Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Chilling Tale To Develop Crucial Travel Survival Skills

Many of you know that when I am not investigating youth hostels, I am an avid couch surfer. This is an activity that some people think is too daring, and potentially even dangerous, but in truth, the peer review system employed in the organization has ensured that I have had only positive experiences. In Burlington, Vermont, however, we did not plan to stay in a hostel or surf couches, but stay in the home of a quirky, middle-aged woman that we had met in San Francisco and who had invited us to visit her. She promised to pick us up from the Essex Junction Amtrak stop* but moments before we arrived there, she called us, flustered, explaining that something unexpected had come up, and instructing us to take a cab, that she would pay for when we arrived. I immediately felt intuitively that something was amiss, but we agreed to go there, assess the situation, and flee if it was deemed necessary.

We arrived at a pleasant looking house with three goose-shaped lamps glowing warmly in the window, which I took as a reassuring sign. This was a mistake.

The front door burst open and a shaking, underwear clad woman ushered us into the foyer, and thrust bottles of Vitamin Water** at us, exclaiming excitedly that she would keep us forever if she could. Looking around and taking in the environment, I began to shift involuntarily into self-defense mode, my senses heightened and my reflexes on edge.

The floor was mostly covered in hay, various bits of trash and broken tools and wood, through which she seemed to have cut a tiny path to be able to get from room to room. Every other surface in the house was also covered, with teetering towers of old dirty dishes, disintegrating periodicals, mechanical parts of various disassembled machines, and, I am quite convinced, the rotting corpses of house guests of yesteryear.

She sat us down, considerately warning us to avoid the large pile of crushed glass she had hidden under a newspaper, and immediately began to regale us with a story about an accidental drug overdose, the resulting blackout, and her awakening the next day in the hospital, covered in wounds and terrible bruises. The story continued with a description of her intense paranoid schizophrenia and the conspiracy theories that she entertains about her neighbor, of whom she is scared witless, and against whom she bars her windows and doors each night. She paused briefly in the story to go satisfy her inexplicable need to brush her teeth, giving my friend and I a precious moment to communicate with one another via hysterical glances, gestures, and facial expressions. It was decided. We would gather our meager belongings and back slowly out of the hovel, making no sudden movements in the process.

Toothbrush dangling from her mouth, she emerged from the bathroom*** and I very diplomatically explained our consensus that our presence would be too great an inconvenience to someone who obviously had so many... projects underway.

We ran through the snowy night until we were a safe distance away, and plotted a course**** to the local food co-op for emergency rations and the comfort of being surrounded by socialist vegan food purveyors. In a state of shock, and elated with the sense of relief one can only experience after escaping a surreal near-death experience, we joyfully exclaimed at delicious organic cabbages, homemade pickles, spicy vegetable juice, dried apricots, kefir, and a delicious garlicky soy bean dip called "edamole." We then made haste to the Burlington International Hostel***** and breathed a sigh of relief.

It was midnight in Burlington and we were alive and fed and indoors with a safe bed awaiting us, and no broken glass to be seen in the vicinity. I consider it to have been a smashing success, in the grand scheme of things.


NOTES:

*Located, in typical frustrating Amtrak style, over ten miles from downtown Burlington.
**This blog is in no way funded by anything, let alone Vitamin Water, I just felt that it was a weird enough detail to reference by brand name.
***Which she had filled with dead plants and had disconnected from any water source, and was stocked with more dusty, cheap makeup than most suburban dollar stores.
****iPad with 3G!!! Thank you!!! I should be getting sponsorships...
*****Another testament to my amazing good luck, karma, or whatever you want to attribute it to, the first and only hostel in town opened here only six months ago. I shudder to think what we would have done otherwise.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Search for Snow, and an Ominous Arrival

The Vermonter runs from Washington D.C. to St. Albans, Vermont, through New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. My nomad companion and I have dreamt of visiting the snowy northern village of Burlington for years, and a mutual acquaintance invited us to join her in her cabin there. We were on the next train north.

The wintry scenes flashing by seemed familiar because they corresponded perfectly to all of my ideas of New England in December. Pale skeleton trees clung to the edges of steely lakes and dark streams, sheets of ice collecting and breaking free. Colonial towns appeared between hills, beautiful stone and brick buildings rising above sturdy wooden homes and church steeples piercing the low gray sky.

But still no snow.

I got really excited as we passed through Hartford, Connecticut because of their stunning Gothic Revival Capitol building, topped with a gold dome and towering above the city around it. I liked the look of the town so much that I wanted to know what other treasures it could possess, and this is what I found:

Hartford Has:
1. The oldest public art museum in the country
2. The oldest public park as well
3. The homes of both Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain, now museums
4. Some amazing architecture, much of it being Victorian mansions and medieval-looking castles and towers.
5. The longest stone arch bridge in the U.S.
6. Plans to build a commuter rail line for the region!


On the twelve hour ride we also passed through Montpelier, Vermont, which by population is the smallest US Capitol city. It was founded in 1781 and named Montpelier as a tribute to the French city, because just after the American Revolution we were apparently very smitten with all things French and wanted to pay them a bit of homage for their help in the war. But alas, there is nothing else of any interest to say about that city, and it is questionable as to if what I have already said qualifies as "interesting" to begin with*.

I am used to long train journeys where passengers are allowed to hop off and explore a bit at longer station stops. They are referred to by train staff as smoking and/or fresh air stops, which seem rather contradictory but to each their own. We attempted to do so at one point in the afternoon, but were thwarted by a terrifying banshee of a woman** who ordered us directly back to our seats and ridiculed our apparent idiocy in venturing to exit the train for a brief period. Then, once the train was moving again, she got on the intercom to publicly shame us and tell the entire train that we daren't move a muscle without her express permission, and if we endeavored to escape her train again we would be left behind on purpose. We proceeded to glare angrily at her for the duration.

We arrived on time in Essex Junction***, which was covered in snow, thank heavens. We had been told to expect our friend in an automobile to collect us, but she called and said "something had come up" and advised us to take a taxi, which she would pay for.

I knew immediately that something was very, very wrong.


NOTES:

*I lie awake struggling with this issue nightly.
**Who had also celebrated each upcoming station stop with a shrill, singing announcement of the stop name as she whisked eerily down the aisles, leaving a cold draft in her wake as she passed.
***A central location amongst a few towns, and about ten miles from downtown Burlington.





Sunday, December 26, 2010

Swing Dancing on the New York Subway

Here is a tip for all of you would-be Amtrak riders:* You know that saying, "The squeaky wheel gets the grease"? Well, as it turns out, complaining can really pay off sometimes, which explains why I try to do it as much as possible.

For instance, on the train north back to New York, the heating apparatus in one car stopped working early in the overnight ride. That car happened to be the one that I was seated in. I generally build a pillow fort in the Lounge anyway, so I was not bothered, but when I wandered back into the car early in the morning, the temperature had dropped drastically, and desperate, freezing people were huddled together, desperately covered in all of their outerwear and muttering about the inhumane and brusque treatment they had gotten in response from the train staff when they had complained. Snow literally drifted into the car from the vestibule. One particularly angry woman declared that she would complain to Amtrak and demand a refund. Hmmm, I thought. Refund, eh?

Upon arrival, I was on the phone immediately. If you do the math, a $75 credit toward my next ticket purchase is totally worth waiting on hold for an hour while catching up on correspondence and drinking coffee. It certainly pays more than freelance travel writing! Ha!

So the moral of that story is always try to capitalize on your discomfort if it can be blamed in any way on someone else, or if it cannot, and you can still gain from it, then I commend you more heartily still.

Back in Brooklyn, where there was sadly no snow, I asked a friend for the scoop on what interesting things were on about town. She sent me a list of events, and the first one I read was so perfect I could scarcely believe my eyes. Apparently, the metro goes old school for the holidays, and the New York City Transit Museum puts vintage subway cars back in action every Sunday during the season. The nostalgia levels run as high as the holiday spirit as old, diesel powered trains from the 30s to the 70s link up and race along the F line from the Lower East Side to Queens and back. Amazing!


(Next stop, 1940)

When we arrived at the 2nd Ave stop to await our chariot, we were surrounded by happy, expectant locals and tourists alike, many dressed in period attire. The loud, smelly, beautiful train pulled up, and we thronged through the doors, marveling at wicker seats, ceiling fans, and vintage subway ads from the first part of the 20th century.


(The things we take for granted)


(Don't I know it)

We wandered between cars while the antique train chugged down the modern tracks, coming across a woman dressed as Mrs. Claus singing carols, then finally coming to a car where a group of beautiful happy time travelers were swing dancing to a live jazz band.** We watched them perform the amazing feat of dancing while on a crowded, moving subway car until the end of the line, where we all got out and danced until it came back around and we rode again.


