• All Aboard

    For the most of my 16 years in this country I wanted to ride a train. There was always some excuse to prevent it from happening – it was too expensive, too long, I will have to rent a car, etc. With the gas prices where they are and with the air travel approaching the treatment and comforts of a cattle-car most of my excuses didn’t apply anymore. I took a plunge and purchased Amtrak tickets to Chicago. My overall impression – I should have done this years earlier. It was one of the most enjoyable, relaxing and fun trips I ever had.

    The train leaves from the East Wing of the Union Station where there is a waiting room and a ticketing counter. There is no check-in, metal detectors, shoeless walk of shame, probing, pat-downs, luggage-opening and other activities otherwise associated with a correctional facility. A passenger walks in, luggage- in-hand and boards the train. That’s it.

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    The train has coach and sleeping cars, dining car, club/lounge car with a snack bar on the lower level. The seats in the coach car are huge, they recline and have a leg rest. The foot rest folds out from the seat in front but I had to slide down on the seat in order to reach it. There is a folding table in the front seat as well. On the way back the couch car had a power outlet for every seat. There is plenty of room on the overhead shelf and heavier luggage can be stored on the lower level of the car.

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    The main feature is a huge window with a view. Granted, Missouri, Iowa and Illinois are not the most picturesque states to travel through but it’s still fun looking out and trying to guess what are these people doing for living in remote locations surrounded by cornfields.

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    When tired of the views, reading and movies one can walk up to the club car where windows are even bigger and extend all the way to the top of the car. The seats ar oriented toward the windows, some are set up next to the table so people can talk or play games. Drinks and snacks are sold on the lower level.

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    The Southwest Chief train service connects LA with Chicago. From Kansas City it takes the shortest route to Illinois which is 430 miles long and is about 80 miles shorter than driving. On the way to Chicago the train was late by about 40 min. It was doing good for the rest of the trip until there was an announcement that we are waiting on some hazardous spill to be cleaned up. Then we waited for all the other trains to move on. We were late to Chicago by little less than 2 hours. I didn’t mind. Passengers who missed their connections were offered accommodations. On the way back the train was late by 12 minutes which I consider excellent.

    The Union Station in Chicago is huge and alive, handling local and interstate traffic. Our station with only a few daily departures pales in comparison. Despite its size, the boarding in Chicago is just as painless. The Union Station is located in downtown Chicago, less than a mile from the Michigan Ave. The cab ride to the Grant Park area is $6-8.

    One advantage of not driving was my ability to relax, read and take some pictures and videos. I was surprised by many people along the way photographing the train, it seems to be a huge hobby nowadays. We even passed a special train-watching platform with the sign “RailFan.Net“.

    Here are a few videos that I made.

    Leaving Ft. Madison, IA and crossing the Mississippi River.

    This is somewhere in Illinois, I liked the wind farm all the way in the back.

    Approaching Chicago.

    Amtrak beat all my expectations and at this time I would recommend it to anyone who likes to relax when traveling and enjoy the view.

    Major Update: I totally forgot to talk about pricing. Amtrak tickets to Chicago are about $50 one-way depending on how far in advance you are buying them. They also offer some discounts and specials. Additional coupon codes may be available elsewhere, I used 20% off code while paying for my tickets. Child fares are 50% off. The other important detail is that if you make reservations online you can just cancel them until you pick up your paper tickets at the station. Paper tickets are also refundable with a cancellation fee of 10%.

    If you park your car at the Union Station covered parking the charge is $10/night.

    It seems that Amtrak positioned themselves as anti-airline, with discounts, child fares, no hassle, no luggage charges and many other conveniences and comforts. The only disadvantage is travel time, but if there is no hurry, this is the way to go.

