Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – A Journey Across The Midwest

The Labor Day Weekend – the end of summer and that point when many Americans try to get away from it all one last time.  As usual (well except for last year when I went to Puerto Rico), I needed to head up to Iowa to visit family and celebrate my grandfather’s birthday.  It’s a time to also see my father, my brother (who just moved to Wisconsin) and many aunts, uncles and cousins.  Essentially, it becomes a fly-by family reunion each year.

Although my destination is Burlington, Iowa, I typically fly into the Quad Cities (Moline) and make the two hour drive to Burlington or stay with my Dad, who lives about half-way between the two.  This trip, I decided that I wanted to do something different.

For starters, Delta Air Lines had announced several months back that they would be shutting their Memphis Hub operations down as of September 3, 2013.  It was an airport that I always liked to connect through despite its narrow hallways and low ceilings; you always had the option of getting some delicious BBQ and connections were always a breeze thanks to how they had defined banks that were scheduled to optimize connections.  On top of that, I decided that I wanted to also try to fly direct into Burlington, which is served by an Essential Air Service (EAS) subsidized carrier called Air Choice One to both St. Louis and Chicago-O’Hare.  That meant trying to find a ticket that would get me to either ORD or STL via Memphis on Delta and then buying separate tickets on Air Choice One.

In short, I lucked out.  When searching for an award ticket on Delta, the lowest options that were coming up would route me ECP-ATL-MEM-STL on the outbound leg and playing around a bit further, I found availability not out of MDW or ORD for the return, but from Milwaukee (MKE).  Given that MKE has a dedicated Amtrak station that is served on the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service, it seemed like a no-brainer to me, and given the flight arrival to ORD that Monday morning, I would get almost the entire day to run around Chicago.  Essentially I would be running around three cities in three states over the four day weekend.  That’s just how I do things…

Friday, August 30
Unfortunately, because of how the final MEM-STL leg was timed, that meant getting an early start to my day out of Panama City (which would become the theme for this trip). On the ECP-ATL leg, I was confirmed in advance for an upgrade to First Class, so at least I had that going for me, but on the ATL-MEM flight I wasn’t so lucky. By the time I got to Atlanta I think I was #9 on the waitlist for two remaining seats, so that obviously didn’t pan out. However, given the flight length (it’s short) and the fact that I was in row 6 (plenty of legroom – first row of Economy Comfort), I wasn’t complaining…too much.

Delta MD-88 – ECP Gate 4

Delta A330 Pushing Back From ATL Concourse E

As I deplaned and entered the concourse in Memphis, I noted how quiet and empty it was right at that moment.  My flight arrived outside of one of the banks of flights, so there was just the few people who probably came from other Delta hubs waiting to connect through to a destination or locals.  I purposefully scheduled a 2 hour layover in Memphis, so that I could run around for a bit with my camera and catch a few photos of operations during these final days of the hub.  I wandered up and down Concourse B, finding entire gate areas that were devoid of any persons (workers or passengers), but ultimately a sign of the state that the Memphis hub was in.  When Delta merged with Northwest in 2008 there more than 200 flights a day, but in it’s final days as a hub, there were only 97.  After the cuts, it was taken down to 60 flights a day (including a weird distribution of flights to cities that are not hubs, which has me thinking later this fall we will see that number reduced even further).  As I wandered taking photos of the empty concourses and aircraft parked outside the window, I eventually was approached by an airport employee who was curious as to what I was up to (it’s a bit hard to be discreet with my DSLR).  I explained that, I’m a bit of a travel and aviation nut and was just taking some photos before the end of hub operations on my layover…and that no, I did not work for Delta (although thankfully I was able to drop the name of a former employer that is pretty important in the airline/airport industry).  Eventually, he was satisfied that I wasn’t up to anything nefarious and we started chatting about aircraft spotting, including a few good photos he had taken earlier that day of a new American A319 and a C-17 coming into the Air National Guard base at the airport.

MEM Concourse B – Very Empty…

No One Here Either..

Concourse A Was Just As Empty

Strangely This Delta A319 Was Bound For Baton Rouge, LA (Normally CRJs I Think…)

Ramp Between Concourses B And C – It Never Looked Much Busier Than This

Delta Sky Club Entrance

You can find even more photos from my wandering around of the Memphis International Airport over on Flickr.

I waited out the rest of my layover eating a BBQ sandwich and then spending a short amount of time in the Delta Sky Club, which still has that very Northwest Airlines feel to it.  I wonder if some day they will restyle it in the same manner that many of the other clubs have been updated to.  I made it back down Concourse B at the last minute to my gate where a CRJ-200 was waiting; I boarded at the beginning of Zone 1 and settled into my seat for the short flight up the river to St. Louis.