(Could this be any better?)

Having developed a hearty appetite from all of that excitement, we had dinner at Caravan of Dreams, a vegan restaurant in the Lower East Side, half underground, full of candlelight, and with the most beautiful wood floors. Cold pressed juices, walnut pâté, avocado salad, and banana almond butter pie replenished our spirits greatly.

I cannot think of a better way to spend a frigid winter day in New York.


NOTES:

*Actually, this tip is applicable in almost every situation in life, so heed my words padawan!
**I pinched myself. It hurt. I was not dreaming.

Friday, December 24, 2010

21 Southern Dishes and a Roundhouse, or, Why 24 Hours in Savannah Was Not Enough

While bicycling along the tree-canopied streets of the city that was Abraham Lincoln's Christmas present in 1864*, I stumbled upon a railroad museum that rivals that of Sacramento.


(An example of a beautiful old Savannah home. I am a writer, not a photographer, OK?)

The Savannah Roundhouse Museum is an antebellum railroad repair center that has tons of stock on display, in addition to loads of information about the railroad's role in the South, and the Central Railroad of Georgia. You can climb around and explore the facility to your heart's content, especially when you are the only visitor, as I was, and the only other humans there are two old men planting a garden in the same place that railroad workers used to keep theirs. There are photos of the men showing off prize-winning veggies proudly after their annual competitions.


(A steam locomotive from 1859!)

The site is also home to the Coastal Rail Buffs Society, who keep an amazing model railroad there, and have an informational video about their tireless activism to pressure the local government into developing a decent rail transit system in the city, and plans to build an expansive new multipurpose community center in the old buildings there. This is how rail fans work to enrich our lives, people!

Finally, came the moment that I had been anticipating with childlike excitement for so many hours.

Lunch.

I got in line at Mrs. Wilkes' and immediately befriended ten other hungry gluttons, who adopted me as their leader as I was alone and drooling most impressively. We were seated at a huge round table in the homey dining room plastered with pictures of generations of cooks, glowing reviews, and photos of Barack Obama eating there mere months before. I follow the President's culinary footsteps very loyally apparently. Upon close inspection of one photo, I realized that our very waitress had served him his sweet tea! In rapid succession, millions** of steaming dishes were placed before us, many of which I still would not recognize in a line up, but all of which seemed to be sufficiently salty, sweet, fluffy and/or fatty respectively. The fried chicken was a favorite, as were the sweet potatoes, which one presuming diner kept stealing from me. I did not feel the need or ability to consume anything else for a very long time after that meal, let me tell you.

Afterward, I rolled*** into the Historical Society, where I looked at beautiful old maps and read about an amazing Polish-American patriot called Count Casimir Pulaski. He met Benjamin Franklin in in Paris in 1777 and was so inspired that he came to to Georgia to help fight in the Revolutionary War, and was killed in the Siege of Savannah in 1779.


(One of many reasons to bike in Savannah)

I ended my tour in the city's creepy, haunted graveyard, and promptly hopped onto the evening northbound train, in search of some snow. Little did I know, it would get a bit closer than I would have liked, and sooner than I thought.


NOTES:

*After his famous March to the Sea, during which General Sherman made a habit of burning railroad ties, melting the iron tracks, then somehow picking them up and tying them around tree trunks and telegraph poles, he sent a telegraph to Lincoln on December 22nd saying, "I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton."

**21 actually, I counted; Contact me personally if you would like a complete list organized in order of which dishes I liked most. I expect to be flooded with emails regarding this issue.

***Literally and figuratively at that point.

Post Script
I failed to find a proper place to incorporate this into all of the impressive things I learned about Savannah in such a short period, but:

1. The first steam ship to ever cross the Atlantic Ocean was the S.S. Savannah in 1819 and,

2. Juliette Gordon Lowe founded the Girl Scouts here in 1912.

Just thought you should know.




Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Oglethorpe's Dream: Savannah

There is a legend that the name "Savannah" originates from the cries of a party of people on a boat trip on the river when a young girl fell overboard.

"Save Hannah! Save Hannah!"

During my one night and one day in the city, I could find no one to corroborate this story, and believe me, I looked. The general consensus is that it is actually named for its resemblance to the African Savannah, which is much less interesting to me.

Nevertheless, the city itself is fascinating, and so full of controversial American history that I scarcely know where the begin. The historic city center is a rectangle on the southern side of the Savannah River, and was thought up, planned, and founded by a very depressed British colonist called James Edward Oglethorpe in 1733. I learned all about him in the Savannah Visitor's Center* in a video narrated by a British Oglethorpe impersonator. He founded the 13th colony of Georgia in an attempt to create a Utopian society full of hardworking honest Protestant farmers, differentiated from the other more capitalistic and cutthroat colonies already in existence by its egalitarian nature and perfect economy. When the settlers arrived, a Yamacraw chief called Tomochichi showed them where to build the city. Oglethorpe was a bit of a micromanager and planned the city with 22 perfectly spaced tree-filled plazas, and made all of his followers plant mulberry trees to cultivate silk worms. All this planning proved to be for naught though, and a plague killed most of the settlers. The Protestant colonists allowed a group of Jewish doctors to settle in the city in order to get medical treatment for the rampant disease, but alas, the trees could not be saved.



Anyway, Savannah is flat, beautiful, and mostly parks filled with those famous Spanish moss draped oak trees, making it a perfect bicycle city, and luckily, I came into possession of one of those very machines. After an enormous mug of coffee and a pile of day old pastries that were practically free at The Sentient Bean**, I took off to admire artwork by Savannah College of Art and Design students, and chat with the helpful and friendly grandmothers that run E. Shaver, Booksellers. I bought a copy of Mark Twain's last travel book, Following the Equator, there, and they gave me recommendations for lunch.

Here, I should explain a phenomenon in Savannah: the family style, all-you-can-eat, lunch buffet. The most famous, where I had originally planned to dine***, is The Lady and Sons, the temple to southern cooking celebrity chef/goddess of buttery cuisine Paula Deen. However, all of the locals with whom I broached the topic pointed me in the direction of a different establishment, Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room and Boarding House. This was not, according to all of the midday gluttons of Savannah, an overrated tourist trap that existed solely in order to propagate the Paula Deen cooking cult, but a long standing and locally favored, quality business. When I passed by the former eatery to take a look for myself, and was up to my elbows in Paula Deen cookbooks, and paraphernalia, and the cookbooks of chefs she endorses, and her husbands book about living with Her Butteriness, I knew I would not be able to keep down my lunch were I to eat there. It would have to be Mrs. Wilkes'.

In order to build a sufficient appetite for the impending southern food extravaganza, I explored the riverfront shops and instigated a praline war between the two rival candy stores of Savannah. Originally there was one store, River Street Sweets, owned by a married couple. They had a nasty divorce and the husband disappeared for ten years before returning to Savannah to open his own competing shop, Savannah's Candy Kitchen. One block away, no less. It has been a bitter rivalry since then. I interviewed employees and sampled the product at both locations in the name of science, and I can assure you, there is a very noticeable difference between the service and quality of the shops, but you will have to determine which is better in each category for yourselves. I will say, however, that River Street Sweets gave much larger samples.

I was not expecting to come across any obscure pieces of 19th century railroading history that day, but after so many months of doing just that, I should have known better...


NOTES:

*Housed, fittingly, in what used to be part of an extensive railroad roundhouse and garage, complete with a museum and a café in an old rail car. It was easily the most interesting visitor's center I have ever explored. They had a mind blowing exhibit on agriculture and nutrition through which I learned that Georgia is third in the nation for peach production, during American revolution, tea was unpatriotic so coffee and chocolate drinks were favored instead, BBQ originated with the Taino Indians, soy meat was first invented in 1954, and the ice cream sundae was invented in 1890s to get religious Victorian-era people to go hang out in soda fountain shops. There was also a Jazz Hall of Fame sponsored by the Coastal Jazz Association.

**Haha! Get it?

***Read: Gorge myself.

Monday, December 20, 2010

North to Savannah on the Silver Service

I just met a very intriguing specimen of the human race, let me tell you.

It seems that the positive attributes of the Lounge Car have increased its fame past its capacity, because when I made my way there it was already so full that there was no empty table available for me to set up my avocado* sandwich buffet lunch. I saw an old man working on a laptop at one table and asked to join him. I think I had been seated for less than ten seconds before he launched into the most intricate monologue I have ever seen performed while in motion.

