Sunday, May 15, 2016

Across the County on Amtrak's Southwest Chief

There are some exciting things happening in our family. As a consequence, we needed to get a little bit creative with our family vacation this year.

So we decided to take a train across the country!

Not long ago, we took a short ride up to Santa Barbara from Orange County and had a fantastic time.  Our boys loved the train and compared to driving, it was a fun way to enjoy the trip with two entergetic toddlers.  I had a slightly more difficult time convincing my husband that a two and a half day trip would be equally enjoyable...

I'll answer a few of the questions everyone asks first, and then go into more detail about our trip.

Is it cost effective compared to flying?

It depends on how you look at it.  Our trip for a family of four, in a family room, from Fullerton, CA to Chicago, IL was $1600.  Our flight from Chicago back to Orange County was $600.  I didn't spend much effort finding the absolute lowest price on either, although I did shift our dates to midweek.  So flying is cleary much cheaper per mile.  However we spent 2 full nights and 6 meals on the train, all included in the fair.  I think it's reasonable to assume about 200 dollars per night for a hotel and $20, $30, and $40 dollars respectively for three meals a day for 4 people.  Even then, at 1180, the train is slightly more.  Sure, I could include gas (2000 miles, 25 miles a gallon, maybe 250 dollars in gas?) and wear and tear and eventually make the argument that it is cheaper than driving, but it's still probably close.  The bottom line is if cost is the deciding factor, the train isn't probably your best bet, unless you are willing to sit in coach.  

Are you crazy?

Possibly.  I love the idea of sharing fun adventures with my family.  When our first was less than a year old, we moved into a dorm for a short amount of time so my husband could finish his degree.  I like exploring different ways of living and traveling.  I like exposing my kids to different people, places and experiences.  For us, the cross country train fit perfeclty with those goals. That said, there were several times we looked at each other over heads or our rambunctious children and thought "What were we thinking?" but in fairness, we do that on a regular basis at home as well.

Would you do it again?

Absolutely, but not right now.  18 months to 2.5 is one of my favorite ages for many things, but not for travel.  At this age, sitting still is not a skill he's mastered.   I'm glad it didn't stop us from taking the trip,but I'll wait until they're older to do it again.  

Our Trip

We decided to leave from Fullerton Station instead of LAX.  The drive was easier, and the area familiar.  We convinced a friend to drop us off.  We arrived early in anticipation of traffic and because we didn't fully understand the check in/security process.  When we arrived, we checked most of our bags.  They let us keep our stroller and check it just before boarding.  Since we had arrived early, we had plenty of time for a quick dinner at the Spaghetti Factory.  

We were still at the station in plenty of time and watched some of the Metrolink trains arrive and depart.  Train stations have some interesting people.  While one of my goals was to get my family out of the familiarity of our South Orange County Bubble, there were a few uncomfortable exchanges while we waiting for our train.

Despite my anxiety, there was plenty of time to get on board when the train stopped.  I was slightly concerned, as the Surfliner had stopped for less than 2 minutes when we took our trip to Santa Barbara, but we had plenty of time.  In fact, we intially boarded the wrong car (there were two sleeper cars) and had to deboard and board again on the correct car. (It turns out your ticket says the car number, but it's not very obvious)


On board, I was pleasantly surprised at the size of our room.  I had read every reivew I could find of Amtrak sleeper cars and had read a wide array of comments.  While certainly smaller than a hotel room, it was not cramped.  There was a luggage rack outside and we left our larger bag there.  It would have fit in the room fine, and a slighly smaller bag would have fit under the seat.  

Our room consisted of a bench love seat and 2 single seats that faced each other.  There were pillows everywhere when we boarded.  Our steward came in and introduced herself and offered us dinner reservations (we boarded at 6:45).  We didn't see much of her on the trip.

Food on the Train

With a sleeper accomodation, all food in the dining car is included.  The food was not bad.  It was certainly better than standard airline food and equivalant to some of the fancier dinners I've had on international buisiness flights.  