Interstate BBQ

As I deplaned in St. Louis I noted how hot the jet bridge felt…it wasn’t until after riding the MetroLink train to my hotel that I looked at my phone and noticed that it was indeed, in the triple digits…At 5PM it was a cool 100F outside, and later that night I think around 10PM, it had only dropped to 96F.  Heat like that kills any motivation I may or may not have had and as a result I got pretty lazy in my hotel room for a few hours.  Eventually though, I did head out, and went for a walk down towards the Arch before heading south of downtown to find the 4 Hands Brewery.  It was recommended to me by a local, and it was only a 15 minute walk so I made my way there.  There was a good selection of beers, including a good seasonal IPA (Resurrection) and there was some decent food selections from a counter set up at the end of the bar called The Fifth Wheel.  Although I just had some Nachos…

Gateway Arch

4 Hands Brewery

With the heat and having to catch a flight the next day at 10AM, I ultimately decided to just head back to the hotel I was staying at, the Westin St. Louis.  I had been given a room in the “executive building”, but as far as I can tell, it was exactly the room I had reserved.  Had a great view of the interstate, a corner of Busch Stadium, and a parking lot.  It didn’t seem very busy, so I could have/should have asked if there would have been a possibility of an upgrade to a room facing the stadium.  Otherwise, the room was on the large size, especially the work area (which had some of the most space for work that I have seen) and the bathroom which featured a separate shower and tub.  I didn’t take advantage of any of the hotel amenities, but just based on the room, I would say that it was pretty decent overall.  If for some reason I find myself in St. Louis again, as long as the Cardinals aren’t playing, I would stay here again.

Westin St. Louis – Main Entrance

Westin St. Louis – Entry

Westin St. Louis – Bathroom

Westin St. Louis – King Bed

Saturday, August 31
It’s supposed to be a vacation and yet, here I am getting up at 630am to ensure that I can get ready and make the train to take me back out to the Airport to catch my flight to Burlington, Iowa. Initially, I struggled to get up, but eventually I managed to get my act together, check-out and get to the MetroLink station right outside the hotel quick enough and was on my way to the airport.  It was a beautiful morning and with the sun shining through the large windows of the Terminal 1, it created a very bright and open feeling, something that many airports lack.

Lambert-St. Louis Ticketing Hall

I had never flown on Air Choice One before, nor any other carrier operating an EAS route (e.g. SeaPort Airlines or Cape Air), and so I wasn’t exactly sure how this would work.  When I approached the counter, I found no one manning it.  There was a sign that had the hours of operation (which I was in), but also that if there wasn’t an agent available, to call a number to let them know.  When I called them up, I was told the agent (yes, “the agent”) was working a flight at the gate and when they were done, they would come up to check me in.  So there I waited, for the single Air Choice One agent to come back up and to get checked in for my hour long flight up the river to Burlington.  There would only be six of us on the flight this morning out of eight possible.  75% load factor isn’t bad…

“Please Wait For The Agent To Return”

They Use A Rubber Stamp For The Airline Logo…

Security was a breeze and I didn’t even think about trying to use the priority line given that it wasn’t busy at all.  Once through I grabbed breakfast at Schlafly Beer restaurant, where I shouldn’t have been surprised to see people already putting down pints of beer at 9AM.  At the Air Choice One gate around the corner, I watched as one person boarded the earlier flight to Decatur, IL (oh, how that would have been awesome), before they boarded my flight to Burlington.

Air Choice One Gate In St. Louis

The boarding process was a bit different.  Since there was only six of us, the agent walked around everyone in the gate to collect boarding passes and then gathered us all up at once to head to the Cape Air gate next door to an elevator.  Once on the ramp there was a curious tool chest covered in ATR-42 stickers (a quick search online showed that TWA/Trans World Express operated those back in the day), as we were led to the waiting Cessna 208B Grand Caravan.  A single engine prop aircraft, it doesn’t really feel like that you are on a scheduled airline flight.  Especially once onboard, the seats were arranged in a “club configuration” where four of the seats face each other, with me having picked 2B, which faced the rear of the aircraft.  You reach the cruise altitude pretty quickly, since it is a whopping 6,000 ft – after all, the aircraft is unpressurized.  That meant flying low and slow and being able to appreciate the world down below.  Flying over small towns and farms, and ultimately on approach into Burlington, being able to spot my old neighborhood just south of the city.

Walking Out To The Aircraft

Somewhere Over Illinois

Getting Close To Burlington (Burlington Power Plant)

The Old Neighborhood – Moments Before Touchdown

Upon disembarking I walked into the tiny terminal, picked up the keys to my rental car at Avis and then claimed my checked bag.  As I stood there for the minute, I remember how much larger this tiny terminal seemed when I was a little kid.  I remember in the early 90s instead of one subsidized carrier flying into BRL, there was American Eagle, United Express and Trans World Express all offering flights.  Obviously times have changed, but at least this small town in the Southeast corner of Iowa still has at least one carrier bringing in passengers.