He started with relatively common conspiracy theories examining connections between the Bush family and the house of Saud, Al Jazeera and Osama bin Laden, and how young people today have no comprehension of why we are so lucky to be in a free society, but then delved into a whole new world of narrative. He explained how with the help of two friends he was able to use water to fuel a combustion engine, thereby proving the efficacy of the world's perfect fuel, and various other undertakings and accomplishments of his life, but then the story took a darker turn, as he explained that his wife, a Colombian citizen, has been refused re-entry to the U.S. for the past two years.

He has attempted with various means to procure for her the proper papers and legal status, often using a negotiation tactic called the "Southern boy's promise." This is not a threat, because a threat may or may not be followed through. This is a solemn vow that will be carried out no matter the circumstance, which usually is quite dire. In this vein, he is currently en route to Washington to announce that his wife is being held hostage by American bureaucrats in Colombia in hopes that this will convince the consulate to grant her citizenship. As if this endeavor was not enough to keep him busy, he is also selling tankless water heaters around the country in an attempt to reduce America's reliance on oil and increase our energy efficiency. A very busy man indeed.

About me, he said various things as well. I will reach far-flung places and it would be good for me to find a partner who will want to share my adventures with me, and who hopefully has money to give me the latitude to fulfill my potential. Other people living in a place that he called "Mundanesville" will live vicariously through me and my observations, which will make me very successful. I liked that very much.

Finally, after hours of discussing these issues and giving each other ideas for success in our relative pursuits, I excused myself to go back to my seat** and write down everything I possibly could, as though it were a dream that would be lost forever if I did not record it soon enough.

The ten hour ride to Savannah took us across plains, along coastlines, and through surprisingly dense jungle at one point. Later in the ride, my seat mate tried to convert me to her sect of Christianity, which follows the teachings of a modern prophet called Brother Banham. It was a hard sell, but I am really starting to come around and see the light, I think. We arrived at the station*** in Savannah right on time, and I was ready for my 24-hour whirlwind tour of the southern city deemed too beautiful to destroy during the Civil War.


NOTES:

*The avocado having been generously donated to me by a couch surfing host.
**My seat mate being an endearing Jamaican grandmother who patiently listened while I regaled her with my detailed recounting of all of my own grandmother's traditional holiday recipes. It is apparently already that time of year when every woman over the age of 60 becomes my dear Grandma Claire and I have to remind myself not to burst into tears and hug them.
***The train has serviced Savannah since the 1830s, however the historic, centrally located original passenger terminal was demolished in 1963 to make room for a highway onramp of all things, and a depressing shack was built on the outskirts of town, completely unreachable by public transit, making a taxi one's only connection to the actual city. America, why do you mutilate yourself this way?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

In the Home of the Great Man Himself

My last evening with my French traveling companion was spent in Fort Lauderdale at a friendly little hotel called the Tropi Rock, but the only things that I can really say about the city are that:

1. It is not Miami,
2. It has a bar called the Elbo Room where gay men challenge you to dance-off competitions, and
3. It has a railway station.


So it passes in my book.

I planned to get the first train to Palm Beach to pay homage to Mr. Flagler at his mansion, (now a museum dedicated to his life and awesomeness) then take the next train a few hours later to arrive in Savannah that night. However, after my first experience with a truly evil Amtrak employee,* I got a bit behind schedule and decided to spend the whole day in that city and catch the train the following day.

About Palm Beach, all I can say is that it amazes me how two cities could be built up around the same purpose, by the same man, mere miles from each other, yet Miami could become such a disaster and Palm Beach could become quite lovely and enjoyable. Full of yachts and overpriced stores where each item costs more than It is appropriate to discuss with my sensitive readers, and not exactly culturally stimulating, but not actively offensive.

About the Henry Flagler Museum at Whitehall, I can say that I was more interested and spent more time there than at any other museum, ever.**

As we know, Henry Flagler was a very rich man. If you are wondering just how rich, I will give you an idea; the dividends on his Standard Oil Trust stock paid him on average about $150,000 per month during the end of the 1890s, a time when it was common to live off of a monthly salary of $100 or less. So yes, he had some disposable income with which to build the "marble palace" that his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan, had always wanted.

With admission you are offered a tour of the huge marble castle, furnished with most of the original pieces and gorgeously restored. The building of the place was meticulously documented and Flagler was involved in every aspect. For instance, Thomas Edison himself was actually the original electrical engineer for the project, but Flagler did not like his lightbulb shape and Edison refused to change it, so he was dismissed. Our guide was without a doubt the most dramatic, sassy, and passionately well informed museum docent I have ever encountered, and after the tour I was left a bit misty-eyed. They also have a great exhibit about the Florida East Coast Railroad, the whole family history, beautiful china sets, and, weirdly, traditional lace making. But, that is not even the best part.

In a beautiful lakefront pavilion next to the main building one can climb aboard Mr. Flagler's private railway car, Number 91*** and partake in a "Gilded Age Lunch" in their perfect cafe, served in the rich style of the era. Even the gift shop was nice, and I hate gift shops.

The next day would bring me back up the coast again, toward a famedw city just north of the Florida border: Savannah, Georgia.

NOTES:

*You know who you are, and I hate you.
**And I do not know anyone who likes museums more than I do, so that is saying something. That is not really something to brag about though, is it?
***Which was apparently the only one with its own private bathroom at the time, and he would often invite Mr. Morgan and Mr. Rockefeller to ride with him to show off.

91- Flagler's prized private car

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Ghosts on the Last Train to Paradise*

On January 22, 1912, the American pioneer spirit succeeded again with the arrival of the first train in Key West, after having crossed 130 miles of ocean from mainland Florida.

On December 11, 2010, that same spirit encouraged me to copilot a car along the same path with a French man convinced that one should never drive over the posted speed minimum, ensuring that we and the mile-long trail of cars behind us thoroughly savored the astounding views. It was a gorgeous, perfectly sunny day, and driving on a road surrounded on either side by nothing but ocean and sky felt like nothing else, but I could not help but feel a bit of longing for the train that once traversed the same distance.

Key West is the southernmost point of the United States, and lies a mere 94 miles miles from that evil Caribbean autocracy, Cuba. Its name is actually derived from the Anglicization of the phrase "cayo hueso," which refers to the bones the Spanish found there when they first landed there in 1521. Apparently, it was actually the most populous city in Florida until the mid 19th century, and it has over the centuries developed a reputation for attracting interesting, expressive characters such as Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Henry Flagler, and myself. After experiencing it, I can promise you, this reputation is not unfounded.

On the island my chauffeur and I reunited with a Minnesotan cyclist we had met in the Everglades, who had ridden all the way from California and made her ultimate destination there. Together we stayed with a super hospitable couple who over the course of one evening exposed to us a world of cats trained to walk tight ropes, nudist bars**, holiday boat parades, various imaginatively assembled cocktails of all shapes and sizes, 90s cover bands called The Durtbags, and one man acoustic concerts covering everything from Phil Collins to the soundtrack of The Little Mermaid. I know where I am retiring.

The next day was passed admiring the beautiful homes ranging from simple, brightly colored beach cottages to ornate Victorian mansions, peering into the home of Ernest Hemingway, eating the biggest cookie that any of us had ever seen, and generally relishing the blissful environment in which we miraculously had found ourselves. We also visited the monument marking the Southernmost Point of the country, which is flanked by the equally, if not more famous, Southernmost Menorah. Yes, the place is touristy, but it has its own unique culture, history, and local population*** which keep it from losing its soul and becoming, say, Miami.

Subsequently we returned to the reality of the continental United States, but not before breakfasting on slices of the most expensive "All Authentic Key Lime Pie" in the entire world**** to properly prepare for the journey.


NOTES:

*This is a reference to the book I am currently reading, Les Standiford's dramatized chronicle of the rise and fall of the Key West Railroad Extension, Last Train to Paradise.
**Cleverly called The Garden of Eden, and no, we did not actually go inside, though some in our party who shall remain nameless desperately wanted to.
***Who call themselves "conchs" and made their own republic once in ----- for -----.
****I do not care if it is made with all authentic golden snitches, no slice of pie, no matter how big, should ever cost eight dollars. Blue Heaven how I resent you!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The French are Fabulous Kayakers

You Can Tell Who the Leader is Here

Wooden railcar at the Pioneer Museum

The Everglades: Contrary to Popular Belief, Not a Swamp.

The Everglades Hostel is a ramshackle garden compound in Homestead, the nearest town to the eastern entrance to the National Park. It was founded thirteen years ago by an amazing woman who turned the property into a unique tropical hideaway, filling it with gorgeous native plants, building all sorts of tree houses, hammocks, canopied lounges, waterfalls, and giant chessboards, and decorating every clean and comfortable room uniquely. It is staffed mostly by a crew of friendly live-in volunteers who put on communal meals daily and welcome you to join their campfire each night. They also offer various tours to the park itself, which I was lucky enough to experience with their ten-year veteran "wilderness guide," Graham.