The dining car was located adjacent to our car and featured 4 person tables.  Because our family is four people, we didn't share, but if you have less (or more) you are assigned to share a table with other passangers. I'm glad, for their sake, that no one else needed to eat with our children.

 The worst meal was the salisbury steak.  I'm not entirly sure what possessed my husband to order it.  Luckily for him, my steak was very good, but I wasn't in the mood for meat and he ate it.  The children's menu is hot dogs or mac and cheese.  My kids happily ate a lot of mac and cheese for almost every meal.  There were also some good vegetarian options including bean enchiladas and veggie burgers. They also had several good dessert options.  By the end of the trip, many menu items were not available.

In addition to the dining car, there is a snack bar under the observation portion of the next train car.  Since we had 3 very large meals a day, we visited only once as something to do and bought the kids a treat.  It was fairly expensive and stocked with chips, cookies, microwavable food, and drinks.  

We packed WAY too many snacks.  I wasn't sure about the food and nothing is worse than hungry kids when traveling, so I had an entire suitcase of unecessary juice boxes, chips, fruit, nuts, and everything else I thought could survvie the train trip.  We did feed them a few snacks, but my snack bag was way overkill.


We chose a family room.  Our room was the width of the train and designed for a family of four.  The family of four it is designed for has children who are slighly older than ours and who don't fall off of things when sleeping, however.

Our attendent weirdly chose only to set up the beds on the left of the picture, but we were able to get the others set up on our own.  It is remarkably difficult to get photos in such a small space!

The ladder to the top bunk was a HUGE hit and made me super uncomfortable.  Still, we let them climb it (with help) several times.
Yep mom, I could totally fall off of this in the middle of the night on a moving train!

Night Sleep

Nap 'sleep'

In the end, we all slept on the bottom two bunks.  My husband and I serving as bed rails for the toddlers.  It was not nearly as uncomfortable as it sounds.  The biggest problem is that the side beds, (shown in the bottom photo) are only about 4 feet long.  As a result, we slept cuddled on both beds, but there was a 3.5 inch gap between the beds.  Luckily I brought our own bedding (I was nervous...) so we had plenty of blankets and pillows to shove in the gap.

Sleeping with kids can be rough, but it wasn't worse than expected and the first night I actually slept pretty well once we got them to sleep.  Putting the kids to bed and doing anything was out of the quesiton, but we've decided that generally it's not even worth it to try in most cases when on vacation and we just enjoy the extra hours of sleep instead. I did listen to an audiobook when I couldn't sleep. 

They also have an uncharacteristically modern blue night light in the room.  


Our biggest entertainment was probably eating.  It felt like everytime we started getting bored, it was time to eat again...  

Reading: Although I bet when you travel without kids you get to read A LOT more.

Tablets: (Make sure you preload media, not much internet along the train route

And snacking.

The diner card also had paper table cloths which we made use of at each meal.

And of course, gazing out the windows.  There was a variety of interesting and different scenery along the route.  It was a bit hard to follow the map, but when I had internet access, I used Google Maps to see where we were.  

Overall, we had a fantastic adventure.  A train trip isn't for everyone, but I'm glad we did it.  And I would absolutely do it again, but we've had enough trains for at least a few years.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Essential Purpose

Lately I've been focusing on simpling things in my life and getting a better handle on my essential purpose.

That sounds much loftier than it is.  Mostly, I've been spending a lot of time removing the things that aren't important so I can better understand and pursue what is.

My goal to read 50 books this year has already paid huge dividends in this area; my closet looks incredible (Thanks, KonMari); my clothes are fitting better (Hard to thank you Ferris, so... Fist bump?) and I've been making time for silence in my life.

Most recently, I've been reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau.  It randomly landed on my reading list as part of a classic book club that I'm in.  I'm only through the introduction and already, I'm finding the book incredible.

Our Inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.