Burlington Arrival – Walking To The Terminal

Disembarking In Burlington

Southeast Iowa Regional Airport – Air Choice One Counter

I had time to kill before meeting my Dad and brother who were driving from Sheboygan, WI and so I found myself driving around Burlington reminiscing of my elementary school years.  I drove out to the old house and neighborhood, around downtown, stopping in several of the parks, and lots of aimless driving before checking into my room at the Fairfield Inn and Suites Burlington. I unfortunately had to reserve a suite here after discovering earlier in the week that I never did actually make a reservation at the Holiday Inn Express down the street and as such instead of paying about$200 after taxes for two nights, I found myself shelling out $300 to stay in a small town in Iowa.  Damn you Old Threshers Reunion…

Driving Through The Old Neighborhood

Northwards Along The Mississippi River From Mosquito Park

Great River Bridge

Fairfield Inn Burlington – King Suite

Fairfield Inn Burlington – King Suite

After getting checked in, the rest of the day would be spent with family.  First, there was lunch with my Dad and then moving on to the dinner for my grandfather’s birthday.  It’s the one time during the year that I see all of all of my extended family on my Mom’s side, so it’s usually good catching up with the cousins, etc.  Plus, I don’t think that I’ve ever had anything bad at The Drake in Burlington, which is where we always seem to go for these mini-family reunion dinners.  I went with a filet this time (versus the elk steak I had last year), and it did not disappoint.

Sunday, September 1
Pretty much everyone in the family was heading back home on Sunday to their respective cities across the Midwest, including my brother.  So, that meant having the day to roam about Burlington some more after breakfast with some of the relatives in the hotel lobby.  Even though I had drove around for a few hours the day before between landing and meeting my Dad, I took my brother around to a lot of the same spots: the old house, downtown, past our old school, through Crapo Park – where we even decided to try out the rickety, but ancient curly-slide that has been there since they beginning of time (ok, maybe not, but I think it’s been there since the 1920s or 30s).  After cheating death on the slide, we headed out to Maid-Rite to enjoy a couple of Maid-Rite sandwiches before heading over to our Grandparent’s house for a bit to visit before my brother had to drive back to Wisconsin.

Curly-Slide In Crapo Park…WEEEEE!!!

After visiting, I still had some exploring I wanted to do, so I headed west on US34, getting off in Middletown, driving a few up the old US34 to Danville and then down to old IA79 heading into Geode State Park.  Geode State Park is where we would often go when I was younger during the summer to visit the “beach” along the shores of Lake Geode.  It’s changed a bit since I was last here in the late 1990s, in fact unlike how everything else seems smaller from when I was that age, it seems larger.  There was even new facilities installed and it looks like the old boat rental and concession building had been abandoned.  Actually what was a bit surprising was getting out there and there being practically no one there; I would have figured with the holiday that perhaps there would have been some people cooking out, but perhaps it was just too late in the day.  If I had gotten out there earlier I would have gone for a short hike, but as the sun was setting, I opted just to drive some of the park roads, which with their little traffic and many turns made it fun to drive even if I was in a Ford Escape.  Would have been better in my BMW though…

The Exciting Town Of Danville

Geode State Park

Geode State Park “Beach”

At that point it was time to head back into town, so I made the short drive back, had Jimmy Johns for dinner and then headed downtown for a drink.  I settled on Paddlewheel, which seemed like a decent bar from what I could tell on Foursquare, and to my delight they had some great pricing on beer.  I mean when you get used to a bottle of crappy beer such as Bud Light costing $4.50 back home (hooray for living in a tourist-town), when you can get a liter of Goose Island IPA for the same price, well that’s something to be celebrated, even if Goose Island IPA isn’t on my list of excellent IPAs.  It being a Sunday was obviously slow, but being “out on the town” beats just sitting back in the hotel room for an evening.  And with a very early flight the next morning, I headed back to the hotel a bit early so I could pack up and get to bed.

Sunset Over Downtown Burlington

Monday, September 2
Getting up for early morning flights, despite being a frequent flyer, is always a bit suspect for me.  Since my BRL-ORD flight left at 6AM I figured I would get up at 430am so I could get ready, get checked out and head to the airport.  The one good thing about flying in/out of a small airport like Burlington, is that departure time is pretty much the boarding time (it doesn’t take long to board eight people).  So, by getting there around 530AM meant that I wasn’t even cutting it close.  I checked in for my flight at the Air Choice One counter, by the sole agent that was working at the time (I just remember when the space that Air Choice One takes up used to have 2-3 different airlines) and received my boarding pass to ORD.  After that, I walked outside to the “observation area” for a bit where I remember coming and watching planes a few times when I was younger before going back inside to wait until Security opened.