My first day in the sprawling settlement of Homestead was spent wandering the streets in solitude, visiting a central European pastry shop called Café Gold Prague, being horrified by the enormity of something called "Walmart Supercenter," and trespassing at the Homestead Pioneer Museum.* During the evening, however, I finally met a French person willing to teach me how to employ my French language Tarot cards, and I am now fully qualified to give you an accurate reading, albeit poorly translated into English. He appreciated my psychic skills so much that he essentially begged to accompany me for the next few days as I made my sojourn to the Florida Keys. Never one to refuse driving in a car with a foreigner, I accepted.

The Everglades are many things, but they are not, I repeat NOT, a swamp. They encompass nine different ecosystems, none of which are in any way related to a swamp, as Graham reiterated to our international trekking group** time after time. The whole thing is actually a giant river, which used to cover the entire southern tip of the state, but has been confined because of agriculture and development and other horrible things related to humans. During our day deep in its wilderness we squelched through icy, knee deep water in a cypress dome, walked along paths through a mangrove mangle, and kayaked through a maze-like lake where we spotted the biggest crocodile*** that currently exists in the whole park. But that was not enough to satisfy my appetite for viewing wildlife. No, I needed more.

I have mentioned on various occasions my love of ponies, and while sadly they are not one of the species native to the Everglades, a comparably weird and endearing creature does call their brackish waters home. That elusive creature is... the manatee. I told Graham that I would tip him twenty dollars if he could find me one, and forty if he could convince it to look at me and wink. While the latter proved impossible, he did use his amazing Everglades animal attraction powers to draw not one, but two of the lumpy adorable creatures to us in the harbor at Flamingo, the southernmost inhabited point of the contiguous United States. I was satisfied.****

To celebrate surviving the day we were taken to a famous tropical fruit stand called Robert Is Here, where we ran around and sampled starfruit, Florida avocados, papaya, and pomelos, and had key lime milkshakes. The next day we would set out to see more wildlife- this time the natives of a strange and fantastic place in the Caribbean, called Key West.


NOTES:

*It was closed, unfortunately, but they had an ancient wooden railroad car in the back that I climbed all over and took these pictures of. I think a local soda-crazed gang had made it their clubhouse, because the windows were broken and Pepsi cans were everywhere. Coolest. Clubhouse. Ever.
**We were French, British, German, Estonian, and Hungarian-cum-Japanese on the tour, and I took on the role of "token loudmouthed American" with gusto, as I am sure you can imagine.
***There are both alligators and crocodiles to be found in the Everglades, but crocodiles are much less common and are found in the saltier water towards the ocean while alligators prefer a fresher water environment. Gosh, I learned a lot on that tour.
****I am fairly certain that if I never see another wild animal again I will still have seen more than the average urban-dwelling human at this point. Though I am still holding out to find a unicorn someday.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Welcome to Miami, Sucka!

I have heard songs about the alluring characteristics of Miami, mostly by rappers, but for some reason I really had no idea what I was getting myself into by going to that wretched conglomeration of dwellings, businesses and humanoid like beings.* Miami is like a crappy reproduction of Las Vegas, which itself is a reproduction of all of the other actual interesting places in the world, and all soul, familiarity, and class has been progressively lost in the process of making these copies. It reminds me of the hit comedy Multiplicity, when Michael Keaton's clone clones himself, and the result funny in theory, but says things like, "I want to eat dolphins."

There is none of the Southern hospitality that I have grown accustomed to here- attractive lanky blondes talk to you on the street to try to lure you into garishly decorated overpriced restaurants and clubs, and Cuban gangsters drive next to you for blocks asking if they can take you somewhere and why you do not want to be their friend. This kind of superficial interaction is highly disconcerting.

Here are two excerpts of conversations I overheard between women in Miami:

In Spanish, about boyfriend trouble, "Yeah, I know it's bad, but he bought me a Coach purse."

and

In English, in response to a compliment from a male friend, "I look good? What, only now? I didn't look good before?"

I think you get the point. I stayed in the Deco Walk Hostel, which had ocean views over South Beach and was very stylish, but not even friendly Argentine staff, a cheap lobby bar, a roof terrace, and very low rates could make me want to stay in Miami for more than 24 hours. While there I was adopted into a party of ten wealthy conservative Ohioans who insisted I eat an inordinate amount of sushi with them, but even partaking in an enormous lobster roll and sake bomb buffet could not negate the detrimental effects of almost being forced to join a Latina gang of some kind at a music show** later that night.


(Castle? Museum? No, probably a corporate criminal's summer home)

The next day I rode a bike everywhere in the region, and while some of the architecture was stunningly beautiful and the waterfront properties were gorgeous, the historic art deco neighborhood was very disappointing and rather rundown. Other than along a few manicured pedestrian malls filled with designer stores there is no way at all do get around safely without a motor vehicle, preferably a Mercedes Benz.


(I finally found a cool old theater, but it was converted into condos, of course)

In Miami it seems that everything is trying to be something else. The hotels all look like giant cruise ships run aground, the homes look like gaudy Barbie mansions***, the bike lanes look like terribly paved gutters indeterminate from car lanes, the stores look like museums, the restaurants look like exclusive nightclubs, and the people all look like murderers who have tanned themselves to a crisp and gotten various plastic surgeries to disguise themselves from law enforcement.

The good thing about Miami is that they have an efficient regional public transit system to get one out of Miami as quickly as possible. After about 19 hours there, I was ready to take the MetroRail and a very scary county bus directly to the Everglades Hostel, which would prove to be the perfect place to recover from the psychological damage I suffered in Henry Flagler's Frankencity. ****


NOTES:

*I will not degrade the word by calling this place a "city."
**That billed itself as Jazz but was actually improvisational Latin Funk and intermittent rapping at a club called Jazzid. Jazzid? What does that even mean?
***I know, I owned one when I was 10. The mortgage was astronomical.
****Yes, I know that Frankenstein was actually the Doctor, but you get the point.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Following in the Footsteps of Henry Flagler



Who is Henry Flagler, you ask? I was unaware as well until I arrived in the Sunshine State* and saw his name on everything from street signs to universities to museums to most books about Florida. It seems that it was my fate to come to Florida and learn about this famous American visionary because he has been credited with the founding of modern Florida, and it is thanks entirely to him that the railroad connected the state with the rest of the country. To say that he is my new favorite historic American entrepreneur** would be putting it lightly.

This is very exciting to me and I could go on for quite some time about his accomplishments, but I have heard that some of you only want pictures so I will give you just the highlights of the life of this genius of the Gilded Age.

THE FOLLOWING SEGMENT IS ABOUT U.S. HISTORY ONLY. I MAKE NO JOKES OR TALK ABOUT ANYTHING AFTER 1935 FOR THE NEXT FEW PARAGRAPHS.

Henry Morrison Flagler was a well-known salesman who had built himself up from the impoverished life of the son of a rural Presbyterian minister when he partnered with John D. Rockefeller to found Standard Oil. In fact, it was only because of his influence that the company incorporated in 1870. He used the railroads to get a comparative advantage in the oil refining business, ensuring the vast success and monopolization of the company and garnering no small amount of bitterness in the public eye.

Later in his life, he started spending time in St. Augustine for the health of his consumptive wife but found that the accommodations and transportation there did not meet his standards. He therefore took it upon himself to build the most immaculate hotel in the nation, connect the town to the railroad, and develop "America's Riviera" out of what had been only a few years before a sleepy town with a few orange groves. The newly wealthy industrialists of the era now had a place to spend all of their profits in the mild Floridian climate, and a vacation empire was created.

He subsequently extended the Florida East Coast Railroad all the way down to what would soon be known as Miami, but at that time was hardly even a village. The locals actually wanted to name the young city for him after he single-handedly developed all of its infrastructure, but he declined and said that it should be named for the indigenous name, "Maiyami." The rest was history, and the next thing we knew Will Smith was beckoning us all to the high rise party condo Mecca of the south.

Flagler's latest and most impressive accomplishment in my opinion though is his extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad over 130 miles of ocean to Key West, in 1910. The undertaking was dubbed "Flagler's Folly" at first, but he managed to accomplish the feat at last, to the amazement of of the world. The inspiration, will, engineering, manpower, and capital investment that the construction demanded amazes me. Sadly, only 25 years later the worst storm in U.S. history hit the Keys and destroyed the entire thing, and it was replaced by highway as part of the New Deal.


