guy stares at everyone who enters but doesn’t say a word; and an obese young woman loudly talks non-stop to her skinny friend about her life trials for all to hear. One guy approaches me to look up on my iPhone where the Greyhound station is, since he wants to get to Roanoke, Virginia by bus. He mumbles about taking a taxi since it is too far to walk, but I later see him board my train. By 6PM some regular folks finally start to show up!

The train arrives at 7:45PM and after a few people get off, I board my sleeping car and find my Roomette. My car attendant made an 8PM dinner reservation for me before I even boarded the train, which is great service and very welcome, since I really didn’t expect to have dinner onboard. The train leaves a bit early at 8:20PM and last call for dinner ends up happening while we are still in the station. After dinner my car attendant makes my bed so I can settle in for the night. We stop in Maricopa just after 10PM to pick up passengers, and then it is quiet time aboard my sleeping car. Despite being on the north side of the train, I see the crescent Moon from my Roomette window. I’m relaxed and ready for bed.

We are scheduled to arrive at 5:35AM Pacific Time in Los Angeles, so I set my alarm on my iPhone for 4:00AM Mountain time to give me some time to prepare to detrain in LA.

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Biosphere 2

March 2, 2107 Thursday –  Biosphere 2, Oracle, AZ, USA

I pack my bags and check out from the hotel around 11:30AM, heading north on N Oracle Road to the Biosphere 2 located in Oracle, AZ – about a half hour drive. The admission is US$20, but I qualify for a senior discount, so it costs me $18. This includes a hour and a quarter walking tour of the Biosphere.

Biosphere 2 was built from private funding, although it is now owned and operated by the University of Arizona. The first experiment demonstrated the viability of a closed ecological system supporting and maintaining human life in outer space by shutting eight humans inside the Biosphere for two years. They have unique large-scale experimental apparatus housing seven model ecosystems with some active research by teams of multidisciplinary scientists. The tour showcases the tropical orchard, desert, ocean, and tropical rainforest. Our guide tells us the rainforest is pretty overgrown, and the desert still needs a project. The scientific focus appears to be Water and Climate. There are also lots of school kids taking special educational programs.

I have to say after listening to our tour guide and seeing the facility for myself, it strikes me as kind of an odd facility. It is a long way from being sustainable, since it uses huge amounts of energy from the electrical grid to maintain and alter the various internal climatic systems. Of course this can be enormously valuable to scientists who want to see effects of climate change, since the climate can be altered inside in a matter of hours, and can be maintained precisely for days or weeks at a time. Our guide candidly admitted that the University of Arizona is still in the process of moving the facility from the idealism it was built for to a more scientifically relevant footing.

Biosphere 2 is an engineering marvel. The ecosystems are precisely maintained inside a sealed environment – airtight doors are the only way in and out. The Lungs allow the atmosphere inside to expand and contract without caving in or exploding the enclosing glass and metal structures.  Of course, those airtight doors were closed for the first two years during the original experiment!

After the tour, I stop into the B2 Cafe for some lunch before returning to the parking lot and heading south to Tucson and my train to Los Angeles.

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Tucson, Arizona

February 25 – March 2, 2017 – Tucson, AZ, USA

After spending a week with my astronomy buddies in the high desert of the Dragoon Mountain Ranch area east of Tucson, I take five more days to explore the Tucson area before returning home. I have some time to drive around Tucson to experience the city and the sights by taking day trips from where I’m staying in the Oro Valley (20 minutes drive north of the city). I go to see the Desert Museum, Sabino Canyon Park and Catalina State Park, Biosphere 2, as well as the aircraft bone yard. As I drive around Tucson, I can appreciate why this city is so popular with Snowbirds, since at this time of year the sky is clear and sunny, and yet the temperatures are moderate. It would be a wonderful place to spend some time to escape the winter for those of us who live in more northerly climates.

February 25, 2017 – Carrabba’s Italian Grill

I walk up the street from my hotel to  to have dinner at Carrabba’s Italian Grill. Since I am there early it is Happy Hour, so I order a $3 martini and have an Italian salad and Cioppino main course later. The Cioppino is a bit watery, but very tasty, so I use the bread to soak up the juice. Cost is only US$24 include tax and tip! I return on my last night in Tucson to enjoy another Happy Hour Martini and have their Proscuitto-wrapped shrimp with broccoli. JoeTourist recommended!

February 26, 2017 – Saffron Indian Bistro

I walk up the street from my hotel to the Saffron Indian Bistro for dinner, which is located in the same mall as the Italian restaurant I went to last night. I have vegetable Pakoras with Tamarind sauce to start, and Chicken Biryani for my main course. The rice with the chicken is very fragrant, and of course, I can always make a meal of Pakoras when there is Tamarind sauce to dip them into! I bring half of the Chicken Biryani back to my hotel, since it is too much for me. JoeTourist recommended!

The above two restaurants are located in the Oracle Crossing Shopping Center in the Oro Valley, a half hour drive north of Tucson. Urban art sculptures by David Voisard are featured in the mall’s outside spaces, which I find to be quite creative and fun!