Within an hour of picking up the book, I'd already highlighted about 7 passages (which is rare, I would say I normally average 2-3 per book), but this one in particular stood out to me.

"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things." --Henry David Thoreau

As I sat reading on my cell phone, I realized how true this is for me.  I'm not here to berate the mom checking her phone at the playground (ahem, me, ahem) or vow to stop using my phone (or ipad, or xm radio, or...), but it did give me pause.  If this was true in 1854 (the year Singer invented the sewing machine, for perspective) how much more true is it today?  Or to put it another way, how many more toys are there available for distraction?

And just in case that didn't hit home enough for me, I also found this:

Somet things are really necessaries of life in some circles....which in others are luxuries merely, and in others are entirely unknown." -- Hendry David Thoreau
"Some things are really necessaries of life in some circles....which in others are luxuries merely, and in others are entirely unknown." -- Henry David Thoreau
I have had days when I was nearly unable to work because the wifi at my office was down.  I can't possible claim WiFi is not necessary to my life, yet millions of people around the world live their daily lives with out it.  While I won't go as far as to claim that everyone who uses wifi is 'the most helpless and diseased,' I have to face that my reliance does have a tendency to occasionally cripple me, and it may not be helping me in my purpose as much as I suppose...

Monday, February 29, 2016

Why my Routines Rule.

I get a lot done in a day.  I like getting a lot done in a day.  Sometimes people ask me how I do so much.

The answer?  I cheat.

Seriously, I do.  My routines are how I cheat.  I automate as much of the mundane activity in my life as I can and by doing so I free up a ton of mental and emotional energy.  I automate things using my routines and my lists.  

Think of every task you need to get done to get ready in the morning.  
  • Open eyes
  • Turn off alarm clock
  • step out of bed.
  • Shower
  • brush teeth
  • comb hair
  • get dressed
  • etc etc etc
If we had to think of every one of those tasks we would go absolutely crazy.  But we don't have to.  Our brain takes care of it for us.  I realized I should do that with more stuff. (It wasn't just my idea, Gretchen Rubin, helped)

I don't want to rely on my subconscious to remember everything, so I make lists.  For pretty much everything.

The most prominent, and the most life changing, has been my nighttime routine.  I keep a list taped to the inside of my pantry that has all of the things I need to do each night for a successful day the next day.  Things like making sure I have all of the ingredients for dinner, packing my lunch, feeding the pets, and cleaning the kitchen.  I'm sure these tasks are going on in almost every one's house, the only difference is I don't have to think about it.  And that's awesome.

Because despite what people occasionally suggest, my routines don't take away spontaneity, they provide space for it.  With my mind free from remembering to switch the laundry, I can plan that awesome murder mystery dinner party I want to host instead.    And instead of "getting ready for the next day" being a mystery phrase that my husband hears me utter, it's a quantifiable thing that he can see and even do for me on occasion! ;)

Monday, February 15, 2016

What I've been reading: Goal Check In!

Check out my first Goal check in Book Review here.

I absolutely love having a goal to read books.  I love reading and having it as a 'goal' makes it so easy for me to make a bit of time for reading (or a lot of time as my reading list probably shows...)

Since my last update, I've read the following:

19. How to Talk so kids will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

I liked this book.  I don't read a ton of parenting books, but this one was recommended to me and is consistent with most of our parenting philosophies. We were having some challenges with our 3 year old and the book offered some practicial methods for resolving them.  Sometimes you just need a fresh perspective. I recommend this book to parents looking for some new tools.

20.  The 4 hour Body.

 Tim Ferris is one of my least favorite people.   After reading his first book, I would have bet a large sum I'd never read another one of his books, so I'm not even entirely sure how I ended up with this one.  And to be fair, I didn't even really finish it. ( ended up skimming/skipping his chapters on intimacy and bulking up, no thank you TF).  I still give myself credit for it though since we've decided to try it.  It's working wonders for my husband I've seen absolutely zero numerical results (weight or inches).  Still, I feel pretty good and I'm glad it's working for one of us.  Plus, an eating program that allows diet coke and red wine can't be all bad... Still; boo Tim Ferris. Boo.  I don't recommend this book.