I just wanted y'all to know about Mr. Flagler, possibly one of the most underrated figures in U.S. history. I will resume the story now.

I arrived in the city of Palatka to hook up with the Silver Star heading to Miami. The station was attached to an exhibit put on by the local rail preservation society, and there I learned about an amazing thing called the American Freedom Train, which was a mobile exhibit about American History that traveled the whole country in 1975-6 in celebration of its bicentennial***. Waiting for the train, I also had a chance to have an in depth interview with an elderly gentleman who had worked for 21 years on the railroad. When I told him about my project, he was eager to fill my little brain with as much train trivia as possible. He held my rapt attention for over an hour.


(America's Freedom Train!)

He worked as am engineer and as security, so he had a very different, hands-on perspective, and he had a ton of information about the technological developments of train functions, most importantly new techniques for quicker braking. In an emergency, powerful air brakes are used, and sand is actually ejected on the tracks in front of the engine to give more traction. Genius! Working in train security he often encountered hobos and vagrants hopping trains, but he said he always had compassion for them and actually respected many of them as simple working people that needed to get from one point to another. He explained that many were Latin American migrant workers, some were typical hobos with a lifestyle of moving about on the fringes of society, and others were just teenagers hopping on and trying to make amateur adventure movies. I told him that the idea of hopping freight trains had intrigued me but I had thought better of it and decided to buy tickets from Amtrak and collect the most Guest Rewards points of any human in history. He said that it was probably a good decision, especially as a woman traveling alone****, and that I could redeem my points for countless fabulous things, like free upgrades and companion tickets!

He wistfully described how even now, retired, he always examines passing trains considering different factors that could cause the train to derail, and admiring their phenomenal cosmic power.

I was delighted to be back on the train again, though the scenery was not quite so exciting as on other rides. I was surprised to see that much of Florida looks like the African Savannah, the myriad luxury beach resorts and Walt Disney World notwithstanding. Bereft of exciting events outside the window, and feeling a bit awkward caught in the crossfire of the avid flirting of my seat mate and another passenger, I moved to the cafe and chatted with the train staff for most of the afternoon. The big news was the construction of a new station in a place called Okeechobee, and they all excitedly peered out the windows to see the site as we passed. They explained the Miami dialect to me, saying it was the same mixed patois of the various early European settlers in the area, which essentially equated to Spanglish. Luckily, I am fluent in this language.

Nearly on time, we pulled into our last stop, and the first thing I saw was an enormous sign saying,

"Welcome to Miami!"


NOTES:

*Florida. I am in Florida.
**My old favorite was Eli Whitney, best known for the invention of the cotton gin.
***Oh, how I wish I could have been there to see that!
****So ladies, resist the urge to hop a train, or if you must do so, try to bring a male friend along.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Oldest City in America, San Agustín

I thought Florida was supposed to be warm.

A freak cold snap has taken over the east and though the sky is blue and the sun is shining, it is approximately 40 degrees outside. Life is so unfair sometimes.

Also, there are sadly no longer any Hostelling International affiliates in Florida. I can, however, confidently put my stamp of approval on the Pirate Haus Inn, which has a fabulous location right between the main tourist thoroughfare and the waterfront. They also boast themed painted rooms, a patio, community kitchen, and all those typical amenities, plus all of the pirate paraphernalia one could ask for, and a free pancake breakfast put on by the artists/linguists in residence.


(I made the vaguely French looking pirate in the front)

I stayed just south of town with the owner of the aforementioned accommodation and his lovely wife, who took me to dinner at the local pizza parlor, Pizzalley, and then entertained me all evening with a drama-filled mouse battle, which we won with the help of their three dogs. I got an early start the next freezing cold morning in order to see all of the extremely old things that there are to see in this picturesque vacation town.


(El Castillo)

I would highly recommend renting a bike (for cheap at Solano Cycle) and seeing the sights that way, as everything is within very easy biking distance. El Castillo de San Marcos is the most prominent historic attraction, as it is the oldest thing that any Europeans built in what is now the U.S.* It is extremely impressive to look at, offers great views of the area, and interesting to me because it is the only fort in the U.S. that has never been taken by force, but changed hands only via treaties and diplomacy. There is also a famous lighthouse** and the national park on Anastasia Island, which I somehow managed to get lost on even with GPS.


(I am fairly certain that this needs no caption but this is the lighthouse, viewed from the bottom for free)

The rest of the town is full of amazing architecture spanning centuries, from the oldest wooden schoolhouse (built sometime before 1716) to the Spanish Renaissance Revival gem of Flagler College, to the astounding fantasy-style castle of Villa Zorayda, inspired by 12th century Moorish design. The city has an almost dreamlike feel, as everything is either quaint, grandiose, beautiful, or all of the above, and perfectly planned and accessible. A bit like Disneyland***, but an actual city.

FOR THE GREATER ENJOYMENT OF EATING AND DRINKING IN ST. AGUSTINE

Whatever you do, do NOT get sucked into the weird Floridian obsession with making wine out of everything but grapes. Many stores entice you to try grapefruit, chocolate, coffee, carrot, or boysenberry wine, which sounds interesting at first. Let me save you the trouble and tell you now, it is terrible.

Do, however, visit either Casa Maya or Blue Planet Co-op, which both offer fresh, delicious, affordable feasts to those of us that have had one too many scoops of jambalaya in the past couple of weeks.


After being surrounded by so much Spanish history all day, we felt it appropriate to make tapas for dinner, and after various glasses of the accompanying homemade sangria, I went to sleep eagerly anticipating the next day's trip down the coast of Florida, towards that steaming tropical vacation empire, Miami.


NOTES:

*The city was founded in 1565, and construction on the fort started in 1672.
**Though, they charge $9 to go to inside, and I think that is ridiculous! So I just imagined climbing 209 steps and peering out over the Atlantic, then rode my bike through the surrounding neighborhood, full of ramshackle, old fashioned vacation cottages.
***Which sounds like a negative thing but it is actually quite sweet. The town even has a little tourist bus made to look like a train that carries retirees and families from sight to sight. It would be much nicer if it was an actual train, but alas, I have relatively little clout with the St. Augustine Director of Transportation, even with my expertise in railroading.



Tuesday, December 7, 2010

From New Orleans to St. Augustine, with a Brief Stop in the City of INSANE

Hurricane Katrina is still an ever-present historic reference point in Louisiana, and especially in New Orleans. Everything can be described as being pre or post hurricane, because everything was either damaged, different, or exposed after that storm. Infrastructure suffered immensely- the roads are filled with cracks and cavernous potholes- but the damage of most interest to me was to the railroad. Until 2005 the Sunset Limited connected Los Angeles, Houston and New Orleans, then continued past the Mississippi to Florida. Katrina damaged the tracks east of the river, and though they were repaired by 2006*, passenger service was never restored because of low profitability, damage to stations on the route, and transfer of stock to other lines with more ridership. This is yet another example of the limbo in which Amtrak finds itself; it is under pressure to produce the results of a private corporation but with the constraints and limited means of a government agency providing a public service. I will set aside the political debate on the issue, however, and avoid further complaints and internal deliberations about cheap public transport options in the U.S. and simply say that to get to Florida and reunite with the train** I had to take the Greyhound from New Orleans to St. Augustine. I bought a ticket for six, and put it out of my mind for the day.

The National Park Service has a Jazz National Historic Park in the Quarter, and I learned there that Congo Square is a very important site in American Jazz history because it was the only place in the U.S. where slaves and people of African descent could play traditional styles of music, practice religion, conduct trade, and sustain other cultural activities during the 1800s. This is part of the reason that jazz flourished here, benefitting from the relatively free musical expression that different groups enjoyed here. I was also urged to walk the Jazz Walk of Fame in Algiers Point, a free ferry ride away on the west side of the river. As no human that I am aware of is capable of resisting a free boat ride anywhere, I did so. Algiers point used to be a large slave market, and was also the point where the Acadian people were deposited when they were shipped to Louisiana from France, but now it is a relatively quiet neighborhood. The boat ride was worth every penny, but the Jazz Walk of Fame consisted of 12-foot-tall lampposts with tiny captioned pictures of legendary musicians on the tops, that were virtually impossible to see or read. My recommendation: go to Algiers if you like boats and nice family homes (or, heaven forbid, you want to visit that monstrosity they call Mardi Gras World) but unless you have a special interest in street lamps of the early 20th century, do not bother with the Walk of Fame.

On the ride back to Canal Street a bluegrass band played a song about a woman who ordered every item on the menu at a cafe. Her husband responded,

"I know that you're a hungry gal and I don't mean to squeal, but who ya think is gonna pay for such a hefty meal?"