JoeTourist: Tucson &emdash; Street art: 'Sharing A Meal' a man and his dog, by David Voisard

February 26, 2017 – Houses in the desert hills

When I drive out to the Arizona-Sedona Desert Museum southwest of the city, the route takes me through some areas where houses are on larger lots than in the city, and their property has beautiful cactus and other desert foliage surrounding their houses. Since this is my first time in southern Arizona, these areas seem to fulfill my preconceived notions of what living in the desert should look like!

JoeTourist: Tucson &emdash; Houses and cactus in Sundance Estates

March 2, 2017 – Tucson Train Station & Old Tucson

The Tucson train station is located in the older part of the city (as most train stations are), however this area is well worth a visit in any case. Many of the classic hotels in the area are upgraded, there are brew pubs, fine restaurants, entertainment venues, and the Presidio showcasing old Tucson’s culture and history. The train station also is the location for the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum, Maynard’s Market restaurant, and other interesting shops. The station itself is classic architecture – worth a look even if you aren’t taking the Amtrak train.

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Catalina State Park

March 1, 2017 Wednesday – Catalina State Park, Tucson, AZ, USA

After breakfast at the hotel, I decide to explore the Catalina State Park, which is on North Oracle Road, just a few miles north of where I’m staying. The entrance fee is $7 for a day pass. I park the car in the lot at the trail head and then start walking. There is a small stream flowing through a wash which has to be crossed, but I manage to step and balance on rocks, not getting wet in the process. The first trail I try is the Canyon Loop Trail, but it proves to be too much for me given that the sun is shining and I have no sunscreen on.

So after 20 minutes, I turn back and choose the Birding Trail. It is flat, has some shade, and is a whole lot more interesting. There are indeed lots of birds on this trail, including a nesting pair of Great Horned Owls. I also come across a huge number of bees swarming on a blooming tree. They are all up at the top of the tree, but I can hear them buzzing. Even this trail is a mile loop, which is too much for me on such a warm day, so I return to the car, leaving the park by 10AM. There are lots of local people at this park, and there is a campground.

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Sabino Canyon

February 28, 2017 Tuesday – Sabino Canyon Recreational Area, Tucson, AZ, USA

Once I’ve had my breakfast at the hotel, I decide to go to a local park, the Sabino Canyon Recreational Area since it is so close to where I’m staying in the Oro Valley. It is only $5 to enter the park, and another $10 to take the tram up the canyon. There are some people walking, but it is a long uphill trek, and it is threatening to rain. The tram is narrated on the way up. There are nine stops along the way, so people are picked up or dropped off at many of the stops.

It gives me an interesting peek into the Catalina Mountains that are north of Tucson, and the Riparian areas in the canyon. The Bajada Loop is a very short trail right next to the Visitor Center, and it has a wonderful variety of cactus and bushes of the desert. The half hour drive there and back allows me to see how people live in the suburbs of Tucson. I’m back at the hotel at noon.

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AMARG aircraft bone yard

Feb 27, 2017 Monday – 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), Tucson, Arizona, USA

I drive to the Pima Air & Space Museum and buy a ticket for their AMARG “Bone yard” tour for US$7.00. Most of the people showing up for the 9AM opening are also after tickets to the Bone Yard tour, and although there are several tours running today, they fill up quickly. A full-sized tour bus pulls up to the front entrance and takes my 10AM group on a one hour tour along with a Docent describing all the aircraft, the history of the place, and the reason it exists. We drive through the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base base gates twice in the process, so we have to be careful to not take photos inside the base. There is no opportunity to get off the bus, so my photos are mediocre. That said, the tour is very interesting, and it’s the only way to see this facility from the ground.

AMARG is massive – 2,600 acres or 11 square kilometres. Some 4,400 aircraft are stored here, making it the largest aircraft storage facility in the world. The ground in this area is so hard, it can support any aircraft without pavement. Since the air is so dry in this area, the aircraft don’t deteriorate rapidly once their windshields and sensitive parts are covered in a white plastic film. I hadn’t realized that some previously-piloted aircraft are converted to drones to save money.

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Desert Museum

February 26, 2017 Sunday – Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ, USA

After having breakfast at the hotel this morning, I drive to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The museum is in the western part of Suguero National Park. The desert landscape in this area is spectacular, and the museum presents very interesting displays of the various ecosystems found in the desert. The two captive Coyotes are quite active, and bark like dogs for awhile, getting everyone’s attention. Several docents are displaying birds of prey on their arms and describing their respective features and behaviour, so I take some wonderful closeups of the Peregrine FalconSpotted Owl and Barn Owl.

I have a sandwich for lunch at the little cafe off the gift shop, although there are two other restaurants on the site. Some of the Docents have owls and falcons to show people, which makes for some great closeups of these normally elusive birds. The museum has a surprising number of other birds and animals on display, including Javalinas (wild pigs), snakes, prairie dogs and squirrels, lots of birds, and some cats. So it isn’t just cactus on display, although there are endless varieties of those as well.