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  • Cruiser’s Guide To Key West

    Key West is an island infested with drunks, roosters…

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  • McFlation

    During my trip to St.Louis I made my annual visit to McDonald’s because my daughter requested McSalad. I was disappointed that inflation continues to devastate McValue “dollar” menu. You used to be able to get medium French fries in a cardboard package, and now it’s downgraded to small fries in a little paper bag.
    Very old people would be able to recite McDonald’s original prices:
    hamburgers–15 cents; cheeseburgers–19 cents; fries–10 cents; soft drinks–10 cents and 15 cents; coffee–5 cents; and shakes–20 cents.
    With higher prices and crappy food there shouldn’t be any reason to go to McDonald’s, while we have plenty of local hamburger joints such as Town Topic, Harold’s and Winstead’s.

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  • Russian Gourmet: Green Borscht

    The good news about the green borscht is that it doesn’t have the dreaded beets in it. The bad news is that it’s made out of spinach. I understand that when you list the ingredients – spinach, green onions, boiled eggs you may not find it to be an exceptionally enticing combination. Nevertheless, it’s one of my favorite soups, light, easy to make and delicious.
    Assemble the ingredients: 3-4 eggs, spinach, green onions, parsley, potatoes, rice and dill (or dill weed, still legal in all 50 states), which I unfortunately forgot to procure.

    Start by boiling eggs in a medium pot of salted water. The new scientific way to do this is to cover the eggs with 1 inch of water, bring to boil, turn the heat off and cover for 10 minutes. No need for little cute egg-timers and no room for guessing, the eggs will be perfectly done.
    In the meantime, start boiling some water in the large pot. This is not a thick soup, I filled up my pot about half-way. The recipe says to boil some rice (about 1/2 cup) separately and rinse before adding to the soup. I skip this step and put rice directly into the pot when the water starts boiling; you are cooking borscht, not trying to get every pot you own dirty.

    Next, finely chop some green onions;I used a whole package from WalMart, or 1 bunch. If some Emeril wannabes want to call them scallions, just roll your eyes quietly and let them have their moment.

    While chopping onions both the white and green ends go into the soup but my Mom says that the middle part is bitter and throws it away. I personally never checked if the middle part is really bitter but I take my Mom’s word for it. Don’t send me comments about how useful the middles are, or how you can weave a blanket out of them; I will still throw them away because my Mom said so.

    Add chopped onions to the pot. Make sure it doesn’t boil too hard, adjust heat as needed.
    Cube 3-5 potatoes and add to the pot; add salt.

    Now on to the spinach. I buy pre-washed baby spinach in a box or a bag. You may be tempted to overpay and buy organic, but keep in mind that they probably used something that rhymes with schmecal schmatter to fertilize it (that what makes it cost more). I go for chemicals every time. I used one package, 8 oz, I think.

    Tear off stems from the spinach leaves and chop them medium. You can stack several leaves together to make this process easier, then it’s will be what’s known to the Food Network watchers as chiffonade.

    Chop the parsley. When potatoes are almost ready (can be cut with a spoon with a slight effort) add spinach and parsley to the pot. Boil for 5-7 minutes.
    While all this boiling is going on, use a box grater to shred the eggs, or just chop them with a knife.

    Add 4-5 tablespoons of the sour cream and mix it really well. Add chopped dill, if your Mom didn’t have a schmuck for a son and you didn’t forget to buy it. When the soup boils again, turn the heat off, add the shredded eggs and adjust the salt.
    You are done.

    Eat warm or cold, I don’t like it really hot. We used to eat it straight out of the fridge in the summer months.
    P.S. The beauty of this recipe is that you can’t screw it up by adding too much or too little of any ingredient, except for the salt. So go easy on salt and you will not be disappointed.

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  • Kansas Roadtrips: Prairie Dogs of Hutchinson

    There are exactly three things to do in Hutchinson, unless you count going to the mall as a thing to do – Cosmosphere, Kansas Underground Salt Museum and watching the prairie dogs. Both museums are excellent, probably among the best in Midwest, but it’s the prairie dogs who put everything in perspective.

    Prairie dogs represent the eternity.

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