The chorus said,

"My name is Morgan but it ain't J.P. You must think I own a railroad company!"


I liked that a lot.

I then accidentally collided with the New Orleans Christmas parade and fair, which like all good public events involved dancing ladies, men dressed as elves doing Elvis impersonations on scooters, and many tiny ponies.*** The next thing I knew it was time to get on the bus.



(They had a tiny train at the fair as well!)

A seemingly harmless man offered to carry my bags to the bus but I knew better and turned him down. Nevertheless, he decided I needed to be stalked anyway and sat across the aisle from me in the half-filled bus. Behind me sat a nun, so I assumed I would be safe. Wrong. The next hours were spent with the man periodically hissing, clucking, and whispering at me about our upcoming marriage, punctuated with violent tapping on my chair, waving his cell phone in my face, and desperate pleas to be allowed to sit next to me. The nun, meanwhile, thought he was talking to her and started shouting Bible verses about God protecting her, proclaiming her need for personal space, and generally ranting at an unnecessary volume. I responded to neither one, and at the first meal stop she bought them both food and they sat happily eating together thenceforth. Unbelievable.

I transferred three times**** and finally arrived the next day in the brilliantly sunny city of St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States. I was thrilled not only to see some amazing Spanish architecture and stay with the owners of the city's best hostel, The Pirate House Inn, but also to know that, if everything went according to plan, I would not have to take another Greyhound bus for the rest of the year.


NOTES:

*The freight company CSX owns the tracks, as with the rest of the Amtrak system.
**I refuse to go back into the wintry darkness of the New England until the last possible moment and will bask in the sunny tropical regions of the US for as long as I can.
***The elves called themselves "Elfis" and thousands of toddlers and their pushy parents made it nearly impossible for me to get close to the ponies and take my picture with them. A love of ponies knows no age!



****By the way, there is nothing to do for four hours in Jacksonville, Florida on a Sunday morning, save wander an abandoned mall with creepy Beachboys Christmas music blaring with a sickly looking homeless person as your only companion.

A Surprise Trip to Thibodaux

I know that I am supposed to be traveling by train whenever possible, but when a Swiss gentleman offers you a ride to New Orleans in a red Mustang, you accept.

As it turns out, he is a writer with the French magazine Jazz Hot, the oldest jazz journal in the world, and he is currently doing research for a book focusing on renowned jazz pianist Mal Waldron and the free jazz movement. His plan to drive in his fancy car from Lafayette to New Orleans coincided with mine, and I would be doing a disservice to myself, him, and the environment if I did not take advantage of a free carpooling opportunity, am I right?


(Swamps. Obviously)

We drove the scenic route, stopping in a town called Thibodaux for lunch, then driving along Bayou Lafourge to an abandoned turn-of-the-century sugar plantation called Laurel Valley. It still has a little farm and museum/antique shop, with a wooden boat building school in the back. We had no idea what to expect there, but got more than we ever could have bargained for in our brief visit. We fed chickens, goats, and a pony, and met the friendly, straw hatted old man in charge of the animals. He taught us how to crack the pecans* he had just harvested and then asked to take our photos posing on various farm equipment. That was odd, but you know I can not refuse a photo shoot sitting in a wheelbarrow, so we obliged him.

We then met the very colorful Cajun man who teaches the art of wooden boat building. He gave us a unique look into the lifestyle there, telling us about "working from cain't to cain't"** collecting Spanish moss, and boating along the bayou as opposed to using roads. He also told us some weirder*** stories about having twin 19 year old girlfriends when he was a guitarist in a band at a local saloon called Happy Aunt Tammie's at the tender age of 13, being a roughneck and fisherman on the Gulf, his current gig as a DJ, and how schizophrenia ran in his family but he ignored the voices and did just fine.


(The Blue Moon Guesthouse. Just kidding. An old building from the abandoned plantation)

Before we left, he taught me how to read Tarot cards**** and the farmer gave us some homegrown grapefruits, and copies of the pictures he had taken. Various other townspeople had shown up by then and they all waved happily at us as we drove off. The abandoned plantation itself was nothing compared to the living community we had stumbled upon by accident.

Back in the Garden District of New Orleans, in the welcoming and familiar Marquette House once again, we snuck into a party for Louisiana architects, had truffles pancetta macaroni and cheese at Capdeville, and ended the evening listening to "John Gill's Big Three" at Fritzel's. A good New Orleans night, considering the next day would be my last in the city, and the great state of Louisiana.


NOTES:

*This task apparently requires a certain strength and finesse that I lack, though I make up for it by being fabulous at eating them.
**From before the sun rises in the morning until after the sun sets at night.
***And by weirder I mean shocking, risqué, and often accompanied by explicit photos.
****I am a natural, apparently! Ask me if you would like a reading. I will give you a special discount if you mention the blog.

DeQuincy Will Not Make It to My List of America's Quaintest Villages

I do not know how to write this without exposing my deep rooted and incurable hypocritical nature, so I will skip any pretense or excuse. I heard talk of a beautiful old train station converted into a railroad museum in a distant hamlet called DeQuincy, and I was desperate to visit it, but of course it is extremely isolated and not even the dreaded Greyhound will take a body there. Thursday morning, chatting over coffee with the five other guests in the hostel, I was shocked to find that though all of them had cars, none of them had any desire to drive me two hours into the wilderness to see a bunch of dusty old train paraphernalia. I almost convinced my Swiss friend, but then he realized he had no interest whatsoever in the outing and he backed out, the traitor.

That is how I decided to rent a vehicle to drive myself to the DeQuincy Railroad Museum.

As it was my first time doing such a typical "grown up" activity, I naturally had no idea what I was doing, but after messing up my reservation, being stranded in an airport, taking a cab, faxing insurance paperwork, about five phone calls with my father for support, and a call to my bank to unfreeze my ATM card,* I was on the road.

It was a nice drive to DeQuincy, though I became a bit obsessed with looking for hitchhikers to pick up** and only had terrible radio and CDs of famous Egyptian opera singers to listen to. However, once I arrived in the desolate place, the museum turned out to be vastly over-exaggerated in the scope and presentation of its exhibits and the friendliness of its docent. A woman who was four feet in height and as many centuries in age opened the door, demanded to know why I had bothered her there, and commanded me to sign the guest book. She then either forgot that I was there or simply lost interest, because I was left alone to poke around the incoherently organized and poorly labeled exhibits for quite some time until she suddenly appeared amongst some old typewriters and a model telegraph operator to query yet again as to why on earth I had come there. I was starting to wonder that myself.

Amongst the endless stacks of old railroad union handbooks I did find some intriguing specimens. Reading about the Kansas City Southern Railroad, which used to serve DeQuincy, I found that the company still exists after 120 years, and in 2005 completed a NAFTA-inspired merger with Mexrail Inc. and now includes Kansas City Southern de México and the Panama Railroad. I also read about engineering developments in the early 40s that made trains vital to the Allies during WWII. Powerful steam locomotives were built that transported supplies through the mountains in Europe, and when German spies reported heavy loads being transported on steep inclines at impressive speeds, the Nazis dismissed the reports as improbable, and thus the trains worked safely. There were some beautiful old locomotives and railcars outside, but they were fenced in and completely inaccessible, sadly. I left the place rather listlessly, I must say.



BUT on my way back to Lafayette I had a lovely drive through the bayou, making it to the Gulf in time for sunset, and stopping to dine on the best oysters I have ever eaten at a restaurant called Shucks, in Abbeville. The owner personally greeted me*** and graced my table with an array of barbecued oysters smothered in everything from garlic butter to pepper jelly to spinach and feta, and I was very, very happy that I had rented the car after all.





(Oysters apparently are not very photogenic)


NOTES:

*Wells Fargo assumed that if someone was attempting to rent a car, not just make hundreds of tiny restaurant or Amtrak ticket related purchases, my card must have been stolen.
**Alas, to no avail. I was alone the whole time, my carbon footprint growing exponentially with every mile.
***And made a huge show of his concern at my plight of dining alone, so I explained I was wealthy businesswoman exploring an investment in an oyster farming venture in the region.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Breaux Bridge by Bike

One of my favorite Cajun folktales* says that when the Acadians were expelled from Nova Scotia, their devoted friends, the lobsters, followed them all the way to the bayous of Louisiana. However, it was such an exhausting journey that they wasted away and became the more diminutive, infamous crawfish. I wanted to eat those little creatures, and I would let nothing get in my way, not even the possible necessity of physical exertion.