Southeast Iowa Regional Airport

Outside The Terminal

BRL Waiting Area – Waiting For Security To Open

Even for a small airport, they sure did have quite a few TSA employees working.  In fact I would say there was at least three employees to screen the eight of us on this flight….one to check IDs, one to scan luggage, and one to work the metal detector.  Once everyone cleared security we were all led outside to the waiting Cessna 208B Grand Caravan.  In fact it was the same aircraft that had brought me to Burlington on Saturday – not unexpected, I think Air Choice One has only four aircraft from what I remember.

The Waiting Air Choice One Cessna 208

The flight was longer than the one from St. Louis, but was relatively smooth accompanied with some great views out of my window as the sun rose over a sleepy Midwest.  I spent a good chunk of the flight listening to music and just looking down below (it’s a bit easier to make things out when the cruise altitude is 8,000ft versus 38,000 ft).  Here’s what I’m talking about:

Sunrise At 8,000ft

Flying Over Farms In Illinois

It was an on-time arrival into ORD and unfortunately since I was in a rear facing seat again, I wasn’t able to watch the landing through the windshield.  After disembarking from the aircraft and being led into the concourse I made my way to the CTA station to take a train into downtown.  Since I was flying out of Milwaukee that evening, I would have the day to wander around Chicago, of course after I left my suitcase in a locker at Union Station (which, by the way is very expensive – I should have just gone by the W or another hotel and had them store my bag).


Chicago Union Station

Suitcase free I began to roam the streets that I had explored back in December.  It was all still familiar in my head and I didn’t have any end-game goal so I walked from Union Station to Millennium Park/Grant Park, then along Wacker Drive to the Boeing HQ (was hoping the Boeing Store would be open, but alas it was not), then to a Corner Bakery Café to grab a smoothie.  At this point, I was definitely not sure what to do or where to grab lunch, but luckily someone I went to High School with had noticed that I was roaming about Chicago, and considering that she is attending Medical School there, we made impromptu plans to meet up for lunch.


Walking Around Chicago

Beginning Of Route 66

Chicago Sky Line

I had really wanted to get a deep dish pizza, mostly since I failed to get that last time I was in Chicago, but by the time I met her, I didn’t think there would have been time, so we walked to Portillo’s instead.  Both her and one of my cousins said it was good, and they were right – the hot Italian beef sandwich was pretty tasty, if not greasy.  After a quick visit to where she and her boyfriend lives (have to admit, I wish I lived in the big city), it was off to Union Station to buy my ticket to the Milwaukee Airport and catch the train.

Every time that I take an Amtrak train, I’m reminded how I think we could be doing better with rail transportation.  We treat it too much like boarding a flight.  You wait in an un-air conditioned room that clearly has less space than there are seats on the train before you can board through a “gate” to be led out to the platform.  I don’t understand why we aren’t able to have open access to the train platforms, like pretty much everywhere else in the world.  Yes, I suppose it is in the name of security, but imagine how much more laid back it would be that if you got to the station 30 minutes before departure, that instead of standing around, you could be settling into your seat and beginning a relaxing journey.

Boarding Amtrak Hiawatha Service To Milwaukee

Anyways…the Milwaukee Airport is unique in that it was one of the very few airports in the country that has a dedicated Amtrak station.  It may not be in the terminal like one would find in Europe, but a short shuttle bus ride isn’t bad either.

I had never flown out of Milwaukee before and as such I was not familiar with the terminal layout.  Especially considering that ticketing is on the lower level and the concourses (and I believe baggage claim) were all on the upper level.  That had me confused for a bit, since I expected to find a checkpoint next to the counters like in many airports.  Clearing Security wasn’t bad, and even found this humorous sign on the other side…

“Recombobulation Area”

Since I had a little bit of time prior to departure I made my way to the Sky Club where I sat and watched as a delayed flight to Atlanta pushed back, waited and then ultimately returned to the gate…I’m guessing there must have been an issue with the aircraft.  The Sky Club at MKE wasn’t busy by any means and shortly before boarding was called I hit up the deli across from the lounge to grab a small bit to eat for the plain.  Which, by the way, it wasn’t very good considering the $8 cost – I wouldn’t recommend it.

Delta MD-88 at Milwaukee Airport

I secured an upgrade in advance, so the flight down to Atlanta was comfortable and there were no delays.  For a domestic flight, it pretty much went according to plan.  A short layover in Atlanta and another upgraded flight and I was back home.  It had been a long day involving way too many forms of transport, and I was definitely feeling worn out.  By the time I made it back to my apartment I was ready to pass out, not just from the day of travel, but constantly getting up early over the weekend to catch flights or be places as well.  It wore me down, and of course I had to be work the next morning.  Thankfully, being fairly young, I don’t seem to drag as much, but that still doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck to a certain extent.

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