21. 10th of December

I don't like short stories.  This book pretty much perfectly illustrates the reason why.  Somewhere in the murky and clouded distance between these stories, an incredibly novel is lurking.  I would LOVE to read it.  Still, there really are some great stories in here. I recommend this book to people who like thriller/fantasy books and who don't mind a short story.  I was talking to someone the other day who LOVES short stories because she said they don't keep you up all night reading, which is a good point. So if you don't want to be kept up all night, but don't mind some super creepy weird dreams, read away.

22. Spark Joy

This is the very first time I've EVER preordered a book.  (To be fair, there are some others I would preorder if I wasn't so happy waiting for them at the library).  But I am mid 'Tidy" and figured I could use all of the KonMari I could get.  I liked it, but it's not a necessary read.  I recommend this book to people who loved her first book and are in the middle of clearing their homes.

23. A Summer Affair

It's probably not a glowing review when I look at the title less than a month after finishing the book and can't remember a single thing about the book.... I would recommend this book to someone looking for a vacation read without much impact.

24. That Old Cape Magic

I read this on the recommendation of a friend and I was surprised.  It didn't seem like her type of book.  After discussing it with her, I think I'll give the author another shot, but I wasn't a fan of this one.  Maybe it's more endearing if you have personal history with any of the locations in the book (the Cape).  I don't recommend this book.

25. Tale of a 4th grade Nothing

After reading her new novel "In the Unlikely Event," I'd almost forgotten how much I loved Judy Blume.  This really was a fun read and I'm glad I revisited.  How can you not relate to a kid who's baby brother ate his pet turtle??

26. Super Sad True Love Story
This book is in the running for best book of my chellenge.  Set in a dystopia not so distant future where young people communicate almost exclusively via text, no one reads actual books, and your social status is broadcast publically for all to rank and judge (it IS the future... barely), it is a super sad love story.  I'd recommend this book to anyone who didn't stop reading this review at the word dystopia.

27. Heart of Darkness

I have to admit, I was pretty excited when our classic book club choose a short book.  Little did I know.  I listened to the entire book and was so lost I had to start over and read the book.  It's a short book, but it's heavy.  And full of 'stuff'.  No wonder English teachers drool over this book.  It was good to revisit such an iconic Honors English book as an adult.  Besides Mr. Redmens English class at HHS, I'd recommend this book to people who like Classics with the warning that it's harder to get through then you would suppose.

28. Ready Player One

I read "Armada" and really liked it so I added this to my library hold list.  It's a fun read, although I'm not quite nerdy enough to get all of the references.  I do think that someone should tell Cline that no matter how many times he writes a book about it, spending all day watching 80's sitcoms and playing video games is never going to make him save the world and get the girl.

I recommend this book to nerds, especially those who spent some time growing up in the 80s.

29, The Cartel

I think this book popped up on my list this update because I decided to counter "Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing."  It was long, heavy, and difficult to read.  It's focused on the drug wars and the Mexican Drug Cartels.  It's frighteningly realistic, although my little sister's current geographical proximity to the locations in the book prevented me from checking just how realistic.  I'd recommend this book to people who like crime novels and aren't squimish.

 30. The Luckiest Girl Alive

This was a fun read despite, or maybe because of, some of the most incredible over writing I've seen lately. For example, this gem, "I pressed my face into the crook of his neck, hot and steamy as a New York City sidewalk helplessly exposed in the thick of summer."  
I'd recommend this book to people who liked "Gone Girl" or "The Girl on the Train" although I don't think it was quite as good.

At 30 books, I'm way ahead of my goal to read 50 books by October.  If I counted the books I read at naptime and bedtime everyday, I think I might be able to reach 1000 this year! :)