Breaux Bridge** is a quaint little town straddling a 100 mile long bayou, about twelve miles from Lafayette. I read somewhere that on Wednesday mornings one can go to this town and find a specific restaurant called Café Des Amis and hear old Cajun people speaking their special dialect while eating things like catfish and ettouffee and drinking delicious locally produced coffee. I wanted to experience this firsthand, and the generous staff at the Blue Moon offered me a rather sad and rusty orphan bicycle in order to accomplish this goal. In the process of pumping the tires one exploded, so I wheeled it over to the local bike shop, Recycled Cycles. They fixed me right up, but were shocked and impressed that I would dare to ride the unfathomable distance separating the two parishes. Setting out, I felt a mixture of pride and potential for embarrassing failure, the latter increasing when I realized that the left pedal hardly worked. Pedaling was a bit awkward and uneven, but I had set my course and there was no turning back! Crawfish and indiscernible languages awaited me.

It took less than an hour to arrive in the village, but I felt like I had accomplished something much more impressive, like winning the Tour de France, which is quite fitting as the French influence is so apparent there. Café Des Amis proved to be well worth the effort, and I dined on an amazing dish of delicately fried eggplant slices over a rich, savory pile of the glorious regional specialty, crawfish ettouffee. Like most of the famous Creole and Cajun dishes, I could not describe it as an attractive entree per se, but the perfectly seasoned, slow cooked concoction was close-your-eyes-while-you-chew worthy. The only disappointment was that instead of old Acadian men chatting in 17th century French, I only overheard two local antique dealers discussing a rather illegal sounding purchase and resale of some priceless antique guitars over cocktails.***

After tooling around the village inspecting various antique stores and stumbling upon a sort of time warp of a bakery where the old woman selling me tiny spice cookies told me that French was her first language and as a girl British schoolteachers would punish students for speaking French on the playground, I hopped on my handicapped bike and headed home, along a different route.



I am sure you are all assuming that I got terribly lost or fell into a swamp or crashed my bicycle into an alligator nest, but you are happily mistaken, and shame on you for your lack of faith. In fact, I ended up riding along back country roads so idyllic that I could hardly believe them. Little bridges crossed lush bayous, farms of varying degrees of disintegration housed goats, puppies, chickens, and rusted Model Ts, Spanish moss hung from every tree, and at one point I actually passed two boys riding horses down a lane. Time stopped.

That night there was an explosion of awesome zydeco music at the Blue Moon Saloon, and Cedric Watson and his band did not disappoint. I do not claim any sort of expertise on the topic, but to me the music was an infectious, fast-tempo hybrid of jazz, soul, country, and folk elements, and dancing was not an option, it was necessary. Within seconds the audience was stomping and flapping around like mad as energetic washboard, fiddle, drums, accordion, bass, and sassy Franglais**** lyrics took over all of our appendages. The crowd was very helpful in teaching us outsiders how to shimmy and hop around properly, and over the course of the evening I happily attempted to dance with various Peruvians, Mexicans, French, Swiss, British, and one extremely intoxicated southern gentleman.

Could zydeco be the new jazz? Only time will tell, but I do seem to have a knack for playing the washboard.*****


NOTES:

*Because I obviously know so many of them.
**A very cool example of the linguistic blending so common in this region. Another good example is writing something like "Here we geaux!"
***Mind you, it was barely noon at this time. The concept of waiting until "Happy Hour" for your first drink of the evening is unknown here, and would probably be decried as heresy would it ever be proposed.
****My super clever wombo combining French and Anglais.
*****Certainly not for washing with it.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

I Know Why the Cajun Rages

I think most Americans are familiar with vague references to Cajun-ness in our culture, but who really knows anything about these misrepresented and supposedly very angry people? I went to Lafayette, a hotbed of Cajun culture, to find out just that.

First of all, the word Cajun is simply an Americanization of the word Acadian, which refers to a small group of French pioneers that settled in the area that is now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 1604. They got along relatively well with the indigenous populations, and essentially minded their own business in isolated but prosperous settlements there until the British just could not stand it anymore and kidnapped and expelled them to various other colonies/back to France in 1755. Because of the established French presence in the Isle of Orleans* many Acadians eventually made their way to the region just west of New Orleans, and by 1785 over 1000 families had settled here, and the current Acadian culture took root. After over 150 years of isolation in the swampy areas of southwest Louisiana, Acadian culture has become very distinct and extremely proud, and there are countless programs promoting French language, local music styles and cuisine, and their particular way of life in general.

After extensive research into a way to get to Lafayette, I was left the options of hitchhiking or taking Greyhound, and as thunderstorms we're forecast, I resigned myself to my fate. Luckily, the trip was only an hour, and I walked directly from the station to the Blue Moon Guesthouse and Saloon.** This place is a landmark in Lafayette, and famous for their fabulous local music from Wednesday through Sunday. As it was only Tuesday, and the next train was Friday, I knew I would have three nights to soak up all the zydeco, crawfish and Spanish moss that I possibly could.

My first day in the town involved a visit to the Lafayette museum, where I learned the single creepiest thing*** I have ever heard about Catholic nuns. Apparently, in this region in the 18th and 19th century, when a women took their vows and became nuns, they shaved their heads to be covered by their habits. Interesting, but not creepy, right? Wrong. After cutting their hair, they would send it to New Orleans to be woven into an intricate floral ornament that would surround a portrait of the newly confirmed nun in her new duds. There were various examples of these in the museum, such as this one.



I also found a toy train from the 1860s, which was much less disturbing.



I then partook in my first po' boy sandwich ever, at Old Tyme Grocery. When I ordered I told the waiter that it was my very first experience with this famous sandwich, and as I went to a table to wait I heard him yelling back to the cooks,

"Now this is her first shrimp po' boy folks, so you better give it yer all! Make it count!"

That is what I call service.

That night there was no zydeco to be found in the whole city, so I went to a terribly dull Christmas concert in the lovely cathedral in the center of town. No amount of inspirational religious architecture could keep me awake during the performance, however. I promised I would make it up to myself by hearing locally renowned zydeco prodigy Cedric Watson play the next night.


NOTES:

*Which was a French colonial possession from 1699 until Louis XV gave it to King Charles III of Spain in 1763 because he lost a bet or some other ridiculous scenario, and was ultimately bought from Napoleon in 1803 by the U.S. (under Thomas Jefferson's advice) for $15 million.
**A homey, welcoming place that is super cheap and offers free grits! And as a guest you can see the musical acts for free and even get a complimentary drink ticket. Highly recommended.
***Granted, I do not know much.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Road to Red Stick

The Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans houses both the Amtrak depot and Greyhound station. I arrived to buy a ticket for my chosen mode of transit, only to come to the earth-shattering realization that the train to Lafayette runs only on alternating days. I had considered the probability that eventually on this trip I might have to take some form of transit other than the train- you all remember my near-Megabus experience in D.C. I am sure- but I wanted to put it off as long as possible, especially when the alternative was the dreaded Greyhound.* But, Lo! A bus was soon leaving for Baton Rouge, a city which I was interested in visiting but had ruled out due to its inaccessibility via train. A ride was just under two hours, I was sure that I could survive that.** So I bought a ticket, heaven help me.

The bus was over an hour late arriving, and weary, confused passengers sat in line on the cold linoleum floor. Apparently Greyhound oversells as many buses as possible so if you are not early in line you may not get a seat even if you have a ticket. Once we boarded I found that each seat was approximately half the size it should have been to support the girth of the average passenger, resulting in a depressing and uncomfortable spilling of all sorts of human body parts into the tiny aisle. The driver gave a rather violent speech outlining the codes of conduct and the terrible things that would befall us if we were not to comply, locked himself into a plastic cage feasibly built to protect him from the passengers, and we hit the road.

I tried to read but got a bit sick, so watched billboards fly by. My favorite was a public service announcement about how sagging pants will ruin your life. It had a very specific illustration and a caption that read, "Low pants, no chance." This was the highlight of the uncomfortable but at least uneventful ride, which ended with my disembarking in the worst possible neighborhood of Baton Rouge. Luckily a fellow passenger took pity on me and gave me a ride to my couch surfing destination, by Louisiana State University. That night, I experienced for the first time ever the glories of The Sound of Music, and I will never be the same again.

Baton Rouge is not exactly a famous tourist destination, but it is an interesting and quirky little place. I explored by bike, riding along the Mississippi to the downtown area, which is home to the nation's tallest Capitol Building! It is a terrifying art deco skyscraper that looks like the Hollywood Tower of Terror. The Old Capitol Building competes in weirdness, as it is an enormous, pink trimmed Gothic Revival style castle.



It started raining while I was pedaling along, so I ducked into Strands Cafe, which turned out fabulously because the adorable family-run cafe and patisserie was not only lined wall to wall in pictures of Austrian castles, but also housed an unbelievable assortment of homemade chocolate confections. I finally decided on a whole fig stuffed with marzipan and dipped in dark chocolate, painted with edible gold.*** The sight of the whole family working together in a fairytale land of candy, warm beverages, and royal Alpine dwellings was almost too much to believe. I will not say that you have to go to Baton Rouge just for Strands, but if I find out that you were in the area and did not visit them, I will disown you.



I also found an amazing old steam locomotive at the Louisiana State Museum, and later at a bookstore, I found two train-themed children's boardgames, one of which was apparently Germany's bestselling game in 2004!





That night I participated in my first drum circle at a party in the welcoming home of four lovely couch surfing ladies, playing a wooden frog and finger cymbals.**** It was a fantastic night overall, though the low point was, in response to describing my train travel project, receiving the earnest question of, "Do we really have trains?"

I have my work cut out for me.


NOTES:

*For those of you unfamiliar, horror stories about Greyhound experiences in the United States are akin to the bedtime stories about goat-eating trolls and ghosts that roam the streets weeping and stealing children in other cultures. Almost too shocking to believe but then again... What if? So you avoid going out after dark and playing under bridges and ever reserving a ticket on that insane asylum on wheels that is the Greyhound.
**Obviously I still suffer from an acute case of that teenager and 20-something immortality complex.
***All that glitters can be gold?
****Like a pro, if I do not say so myself, which obviously I do, so this footnote is officially without any purpose whatsoever.

Monday, November 29, 2010

There was an Old Lady...

Where are the tiny trains?!?

Chili Cook-Offs, Charlie Chaplin, and I am Moving to Louisiana

All of the best cities have a huge park as one of their central features. San Francisco has Golden Gate Park, New York has Central Park, Mexico City has Chapultepec. This rule applies in New Orleans as well, at City Park, which has been converted from its original use as a plantation to a municipal gathering place with attractions as varied as golf courses, tennis courts, equestrian centers, amusement parks, various lakes of different sizes, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. The park was founded in 1854, and is famous for its large population of ancient oak trees, some of which have been alive for over 600 years.

I explored the impressive sculpture garden and much of the grounds in search of a miniature railroad that I had read about. I started to feel a bit crazy though, roaming amongst the old oaks snapping photos of tiny tracks and four-foot-tall railroad crossing signs, with no trains in sight. I finally asked a ticket taker in Storyland* where the elusive locomotives could be found, and she explained that the park was closed and they were in some sort of lock down before they would appear for some sort of exclusive holiday fairytale party later that evening. I tried to reason with her, explained that I was a famous blogger who had travelled thousands of miles in search of these famed masterpieces of miniature engineering, but she would not budge on the topic. That did not stop me from creeping around the perimeter trying to peer through the fences to get a peek, but the best I could manage was this picture of the Old Lady that lived in a Shoe before being apprehended.

Later, from the town jail...**

That evening was my last night in New Orleans and I went to a chili cook-off fundraiser for an amazing thespian called Veronica Russell, who adapted a 1925 Texan woman's autobiography into a one woman play and will travel through Canadian Fringe festivals this summer performing it. I was amazed at how unique*** chili can be! We voted on twelve varieties, listened to a honky-tonk band called The Wasted Lives, and watched Charlie Chaplin's hilarious silent film, The Gold Rush, with live piano accompaniment.

Sitting alone, I seemed to attract the attention of a lot of other solo chili eaters. First, I was accosted by a man that looked exactly like Elvis Costello who asked if the music was "heavy metal." I took this to be sarcasm but apparently I was incorrect, and he accused me of misleading him into believing I was smart by wearing glasses, when in fact I knew nothing. I then met a San Francisco expat who explained that the magic of New Orleans lies in the constant activity and entertainment coupled with low low prices and unemployment so rampant that nobody worries about it anymore. Accordingly, they are "poor, happy, and don't mind!" It made perfect sense to me.

I went home early that evening for a good night's sleep, as I planned to take the Southern Chief to nearby Lafayette the next morning for some serious Cajun culture.


NOTES:

*The children's fairytale and folk story park, who's name seemed inappropriately similar to Storyville, New Orleans' historic red light district.
**Just kidding!
***And difficult to digest in large quantities



Sunday, November 28, 2010

Spotted Cats and Turkey-Free Thanksgiving in The Big Easy

You all know how much I like to pretend that I live in Victorian times. By sheer luck I happened into a museum called the 1850 House, fully furnished in the style of the day and with explanations about the building's various Creole residents. While touring the home i learned that William G. Hewes, president of the New Orleans, Opelousas, and Great Western Railroad from 1858 to 1866, once lived there. Coincidence? I think not.



After having my fill of Victorian furnishings and trivia, Janessa the tarot mystic told me about my promising future as a travel writer, and I then stumbled upon a tiny bookstore named after William Faulkner, who briefly lived there in the 1920s. Of course I requested a book set in Louisiana during the jazz and/or railroad era, and was recommended The Missing by Tim Gautreaux. It had a recommendation from the San Francisco Chronicle and a beautiful cover, so I was convinced. During this scientific book selection process I befriended a large group of international exchange students working on their post-graduate studies in D.C. and we made a pact to find and revel in some fabulous jazz that evening. I waste no time!

To start the evening we had a "Creole sampler platter*" then had almost worrisomely cheap cocktails at a karaoke bar called Cafe Lafitte in Exile.** Sufficiently fueled in the local fashion, we were ready to get jazzy. But first-

IMPORTANT SIDEBAR ABOUT THE NEIGHBORHOODS OF NAWLINS
There are two neighborhoods housing the main concentration of nightlife, each with its own central thoroughfare. The first and most famous, and also quite probably the worst street in the whole world, is Bourbon Street. Tacky souvenir shops, expensive hotels, and strip clubs and music venues glowing with neon lighting jostle for your 30 second attention span along this rum-soaked street lined in broken glass and bright green, grenade-shaped souvenir cups. Music from every business blares at competitive levels, and one is surrounded on all sides by 60 year old ex-fraternity brothers chugging Bud Light starting at ten in the morning. The other is the Faubourg Marigny, with its main drag being Frenchmen Street. Things are a bit more mellow there, and the locals say it is an accurate representation of what The Quarter was like before the city became so popular amongst tourists in the 1930s. There are bohemian bookstores, tranquil restaurants, dive bars and jazz clubs, and pleasant people of all types, drinking human beverages from normally shaped glasses. It was there that I found The Spotted Cat, which is always cover-free and has nightly live jazz, blues, folk, ragtime, and even swing dancing. They also store an extra piano in the women's restroom which is labeled the "Pee-anee.***" Need I say more?



(The Panorama Jazz Band at the Spotted Cat)

The next thing I knew it was Thanksgiving, and my dear friend Dani invited me to partake in my favorite holiday in the beautiful home of her friends in the Marigny. I do not want to brag too much but the gourmet chef hostess and her lovely parents provided raw oysters, duck sandwiches with macadamia butter and roasted plantains, steamed purple potatoes with herb butter, poached salmon and soba noodles, asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, yam and lentil salad, chocolate chip pumpkin cookies, sour cream raisin pie, and some sort of peanut butter confection dipped in chocolate. We held up our end as well, with sun dried tomato and pesto mashed potatoes, corn bread with sour cream and bacon, and bourbon-spiked fresh apple cider. Jealous?

I also became the token American in a different group of French/German/Chinese grad students and researchers as well, these ones staying at the hostel with me. We ate together at the Croissant d'Or, played complicated European dice games, wandered the streets during a rain storm, played pool/danced/drank daiquiris, and by Saturday at 3am had completed a fool-proof business plan to start a language school in Shanghai.

It is that type of creativity and inspiration that just bubbles up from the bayou and through the man eating potholes in this town. At least, I hope that is creativity.****


NOTES:

*$24 gets you enough different courses of typical Louisiana fare to fill two hungry San Franciscans at the aptly named Gumbo Shop in The Quarter.

**Three notes about this one: 1. $2.75 for a mixed drink? How is that even legal? 2. Our bartender, upon hearing we hailed from San Francisco, exclaimed, "That city's beautiful honey but those earthquakes... I don't want nothin' movin' under me but a man, you know? Hoo wee!" and 3. I read in the weekly paper afterward that the bar claims to be the oldest gay bar in all of the U.S.!

***Ha ha!

****It may, in fact, be a mixture of oil, silt from the Mississippi, and a terrifyingly named cocktail called "The Hurricane," but I am sticking with creativity.